GROUP workshop: Overview

The Technology on the Trail 2018 Workshop was held as part of the ACM GROUP 2018 Conference in Sanibel Island, Florida, USA on January 7.  A large group of Virginia Tech faculty and students joined with researchers from Brigham Young University, Cornell University, and the Norwegian University of Science and Technology to engage in a series of activities to further our understanding of tech on trails.

For most of us, this was a first trip to GROUP, held every other year in warm and sunny Sanibel Island, Florida, in January–a time when it’s cold and snowy elsewhere (including at home in Blacksburg, where snow cancelled K-12 schools).  Unfortunately, the snow meant delays for some workshop participants, though our crazy contingent drove the 13 hours from Blacksburg and weren’t affected by airport delays.

We wanted our workshop to engage around core ideas taken from the position papers, so we eschewed the usual morning presentations and squeezed in a collection of four activities (with linked summaries) throughout the day:

  • Who’s out there? What are they doing? [facilitators: Mike Horning, Lindah Kotut] examined conflicts among the groups of people that make use of trails.  We built on our prior efforts at identifying hiker roles, covering the walls with sticky notes, then sought to identify the roles and conflicts within and across groups.
  • Lunch and the lunchtime hike and Reflecting on data [facilitators: Steve Harrison, Melanie Trammell] asked participants to use the lunch break, and the fortuitous conference location, to explore the Ding Darling Wildlife Refuge on Sanibel Island, bringing favorite technologies to be used on a hike through the refuge. Afterwards, we examined the data collected during our hikes.
  • Crowds on the trail [facilitator: Tim Stelter, Scott McCrickard] brainstormed ways that hiking crowds can contribute to common goals while remaining true to the oft-cited desire for solitude and personal reflection.

It was great to have a big crowd of VT people at the workshop.  In addition to the workshop participants, VT Ph.D. student Andrey Esakia presented our FitEx/FitAware work, and incoming VT postdoc Jacob Thebault-Spieker presented some crowd work from his dissertation.  So Virginia Tech had good representation at GROUP…and hope to do so again in future years!

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)

Hiking the Appalachian Trail: Reflections and Experiences

At the conclusion of the Technology on the Trail Workshop, I had the pleasure of spending my spring break out on the Appalachian Trail (AT) with my hiking companion, Herb Stelter.  The workshop impacted my approach to my week out on the AT.  I engaged in interesting discussions on how people interpret being out in nature and its space, how we can utilize technology to outdoor teaching with kids, and whom would benefit having technology out on the trail.  

Two of our guest speakers, Ellie Harmon and Alan Dix, both accomplished extended hiking feats for which they reflected on technology use.  Ellie noted that during her Pacific Crest Trail thru-hike in 2013 she noted that smartphone devices were everywhere and being used for music, maps, communication, and more–particularly in comparison to her thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail just five years earlier.  Alan hiked the perimeter of Wales with an expressed purpose of collecting vast amount of data using various technologies.  However, he found most technology was more trouble than it was worth–with the exception of his audio recorder, which he stated was the only reliable piece of technology that didn’t die on him constantly.  Of course, not everyone will want an audio recorder; it worked well for Alan’s (and my) self-reflection goals. The takeaway message is to choose technology that is simple, reliable, and does an important task well.

I modeled my hike into three phases to reflect the Technology on the Trail’s high level focus:  Preparation, Experience, and Reflection.  

The preparation of the my hike was the most important step out of the three, given my lack of experience in multi-day hiking situations.  It was important to have safety as a top priority while hiking the AT.  During the preparation there were many meetings with self-identified hikers to offer their opinions on what was best to prepare. Understandably, with all these opinions there were a lot of contradictions about “best” options for a new hiker such as myself.  While my hiking companion Herb dealt with planning out the exact route and testing the hiking gear, I identified and purchased the technology to take based on criteria like power usage, weight, cost.  Here is a list of the technologies taken on the trail:

  • Garmin Fenix 3 HR Watch with GPS
  • GoPro HERO Session
  • Sony Audio Recorder
  • ETON FRX-BT All-Purpose Device
  • RAVPower & Anker external battery pack
  • Motorola Droid Turbo 2 & Kyocera Brigadier E6782 smartphones

The experience was a 6-day hike in the first week of March 2017 that lasted for 53 miles, avoiding all towns and urban areas.  The section of the AT was in the Shenandoah Valley, an average of 2900 feet above sea level.  The temperatures were between 9 – 70 degrees Fahrenheit during the trip, pushing the limits of the operating temperatures of the technology.  Physical artifacts of the experience included pictures, videos, audio recordings, GPS coordinates, and memories.  All are important for developing an understanding for interpreting an experience especially when reflecting on these artifacts to potentially come across a new perspective–in this case, how technology positively and negatively influenced my hike.

