Wednesday, December 30, 2009

The Dressing of Games

I've been reading A Theory of Fun for Game Design by Raph Koster lately. It's a pretty different take on game design, unlike any other book on the topic I've seen so far. It was one of the titles recommended by Blair MacIntyre during his augmented reality games workshop at ISMAR09.

I haven't quite finished it yet, but it's been an interesting read so far. One of the main premises is that games are fun because we, as humans, have a desire for learning. We want to find patterns in things that might be useful to us in other areas of life. Granted, this need stems from our caveman days, but we still seek 'useful' patterns to this day.

Throughout the book, Koster has his text on one page and amusing cartoons on the facing page. I just got back to a couple of cartoons that I remember seeing when flipping through the book before reading it. The first shows a pit that men are thrown into. They have to climb onto each other in order to escape. Although these are stick men, their postures and thoughts are quite tragic. "My wife..."

The next cartoon has the same stick men, but this time with lines drawn around them. It's Tetris, except the blocks contain desperate stick men. The point is about the 'dressing' of games:
The ethical questions surrounding games as murder simulators, games as misogyny, games as undermining of traditional values, and so on are not aimed at games themselves. They are aimed at the dressing.

Although I don't agree with everything in this book (for instance, I think that good stories matter more than is sometimes implied), it's worth picking up for the $20 or so it costs.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Mini-Course: Round Three

I'm super excited to be doing round three of my week-long mini-course for grade eight girls 'Computer Science and Games: Just for Girls!' this May. I've been thinking about what I might change this time around to make it better than ever:
  • Try using Scratch instead of Game Maker. The girls are definitely capable of making some great little games with Game Maker, but I am particularly interested in the fact that there is a community of similar-aged students using Scratch. This community might encourage the girls to keep using it after the course.
  • Do even less lecturing. I want to do even more activities, and maybe even show some games during the lecture portion of the class. I have a couple more CS Unplugged activities in mind that should fit well into the class.
  • I want to tweak my survey so I get even better information about how the course affects the girls' opinions of careers in computer science.
  • I'd like to find an effective way for the girls to keep in touch after the course (with each other as well as with me). This will be even more important during high school when the pressures of being cool might make them look away from computer science.

Monday, December 21, 2009

End of Term Bliss

I finally finished my last projects for school this weekend. In fact, I was half an hour late to our CU-WISE potluck dinner organized for execs and officers because I packaging up my project to send to my professor after waiting all day for some test code to finish running. And now I'm free...

This is bliss.

When you're so busy trying to take care of everything school related, it's very easy to lose track of how good you have it. So I wanted to take a minute and reflect on all that's happened this term so I can be purposely thankful for it!
  • Defended my Masters thesis, submitted it, and finally officially became a PhD student.
  • Attended Grace Hopper with some amazing women from CU-WISE, and presented two very well received talks. Did a good job as Lead Blogger. Got my photos published in Communications of ACM. Fell in love with the saguaro cactus.
  • Attended ISMAR09, where I made a lot of excellent contacts to add to my network, and received positive attention for blogging about the event. Got really excited about augmented reality, and made me even more sure of the direction I am taking for my PhD research topic.
  • Enjoyed great success in my role as TA Mentor. I'm still surprised there were so many attendees to my workshops.
  • Got random emails about cool companies wanting me to work for them.
  • Learned a lot of really cool stuff in my computers and cognition class, which I took for no credit but found it to be totally worth it. Happy with the paper I wrote on cognitive advantages of augmented reality, and hoping to publish some form of it.
  • Made lots of awesome new friends through CU-WISE, especially those who joined us on the exec and as officers this year.
  • Had a great birthday thanks to my husband and some CU-WISE friends.
  • Didn't totally burn myself out during the term and especially at the end of it -- for once!
This is bliss!

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Strategies for Lighting the Fire for Learning

On December 4, I attended a public presentation that was put on for the Seminar in University Teaching, a graduate course at Carleton. Popular psychology professor Tim Pychyl gave the talk, even though he is currently on sabbatical. This post summarizes my take on some of the takeaways of that inspiring hour and a half.

