HCI Outdoors book

At the 2018 ACM SIGCHI Workshop on HCI Outdoors, the organizers and participants decided it was time for an academic book that captured key advances in this area.  Scott McCrickard, Michael Jones, and Timothy Stelter were selected to edit the book, to be published as part of Springer’s HCI series in 2020.  The book, to be titled HCI Outdoors, will describe human-computer interaction (HCI) challenges and opportunities in outdoor settings for communities, groups, and individuals, in domains to include recreation, education, citizen science, wellness, and games. Scales of impact include individuals with personal devices, small groups using technology to support common goals, and large communities of people whose ways of doing and being are affected by outdoor technologies.

The book will be used in a combined grad/undergrad course in Fall 2019, also titled HCI Outdoors, in which course participants will read chapters toward identifying common themes and connections between them, and will craft prototype-centered projects inspired by them. Chapter authors will be invited to participate through invited talks, project sponsorship, writeup responses, or other means.

More information about the book, including how to participate and tentative chapter titles and authors, can be found on the main book site at http://hcioutdoors.net/book/

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

Reading reflection: The Oregon Trail: A New American Journey

There are tons of “American journey” stories out there, and authors can struggle to find an interesting angle toward authoring a book or blog or such. Rinker Buck certainly can’t be called uninteresting in his choice of adventure: re-creating the Oregon Trail in modern times using the same style of ox-drawn covered wagon employed by the settlers.

Rinker Buck’s book The Oregon Trail: A New American Journey chronicles his journey along the Oregon Trail, a gateway across America taken by settlers in the early 1800s.  The book notes that the notion of a single “Oregon Trail” is deceptive, as there are many paths that were used by settlers making the journey west. Parts of the trail have become roads and highways and some goes through private property, but much of it is far from civilization, so the author had to choose a path that was safe, legal, and enjoyable.  The book balances stories about traveling through wilderness and traveling on modern roads in an old-style vehicle, interleaving the history of the trail and observations about the people that he met along the way.

As always, I kept an eye toward tech use, which was not at all a focus of the book.  The author had a mobile phone on his journey that he occasionally used, but generally he relied on the oft-present kindness of people that he encountered along his journey.  He certainly had a lot to say about the role of technology in enabling trail travel, then in making it obsolete–focusing on tech advances in transportation, manufacturing, and farming. In reading between the lines, the author seemed to intentionally avoid writing about personal technology use, seeking to add to the air of authenticity regarding their journey.

Overall, the book was entertaining and very well written, certainly worth a read both for the historical perspectives and to learn about a meaningful trip across America.

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

GROUP workshop: Toward opportunity in conflict

At ACM GROUP’s Technology on the Trail Workshop, Lindah Kotut and Mike Horning led an activity on the theme “Who’s out there? What are they doing?” that morphed into “Opportunity in conflict”.  The goal of the session was to explore the people that take technology onto trails, toward looking for conflicts that arise among groups of people and the opportunity in conflict.

Participants in the workshop drew from a large set of hiker roles, looking at tensions within the groups (e.g., hunters who use advanced weapons vs those who don’t think that gives animals a fair chance) and between groups (e.g., people looking for solitude, and those looking to play music with friends).  Lindah took the lead in identifying several tensions that seemed to pop up repeatedly:

  • presence vs distraction: Many people from most of the groups seek to escape technology by heading into wilderness, but they often are drawn to use technology to check that one important message or take that one essential picture.  There’s value in these things, but it may not be worth the distraction.
  • experiential vs practical: The line between these is often blurred, such as the desire for a family to document a trail experience in photos, and the competing desire to simply enjoy the experience.
  • professional vs amateur: There was a perceived value in professional use of technology, somehow making it forgivable to use, whereas the needs of amateurs did not seem as important.
  • known vs unknown: Our group struggled with ways of knowing about professions outside of our scope, whether the uses of technology were as helpful and/or arduous as they seem.  It’s hard to understand professions related to rescue, science, and hunters without representatives from those groups in attendance.

This workshop effort represents one step in understanding who’s on the trail.  It was encouraging to make progress on opportunities, not just resolutions.  This work continues, with a next step to appear in the HCI Outdoors Workshop at the ACM CHI Conference in May 2018.

GROUP workshop: Crowds on the trail

A work session at the ACM GROUP Technology on the Trail Workshop featured the theme “Crowds on the Trail”, led by Tim Stelter.  Tim explored how citizen science efforts can be used to inspire modest and appropriate tech uses on trails and in other outdoor settings that will be minimally intrusive to those doing the work but helpful to scientists who need to collect information.

Tim started by presenting two similar examples of signage meant to inspire photo taking which have prompted very different reactions.  The “change bracket” signs encourage people to take timestamped pictures of an area of ecological interest, while the “photo frame” signs sought to provide a fun addition to a favorite viewing spot.

