BOOK RELEASE PART 2: HCI Outdoors: Theory, Design, Methods and Applications

Our book received its first public unveiling at this year’s ACM SIGCHI Conference in May 2022.  HCI Outdoors: Theory, Design, Methods and Applications, from Springer Publishing, is an edited volume of contributions from 18 groups of authors in academia, industry, research labs, and think tanks who are defining new ways that technology is explored, designed, and tested for use in outdoor settings. The book consists of five sections: Rural Contexts, Willed and the Wild, Groups and Communities, Design for Outdoors, and Outdoor Recreation.

I provided a full description of the book in a previous post upon the release of the book. The SIGCHI event served as an opportunity for chapter authors to gather with the publisher and talk to interested readers. Despite an absence of many authors who had Covid concerns and other conflicts, six authors and editors were able to stop by the booth, and there was lots of interest from conference attendees.

My co-editor Mike Jones and I are brainstorming future ideas for the HCI Outdoors efforts–maybe a follow-up workshop at a future SIGCHI or another conference, partnership with companies that produce and distribute outdoor-related technologies and apps, and grants and publications with other academics and researchers. Please contact us if you’re interested in joining us in these efforts!

Reading reflection: Sylvain Tesson’s Consolations of the Forest

I went to spend six months in a Siberian cabin on the shores of Lake Baikal, on the tip of North Cedar Cape.

Consolations of the Forest: Alone in a Cabin in the Middle Tiaga

Sylvain Tesson is a geographer by training and a journalist by occupation, but most of all he’s an adventurer. He’s bicycled around the world, descended into caves in Borneo, crossed the Himalayas on foot, and ridden by horseback across the Central Asian steppes. But the ultimate test of his physical and mental abilities, and the subject of this book, was to live for 6 months in withdrawal from society in a tiny cabin in Siberia. The book reads like an annotated diary, packed with reflections of his thoughts during isolation, the many books he read, the copious vodka he imbibed, his visits with neighbors (who were many hours away from him), and interactions with the world around him.

Tesson attempted to bring digital technology on his adventure, including multiple electronic devices and the rechargeable batteries, solar panels, and cables to keep it working. But what he couldn’t control was the temperature, which often dipped well into the negatives—not a good environment for technology. His computer and satellite phone both failed, though later in his trip his phone miraculously started working again, allowing him to check the weather and touch base with the outside world in a minimal way.

But virtually none of his stories centered on the electronics, failed or otherwise. He wrote his thoughts out by hand in a notebook, and maintained some level of sanity by establishing a routine that was both simple and challenging. It’s a way of living that’s most of us only experience in some small way, like when our computer dies and our phone can’t find a signal. Sometimes we embrace it by going out into the wilderness, though even those opportunities are becoming harder to find, like the trail or campsite that lacked internet on the last visit five years ago now has coverage and is filled with people binging their favorite new Netflix show.

Many a hiker have lamented the loss of wilderness to technology. My favorite Bill Bryson quote from A Walk in the Woods is “How I hate all of this technology on the trail”. And when Wild author Cheryl Strayed visited Virginia Tech, she agreed that her walk of the Pacific Crest Trail would have been very different in the current era of ubiquitous mobile coverage. Maybe Tesson will be next, when technology takes over Siberia.

NSF funding to support tech for trail management

Spring 2022 marks the first full semester for a new grant at Virginia Tech sponsored by the National Science Foundation (NSF). The grant, titled “EAGER: SAI: SmarTrail: An Infrastructure Services Framework for Sustainable Trail Management”, will investigate ways to identify, communicate, and address sustainability issues on long-distance trails like the Appalachian Trail. The multidisciplinary project is led by Kris Wernstedt of the School of Public and International Affairs and includes as co-PIs Scott McCrickard of the Department of Computer Science and the Center for Human Computer Interaction, Shalini Misra of the School of Public and International Affairs, and Jeff Marion of the Department of Forest Resources and Environmental Conservation and the USGS. There’s also a growing list of graduate students and undergrads as part of the project as well.

Staunton VA meetup: Kris Wernstedt, Shalini Misra, Jeff Marion, Morva Saaty, Scott McCrickard

The proposal seeks to explore the negative ecological impacts of hiking and camping, toward connecting trail maintainers like those at the ATC with the hikers who, quite literally, have boots on the ground on long-distance trails. Mobile phone apps like FarOut (formerly known as Guthook) and the many social media and journaling options provide ways to record observations and experiences, but there’s not a practical way for trail maintainers to process that information. We will be processing data from these and other media sources, and we will be conducting interviews with both trail maintainers and long-distance hikers. This analysis will enable us to design and develop tech solutions to help with the analysis and to aid with communication between stakeholders.

This SAI EAGER project will leverage understanding of the psycho-social-cultural dimensions of hiking with the affordances of digital tools and technologies to build a socio-technological information system that matches hikers needs with conservation objectives to support sustainable trail infrastructure management. Our project will integrate information on the spatial, socio-cognitive, and behavioral dimensions of Appalachian Trail hikers’ movements to understand how digital technologies mediate
psychological and social experiences in protected areas (demand side), with information on resource managers’ and trail maintainers perspectives on opportunities and challenges of digital tools and technologies in the context of their organizational settings (supply side). Using a mixed method participatory design approach that integrates social media, interpretive, ecological, and survey data, we will develop a prototype app-based trail infrastructure messaging system for experimental use and evaluation. This information-based approach will match supply and demand for trail infrastructure services and is based on an understanding of the different sociotechnological worlds people inhabit, their values, orientations, locations, and characteristics of the places they traverse.

From the NSF proposal project summary

We are looking at lots of avenues for people to contribute, including workshops, interviews, focus groups, roundtables, poster sessions, and more. Reach out to us if you’re interested in participating in any way, or keep an eye on this blog for opportunities. This post will be updated with images, links, and other information until there are sufficient findings for follow-up posts–stay tuned!

Reading Reflection: Tim Ingold’s Ways of Walking

Our principal contention is that walking is a profoundly social activity: that in their timings, rhythms and inflections, the feet respond as much as does the voice to the presence and activity of others.

Ingold & Vergunst, Ways of Walking

Tim Ingold and his colleagues assembled a collection of essays titled Ways of Walking, an anthropological study of cultural and historical reasons that people walk. Ingold, now a retired Professor Emeritus, was Chair of the Social Anthropology at the University of Aberdeen at the time, with a history of exploring pedestrian movement. (An earlier post reviewed a previous Ingold book, Lines: A Brief History, delving into his views of the evolution of trails.)

The Ways of Walking book resulted from a 3-day retreat at the University of Aberdeen called “the walking seminar” that brought together researchers from across the UK and beyond. Many of the chapters explore the role of walking in different cultures, including Lye’s examination of the Batek hunter-gatherers, Legat’s juxtaposition of storytelling and walking by the Dene, and Widlok’s comparison of the ancient San’s way of walking and modern GPS-driven approaches. There’s also a nod to the examination of walking in urban landscapes, including in chapters by Lavadinho, Curtis, and Lucas.

I must admit that my favorite part of the book is the walking seminar that birthed it. The seminar reminded me of our original Tech on the Trail workshop, which brought together a diverse group of external experts with a large collection of Virginia Tech scholars. It was awesome to be part of the idea exchange, and the collaborations that were established and have continued are invaluable–culminating in our HCI Outdoors book. Ingold’s Aberdeen retreat seems to have had a similar effect.