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CHI: Computer-Human Interaction shows stunning uses of interface technology

Coco the Therapy Robot was one of the stars of the 29th annual Computer-Human Interaction (CHI 2011) conference at the Vancouver Convention Centre.

If you had to dodge more distracted people than usual staring at their smartphone screens on downtown sidewalks last week, blame CHI.

CHI (pronounced “k-eye”) is short for Computer-Human Interaction and it’s the annual conference of the Association for Computing Machinery’s Special Interest Group on Computer Human Interaction. The week-long CHI conference attracts researchers and practitioners from leading universities and technology companies around the world. They come together to talk, compare notes, gossip, network, to listen and to learn. This year, CHI came to the Vancouver Convention Centre. 

CHI began 29 years ago as a small conference for psychologists interested in user interface design. Today, participants include computer scientists, software developers, artists and entrepreneurs. With computers becoming cheaper and more ubiquitous, “computer human interaction” covers an increasingly wide range of objects and activities, and researchers and companies alike take an interest in how to make these interactions easier and more effective.

As the topics have grown, so have the number of attendees. This year there were more than 2,500 people in attendance (I’m not exaggerating about the distracted people, by the way. Navigating the Vancouver Convention Centre corridors during CHI was hazardous, with many people texting or tweeting as they rushed from one talk to the next.)

The crowd was mostly young (a lot of graduate students were in attendance, to show off their research or to drop off their resumes with one of the many tech companies recruiting at CHI) and very tech-dependent. iPads and other tablets were much in evidence, as were Android phones, iPhones and similar smartphones.

Pokens replaced business cards at the conference.

Fittingly, the conference organizers relied heavily on technology to help attendees navigate through the almost overwhelming number of topics and attendees. Every delegate received a tiny hand-shaped gizmo called a "Poken." Insert one end of the Poken into a computer’s USB port and enter your contact information. Then attach the Poken to your conference badge and when you meet someone with whom you want to exchange contact information, touch the palm of your Poken to the palm of their Poken and details are exchanged. At the end of the day, plug the Poken back into the USB port and your new contacts are ready for you to export to your address book. Bye-bye, business cards.

Another handy use of technology was the iPhone/Android conference app. The free app (still available on iTunes and the Android store, by the way -- just search for CHI 2011) includes summaries of all the sessions, abstracts of the papers being presented, and the full conference schedule.

There was a lot to choose from. For example, there were presentations on:

  • a display that shows how much water you use every time you shower
  • empowering women in developing countries
  • motivating stroke victims to become more mobile
  • using technology to promote healthy sleep habits
  • the challenges of supervising your teen’s use of social media
  • StoryVisit, an application that allows you to share e-books with family members at a distance
  • playing iPad games with your cat 
  • how to re-use, re-gift and recycle “obsolete” devices
  • social media technology and the homeless
  • mobile interfaces for low-literacy users
  • games to encourage family energy conservation
  • sticky notes that attract your attention by waving at you

And those are just 12 out of over 800 papers presented at CHI this year. 

With so much on offer, it was difficult to choose which talks to go to. I ended up attending sessions on sustainability, pets and technology, technology in developing countries and technology and the homeless.

I learned how homeless people rely on mobile phones to contact family, service providers and potential employers and yet have difficulty finding power sources to recharge their phones and are sometimes stigmatized for using these phones (a frivolous luxury, according to some). I also learned how scientists and activists in California are using an iPhone app to work together to clean up creeks. I learned how cat and dog owners can use a variety of technologies to monitor and play with their pets. And I learned how a technology can be usable here in the Western world yet useless in India because of cultural, language and literacy differences.

I’ll write about some of these in the coming months. Most of all, I learned that our technologies -- our smartphones, our HD 3D televisions, our tablet and desktop computers, and even our shower stalls and furnaces -- don’t just appear out of nowhere. Someone designed them. And if a technology exists, it’s likely that someone has presented a paper at CHI on that technology and how we interact with it.

Microsoft's Kinect was in frequent use at CHI 2011.

Besides the speeches, panels and PowerPoints, participants had the chance to try out various technologies. Coco the Therapy Robot, for example, plays games, sings and reads. It's designed for nursing home residents who are not allowed pets. A Microsoft Kinect setup was in constant use with conference attendees following the on-screen dance movements. A tactile display that allows visually impaired people to use touchscreens was also demoed. (See the full list at chi2011.org/program/interactivity.html.)

As for those CHI folks walking around with their eyes glued on their smartphone screens, well, I wouldn't worry. Probably at least one of them is working on a solution to the problem of distractive mobile technology.

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