Tag Archives: buxton collection

Award: CHI Academy, 2014 Inductee

I’ve been a bit remiss in posting this, but as of April 2014, I’m a member of the CHI Academy, which is an honorary group that recognizes leaders in the field of Human-Computer interaction.

Among whom I can apparently I now include myself, strange as that  may seem.

I was completely surprised by this and can honestly say I never expected any special recognition. I’ve just been plugging away on my little devices and techniques, writing papers here and there, but I suppose over the decades it all adds up. I don’t know if this means that my work is especially good or that I’m just getting older, but either way I appreciate the gesture of recognition from my peers in the field.

I was in a bit of a ribald mood when I got the news, so when the award organizers asked me to reply with my bio I decided what the heck and decided to have some fun with it:

Ken Hinckley is a Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research, where he has spent the last 17 years investigating novel input devices, device form-factors, and modalities of interaction.

He feels fortunate to have had the opportunity to collaborate with many CHI Academy members while working there, including noted trouble-makers such as Bill Buxton, Patrick Baudisch, and Eric Horvitz—as well as George Robertson, whom he owes a debt of gratitude for hiring him fresh out of grad school.

Ken is perhaps best know for his work on sensing techniques, cross-device interaction, and pen computing. He has published over 75 academic papers and is a named inventor on upwards of 150 patents. Ken holds a Ph.D. in Computer Science from the University of Virginia, where he studied with Randy Pausch.

He has also published fiction in professional markets including Nature and Fiction River, and prides himself on still being able to hit 30-foot jump shots at age 44.

Not too shabby.

Now, in the spirit of full disclosure, there are no real perks associated with being a CHI Academy member as far as I’ve been able to figure. People do seem to ask me for reference letters just a tiny bit more frequently. And I definitely get more junk email from organizers of dubious-sounding conferences than before. No need for research heroics if you want a piece of that, just email me and I’d be happy to forward them along.

But the absolute most fun part of the whole deal was a small private celebration that noted futurist Bill Buxton organized at his ultra-modern home fronting Lake Ontario in Toronto, and where I was joined by my Microsoft Research colleagues Abigail Sellen, her husband Richard Harper, and John Tang. Abi is already a member (and an occasional collaborator whom I consider a friend), and Richard and John were inducted along with me into the Academy in 2014.

Bill Buxton needs no introduction among the avant garde of computing. And he’s well known in the design community as well, not to mention publishing on equestrianism and mountaineering, among other topics. In particular, his collection of interactive devices is arguably the most complete ever assembled. Only a tiny fraction of it is currently documented on-line. It contains everything from the world’s first radio and television remote controls, to the strangest keyboards ever conceived by mankind, and even the very first handcrafted wooden computer mice that started cropping up in the 1960’s.

The taxi dropped me off, I rang the doorbell, and when a tall man with rock-star hair gone gray and thinned precipitously by the ravages of time answered the door, I inquired:

“Is this, by any chance, the Buxton Home for Wayward Input Devices?”

To which Bill replied in the affirmative.

I indeed had the right place, I would fit right in here, and he showed me in.

Much of Bill’s collection lives off the premises, but his below-ground sanctum sanctorum was still walled by shelves bursting with transparent tubs packed with handheld gadgets that had arrived far before their time, historical mice and trackballs, and hybrid bastard devices of every conceivable description. And what little space remained was packed with books on design, sketching, and the history of mountaineering and the fur trade.

Despite his home office being situated below grade, natural light poured down into it through the huge front windows facing the inland sea, owing to the home’s modern design. Totally awesome space and would have looked right at home on the front page of Architectural Digest.

Bill showed us his origami kayak on the back deck, treated us all to some hand-crafted martinis in the open-plan kitchen, and arranged for transportation to the awards dinner via a 10-person white stretch limousine. We even made a brief pit stop so Bill could dash out and pick up a bottle of champagne at a package store.

Great fun.

I’ve known Bill since 1994, when he visited Randy Pausch’s lab at the University of Virginia, and ever since people have often assumed that he was my advisor. He never was in any official capacity, but I read all of his papers in that period and in many ways I looked up to him as my research hero. And now that we’ve worked together as colleagues for nearly 10 years (!), and with Randy’s passing, I often do still see him as a mentor.

Or is that de-mentor?

Probably a little bit of each, in all honesty (grin).

Yeah, the award was pretty cool and all, but it was the red carpet thrown out by Bill that I’ll always remember.

Thumbnail - Ken Hinckley CHI Academy 2014 InducteeHinckley, K., CHI Academy. Inducted April 27th, 2014 at CHI 2014 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, for career research accomplishments and service to the ACM SIGCHI community (Association of Computing Machinery’s Special Interest Group on Computer-Human Interaction). [Ken Hinckley CHI Academy Bio] 

The CHI Academy is an honorary group of individuals who have made substantial contributions to the field of human-computer interaction. These are the principal leaders of the field, whose efforts have shaped the disciplines and/or industry, and led the research and/or innovation in human-computer interaction. The criteria for election to the CHI Academy are:

  • Cumulative contributions to the field.
  • Impact on the field through development of new research directions and/or innovations.
  • Influence on the work of others.
  • Reasonably active participant in the ACM SIGCHI community.

