What's Up with HCI International?
What a vibrant, slightly chaotic venue, but interesting, Human-Computer Interaction International (HCII) conference. The latest incarnation took place in Las Vegas at Caesar's Palace during a heat wave. Fortunately, many attendees did not even have to venture outside with the thousands of slot machines, the indoor shopping mall, Elton John, and Celine Dion to keep them entertained outside of conference sessions. [Figure]
Earlier in 2005, when I mentioned HCII 2005 to a famous computer-science researcher in a USA university, he pooh-poohed the conference as beneath his dignity to attend because of its easygoing review process. This snobbish attitude has characterized the view of some CHI community and conference participants. So, why were such luminaries as Ben Shneiderman and Jenny Preece from the University of Maryland and Brad Myers from Carnegie-Mellon University in attendance? In the minds of many attendees, the HCII conference had "grown up" or "matured." The current conference was organized by HCII's founding father Professor Gavriel Salvendy of Purdue University, USA, and Tsinghua University, China, together with his assistants. The previous one was primarily organized by Dr. Constantine Stephanidis, head of a computer-science research center near Heraklion, Crete, Greece, who will also be organizing the next conference in Beijing in 2007.
Perhaps after 20 to 30 years of conferences around the themes of CHI/HCI, it is time that someone wrote a careful socio-anthropological-technological analysis of these communal professional rituals, complete with analysis of cult objects (the exhibit-booth giveaways as well as the shoulder bags, pens, and proceedings). My commentary is not that study. What follows are informal and eclectic impressions gained from attending this HCII 2005 conference, in comparison to other similar conferences offered by CHI, UPA, SIGGRAPH, AIGA, the International Institute for Information Design (IIID), and other organizations, which I have attended on four continents in eight countries in the last few years.
According to Dr. Salvendy, HCII 2005's 2,300 registered attendees came from 63 countries. This international representation is, to my knowledge, a greater percentage than CHI and UPA can claim, and is one of HCII's chief attractions. It is possible to discover interesting, novel developments. A surprisingly (to me) large contingent came from France, while large European delegations from Finland and Germany and from Asian delegations from China, India, Japan, and Korea were more expected. At least one representative came from Saudi Arabia, which hints at the large market in Moslem countries spread throughout Europe, Africa, and Asia. The large attendance and diverse subject matter partly derives from six joint conferences, including virtual reality and augmented cognition. The last subject seemed heavily related to and endowed by DARPA, the Office of Naval Research, and the National Science Foundation, among other sponsoring organizations.
CHI in recent years, as well as UPA, were pleased to see conference attendance numbers and membership growing stronger in the past two years following the recession of 2002-03 (interestingly, there seems to be a pattern of recessions: 1982, 1992, and 2002). HCII takes a longer view because of the two-year build-up to its biannual conference, whose venue bounces around the world. While UPA ventured to go "international" for the first time by holding its conference successfully outside the USA in Montréal, Québec, and CHI has occasionally ventured abroad to Europe to hold its conferences in the Netherlands and Austria, HCII has regularly featured worldwide and exotic locations in North America, Europe, and Asia. This international character is reflected in its attendance figures: 57 percent of the 2005 attendees came from outside the U.S.A., a very high figure, and higher than for CHI and UPA, to my knowledge.
There were 62 exhibitors, 22 parallel sessions, and 230 posters. The CD seems to contain 1672 papers. These figures alone are impressive. The exhibits and posters took me approximately three to four hours to sample one by one, at least to pass by to determine if each held any specific interest for me.
The exhibits were surprisingly profuse and elaborate. Because of DARPA and other military-related funding sources, these exhibits featured a worrisome number of rifles on display, some used as "mouse pointers" in virtual-reality games. There was even one military jeep-like vehicle perched at a angle on a small fake hill, with an anti-aircraft machine gun on top. I don't recall the exact subject matter of the exhibit, but the sheer cost of these exhibits called to mind the feeling of SIGGRAPH exhibits in the 1980s, when CAD/CAMCAE system vendors funded much of commercial product development, and budgets were ample for booths and giveaway toys. In fact, the exhibits felt more like the robust SIGGRAPH exhibits of past and now, again, current years. One exhibit representative even commented that her group had debated whether to exhibit at SIGGRAPH or HCII, and had decided on the latter, because the SIGGRAPH exhibits seemed to her too narrowly focused on the film/animation industries.
