Posts Tagged ‘academia’

May 11 2009

“academic freedom”

by Hang

The enthusiasm is not universal. In January, a school board in Missoula County, Mont., decided that screening the video treaded on academic freedom after a parent complained that its message was anticapitalist.

New York Times

Even though I should know better, it continually astounds me just how much the term “academic freedom” has been abused.

War is Peace people.

Mechanical Turk changes how we understand labor

by Hang

Being on the bleeding edge of progress means you see new technologies come out all the freaking time. Some of them are truly worthless and can be safely ignored. Most of them will be intriguing but ultimately what you would expect. A very few of them have the potential to surprise the hell out of you and those are the ones worth keeping an eye on.

About 20 years ago, the surprising thing of the day was using commodity hardware to build supercomputers. Before that point, the way to make supercomputers better was to utilize every hertz of processing power through custom hardware and clever software. The revolution of commodity hardware was not in the engineering, it was in the shift in thinking. The new way to solve hard problems was to just design simple, less efficient algorithms and throw more hardware at the problem. That shift changed not only the types of applications that could be built but also the way we think about building apps. The reason Mechanical Turk is worth keeping an eye on is because its about to do something similar for labor.

When Amazon released its iPhone app my entire understanding of what was possible changed. You load up the app, snap a picture of an object, Amazon will use Mechanical Turk to find the closest Amazon equivalent and, within about 5 minutes, you can buy it for one click. The application itself was a beautiful usage of Mechanical Turk but more interesting is how a shift in thinking had to occur before it could even be imagined. That Amazon is releasing this app for free but paying for human labor means¬† their business model relies on human labor being cheap enough to hide in the margins. At the same time, the user experience is only compelling because the search results come back before you’ve left the store so Amazon needs to assumes the pool of available labor as essentially infinite to deliver that experience.

Once you’re able to get over that hump of believing that human labor can only be an expensive, limited resource, an entire vista of compelling applications open up. Here’s one I came up with today in a conversation with a collegue: Calorie tracking sucks because of the data entry problem. You need to manually enter in every single thing you ate and that requires far more organization than most people have. Why not just snap a photo with your iPhone and let a Mechanical Turker figure out what you ate? How do you solve the reliability problem? Have every picture looked at by at least three Turkers and only accept it if at least two agree. When labor becomes that cheap, its smarter to be dumb and throw more human hardware at the problem.

Does that mean Mechanical Turk will do to human labor what the commodity hardware & cloud computing did to server farms? Of course not, the analogy is instructive, not a direct mapping. What it does mean is that we as a society are going to experience several “everything we knew was wrong” type moments and that the labor market of 2039 will look as different from today as supercomputers did in 1979 and those who are the first to recognise this change will be the ones who have the best chance of exploiting it.

April 18 2009

CHI Digest Vol 1 – alt.chi

by Hang

Below are some quick thoughts on some CHI papers which I didn’t get to see in person. These are solely the highly individualist opinions of the author and no warranty is expressed or implied:

Burn Your Memory Away: One-time Use Video Capture and Storage Device to Encourage Memory Appreciation

A typical MIT media lab presentation, neat concept, no technical depth. Use a double headed match to record and play a video, burn one side to record and then the other side to play. The interface constrains you to one playback per video which can add emotional significance to the video. You can send the half match to someone else as a gift. Sounds cute on first glance but I can imagine it being more frustrating that heartwarming. How do I know when I should view the video? Once I find out, I’ve already viewed it!

Designing for All Users — Including the Odd Users

Frustratingly interesting paper. My reaction was “intriguing, but so what”. Talks about a group of gadget freaks who have maintained the HP LX200, an obsolete handheld for 10 years. Good to promote more awareness that groups like this exist but what are we meant to do with the findings? Paper doesn’t deliver the punchline. Sure, it would be nice to develop for everyone but design is about tradeoffs and you can’t please everyone.

Dying, Death, and Mortality:  Towards Thanatosensitivity in HCI

Heard a lot of great things about this talk. Always interesting when the critical theorists wade into HCI. Unfortunately, also written like critical theory papers, bad memories welling up. Paper seemed too timid, setting up the groundwork without pushing forward with something provocative. Yes, we accept death is a majorly unexamined part of HCI. So now what? What do we do?

Productive Love: A New Approach for Designing Affective Technology

There has been little research done on blah blah… these alt.chi papers are starting to sound similar. Designing for productive love, great concept. Good setup, neat ideas. What I really would have liked is examples pulled from the real world. It’s hard to visualise it purely in hypotheticals. Read it if you’re in the space of evoking emotion in software (and shouldn’t all social software be in that space?)

Television on the Internet: New Practices, New Viewers

Telling us what we already know in a way that we never thought about. Television is being sliced, diced and consumed at will by us youngins. What does that mean for the social institution of television? Interviewed 13 teenagers about their television usage. Read it if you’re a new media junkie.

The Doctor as the Second Opinion and the Internet as the First

Telling us what we already know about health information in a way we never thought about. Same deal as the last paper.

Species-Appropriate Computer Mediated Interaction

Human Chicken Interaction… what the fuck?

