As a part of the CoSMo project, I just spent three months as a visiting researcher in the Human-Computer Interaction lab at University of Stuttgart (Institute for Visualization and Interactive Systems). The group led by Prof. Albrecht Schmidt, consisting of ~15 researchers, enthusiastically explores new technologies to develop new human-computer interaction techniques and interactive technologies related to the broad umbrella of Ubicomp. They are one of the most well-known groups in this field and actively publish in major HCI & computer science conferences like CHI and Ubicomp. In the following, I’ll share some of my experiences during this extremely interesting visit.
First of all, having been already for eight years at TUT, it was refreshing to visit another university and experience a slightly different culture – both in work and after it. And the fact that the people in the group are very friendly and open-minded really contributed to the overall enjoyable experience. A period of 3 months was just perfect to get to know the people and place, to get familiar with local ways of working, and to establish a few promising collaboration tracks.
The research done in the group is in many ways very technology-oriented but, at the same time, also user-centered in terms of targeting at more user-friendly interaction techniques or solving real practical problems with interactive technology. Their exploration of technology meant actively pushing the boundaries of for what purposes various technologies could be used and how. Some nice examples of this were using heat cameras for gesture tracking, engraving practical information to food items with a laser cutter, and building a pneumatic system to explore how people would experience blowing air -based haptic output.
Another important observation is multi-disciplinarity. The group combines different approaches (HW, SW, HCI, interaction design…) that nicely complement each other and thus create contributions to multiple research communities. I think this is something that Ubicomp/Pervcomp truly needs to go beyond the semi-functional prototypes and lab-based systems. However, repeating the mantra of “be multi-disciplinary” is easy but putting it in practice is not. Defining valid real-world problems as common targets can help research partners from different backgrounds form a joint vision and commit to it, which can result in constructions and studies that none of the partners could have created just by themselves. In Stuttgart, some the win-win synergy seemed to result from having broad-minded visionaries as well as specialists from various areas in the same group.
After the visit the collaboration is expected to continue in a few tracks. We’re currently investigating the design space of “augmented food” with user studies and by just exploring different food items and types of information. Additionally, we’re aiming to build a few systems that would benefit the projects in both ends: one about top-down projected multi-player games to enhance social interaction in waiting areas and another to use large-size displays to visualize common social contacts and interest areas between a visitor and the research staff in an office.
With respect to work practices, I want to highlight two things that I found worth considering also at TUT. These are no rocket science and I’m sure everybody have heard similar observations before. Nevertheless, I mention them again as I think they have played pretty significant roles in making the group as successful as it is.
Firstly, informal interactions between people on daily basis and informal events on weekly basis are important in three ways: to increase the awareness of what others are doing, to create a sense of community, and to create collaborations and relationships that go beyond the “just another colleague” level. In practice this meant a predefined lunch hour for the whole group every day, active pub culture, and other common activities outside the work hours (e.g. BBQ almost weekly in the unit’s front yard). Of course this requires time and depends on many things like family situation, Finnish beer prices, size of research groups… But – if you allow me to provoke a little – I still think that the Finnish nine-to-five-alone-in-my-room research culture could use a little social twist. More often than twice a year.
Secondly, the Master and even Bachelor students were actively involved in research. For example, a PhD student could have 2-3 thesis workers under supervision in a way that their work also contributed to the research projects or PhD goals and ended up in publications. For the student this not only means weekly guidance for the thesis but also a sense of being needed and actually contributing to something relevant. Another nice practice was weekly one-hour colloquiums where thesis workers would present their recent activities and get comments from both peers and other researchers than their direct supervisors. After all, a critical element for the success of a research unit is how well-educated, smart and motivated young researchers it can find to start as PhD students.
Finally, international experience is something that is more and more often required for getting research funding. Although internationality often feels ‘forced’ by the governance on many levels, I could not agree more with the great opportunities it holds. Even a short visit.