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

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

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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.

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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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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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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.