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Fresh Faces: Sai Swaminathan

By Randall Brown.

Sai SwaminathanEECS Assistant Professor Sai Swaminathan joins the department from Carnegie Mellon University, where he completed his doctorate in May 2022 with a focus in human-computer interactions.

He has published award-winning work at top-tier HCI venues, including ACM CHI, IMWUT (UbiComp), UIST, and CSCW. His work has also been featured in news outlets such as the New Scientist, Makezine, and HacksterIO. He has worked at research institutions such as the Manufacturing Science group at Oak Ridge National Lab (ORNL), Microsoft Research, INRIA, and Xerox Research.

His work seeks to help users, particularly with disabilities, overcome challenges in interactions with computers and mobile devises via improved systems.

“My specific focus is looking at how we engineer computing systems to be better integrated with our infrastructure,” said Swaminathan. “Things like our built environment: buildings, sidewalks, and things like that. One example would be how can you make our sidewalks more accessible for people who are motor impaired, for instance.”

He also addresses questions for built environments with an eye to add electronics that report on infrastructure issues.

“One recent project we worked on looked at how we can enable wireless communication in wood,” said Swaminathan. “We call it ‘wireless wood.’ It could tell us whether something’s about to fail or how people are interacting with these structures and things like that.”

His lab examines ways to power and sustain these functions in a variety of environments.

“It’s the combination of how electrical, computer science, and engineering, mechanical and civil—how they come together for us to really enable these digital capabilities in the physical environment,” said Swaminathan. “It’s not just the salt; it’s not just the sugar. It’s the combination of the salt and sugar and how do you bake these interesting goods.”

At UT, he currently has two projects ongoing: one with Jesse Tanner, assistant professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology; and one with Nick Zhou, associate professor in civil engineering.

The first project merges questions of built environments with the study of ecosystems. In this case: the ecology of frogs.

“We are trying to engineer a device that can float in wetland settings,” said Swaminathan. “We can deploy these systems in the wild and gather audio data about how these frogs are interacting and do audio analysis to enable field biologists to conserve our environment better.”

The project with Zhou relates to Swaminathan’s expertise in applying electronics to infrastructure sustainability.

“We are trying to enable wireless communication in our infrastructure systems,” he said. “If you think about our bridges, dams, and so on, oftentimes these kinds of infrastructure systems are located in really remote areas where there’s no network connectivity. So, we want to understand how we can bring these kinds of infrastructure systems into network settings so we can understand their health.”

Swaminathan and wife Sukanya Moudgalya settled into the Knoxville area in late summer 2022. She is an assistant professor in STEM education and learning in the College of Education, Health, and Human Services.

More about Swaminathan’s research can be found at