Among the exhibits, I was intrigued to notice two booths featuring a four-aroma computer-controlled scent display developed at the Institute for Creative Technologies, University of Southern California (http://www.ict.usc.edu). The device was like a horse's harness placed on the shoulders, and several "thinking caps" monitored neural activity (see, for example, www.quasarusa.com and www.b-alert.com). The sheer cleverness and curious mixture of high technology, game simulation, and virtual reality recalled the excitement of SIGGRAPH's perennial experimental new technology exhibits, at which innovative prototypes, art works, and first-generation commercial solutions have been shown.
Posters varied greatly; some, as at CHI, looked no better than high-school science reports, while others were very professional in appearance and content. Among those that caught my eye, and mind, were Kim and Poggenpohl's Institute of Design, Illinois Institute of Technology, study of movement phenomena based on Werttheimer's 1923 gestalt principles of form (e.g., similarity, proximity, continuity, and good form). Their adaptation seemed intriguing and useful for distinguishing different kinds of motion phenomena. The extension to sound and even haptic display seems inevitable.
I was also pleased to see yet another augmented reality system being demonstrated with a single-hand chording keyboard that appeared to be comfortable and easy to use. The wearer, Kent Lyons, a PhD student from Georgia Institute of Technology, said that he had been using a similar system for several years, as he entered my contact data into his database discretely with one hand while I verbally recited it to him.
In the conference program, DARPA-flavored augmented cognition topics were featured heavily. Dr. Gerald M. Edelman of the Scripps Research Institute and the Department of Neurobiology at the University of California-San Diego discussed progress with brain-based devices. His talk was followed by an Alexander Singer film about the future of augmented cognition. Much of this high-technology seemed oriented to military applications, with occasional spin-offs, e.g., to equipment that aided cognition-disabled children with input devices suited to their accessibility levels.
Mobile sessions also commanded significant attention. Dr. Martin Boecker, Siemens, Germany, presented three-dimensional, animated avatars for delivering SMS and email phone messages. They experimented with both realistic and more abstract, cartoon-like depictions of informal "agents." He commented that a particular green "cute" creature was unexpectedly interpreted as a dragon in China, but nevertheless was appealing. Dr. Boecker also made a presentation on behalf of a multi-company consortium including Siemens, Sony-Ericsson, and Nokia, which reported on emerging conventions in mobile phone user-interface controls and information display. This admirable example of coordination was a welcome piece of good news for the benefit of users worldwide.
Marta Ray Barbarra, in my session, reported on a successful launch of a BankInter, Spain, SMS-based banking system, which used simple password-code plastic cards to ensure security. The very high rate of satisfaction achieved was impressive for a solution that did not attempt the most radically innovative technology, but rather was satisfied with achieving a usable, practical approach to guarantee marketplace acceptance and use.
In the cross-cultural area, Dr. Nuray Aykin, The New School, New York, had chaired an impressive number of sessions in her track with international, global, and cross-cultural themes. Papers of interest included studies of users in different countries, differences of attitudes toward color and imagery, and different techniques used to gain user feedback. Among memorable presentations was Apala Lahiri Chavan's, Human Factors International, Mumbai, which discussed the value of adding "Bollywood characteristics" to spice up use scenarios to make them more attractive and involving for Indian users.
HCII 2005 was an impressive success in many ways. Although it suffered some logistics problems, the success of the HCII 2005 conference should give CHI 2006 planners something to think about. The continuity of the organizers of HCII conferences during the past two decades means that inherited wisdom of things done right, and avoidance of past mistakes, can be retained in organizational memory, unlike the annual leadership transplants that take place every year at CHI. As CHI and <interactions> rethink themselves, the operations and content of a successful conference like HCII 2005 should provide important evidence and trend information that could benefit the CHI community. HCII's 2007 conference in Beijing promises to be an attractive alternative to world CHI/HCI/UI/UX events.
About the Author:
Aaron Marcus is the founder and president of Aaron Marcus and Associates, Inc. (AM+A). He has degrees from both Princeton University and Yale University, in physics and graphic design, respectively. Mr. Marcus has published, lectured, tutored, and consulted internationally for more than 30 years.
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