Student innovations honored at CHI conference

How can we interact more naturally with cell phones, laptops, and robots? How is technology being used in the developing world? How are online social networks changing the way people live? Computer-human interaction research aims to inform the future design of interfaces so that we can interact more naturally with services and devices, which in turn are designed to make our lives more fulfilling. CHI is the foremost research and professional conference of the field, which this year took place from April 4–9 in downtown Boston.

Carnegie Mellon displayed its superiority in the field of human- computer interaction by being heavily involved in the planning committee of the conference and also winning a number of awards. Scott Hudson and Bonnie John, both professors of human-computer interaction, and Mark Baskinger, assistant professor of design, were all on the conference committee for CHI 2009.

Notable among the award winners were the recipients of the student research awards. Zhiquan Yeo, a senior computer science and human-computer interaction major, won second place in the undergraduate student category for his work “KTE2: An Engine for Kinetic Typography”, while Patrick Gage Kelley, a Ph.D. student in the Institute for Software Research, won first place in the graduate student category for his work “Designing a Privacy Label: Assisting Consumer Understanding of Online Privacy Practices.”

Also, Sara Kiesler, Hillman professor of computer ccience and human-computer interaction, won the lifetime achievement award at the conference.
The conference also consisted of talks given by experts in the field from Carnegie Mellon and around the world. As a part of the six-day conference, Matthew Kam, an assistant professor in Carnegie Mellon’s Human-Computer Interaction Institute, gave a talk on Monday based on his paper “Designing Digital Games for Rural Children,” which won an honorable mention.

According to Kam, there is “no magic bullet for why the quality of schooling is poor in the developing world.” Kam was motivated to study the design of educational video games for rural Indian children by previous research, which has shown that math skills can be improved through video games. Kam’s group found that the children did not understand Western games very well. By observing the children at play, Kam was able to identify the principles and motivations behind their games, which he then used to design educational video games that children found both interesting and familiar.

In the same session, Danish researchers Olaf Frandsen-Thorlacius and Kasper Hornbæk, among others, presented “Non-Universal Usability?,” which also won an honorable mention. Usability is a battery of objective and subjective measures that quantify how suitable an interface or piece of software is for a user group. In studies of computer-human interaction, it is typically thought that users understand and think about usability in the same ways around the world. The questionnaire that the researchers distributed asked Danish and Chinese participants to rate the importance of various aspects of usability of word-processing software such as effectiveness, ease of use, visual appearance, and satisfaction.

The researchers found that the Chinese participants favored visual appearance and satisfaction more than the Danish participants, and that the Danes sought effectiveness and efficiency more than the Chinese. The presenters concluded that the field’s definition of usability “may capture the aspects of usability but not their importance” across cultures.

In the Metrics session on Tuesday, David Akers, a Ph.D. student in computer science at Stanford, gave a Best Paper presentation titled “Undo and Erase Events as Indicators of Usability Problems.” Using Google SketchUp, a free online 3-D modeling tool, his team evaluated the suitability of backtracking events as indicators of usability problems. One measure of usability problems is self-reporting, which is when the user reports a problem in words, overtly.

Akers and his team found that backtracking actions in the user interface, such as “undo,” were equally indicative of usability problems. This is an important finding because it suggests that good usability metrics can be collected automatically, without any special effort from the user of the software.

From Tuesday through Thursday, the Interactivity Exhibit showcased work by conference-goers in interface technologies. Members from the RWTH Aachen University in Germany demonstrated a multitouch table with interactive widgets, called Silicon illuminated Active Peripheral (SLAP) widgets. Multitouch tables are large, flat surfaces that display data like a computer monitor and use touch-sensing technology for input. “A problem with today’s multitouch tables,” said project leader Malte Weiss, “is that there is no feedback.” When using a keyboard-like input method on a flat, uniform surface, the user’s fingers tend to drift and cause errors, and so the user has to divide his or her visual attention between the virtual keyboard and whatever he or she is actually working on. The SLAP widgets, clear plastic devices that are placed on top of the table, provide helpful tactile feedback.

Alexander Hoffman from RWTH demoed TypeRight, a prototype keyboard interface with variable key resistance. By varying the resistance of the keys based on the possible spellings of a word, the prototype was able to decrease typing errors by a large margin. A group from Hochschule Bremen in Germany presented an interface called SoundTorch for searching among many songs. SoundTorch simulates a flashlight, and the songs in your library are like coins on the floor. Whichever songs are in your beam are played simultaneously, and when you hear something promising, you can zoom in to narrow down on the song you are looking for. The interface takes advantage of the “cocktail party effect,” which describes a person’s ability to pick out what he wants to hear from a large number of sounds.