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Trip Report from UIST 2006

Michael Wu describes his fairy tale experience from the recent ACM Symposium on User Interface Software and Technology 2006.

Visiting a foreign place (Switzerland), seeing amazing attractions (demos and posters), and learning about unimaginable stories (research projects) -- this last week at UIST was almost like a fairy tale to me.

Once upon a time…

The nineteenth annual ACM Symposium on User Interface Software and Technology (UIST), took place in Montreux, Switzerland between October 15th and October 18th, 2006. UIST is a major forum for innovative engineering of human-computer interaction. 177 papers were submitted to this year’s conference and 40 of those were chosen for the program, resulting in a 23% acceptance rate. The range of topics was diverse and included developments in novel pointing techniques, information visualization, sensing, browsing, gestures, stylus-based interactions, projector-based systems, and tabletop interaction. Unlike the ACM CHI conference, UIST is single-tracked which offers attendees some piece of mind in that they won’t be forced to miss any of the talks through scheduling. Another feature that sets UIST apart from CHI is that UIST typically is more intimate in size, enabling a kind of networking and discussion that many find appealing.

My role at this conference was primarily as a student volunteer and conference reporter. Many attendees made positive remarks on the design of our SV t-shirts, which carried an icon of a white cross overtop of a red circle, mimicking the country’s flag. The symbol also reminded me that the International Committee of the Red Cross was originally founded in Switzerland. There are aspects of the city that suggest a strong medical charisma, such as the fact that pharmacies may be closed in the evening but will display signs listing the next closest pharmacy that is open for service. Despite the interesting quirks of the city, being in Montreux was like an amateur photographer’s dream-come-true because it seemed as though I could use every photo I took as a postcard.

The walkway along Lake Geneva

A student volunteer interested in one of the interactive poster presentations

This year’s conference was held in a large hall above the Casino Barriere de Montreux. In the back of the hall, a large window overlooked a serene Lake Geneva with mountains completing the background scene.

Each session consisted of three or four Full Papers and one Technote that shared a common theme. Presenters of Full Papers were given 20-minute presentations and presenters of Technotes were allocated 10-minute slots. I liked how each session ended with a Technote because the short presentations often offered a unique idea that might not have been completely explored, possibly sparking discussions on the topic amongst attendees during the breaks that followed the end of the sessions.

The back of the main hall with a view of the lake and mountains


The quality of the papers in my opinion was very high and I was impressed by many of the talks. I found a few of them particularly interesting given my research background and interests.

The plenary speaker was Peter Naur, who recently won the prestigious Turing Award in 2005 for defining the programming language Algol 60. The Turing Award is considered the “Nobel prize in computer science” and is a great honor. In his talk, Peter presented a brief history of his research that lead him from research in programming, programming language, mental life, philosophy, and psychology to his formation of a “Synapse-State Theory of Mental Life” that describes the structure and function of the human nervous system. A notable aspect of the talk was in Peter’s use of overhead slides rather than the pervasive PowerPoint presentations that have become so common place. Several of Peter’s remarks attacking particular areas of philosophy and psychology were controversial but he challenged us to think critically.

In his talk “A Direct Texture Placement and Editing Interface”, Yotam Gingold presented a very interesting system that allowed users to place and blend multiple textures on surfaces through direct manipulation. The textures were stretchable and by using multiple fingers, the user could specify how they were “attached” to the virtual surfaces. The system used a 36” drafting table, utilizing Jeff Han’s multi-touch sensing techniques. I could see how such a system might benefit computers animators who prepare models for animation or video games.

Patrick Baudisch spoke about a new pointing device that could be used in mid-air. In his talk entitled “Soap: a Pointing Device that Works in Mid-Air”, he described how his device was comprised of readily available hardware components similar to those that might be found in a computer mouse. The device, called Soap, is constructed by placing an optical sensor inside a fabric hull such that as the user slides the hull over the sensor, the optical sensor detects relative movement and uses that as input. The new input device was used in several applications, one of which was the PC-based game Unreal Tournament. The theme of video games recurred later in the talk “Using a Low-Cost Electroencephalograph for Task Classification in HCI Research” when Johnny Lee spoke about participants playing Haloin one of his two experiments using a low-cost off-the-shelf electroencephalograph (EEG) system to classify tasks that the users were performing.

