How we work

A crossroads for interdisciplinary research

A class at Wallenberg Hall with a H-Star Professor and some students

H-STAR is a crossroads for people, expertise, projects and programs that connect Stanford resources in human sciences with research and innovation about information technology. The social problems found at this intersection are significant, challenging, and in flux, in part because there is no social equivalent to Moore's Law — technological capabilities are expanding far more rapidly than social and cultural adaptations to their properties and prospects. 

At the individual level, technology is difficult to use, limiting its potential benefits: it can join people — but also separate them; it can teach — but also distract and create new inequities; and it can accelerate work and life — but also interfere and overwhelm. 

At the social level, technology both threatens and enhances our security, whether in the home, community or workplace. 

The "digital divide" highlights how information technology is distributed unevenly on the basis of economics, knowledge, language, and culture.  And technology is a primary business force that can make products and services better, cheaper, and faster, while also transforming their fundamental character in disruptive waves that create new marketplaces and communication revolutions. 

The H-STAR focus

H-STAR addresses these individual and societal challenges with research and innovation that preserves the details, literatures, and methods of traditional disciplines while benefiting from the emergent synergies and surprises that come from interdisciplinary ventures.

The human science literatures represented in H-STAR include the cognitive sciences and neurosciences, linguistics, logic, symbolic systems, learning sciences and education, philosophy, sociological and anthropological studies of social interaction mediated by technologies, information processing, emotions, persuasion and rhetoric, visualization and vision sciences, and work about oral, written, visual and musical production.

The information technologies that H-STAR influences include computing and media systems of all shapes and sizes that can understand and produce language, faces, gestures and emotions, and systems that can automate human-machine dialogue, display information in different formats and sizes, and create collaborative work and learning spaces, incorporating agents, avatars, gaming, and immersive environments.

An innovative structure

Interdisciplinary research institutes are nothing new in leading universities. As the complexity of modern life and new technologies has increased, so too has the need to combine expertise in order to better study new ways of working and playing, to analyze how people use new technologies and gain insights leading to better design. Typically such interdisciplinary institutes are created by means of a collaborative initiative by individuals in two or three academic disciplines. H-STAR takes a significant step beyond.

H-STAR cuts across the entire university, bringing together leading scholars from many disciplines, some of which have traditionally been far apart, such as engineering and theater studies, communications and art, or medical informatics and psychology. What defines H-STAR, and what unites the Stanford researchers that participate in the new institute, is a passionate interest in the disciplines that contribute to the interdisciplinary mix of the institute, and the ways in which people and technology interact — interests that are at the same time well defined yet so broad as to be campus wide.

The problems that H-STAR focuses on are in general too broad to determine in advance which researchers or which disciplines can best contribute. Accordingly, H-STAR is not based on a traditional membership model. All Stanford faculty are potentially H-STAR researchers. To date, a total of 64 Stanford researchers from all five schools have carried out H-STAR funded research, participated in an H-STAR research planning retreat, or hosted a visiting H-STAR researcher from another university. In addition, over 90 Stanford faculty have received over $3.5M in research support through H-STAR's Media X Industry Partners Program.

The Stanford secret

The secret sauce that has made Stanford the leading university in the world for the launch of successful, innovative startup companies (many of which have become world leaders themselves) is not a secret at all. What makes Stanford so successful is a tradition of innovative research that cuts across traditional disciplines, breaking down the barriers that separate them. Other leading universities have also promoted interdisciplinary research, generally by creating multi-disciplinary research centers, which hire cross-disciplinary thinkers. That approach can be highly successful, but it is not how we do it.

At Stanford we have always recognized the power of the traditional disciplines. Everyone in H-STAR is a world expert in a traditional discipline. Indeed, many in the institute work in traditional ways almost entirely within their discipline, and it is only by taking a step back that the synoptic campus-wide interdisciplinary picture emerges. Regardless of the degree to which H-STAR researchers are engaged in interdisciplinary projects, the metric by which their work is evaluated is that of their core discipline, within their home department.

Created by the researchers themselves

H-STAR was created by the researchers themselves, in recognition of the fact that the design and use of new technologies and the radical changes those new developments have made and continue to make to the way we live our lives, present challenges that no single research discipline, or even a small collaborative group of disciplines, can properly address. The institute operates by fostering both disciplinary and interdisciplinary research and university partnerships that (directly or indirectly) advance ideas about the role of technology in such domains as learning, commerce and entertainment, with the promise to improve people's lives and solve social problems. The institute is driven by a steadfast belief in the inspiration and innovation that emerges at the intersection of practical problems and academic research, and in the boundary-crossing and conceptual collisions that occur between multiple disciplines addressing the same questions.

How H-STAR works

The H-STAR Institute supports research, through partnerships, grants and contracts, in areas at the intersection of the human sciences and technologies.  H-STAR programs leverage common interests across the different contexts in which information technology is used (e.g., learning, commerce, entertainment, work), the different motivations for research (e.g., designing information environments and studying their consequences), and the different technologies employed in information system solutions (e.g., computing, new media, mobile devices, networks, sensors).  

Through its affiliated mediaX Industry Partners Program, the H-STAR Institute extends its research activities to include collaborations and consultations with industry, enabling us to build bridges that connect the best faculty and student scholars at Stanford to thought leaders from influential companies, to address questions of real importance within both academia and industry about the future of people and technology.

Research areas supported by the Institute include learning technologies, human-machine interaction design, pervasive computing including mobile devices, speech recognition, automated dialogue systems, collaboration technologies, entertainment and serious games, immersive virtual worlds and virtual humans, technology and the developing world, information and social network visualization, security and privacy, participatory media including web video technologies, simulation, law and information policy, and novel input and display devices.  We partner with other research centers on the Stanford campus that address related issues.