Virginia Science Festival 2018 recap

Virginia Tech’s Institute for Creativity, Arts, and Technology (ICAT) hosts the Virginia Science Festival each year, featuring work from ICAT-affiliated faculty, staff, and students.  Tech on the Trail had three projects featured this year:

Derek and Tim are ready!
  • The Gardenator: How Well Do You Know Your Garden highlights our award-winning garden discovery app made together with the Science Museum of Western Virginia. Grad student Lindah Kotut took the lead on presenting this work, which was implemented by a team of computer science undergrads.
  • Adventure Meets Research: Citizen Science and Technology on the Trail demoed a challenge (pictured at the right) for participants to “beat the computer” at identifying common plants on the trail.  This work featured an app that we have been developing to differentiate between plants found on typical regional hikes.  Grad students Derek Haqq and Tim Stelter presented this work, building on the efforts of many others.
  • Responsive Interior Surfaces: Barklight (pictured at the bottom of this post) is an ongoing effort to create an interactive surface using the bark of a tree and a series of LEDs.  A 96″ x 42″ bark panel features a 24 x 48 grid of LEDs connected to Arduinos that are programmed to reflect information and interactions. This represents joint work with faculty Matt Wagner (architecture) and Scott McCrickard (computer science), and students Tianyu Ge, Connor Smedley, Sidney Holman, Shuo Niu, Tom Phan, and many others.  This project is funded by an ICAT SEAD grant.

Big thanks to everyone who came out to the festival.  It’s been growing every year, and we’re happy to be part of this showcase event for ICAT and the region.

Front and rear views of BarkLight

ICAT Playdate recap: Bringing Fossils Back to Life

Last summer, ICAT joined the VT Paleobiology Research Group to document the excavation of a phytosaur skeleton. The group worked in the Triassic red beds of Wyoming, hauling over 40 pounds of equipment across ridges in 90 degree heat. ICAT’s role was to take technology on the trail by setting up an array of cameras at the dig site, toward crafting an array of cameras that would capture what went on in a dinosaur dig.

The project represented a collaboration between Michelle Stocker from Geosciences, George Hardebeck from SOVA/ICAT, Tanner Upthegrove from ICAT, and Zach Duer from SOVA.  George took the lead on the presentation, with others in attendance and helping behind the scenes.

The current state of the project will appear at next week’s Virginia Science Festival, and a completed video, merged with audio, will appear at ICAT Day on April 30, 2018.

Checking out the 360 3D immersive experience in The Cave.

Today’s preview presentation started with a description of the experience, touching on the scientific needs but (since it was an artist who was presenting it!) focusing on the crafting of a visually appealing representation of the experience. Video of the experience was collected using a set of 8 GoPro cameras, modified with wide angle lenses. There was a major labor cost in hauling the equipment to the dig site, setting it up, making sure it was properly calibrated, taking it down, bringing it back to the camp site, and spending hours downloading the collected video and charging the devices. The presentation then moved to The Cube to provide a 360 3D immersive experience on what it’s like to dig up fossils.


Our Technology on the Trail initiative has explored how pictures are an important part of many people’s hiking experience. Tim Stelter found it cumbersome to have a single GoPro mounted to his chest on his 50-mile hike (though it did lead to over 2000 pictures of his adventure), so it’s difficult to imagine hauling such a large collection of equipment even a relatively short distance. We’ve explored ways to automatically take pictures that go beyond the mundane. Many people have crafted a time-sequence picture series of their hike.  One of Ellie Harmon’s most valued outcomes from her PCT hike was the picture-a-day she identified, whereby she would choose one picture (and no more!) at the end of each day that captured her experience. I’m going to challenge students in my class this spring to identify ways to use sensors to find (potentially) good times to take pictures, similar to the efforts by the Google Clips project.

But this group certainly takes it to a different level. They’ve identified a way that technology can contribute to a better understanding of science by combining the talents of experts in technology, art, and science. I look forward to the next steps from this group!

Cheryl Strayed’s Wild Life

Cheryl Strayed spoke at the Moss Arts Center at Virginia Tech tonight, with a talk titled A Wild Life. She talked a lot about her book Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail that chronicled her troubled youth and how her time hiking the Pacific Crest Trail was a big part of moving on.  But she also talked a lot about what it means to be a writer, including differences between writing fiction, non-fiction, and an advice column (her current gig)—understandable since her visit was co-hosted by the English Department.

