Robots, research & rocking chairs: Computer-Human Interaction conference 2016

‘CHI’ Computer-Human Interaction conference, San Jose, California: 7th – 12th May 2016

convention-center

The annual CHI conference (pronounced ‘kai’) for Computer Human Interaction describes itself as ‘a place to see, discuss and learn about the future of how people interact with technology’. So on journeying to fabled Silicon Valley for my first experience of CHI and of San Jose California, I half-expected to be greeted by robots on arrival. As it turned out, I was not to be disappointed…

The theme of CHI 2016 focused on using ‘technology for good’, which resonated with my key reason for attending this year’s event. Over the past couple of years, I have been part of this collaborative research project called Tangible Memories, which has developed creative technologies to benefit older people in care. One of these technologies has included an interactive rocking chair for older people with advanced dementia, and who are not often able to go outdoors. The chair plays soothing nature sounds, such as the dawn chorus or crickets singing on a summer’s evening, through speakers embedded in its headrest.

noreen-rocking-cu

The sound content is triggered simply by the rocking motion of the chair; stop rocking and the sound softly dies away. Our aim was to design an intuitive interaction that did not require learning (or remembering) while providing an experience that was both calming, particularly for those with anxiety, and which could potentially enhance the well-being of the individual, by the soothing rocking motion and by rekindling the imagination through evocative soundscapes.

My colleagues and I had co-written a work-in-progress paper about this prototype and its test sessions that had been accepted into CHI 2016, so offering us the chance to share our research in person, with a specialist network of about three thousand conference delegates from all over the world. The opportunity represented a new prospect for my artistic practice, as well as occasion to receive valuable feedback on our concept, so I was delighted to be awarded a travel bursary from a-n The Artist Information Company in order to attend CHI 2016 as a freelance collaborator on this project, and to be able to accompany my colleagues from the University of Bristol Computer Science department.

Alongside two days of the conference where we presented our rocking chair research, there was a huge amount on offer throughout the conference programme. I enjoyed a group tour of Stanford University Design School in Palo Alto, and took part in a brilliant prototyping workshop hosted by a member of the School’s teaching staff there.

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This Open House event was also showcasing a number of Stanford’s collaborative projects through posters and demonstrations, which proved very intriguing and thought-provoking. Some teams were hypothesizing about the future, such as our increasingly close (even emotional) relationship with robots and drones, while others were in the process of developing new creative tools for education or entertainment.

Back in the San Jose Convention Center, I attended a Special Interest Group discussion that was reflecting on a variety of different approaches to the theme, ‘Technology for disabled and older people’. There was some acknowledgment of the importance of social interaction and the need to address well-being for people in this defined group, although more generally, it seemed as if the computer science sector tends to focus on designing assistive technologies in support of people’s physical needs, without the same degree of attention given to their emotional or mental health.

Speaking of assistive technologies, this was my first experience of an event where a group of robots casually roamed around the convention center, acting as mobile conduits for remotely-based conference delegates. Here are some of the robot delegates meeting for a chat, while recharging their batteries:

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Amid all the ultra hi-tech on display throughout the conference, and profound questions being asked about the impact of ubiquitous artificial intelligence on human society, it was somehow reassuring to see how much the robots had to rely on human help for basic tasks like pressing the button to call the lift, navigating narrow doorways and identifying which seminar room was showing the presentation that they were interested in attending. I found myself feeling rather affectionate towards them on account of their robotic clumsiness.

On the whole, the dense conference programme of formal paper presentations was mostly dominated by highly technical and academic computer science research, far exceeding my non-expert understanding. However there were two stand-out presentations in particular, that were much less abstruse to the lay delegate (but no less rigorous) and completely absorbing. The first was a scenario, brilliantly presented by Joseph Lindley from LICA at Lancaster University, about pushing the limits of design fiction, where he made a compelling case for fictional research papers. The second highlight paper for me was titled, ‘I don’t want to wear a screen’: Probing Perceptions of and Possibilities for Dynamic Displays on Clothing. This presentation shared the extensive research collaboration between UC Berkeley and Google Advanced Technology and Projects (ATAP). Together these two organisations have developed interactive digital textiles using conductive jacquard thread coated in thermochromic paints. Once made into garments, these dynamic textiles enable the wearer to send subtle social biosignals, or simply enjoy a versatile design.

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project-jacquard-many-garments

After five days of intense note-taking, discussion and mind-boggling thought about the seemingly infinite possibilities of technology, I found some artistic solace in the cool, reflective space of the San Jose Museum of Art, and in a chance meeting with another artist.

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Back in 2012, in Glasgow, I had met a San Francisco-based sculptor called Heidi Wastweet at an arts conference, and greatly admired her work. When I knew I would be visiting San Jose, I had contacted Heidi to see if she could work her schedule for a catch up while I was in the area. Thanks to the capabilities of Facebook technology (computer-human interaction at work) we met in person, via another conference, after four years, to talk patination and letter-carving techniques over lunch and then made a visit to the art and photography exhibitions in the Museum.

