Virginia Science Festival 2019

The Virginia Science Festival is taking place today, Nov 16, from 10am until 4pm, with a series of lightning talks to follow. The event is geared for young people, but it’s enjoyable to everyone. There are dozens of projects featured at the event, many hosted by the College of Science, the College of Engineering, the Center for Human Computer Interaction, the Institute for Creativity, Arts, and Technology, and lots of other clubs and organizations at Virginia Tech and in the area. As in years past, Tech on the Trail has some projects at the event:

  • Shared outdoor experiences lets participants connect with others in a virtual recreation of the Moss Arts Center. The environment lets people traverse around Moss, with alerts for friends who are elsewhere that are intended to get them engaged with the experience. Derek Haqq is leading this project, assisted by Allison Collier and Setor Zilevu.
  • How well do you know your leaves provides information about leaves from trees in the New River Valley area. Visitors to the exhibit will be able to see if they can do better than our image recognition algorithm at identifying leaves. This project, led by Neelma Bhatti and Morva Saaty, is part of a larger effort to see how to keep young children engaged in learning tasks.
Kids are checking out Allison’s demo of the Shared Outdoor Experiences app.
Morva demonstrates the leaves app to an interested young scientist.

Projects: HCI Outdoors Undergraduate Capstone Spring 2019

The Spring 2018 school term provided the opportunity for senior undergraduate students in computer science to take part in client-based projects related to technology on the trail. Each project was asked to address some trail-related problem through a tech implementation. Below is a summary of the projects that they undertook.

NOTE: some of the students continued their work on the projects, and others were continued by grad students and clients toward being incorporated in grants, papers, theses, and dissertations. This post has been and will continue to be updated with links to new papers.

  • BarkLight. This ICAT-sponsored project augments a large piece of tree bark with LED lights. The lights connect to data streams, including web data and Kinect motion capture data, to reflect changes in the data. This award-winning project was featured at ICAT Day and VTURCS, and we are looking for corporate sites interested in deployment. The project was sponsored by Architecture prof Matt Wagner and CS prof Scott McCrickard.
  • Trail Tweets. Undergrads Max Adler, Aarjab Goudel, and Anthony Medovar reinvented a project that looked at ways to visualize tweet data from the trail, assisted by grad student Shuo Niu and CS faculty Ed Fox. This semester’s group looked at pictures that were tweeted from the trail, seeking to help future trail users identify interesting areas for exploration through a web-based application. Shuo discusses this research further in the future work of his dissertation.
  • Storytelling on the Trail. Undergrads Nicholaus Clark, John Kook, Dylan Finch, and Emily Maher crafted a Picturing Trails app that explored ways that users can create a story using photos that they took on hikes and other outdoor adventures. The slow-moving, nature-focused characteristics of a hike provide a unique opportunity to capture a beautiful experience, but hikers do not want to be disturbed with requests for tags and notes (or even picture-taking). Ph.D. student Derek Haqq is exploring this research direction for his dissertation, under the direction of CS faculty member Scott McCrickard and Communication faculty member Mike Horning.
  • Expanding HEART by Improving Recruitment. Vanessa Lomeli, Phillip Hrinko, Keller Han, and Juan Segura worked with the Human Nutrition Foods and Exercise Department to help develop a web site to recruit pregnant women learn about ways to stay healthy during their pregnancy, particularly through regular exercise, diet, and community building.
  • BirdFeed. Chandler Manns and Stephen Tewes crafted an updated birdwatching app in support of birdwatching in the New River Valley. The students collected task-related information from educators, including Mike Rosenzweig from Blacksburg’s SEEDS center, birding club president Garrett Rhyne, and Biological Sciences prof Dana Hawley. Grad student Tim Stelter seeks to leverage the project findings in his citizen science research.
  • Fostering Digital Cooperative Management on the Appalachian Trail. Undergrads Parker Irving, Daniel Ocheltree, and Campbell Johnson worked with the Outdoor Club of Virginia Tech on a web-based system to support Appalachian Trail maintenance issues, including public reporting, scheduling, work trip reporting, and time management. Club members, and the project host and club advisor Christina McIntyre, can now maintain records of work toward easier scheduling and reporting.
  • Accessibility Mapping at Virginia Tech. Mechanical Engineering student Josh Wenger joined computer science students Yasmine Belghith, Jack Danisewicz, and Mahira Sheikh to provide campus navigation based on user mobility constraints. The group interviewed stakholders, including disabled students and faculty, campus officials working in the accessibility office, and advocates for accessibility. They crafted a high-fidelity prototype that is being used by Hani Awni and Dr. Alan Asbeck from Virginia Tech’s Assistive Robotics Lab, to be used to increase campus accessibility.