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Looking good at the Moss Arts Center!

She also touched on Technology on the Trail issues, particularly in response to a question about whether hiking in the internet age would have changed her experience. She spoke early in her talk about how she didn’t have the web as a reference, relying on the one book she found at REI to prepare her. She noted that she would have missed the “solitude and silence” that was a big part of her hike. And she honestly responded “I don’t know” but thought it would have still been cathartic.

It was wonderful to see her in person. She comes across as a warm and genuine person who really wants to help others by sharing her experiences, mistakes included. She broke the ice with the worst question she ever received, “Did you ever trade sex for food during your wild and crazy days?” (and her great response, “No, but have you had dinner yet?”…the questioner had already dined and had no follow-up question!)

And she signed my copy of Wild!  Thanks Cheryl!

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Alas, Cheryl is an Apple Watch person, not an Android Wear one. Nobody’s perfect!

Grace Fields thesis recap: Using Cultural Probes to Understand Hikers

Grace Fields, our grad assistant who spearheaded the early Technology on the Trail initiative—most notably the workshop—successfully defended her Master’s thesis on August 21, 2017!  Her thesis was titled “Technology on the Trail: Using Cultural Probes to Understand Hikers”.  Steve Harrison served as chair, and Aisling Kelliher and I were the other committee members.

Gracie employed a cultural probe method toward seeking to understand how hikers collect and share their experiences on the trail.  Bill Gaver and his colleagues introduced the notion of a cultural probe as a way to encourage participants to think in an open-ended, creative manner about their experiences.  Rather than giving them nicely printed questions on a sheet of paper, a cultural probe provides them with things like photo albums, a media diary, maps, a camera, and similar artifacts that are then paired with non-traditional prompts that encourage creative reflection.  Results of a cultural probe then can Cultural probes are not meant to yield repeatable, scientifically-grounded findings, but rather to uncover unique perspectives about the way that

Gracie crafted probes that challenged her participants to reflect on or re-imagine their hiking experiences using several prompts (see the picture at the bottom of this post).  Some of her probe prompts include “would you rather” questions that ask participants to choose between two options (e.g., would you rather have a photo you took go viral, or have a photo with you in it go viral), inventing activities for a reflective hike club (with membership size, activities, outcomes), and creating themed scrapbook pages (e.g., people you miss when on long hikes, telling your hiking story).  We learned a lot from the cultural probe, perhaps most importantly about how to run a cultural probe!

Gracie’s cultural probes probed a handful of people that she (or I) knew well, who were willing to take part in the probe activities with minimal compensation.  The results were sufficiently promising that we are seeking funding for a larger-scale investigation, seeking to understand the breadth of people on the trail and the many motivations that they have for their trail activities.  We expect that, by showcasing Gracie’s early results and providing monetary compensation, we will be able to create a rich and diverse picture that reflects current and desired ways that people reflect about trails.

Gracie’s thesis is now available online, and a fellow student, Navya Kondur, crafted her own investigation and analysis focused on one aspect of Gracie’s cultural probes.

Sample materials included in Gracie’s probe kits (detailed from Gracie’s thesis document)

Reading Reflection: Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

Robert Pirsig, author of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, died yesterday. His book is one of the historically great Technology on the Trail books, balancing tech issues of maintaining a motorcycle with the experiences afforded by a road trip through small towns with his son. I’ve read it previously and picked it up again after hearing of Pirsig’s death—it’s interesting to reconnect with his journey after recently reading and hearing about the journeys identified in preparation for our Technology on the Trail initiative.

Worth a look if you’re not familiar with it, and worth a look if you haven’t looked in a while.  Good luck finding a copy…I suspect there will be a run on the copies for a while.

Reading Group Summary: Harmon, the PCT, and Communication


Ellie Harmon explore how technology can lead to stress. It will be up to our group to explore implications about the findings about technology on trail-based activities. (Ambitious people can track down Ellie’s dissertation, which talks about technology and her PCT experience.)


