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:

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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.

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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.

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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.

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