Projects: HCI Outdoors undergrad + grad course Fall 2019

The Fall 2019 instantiation of HCI Outdoors delved into early draft chapters of our upcoming HCI Outdoors book. The results of our discussions will be seen in the book, coming in late 2020 from Springer. Students also undertook projects inspired by the ideas from the book chapters. The project are described next, with pictures for select projects following.

  • Trail Stories. Ph.D. candidate Lindah Kotut, together with Master’s student Liyan Li and undergrad Melissa Mayo, explored how social media platforms Reddit, Twitter, and Instagram are used to tell stories about thru-hikes on the Appalachian Trail and other long trails. The project looks at how these platforms are used in the preparation, experience, and reflection parts of a hike, and how additional digital tools can be crafted to help hikers tell their stories from their data.
  • Shared Outdoor Experiences. Ph.D. candidate Derek Haqq joined by Setor Zilevu and Allison Collier, explored how people can share their outdoor experiences with friends and relatives who are unable to join them. They designed and created three mobile outdoor-centric games: Shared Xperiences supported a user’s sense of a remote outdoor location to foster feelings of a outdoor space; Pairshare developed feelings of connection and shared experience among users; PlanetRunner balanced these features to foster feelings of a shared recreational experience as well as to promote user’s sense of a remote outdoor location. A deployment with 67 users showed initial successes and areas for future work.
  • Navigating with Augmented Reality. Ph.D. candidate Leo Soares, together with Masters student Samat Imamov and undergrads Jean-Marc Cassier and Wesley Nguyen, crafted and analyzed an augmented reality prototype to help groups of hikers stay connected on long hikes–despite the different hiking speeds that often causes conflicts on hikes.
  • FitAware. Shuai Liu, Zhennan Yao, and Jixiang Fan, grad students in Computer Science, are working on a health and fitness app that helps small groups 3-6 people who know each other well to help each other through competition and cooperation. Shuai is continuing the work toward his thesis, to be completed in May 2020.
  • Disorientation and Outdoor Tasks. Ph.D. students Neelma Bhatti and Morva Saati explored how young children become distracted during outdoor-style tasks like plant identification–particularly in busy environments. While tech is a big draw, and competing tech interests (and nature-related occurrences) can draw attention, the biggest distractors came from family and friends.
  • Disease on the Trail. Grad students Tim Stelter and Deepika Subrinaminan examined factors that can be instrumental in creating a system that tracks diseases outdoors. Extended trails like the Appalachian Trail, with large bubbles of hikers that traverse trails over many weeks or months, can create avenues for viruses, tick-borne diseases, and other diseases. Tim and Deepika examined a long list of disease-related apps along the axes of notification, rapid response, and knowledge creation.
  • Biometrics Outdoors. Grad students Grace Wusk, Harsh Sanghavi and Arjuna Sondhi explored how biometrics can be used to understand trail experiences. Specifically, they merged GPS data from a mobile phone with data from the Empatica E4 wristband that records photoplethysmography (PPG), electrodermal activity (EDA), skin temperature, 3-axis acceleration, and 3-axis orientation. It was challenging to collect meaningful biometric data outside of a highly-controlled lab setting, though quiet, distraction-free trails showed promise.
The Navigating with Augmented Reality Project looked at different ways that AR can help hikers stay in touch with each other, particularly when their different hiking speeds cause them to become separated.
The Shared Outdoor Experiences Project examined how people can share their experiences with friends and relatives who are unable to join them physically.
The Disorientation Project explored how young children are distracted from outdoor learning tasks in busy environments.

Navya Kondur thesis recap: Using K-Mode Clustering to Identify Personas

Navya Kondur successfully defended her thesis titled Using K-Mode Clustering to Identify Personas for Technology on the Trail on April 19, 2018.  Navya wasn’t originally thinking to do a thesis when she started examining some of the questionnaire results from Gracie Fields’ thesis, but Navya identified some interesting questions within Gracie’s data sets and, most importantly, a new way to examine the data.

Navya presented some preliminary results at the GROUP 2018 workshop, receiving some great feedback from Mike Jones, who has been working on some similar persona creation activities. Navya’s background in statistics served her well in highlighting some possible ways to analyze results from some of Gracie’s data sets; specifically, by using k-mode clustering to identify groups of like-minded hikers.

