PhD Defense of Elina Vartiainen

Finland is one country in Europe were it seems pretty hard to get to in the morning from Germany or Austria. If you have a meeting before 11 am you have to fly the day before.

I was invited to Helsinki to be opponent (together with Kaisa Väänänen-Vainio-Mattila) for the PhD defense of Elina Vartiainen at Helsinki University of Technology. The first time I came across work she was involved in was at CHI 2006 in Montreal. She worked with Virpi Roto on the Minimap web browser [1]. Last year in a doctoral colloquium in Finland we first discussed some of her work and I was excited to read it in more detail for the PhD exam.

Dissertations in practical areas of computer science that are done in company research labs are at the same time limited and exciting. What can be done is often limited by the company needs but on the other hand it offers the great opportunity to get things out large scale and collect experiences from many users (e.g. you may want to check the ImageExchange project, where the studies were also part of Elina’s dissertation).

I like the finnish system of having a long public defense. We discussed about 3 hours with Elina and I enjoyed it 🙂

There are two general but important issues I think I take away from our discussion:

  1. do question the research process including the steps (e.g. hardware first or applications first), the approach (e.g. human need centred vs. design driven) and the setup of the teams (who is needed to get a successful product? Business, law, design, hardware?).
  2. innovation for web services on a global scale comes not from a single company or small set of highly skilled developers. Creating opportunities for a larger number developers (with skills limited skills, e.g. like web development) will be the key to create all the applications people need all over the world. Having a single instance controlling what can be developed does scale.

Guess what was the first web browser on a mobile device I used on a mobile device? It was an Apple Messagepad – and the browser was PocketWeb developed at TecO in Karlsruhe (where I worked from 1998-2001), see [2] and http://www.teco.edu/pocketweb/

[1] Roto, V., Popescu, A., Koivisto, A., and Vartiainen, E. 2006. Minimap: a web page visualization method for mobile phones. In Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (Montréal, Québec, Canada, April 22 – 27, 2006). R. Grinter, T. Rodden, P. Aoki, E. Cutrell, R. Jeffries, and G. Olson, Eds. CHI ’06. ACM, New York, NY, 35-44. DOI= http://doi.acm.org/10.1145/1124772.1124779

[2] Stefan Gessler and Andreas Kotulla. PDAs as mobile WWW browsers. Proceedings of the Second World Wide Web Conference ’94: Mosaic and the Web. Chicago, Illinois, USA, 1994.

Ubicomp Spring School in Nottingham – prototyping user interfaces

On Tuesday and Wednesday afternoon I ran practical workshops on creating novel user interfaces complementing the tutorial on Wednesday morning. The aim of the practical was to motivate people to more fundamentally question user interface decisions that we make in our research projects.

On a very simple level an input user interface can be seen as a sensor, a transfer function or mapping, and an action in the system that is controlled. To motivate that this I showed two simple javascript programs that allowed to play with the mapping of the mouse to a movement of a button on the screen and with moving through a set of images. If you twist the mapping functions really simple tasks (like moving one button on top of the other) may get complicated. Similarly if you change the way you use the sensor (e.g. instead of moving the mouse on a surface, having several people moving a surface over the mouse) such simple tasks may become really difficult, too.

With this initial experience, a optical mouse, a lot of materials (e.g. fabrics, cardboard boxes, picture frames, toys, etc.), some tools, and 2 hours of time the groups started to create their novel interactive experience. The results created included a string puppet interface, a frog interface, a interface to the (computer) recycling, a scarf, and a close contact dancing interface (the music only plays if bodies touch and move).

The final demos of the workshop were shown before dinner. Seeing the whole set of the new interface ideas one wonders why there is so little of this happening beyond the labs in the real world and why people are happy to live with current efficient but rather boring user interfaces – especially in the home context…

New Conference on Automotive User Interfaces

If industries are not doing well one way forward is to promote innovation!

Since a number of years it became apparened that many PhD students in computer science and especially in human computer interaction work on topics related to user interfaces in the car. We think it is a good idea to forster a community in this area and hence we run the 1st International Conference on Automotive User Interfaces and Interactive Vehicular Applications (AutomotiveUI 2009)  in Essen, Germany. The conference is in the week after Mobile HCI and takes place Mon/Tue 21 – 22 September 2009. 
Submission deadline: 02 June 2009

Why can I not rotate my windows on my Vista Desktop?

In the User Interface Engineering lecture we discussed today input devices, especially to interact with 3D environments. In 3D environments having 6 degrees of freedom (3 directions in translation and 3 options for rotation) appears very natural. Looking back at 2D user interfaces with this in mind one has to ask why are we happy (an now for more than 25 years) with translation (in 2D) only and more specifically why is it not possible to rotate my application windows in Vista (or perhaps it is and I just dont know it). At first this questions seems like a joke but if you think more of it there could be interesting implication (perhaps with a little more thinking
 than this sketch 😉

Obviously people have implemented desktops with more than 2D and here is the link to the video on project looking glass – discussed in the lecture. (if you are bored with the sun sales story just move to 2:20): http://de.youtube.com/watch?v=JXv8VlpoK_g
It seems you can have it on Ubuntu, too: http://de.youtube.com/watch?v=EjQ4Nza34ak

Light themes – cool idea but with usability flaws

Over new year we went for a short skiing trip to Bödele in Austria. It is a small ski resort but great for learning to ski (and this is what Vivien did 🙂
We stayed in Dornbirn (not far from Lake Constance) in at Hotel Krone and had a really nice room – and it had a remarkable light installation. 