You will always feel like an impostor. Especially in the classroom.

Huh? That's an interesting way to start a talk... but, you know, it's not entirely untrue. We all tend to get pretty worked up about getting in front of a class. Will they ask a question I can't answer? Will I remember the main points I wanted to make? Will my group activity go over well? That's why the first lesson is to choose one's words with care and abandon. Learn to trust that your words will come when you need them, and learn to stop worrying.

Ok, now on to the lighting that fire. The official title of the talk was actually this:

Psychology of Student Engagement and Self-Regulation: Strategies for Lighting the Fire for Learning

This fire has to begin with the us, the teachers. Students aren't going to light it themselves. The retired school teacher in LA who continues to work for free knows this. He had students from way back in the 1960's come to his retirement party.

Interest is an emotion, just like fear. It has motivational properties, causing people to approach or avoid a situation, or engage or disengage. Contrary to what some people may believe, it's our job, as teachers, to interest students. Besides, we have the best jobs in the world - why not share the interest we already have in what we do? In fact, one of the biggest differences between teachers with low and high ratings is their enthusiasm. We have to know the content, but we also have to remember who is in the classroom (the students).

Good teachers focus on the nature and process of learning. As poet William Butler Yeats said,
Education is not the filling of a pail but the lighting of a fire.
We have the power to create the conditions necessary for a fire!

Here's what's needed: Skill, Will, and, at the intersection, Engagement. It's a juggling act to balance all of this, but it's doable. Here are some things to think about in terms of generating will and skill in a way that results in engagement (this is the part that's based on psychology).

Will (Interest)
  • Need for achievement. Can be fostered with moderate challenges and high expectations. Show students how to achieve success with these challenges.
  • Expectancy times value. Create the expectation of success and the value of learning by giving value and purpose to lectures.
  • Autonomy. Students need autonomy, but not too much. Foster it with choice.
  • Attributions. Model positive attributions, give alternatives (e.g. when someone attributes success to luck, suggest that perhaps it was a result of their hard work).
  • Mastery and performance orientation, intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. These don't have the polar opposites. Show students what they can get out of the course, give context, internalize with their values. Start lectures with an interesting hook.
  • Social goals/motivation. Students want to connect with people in the class. Fulfil their goals in the name of learning, or else they'll fulfil them themselves (for example, by texting).
Skill (Understanding)
  • Existing knowledge. Think about preconceptions, previous ideas, etc. Are you drawing on these experiences at all? Get at it through class discussion.
  • Goal setting, strategies, and self-monitoring. Students don't know how to do these things right away, so we need to teach them. Make them explicit, and state what should have been mastered by now at various intervals in the term.
  • Discipline differences. What is different between disciplines? Why is it different? Vocabulary? Make it explicit, for example, when you teach them how to write a journal paper for their discipline.
  • Meta-cognition. Let students get into your head and see how you think. Make it explicit. Show how you work through problems.
My plan is to take these ideas and make them concrete in the context of computer science. I hope to incorporate this into a TA Mentor workshop on lecturing next semester. I'll be sure to post what I come up with here.

In the meantime, take a look at these books recommended during the talk (which, incidentally, are now on my Wish List):

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Line Game at Design Tomorrow's World

This post was written originally for the Carleton University Women in Science and Engineering blog.

I just got back from Design Tomorrow's World. The event is very engineering focused, so being a computer scientist, I wanted to give them a bit of an idea of what CS is all about. I was invited to do an ice-breaker activity for ten minutes.

Normally, in these situations, I would use CS Unplugged activities. Unfortunately, I didn't have enough time to plan how to do these in only ten minutes, so I thought back to what I learned at an excellent outreach session at Grace Hopper 2008.

