Monday, 20 October 2008

Visit to Copenhagen and Lund for NordiCHI conference

And it’s time for another conference! Last Friday I left for the NordiCHI conference in Lund with my colleagues Alex, Dries and Jeroen. Because the most efficient way to travel to Lund is to fly to Copenhagen and take the train from there to Lund, we decided to leave earlier and to stay in Copenhagen for a day. Dries booked us a comfortable room in the Danhostel (which felt like a night train that isn’t moving), which was very cosy.
We arrived quite late on Friday evening, so we had a quick dinner (which was good actually, with a home-made veggie burger and eight different sauces – not kidding) and some cocktails. Saturday we wandered around the city centre of Copenhagen, visited the Danish Design Centre (which was not too big and had rather strange stuff)and did some white Lego building. Later in the afternoon we took the train to Lund, where we had an all-Swedish dinner (Ikea meat balls and Chocolate Moose - nice movie for fans of the Swedish Chef).

Sunday was the first day of the conference, on which we had workshops. Dries and I went to a workshop on lo-fi haptic prototyping, which was a good workshop. We started with presentations and demonstrations of (supposedly) lo-fi prototypes, though most of the prototypes were quite hi-fi (especially compared to Eise’s home made MDF mobile phone I brought). I especially liked the physical (lego) avatar, the Wizard of Oz haptic feedback by sending a sound file to a mobile phone in silent mode, Nokia’s universal gesture alphabet, the concept of “body storming” and the Philips “shiver down my spine” vest.
In the afternoon we had a lo-fi prototyping session, in which we were divided into four groups and had to make a (you guessed it) lo-fi haptic prototype. There was some really nice stuff to make the prototypes of (balloons, magnets, lego, modelling clay, foam, etc.) and we did quite a few interesting discoveries (when you put a magnet into a balloon, inflate the ballon and stick another magnet to the magnet inside the balloon, the balloon pops!).

Today was the first day of a keynote and paper sessions of the conference. To be honest, I was a bit disappointed by the quality and the content of the presentations. Also, I’m afraid that the keynote (of a Firefox t-shirt wearing speaker) was a bit too geeky for a large part of the audience, although I liked his concept of Evil Design. Interesting exceptions were a presentation about measuring bodily movements with a desk chair (although I’m not quite convinced of the validity of such movements as a measure of emotions) and a presentation about designing for participation in public knowledge institutions (which included the virtual peepholes into the ocean which I reported on at the Participatory Design Conference).
After the conference we had a short tour of the Museum of Sketches for Public Art and a Microsoft reception (apparently, Microsoft is fond of BiFi sausages and soepstengels). Fortuately, Jeroen and I spotted a sushi bar earlier in the afternoon, and we had quite some fun with different styles of eating sushi (fingers and wobbly chopsticks).

Conference venue (Lund University).

Wednesday, 8 October 2008

More quests and more art in Chicago

I started my day with a nice breakfast at Chicago's largest Whole Foods Market (I'm a devoted fan), after which I took the subway to yet another outdoor store (I know, it is getting boring). The good news is that this shop had the Icebreaker stuff I was looking for, and (even better), they had 20% off of the whole collection today! Nice...

After lunch, I took a subway to the Gold Coast area (sounds good, doesn't it?) and wandered around there. At about two o'clock, it started raining (and I mean serious rain, pouring rain which hasn't stopped since), so I went to the Museum of Contemporary Art , which turned out to be free on Tuesdays. The museum wasn't really big, but there were quite some interesting items. I liked the work of Kara Walker, showing black paper cut silhouettes representing "Negro scenes".

The remainder of the afternoon, the weather was so bad, I bought a magazine and went to The Cheese Cake Factory (!), to eat some delicious Godiva Chocolate Cheese cake. On my way back to the hostel (via sushi shop), I got so wet, I put my clothes in the dryer. Now I'm watching the Presidential Debate on tv (which was roughly disturbed by a fire alarm in the hostel, on which we had to go outside and were only let back inside after the fire department thoroughly searched the building and decided the alarm was false). It is quite boring, to be honest.