K-mode clustering is a method to identify clusters within categorical data.  It is a modification of the more popular k-means analysis, adapted for use with categorical data such as types of gear that people bring on hikes, sleeping preferences when on multi-day hikes, and selections between paired “would-you-rather” options (as featured in Gracie’s thesis work).  Navya administered a series of “would-you-rather” questionnaires at various Tech on the Trail events, collecting sufficient data to craft clusters.  Since the clusters are not particularly descriptive or evocative, Navya then crafted five personas that helped to reflect some of the differences among hikers; e.g., younger people embrace technology but lack the money for it.

Navya’s thesis really helped to highlight the possibilities in her line of research, particularly with regard to k-mode clustering and persona identification–though the small number of participants yielded a small number of clusters.  However, her work has resulted in a funding proposal that seeks to identify the nuances between people on trails, and, if funded, we will be on track to publish a large-scale examination of this domain in the future (and maybe we can talk Navya into returning to VT for her Ph.D.)  Until then, check out details about this work in Navya’s GROUP workshop paper and (when released) thesis document.

Navya and her committee (L-R: Scott, Steve, Mike) at her defense

Projects: Appalachian Trail Counties and Cities in Southwest Virginia

A Virginia Tech class project, led by historian Tom Ewing, looked at potential influences of the Appalachian Trail (AT) on the communities that it passes through. The class goal was to encourage students “to think critically and creatively about the ways that data analysis can inform understanding of contemporary issues (and vice versa)”.  The class helped people connect to the area in which they live.  With so many of our students coming from northern Virginia, the Norfolk area, and elsewhere in Virginia, the project enabled students to explore the region that is now their home.


Students presented their projects at a poster exhibition on April 24.  Exhibits focused on how the AT influenced tourism, education, quality of life, and other topics in the communities that border the AT.  Since the AT goes through isolated and underdeveloped areas, many of the communities face challenges.  One interesting focal point of the exhibits was a probe of how data can tell very different stories regarding the Mountain Valley Pipeline that threatens the beauty and ecological balance along the AT. It was interesting to see how different organizations emphasized data in different ways to highlight whether the pipeline would benefit or harm the region in terms of dollars, jobs, and other factors.

I was able to talk with Tom about the class and his plans for future iterations of it. Possible directions include to tighten the definition of a “trail community” to focus on people for whom there’s the greatest impact; e.g., communities that rely on the AT for tourism and other economic benefits, and communities that are inconvenienced by the presence of the AT.  Details about the workshop and plans for the future can/will be found at:

Workshop Wrapup: Unpacking the Case of Hunters

Our Technology on the Trail Workshop featured a talk by Norman Su from Indiana University titled The Case of Hunters in the American Midwest: Examining and Designing the Resonance of Artifacts in Nature.  The talk was related to his similarly-titled upcoming paper, to be presented at CHI 2017.

Michael Horning from Virginia Tech served as discussant for the talk. Mike is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Communication with an interest in civic and information apps that help to support citizen engagement with news content. He had an up-front role in making comments and leading discussion for the talk, but also a behind-the-scenes series of communications with Norm about the paper.

A few highlights from their email exchange (posted with permission from Norm and Mike) that focused on the impact of constantly evolving technologies on hunters, particularly their interactions with each other. From Mike:

What I find interesting about your observations is that your findings suggest that users may actually live within worlds of constantly shifting ethoses, depending on the terms dictated by the hunting tradition. Do you agree? It seems to make the design challenges even more difficult.

Norm responded:

I think it is indeed interesting that we are not only talking about multiple users, but how each user themselves may “adopt” different practices reflecting different interpretations of fair chase. I suppose, at a fundamental level, it is perhaps just fun for hunters to don these different caps when hunting. Most hunters I encountered regularly hunted in multiple weapon/species seasons.

Technologies certainly alter the interactions between hunters and their prey.  As Norm noted in his talk, with modern technology you can hunt and kill animals that don’t even know you’re there. Mike connected that interaction with the “fair chase” notion introduced in Norm’s paper:

I see some parallels between your observations and Harrison and Dourish’s observation about Space and Place, where “space is the opportunity, and place is the understood reality.” Jacques Ellul’s concept of technique is perhaps also relevant here with the notion that every technological innovation alters in some way how we respond to the physical world either socially or cognitively. I am wondering if the term “fair chase” is self imposed by users or by traditions and technologies (in other words the places) that they find themselves in. I think this too has some interesting implications for design.