The topic of using brainwave sensing in HCI as an input channel was particularly interesting because the invited survey speaker, José del R. Millán, spoke about how we might develop tools to enable people to interact with computers through conscious and spontaneous modulations of their brainwaves. His talk “Brain-Computer Interaction” was exciting because he explained that cognitive states could be recognized by EEG. One example is that 80ms after beginning an incorrect action, a neurological signal is sent by the brain telling the person that he/she was wrong. A system might be designed to take advantage of such a signal to prevent or mitigate the effects of user errors.

Attendees of UIST during a talk in the main hall

"Summarizing Personal Web Browsing Sessions" was an excellent talk by Mira Dontcheva, in which she described a system that allowed web users to quickly and easily collect and organize content from the Web. This was first accomplished by having the user define some content that was relevant to them and then having the system automatically collect similar content based on the web page structure.

Anastasia Bezerianos gave an interesting talk, “Mnemonic Rendering: An Image-Based Approach for Exposing Hidden Changes in Dynamic Displays”, about supporting users who may miss visual changes. She speaks about her mnemonic rendering idea, which is a general image-based solution that involving storage, visualization, and implicit interaction. Essentially, it is based on the assumption that pixels know if they are displayed to the user and will buffer its colour changes when hidden so as to replay those changes when the pixels becomes visible again.

Matthew Flagg presented his ideas on “Projector-Guided Painting”. This was an extremely interesting domain and creative approach. Matthew sought to create an enjoyable painting experience for novel artists. He used a projected to display a painting onto a canvas and showed images in layers such that the painter had suggestions on how to approach the painting. The preview projection could be toggled on and off by a foot pedal.

Björn Hartmann spoke about his system, which I thought was very complete and impressive. His talk “Reflective Physical Prototyping through Integrated Design, Test, and Analysis” was about a toolkit called that assisted prototyping in iterative design. included a set of interaction techniques and architectural features that support early-stage prototyping, an extensible architecture for physical interfaces, and an integration of design, testing, and analysis for information appliances. The interesting aspect of this last point was that recorded a video of the participant interacting with the prototype and recorded interaction events in order to structure the video.

In his presentation titled “User Interface Façades: Towards Fully Adaptable User Interfaces”, Wolfgang Stuerzlinger made the observation that people only use a small subset of interface functions at a time. He demonstrated an interesting system that allowed users to personalize their interfaces through simple “copying and pasting” screen regions that not only copied the visual appearance of the regions, but also the interactive aspects of those regions. By selecting and then drag-and-dropping those elements in a direct manipulation fashion, new interfaces could be created and configured.

Banquet at Castle of Chillon

The conference banquet was held in Castle of Chillon on the evening of Tuesday, October 17th. The castle sat on the edge of Lake Geneva and was complete with 25 building units, ever-ascending towers, and even dungeons in the basement. We were given the opportunity to explore the castle before dinner. The castle was dimly lit, creating a spooky but exciting atmosphere.

Castle of Chillon in the evening

Our dinner was elaborate and delicious. We ate our meals in a banquet hall, lit with candles and the fireplace. Near the end of dinner, Dan Olsen brought to our attention that it was Johnny Lee’s birthday so the entire hall chimed in to sing happy birthday to him. Johnny was a good sport, humorously thanking everyone at the end of the song for coming all the way to Switzerland to celebrate his birthday.

The banquet at the castle dining hall


In the closing remarks, a number of awards were given out:

Happy Ending

After the closing remarks at the conference, I grabbed my bags and prepared to leave. It was on my way back to the train station that I happened to pass by a pharmacy. A vivid image of a sign flashed in my mind, but instead of it pointing me in the direction of the closest available pharmacy, I imagine it directing me to the next UIST conference. It will be UIST’s 20th anniversary, which is an amazing achievement. I, for one, will be looking forward to the celebrations in October 2007 -- see you in Newport, Rhode Island where the fairy tale will continue!

A boat resting on a serene Lake Geneva


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