Design project accepted to CHI 2012 Student Design Competition

After waiting anxiously but admittedly confidently for the notification for a month’s time, my feelybean team and I got the wonderful news last week that our haptic design got accepted for the ACM 2012 Student Design Competition! We are all over the moon about this, because CHI is just about the furthest and farthest you can reach in our field.

CHI is short for the ACM (Association for Computing Machinery) Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, which is probably, and without biased exaggeration, the most prestigious series of conferences within HCI (‘CHI’, computer-human interaction, is the American way of putting it). It’s hosted by SIGCHI, which is the ACM Special Interest Group for HCI. The forefront of HCI research is presented and published at the conference every year, as academic papers, extended abstracts (such as ours!), workshops, posters, case studies, and so on.

CHI also arranges a variety of student competitions, one of which is the Design Competition. This year in our MSc at UCLIC, they decided to incorporate the competition into our Design Practice module, in the form of an 8 week group project worth 25% of our mark. The brief for this year’s competition was:

Space, Place, Threshold: Considering the Experience of Home from Within and Without

This year’s conference theme “Its the Experience” returns our design challenge to the subjective and collective importance of experience as a material for design process and solution.  Personal and shared experience combine to form the ubiquitous fabric that shapes our lives, relationships, social structures and world outcomes. As “experience” has entered the rhetoric of HCI, our technologies have entered the rhetoric of our everyday lives, homes and domestic spaces. Although domestic computing has appropriated technologies from the world of work, their context is differentiated from work in a multitude of experientially diverse ways.

Domestic life varies tremendously by culture, community, income, age, politics, economic development and education. While emerging domestic technologies are inextricably tied to historical concepts of family, household, privacy, gender, identity, the personal and the subjective, not all domestic experience is created equal. Domestic space is both public and private, constructed by local needs and desires, as well as  social and cultural influence. In addition to space and place, home functions as a threshold between continuums of experience such as public and private, outer and inner, connection and solitude, safety/protection and vulnerability.

This year’s challenge is to design an object, interface, system, or service intended to help us to develop and share awareness, understanding or appreciation for our domestic experience as it relates to space, place, and threshold.

Because the everyday is subsumed as ongoing, or “natural”, it is often difficult to notice or appreciate how everyday experience may be supported, shaped or ameliorated through physical or symbolic spaces. Home is a location and a place, simultaneously physical and symbolic: where housework, homework, flexwork and the heart is; home is a negotiated place of privacy, a place you return to when you are sick, and a place where “downtime” is gifted with space as well as time.

We want you to find new solutions, new groups of people and new issues that could benefit from the application of good design with appropriate technology.

Use appropriate design methods such as ethnography, contextual and phenomenological research to understand the problem space, and develop human-focused design solutions to support, assist, enhance or otherwise benefit your target audience. Your solution should address the issues of helping us to develop and share awareness, understanding or appreciation for our domestic experience as it relates to space, place, and threshold.

To enter the competition, student teams may present either a concept (a clear, detailed design specification that can be taken to prototype), or a fully realized prototype. Either way, teams must clearly illustrate their design decisions and demonstrate the design processes that have been followed. Additionally, as this problem has a broad cultural and social focus, “system design thinking” is encouraged. We strongly encourage consideration of:

  • Previous work in this and adjacent areas, and relevant creative and technological opportunities.
  • Appropriate methodologies to ground your research decisions. These can include ethnography,  contextual research, phenomenological/autobiographical methods, secondary sources (including trends) or other research approaches that inform, inspire or rationalize your design process.
  • Elaboration of methods for evaluating your designs within your iterative design framework

So what my team did, was research and gather user requirements via semi-structured interviews with people in long-distance relationships on what was missing communication-wise in their relationships; do rapid low-fi prototyping with a variety of design ideas for a haptic communication device, subject these to iterative user testing, including Wizard of Oz-ing in the lab, and finally creating a 3D render of our final product, a user scenario with storyboard, and a product name, the feelybean.

What feelybean is, is a bean-shaped haptic device that – on the same ergonomically shaped surface – inputs and outputs tactile stimulation from a person’s hand, and transmits the signal in real-time to another feelybean at whatever distance away. It can be used in conjunction with videocalling with Skype to add a sensory dimension to the interaction. And it’s freaking cute.

So, our hotel is now booked, what remains are flights and the CHI registration fee. We are ecstatic (I’m not going to say the little overachiever in me is still panicking about losing a whole week plus jet lag out of my revision period – but still ecstatic), we are looking for tips on what to do/see/eat in Austin and yes, we are fully aware that what we made is essentially a glorified vibrator.


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