XXVII.5 September - October 2020
Page: 16
Digital Citation

Interaction research in and across two Arctic HCI labs

Jonna Häkkilä, Mikael Wiberg

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How do you describe your lab to visitors? We conduct human-computer interaction (HCI) design research at the rooftop of the world, close to the Arctic Circle in northern Scandinavia. We are two design research labs, located in Sweden and Finland, that work in close collaboration on a set of research and design projects. As we are part of the network of universities located in northern Scandinavia, the lab space that characterizes us is the Arctic (strictly speaking, the sub-Arctic). The cold and barren natural conditions, as well as life in the far-out periphery with long distances between us, have shaped the local culture, lifestyle, and ways of working through centuries. This is also reflected in the characteristics of our research labs—we often focus on topics addressing the specific context, use cases, and design materials characterized by our northern location. We say that we conduct HCI research with an Arctic twist.

ins01.gif What winter looks like up in the far north.

What is a unique feature of your lab? We conduct versatile interaction design research that is unique to the Arctic labs. In particular, materiality in design deserves special attention. We create tangible interfaces, integrating our designs with snow and ice and using traditional design materials such as reindeer leather. Imagine a cold winter day, where your breath is your interaction modality, and where a hologram is visible in that hot air you exhale—an exhale that forms a plume when the humidity from your breath is instantly turned to ice.

We also conduct research related to the local cultural heritage. Our research at the current moment with the indigenous Sámi community addresses ways of improving digital access to Sámi heritage archives and developing ethical guidelines for the use of culturally sensitive material. Here we have a particular focus on design for indigenous people, through close collaborations and ways of thinking about design sensitivities. We also work with museums specializing in the local cultural heritage.

The cold, dark winters and constantly sunny (yet still cold) summers are unique climate conditions, which create challenges for the design research we do. Field studies and technology deployments in the far north wild need special planning, especially when you need to consider, for instance, battery drainage and freezing your hands. It is about interaction design for extreme climate conditions.

Sustainability, and the drive to preserve our beautiful Earth and its snowy winters for future generations, is of the utmost importance.

ins02.gif A VR mask built for a research project.

ins03.gif Prototype testing in our skiing project.

ins04.gif Picture of aurora borealis—the northern lights.

ins05.gif Doing some hands-on work in our lab—screen printing for a research project.

ins06.gif The Connected Candles research prototype.

ins07.gif 3D printers in our maker space, including our DIY 3D printer.

ins08.gif Experimenting with a prototype for holograms.

Briefly describe a day in the life of your lab. Our network of research labs is design oriented; our interactions are often around maker spaces and physical prototyping, and teaching hands-on skills in small groups. And, physically speaking, the days can be very different depending on whether you come to one of our labs in January or in June.

What is one feature of your lab that you could not do without? The nature. HCI labs in the Arctic would not be Arctic without the great natural environment around us. It provides the context for many of our research projects, sets specific design challenges, and gives us inspiration for design. Due to the harsh climate, nature in the Arctic is especially fragile. Climate change is threatening the Arctic at a rapid pace, and we can easily see the effects it is having on the whole ecosystem, including people, at early stages. In addition to the flora and fauna, the traditional lifestyle and professions are in danger. Sustainability, and the drive to preserve our beautiful Earth and its snowy winters for future generations, is of the utmost importance.

What is one feature of your lab that you want and do not have? There is always the question of how to overcome the long distances when working on projects where the teams are geographically distributed. Improving easy-to-use everyday solutions for distributed teams is a top priority. At the University of Lapland, we are planning upgrades to our VR lab, and at Umeå University we are right now experimenting with materials and AI, as well as with holograms. And, of course, we want to have our own sauna. And an ice hole for swimming in the winter.

How would you describe how people interact in your lab? Despite of the reputation of Scandinavians as silent, gloomy, grim-faced people, there is a vivid and lively atmosphere in our labs. In Scandinavian style, we seek to keep things simple and straightforward, and hierarchies and bureaucracy low. To keep in touch over distance, we do a lot of video calls, and for pilots and in-the-wild studies, we typically involve researchers from both locations.

What is the one thing you see as most important about the work you do there? We combine the local and global viewpoints in a unique mix. We are located at the northern periphery but still play an active part in the global research community. With our Arctic profile, we as HCI researchers and designers can focus on the topics that are specific to the area, which could easily be neglected in mainstream research. Topics of local interest include, for instance, questions concerning indigenous cultural heritage in the digital age, as well as sustainable tourism. Many of the design challenges we address, such as remote healthcare for long distances, are also of global interest. With nature inspiring and informing our designs, in combination with our grounded focus on people and culture, we can provide viewpoints on sustainability, calmness, and simplicity—in short, our work continues and adds to the Scandinavian tradition.

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