The larger picture

This NECTAR trip has been an invaluable opportunity to get a good feeling about what is going on and what are the research interests of a limited, but significant, part of the HCI community. In this post I’ll try to bring to the surface some of the themes that kept coming up repeatedly in discussions and in the demos of some of the research.

To begin, I have to say that if you thought that large display research and research on new form factors (such as tabletops) is reaching its saturation point, or even fading away, you are probably wrong. Many of the locations I visited have active setups, new setups and/or are planning new ones. It is also remarkable the number of tabletops of different types that you can find at the labs: some are home-made, some are purchased from different companies (not only Microsoft), some are already in their fifth iteration. It seems apparent to me that accurate and reliable input (and a good feel on the surface) is still a challenge in tabletops, in particular for those home-made. If you are struggling to get your tabletop input working, don’t despair, you’re not the only one.

The recent commercial experiences by Microsoft, Smart and others have already done a lot to improve this situation, but research means trying new things, and sometimes these new things fall outside what you can currently do with commercial hardware.

Many of the labs I visited are also working really hard not only to create/adapt new paradigms of interaction (e.g. instrumental interaction, crossing-interfaces), but to support programmers and make the new interaction easier to include in future environments (or even make interaction interchangeable). This makes a lot of sense from the point of view of Dan Olsen’s Viscosity talk at UIST 2008.

However, probably the topic that I came across most often in my trip was the one of evaluation. This echoes the discussions around the now famous paper by Greenberg and Buxton, and is also related to Dourish’s discussion on implications for design. The issue is actually multi-faceted and alludes to questions such as: When should we be using quantitative vs. qualitative vs. other kinds evaluations? Can we, as researchers do all the research that goes from the (fundamental-level) interaction techniques to the (abstract, uncontrolled) systems in real environments (i.e. top-bottom and bottom-up)? How can we achieve a larger impact as a community in the real world? How can we improve communication between the different subcommunities and avoid the disappointment of "the wrong" reviewer looking at your paper?

I think it is fantastic that these discussions are taking place in the community. I see all these partly as a consequence of the wildly interdisciplinary nature of HCI as a whole, and to its constantly evolving nature. In other words, whoever thinks there is a formula for research in HCI is probably in for a surprise and, at the same time, the discipline is broad enough that good research from very different areas and with very different methods will fit in it anyways (if it is good and solid, that is).

The topic of relevance is very interesting to me. I’m practically a newbie in this field compare to some of the luminaries I have visited in my trip, but it is not clear to me what the actual relevance and impact is of the field on society. On one side, I acknowledge that we should strive to have a more active role on how technology takes place for humankind. On the other, I am not sure that the only way to achieve this is to try to go deeper in the application of the technology to current scenarios, or to perform very broad evaluations of technology adaption. Although these tasks are crucial for our field and for society in general (and many of the groups I’ve visited do a wonderful job in this area), we cannot forget about researchers that try to look for new interaction paradigms and interaction techniques, looking into the future. If we only look at current scenarios and evaluations the ingenuity of what we are building and generating will be limited by what we already have. On the other side, how can we be sure that some of the work the community has done in the last few decades has not actually be a fundamental force behind the electronic device and internet revolution of the last few years? How much of the iPhone comes from previous research in touch and multi-touch interfaces carried out in the 80’s and 90’s? Which part of Web 2.0 is informed by the CSCW research?

A related question that arises often is how we measure our own performance. Different kind of research lends itself differently to ways of publishing it (e.g. some ethnographic studies might take years to conduct, and only make sense as one large journal article, whereas an interaction technique that is novel enough can be developed and evaluated in a fraction of a year). Clearly, measuring our own performance in terms of the number of publications is wrong, but this is how it is often done. This forces many researchers (especially grad students) to drift towards the areas where they can get published, which is detrimental to research that they can contribute better or that might be more relevant. How do we fix this?

Talking about students, there seems to be a lot of doom and gloom about job opportunities. Whether it is the current economic crisis or a saturation of the graduate market, it seems pretty obvious that graduating students (including myself) are having/going to have a hard time to find the jobs they want. Some people complain about certain institutions single-handedly saturating the market with a large number of graduates, others hope that as Boomers retire, there will be positions for everyone. Probably neither of them, but somewhere in the middle.

To finish this post, I have to say that I was very impressed by every single lab that I visited. Not for the beautiful or ugly buildings, or for the advanced or rustic technologies being used, not even for the sizes of the research groups (some very small, some huge), but what I found, regardless of the place, was a group of very smart, dedicated individuals that question themselves just as much as they question the reality that they want to study and change.

All the ideas above are the product of discussions with a number of people in the visited locations (never exclusively my own).
Thanks everyone for making this trip such a wonderful and insightful experience!

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Atlanta – Georgia Tech

The last stop of the crazy trip was Atlanta. There is very little I can add to what you probably already know about GVU, one of the powerhouses of VR, HCI and Graphics research. There it was Alex Hill that showed me around, mostly the augmented environments lab, although also the work from other labs such as Ali Mazalek’s. It was also great to meet other students, among which Chris Alvarez.
After the talk, i got to chat briefly with Beth Mynatt, who arranged things so that I could come here.

