Wednesday, 27 February 2008

Visiting the inHaus in Duisburg

This morning we visited the inHaus innovation center in Duisburg (run by Fraunhofer, located on the University campus). The inHaus is a prototype of a smart environment and a pretty unique research, development and experimentation facility in Germany. We got a tour of the house and Torsten Stevens from Fraunhofer IMS showed us some current developments and several demos. Some of the demos reminded me of work we started in Lancaster, but never pushed forward beyond a research prototype, e.g. the load sensing experiments [1], [2].

The inHaus demonstrates impressively the technical feasibility of home automation and the potential of intelligent living spaces. However beyond that I strongly believe that intelligent environments have to move towards the user – embracing more the way people life their lives and providing support for user needs. Together with colleagues from Microsoft Research and Georgia Tech we organize the workshop Pervasive Computing at Home which is held as a part of Pervasive 2008 in Sydney that focuses on this topic.

Currently the market size for smart homes is still small. But looking at technological advances it is not hard to image that some technologies and services will soon move from “a luxury gadget” to “a common tool”. Perhaps wellness, ambient assistive living and home health care are initial areas. In this field we will jointly supervise a thesis project of one of our students over the next month.

Currently most products for smart homes are high quality, premium, high priced, and providing a long lifetime (typically 10 to 20 years). Looking what happened in other markets (e.g. navigation systems, now sold at 150€ retail prices including a GPS unit, maps, touch screen and video player) it seems to me there is definitely an interesting space for non-premium products in the domain of intelligent environments.

[1] Schmidt, A., Strohbach, M., Laerhoven, K. v., Friday, A., and Gellersen, H. 2002. Context Acquisition Based on Load Sensing. In Proceedings of the 4th international Conference on Ubiquitous Computing (Göteborg, Sweden, September 29 - October 01, 2002). G. Borriello and L. E. Holmquist, Eds. Lecture Notes In Computer Science, vol. 2498. Springer-Verlag, London, 333-350.

[2] Albrecht Schmidt, Martin Strohbach, Kristof Van Laerhoven, Hans-Werner Gellersen: Ubiquitous Interaction - Using Surfaces in Everyday Environments as Pointing Devices. User Interfaces for All 2002. Springer LNCS.

Friday, 22 February 2008

OLPC - new interface guidelines - no file menu

We have tried several of the applications (called activities) and the basic functions seem OK. Vivien liked it and was quite curious to explore it further. The photos you can take with the built-in camera are similar in quality to a good web cam.

After discussing the Microsoft Vista interface guide in the last week of our course on User Interface Engineering it was really interesting to see the OLPC/Sugar user interface guidelines. Especially the shift away from save/open to keep and the journal are enormous changes (and hence probably quite hard for people who have used computers – obviously it is not really designed for them).

Using the measure activity provides basic tools for electronics measurements. The microphone input can be used as a simple oscilloscope and the USB port provides 1A – this makes it really interesting for experimenting, see the hardware reference.

Thursday, 21 February 2008

OLPC – cute and interesting – but what type of computer is it?

After the conference I had finally some time to try out my new XO Laptop (OLPC). It is fairly small, has a rubber keyboard and a very good screen. It can be used in laptop and e-book mode. A colleague described it as somewhere between a mobile phone and a notebook-computer – first I did not get it – but after using it I fully understand.

There is good documentation out – the getting started manual at provides a very good entry point. Getting it up and running was really easy (finding the key for my WIFI-Access point at home was the most difficult part ;-)

There are two interesting wikis with material online at and I am looking forward to trying the development environments supplied with the standard distribution (Pippy and Etoys).

I would expect when Vivien get up in the morning and sees it I will be second in line for exploring the XO further. It is really designed in a way that makes it attractive for children. To say more about about the usability (in particular the software) I need to explore it more...

To me it is not understandable why it is so difficult to get them in Europe. I think the buy 1 and donate 1 approach was very good (but again this was only in the US)...

Wednesday, 20 February 2008

Thought on Keys

Many keys (to rooms and buildings) are still tangible objects, where the tangible properties and affordances imply certain ways of usage .Who has not gotten a hotel key that you hand in at reception, because it is too big to be carried in a pocket? Moving digital many keys we get lack craft and unique affordances as they are just plastic cards or RFID tags in a specific form. With moving towards biometric authentication it seems that the key is intangible (so we loose options in the design space) but embedded into us (which opens up new possibilities).

