Mobile HCI 2011 Lightning Write-up

Mobile HCI 2011 was held in Stockholm, Sweden. This was the 13th Mobile HCI. This year there were 63 papers and notes for an acceptance rate of 23%. The attendance was the highest ever with 400 registrations.

The first paper that caught my attention was "Intimate Mobiles: Grasping, Kissing and Whispering as a Means of Telecommunication in Mobile Phones". This paper explores how physical cues of nearness could be transmitted by our mobile devices. Imagine a phone that slipped around your hand like a glove and when your conversational partner tensed up the glove tightened around your hand. Or maybe you're away on travel and your spouse wants to give you a goodnight kiss. She kisses her phone and your phone kisses you. While the technology may be years off, there is lesson to be learned here on how we can close the gap between the conversational experience on both sides of what is just now a auditory connection.

Then there was "Unpacking Social Interaction that Make us Adore – On the Aesthetics of Mobile Phones as Fashion Items". Among my colleagues, there was a lot of discussions as to the relevant importance of this paper. On one hand, the authors attempt to show how understanding how mobile technology fits into the trend setting world of fashion is crucial to helping design products. On the other hand, the practicalities of producing hardware at large scale make it seem like our own only option is the custom phone covers market. My take away from this is that there is a powerful market force to be considered in the fashion magazine/blog world but it is probably drowned out by more tangible issues such as carrier plan and base device costs.

With the more touchy-feely things out of the way I strapped in for a session called "Text and Keyboards". Feel free to skip this paragraph if the session name made you yawn. The winner of this session was definitely "Design and Evaluation of Devanagari Virtual Keyboards for Touch Screen Mobile Phones". The paper focused on coming up with techniques for entering Devanagari script on mobile devices. The key insight of this paper is that there is a false jump to optimize for speed of entry. However, in almost all cases, there users were rarely familiar with the mobile technology much less ready to learn an entirely new layout for their language. So while the overall entry rates of their methods were slow at least some text was being entered. I seriously hope they continue down this work and try to create some techniques for non-touchscreen phones as that is still a prominent form factor in India. Other papers of note in this session, "A Versatile Dataset for Text Entry Evaluations Based on Genuine Mobile Emails" and "Script-Agnostic Reflow of Text in Document Images".

Back to something a little more light-hearted, the next session was "Projections and Visualizations". As the session chair stated, a few years ago it would be odd to hear about a session on projection at Mobile HCI but with the arrival of pico projectors the output space of mobile phones is expanding. The first paper, "PoCoMo: Projected Collaboration using Mobile Devices" may have had the best hack I've seen during the entire conference. Multiple users point their phones at a wall to project small cartoon characters that live on their devices. The phones have a sleeve over them that allow the camera to see the projection. By encoding information into the projection itself, both devices can communicate to keep the cartoon characters at the right scale and rotation. Additionally, as the characters get closer, the projection+vision system is used to sync up animations. The projection surface is the network medium. Great hack. The other paper in this session that really struck a chord with me was "Content Splitting & Space Sharing: Collaboratively Reading & Sharing Children’s Stories on Mobile Devices". The authors explore how giving a group of children multiple devices and having them engage in a story reading exercise with multiple configurations of the story pages effects interpersonal engagement. The paper goes into a lot of depth on the various effects of how devices were oriented to each other as well as the effects of activity (creation or consumption) on the engagement.

Then there was "Ubiquitous Sketching for Social Media". The technology is simple. You have an Anoto pen, augmented paper and a smart phone client that will upload an image of what you sketch to your social network. Simple but powerful. From the paper, "Despite its portability, sketching as a social medium has been largely left behind. Given sketching’s unique affordances for visual communication this absence is a real loss. Sketches convey visuo-spatial ideas directly, require minimal detail to render concepts, and show the peculiarities of handwriting." The paper shows how by combining the unique affordances of pen and paper, the expressiveness of a hand drawn sketch and the connecting power of digital communication, users were able to engage in a richer communication with their friends and family.

My final notes are on "The Phone Rings But the User Doesn’t Answer: Unavailability in Mobile Communication". The researchers goal was to better understand the context around unavailability. I really liked the methodology in this paper. The authors installed some simple logging software on participants phones to record instances where phone calls and text messages didn't connect. Then each night, the logging software uploaded this information to a web server and sent the user an email with a web form which solicited contextual information regarding the lapses in communication. Then at the end of the study, the researchers sat down with the participants and went through the data to fill in more gaps in the contextual information. This gave the researchers a very rich representation of otherwise banal log data. The results were interesting with an almost even split between Unavoidable (couldn't hear the phone), Enforced (in a meeting, would be inappropriate to answer) and Intentional (I'm sleeping or at a movie) unavailability. Another interesting outcome of this study was the amount of cross-modal communication, someone misses an incoming phone call but instead of calling back they reply with a SMS or IM. I would really like to see this methodology taken up a notch by logging all notifications that arrive on a device and monitoring how and when a user interacts with them.

So that does it for me and Mobile HCI 2011. The conference was two simultaneous tracks so I'm sure I missed a lot of good work. I encourage everyone to check out the proceedings as soon as they pop up on the ACM Digital Library. Next year the conference will make its jump across the Atlantic to San Francisco, CA. I hope to see everyone there again!