Both photos are shown below, with links to the articles that featured them.

One of the “Change Bracket” signs designed and deployed by the Nerds for Nature group to track recovery from wildfires and other habitat changes.  The sign and accompanying bracket encourages hikers in an area to take a picture, positioned on a post-mounted bracket, that captures an area recovering from wildfires.  Hikers post the pictures to social media, and scientists use timestamped images to track recovery over time.  Image from Dan Rademacher.

A frame was added to an overlook at the Garden of the Gods to encourage picture-taking for personal enjoyment.  Some people enjoyed the frame, but protests over the lack of input to the addition to the park and the changes caused by the sign to the view of nature resulted in its removal.  Image from KKTV, reproduced per their terms of service.

Differences in the preparation and instantiation of these signs contributed to their very different reception by visitors.  The “change bracket” group was well-integrated within the park and community, seeking guidance at every stage of integration.  Their sign clearly reflected a purpose rooted in common good, and contributions from participants are visible on social media.  The “blue frame” group did not seem to take public opinion into account, and their sign changed the nature of an established overlook.  The sign was intended for fun, with minimal societally-useful purpose.

Tim couched the discussion within the principles of the International Association for Public Participation (IAP2), which describes a spectrum of public participation that increases decision impact.  Spectrum levels include: inform, consult, involve, collaborate, and empower.  A breakdown at any level can result in a corresponding breakdown in trust and participation.  Tim led a discussion that looked at citizen science examples through the lens of this spectrum, noting that efforts like the “blue frame” group failed in the inform and involve levels.  The discussion led to a prototype ideation activity in which breakout groups designed a citizen science project and prototype that supports the levels.  Group ideas included a solar charging station that asked hikers to do a task while they were charging their devices, a flow control plan designed to discourage hiker bubbles that overcrowd shelters, and a Yelp for hikers device for identifying (and, thus, tracking) animals.

The framework proved useful, leading to discussion about its relationship to motivation of use, and of other factors that contribute to motivation.  When I discuss the change bracket project with groups, I ask for a show of hands indicating who would be willing to take part in this daily when on a hike, and generally almost every hand goes up.  I then ask who would do it hourly, and there are far fewer hands.  Motivation will have its limits, and the “asks” can’t grow too large.  Tim continues to explore these issues…input welcome!

GROUP workshop: Lunchtime walk

Melanie Trammell and Steve Harrison led a pair of work sessions at the ACM GROUP Technology on the Trail Workshop focused on a things that could be learned on a lunchtime hike at the Ding Darling Wildlife Nature Preserve at Sanibel Island.  Workshop participants were encouraged to bring their favorite piece of hiking technology to the conference and use it on the hike–sharing their data during a discussion period afterwards.  Most of the remainder of this writeup comes from Melanie, lightly edited and somewhat compressed.

Hike participants were encouraged to take on roles that had been discussed in previous activities that matched their general character and interests, and to choose to some kind of technology or absence of for capturing data on the walk. In addition, members were asked to have their walk into the trail to be framed as a wide eyed experience and their journey back as more of a touristic endeavor. Lastly, the neighboring workshop on refugees heard about this initiative and joined in for these directions and the actual walk.

Steve Harrison led the discussion session, asking participants “What did you do?” and “What did you see?”.  Participants talked about their goals and interactions with others, and how they went beyond just the things they saw to focus on smells and tech-enhanced seeing.   From this, Harrison went on to explain that these two questions are very popular ones used to explain how we make sense of our experiences. Still, are they the right questions for sense-making on the trail? To better answer this, Harrison presented different ‘cuts’ or other categories one can use to describe and understand experiences like individual vs shared experience, sharing experience, data collection, narrative, mediating experience, movement vs location, time and the context we come from. After this he opened the floor up to anyone who had particular aspects of their experience that they would like to share.

At this point Scott McCrickard brought up how he was most interested in pictures that focused on his family, not necessarily primarily focused on the wildlife. In fact his favorite picture was everyone looking at the wildlife. From this, he moved to questioning why others always take pictures of the same things (e.g., vistas, or famous buildings) when it is already highly represented in more professional ways. Melanie contested this point, trying to articulate that taking a picture, even of a highly represented thing, is meaningful. Thus postcards don’t have the same value as a picture that originates from oneself. Yet for McCrickard, the value was the people in the picture.

Others weighed in as well.  Brian McInnis commented on this balance between nature and family.  Birgit Krogstie put forth the notion of physical limitations of roaming due to mud and other obstacles in her position paper, and Michael Horning wondered what contrasts we could list through comparing this experience with that of her Norwegian walk. Shuo Niu shared a picture of him near an alligator in the everglades and connected it to his experience with the informational sculptures of scat. He first noticed these small sculptures and upon opening them learned about the creature that creates them. 

