fredag 23 maj 2014

Impressions from the 2014 CHI conference

I was at the huge annual conference for Human-Computer Interaction (CHI 2014) a few weeks ago (as well as the previous conference a year ago, in Paris). I don't know how many attendants were at the conference this year, but there were 15 parallell tracks to chose from at each point in time (for a total of 204 session all in all)... If I understood it correctly, there were no less than 3000 persons involved in reviewing material of various kinds that had been submitted to the conference and 7000 persons who had authored content for the conference.

As I waited to board the plane "home" to Los Angeles/Irvine/UCI, I was looking through the program, thinking about papers (titles) that I might want to read and the woman right next to me asked me how I liked the conference. "Which conference?", or rather, "which of the CHI conferences?" was my answer as the chances were high we did not attend the same session a single time at the conference...  So the CHI conference is not really "a conference" as much as it is a number of different parallell conferences held under the same umbrella and at the same time. The CHI conference is also the "hub" in a cluster of conferences, i.e. many people who are interested in the smaller, more narrow and directed conferences X, Y and Z also congregate at the (much larger) CHI conference.

When I sat down in the plane a little later (still with the conference program in my hand), it turned out I had another attendee by my side, Janice Rohn. She is a veteran of the HCI community and the CHI conference as well as Vice President for User Experience at a startup company, Velocify (after having had a long career at a number of other companies including Apple, Sun Microsystems, Siebel, AT&T etc.). Her thing was the company-directed activities at CHI and we had an almost five-hour long conversation about CHI, the high-tech business, the connection between industry and academia, creative environments and many other things. That was a great way of summing up the week-long CHI conference.

In fact, the whole conference and the week in Toronto was great. Some of the things that made the conference great was:
The Airbnb house that I rented together with my KTH colleagues Elina Eriksson and Susanna Heyman. We were lucky and the charming house we rented were soo much better than an impersonal hotel room. Also, it was a lot more inexpensive. Me and Elina even managed to get some work done.
- The fact that I met 15 or perhaps even 20 Swedes at the conference, most of whom are colleagues of mine from KTH Royal Institute of Technology. Since I'm on a sabbatical and I left Sweden in mid-December, it was great too meet and catch up with friends.
- The nice habour-front restaurant, Amsterdam Brewhouse, that we found and where we ate lunch almost every day. Many of these lunches were had together with my KTH colleagues Elina and Cecilia as well as with other people. This made it possible for us to work concerted and I hope we managed to convince some people to either 1) come to Stockholm to attend the ICT4S conference in August, 2) to come to Helsinki and attend the NordiCHI conference and our (proposed) Sustainable HCI workshop in the end of October, or 3) to come visit us at KTH/CESC/MID4S sometime during the next academic year.
- The two whole-day pre-conference workshops I attended on 1) "Alternate endings" (design fiction) and 2) Sustainable HCI.
- Also, I met a lot of old friends (including people I have not met for a decade (Matt Ratto) or only a few times in the last 10 years (Jose Abdelnour-Nocera). I also made many new friends. The fact that I could introduce some of my current UC Irvine colleagues to my KTH colleagues was also nice.

These were for the most part a long list of "structural factors", I haven't even come around to the academic content of the conference yet, but already the list above alone made CHI into a great conference. On top of that I heard a lot of interesting talks and got quite a few new ideas for research and papers!

At this point I realise that I could either write a very detailed and long blog post about the actual contents of conference, or a shorter text outlining "my CHI conference" in a few broad strokes. Since the conference ended three weeks ago, it really makes more sense to just shortly summarise my "slice" of the conference and there were primarily three themes that I followed/took an interest in at this year's CHI conference:
1) Sustainable HCI, i.e. the intersection of sustainability and human-computer interaction (HCI).
2) Design fiction, i.e. the intersection of design, computing and (science) fiction, or,  extrapolating and "fictionalising" today's cutting edge research to exploring the implications of current and emerging technologies.
3) Fabrication, 3-D printers, hackerspaces and the maker movement, i.e. the idea and hope that we will be able to design or download "blueprints" for, well, stuff (gadgets, things) from the Internet and print everything we need and want in the safety and comfort of our own homes.

My interest in Sustainable HCI was a given and the one most important reason for why I chose to attend the conference in the first place. My interest in the design fiction and maker themes were more unexpected and nothing I had planned for attending or taking and taking an interest in in advance. Last year I instead followed the "ICT for development" theme (how ICT is developed/deployed/used in developing countries), but I couldn't really find or pin down that theme at this year's conference.

As to design fiction, I have previously realised that I've been doing that for 10 years in my course "Future of Media". Some weeks before the conference, while preparing for attending the design fiction workshop, I realised that we already have excellent footage (short movies) that have been made in that course and that we could put them together into a contribution for next year's CHI video program. I've already found students back home who are willing to make that movie and I thus made sure to attend this year's video program to "check out the competition". It was fun to see the videos (together with my colleague Susanna), I took quite detailed notes, and I definitely think we can put together something that is among the top 25% of the videos - at least in terms of production values (and hopefully also in terms of content and overall impression).

The opening keynote speaker at the conference was the well-known Canadian author Margaret Atwood who stated that "if you can't imagine it, it won't happen". We imagine both desirable future as well as the opposite since "sometimes we imagine things in order to avoid them" (e.g. dystopias). Atwood described her "space age" childhood and the large part that space wars and the idea of life on other planets played in her and her brother's childhood comics-induced imaginary futures.

Atwood had a lot of fun, and she made fun of both herself and the audience. She showed a picture of her "robotic device" (a sewing machine) and she also mentioned that there now exists "prostibots" in Holland and New Zealand (is that true? I don't know, but she had already written a story about it, "The heart goes last"). After Atwood's talk, there was a Q-and-A session where Atwood (in her answer to a questions) said: "you wouldn't want to have Wikipedia in your head, would you? You would go quite mad!" to which one of the computer scientists on the stage displayed some involuntary humour by answering that "it depends on the access model"(!).

Next year's CHI conference will be held in Korea and I hope to be able to go there. I will do my best to submit content to the conference (to the video program and at least one full paper and one short (alt.chi) paper). I hope to see you there!

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