Following this delightfully serendipitous afternoon, I headed off to San Jose station where I boarded a double-decker Amtrak train bound for Van Nuys in Los Angeles. My return flight was out of LAX, so I had arranged to visit and stay with some friends who live in LA for a few days, before heading home.

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During the ten hour scenic journey, I decided to pay homage to historic British/Californian local, Eadweard Muybridge, and his pioneering work using sequential photographs to create a sense of movement; the earliest form of moving image produced from stop-motion animation. So here is the day-long train ride photographed and condensed into a very basic silent ‘movie’, lasting all of 54 seconds: San Jose to Van Nuys by Amtrak

What a vast and varied landscape! The epic sweep of California can only begin to be appreciated by opting for slower forms of transport. The journey also provided a great opportunity to assimilate the conference experience and step out of my full immersion into the encoded world of computer science.

Embracing my comfort zone once more, I relished a visit to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art to see a great range of sculptural work including Chris Burden’s Metropolis and Robert Irwin’s Miracle Mile, both particularly well situated against the backdrop of LA culture.

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miracle-mile

A quiet but somehow moving exhibition of Agnes Martin’s work marked a new artistic discovery for me, and I was drawn to her concentrated abstract lines and muted coloured canvases.

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Martin believed that it was spiritual inspiration and not intellect that created great work. ‘Without awareness of beauty, innocence and happiness’ Martin wrote, ‘one cannot make works of art’.

I planned to keep this profoundly sensitive, uplifting and outward-looking artistic approach in mind, on my return to England, when I would be continuing to develop the nature sounds rocking chair for older people with dementia, with a focus on providing a sense of well-being through the beauty of nature.

As coincidence would have it, just around the corner from where I was staying with friends, in District La Brea, I happened upon the only known rocking chair store in Southern California.

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The manager was a very friendly local lady who invited me to browse and try out the different types of rocking chairs, despite my inability to purchase anything and ship it back to the UK. I told her about our project and she kindly allowed me to take some photos, including a shot of the back room, where some of the stock had to hang from the walls in order to fit in.

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A framed poster proudly suggested presidential endorsement of the humble rocking chair.

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As I enjoyed the soothing comfort of one of the many rockers in the shop, I noticed how serene JFK looks in this image, and thought about how difficult it seemed somehow, to feel stressed in a rocking chair. These are pieces of furniture designed for unhurried relaxation, for contemplation perhaps, provided by the rhythmic calming motion that was gently tilting me back and forth. As my mind started to wander, I began to look forward to developing new ideas around well-being for our nature sounds rocking chair back in the UK, and felt creatively fortified by the experience of this entire trip, that has provided me with an huge amount of inspiration for many months to come.

 

Rocking Chair paper accepted for CHI 2016

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The Tangible Memories team were delighted to hear that their extended abstract ‘Rekindling Imagination in Dementia Care with the Resonant Interface Rocking Chair’ has been accepted for CHI 2016 conference. This annual gathering of the world’s Computer-Human Interaction community will take place in San Jose, California, and focus on the theme of ‘technology for good’. Project team members Pete Bennett and Heidi Hinder are looking forward to presenting their research in May. Meanwhile, you can read more about CHI 2016 here:  CHI conference 2016.

TopoTiles paper accepted for CHI 2015

Examples of the completed 3D and 2D ‘TopoTiles’
Examples of the completed 3D and 2D ‘TopoTiles’

The Tangible Memories team was delighted to hear news today that our work-in-progress paper ‘TopoTiles: Storytelling in Care Homes with Topographic Tangibles’ has been accepted into CHI 2015, the Human Computer Interaction conference, to be held in Seoul later this year.

Here’s more about this international HCI event, which is on the theme of ‘Crossings’, appropriate to our interdisciplinary project: http://chi2015.acm.org

Read more about the development of the TopoTiles in this previous blog post: http://tangible-memories.com/topotiles-and-other-tales-of-topographic-tangibles/

2014 International Autobiography Conference, Stockholm

I have just attended the 2014 International Autobiography Conference in Stockholm, where I presented a paper on the life storytelling and life writing strategies of 3 of our elder co-researchers in the project, focusing on the interplay between orality and writing and their different conceptions of time and truth, particularly where play challenges conventional chronology in the creation of stories that remain personally true.

One of our co-researchers uses writing as a means to rehearse or anchor his oral accounts as accurately as he can, departing from the written word when he is confident his memory will yield the essential details in their proper order, allowing him to bring in asides and reflections to enrich his account.

The second narrator deliberately plays with her life’s timeline, taking events that are all true for her and mixing their order in the creation of a new tale that allows her to reflect and comment on her experiences in a new way.

The third co-researcher creates children’s stories, following a tradition she started several years ago writing postscripts from a beloved pet bird to entertain an adult sister in long-term care and, by extension, the other sisters caring for her. Her protagonist, a spider, must learn not only to face, but also actively seek out new challenges and figure out his place in the world. Her stories allow her to reflect and comment on life as she has lived it so far with a view to where she would like to go in the future.

