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I’ll CHI if I want to - A Trip Report from CHI 2007

A trip report from CHI 2007

Written by Kevin Makice

Twenty-five conferences are now in the books for the human- computer interaction community, but the recent industry get-together in San Jose, California last April was merely my second. When I made the trip to Portland, Oregon in 2005 as a first-year master’s student from the Indiana University School of Informatics, my main motivation was participation in the student design competition. Most of my time was spent working on that project. This time, there were no such obligations to keep me away from the exchange of information and interaction with people—the primary value of CHI.

In order to attend on a family-of-four, graduate student budget, I needed help from the Student Volunteer program. SVs are required to work twenty hours during the week of preparation and proceedings, and in exchange the hefty fees are waived. Out of the lottery initially, I eventually received the happy news in mid-March from SV chairs Cliff Lampe and Kirstie Hawkey that I, too, could exchange labor for the name badge to get me into the conference.

Beyond the new volunteer duties, I needed to fulfill other commitments. My advisor Eli Blevis submitted an award-winning paper on sustainable design, and five of the twelve finalists in the student design competition hailed from Indiana University. Some of my time was devoted to supporting those efforts. Toss in the convenient location—several of our alums are currently working on the West Coast— and it meant a big contingent of Hoosiers were on their way to San Jose.

I flew into California Thursday night. With only mini-bags of Sun Chips to eat on the flight, I comforted myself with visions of a week’s worth of free food for the volunteer army. As the first to arrive, well in advance of my bag-stuffing duties that afternoon, I greeted the few other early-bird volunteers as they found the lounge.

A few hours of mindless stuffing of papers into gray shoulder bags was both a nice change from the heavy academic lifting of a Ph.D. program and a great way to meet people. Victor from Oregon, the second to arrive Friday morning, hung around with a former Indiana classmates Erik and Kynthia most of the week. Washington’s Zhiwei Guan talked about her two conference papers on gaze and eye tracking, one of which she presented on Tuesday. Josh, a member of one of three Michigan teams entered in the student design competition, discussed the similarities in our Big Ten information programs. Amaya, who is finishing up matriculation in San Diego this summer, came to CHI to participate in the student research competition with her work on the effects of video blogging. She was also the caretaker for Schmitty, a stuffed frog who serves as the SV mascot. Schmitty had a new set of clothes, a trip to Burning Man, and an academic poster on “ethfrogaphy” to show for their time together.

The atmosphere in the volunteers lounge belied the importance of our CHI duties. Among the items we placed in the conference bags was one of seven cut-out personas, courtesy Cisco. My bag contained Eagle- Eye Ed, Systems Engineer. A small tower of such personas was assembled as the week passed, including quite a few Keep His Cool Kumars and Multitasking Millies. SVs hatched a plan to use the cut- outs to re-enact scenes from 300 near the entrance to the San Jose Ballroom. Value-Oriented Vince, the most elusive of personas, would lead the army of would-be Spartans. However, like plans to create Mystery Design Science Theatre 3000 to poke fun at boring presentations through use of video and silhouette, talk never materialized into action.

The bulk of my SV obligations were fulfilled by manning a camera as part of an experimental effort to add archival video of conferences to the ACM online library. John ‘Scooter’ Morris, the head tech honcho for CHI, coordinated the effort to capture several sessions and courses, digitizing the audio and video of the speaker with a separate VGA feed for the slides. Backed by technology provided by IDIAP, Morris estimated streaming video on sessions could be linked next to the PDF documents by the end of the summer. In this way, the conference continues to evolve.

The first CHI took place in March of 1982 in Maryland and featured 75 academic papers, several from authors now celebrated in the human- computer interaction community. James Foley—who published two papers in the original proceedings—was the recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Award in San Jose. The conference now includes 144 papers, 40 courses, 38 notes, 30 experience reports, 19 special interest groups, 13 interactive sessions, five plenary speeches, two student competitions, and a host of exhibits. Just since my Portland experience, the event has added CHI Madness—a fast-paced concatenation of 30- seconds previews for all talks on tap each day—and the student research competition.

One challenge facing conference organizers is how to negotiate the size of the event. CHI 2007 claimed 2622 attendees from 70 countries. Sessions spanned nine rooms, not all of which were large enough to accommodate the interest in every topics. SVs had to act as bouncers at times, allowing new people inside as members of the audience left. Large monitors and audio will piped into the hallways to allow more people to be involved. Even in the best of conditions, CHI is about making decisions.

