CHI'09: alt.chi - Feel the Love, Love the Feel

Thoughts from the CHI 2009: Digital Life New World conference in Boston, MA.

One of the most enjoyable sessions that I attended at CHI was one of the alt.chi sessions entitled, “Feel the love, love the feel.” The session included several “nontraditional” talks that were intended to spark discussion and create a new flow of ideas.

Interactive Slide: an Interactive Playground to Promote Physical Activity and Socialization of Children

This paper described an interactive children’s game in which children play on a slide in order to build a robot. An interesting discussion point emerged when the speaker talked about how in her experiment, there had been a technical flaw which caused the game to break, and the children to play in an unexpected way. When the speaker explained, “we had to throw out the data,” this sparked debate because, as an audience member pointed out, play is a very freeform thing. Was the researcher suggesting that research is not creative? Why was she putting blinders on, rather than using the “bad” data for new design ideas?

The poor researcher seemed somewhat floored and unable to answer. I felt bad for her, because it was obvious that she comes from a academic research background where well-run experiments are essential for testing your hypotheses and getting your work published. In contrast, it seemed that her interrogator was from a much more flexible background that welcomes new ideas. I could almost see the researcher thinking to herself, “sure, if I had 6 more months, maybe I could’ve done that!” But deadlines loom, and sometimes you just need to make those experiments work!

Since my view of academia is somewhat limited, I’m actually curious about what sorts of limitations one must impose in order to come up with something that can stand up to peer review. Is the need for review a very limiting thing? In industry, it seems like “quick-and-dirty” tests are often the norm; when it comes to designing great interfaces, this might be all you need. But for a research field like HCI, which is not quite as concrete as say chemistry or cognitive psychology, how do you mediate the desire to try new things with the limitations of having to back up everything that you say? This concern of having new ideas being limited by others is one of the things that stops me from pursuing a career in academia. Strange, when so many people say that they go into academia specifically so that they can pursue their interests.

Opportunities for Actuated Tangible Interfaces to Improve Protein Study

Ashlie Brown, the researcher who gave this talk, is actually a grad student with a chemistry background. Her focus is on teaching people about proteins, which are much easier to understand when shown in 3D, rather than 2D. She gave a variety of ideas, such as animations, virtual reality, tangible models, and augmented reality using haptic systems (like Phantom or Posey). Students would greatly benefit from the ability to compare structures and track how to get from one protein to another.

As someone who was completely boggled in my Intro to Biology class, I wish Ashlie the best in creating new ways for students to learn about cell-level interactions. It would be really neat to see if this sort of technology would be helpful for non-students as well: in the lab, could scientists working with proteins somehow magnify them and work with them on a haptic level?

soft(n): Toward a Somaesthetics of Touch

Thecla Schiphorst is a Canadian artist who is also a “computer media artist, computer systems designer, choreographer, and dancer.“ I certainly did not expect to meet someone like her at CHI! Her session was about bringing dance and somatics to HCI.

“Somatics” is defined as, “The art and science of the interrelational process between awareness, biological function and environment, all three factors being understood as a synergistic whole” (thanks, Wikipedia). Thecla talked about this in terms of the motion of the self, attention to creation of a state, experience and interconnectedness (empathy), the opportunity to add value through attenuation, and the acceptance of experience as a skill. She defines touch to be both subjective and objective, because we can feel ourselves touching, even as we touch. Based on these principles, she created “soft(n),” which are 10 soft physical objects that communicate with people through vibration (creates a sense of intimacy), light (creates a sense of distance), and sound (when tossed, an object emits a “whee!” sound). The objects are life-size to evoke the idea of play and past-lives. In order to create the objects, she used a variety of unique materials, such as conductive foam and conductive silks.

This talk was much more “artsy” than I had anticipated, but I enjoyed hearing Thecla talk about interaction design in a new way. Although I personally thought the 10 objects were a little creepy (do I really want a stuffed cube screaming when I toss it in the air?) I suppose that this is what she was aiming for in creating them. Perhaps the reason that I was so “creeped out” was because the objects were more intimate and human than I would have liked them to be. This reminds me of a discussion we had in my Computer Mediated Communication class—do we really want to create anthropomorphic robots? Do people actually want to interact with “almost-humans”, or would they prefer to interact with things that are physically nothing like themselves? That concern aside, I thought that Thecla’s view of HCI was quite beautiful. Many elements of her talk, such as using physical sensations to create emotional product attachment, are worth further exploration.

Stress OutSourced: A Haptic Social Network via Crowdsourcing

The last speaker at the alt.chi session described a set of wearable devices that enabled crowd therapy via touch. A user would send an outgoing “SOS” call by making a frustrated gesture with her device. Others would receive the call, then gently press on their own gadgets to send calming signals back. The number of calming signals that the original user receives would indicate the number of responses, and each would be felt from a different point on her device. There are opportunities for making this a locality-based system, and for having a web component that breaks down responses at a city level. It could be scalable by not having a one-to-one mapping to a person. There are also additional opportunities that take advantage of the beauty of simple signals: for example, sending messages via nudges, or sending a tangible Facebook “poke.”

The idea of haptic social networks is rather unique. However, I am curious about the impacts of impersonal touch. What does it mean to rely on strangers instead of close friends for the coveted sensation of touch? This is a similar question to that of, “what are the impacts of replacing face-to-face conversation with computer mediate communication?” It is a difficult question to answer, but certainly one that should be considered, as there are pros and cons for both.

I found the alt.chi session to be very fun and insightful. It had what was, in my opinion, the most unique and controversial discussion topics; also, I found the crowd to be much more energized and involved than in other sessions. I would highly suggest that in future years, attendees attend at least one of the alt.chi sessions to see what they’re all about.