Our group was small because there were 5 simultaneous panels, but discussion was lively and I was pleased that my paper, grounded in our project, featured the work of unpublished authors. Autobiography as life writing (inscribing?) needs to work more closely with oral history in order to appreciate the multiplicity of ways extraordinary everyday stories are told. Likewise, oral history might benefit from some of autobiography’s approaches to literature-as-life-history. As a folklorist, being a child of the issue that — as ballad scholar Tristram P. Coffin is famously credited with saying — ” Anthropology got off English” I keep firm hold of the hands of both my reluctant and slightly abashed parents and see no shame in my intellectual lineage. Textual studies and ethnography can enrich each other.

From the conference In particular, I was struck by Andrew Miller’s (Flinders University, Australia) presentation on autoethnography in digital storytelling and wondered if there was scope in a future direction of the project for Intergenerational work between seniors and youth that could create sites of digital life storytelling, where young people could mediate the technology as needed but also listen to and help put together elders’ stories and perhaps even vice versa, if an interface could be devised that was accessible for people with fine motor problems and sight issues. While young and old alike could also be authors in solitude, the project has clearly shown that stories have their greatest power in shared contexts. Perhaps this is one area where the project’s emphasis on scalable interactive books could really shine, in the development of elder-centred tools for storytelling.

Likewise, a paper by Hertha D. Sweet Wong (Berkeley) on the artist books of Julie Chen, beautiful hand-crafted and deliberately non-digitally interactive books that compel the reader to confront narratives about our relationship to the passage of time, got me thinking about whether the technology underpinning the interactive books and whether future iterations could be published combining digital and essentially mechanical interaction (think of the difference between a video or an e book and a fold out pop up book or one with “secrets” that must be physically unlocked in reading). On the face of it, my feeling is yes, since this conference has brought up a question we asked ourselves early in the project: “What about writing as well as audio? What about texts-as-artefacts as well as objects-as-texts?”

Perhaps as with many stories, we will find we end at the beginning, wiser for the journey and ready to go in a new direction.

(Header Image from Wikimedia)

Tangible Memories on the road

The Tangible Memories team have been busy over the summer consolidating our learning so far. This has involved writing papers, attending conferences and continuing to think about and work on our co-design process with older people. We’re about to begin an exciting phase of turning prototypes into working designs as well as developing our ideas for our end of project conference to be held in Bristol on February 25th and 26th, 2015.

The team have presented at the British Society of Gerontology conference in Southampton where we ran a symposium in which all members of the team  presented their views on the first year of the project.

Seana and Helen presented their paper, ‘Is that Thing Still on?: Storytelling, the Stuff of creativity and the curation of self in everyday life among elderly extra care home residents in Bristol’ at the Oxford Ethnography and Education.

Pete and Ki have been working on two papers for computer science/ HCI conferences including CHI2015.

Our wonderful artists meanwhile have been involved in some exciting other work including Stand + Stare’s fabulous project with Knowle West Media Centre ‘I will always have you’ and Heidi Hinder’s brilliant ‘Money is no Object‘ at the V & A.

Alive! activities have also been busy over the summer – commissioning an evaluation of their work and taking on new members of staff as they expand. They were also shortlisted for the Tech for Good awards in the category of Digital Health.

So the team are now looking forward to showing our installation at the Bristol Celebrating Age Festival on September 27th at the MShed and to our Autumn tea parties to be held in all our partner care homes in October.  Also look out for our public event as part of the ESRC Thinking futures Festival entitled, ‘Care homes of the Future’ – further details to follow shortly.

Presentation at ‘Temporal Design: an Interdisciplinary Workshop’

Just back from attending the two day Temporal-Design workshop held at Edinburgh University. I presented on the second day during the Pecha-Kucha session, giving an overview of how I consider time in my designs. The prototype “Story Stethoscope” (I’m still working on a final name) was discussed including how it presents many temporal-design challenges including the consideration of the many timeframes around stories and objects including: the life of the object, the person’s history, the time of the story told and the narrative arc over many stories. Download the slides for my talk here.story-stethoscope-slide

The workshop consisted of a number of longer format talks from Kevin Birth, Sarah Sharma, Siân Lindley, Sus Lundgren and Bronac Ferran, and ten Pecha-Kucha presentations. The first day kicked off with a ‘walkshop’ around Edinburgh centre with a history of time-keeping from Kevin. Towards the end of the workshop discussion groups were formed to discuss a number of points ranging from ephemerality and fluidity, through to time and the environment.  I found myself discussing the ‘vocabulary of temporal-design’ in a group led by Jen Southern.  The group created a rough draft of a possible ten week lecture series on temporal-design allowing the framing of the vocabulary.

Bore-ometer
Bore-ometer v2.3 from the Design Challenge

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