Citedness, Uncitedness, and the Murky World Between

Started talking about something interesting (impact of HCI work) and then rapidly devolved into something less interesting (are CHI papers being cited?). Yeah, if you can get your paper into CHI, there’s a high likelyhood that people will read it (I’m proof). If you acknowledge this, there’s no real need to read the paper.

HCI for the Real World

Interesting paper on how ethics should be considered within HCI and as a designer. Worth a read for the intensely navel-gazy among us.

The luxury of thinking deeply

by Hang

One reflection of my time at CHI this year is the luxury that academics have on thinking deeply about a particular domain. In the startup/Web 2.0/corporate world, there’s a certain hummingbird like intensity in which people flit from topic to topic and apply only the lightest and most shallow analysis on everything they touch. There’s always more work to be done and new things that need to be grokked and so many of the people I meet are jack of all trades but master of none. Academics, by contrast, are expected to know one domain of knowledge well and, while it can lead them to becoming comically out of touch with how technology is being deployed and used in the real world, also gives them a perspective and history which is interesting to engage with.

The cause of this is understandable, thinking deeply is a luxury and often somewhat of a guilty pleasure. There’s always something pressing to be done or yet another domain that needs to be mastered. Yes, there’s a lot of criticism that academia becomes an ivory tower but I think there’s value in deliberately cultivating an environment in which you’re forced to think deeply.

However, one persistant criticism I have about academia is it’s failure to engage with the larger discourse that’s happening on the web. My first example of this was actually after my first CHI in 2006 in Montreal. At CHI, a young graduate student called Anand Agrawala presented a neat little system called BumpTop (it launched as a commercial product almost exactly 3 years later while I was at CHI 2009). After the conference, Anand put the BumpTop video online and it quickly became the #1 viewed video on youtube. Working in the field of tabletops at that time, I had some understanding of that space but, being a first year graduate student, I didn’t feel like I could adequately comment on it. But after looking at reams of commentary about the system from a variety of different sources, what I continually failed to see was the insightful and grounded critique I was used to seeing in Academia. Everyone commenting on it approached it from a complete vacuum, ignoring the important work that had gone before it and the hard won lessons of the field.

From that point, I’ve seen, time after time, interesting HCI systems make a larger splash within the general public but no voices of informed critique there to educate and contextualise the news. Part of the reason I made a commitment to blog about CHI this year was to help provide people access to this world of deep thinking that exists within the academic community and to make industry people aware of this immense, untapped resource. I don’t know what the solution to this bridge is or even if there is a solution. I’m certainly not the first or the last to bemoan the gulf between these two worlds. But I think, because this gulf exists, anyone willing to take advantage of it can often profit hugely.

Nov 8th (day 26): The state of Academic HCI

by Hang

Jeff Atwood’s blog post on reading HCI Remixed lead me to try and clarify some of the thoughts I’ve been having on the role of Academic HCI and it’s relationship with developers, entrepreneurs and other interested parties in this space. I’m an enormous fan of the book and I know and admire many of people who have contributed essays to it but it’s never struck me as a book that would be of much use to those outside of the tight knit community of academic HCI researchers. On reflection, I’ve noticed an interesting distinction which might not be immediately apparent to outside observers.

The normal role of (good) academic research is to engage in medium to long term basic research which will eventually migrate it’s way into industrial research and finally into products. Academic material scientists are working on carbon nanotubes which will eventually be thrown over the wall to practising material scientists to make into space elevators. Academic biotechnologists are working on sequencing genomes to throw over the wall to practising biotechnologists to convert into gene therapy. Natural, the naive observer might expect that the role of Academic HCI is to develop new tools and techniques that practising HCI professionals can then take forward and use.

In actuality, the worlds of Academic HCI (including “Industrial Research”) and Professional HCI have very little to do with each other. Academic HCI is the province of major academic universities as well as industry research labs such as Microsoft Research, IBM and Xerox Parc. Professional HCI is largely the province of Interaction Designers, User Experience Engineers and Usability Experts who work for either large companies of consultancy firms.

The key to understanding Academic HCI is that it’s not in the business of throwing stuff over the wall to HCI folk, it’s main goal is to throw research over to product designers. Academic HCI is in the business of envisioning potential future products that have some significant interface component. This is a key distinction to make and one which I failed to adequately understand when I first entered my PhD program, focusing on HCI.

Indeed, there really is no discipline dedicated to advancing the state of the art of practicing HCI and I suspect a large part of this is because the slot of “Academic HCI” has already been taken. The work of contributing to a greater theoretical and practical understanding of the new problems facing design is one which simply isn’t being done for lack of various infrastructure elements like funding, tenure and journals.

Although Academic HCI and professional HCI share the same names and even aspects of common terminology, it’s a mistake to see one as the research version of the other. I found out the hard way that the field I was looking to make a contribution in simply doesn’t exist and that was primarily the reason I decided to leave academic and strike out on my own as an entrepreneur.

August 15 2008

HCI and blogging

by Hang

How do we apply HCI and UCD processes to blogging?

Faceted blogging was a HCI inspired idea, what else?

Would personas help?

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