Mandryk overcomes adversity

June 05, 2006, volume 36, no. 3
By Barry Shell

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Writing a doctoral dissertation is daunting enough, but it becomes even more so when your supervisor gets pregnant and then moves to Halifax.

This was the case for SFU computing science PhD student Regan Mandryk, who was working under assistant professor Kori Inkpen, now an associate professor at Dalhousie university. Yet Mandryk overcame all adversity to win the 2005 dean of graduate studies convocation medal in applied sciences, awarded to the graduate with the highest academic standing in the faculty.

She is also SFU's nomination for the Canadian Association of Graduate Studies distinguished dissertation award, a national prize.

Dealing with a supervisor suffering from morning sickness was not Mandryk's only problem. After Inkpen moved her lab to Halifax she continued to advise Mandryk, but Mandryk had to find a new place to conduct her research. She decided to move her project to the New Media Innovation Centre (NewMIC) at the Harbour Centre campus.

“I learned a lot at NewMIC, but it went bankrupt,” says Mandryk. “I had some awfully bad luck, but I learned to quickly adapt to new environments and colleagues.”

Originally from Winnipeg where harsh conditions are normal, Mandryk was not deterred. Her perseverance paid off. Computing science professor Stella Atkins, a member of Mandryk's thesis committee, says, “Regan should submit a paper to the journal Science, her research is so good.”

Mandryk is the first person to quantify the emotional state of computer video gamers by combining physiological data such as heart rate, facial muscle movements and galvanic skin response during game play. Her key insight was to employ fuzzy logic with an innovative experimental design that yielded useful data in a widely varying and noisy environment. “I had to use a lot of statistical analyses to clean the data,” says Mandryk.

Funded by Electronic Arts, a large computer game maker in Burnaby, Mandryk was able to translate physical sensor values into five indicators of emotional state: excitement, boredom, challenge, fun and frustration. Game designers are keenly interested in these parameters for game design balance. To hold a user's attention, a video game must be challenging enough so that players do not get bored, yet not so difficult that it becomes frustrating. Mandryk's technology can provide the answers.

She is now working on a tool that processes video footage of gamers to shorten the time required to analyse the tapes. Mandryk has accepted a term appointment in computer science at Dalhousie University and hopes to obtain a tenure track position in the future.

While her thesis research focuses on the commercial product EA Sports NHL, in real life Mandryk plays right wing on two hockey teams in the Adult Safe Hockey League. She also is prop forward on the Meraloma rugby team in Kitsilano so she ends up at a game or a practice six nights a week.

According to Mandryk's external examiner Scott Hudson, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh and a world leader in the field of human-computer interaction, the computer game business now rivals the movie industry in economic value.

Yet few tools and techniques for evaluating emotional response to interactive systems exist. Mandryk has shown a way to make repeatable, quantitative physiological measurements in this area that are likely to be easier and less expensive than current qualitative methods.

The most important aspect of Mandryk's research is that it can determine if people are having fun. So far it only works for young males playing the NHL computer game, but it has broad potential and Mandryk has plans to generalize it.

The top academic graduate convocation medal winners in other SFU faculties are:
  • Magdalena Kazubowski-Houston:arts and social sciences
  • KC Parker: business administration
  • Claudia Ruitenberg: education
  • Anthony Wigglesworth: science

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