  • Brief revisit of reading group and introductions of anyone new
    • Attendance: 5 people (1 professor, 3 graduate students, 1 undergraduate student)
  • Summarize papers
  • Discuss papers


This was our first paper for the reading group which was not expressly connected to trails, so we all connected the messages and tension of disconnection to the context of hiking in our own ways. Earlier that week, Dr. McCrickard and I (Gracie) had spoken with Ellie Harmon over Skype to pick her brain about Technology on the Trail and ask questions related to her hike of the Pacific Crest Trial (which she discusses in her dissertation), so we had some extra insight to bring to the table.

The group first discussed the differences between technologies that are fads (like the Hololens and Pokemon Go) and technologies that integrate themselves into our lives (like smartphones and laptops). We also revisited several times the ways in which we as a society view the past with rose-colored lenses. We have a picture of America in the 50s where families ate together lovingly every day, but there have always been distractions even before smartphones.

One group member suggested that instead of having a false binary or even a continuum to portray disconnection and integration, we might instead strive for a metaphorical tapestry that weaves together threads from both sides to create the ideal situation. We could consciously choose when to experience integration with technology and where we can disintegrate, such as when needing concentrated time for studying.

We also touched on how people feel vs how they appear. Someone might view themself as being one of the two positive images, but that’s never wholly true. We also intentionally wield technology to portray an image, such as pulling out a phone to appear busy even if you’re looking at a blank screen. Even then, outsiders might believe they’re playing a game rather than working. We also talked about how some people see technology use as antisocial and negative even though they’d see something like reading a book as intellectual and admirable. The person on the phone could in fact be reading a book, but it still has a far different connotation.

Touching on early adopters again, we talked about why people are so interested in being on the first (often expensive) wave of technology users. There are hikers who are excited about trying the latest gadgets out on trails. We talked about the social status is brings for being “first” or even “best” at technology, but we also talked about how the new experience itself is a nice bonus. One group member brought up the luddite image by suggesting there might be an adoption curve of sorts which starts with early adopters, rises into general use, and hits a plateau upon which anyone who isn’t using it appears to be out of touch with technology.

One member brought up the effect of having constant stimulus from technology and whether this creates a lack of boredom in our culture. They brought up a cub scout troop which, as they got older, went on their first camping for an extended period of time, and many of the young boys were unused to long periods with nothing to do (and they had a no technology rule in the troop). Technology has the potential to provide constant stimulus in our daily lives, and some members felt this could be an addiction.

We also discussed the enabling effect of technology for working from home or otherwise remotely. Many trails even have satellite or cell signal now. One member felt that being physically disconnected from work when leaving for camping or other remote experiences created more thorough preparation before leaving. That is, if you wanted to accomplish work while camping, you had to be entirely sure to pack it and all relevant files beforehand because there was no way to remotely access your workplace.

We finished by musing on the effect of being able to take thousands of photos because we’re not longer limited by film. One member talked about how they valued selfies from a particular distant friend because said friend rarely took any selfies at all, so the low volume made each one more special. We also brought up Dr. Harmon’s anecdote from the phone conversation about limiting herself to one photograph uploaded to Instagram daily during her PCT hike, and this made the set of photos far more appealing after the fact. Some members also felt that technology like smartphone cameras can interrupt or detract from experiences of the outdoors.

Reading Reflection: She Walks These Hills

Julia with a copy of McCrumb’s book.

With ancestry members dating back a hundred years ago as circuit preachers in North Carolina’s Smokey Mountains, author Sharyn McCrumb has inherited her ancestors’ love for the mountains has extended to the Appalachian Mountains. The nature of the Appalachians and its surrounding community is clearly shown through her fictional novel, She Walks These Hills. The novel not only depicts the juxtaposition of past and present and inexperienced hikers from experienced hikers on the Appalachian Trail but also the Trail’s lasting effect on nearby communities.

Viewpoints of the Trail, Novice and Experienced

As the novel shifts viewpoints, we are able to experience varying perspectives of the Appalachian trail. First time hiker and historian, Jeremy Cobb is backpacking through the Appalachian Trail in hopes of understanding the journey of Katie Wyler, a woman back in 1779 who was kidnapped by the local Indian Tribe but escaped and traveled through the mountains to get back home. Jeremy views the trail as parts that are necessary in order for him to reach his final destination.

