Reflections on CHI 2014

by Meryl Alper
May 5, 2014

Thanks to some fairly frequent conference travel over the past few years, my understanding of what makes up “the world of kids, media, and technology” is constantly expanding and changing.  I consider myself incredibly privileged to have the vantage point that comes from traversing many difference academic- and industry-focused circles (just to name one way of slicing up this universe).

This past week I attended CHI 2014 (the ACM CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems), where the “academic vs. industry” binary doesn’t neatly apply.  Attendees of CHI tend to come from university departments such as computer science, informatics, and human-computer interaction, and from companies such as Google, Microsoft, Yahoo, and Disney Research.

At CHI, I was exposed to a good deal of interesting work focused on understanding the experiences that children and families have with physical and digital objects with some sort of computational power behind them (e.g. apps, watches, televisions).  Additionally, a number of presentations provided a preview of new technologies that will likely come to market in the coming years or are just beginning to appear.

Below is a summary of children’s media and technology research presented at CHI—and an introduction to some of the researchers presenting at CHI—that I think most directly speak to the interests of the Joan Ganz Cooney Center community:

Research Projects

  • Waazam is a telepresence system that intends to support social engagement through creative play.  The team behind Waazam includes Seth Hunter of the MIT Media Lab and additional collaborators from the University of Calgary, Microsoft Research, and BT Research and Innovation (full CHI paper here).  In his presentation, Hunter described Waazam as “Skype meets Kinect meets imagination.”  I was intrigued by the ways in which the system allows children to throw things up on the (virtual) wall and customize their play spaces.
  • Also developed at the MIT Media Lab, StoryScape is a transmedia story-building platform developed to meet some of the unique needs of individuals diagnosed with autism and the broader autism community.  Led by doctoral student Micah Eckhardt and Professor Rosalind Picard, StoryScape is currently available as an app for Android on Google Play.
  • Researchers, developers, and producers interested in intergenerational play and communication will be interested in the work presented by Azadeh Forghani and Carman Neustaedter of Simon Fraser University entitled, “The Routines and Needs of Grandparents and Parents for Grandparent-Grandchild Conversations Over Distance” (Draft of paper here).  Their findings show the value of conversational systems that focus on engaging children in sharing more details about their daily activities with grandparents.
  • Today’s 3D printers have the capacity to produce hard plastic or metal objects.  Scott Hudson, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University’s Human-Computer Interaction Institute, presented on a new technique for 3D printing soft “huggable” objects (like teddy bears) using needle-felted yarn.  This technological development has implications for the computational crafting, DIY, and maker communities, within which scholars such as Leah Buechley, Kylie Peppler, and Yasmin Kafai have been conducting important work with young people and families.  Hudson’s research was completed with support from Disney Research.  His full CHI paper on the project can be found here.

Researchers

  • I had the immense pleasure of spending time at CHI with Morgan Ames, who is currently a postdoctoral researcher at the Intel Science and Technology Center for Social Computing at UC Irvine.  Ames studies the ways that people—particularly parents and children—make sense of the technologies in their everyday lives.  Her dissertation work focused on the social meanings of the One Laptop Per Child project.  Ames’s growing body of work has significant implications for understanding the intersections of social class, family values, and technology use.
  • Also at UC Irvine is Kate Ringland, a Ph.D. student in Informatics who is doing a digital ethnography of child and parent participation on Autcraft, a Minecraft server for autistic children and adults as well as their families (more information on Ringland’s study here).  While Ringland’s work is in its early stages, it has major implications for understanding joint media engagement among autistic youth.  While autistic people are often mischaracterized as being “impaired” when it comes to social interactions, Ringland is uncovering unique ways in which sociality is expressed through co-designing objects and sharing space within the game.

Lastly, in reflecting on my time at CHI, I find it important to remind myself that “human-computer interaction” involves more than just the interplay between bodies and machines.  There are larger historical, political, and sociocultural factors at play when it comes to understanding the encounters that young people today have with media and technology.  When families incorporate new media technologies into their lives, their actions are always rooted in past behaviors and existing values.  No single technology can be understood completely separate from other technological and institutional systems.  There are also many people indirectly and directly shaping how individuals use their personal devices at any given moment.  I was heartened to hear from researchers at CHI, such as Ingrid Erickson, Melissa Mazmanian, and Sarita Yardi Schoenbeck, whose work delves deeply into such issues.  Thanks to the CHI 2014 organizers and participants for a thought-provoking conference!