Participants seemed to mold the discussion and activity to the dimensions of technology on the trail that was interesting to them. In some ways this can be powerful; in other ways it leads to little overlapping discussion and high attention on the same items. This can be seen in that participants didn’t always position their experiences in the ‘cuts’ that Harrison proposed or structure the activity with a first wide eyed pass and second touristic one that was posed in the directions. In addition, participants were not asked to explain the role that they took and how that impacted both their experience and choices on the walk, and no member chose technology different than a camera (other than the absence of technology altogether). Lastly, it seems that this session raised more questions than answers, though there were some interesting observations on values that are listed below.

Interesting Observations

  • Some people value representation of people greater than the representation of the place, and vice versa (McCrickard vs Abigail)
  • Some artificial and low technology is acceptable and valuable (Shuo)
  • Some value education (Tim and Shuo)
  • The ‘different’ and ‘new’ can be valuable (Lindah and Mike) but others value the familiar (McCrickard)
  • Challenge can be valued (Shuo, Lindah, Abigail)
  • Familiarity may lead to taking on a different role (Mike)
  • Some goals (Abigail) do not benefit from some reflective technology (camera)
  • We are intellectuals – thus much of our conversation cuts right to the deep things
  • Topics that were not brought up
    • Who are the other people on the trail?
    • What do tourists do?

Generated and Still Present Questions

  • Are cameras used just as a reflective device? And if so, is it to reflect later or reflect in the moment?
  • What are the ‘right’ questions to make sense of a hike/hiking experience?
    • What did you do?
    • What did you see?
  • Why do we take pictures of the same famous thing? Is a postcard as valuable or functional as taking a picture yourself? When we take a picture, what role or reason is motivating us?
    • You are nature looking at them
    • Documenter for private or public record
    • For the current moment
    • Is the role you play derived from the task or the audience  of the artifact, or both?
  • How does ‘free to roam’ impact sense making and our sensibilities on the trail?
  • How does (if at all) technology affect the ways we tell stories about our experiences?
  • How is technology and the processes around them managed within a group on the trail?
  • How do people navigate importance/value of place vs people?
  • How does technology change planning?
  • How does technology change adventurous attitudes?
  • If technology is only giving us representation of the trail, what gets dislocated?
  • Is the purpose of technology in sense making an epistemic action? Or something else?
  • How does transportation (to and from the hike) qualify as technology on the trail?

To recap this session of our workshop and capitalize on any revelations since then, we held a reporting out session on February 7, 2018 with most members of the original session. We focused on presenting the above takeaways, discussion about any post-realizations and a mini activity to further our understanding of pictures as representation of experience.


After presenting the values and questions we inferred at our workshop, Tim brought to light some thoughts he had post-shop. This included the intersections of nature and man-made structures – how there was a walkway through a swamp, with signs and other infrastructure to also control the kinds of human interaction that were taking place. As a group we mused how postmodern perspectives come into play here, along with how features around a place can influence the creation of a trail. For instance, in Ding Darling Wildlife Reserve there are many dangers like quicks and alligators. Does this lead to creating a trail that is more regulated? Are other places (such as Norway with Birgits ‘every man’s right’) less dangerous and thus supports less regulation of traversal and other norms of trails?

From this, we moved on to question what is a trail in general. For instance, sidewalks on Virginia Tech campus have their own origin stories and norms. Overtime, weathered dirt paths on the Drillfield will often get paved to become more official trails. Also the corps of cadets have strict rules about how to walk a sidewalk when it comes to rank (right side, 90 degree turns) and the uniform (cannot walk and text). However, some areas utilize the same physical trails for different activities – like Pandapas Pond combining walking, horses, biking all on the same trail. Along with this, we also mused on the western phenomena of naming things.


Next, we asked everyone from our workshop to pick a picture that represents your experience of our walk through Ding Darling Wildlife Reserve. With it, participants used it to describe their experience to us all. From their stories we had to pick apart the different elements of their narrative.  Mike’s story was about critique, whereas Scott’s story was about warmth. Some involved goals being achieved, and that goals are emergent (i.e., only one person set out with a goal, and even then it changed). For Shuo’s story we see that the intended goal for the clay poop sculptures was achieved! In addition, we mused on how age affects people’s attitude towards objects. Thus it is likely this technology worked for Shuo because older people tend to gravitate toward competitive objects, while younger people tend to gravitate toward action objects. This idea of mementos to remember a place was also talked about briefly, detailing the different artifacts we favor for this function (magnets, postcards, ornaments).

In the end we concluded that the only similarity between all of these experiences was the physical location and that everyone chose (more or less) pictures as their representation. Other than that, the way they described their experience showcases the variety of needs, values, expectations etc. that lends to differing technologies.