The opening plenary this year was given by Bill Moggridge, co-founder of the design firm IDEO. His talk plugged his new book, Designing Interactions, by sharing a series of interviews with various industry folk— Takeshi Natsuno (i-Mode), David Liddle, Tim Mott and Larry Tesler (Xerox Parc), Jeff Hawkins (Palm), Mat Hunter (Kodak), and Paul Mercer (iPod) among them. Moggridge offered the notion of a skills framework necessary for intuitive design. Intuition isn’t implicit, he claimed, it is built.

Moggridge was also part of an interactive session in the afternoon —“Who Killed Design?”—that also included Bill Buxton (Microsoft Research), Terry Winograd (Stanford University) and Meg Armstrong (Parsons The New School for Design). Their comments validated our own take on design education at IU. No conclusions arose from the 90- minute conversation, but none were expected. Like the SIGs, this session used CHI as part of an ongoing discussion. The panel originated prior to the conference and continues even now in the form of a wiki.

Another plenary of note came the following morning from Gary Marsden, one of two recipients of the Social Impact Award. His talk, “Doing HCI Differently,” was an eye-opening perspective on the unanticipated disconnection between human-computer interaction practices and a largely ignored African culture. The take-home insight Marsden provided is that there are no absolutes in design. Much of the HCI training Marsden received at Stirling didn’t apply in Cape Town. He described HCI in Africa as community-computer interaction—a holistic approach needed to understand the interconnectivity of locals with each other, and with a non-Western culture. Usability is largely “irrelevant” in Africa. Because it is the only technology they have, Africans are willing to learn cell phones deeply, and as a result are not worried about efficiency. Next February, there will be a great opportunity for African designers and Western ideas to mix further when Designing Interactive Systems conference (DIS 2008) is hosted by Cape Town.

Conference organizers Marty Beth Rosson and David Gilmore provided time to play as well as learn. Monday’s reception included a lot of traditional dancing, belly and otherwise, and mounds of food. This was also an opportunity to take advantage of another conference tradition: acquiring swag. Among the trinkets stuffed into my conference tote was a stress ball that glowed when you squeezed it. Several others flocked to Sun when I told them where I got it, but all were shut out. The exhibits weren’t all about the free pens and keychains, of course. The week was a chance to become acquainted with devices to help usability testing, purchase books and network for jobs.

Sustainability is a hot topic. Partial credit goes to Al Gore’s documentary on global warming, An Inconvenient Truth, and the devastation of Hurricane Katrina that preceded the movie. Designers are ready to think deeply about the consequences of their creations, as was evident by attendance at the Sustainability & Interaction SIG on Tuesday morning. Presented Tuesday, Eli’s paper jump-starts formal work in sustainable design by providing a framework to consider the problems our solutions contribute to the ecosystem. Fearful that available space would not meet demand, I spent the day in Room A3 to stake my claim to a front-row seat.

That strategy worked out well since the morning session, “Online Representation of Self” was equally as popular and arguably the most enjoyable 90 minutes of the four-day program. Putting Cliff Lampe and Jeff Hancock in the same session doesn’t seem fair. Both have the wit and delivery to make their work highly accessible. Cliff shared a study examining how certain profile information leads to more Facebook friends. Jeff’s investigation into deception in online dating profiles concluded that lying frequently and subtly is a good tactic for getting past that first cup of coffee. Rounding out the session were Mina Vasalou’s look at the avatars and self-focused attention and Aniket Kittur’s visualizations of Wikipedia conflict.

altVerto - University of Michigan

Two of our Indiana student teams advanced to the final round of their design competition, joining

EMI - Universidad Tecnologica de la Mixteca, Mexico

Ri-Ri - Indiana University

Eco-Driving Dashboard - Indiana University

One of my favorite new concepts came on the morning of the final day, when most were nursing headaches from a late night at corporate parties. Jason Li and Neeman Moraveji (Microsoft Research) presented their note on comicboarding, a participatory design technique using panels of comic book stories as a way to engage children in brainstorming. Often, the process of assembling participants in such a design activity is fraught with self-selection and tired, disengaged participants. Comicboarding is an attempt to scaffold brainstorming with characters and plot relevant to kids. The authors found that by providing the beginning and ending to a story about a design, participating children freely contribute to the process by exploring what happens in the middle. This was one of several interesting techniques of design inquiry gleaned from the four days of CHI.

The exodus from San Jose began Thursday evening and continued into the weekend. Swag became prizes for missed children, and receipts became the key part of expense reports. The technical work and casual conversation inspired new ideas, many likely to take form of submissions in September to the next conference. Among colleagues, one lasting impact of CHI 2007 is a strong desire to save up for a trip to Florence, Italy next April.


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