Thoughts from CHI 2014

May 20, 2014 in Notes from the Field
Sheila Christian
Human Sciences Intern

The 32nd Annual CHI Conference was held this year in Toronto, Canada. I had the privilege to present a project from my Master’s degree in the Student Game Design Competition. Happily, our game submission, which combines webcam head tracking with hand-gesture input from a Leap Motion device, won the “Innovative Interface” award!

What is CHI?

CHI is an international academic conference held in a different city each year. Last year, it took place in Paris, France. This year, although the conference was held in Canada, attendees were from around the world, with papers accepted from over 30 countries. It featured 500 presentations, 60 interactive demos, and a wide variety of engaging events for attendees. Some of the many highlights included keynotes by Margaret Atwood and Scott Jenson, courses taught by Don Norman and Bill Buxton, a hospitality reception at the historic Maple Leaf Gardens, hands-on demos, and a wearable technologies exhibit. Sponsor companies, including Autodesk, Bloomberg, Google, Grand NCE, Microsoft, Naver, and the University of Toronto, also captured our attention, as they showed off new technologies, recruited jobs hunters, hosted parties, and even gave out raffle prizes. The combination of events, food, ideas, and people made for a jam-packed six-day event with far too much for any one person to see!

Some projects that caught my attention included a game of basketball played without a ball, a gesture-based interaction game designed to promote communication across language barriers, and an automated system using crowdsourcing to generate a cohesive icon library. As I reflect on the ideas presented at CHI this year, it is clear that designers are looking into a future of many possibilities. The field itself is growing and shifting, as exemplified by this year’s new “spotlight” topics, which included categories such as Games and Entertainment, HCI for Development, and Art and Interaction. The promo video for CHI 2014 gives a great glimpse of what designers at the conference are doing, and the full proceedings are listed on the CHI website.

LEGOized Rapid Prototyping

Among the many highlights that I saw at the conference was an interesting project called faBrickation. The idea for this project is to combine 3D printing with LEGO bricks, so designers can focus on perfecting only one small piece of a design at a time. The system translates a 3D model into LEGO brick form, allows the designer to revert a specified region back to its original form, and then morphs that section into a Lego piece. The designer can then 3D print their new custom LEGO piece, and plug it into a LEGO prototype to test it out, instead of having to print the entire model from scratch. In HCI, we frequently focus on designing end products, but do not always focus on creating tools that benefit our own workflow. One interesting aspect of this project is that it draws on the revolutionary power of simplification through standardization. In this case, the authors used LEGO blocks, which are standardized, widely available units, to dramatically reduce the time it takes to create a prototype.


The Shape of Innovation

I was particularly compelled by Scott Jenson’s closing keynote. Jenson focused on the model that he calls “the shape of innovation.” According to Jenson, the three stages of innovation are (1) familiarity, (2) maturity, and (3) revolution.


Familiarity progresses until it reaches maturity. Then a revolution occurs, which sets us back to the beginning of the cycle. Steering a car is a perfect example. Originally, cars used tillers for steering, since they were familiar to everyone who was used to steering boats. Over time, the automobile matured, and steering wheels became the de facto standard. But in response to anyone who says that the steering wheel has been perfected into the end-all, be-all system for maneuvering a car, Jenson points out that self-driving cars are soon going to revolutionize the industry. Assuming that cars in the future will need steering wheels is just as naive as early twentieth-century designers assuming that all automobiles need tillers. In the age of pervasive computing, we as designers must be careful not to let the interaction standards being developed today become our “tillers” in a new age of possibilities.

The Bigger Picture

In the HCI community, it is easy to focus on what we can create with the increasing number of resources available to us. We create new games, interfaces, mobile apps, and even pieces of furniture that connect computing power with human needs. What interested me about these two talks in particular was that the speakers delved into how we can create new things, and why we create these things in the first place. Although it is always exciting to see new applications of technology on display, it is always valuable to step back and reflect on our path forward as we create new paradigms for the future. For me, this weeklong conference provided a perfect opportunity to consider that bigger picture.

Next year, CHI will be held in Seoul, Korea, where it will focus on the theme of “Crossings” - in particular, the crossing of Western culture with Eastern culture. After attending the past two conferences, I highly encourage anyone with the resources and availability to attend one of the future CHI conferences.

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