Tomorrow is my last day here. My plane leaves around four thirty, so I'll probably have to leave around one o'clock. Still have to go to Wired NextFest, so I'm going to pack my bags in a minute.

Tuesday, 7 October 2008

Ferris wheels, art and blisters

To start with a few pictures from the hostel (common room and bedroom). I'm in a six-bed bedroom which is pretty big. One of my room mates likes to go to bed really early (seven or so, not kidding), so I try to avoid the bedroom as much as possible at night. I slept quite well, given the fact that the bed is very soft and my back has been in better shapes.

Today I had (free!) breakfast at the hostel and because breakfast is between seven and nine pm, I was ready to go quite early. I left the hostel with the intention to visit the Chicago Cultural Center (because this was about the only attraction opening that early), but I ended up making a long walk. I took the BP Bridge (designed by Frank Gehry, which wouldn't look bad next to the Bilbao Guggenheim) to walk to Lake Michigan. I followed the lake shore until Navy Pier, where I made a ride in a big Ferris wheel (sponsored by McDonalds). Great views, and together with two other early birds I was the only passenger!

From Navy Pier I walked back to The Loop area to visit the Art Institute of Chicago, which was very nice. Unfortunately, the museum was in the middle of major construction, so many pieces of art were not on display and some wings were closed altogether. But, enough remained to be seen and I really enjoyed walking through the museum at my own pace (no offence Eise!). I particularly liked the design pieces and contemporary American paintings. One exposition was especially impressive. It was an exposition of photomontages by Martha Rosler, who combined images of the Vietnam war with images from American home interiors of the 50's and 60's. Quite surprising and shocking (see one of the pictures in the photo below,). The museum had a great museum shop, with interesting goodies (no crap) and lots of books. I bought a book about the use of patterns in design.

After dropping of the book in the hostel, I went on an Icebreaker quest. I took the subway to Lincoln Park, to an outdoor shop selling Icebreaker (according to the Icebreaker website). Conveniently, the shop was located next to a huge Whole Foods, a (mostly) organic supermarket (think Gimsel, but then 50 times bigger). Lovely. I composed a good lunch which I ate at the terrace (see photo).Sadly, no Icebreaker stuff in the outdoor store, so I continued my quest in other outdoor stores which I looked up before- hand. No luck yet, so I'll have to keep on searching.

In the end, I spent most of my afternoon in Lincoln Park, which turned out to be a really nice area of Chicago. I loved being out of busy downtown in a more residential part of the city, with little shops, choice to drink coffee at another place than Starbucks, and so on). Later in the afternoon I quickly walked down Magnificient Mile, the main shopping street in Chicago where all big chain stores are located (apart from the Apple Store, nothing special). I had dinner in a typical American (?) pizza place. Having dinner on your own here in the US is not very bad actually. Mostly, they seat you at the bar, with all the other lonely soles, which easily results in funny conversations (either with the bar tenders or with other guests - today I set next to a guy from working in the business of surgical technologies ).

Now it's time to bother my (probably vast asleep) room mate. I'll be back tomorrow!

Monday, 6 October 2008

Sweet home Chicago

This morning I left Bloomington and took off to Chicago. I will be staying here for a couple of days (I'm leaving Wednesday afternoon). I arrived in Chicago around noon and I'm staying in the HI hostel right in the old city centre. I did not really do a lot today, just some wondering around and some shopping (the pad lock I brought for the safe in my room did not fit, I finished my book, etc.).

The weather was not really great, which made the city look a bit gloomy. Later in the afternoon the rain stopped, fortunately. Right now I am considering what to do in the two and a half days that I have left here. A few things that are definitely on my to do list are Wired NextFest, the Art Institute, and the Museum of Contemporary Art. Of course I will do more shopping (Icebreaker retailers, Apple store, here I come!) and any other suggestions for activities in Chicago are more than welcome!