Interacting with the Undead: A Crash Course on the “Inhuman Factors” of Computing

I did a far-ranging interview last week with Nora Young, the host of CBC Radio’s national technology and trend-watching show called Spark.

But the most critical and timely topic we ventured into was the burning question on everyone’s mind as All Hallows’ Eve rapidly approaches:

Can zombies use touchscreens?

This question treads (or shall we say, shambles) into the widely neglected area of Inhuman Factors, a branch of Human-Computer Interaction that studies technological affordances for the most disenfranchised and unembodied users of them all–the undead.

Fortunately for Nora, however, I am the world’s foremost authority on the topic.

And I was only too happy to speak to this glaring oversight in how we design today’s technologies, one that I have long campaigned to redress.

Needless to say, Zombie-Computer Interaction (ZCI) is an area rife with dire usability problems.

You can listen to the podcast and see how Nora sparked the discussion here.

But to clear up some common myths and misconceptions of ZCI, let me articulate seven critical design observations to keep in mind when designing technology for the undead:

  1.  Yes, zombies can use touchscreens–with appropriate design.
  2. Thus, like everything else in design, the correct answer is:
    “It Depends.”
  3. The corpse has to be fresh. Humans are essentially giant bags of water; touchscreens are sensitive to the capacitance induced by the moisture in our bodies. So long as the undead creature has recently departed the realm of the living, then, the capacitive touchscreens commonplace in today’s technology should respond appropriately.
  4. Results also may be acceptable if the zombie has fed on a sufficient quantity of brains in the last 24-36 hours.
  5. MOAR BRAINS! are better.
  6. Nonetheless, the water content of a motive corpse can be a significant barrier in day-to-day (or, to speak more precisely, night-to-night) interactions of the undead with tablets, smartphones, bank kiosks, and the like. In particular, touchscreens often completely fail to respond to mummies, ghasts, vampires, and the rarely-studied windigo of Algonquian legend–all due to the extreme desiccation of the corporeal form.
  7. Fortunately for these dried-up souls, the graveyard of devices-past is replete with resistive touchscreen technology such as the once-revered Palm Pilot handheld computer, as document in the frightening and deeply disturbing Buxton Collection of Input Devices and Technologies. These devices respond successfuly to the finger-taps of the desiccated undead because they sense contact pressure, not capacitance.

So let me recap the lessons:
Zombies can definitely use touchscreens; brains are good, MOAR BRAINS are better; and if you see a zombie sporting a Palm Pilot run like hell, because that sucker is damned hungry.

But naturally, the ground-breaking discussion on Zombie-Computer Interaction sparked by Nora’s provocation has triggered a flurry of follow-on questions from concerned citizens to my inbox:

What about ghosts? Can a ghost use a touchscreen?

A ghost is an unholy manifestation of non-corporeal form. Lacking an embodied form, a ghost therefore cannot use a touchscreen–their hand passes right through it. But ghosts can be sensed by light, such as laser rangefinders, or the depth-sensing technology of the Kinect camera for the XBox.

However, ghosts frequently can and do leave behind traces of ectoplasmic goo, which can cause touchscreens to respond in a strange and highly erratic manner.

If you have ever made a typo on a touchscreen keyboard, or triggered Angry Birds by accident when you could swear you were reaching for some other icon–chances are that “ghost contact” was triggered by a disembodied spirit trying to communicate with you from the beyond.

If this happens to you, I highly recommend that you immediately stop what you are doing and install every touchscreen Ouija board app you can find so that you can open a suitable communication channel with the realm of the dead.

What about Cthulu–H. P. Lovecraft’s terrifying cosmic deity that is part man, part loathsome alien form, and part giant squid? Can Cthulu use a touchscreen?

Studies are inconclusive. Scott’s great expedition to the Transantarctic mountains–where records of Cthulu are rumored to be hidden–vanished in the icy wastes, never to be heard from again. R. Carter et al. studied the literature extensively and promptly went insane.

Other researchers, including myself, have been understandably dissuaded from examining the issue further.

My opinion, unsupported by data, is that as a pan-dimensional being Cthulu can touch whatever the hell he wants–when the stars are right and the lost city of R’lyeh rises once again from the slimy eons-deep vaults of the black Pacific.

A lot of PEOPLE are WORRIED about Lawyers. Can lawyers use touchscreens as well?

Sadly, it is widely believed (and backed up by scientific studies) that most lawyers have no soul.

Therefore the majority of lawyers cannot use a touchscreen at all.

This is why summons and lawsuits always arrive in paper form from a beady-eyed courier.


Other noteworthy challenges to conventional INHUMAN FACTORS design wisdom

I’ve also fielded a variety of questions and strongly-held opinions from the far and dark corners of the Twittersphere.

Needless to say, these are clearly highly disturbed individuals, so I recommend that you interact with them at your own risk.

All right. I think I’ve put this topic to rest.

But keep the questions coming.

And be careful tonight.

Be sure to post in the comments below, or tweet me after midnight @ken_hinckley and I’ll do my best to give you a scientifically rigorous (if not rigor-mortis-ish) response.