TU Wien Informatics

Meet Florian Michahelles, Our New Professor for Ubiquitous Computing

  • By Claudia Vitt
  • 2021-01-25
  • Interview

Being at home in the worlds of academia and industry, Florian explains why he deems it essential not to get stuck too early in your career.

Meet Florian Michahelles, Our New Professor for Ubiquitous Computing

Since September 2020, Florian Michahelles serves as Professor for Ubiquitous Computing at our research unit Multidisciplinary Design and User Research.

What is Ubiquitous Computing? 

Ubiquitous Computing essentially describes computing extending beyond the desktop—everything embedding computing into our world outside the computer, the screen, or the keyboard. Ubiquitous Computing moves out into our everyday environment, into our work environment, nature, and objects. This vision was created almost about twenty years ago, but by then, it was a breakthrough. Today, we can see it on our mobile phones, in our networked stereo systems or appliances. But Ubiquitous Computing also means looking into mundane objects, like a coffee cup, or into a table. The question is, what can you do with it, and how can you interact with it? UC is application-oriented and considers human-computer interactions as well.

How would you describe your work in 90 seconds?

We want to explore new ideas and new applications. So that is why we build artefacts: We build research prototypes where we bring computing into objects and then experiment with different modalities like voice, touch, and smell. Afterwards, we invite users to test the results. We observe the users and look for their feedback: How do they like it? How do they perceive it as useful? What kind of comments do we get? From this point, we can reason and evaluate our ideas—how valuable they are—and develop new applications.

What brought you to TU Wien Informatics and Vienna?

I studied Computer Science in Munich. At that time, what is called media informatics nowadays was emerging, but it did not exist. I studied general Computer Science and built this course myself by taking psychology as a minor. That way, I combined the two aspects of computer science and psychology, which today are part of the curriculum. Then I did my PhD in Zurich on the just emerging topic of Ubiquitous Computing. We were building Ikea furniture instruments with sensors so that the furniture piece could show you how to put it together.

After that, I moved into the IoT field, still at ETH Zurich, and that brought me to Siemens, where I was staying the last seven years in Berkeley, California. Many innovations happen in start-ups and universities, so the big corporations are somehow slowing down in becoming innovative. They instead look for new ideas and ready-baked ideas from start-ups and university graduates. That is why I thought about the next stop for me to be innovative and productive, and I saw this job-opening at TU Wien Informatics —I am delighted to be here now.

The world of the Silicon Valley and TU Wien—what is the best of the two?

What I enjoyed and admired in Berkeley was this unbound creativity. People there could go crazy and do stuff. There were no boundaries attached, nothing like “why do we need this, does it makes sense?” They go for it and do it, and that was very inspiring to see. What I admire and value here is a lot of engineering skills. People are determined, show love for the details and precision. They thrive for going for the perfect system. There is a balance between these two, and the art is probably to find this balance.

Coming from industry, why did you move back to academia? And what does the industry stand for?

My motivation for joining the industry was also to go beyond the paper and the paradigm of publish or perish. In academia, you have an idea and a new algorithm or a new concept, and then the usual thing to do is writing a paper. You present it at a conference, and then you move on to the next thing. In industry, the ambition is that you would not go for the paper, but you would go for a product. You would potentially have a much larger impact. It takes longer, but you go full circle on the idea. You have a great idea, build a prototype and market the product—that’s the theory.

But I found out it does not necessarily work that way. There are so many stakeholders and interests involved. Many other decisions are taken outside the technical expertise: business decisions and management decisions. I observed that very often, you do incremental research because the industry needs to market a product. It seems much more viable to make a business case for small stuff than for a radically new idea. I was afraid to get stuck in these little steps, and I was looking for the opportunity to be more open for fundamentally new ideas and breakthroughs.

How, or where, do you see the link between academia and industry?

There are different links, but the primary interaction point is through people. Having been in these two worlds, which doesn’t happen too frequently, provides me with insights that other people don’t have. I was recently invited to an orientation lecture for students about career advice. Sharing the knowledge I have collected in academia and industry with students might prepare them for their future lives. Hopefully, many of them stay in academia, but for sure many of them also go to industry. To provide them with insights and future perspectives also creates a link.

Ideally, there will be collaborations between students that worked with me and go to industry later. In the US, I observed that a lot happens through people. People who graduate go to industry, and you invite them back for lectures or do projects together, which helps you establish a strong connection. The second link is start-ups. It is essential to support students if they want to go beyond the paper and the concept to found a start-up. Creating bonds by inviting industry folks to lectures, giving lectures there, or having co-supervised master-thesis projects and research collaborations, collaborations in government grants are vital means of cooperation.

Sharing your industry experience—what would be your main message to students or fellow scientists?

My main message is: Do what you have passion for. Don’t go for something which is appealing to others—it has to be appealing to you in the first place. If you like it, you will do it well. And if you do it well, you will also be successful. It also helps to have a broad knowledge on the generic topics of computer science: to know a little bit about networks, databases, algorithms, computer vision, and AI but then also have one specific focus. It doesn’t have to be the hottest topic that is now en vogue but one focus you stand for and are specialist in. These are the ingredients that make you an attractive candidate to get a good position anywhere.

I would also like to share with the students and my future employees that the university system is an “instant heater”, you go in cool, and you get hot through it. What I mean by that: it is a temporary position. I want to share with the students and the postdocs that they can make an impact by writing a thesis. But it is also an opportunity to move on and see the world, go to another university, or go to industry. With this experience, you may also increase your chances to come back. I consider it important not to get stuck too early in your career, to travel around, see different countries and working environments. This positions you greatly for the future job market, specifically also for the academic job market.

What are your plans for the future?

I am in a unique position here, and I am very grateful for that. New rooms are being built to instrument a workshop with saws, laser cutters and 3D printers. I’m looking for students with an interest to make stuff and then add computing to it. Moreover, we have student labs—a place where students can work. We will also have an interaction lab to observe users, experiment and evaluate how users react. Apart from the infrastructure, I am very much looking forward to filling our rooms with people, ideas and passion: one post-doc and two predocs have already arrived!

Interview: C. Vitt, 2020