The reflection can be summarized in some key findings:

1) Design of technology for outdoor use needs attention.  For example, we noted some issues with the Garmin Fenix where in certain scenarios that our wrists would hit a button on the watch. Perhaps this was due to the more physical nature of our movements while hiking, as we did not notice this during our testing phase.

2) Be mindful to choose/create technology that is noninvasive of the experience.  Both physical and software side need to appropriately minimize flashing lights, noises, other distracting notifications unless their utility far outweighs the enjoyment of the nature experience.

3) The dynamics of group hiking versus individual hiking has an impact on hiking dynamics and can influence design choices for technology.   For instance, communication apps are geared towards group based activities while individual hiking don’t benefit such apps.

4) The view of usefulness of technology changes based on the current situation.  As mentioned above, the ETON radio provided moral boost by having music during the hiking portions of the day.  But when resting and setting up camp, the more leisurely environment saw the GoPro camera frequently used.

5) Leave time to do a day hike trying out all the gear.  During the hike (for a beginner) I would have saved myself a lot of trouble if I took the opportunity to spend a day with all the gear to get out all the kinks we came across during the hike.  This INCLUDES the use of the technology. I used it in my day-to-day life, but hiking puts forth far different situations.

For a more detailed account on this post, feel free to check out my extended abstract paper (and the other papers) accepted to the NatureCHI ’17 workshop. And you can read the Roanoke Times article about me and the Technology on the Trail workshop that appeared prior to my hike.

I want to thank Scott McCrickard, the Technology on the Trail Workshop guests (especially invited guests Alan Dix, Allison Druin, Ellie Harmon, and Norman Su), and Herb Stelter for the discussions and inspiring to take advantage of this opportunity.  I also want to thank Phyllis Newbill and ICAT for allowing the opportunity to present my experience of technology use on the trail at ICAT Day 2017.  And a big thanks to Matt Gentry from the Roanoke Times for doing an article on both Ellie Harmon, the Technology on the Trail Workshop, and myself.


ICAT Day 2017 project recap

The Institute for Creativity, Arts, and Technology (ICAT) holds its annual ICAT Day every May, and this year’s theme was Sensing Place; apropos to the geo-sensing aspects of our initiative.  We set up a series of projects related to Technology on the Trail, largely drawn from our CS 6724 graduate special topics class.  Here’s a recap of them, along with links to ongoing work and press releases.

Andrey Esakia presented FitAware, his extension to the FitEx health and fitness program. FitEx leverages relationships within and between teams to improve physical activity behaviors, and FitAware helps raise awareness of individual and team fitness behaviors through smartwatch and mobile device interfaces. FitAware was a featured story in Virginia Tech News, and he authored a work-in-progress paper that appeared at the ACM SIGCHI Conference in May.  Andrey was funded by ICAT this past year, in collaboration with Mike Horning, Samantha Harden, and Scott McCrickard.

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Shuo and blog author Alan Dix interacting with his data on the Microsoft Perspective Pixel and a secondary cloud display

Shuo Niu demoed his collaborative surface system for exploring hiking blog data. He uses a 55-inch multitouch tabletop display to show various analytics-based visualizations of the contents of hiking blogs. Words and phrases from the blogs can be manipulated to reveal repeated themes within a blog–often themes that the blog authors themselves didn’t realize were part of their blogs! A paper about this work is under review to appear at the ACM GROUP Conference (available upon request).