Sunday, 5 October 2008

Final day @ PDC08

Today was the closing day of the Participatory Design Conference. It wasn't a full day, a plenary session of research papers this morning, and a closing keynote after lunch. A few things I'd like to mention from the presentations I saw today...

A presentation I really liked because of the combination of theory on methods and examples from practice was about new ways of engaging with exhibition spaces. I was especially charmed by one of the products designed in this project, which was a movable hydroscope (looking a bit like a car tyre with a computer screen in the middle) which visitors of an aquarium could move over the floor (which represented a virtual ocean), see photo (source: Interesting about the theoretical part of this presen- tation was the discovery that methods that I already know and have used myself, turn out to have beautiful names, such as aesthetic and fictitional inquiry (sounds nice, doesn't it?).

Furthermore, the keynote presentation of today, although a tad too long, included some interesting projects. The speaker was Natalie Jeremijenko of Environmental Health Clinic, which is a really cool initiative of New York University. I quote their website: "The clinic works like this: you make an appointment, just like you would at a traditional health clinic, to talk about your particular environmental health concerns. What differs is that you walk out with a prescription not for pharmaceuticals but for actions: local data collection and urban interventions directed at understanding and improving your environmental health; plus referrals, not to medical specialists but to specific art, design and participatory projects, local environmental organizations and local government or civil society groups: organizations that can use the data and actions prescribed as legitimate forms of participation to promote social change." Just take a look at the site, though it has some usability issues, the projects are worthwhile.

So, that was that for the conference. In retrospect, I quite liked this conference. It was my first time to attend and I had a good time. I especially liked the parallel exploratory sessions, because they hosted the very concrete, practical examples which provided lots of inspiration for my own work. I also liked most of the more theoretical presentations in the plenary research paper sessions (which actually had pretty few research presentations for that matter), although in my opinion these sessions had a bit too many overview presentations of the current position of participatory design. I would have liked to hear more ideas for the future. Another thing that I liked was the community of PDC visitors, of which most people were regulars and knew each other well. It was a small group of people, but very nice and open minded. Finally, the organization of the conference was really very good (and I don't say that often!). There was lots of time reserved for questions and discussion in each session, and not a single one of the sessions that I visited ran late. Quite an accomplishment. In summary, the conference was very much worthwhile and I will definitely submit a paper for the next edition in 2010 (especially since this edition will be held in Australia!).

One last thing to mention was that we went on a hike in Brown County State Park with a small group of conference visitors (most left immediately after the conference), which I enjoyed a lot. It was nice to see a bit of the surroundings of Bloomington, it is quite beautiful out here (unfortunately, we were a few weeks too early for the typical autumn colours).

So, I'm all packed and ready to leave for Chicago tomorrow morning! I could not reserve a shared taxi to the airport, so I will have to get up early tomorrow morning to catch the Shuttle bus to Indianapolis.

Saturday, 4 October 2008

Thursday at PDC08

Apart from a neat goodie I got today (it was a Replublican chapstick, almost as cool as the Pim Fortuyn supermarket cart coin we have), here are some highlights from Thursday at the conference. I attended two sessions of plenary research papers and one session of exploratory papers (the exploratory paper sessions being the six parallel sessions). As on Wednesday, the papers in the exploratory session provided me with quite some food for thought. One presentation was about "Participatory Sensing", an interesting concept where mobile phones are used as environmental sensors for nearly anything. So people can use their mobile phones to capture, share, access, analyse and store information on the go. Since everyone has different mobile phones with different features, many different things can be captured (e.g. photos of the environment, bumpiness of the road (by using accelerometers), locations and routes (GPS), personal experiences (e.g. text), sound recordings). When adding all of this captured context information together, interesting applications for sharing and collaboration emerge. An example that was used in the presentation was a project called CycleSens, where cyclists collect and share information about their routes to work.