The major drawback of physical and tangible keys is that if you don’t have it with you – when you are in front of the door they can not help you. Even if you know where the key is and you communicate with the person having the key.
… but thinking back a few days to the visions in Hiroshi Ishii’s keynote its seems that this is very short term problem. Having atoms that can be controlled (tangible bits) we can just get the data for the key from remote and reproduce it locally. With current technology this seems already very feasible – on principle – ( some Person uses a 3D scanner, e.g. embedded in a mobile device that has a camera and communication) and the other person has a 3D printer/laser cutter. Still the question remains if moving to digital keys is not much easier.

However if you do not have the key – and even so there is a solution “on principle” – it does not really help ;-)

Paul presented a paper on mobile phone interaction at TEI’08

Paul Holleis presented at TEI’08 the results of the research he did during his internship at Nokia Research [1]. Over the summer Paul spent 3 month with Jonna Häkkila’s group in Helsinki, where he worked on two projects: combing touch and key-presses and wearable controls.

Technically both projects used capacitative sensing to recognize touch. In his paper “Studying Applications for Touch-Enabled Mobile Phone Keypads” [1] they added to common mobile phone buttons touch sensing so that multiple levels of interaction can be measured, such as approaching, touching and pressing. The paper additionally discusses new interaction possibility that arise from this.

[1] Paul Holleis, Jonna Häkkilä, Jussi Huhtala. Studying Applications for Touch-Enabled Mobile Phone Keypads. Proceedings of the 2nd Tangible and Embedded Interaction Conference TEI’08. February 2008.

Where are my things – Would Smart-its friends help in a real world scenario?

At social events of conferences interesting things happen. One issue with a borrowed key reminded me of a paper that colleagues in the smart-its project wrote several years ago – smart-its friends [1]. The central idea was to have means to connect objects (make them friends) by a gesture interaction, which is detected by comparing acceleration values. Technically it is feasible and highly interesting, but I wonder about the real world applicability – but the missing key may be evidence for it…

[1] Holmquist, L. E., Mattern, F., Schiele, B., Alahuhta, P., Beigl, M., and Gellersen, H. 2001. Smart-Its Friends: A Technique for Users to Easily Establish Connections between Smart Artefacts. In Proceedings of the 3rd international Conference on Ubiquitous Computing (Atlanta, Georgia, USA, September 30 - October 02, 2001). G. D. Abowd, B. Brumitt, and S. A. Shafer, Eds. Lecture Notes In Computer Science, vol. 2201. Springer-Verlag, London, 116-122.

Monday, 18 February 2008

Keynote by Prof. Ishii at TEI’08

In the evening Prof. Hiroshi Ishii from the MIT Medialab presented a fascinating keynote at TEI’08. He gave an exciting overview of his work in tangible user interfaces, starting from tangible bits [1]. Right after the demos it was impressive to see how much impact he had on this area of research. He has a paper that accompanies the keynote in the proceedings, that will be soon available in the ACM DL.

On central piece of advice on research was to work on visions rather than on applications. He argues visions may last 100 years and applications are likely to be gone after 10. However he made the interesting connection between the two. You need to have applications to convey and communicate the visions, but you need to have the vision to create the applications. He had a great a slide (which indicates that we will go to heaven) to motivate to do something to be remembered in 200 years – not sure if this is my plan.

He criticized interdisciplinary research as we do it at the moment. In his few the most efficient way for interdisciplinary way is to make a single person knowledgeable in several fields. This raises issues in education and in the discussion afterwards there was the question whether this is feasible beyond the MIT or not.

[1] Ishii, H. and Ullmer, B. 1997. Tangible bits: towards seamless interfaces between people, bits and atoms. In Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (Atlanta, Georgia, United States, March 22 - 27, 1997). S. Pemberton, Ed. CHI '97. ACM, New York, NY, 234-241. DOI=

Talks, Demos and Poster at TEI’08

The first day of the conference went well – thanks to many helping hands. The time we had for the demos seemed really long in the program but was too short to engage with every exhibit (for next year we should make sure to allocate even more time).