I ended up doing an easy little ice breaker called "the line game" some of you might be able to use one day. Basically, you have the group arrange themselves in a line based on how well they agree with a particular statement. This forces them to move around, and to talk to the others so they find the right spot (you can probably even bring in some sorting theory into it). I used three statements that lead into a bit about what computer science is all about:
  1. "I like playing video games." For those who really loved them, I talked about my school's computer science games stream. For the others, I explained that not everyone in CS is into games (basically trying to show that it's not a bunch of male, nerdy hard-core gamers).
  2. "I like math." I explained how algorithms are like mathematical thinking, but that you can focus more on design of interfaces and people etc if you want to.
  3. "I have programmed or would like to try it." Everyone has to learn to program in computer science, so I said that it's worth giving a try since they might like it (then I plugged my upcoming mini-course they could sign up for - Computer Science and Games: Just For Girls!).
The activity seemed to hit the spot, as I had some educators get my contact info afterwards so I could come tell their gifted students more about computer science. I think the girls also appreciated getting up and moving. ;)

Monday, December 7, 2009

Creating Your Academic Portfolio

I recently attended a workshop put on by our school's career services department about making an academic portfolio. Now that I'm a PhD student, I really want to redo my current website to better suit this type of portfolio. I made what's there now when I was still an undergrad planning on going to industry, and have been shoehorning all the research and teaching stuff into one little section doesn't highlight what I want it to. Here's what I learned from the workshop that I'll be using when I work on this (hopefully) over the holidays.

What is it?

An academic portfolio (also known as a teaching dossier as far as I can tell) is a way to evaluate teaching and research; there is no single standard, making it rather subjective. It is a moving collection of artifacts.

Why do you want it?
  • It can help you prepare your future and ground yourself.
  • It allows you to reflect on your research, teaching philosophy, and methods of teaching.
  • You need it for job applications, tenure review, or promotions processes.
  • It gives you a way to document teaching and research abilities over time.
Steps to getting started
(or, a nice artsy rhyming list of verbs)
  1. Project. What do you want your portfolio to show about you?
  2. Collect. Begin to identify the materials you need to accomplish this.
  3. Select. Choose only those materials that will be most effective in presenting your strengths, or start developing new material.
  4. Reflect. Think about why you've selected each document. What does it say about you? Does it fit with the vision in step one?
How is it evaluated?

Some of the things that may be assessed include:
  • knowledge of subject
  • preparation
  • enthusiasm
  • ability to foster participation
  • setting of high standards for oneself
  • methods of evaluation
  • effective communication
  • accessibility
  • reputation
  • innovative methods
  • adequacy of evidence
Your academic biography
(or, the first 'what')
  • career goals, mission statement
  • teaching philosophy
  • research prospectus (recent, current, and future research interests)
  • thesis abstract or chapter
  • academic writing samples
  • grant proposal and funding applications/approvals
  • transcripts, academic awards
  • certificates of honour or awards
  • copies of evaluations from workshops and presentations you did
  • list of courses taught, course syllabuses
Career development
(or, the second 'what')
  • copy of CV/resume
  • demonstrated list of skill sets/competencies (use SAR: Situation, Action, Result)
  • letters of recommendation from previous employers, volunteer work, co-op placements, etc
  • teaching evaluations
  • company announcements of promotions, awards, achievements
Special talents
(or, the third 'what')
  • writing samples
  • videos of displays of your work
  • teaching or coaching lesson plans, etc
  • posters from presentations
  • audio/video of teaching
  • research skills: project descriptions, papers, lab reports...
Co-curricular activities
(or, the fourth 'what')
  • newspaper articles: volunteering, project organization, community, ...
  • professional memberships, committees
  • letters of recommendation, thank-you notes
Philosophy statements
(or, the fifth 'what')
  • first person, 1-2 pages
  • beliefs and view of purpose and power of teaching
  • teaching goals
  • learning goals for students
  • where to improve
  • new areas/approaches/styles you can bring to the table
See a great example of a teaching philosophy from a Carleton prof.

Recommended book

I haven't read this myself, but it was recommended in the workshop: The Academic Portfolio.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Cognition All Around Me

Today was the last day of classes for Computers and Cognition, a course that's inspired a couple of posts here, and that I signed up for, for credit, even though it can't count towards my degree (how else was I going to make sure I actually bothered to do the work?). I'm sad it's done, but on the other hand, I won't miss those 8:30am, three-hour classes.