Another idea that I liked was the use of a scale model for participatory redesign. In this case the scale model was of a particular piece of a road which was prone to many accidents. In participatory design sessions end users and road engineers were invited to redesign that stretch of road (with all kinds of tools, like trees, thicker striping, colours, etc.). I am usually working on quite small products I'd like to design together with users, but this is a nice solution to design on a larger scale (could also be used for buildings, for example).

An interesting point that was mentioned in a number of presentations already is the communication between end users and professionals in sessions (e.g. engineers, architects, etc.). A common problem seems to be that the language used by the professionals is totally incomprehensible to the end users, something to keep in mind when doing participatory design sessions. In one study presented, two sessions were organised, one with and one without the professionals, to really make sure that the end user needs were addressed properly, without focusing too much on the professionals' ideas.

Finally, I'd like to mention one plenary presentation, which interestingly enough was a literature review on participatory design. What I liked about this presentation though, was that the presenter (Andy Dearden) was very critical and for me really pointed out some interesting issues. Some quotes (might not be exactly litteraly): "Is participatory design for IT an oxymoron?" "How participatory is participatory design when users can participate in a project when the researchers tell them to and in the way the researchers want them to?" This last quote remembered me of a discussion we had in the MobileHCI workshop last month, where we considered the idea of asking users not only to participate in co-design sessions, but also to participate in deciding on the methods to use in the co-design session.

So, these I guess were the highlights of Thursday for me. Since the weather is very nice here (lots of sun and quite high temperatures), we took some time to relax in the late afternoon. Thursday was also the day of the conference banquet, which had great deserts and also a great group of female singers. Later at night we went into the city centre to drink cocktails and to go to the Lotus Festival, where we sneaked into a big tent to see a really cool band, Funkadesi playing a wild mixture of world music styles (reggae, Indian music, African, Latin, nearly everything).

So now I'm up to the final day of the conference (which is not a full day anymore). And tomorrow, it's Chicago time!!

Thursday, 2 October 2008

Highlight of the day(s) @ PDC08

So I've just returned to my hotel room after the first real day of the Participatory Design Conference (first day was workshops & tutorials) to give a quick overview of the highlights of the day here in Bloomington. In general, I like the atmosphere here. Although many people seem to know each other quite well from earlier editions of the conference, most of them seem very open and interested.

The best presentation of today for me was Carl DiSalvo's talk about a really cool project called Neighbourhood Networks. In this project, people from a specific neighbourhood were invited to participate in a series of 8 workshops in which they would design a robotics and sensor-based prototype. What really got me thinking was the way in which the participants were introduced to the technologies of robotics and sensors in a totally hands-on fashion. Usually, introduction to technology is a difficult thing in participatory design, but in this project participants were just told to use the technology as they pleased in their own neighbourhood, which seemed to work just fine! Also, what I'd really like to try out once is to organize a series of workshops in stead of just one (or a few). Here, participants had one workshop per week, which allowed them during the week to think over their prototypes, collect materials, test their prototype, etc.

I also took some good topics to think about from the Exploratory Papers session (of which there were six parallel sessions, which is way too much at such a small conference, we were with about ten people in the audience only). One of the presentations was about using cultural probes with participants who are visually impaired, which poses quite a challenge in designing the probes. Since I am about to start working on a project involving users with disabilities (in hearing, vision, cognition), I was quite interested to see how the authors of this paper dealt with their target group. I saw quite some interesting stuff (i.e. using clay to "illustrate" one's context, "photography by proxy"), and I also noted some interesting considerations to spend some time thinking and discussing about ("How to make probing and designing materials attractive to people with visual impairments since you cannot use visuals as you would normally do?", Doing observations to learn about user driven innovation at home in stead of using cultural probes, etc.).

So, enough stuff to use in some way in my own work! We ended the day (after a reception - Belgian style almost, except for the fact that we got one drink ticket only, which seems more the Dutch style) watching the vice presidential debate in a lecture room full of IU students, a true American experience! Not a really spectacular debate though (no blood or any physical encounters, but highly polite smiles only - I suspect Palin and Biden have the same dentist), no clear winner and nothing new. But quite fun anyway.