There were several lights (like you have them typical in a hotel room), then there were many switches, and finally there was a full page manual how to use the light – welcome to ambient intelligence! Instead of switching on and off individual lights one can chose a predefined light theme, e.g. a setting for working on the desk, a setting for watching TV, a setting for reading, etc. All lights are switched and dimed to fit this situation (or at least as the designer thinks it would fit the situation).

The basic idea of having light themes is quite interesting but when being in the hotel room with 3 people it gets really difficult to set the lights. Even after a lot of trying out I could not manage to set the lights so that I can work on the desk (desk lamp on), Petra can read in bed (reading light at on bed on), and Vivien can sleep (her bedside lamp off). 
Nevertheless one should not underestimate the entertainment of previously simple tasks – We spend have the evening exploring potential settings, rhythms, and speeds of the colored wellness light 😉

PS: (1) There is a good natural science museum in Dornbirn – inatura and (2) 3D projections are still not convincing…
PPS: using a GPS tracking device to record your skiing activity (including speed) is cool!

Buying Music Online – how easy is it?

Imagine there is a song – you know band and title – and you want to buy it. Should not be really something worthwhile reporting in a blog…

How long does it take to buy a song and how many steps does it need? I tried myself and was pretty much amazed that it is still more difficult than other ways to get music. The idea was to put the song into my shopping cart, press check-out, pay by credit card, and download. On the stores I encountered you have to register before to buy… I finally got the song and here are the steps at a major German music store: go to shop page, search for song, put in shopping cart, go to checkout, told to register, fill in registration form, told to confirm email, opened email client, waited 3 minutes for email, confirmed email, logged in on webpage, realized shopping card is empty :-(, search for song, put in shopping cart, go to checkout, entered credit card information, pay about 1.69€, got download link, got music.

I really wonder how many people will become first time buyers in this shop. Sometimes I think the things we teach in User Interface Engineering are obvious – but real life tells me they are not! If you run a music download portal or if you are in the music business and you wonder why no-one buys – we can tell you 🙂 it may be about utility and usability of your online offers… if you need more details we are happy to help you 🙂

PS: there was a store with a .ru address with better usability that offered the song with no registration at 0.20€ – but I did not want to give my credit card details… 

What can we learn from legacy-free washbasins?

In Sydney I saw a legacy-free setup for washing hands in a public bathroom. I was surprised at the simple and solution with high utility! It is only a board mounted in an angle with water taps above. For typical use (washing hands under a flow of water) this is as good as a traditional setup. From looking at it, the legacy-free setup seems much easier to clean. I have never used a washbasin in a public bathroom by filling it – and I have never seen this functionality used (typically you can not use it in the lagacy way as there is not plug)… nevertheless most setups have washbasin.

Back to computing – what does it tell us? Looking at the operating systems I use, the applications and devices I see a lot of washbasin! Functionality that is never used but makes maintenance pretty expensive is a part of most of them. Looking at architecture as well as user interfaces the above example can motive to look at non-standard solutions…

Meeting on Human Centered in Vienna

Ina Wagner, Volker Wulf and Kjeld Schmidt organized a meeting to get together people from all over Europe that work on human centred computing. We had interesting discussions what is specific and distinct European human centred computing and how well it is represented in organizations such as the ACM.

Some years ago there has been significant support in this area of research on a European level – namely I3 and the disappearing computer initiative. Currently many of us feel that the value of user centred research is not supported enough and hence innovation happens somewhere else which can lead to massive disadvantages for European industries. One central issue is that we need more to communicate value of user interface research.

The need for user interface research is undoubtedly accepted. One example is the ISTAG report of 2001 that tried to look into 2010 – a future that is now not too far anymore. Looking at the challenges stated in this report it becomes clear that most of the technical issues are solved but this does has not lead to a breakthrough with regard to the visionary scenarios. But towards the challenge “natural interfaces” we have still a long way to go. If we really want to get closer to those scenarios of ambient intelligence that are human friendly we really have to push on interaction and user interfaces – hopefully decision makers on a European level will get it 😉

FacetZoom

Raimund Dachselt presented FaceZoom, a widget for quick navigation, e.g. for a tree structure [1]. I liked his characterizing “a stacked treemap” – which explains nicely what the widget does and where the efficency can be found. At TEI’08 he gave already a nice private demo on how this can be linked to mobile devices and how to use a off-the-shelf phone with an accelerometer as controller.

[1] Dachselt, R., Frisch, M., and Weiland, M. 2008. FacetZoom: a continuous multi-scale widget for navigating hierarchical metadata. In Proceeding of the Twenty-Sixth Annual SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (Florence, Italy, April 05 – 10, 2008). CHI ’08. ACM, New York, NY, 1353-1356. DOI= http://doi.acm.org/10.1145/1357054.1357265

OLPC – new interface guidelines – no file menu

We have tried several of the applications (called activities) and the basic functions seem OK. Vivien liked it and was quite curious to explore it further. The photos you can take with the built-in camera are similar in quality to a good web cam.

After discussing the Microsoft Vista interface guide in the last week of our course on User Interface Engineering it was really interesting to see the OLPC/Sugar user interface guidelines. Especially the shift away from save/open to keep and the journal are enormous changes (and hence probably quite hard for people who have used computers – obviously it is not really designed for them).

Using the measure activity provides basic tools for electronics measurements. The microphone input can be used as a simple oscilloscope and the USB port provides 1A – this makes it really interesting for experimenting, see the hardware reference.