Ok, it's not entirely done - I still have to write my term paper. Other than my Master's thesis, the 8000 words required of me are the most I've ever had to write for school. Luckily, I finally settled on a topic that I think will keep my interest until the end: cognitive advantages of learning with augmented reality. This is something that will help me with my general research interest of educational entertainment and augmented reality.

While researching this topic, I started to notice the presence of cognitive theories in unexpected places. For example, I picked up Augmented Learning and have been devouring it in the last few days. Although not used extensively, cognitive theories like activity theory, situated learning, and constructivism are at least mentioned. I also bought Theory of Fun by Raph Koster to fill my Amazon super saver shipping quota, and found that he spends a lot of time reflecting on cognitive processes. It's as though everywhere I turn my newfound knowledge is coming in handy. ;)

I'm really glad I took this class. Thinking about games and especially learning through the lens of the theories I've now been exposed to is going to come in handy. I already have a much clearer idea of what makes augmented reality special, for example, and will be thinking of applications that take advantage of this rather than showcasing the coolest new technology advances for the sake of it. This also again reinforces the importance of learning things outside your own discipline - you will gain something from the experience, no matter how small.

Monday, November 30, 2009

The Impact of Technology in the Classroom

In August, a Communications of ACM article had me thinking about whether technology has become a need in education. Today, a friend of a friend is going to interview me on the impact that technology has already had, forcing me to think about things from a different perspective.

I've been doing a lot of reading lately about technology and education, both because my general research interest is in educational entertainment, and because my current term project for my computers and cognition class revolves around the cognitive advantages of using augmented reality for learning. One book that I've been really enjoying is Augmented Learning: Research and Design of Educational Games. In a discussion on participatory simulations, the author, Eric Klopfer, said a few things that made an awful lot of sense to me.

For instance, many of the technologies we use today in elementary and high schools don't really give us anything we couldn't do before; instead, we can now do the same old things in slightly more efficient or interesting ways. Take Internet research: this is just a quicker way of doing what we used to do in libraries. Or blogs: we can see blogging assignments as a more modern way of yesterday's book reports and creative writing assignments. Sure, all these mediums add something interesting to the mix, such as being able to share your work and even collaborate with the rest of the world, but the basic way of learning is the same.

Klopfer points out that it's not even a good idea to try and make teachers learn to do new things in new ways all at once. They are overloaded enough as it is. Instead, he suggests giving them more new ways of doing what they already know how to do. That's why his team at MIT designed hand held mobile games that were not terribly different from traditional participatory activities found in classrooms. They still allowed the teacher to moderate the activity, lead discussion before and after, have students form groups and work together naturally, and so on. The games simply allowed for a more complex, data driven activity to unfold; something that would be rather difficult to prepare for on paper.

Perhaps once everyone is comfortable with doing old things in new ways, we can then bring in technologies that change the way students learn in general. I expect that as augmented reality matures, it could become such a technology. It might help students learn higher level problem solving skills in new ways we can't even quite imagine yet.

Whatever happens in the future, it's clear that technology will be here to stay. We might as well start thinking about how we can push the limits now!

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Teaching Computer Science Concepts

I developed the below material for a workshop I gave to computer science teaching assistants today on how to teach computer science concepts. The workshop was formatted such that there were groups of two or three who got a sheet with the general tips and one of the more specific ideas. They had an assignment of what to teach and how to teach it. After about half an hour, they gave a quick eight-minute lecture.

General Tips
  • Assume students know nothing about the topic and start from the beginning; it’s a good review even for those that do know something ... but make sure it’s interesting so you don’t lose interest! (Use examples, demos, videos, etc.)
  • Ask un-intimidating questions throughout. This engages the audience and lets you know where their understanding is at.
  • Frame the discussion in a somewhat elaborate real-life example, and refer back to it throughout.
  • Be friendly and personable, speak audibly, and maintain eye contact. Don’t talk into the board or sit in front of your computer.
  • Don’t be afraid to break from the ordinary and be creative. Many people just can’t pay attention to hours of PowerPoint slides; you (and the subject matter you are teaching) will be much more memorable if you change it up.
  • Take advantage of guest lecturing opportunities – it’s much easier to try out the ‘crazier’ techniques when you only have to do one class!

