"As researchers we have a responsibility to look out as far as we can...change is punctuated equilibrium...if we can predict technology discontinuity, we can win."
--George Robertson, ACM CHI 2013
The 2013 ACM SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (commonly known just as CHI) took place in Paris last week, from April 27th to May 2nd 2013. This is the premier venue for anyone interested in understanding the relationship between people and interactive, computational artifacts, anyone interested in human-computer interaction (HCI).
The 31st CHI Conference, CHI 2013 boasted 16 parallel tracks featuring an abundance of content formats, including: presentations of short and long papers; retrospective research talks by award winners; panels, and posters. Breaking all previous CHI conference attendance records, the event attracted over 3,400 attendees from 55 countries, nearly 1,700 of whom were first-time CHI conference attendees. Kudos to the conference Chairs and to the support staff at the ACM who made this possible.
Obviously, Paris is, in itself, a major attractor. However, Paris was clearly not the only explanation for the high attendance numbers. Had that been the case, sessions would likely have been empty while "attendees" hit the top tourist spots. This was not the case. From early morning to evening, from the first day to the last, many sessions were filled to the point of standing room only. Without fine-tuned location tracking attached to each attendee, I cannot offer detailed or robust data to say how many or which sessions filled up, but my own experience and anecdotes from others suggested many sessions were packed.
From these observations, one can only conclude that HCI as a field of enquiry is attracting much interest. We should not be surprised. Our world in increasingly flooded with interactive technologies. There seems to be no slowing the appetite for more. The design of useful, usable, reliable and pleasing interactive technologies that augment and enhance our lives is what HCI is all about. Being good at these factors differentiates companies who win in the market from those that do not.
It is also the case that HCI is an ever-changing discipline that draws on diverse areas for inspiration. Necessarily so, because the technological landscape is constantly also evolving. HCI is a responsive and reactive discipline. But it is also an innovative one. At CHI 2013, over 100 demos, exhibits and interactive installations were on show.
As someone who has written about the benefits and curses of HCI's diversity, I am enthused by the breadth of topics and disciplinary cross-cutting that can be seen at CHI. Papers covered a range of topics including: the design of input methods (Session: Keyboards and Hotkeys); brain computer interfaces (Session: Brain Sensing and Analysis); the use of optical fiber cloth for interactive surfaces (Session: Flexible Displays); full body motion modeling (Session: Full-Body Interaction); brainstorming methods (Session: Ideation Methods); designing for people with motor impairments (Session: Impairment and Rehabilitation); the design and use of city-scale residential electricity consumption feedback systems (Session: Sustainable Energy); understanding reasons for people's desire for anonymity on the Internet (Session: Consent and Privacy); search and seek behaviors (Session: Searching and Finding); designing for low literacy populations (Session: Design for Development); laser cutting and sculpting as prototyping methods (Session: Fabrication); perception and aesthetics in Web design (Session: Aesthetics and the Web); designing for mobile devices (Sessions: Mobile Applications and Mobile Interaction); designing alternate reality games (Session: Game Design); data visualization and navigation (Session: Data Navigation); deceptive designs (Session: Ethics and HCI); and novel device, application and system evaluation methods - a topic that was covered in numerous sessions.
Looking at this range, one can see that CHI 2013 continued the tradition of the conference in providing a space where theorists and applied researchers can come together. Whether one is focused on academic contributions (including training the future work force to be sensitive to the needs of "the user"), or considers oneself to be a practitioner or more applied user experience researcher with a charter to improve technologies through multi-method applied research, there were insights, good conversations and inspirations to be found at CHI 2013. I note those in the latter category may not always get credit they deserve as their work products do not showcase their contributions like academic publications do. However, they are nevertheless strong contributors to the conference, and CHI is one place we are reminded that the products they design are in use every day by many of us.
Three areas of theoretical and applied creativity are most closely aligned with HCI work (I note that not everyone will agree with me on this, but this has been my long-held position):
- art and design;
- the computational sciences, and
- the social sciences.
The three plenary speakers were excellent representatives of these different arenas of thought:
- from the world of Art and Design, Paola Antonelli, senior curator in the Department of Architecture and Design at The Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in New York City;
- from the world of Computer Science, Vint Cerf, president of the ACM and one of the "fathers of the Internet,"
- from sociology, Bruno Latour, professor at Sciences Po Paris and one of the founders of the field of Science and Technology Studies (STS).
