Thijs Roumen: Opening digital fabrication to everyone

Thijs Roumen
  • New Faculty Year: 2022

Assistant Professor, Information Science at Cornell Tech

Academic focus: Human computer interaction with a focus on digital fabrication: using computers to control physical matter.

Research summary: Manipulating physical matter is the next big paradigm in personal computing, we have seen the field of personal computing I/O shift from 1D (command line interfaces) to 2D (graphical user interfaces and mouse) to 3D (virtual reality and gesture interfaces), I believe the next big step is to transition towards digital fabrication and input of forces. This started to happen in industry and within the “maker scene”, but it looks like it hit a brick wall there—in my (matter of tech-) lab we drastically rethink some of the steps we have taken towards digital fabrication in maker culture and ask ourselves what it will take to make this transition relevant for the other 99% of users. This requires us to rethink the shape and use context of fabrication machines, the process of creating and modifying models for fabrication, education around digital fabrication and much more. In developing this future of personal fabrication, we are inspired by the history of personal computing where similarly drastic changes were required to pivot from adoption in “homebrew computing clubs” towards personal computing as we know it.

What inspired you to pursue a career in this field? As a child I was always fascinated with how things are made. I used to screw apart computers at a birthday party with my best friend when we were 9 years old, I guess to feel what it would be like to be an “inventor” and to freely imagine new futures. Arguably less focused on computing I then started my academic career in Industrial Design at TU/e in the Netherlands, for the first time I was able to actually make anything I could think of. By the end of my masters which pivoted a bit more towards computing in a highly multidisciplinary setting (IT Product Design at SDU in Denmark), I was very clear that I would never pursue a PhD in HCI. And yet here I stand. I worked on projects for LEGO (in the education branch, focused on building digital applications to interface with robotics) for a while after my masters. After a while I received an email from Prof Shengdong Zhao at the NUS in Singapore who was looking for a research assistant who knows how things are made and who understands CS/HCI. I took the opportunity, moved over and saw the amazing potential to combine these two skillsets while driving a research agenda forwards. The ultimate freedom I have always dreamt of. He then introduced me to Prof Patrick Baudisch to work on projects related to digital fabrication which has been the most inspiring period of my life. 

What are you most looking forward to as a Cornell Engineering faculty member? As a researcher I cannot wait to work with some of the best brains in the world on further advancing my research agenda, and inspiring new PhD students to follow their dreams the same way I was fortunate enough to turn my dreams into a real life. I am excited to work with great colleagues at Cornell Tech and help them further advance the curriculum around an exciting combination of Design and Tech. 

What do you like to do when you’re not working? I like to be physically active: running marathons, biking, hiking, watersports. I enjoy a good craft beer (especially Belgian triples) and reading a good book. I love to live and figure out how cultures and countries work (which is how I ended up living in Japan, Singapore, Denmark, Germany, Netherlands, Spain and now even the US) and while I am not good at it, I am fascinated by learning languages (including programming languages, which I am thankfully much better at.)


Thijs Roumen faculty page

Matter of Tech Lab


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