Amazing visit to the special collections of the University of St Andrews

Yesterday was a busy day. We have been working with the University of St Andrews Library and the Museum of the University of St Andrews (MUSA) to put together some seminars (first, second) on the use of interactive technology in libraries and museums, and to get some exciting collaborations started. We were lucky to have very interesting speakers and, as a treat, we got to take a tour of the Special Collections. Daryl Green and Maia Sheridan showed us some amazing artifacts that we are hoping we can help make available to more people through interactive technologies in new and exciting ways. The photos show some of the amazing books (although they have all sorts of interesting artefacts). I’ll leave it to you to go to the library and found out which ones these are, but some of the stuff we saw has existed for more than 900 years!!

This is one of the perks of working in an institution with 600 years of history. If you like this stuff, you should not miss  the  blog of the Special Collections.


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!

NICTA in Sydney

This has been a crazy week, and only today I get to write about what happened in Sydney.

After my Emirates flight (nothing spectacular, really) I arrived to Sydney, where I got to stay with Carl, my supervisor.
It was fantastic to enjoy Manly beach, but I wasn’t there for the beaches or for the views. Wednesday was time to present at NICTA (National Information and Communication Technology research centre of excellence of Australia). There, Kenton O’Hara
who shares his time between NICTA and CSIRO , together with Markus Rittenbruch, showed us what they are up to with the BRACETTO project, which is highly relevant for my work on Multi-display environments. It was also great to meet Gregor McEwan (former Calgary student), and Christian Müller-Tomfelde, with whom we discussed a number of interesting issues related to multi-display environments and tabletops (he is currently editing a book on the subject).

All in all, a very interesting visit (it does also help that the weather was wonderful). I´d like to thank everyone at NICTA for the useful remarks about my work and for hosting us.

Queen’s University

First official visit of the NECTAR trip. I get up early to catch the train to Kingston, Ontario.

Everything seems to be fine; comfy train, grab some breakfast, check the presentation again, but…
There is some problem with the tracks. The train will be late. First 20 min, at the end, an hour and a half.
Thankfully everything is taken care of: talk is delayed and the talk goes well, with a wonderful audience making lots of meaningful questions and thoughtful comments.

After lunch I get to visit first Roel Vertegaal’s lab and then Nick Graham’s. It is not a secret that Roel and his students (I met Tim Ginn, Doug Wightman and David Holman) are focussing on the emerging area of organic user interfaces (oui!), where the most prosaic objects are embedded with intelligence and the ability to display information (check their web). They are also building themselves a pretty fancy new lab without a single straight line.

Nick’s students are working around two main topics: collaboration and games. Most often both happen together. Tad Stach’s work is trying to get your lazy uncle to exercise more, challenge you to a virtual bike race and, perhaps, beat you to the finish line. Andreas Hollatz, Banani Roy and Chris Wolfe work building the necessary infrastructure that will allow programmers to easily build games with innovative input (think from Wiifit to heart rate monitors) and allow all kinds of fancy adaptive groupware to work accross computers (check the Fiia framework), also in opportunistic situations. Rob Fletcher is working to bring realistic spatial audio to the next massively-multi-player game experience.

Summarizing, a day full of interesting people, interesting ideas and long train rides…
Thanks to everyone at Queen’s for hosting me and for taking the time to show me around!