Using CS Unplugged

At first glance, it might appear that the CS Unplugged activities, available at, are meant for young children rather than college students. However, with just a little bit of thought, you can adapt them for college students who are learning algorithms for the first time. Some of these would be particularly suited for a tutorial in any of the first year courses.

Your Assignment

You will read the Minimal Spanning Trees activity and prepare a lesson based on it. You can change it as needed to suit a certain level of undergraduate student (probably first year), and can use the chalkboard or a computer to conduct your activity. Be sure to make it interactive and involve the other workshop attendees as your ‘students’.

Using In-Depth Examples

When I took our first year discrete math course, COMP 1805, way back when, I remember hearing classmates complain that there was no reason to learn this stuff. (This course is one of the most challenging for new CS students.) Yet, just a year or two later, it all showed up again in very useful ways.

Many students have a hard time being motivated to learn difficult concepts if they don’t see how they connect to real-world problems, or other aspects of their domain. Creating a somewhat elaborate example to give a frame of reference to your lecture can keep the audience’s interest longer and even help make abstract subjects a little easier to grasp for certain learning styles.

Your Assignment

You are going to teach the concept of finite state machines with the assumption that your audience has never even heard the term before. You won’t be able to go into a lot of detail, but you should get across the basic concepts of the diagrams, accept states, and possibly languages.

You will choose a detailed example to frame your explanation with. Some ideas include creating a state machine to act as simple artificial intelligence for a video game, or making some kind of treasure map that forces you to choose a certain path to make it to the accept state of Treasure Island. Some examples require a bit of a back story that you have to carry through to the end. Be creative!

Online Media

Did you know that there is a wealth of resources available for you for free online? For instance, you get a lot of great hits for ‘sorting algorithms demo’, like this one from one of our very own. If you aren’t sure of the best way to visualize a concept, try finding a video or toy program online first!

Your Assignment

You will teach your choice of basic graph or tree algorithm. (You can choose based on how long it will take you to teach the concept.) You should assume that your audience knows little or nothing about graphs, and should therefore introduce the basic concepts required. You are to search for and use online resources to help you – these can include, but are not limited to, Flash animations, Java applets, images, and videos.

Whole Class Participation

Every once in a while, you might want to try getting the whole class to participate in an activity to reinforce something you’ve taught, or to introduce a new topic in a fun way. One topic to look up is ‘active learning’, which essentially brings students into the equation. One useful page on the topic includes many links to potential activities.

You’re probably wondering why we’re talking about something that seems more suited to an arts class discussion group. It’s true that this type of instruction seems to be very rare in computer science, but there’s a lot of potential if we can apply the ideas creatively (if nothing else, a little variety is a good thing!).

Your Assignment

On a website with specific types of activities for active learning, a ‘Debate Discussion’ is described:
  • What: A pro and con discussion of a controversial issue. Objective is to convince the audience rather than display skill in attacking the opponent.
  • When: In discussion a controversial issue on which there are fairly definite opinions in the group on both sides to bring these differences out into the open in a friendly manner.
  • How: Divide the group into sides of pro and con. Each speaker should be limited to a predetermined time followed by a rebuttal if desired.
There are many areas of computer science that students probably have strong opinions about. Today, we’re going to pick the old C++ vs. Java debate. Forcing students to side with one or the other (whether they agree with that side or not) will get them to think about the language constructs and general design. You will give your workshop audience members a side, and facilitate the debate between them. Introduce the topic and explain the activity (motivate why!).

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Lessons Learned for Science Outreach

I went to my old high school last week to do some outreach for Let's Talk Science. The teacher we're partnered with requested a grade ten physics activity on optics that could be taught to grade tens in both the academic and applied streams. We had to create our own activity based on ideas we found online. It was my two volunteer partners' first time doing anything like this, and they did a great job. We all learned a few valuable lessons, though, and these are listed below for your benefit.