Besides his unfortunate experiences with the weather and lack of survival knowledge for the wild, Jeremy simply tracks his progress through the mountains as a scholar, quantifying distances and describing his location based on map locations. In the beginning of his hike, his focus towards reaching his goal is shown with his descriptions of where he needs to walk such as,

The Bridge leading to the Iron Mountain Trail was within sight of the road, giving him a feeling of trail mastery that was perhaps unwarranted, but was reassuring nonetheless.” 

This gives insight on how individuals might have changed their perspective while on the trail; to go hiking to reach a destination with an end goal and not to hike simply for the pure enjoyment of it.

In contrast to the first-time hiker, Harm Sorely, an escaped convict with memory loss, travels the Appalachian Trail with a destination in mind but often becoming distracted by the changes in wildlife he observes in addition to forgetting what he was doing moments before. His description of the trail can be described as that of a man returning home after a long period of absence. Unlike Jeremy, Harm is unafraid of possible challenges that he could encounter and simply relies on his knowledgeable experiences from the past and luck from God. As an escaped convict, he has no map or supplies and simply uses instinct and general intuition as to where he needs to walk to get back home.

Harm is described as the last true renegade of his time, where he simply didn’t commit crimes as an act of malice but more as a form of entertainment or justice. He represents the way the Appalachian was in the past: primitive and uncivilized but also displays an area of familiarity and refuge for those willing to encounter it. As he travels through the trail, he travels as a hiker of the past: without maps or superfluous amounts of supplies. On the other hand, Jeremy represents the present as he walks through the Trail with maps, books, solar showers, tons of canned foods and more.

Inexperienced vs Experienced Hikers

Through the various journeys of the different characters, we are able to view and observe the difference between an experienced and inexperienced hiker.

Jeremy, a scholar who has never hiked before, enters the Trail ambitious. He views himself as, “an educated man, planning to hike in a “wilderness” dotted with villages”. For his journey, he initially carries

a wool blanket; candy bars; a water purification kit; a camp stove and extra fuel; some used paperbacks; and field guides to birds, flowers, minerals, and reptiles so that he could better understand his journey”.

By the end of the novel, he has either discarded or lost all of his items and is in such a poor physical condition that he is almost unable to walk and in need of medical assistance.

Since Harm escaped from the prison he was in, Harm entered the trail empty-handed. However, as a country native, he was able to successfully survive his journey without facing many of the hardships that Jeremy faced. His walk through the trail is seen as a calming and dazed (since he can’t remember anything in the present) experience. He takes his journey one step at a time, often relying on his knowledge of the Trail and God to supply him with what he needs. Somehow, even with his jaded memory he is able to successfully reach his destination as if it were a stroll in the park instead of a hike through the Appalachian Trail.

With the juxtaposition of an inexperienced and experienced hiker, it makes us reflect on what’s important when hiking: supplies or experience. This can be relevant for Technology on the Trail as there can be a combination of the two which can be used to enhance the experience of the hiker while not hindering the hiker’s connection with nature.

Effect on Community

Since She Walks These Hills was published in 1994, certain aspects of the novel have changed significantly. The most distinct difference is the way people communicated and spread information with each other. Unlike today, where people can easily communicate with each other by email, text, phone, or social media, the town in which the novel takes place communicates primarily through word of mouth, stories, and by hearing information on the radio.

Information is spread through the whole community by listening to the radio host, Hank the Yank. As Hank the Yank is investigating the escape of Harm, he tries to gain information about the escaped convict. While he attempts to research the topic by going to the library and looking at old newspaper articles, the best information he receives is through hearing the local gossip and the stories that the locals tell him when the call in. He realizes this while he is talking to a librarian worker when the worker tells Hank,

See, in small towns people don’t find things out from reading the newspaper… Gossip takes care of most of the local news long before the paper comes out, and certain topics never make it into print at all”.

This take on communication is relevant to Technology on the Trail since it reconsiders how to allow people to communicate on the Trail. While maps and GPS will help a hiker reach their destination, could they also gain information from local/experienced hikers to find a quicker/less dangerous route to reach their destination?

Overall, Sharon McCrumb’s novel, She Walks These Hills, was an insightful novel. Not only did it have a great story comprised of a bunch of separate stories that merged and connected at the very end, but it also made me realize that in order for Technology on the Trail to be successful, it must find a way to seamlessly merge technology with experience in order to help and enhance a hiker’s journey through the wilderness.