XXVI.4 July-August 2019
Page: 58
Digital Citation

Human-building interaction: Sketches and grounds for a research program

Hamed Alavi, Elizabeth Churchill, Mikael Wiberg, Denis Lalanne, Peter Dalsgaard, Ava Fatah gen Schieck, Yvonne Rogers

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Our built environment, including buildings and the urban landscape, is rapidly being reimagined and transformed in the current era of digitalization. With the incorporation of networked technologies and artificial intelligence (AI), new forms of interactivity in our built environment not only change the functions of these spaces, but also shape how we inhabit, interpret, relate to, and ultimately interact with them. We call this emerging field human-building interaction (HBI).

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HBI is a growing field. The TOCHI special issue on human-building interaction that we assembled [1] received 62 initial submissions by more than 200 authors. In addition, a number of CHI workshops on interaction and architecture and HBI, research papers, and books (e.g., [2,3,4]) have recently offered notable contributions to the study of human experiences within future built environments. We are also witnessing the tech industry moving into our buildings, both public and private, where technologies such as smart thermostats, home security systems, multi-room entertainment systems, and intelligent heating, ventilation, lighting, and power control are becoming commonplace. The push for ever more digital innovations to enable smart living has only just begun and will likely find more ways of entering our homes and everyday lives. Any system in a building is a potential target for digitalization, mobile app control, or for embedding new sensors and networked services.

In this article, we propose a path forward for HBI, highlighting the challenges toward a truly impactful research program. As part of this agenda, we need to rethink how interactivity traverses space and time. A primary challenge for HBI is time—to what extent is the future now? Architectural projects outline their plans many years ahead of time, implying that any impact on future built environments needs to be already integrated into the current plans. Another core challenge is scale; how is it possible to scale up and make an impact in HBI? Here, we outline the possible avenues for a future HBI research agenda that are intended to shape HCI and architectural projects and policies.

back to top  HBI: Mission and Scope

There are three major forces driving the current evolution toward human-building interaction: 1) recent advancements in sensing and communication technologies that enable the integration of computerized elements into physical infrastructures (e.g., NarrowBand IoT), 2) developments within architectural practice that include reactive, interactive, and self-modifying architectural elements, and 3) ecological and sustainability concerns that call for lasting, human-centered environments.

We propose that the shift of focus and scale from the user and the artifact to the realm of buildings and our built environments introduces a new set of methodological requirements. These stem from the inherent attributes of environments that set them apart from traditional foci in HCI and interactive technology design of artifacts. Examples include:

  • Development and reappropriation of frameworks, concepts, vocabularies, and discourses within the domains of architecture and urban design [5]
  • Examinations of how existing methods of user research developed within HCI and other disciplines can be reappropriated
  • Development of novel methods that respond to emerging phenomena, such as artificial intelligence and new forms of interactivity in built environments
  • Reconciliations of differences in methods, terminology, and approaches that originate from the different domains of architecture and HCI.

In the introductory paper to the TOCHI special issue on human-building interaction [1], we propose that built environments can be viewed as a construction of physical elements that create and protect a space. Both the physical and spatial aspects carry social value: the former by shaping elements with functional and cultural significance, and the latter by providing spatial patterning of activities and relationships. From this perspective, designing HBI entails providing opportunities for inhabitants to shape the physical, spatial, and social impacts of their built environment.

As part of this agenda, we propose that HBI takes a perspective on how people, buildings, and computing relate to and interplay with the social, physical, and spatial aspects of the built environment, as illustrated in Figure 1. Conceptualizing HBI like this opens up a different way of viewing the multifunctional phenomenon of the building. It comprises three interconnected aspects: 1) physical-material, 2) spatial-configurational, and 3) social-cultural. These aspects, however, are not isolated; many of the topics to be addressed in HBI cover areas that operate between the three dimensions. For example, research questions related to human comfort may extend from physical (environmental conditions) to spatial (visual attributes, such as visual privacy).

ins02.gif Figure 1. Different kinds of HBI spaces (e.g., indoor, public, personal) are imagined with respect to the three concentric circles of people, built environment, and computing, and dissecting physical, social, and spatial dimensions.