After this, it was time to go back to Saskatoon and finally get to spend some time with Kate… Thanks to the G. Tech people and all that have made this trip possible!

Boston – Harvard

The last leg of my trip is back in the U.S. On Monday I had the honor to visit Chia Shen, who works on the IIC (Initiative in Innovative Computer). After lunch and an interesting discussion on how to increase the relevance of our field, I got to see the research that is going on there. Although it was a short visit, it was totally worth it!

Orsay, INRIA/LRI

On Thursday I headed to Paris (Berlin to Paris, via London… I know!). Friday I had the honor to visit LRI, where Michel Beaudoin-Lafon, Wendy MacKay, and Nicolas Roussel showed me around. This group is working on many important projects, although I was particularly impressed by the effort to create new paradigms and architectures of interaction for software, and support them through actual software infrastructure. Check for example the already well known (but still evolving) Metisse – the last iteration of which was shown to me by Olivier Chapuis, and iStar (Stéphane Huot). This doesn´t mean that they forget about building stuff and creating new interaction techniques. Emanuel Pietriga showed me a sweet new interactive/multi-display installation that I would love to see working soon, and his most recent papers in CHI.

It was also great to meet recently hired Prof. Caroline Appert, and two students that are working on issues related to mine: Ghomi, Mathieu Nancel. Finally, I spent a lot of time with Tomer Moscovich discussing about tabletop, multi-finger, HCI and many other things.

Thanks to all for the warm welcome and, especially, for the amazing discussions.

Berlin/ Hasso-Plattner Institut

I arrived to Berlin on Tuesday and went directly to the Hasso-Plattner Institut, which is part of Potsdam University. Potsdam is actually a small satellite city of Berlin. Patrick Baudisch was recently hired to lead HPI´s Human-Computer Interaction group. I had the privilege to work under Patrick this past summer… if you want to see cool stuff, check his page.

Patrick already has two Ph.D. students: Sean Gustafson and Christian Holz. It is a little early to tell what their main topic of study is going to be, but they are already preparing some stuff for publication.

The next day I got to give my talk, which was recorded on video for the first time, and also to talk to Christina Dicke, based in New Zealand´s HITLab, who is starting an internship with Patrick.

I love Berlin, and I enjoyed seeing Patrick and Sean again. Thank you very much for enabling my visit to Germany!

A note on airports

I used to think that all airports are equivalent: just very large boring buildings that "warp" you from one city to another. However, I am starting to have my favorites and, above all, my hated ones.

If you are flying to or from Europe, you should avoid Frankfurt airport (a.k.a. Fraport). Apparently is one of busiest of the world, and that should have made them streamline the flow of passengers… well, not exactly. Waiting times for security are awful, (and I´ve been more than a handful times through this), eternal connections between terminals, bad signage and, as a consequence of all this, angry and annoying passengers.

One of the things I dislike most of an airport is when they make you go through the middle of the duty-free shops to get to the gates and/or security. Kind of funny that, in this age, the commercial benefit seems to be way more important than the comfort and safety of passengers. Plenty of this in Frankfurt.

Another instance of the disdain for the passenger is present in most airports but most obviously in Heathrow: dynamic monitor graphs everywhere that almost make the departure monitors invisible.

I´m writing from Dublin airport, and so far this is the second worse (narrow corridors, long lines, unfriendly staff). I´m still to go through Atlanta (never been there, but I´m not expecting anything good).

It is often by seeing the really bad that you realize about how good it is what we are used to. Models of my favorite airports: Schiphol (Amsterdam) and Pearson (Toronto). Also, smaller airports such as Saskatoon and Christchurch are much more pleasant than the larger ones, although I have to admit that the architecture of some of the bigger ones could be worth admiring (e.g. Charles de Gaulle – Paris, and Singapore).

A model of efficiency is Berlin TXL airport. Here the check in and the Gate are in the same place, so you don´t waste your time having to navigate the whole building.

Behavior at airports never ceases to amaze me. Why do people insist in waiting in line the very second that the boarding is announced (usually for premium flyers and families)? Do they really enjoy being in the crammed space of the plane so much? A similar effect happens the moment that the plane lands…

My final word of gratitude is for the obnoxious woman that keeps trying to get in front of you in the line, as if she were more important than anyone else and we were all idiots. Good thing that she will not really arrive earlier than anyone else…

Copenhagen

After Singapore it was time to go back to Europe. First stop: Copenhagen.

On Monday I got to visit Jakob Bardram, at the IT university of Copenhagen. Jakob is applying the idea of activity-based systems to a number of domains; he has already been very successful in Health Care. Among others, I got to hear from Jonathan Bunde-Pedersen, and Juan Hincapié, and met Jens and Neela.

Tuesday I had just enough time to visit the Department of Computing, University of Copenhagen, where Mikkel Jakobsen (good friend and ex-colleague intern from MSR) had organized a meeting with Professors Kasper Hornbæk, and Erik Frøkjær.
The discussion was very interesting, and after that I got to play some foosball with Mikkel. Finally, I got to see some of the work by
Esben Warming on Music and Tangible Interaction.



Copenhagen seems like a really wonderful place to live and work. Thanks also to everyone there for making my stay so interesting and comfortable!