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

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.

Projects: Technology on the Trail Undergraduate Capstone Spring 2018

The Spring 2018 school term provided the opportunity for senior undergraduate students in computer science to take part in client-based projects related to technology on the trail. Each project was asked to address some trail-related problem through a tech implementation. Below is a summary of the projects that they undertook.

NOTE: some of the students continued their work on the projects, and others were continued by grad students and clients toward being incorporated in grants, papers, theses, and dissertations. This post has been and will continue to be updated with links to new papers.

  • GreenSites: Navigating Towards Sustainable Camping. Undergrads Michael D’Avella, Forrest Doss, and Matthew Scanland undertook a project sponsored by Jeff Marion and his grad students in Virginia Tech’s Department of Forest Resources and Environmental Conservation. They were tasked with creating a mobile hiking application that would allow users to be able to navigate towards sustainable campsites and avoid areas that are detrimental to the environment. Their app allowed conservationists to map existing and potential campsites to help determine sites with the potential to be the most environmentally friendly. (See image below.)
  • TrailBuddy. Rui Jin and Shumeng Zhang crafted an app to identify tagging approaches for photos taken on the trail during hikes and other outdoor activities—at times when people do not wish to manage their photos but do wish to capture context. Grad student Derek Haqq is continuing this research as part of his Ph.D.
  • The Gardenator: Fostering Learning by Improving Attitudes towards Science. Undergrads Anne Hoang, Havisha Panda, and Jennifer Shenk crafted a scavenger hunt app in support of the Pollinator Garden at the Science Museum of Western Virginia (SMWV). They sought to improve user-user and user-exhibit interactivity by improving attitudes toward science and learning. The project was sponsored by ICAT’s Outreach and Engagement Coordinator Phyllis Newbill, along with staff at the SMWV. Grad student Lindah Kotut is seeking to publish continued work on this project in support of her Ph.D. dissertation. (See image below.)
  • Safe Drinking Water with Smart Technology. Undergrads Arianna Krinos and Priyanka Kogta, together with grad student Jingoo Han, developed a web site and Java app to increase understanding of new smart and connected technology for drinking water systems. The project breaks down barriers of understanding to increase public confidence in the quality of drinking water.
  • Twitter Tweet Visualization on Trails. Undergrads Mark Episcopo, Vedant Tyagi, Patricio Moreno, and Shivani Rajasekaran crafted a visualization showing tweet locations using Apache Spark and Scala. They looked for interesting themes in over 1.5 million tweets by trail users around the world. (See image below of tweets filtered by season.)
  • Poison Ivy Tracking App for ITCHY. Undergrads James Wilson, Gunnar Arnesen, Douglas Botello, and Jason Merewitz worked with Plant Pathology, Physiology, and Weed Science professor John Jelesko on an app for tracking locations of poison ivy. This project is part of Dr. Jelesko’s ITCHY project (nvestigating Toxicodendron and Habitats for Years) that studies the times and locations that poison ivy can be found. The work supports citizen scientists in their efforts to help this scientific endeavor. Computer science grad student Tim Stelter is continuing this work.
  • Tracking Birds in the New River Valley. Undergrads Zijian Xu and Hongyi Zhen created Birding Buddy, a digital education mobile app to get young people excited about bird watching. It includes a field e-notebook to help users record bird observation date, time, location, photos, audio, and more. It includes a wiki with the 28 most common birds in our region. Birding Buddy supports the Boy Scout Bird Study Merit Badge requirements 5 and 6. Grad student Tim Stelter is continuing this work (along with other projects above) as part of his citizen science research.
GreenSites screenshots showing potential sites and surrounding terrain. Scientist can easily create markers indicating potential sites, then study the resulting map to identify promising sites at a later time.
Participants using the Gardenator application in-situ and during a showcase, together with the available options for interaction. The user selects a category, and using the clue given takes a picture. The application then applies image recognition to check for correctness, then revealing a successful page or a failed page accordingly
This tweet visualization shows hiking by seasons, with winter hiking largely (but not exclusively!) happening in the warmer regions of North 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