People made really last minutes efforts to make their demos work. We even went to Conrad electronics to get some pieces (which burned before in setting up the demos). Demos are in my eyes an extremely efficient means for communicating between scientists and sharing ideas.

New working group on tangible interaction

This morning a new working group on tangible interaction in mixed realities (in German Be-greifbare Interaktion in Gemischten Wirklichkeiten) was established as part of the German Computer Science Society (GI). About 30 people from all over Germany gathered at B-IT in a pre-conference event to TEI’08. The group was interdisciplinary, including computer science, design, psychology, and pedagogic. The diversity of research projects as well as teaching programs in Germany in impressive.

Visit to the Arithmeum in Bonn

For people who already arrive on Sunday, the day before the conference, we organised some museum visits: Arithmeum, Haus der Geschichte, Deutsches Museum, and Art Gallery. I only had time to see the Arithmeum ( which was pretty impressive. Hiroshi Ishii (the keynote speaker of the conference) and Brygg Ullmer (last years conference co-chair) joined us, too.

It was unexpected how close the displayed artefacts are to our current research on tangible interaction. We had a very good guided tour by Nina Mertens, who gave us an interesting overview from counting tokens to calculation machines. Some of the exhibit we could even try out our selves.

I found the aspect of aesthetics in some of the calculation aids and machines quite fascinating. Especially the fact that some were so precious that they were not really used for calculating but more for showing off is a concept that is amazing. Similarly interesting was one artefact that was mainly built as a proof that calculation can be automated.

Wearable Counting / Computing / Storage?

On of the exhibits in the Arithmeum was a Quipu – which is a storage of numbers using knots. In comparison to other accounting aids it had the advantage that it was easy to carry.

Sunday, 17 February 2008

TEI08 Onside Preparation

One of the fun parts of organizing a conference is to work with a team of student volunteers. It is always amazing how quick many hands can work! Today we met with some of the student volunteers to pack the bags and set up the poster and exhibition space. (Unexpectedly) we are well in time.

Friday, 15 February 2008

Press-releases for TEI’08 - explaining the idea

We have two press releases to announce TEI’08 – the second international conference on tangible and embedded interaction (in German only).

The first one is a general announcement with the invitation to the press conference: Internationale Konferenz zu neuen Möglichkeiten der Mensch-Maschine-Interaktion

The second one is explaining – in non-scientific terms – the idea of tangible and embedded interaction: Der Wetterfrosch im Regenschirm

USB-Sticks, Bags and T-shirts have arrived!

Before conferences time is always exiting – will things arrive in time or not…

This time we are lucky: T-shirts for the SV, USB-Sticks for the e-proceedings, and bags for the participants are here :-)

Tuesday, 12 February 2008

Visit at the TU Eindhoven

Elise van den Hoven, the program co-chair of TEI08, organized the printing of the proceeding. We went there on Tuesday to collect the books – quite a heavy load! The books look really good and the cover is great.

In the afternoon I gave a lecture with the title “Interacting with Pervasive Computing Systems”. I have related some of our recent work and ideas to the focus of the course which is “intelligent systems, products and related services”. In particular I asked to re-think how we can find a balance between user needs and technology push – without compromising a fruitful user centred design and development process. We continued this discussion with prof. Berry Eggen at dinner in a quite nice restaurant in town.

A further issue in my talk was to design interactive products and services that they fit their purpose very well – but that beyond this they allow for creative use. As an example I showed a set of photos I took with my phone. Some are in categories (e.g. preserving memory) that were probably anticipated by the designers whereas others (e.g. a WIFI-access code with I took a photo of not to have it to write down) are creative use. This observation again leads to the previous discussion on technology push and user need.

Being still new to the Ruhrgebiet and having not brush up on regional geography I was very much surprised how close Eindhoven is to Essen. Perhaps there is a chance for more collaboration in the future.

Friday, 8 February 2008

Finishing the course User Interface Engineering for this term

No we had the last lectures of the course User Interface Engineering for this term. We will have oral exams stating later this month. The whole set of slides I used over the term (a bit more than 800) are available on our website. This year we have the first time made a set of questions to assist revising the material. In total we have about 200 questions – and looking over the questions it is really interesting that user interface design is not as trivial as one thinks (after teaching it for several years ;-)