The approach also enables different explorations to be made along the model's axes, each of which calls for a particular strand of research in each direction. For instance, social aspects of HBI range from ambient awareness to full social interaction. Further, spatial aspects of HBI can address research questions related to context awareness and the spatial adoption of new interactive systems. A focus on the physical aspects of HBI highlights questions related to ways of using technologies to personalize buildings and explore solutions for building automation, or ways of reconfiguring physical spaces for different needs and functionalities.

Beyond single-threaded exploration of each of these three dimensions, we see opportunities for novel research in HBI that explore their intersections. For instance, when considering the socio-spatial area of the model, there are opportunities for HBI explorations in the area of public collaborative spaces. Further, if we focus on the physical-spatial dimension, there are other opportunities for exploration, including new interactive systems in the area of indoor comfort with implications for health and well-being, as well as cognitive performance, productivity, and learning. A focus on the third intersection leads to opportunities for exploration with a focus on the processing of personal data for the creation of new services.

back to top  HBI: Next Steps Forward

Building on HCI being an action science [6], we expect HBI to produce actionable knowledge that is not only contestable, accurate, and generative of theories, but that also can be translated into actions, presentations, and engagements, and be effective in informing and driving the evolution of built environments. This can be accomplished in one or a combination of the following ways: 1) through guiding the development and adoption of projects such as the smart city, smart home, and smart park, 2) through translating research outcomes to knowledge that can inform architectural practices, 3) by developing discourses that can guide new regulations and policies, and 4) in direct outreach to the general public.

A primary challenge for HBI is time—to what extent is the future now?

Next, we discuss each of the four paths illustrated in Figure 2, which schematically depicts how HBI can capitalize on knowledge in computer and data sciences from one side and architecture and urban design from the other. Each of the four schemas in Figure 2 corresponds to a particular direction. They are labeled as the four Ps: (AI) projects, (architectural) practices, policies, and people. The arrows and clouds in each schema indicate the areas from which existing knowledge can be brought to the investigation of one of the Ps.

ins03.gif Figure 2. HBI as an action science is expected to produce knowledge that can have an impact on AI projects, architectural practices, people, and policies.

(AI) projects. The conceptual and methodological aspects of the "smart" agenda for the built environment (e.g., smart home, smart city, smart park) are tightly bound with advances in artificial intelligence (AI). However, currently, and also arguably in the near future, it is the market-led tech sector that determines what AI is, how it should be invested in, and in what shape and form it will reach society. Our cities, homes, and everyday interactions are changing largely as a result of developments in the tech industry. HBI needs to bring the knowledge created in architecture and urban sciences to the forefront so that it too can inform the development of smart environments. It also needs to consider how to empower researchers and stakeholders who can redefine AI from the standpoint of societal challenges rather than just technological possibilities. More concretely, analytical discourse should be developed to scrutinize AI projects, using concepts from the fields of architecture and urban sciences. Existing AI projects can be rethought alongside the creation of new ones that envision the multifaceted reality of existing built environments.

How might HBI suggest alternative possibilities of interaction between automation systems in buildings and their inhabitants?

(Architectural) practices. Our everyday spaces are primarily designed by local and global architectural firms. How can recent advances in computer science and data science support the solution-generation and decision-making processes in these architectural practices? Designing spaces has historically relied on making assumptions about occupants' comfort and desires, and constructing systems to fulfill those assumptions. We argue that HBI can enable architectural practices to extend their approach beyond this, so as to enrich humans and their interaction with built environments, by applying data-driven methods that capitalize on advances made in sensing, data mining, and actuation techniques. Over the past few decades, increasing levels of automation have appeared in our buildings, such as sensor-based light switches, thermostats, and faucets, where users have less control and are more constrained in how they interact with them. How might HBI suggest alternative possibilities of interaction between automation systems in buildings and their inhabitants? Furthermore, how can new types of lived-in experiences be developed through adopting emerging technologies, such as augmented reality, within architectural spaces?

Governance and policies. Scaling up projects and practices requires new regulation and policies that can ensure both long-term adoption and adherence to human ethical values—which have become increasingly crucial, considering the sensitive nature and high amount of data collected from people in built environments. However, constructing ethically compliant, smart built environments entails legislative and policy efforts, in which people have the right to be actively involved. These need to be grounded in architectural practices and associated regulations and standards. But they can also be reinvented based on the evolving ideas of AI projects in built environments. The challenge is to create an interconnected system of regulations that not only monitors emerging risks such as privacy and data ownership, but also provides a framework within which the evolution of built environments is driven and scaffolded.