These areas of enquiry embody and encompass very different belief systems when it comes to what constitutes relevant and high impact epistemological and/or material contributions. Therefore, I suspect different attendees at CHI 2013 (who make for a very mixed group of backgrounds) beat very different paths through the conference program; as noted above, I don't have data on session attendance, but I increasingly would love to see such data. Data on movement from session to session would be very useful for unpacking where attendee interests cross-cut disciplines and, therefore, what nascent cross-pollinations may be in early-stage development. What I did observe was that, now and again, there were wonderfully heated debates, polite disengagements and, happily, uncomfortable alliances being forged.
Key figures were invited to speak at the conference–including George Robertson. Robertson, who I quoted at the beginning of this piece, is this year's winner of the ACM SIGCHI Lifetime Achievement in Research Award, an award presented to individuals for outstanding contributions to the study of human-computer interaction. Robertson was one of the founders of the field of visualization. The architect of the Information Visualizer, he invented numerous novel 3-D interaction techniques including Cone Trees; the Perspective Wall; the Spiral Visualization; the Document Lens; the WebBook and the Web Forager; the Data Mountain (a document management visualization); the Task Gallery (a 3-D Window operating system shell); the Polyarchy Visualization for interacting with multiple intersecting hierarchies; Scalable Fabric for window and task management, and Schema Mapper for managing mappings between schemas. He also did pioneering work on animated 3-D user interfaces, inventing: Point of Interest navigation, Fix and Float, Peripheral Lens, Toolspaces and Glances, and Speed-coupled Flying with Orbiting.
Interestingly, George made the point that many of the ideas that were developed during his research career have taken on the order of 17 years to see the light of day, or to be replicated/reinvented by others.
Other awardees include the Lifetime Achievement in Practice Award going to Jakob Nielsen of the Neilsen Norman Group, a long-term proponent of creating methods drawn from deeper research that can be applied within more temporally constrained contexts, and a Social Impact Award awarded to Sara J. Czaja from the University of Miami, whose research focuses on improving the quality of life for older adults.
As we all know, the numbers of women entering into computer science and engineering education and building their careers in these fields is distressingly low. According to some reports, the numbers are continuing to drop (for an exception, see the results of Maria Klawe's efforts at Harvey Mudd College). Therefore, I would also like to call out one other event in particular (while noting there were two panels dedicated to consideration of career development for women within the technological area): the "Women's Breakfast." This event has grown out of earlier efforts to provide a space for discussion around mentoring for career development in Human Computer Interaction and related/sister fields, including Computer Science and Engineering. While historically these events have targeted female attendees exclusively, I am very happy to note that the 2013 event was open to men as well. The conversations oriented around institutional recognition/support for greater awareness of diversity, broadening diversity from gender specifically, to consideration of diversity in learning, communication, and working styles. The event itself attracted 300 attendees, but the conversation is set to continue through social media platforms (see CHI Mentors on Facebook and Twitter).
For attendees, a number of innovations were also made in providing interactive and multi-media formats for accessing conference content. From the schedule–which was available as an easily downloadable mobile application, allowing one to create a schedule of sessions to be visited ahead of time–to the Video Previews of talks, it was possible to get a flavor of the conference ahead of time. This allowed attendees to engage more deeply with content when in attendance. As someone who has worked on support for post-conference social networking in the past, I am looking forward to the development of better tools for continuing the conversation after the event; this includes better use of social network sites like Facebook and micro-blogging platforms like Twitter integrated and connected into the more detailed content available in the ACM library.
In sum, CHI 2013 was host to researchers, practitioners and students focused on possible 'punctuations', small and large, on a range of time frames: in the short term, changing the products we use every day; in the medium term, working on research proposals and roadmaps to innovate what we will be using tomorrow and next year; and in the long term, thinking about the ways in which current platforms, services, applications and devices do (and do not) serve well or at least not to maximal effect, making design recommendations and throwing down the gauntlet–what's missing, where can we go from here, and what is going to be truly revolutionary for work, for home, for recreation, and for human-human and human computer communication.
All in all, it is clear that HCI as a field is flourishing–in fact, growing. I highly recommend spending a few hours browsing the CHI 2013 program, and following up with a more detailed reading of papers and abstracts from the conference.
Elizabeth F. Churchill is Director of Human Computer Interaction at eBay Research Labs in San Jose, CA. She is also the current Executive Vice President of SIGCHI, the ACM's Special Interest Group for Human-Computer Interaction.