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Gracie exhibiting her cultural probe materials at ICAT Day

Gracie Fields displayed results from her cultural probes, a technique she employed to understand how people prepare for, undertake, and reflect on hiking experiences. Probes were sent to hikers of varying ages and abilities, from a 13-year-old Boy Scout who has done a few extended hikes to people in their 60s who have spent weeks at a time hiking. The probes asked people to answer questions, undertake preparatory hiking activities, reflect on personal and themed pictures, and much more over a multi-week session, toward encouraging participants to think and reflect in multiple ways about what hikes mean to them. Navya Kondor and Jagath Iyer also presented a spinoff presentation focused on the “would you rather” questions. More about Gracie’s work can be found in her recently completed thesis (available on request).

Tim Stelter presented a reflection on his week on the Appalachian Trail. I gave my class the challenge that if they took technology onto the trail for a 100-mile hike, it would earn them an automatic “A”. He and his dad covered over 50 miles (so 100 miles combined?) over spring break, and Tim generated a reflection paper to appear in the NatureCHI workshop in September. An article about his preparation for the hike appeared in our local Roanoke Times newspaper.

An ICAT Day attendee trying out Wallace’s Microsoft Hololens waypoint identification system

Some quick notes about other projects related to the theme. Colin Shea-Blymyer investigated mindfulness and forest bathing using EEG devices that monitored brain waves. He looked at baseline data from indoor EEG use, then compared it to data collected on outdoor hikes. Abigail Bartolome is collecting Twitter data from the three “triple crown of hiking” trails in the US: the Appalachian Trail, the Pacific Crest Trail, and the Continental Divide Trail. Her focus in Spring 2017 looked at the different emotional themes that emerged on each trail. Phillip Summers crafted visualizations of hiking data that was uploaded to a public repository, particularly the geo-temporal data. He was able to identify main trails, side trails, camping areas, common turnaround points, and more. And Wallace Lages used the Microsoft Hololens to craft an augmented reality waypoint identification system for hikers.

Most of these project are still under way, so comments below or via email would be greatly appreciated!


Reading Reflection: Tim Ingold’s Lines

At our Technology on the Trail workshop in March, invited speaker Alan Dix highly recommended a book by Tim Ingold titled Lines: A Brief History. We purchased it and made it available to people taking part in the initiative, with some thoughts listed here.

From Alan Dix’s blog post referencing Lines: “Ingold’s thesis is that we have privileged the point or place in modern thought, seeing the connection as merely the means of getting from A to B. Ingold is an anthropologist and spent time studying reindeer herders. Their way of life is to follow the herds as they make seasonal migrations; for the tribes following the herds it is the way they follow, the path, the line, which is primary.”

Ingold’s book explores how lines are a key part of walking, writing, storytelling, and much more.  The book probes the foundational meaning of a line, and what it is and means across various domains, noting early on that “to an illiterate reader, lines have no more meaning than abstract art”. There are tons of other examples in computing in HCI, e.g., certainly those who study visualization have a skill in recognizing patterns that an unskilled eye could not pick out.

The book is highly speculative, putting forth a series of analyses of topics and situations that were often not well grounded in evidence, which some found unsatisfying. Grad seminar participant Colin Shea-Blymer summed up this viewpoint very well:

I honestly appreciate the book’s magnificent scope, and, when taken as more of an artistic endeavor, it succeeds in that scope in many ways. However, coming into the book from a more critical perspective I found Ingold’s introductory apology for his lack of depth in many of the subjects he tied lines to unsatisfactory. The sections of his book that I muddled through read more like a stringing-together of romantic-era aesthetic arguments as evidence towards an unstated hypothesis; done without criticism of the arguments he appropriates. In brief, the book works well if you’re looking for an eye-opening overview of how lines go undetected in human art and society, but falters if the reader begins to scrutinize the arguments within. The path Ingold illuminates is beautiful and worth peering down, but the steps he takes appear treacherous and unstable upon closer inspection.

There’s more Ingold work, including another book that seems like it might be even more relevant to our Technology on the Trail theme, an edited collection titled Ways of Walking: Ethnographies and Practice on Foot (also available in the Virginia Tech library), stemming from a meeting of anthropologists who split time “sitting in a traditional seminar room” and “climb[ing] up through the forest and out to the open hillside”.  Given the similarity to our own seminar, there may be a review of this book in the near future!