Norm noted:

I admit to being ignorant of Ellul, but I think certainly we can talk about space and place–in particular, I think use of particular technologies provides a different “filter” into the physical place. It might also be interesting to talk about technologies like weapons in terms of a medium that alters our perception of reality (e.g., a recurve bow filters our view of the world/opportunities to one within close proximity).

Mike identified some specific examples from his “youth” that highlighted some of the issues related to cheating and fair chase:

…you observe that hunters often rejected what I would call modern innovations in hunting technology (cross bows, drones, trail cams). I’m old enough to remember when muzzleloader hunters who were flintlock purists rejected modern inline muzzleloaders and when compound bows were considered “cheating” by recurve shooters. I bring these up as examples of technologies that began as unethical and have more recently moved to mainstream. It suggests to me that some of the “newer” innovations may as well. One question this may raise for HCI is the extent to which we should trust users with their own assessments, given that those attitudes may be more generational/experiential than cultural. Beyond hunting, I think this may also raise a larger question for other forms of outdoor sport as well. Many hikers, for example, may reject certain changes that future hikers eagerly embrace.

Norm responded:

I think there is also the conundrum of how to resolve the age old cycle of rejecting the new, eventual adoption of the new, and now the new becomes the old. The resolution is difficult in terms of design because I personally think design can’t dismiss these snapshots of admonishment, but at the same time, as you said, we also need to realize that assessments often become outdated.

At the heart of this debate seems to be values, and the consideration of values on the design process.  I agree with Norm that resolution is difficult in terms of design, but there are certainly ways that design can account for the tensions between changing technologies and human reaction.

Mike brings up one way that this can be addressed, through value sensitive design:

You also mentioned the theme of moving beyond value sensitive design. I think this is an interesting and important question. I would look forward to the discussion that comes from it. I could see this also being a good starting point for smaller group discussions during the talk. I thought about this issue as I read your interviewer’s comments. While their concept of fair chase resonated with my own experiences, you mentioned that the hunters acknowledge that they were not paragons of virtue. It does raise the question of whether value sensitive design is giving us a comprehensive view of users or more of their reflections on their ideal types of users. And if it isn’t accurate or is limited what are we missing?  Does a hunter, for example, who has not seen any success after two weeks of hunting give up on his/her concept of a fair chase and pursue less approaches? How can we design experiences that help hunters maintain their ideals?

Norm responded:

Ideal vs what is done in practice is interesting to consider. I might argue that perhaps hunters need to see that living up to an ideal is difficult but should nonetheless be aware of what that ideal is. It reminds me almost of something like what many religions preach that we should try to seek an unreachable ideal.

Mike closes by circling back to the core tension between people with different values, and hints at similar tensions in other Technology on the Trail domains.

at two points in your paper you discussed the design of what I’ll call restrictive or limiting designs. The first was related to technically mediated experiences that limit capabilities and power relationships with nature. Near the end of the paper, you discuss designs that address unethical behavior. This seems like an observation that may get at the heart of this tension that exists between the desire to commune with nature and the tendency to see technologies as intrusive on that experience. Perhaps users may be more willing to adopt technologies that create additional challenges or that in some way intensify their struggle with nature. Such technological designs wouldn’t violate the norms of fair chase or be seen as “cheating” in other contexts (e.g. hiking). I think it might be worth thinking about what designs that “limit” look like and how we go about identifying requirements for such a design.

Norm closes with:

I think if we create designs, we might ask how we can cater to people who only want to hunt on weekends vs those who basically live in large private lands for hunting.

Certainly there are similar tensions between thru-hikers and day-hikers on the Appalachian Trail and similar hikes, as well as the tensions between hikers and people who live in the towns along a trail.  Mike led an activity at the workshop that identified over 30 different roles for people on trails, many with overlapping values but many with values that lead to conflicts, too. All too often, design focuses on the target users, but one lesson from this exchange is the need to consider the great many stakeholders that are impacted by the introduction of any new technology–particularly in places where people often go to escape technology.