People. From a user perspective, the trend is clear. While many smart buildings have been driven by the benefits of automation, we see a clear need to move toward increasing agency, control, and configurability by and for the user. Granting the people who inhabit the buildings access to these systems and the data they generate—that is meaningful to them—is of utmost importance, both in order to give them the opportunity to influence them and to get an understanding of the data that is being captured and stored. HBI should reach out to the public to inform them about the prospective impact of AI on their experiences within future environments, and to persuade them to engage in a dialogue that can inform the process of adaptation.

While the focus of HBI should squarely be on shaping individual and social experiences, it will be the confluence of the four dimensions mentioned earlier that is likely to produce the most impactful effects. For this to happen, however, requires more than being multidisciplinary. In particular, we need to study and steer the evolution of future built environments, by bringing together knowledge and practice from architecture and urban design; concepts and reflections from the arts, humanities, and social sciences; and developments from AI research, data science, and future interfaces.

back to top  References

1. Alavi, H.S., Churchill, E.F., Wiberg, M., Lalanne, D., Dalsgaard, P., Fatah gen Schieck, A., and Rogers, Y. Introduction to human-building interaction (HBI): Interfacing HCI with architecture and urban design. ACM Trans. Comput.-Hum. Interact. 26, 2 (Mar. 2019), Article 6.

2. Dalton, N.S., Schnädelbach, H., Wiberg, M., and Varoudis, T., Eds. Architecture and Interaction: Human Computer Interaction in Space and Place. Springer, 2016.

3. Tomitsch, M., Haeusler, M.H., Dalsgaard, P., and Fatah gen Schieck, A., Eds. Proc. of the 2016 Media Architecture Biennale: Digital Placemaking. ACM, New York, 2016.

4. Wiberg, M. Interaction design meets architectural thinking. ACM Interactions 22, 2 (2015), 60–63.

5. O'Neill, E., Kostakos, V., Kindberg, T., Fatah gen Schieck, A., Penn, A., Stanton Fraser, D., and Jones, T. Instrumenting the city: Developing methods for observing and understanding the digital cityscape. Proc. of Ubicomp 2006. Lecture Notes In Computer Science vol. 4206. Springer, 2006.

6. Argyris, C., Putnam, R., and McLain Smith. D. Action Science Vol. 13. Jossey-Bass Inc., 1985.

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Hamed Alavi is a lecturer at the Human-IST Institute at the University of Fribourg, Switzerland. His research is focused on the future of humans' interactive experiences with built environments, particularly the engagement of computer and data sciences in the evolution of buildings and urban spaces. [email protected]

Elizabeth F. Churchill is a director of user experience at Google, and also the executive vice president of ACM. Her current research focus is on the creation of designer and developer tools. She writes a regular column for Interactions and curates ACM SIGCHI's monthly newsletter. [email protected]

Mikael Wiberg is professor in informatics at Umea University, Sweden. Wiberg's main work is within the areas of interactivity, mobility, materiality, and architecture. His most recently published book is The Materiality of Interaction: Notes on the Materials of Interaction Design (MIT Press, 2018]. [email protected]

Denis Lalanne is professor in human-computer interaction at the University of Fribourg and director of the Human-IST Institute, Switzerland. He heads the human-building interaction group in the Smart Living Lab. There he develops human-centered technologies to understand and improve human interactions with the built environment, relying on multimodal user interfaces and information visualization. [email protected]

Peter Dalsgaard is a professor of interaction design and director of the Centre for Digital Creativity at Aarhus University, Denmark. His work explores the design and use of digital systems from a humanistic perspective, with a particular focus on the role and nature of digital tools in creative work and the integration of digital and physical components in novel systems. [email protected]

Ava Fatah gen Schieck is associate professor in media architecture and urban digital interaction in the master's program in architectural computation at the Bartlett School of Architecture, UCL. Her research is practice-based, developing interventions in real-world settings with a focus on the human body in sensory and responsive environments (from architecture to urban design and pervasive computing/urban IoT). [email protected]

Yvonne Rogers is a professor of interaction design, the director of UCLIC, and a deputy head of the computer science department at UCL. A current focus of her research is human-centered data and people in the Internet of Things in urban settings. Rogers was recently awarded a Microsoft Research Outstanding Collaborator Award (2016] and has been elected as a Fellow of the ACM. [email protected]

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