The first thing we did that we will never do again is combine multiple classes of different levels. The teachers wanted to give the Let's Talk Science experience to all the grade tens in the school without making us volunteers do a million hours of work, so they combined five classes into three periods. The most difficult period was one that included one academic and one applied class. The students in these two groups have such opposite learning styles that it made having a larger number of students even more problematic. If you are faced with a similar request, at least ask for the same level when combining classes if you can't avoid combining them altogether.

My activity worked out perfectly for our round-robin style of activities (each volunteer had a station and fifteen minutes with a group of up to 15 kids). Some students finished much earlier than others, but luckily, I was able to get them discussing some more meta-issues about the experiment they conducted ("What do you think might have helped us perform a better experiment?").

The other girls, however, quickly realized that their activities ended a little too quickly. By the third period, they figured out how to change them. For example, one activity involved looking through a Fresnel lens and finding a virtual and real image by moving closer and further from the lens. The leader of this activity had, at first, simply explained what the students were going to see and gave them a chance to try it. Later, she realized that she could have them figure out that the image changed themselves, and add on supplementary activities, like finding the focal length using the size and orientation of the image.

The lesson here is to make the activity exploratory rather than explanatory, and to always assume it will take less time than expected and have extra content prepared.

Finally, a very important lesson is to never underestimate the abilities of anyone. For example, the noisiest class clown in the applied class ended up asking the most interesting questions during and after the round-robin activities; he simply had a different way of learning than the other kids.

Keep these things in mind the next time you have to design your own science outreach along with the golden rules of being hands-on, interactive, and personal, and you should do well! If you have any other useful tips, leave them in the comments.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

CS Unplugged: Image Representation and Searching Algorithms

When I did some computer science outreach in the summer for the Girls @ Virtual Ventures camp, I promised them that if they came back for the weekend clubs in the fall, I'd make sure I came back to teach them something new. This was definitely a promise that would be easy to break, since the first semester of a PhD is pretty busy and it's not likely any of them would have remembered, but I'm glad I kept it anyway. I got a chance to try out a couple of activities from CS Unplugged for the first time.

The girls had been spending a lot of time in Photoshop and making videos and such, so I wanted to pick something that would relate back to that. The first natural choice was Image Representation. In this activity, students essentially 'fax' encoded images to each other and rebuild them in a pre-made grid. It was a lot of fun telling them all about fax machines and dial-up Internet, since none really knew about fax machines and only one had even heard of dial-up. (This made me feel a lot older than 25!) The only thing was that the activity took far longer than I expected, so be sure to leave close to an hour if you want to give them time to make the images that come with the activity in addition to creating their own.

Here's a little video about this activity by the creators of CS Unplugged (it just came out):

The second activity I decided on was Searching Algorithms. I introduced it by showing how an image management program can find all images with a certain tag even though there are thousands of pictures in its database. The activity has a set of battleships, each with a letter and number. The students give each other the number and try to find the corresponding letter. The first search has a random permutation of ships, the second search has all the numbers in sorted order, and the third one makes use of a hash code. I made a small mistake in the first type of searching (linear search) by not telling them to give each other the numbers of their battleships before searching for the letter it was at. Luckily, it didn't matter, because their search strategy didn't change as a result. Phew!

In the end, with an introduction to what computer science is (including the Pathways in Computer Science video from the University of Washington's Why Choose CSE? series), and the two activities, I spent 2.5 hours with the girls. It was a little longer than I had intended, and I could have left after the first activity, but they had the time so I stayed. :)

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Quick Thoughts on Pregnancy and Grad School

For some reason or another, a few recent online conversations have got me thinking about pregnancy and grad school. (I suppose visiting a friend with a month-old baby probably had something to do with it, too.)

One of the recent posts on Female Science Professor asked readers to explain whether they had children and why, giving a very brief statement of what you do (grad school, professor, other, etc..). At this point, the comment count is already up to 190. As I read through about half of them, I started to feel a little sad and discouraged by the number of people who said they didn't want kids (usually for environmental or career/productivity reasons). I'm not even sure why; I suppose it was partially due to the fact that these comments supported what I had heard at various gatherings for women in computer science before - having children is hard for academic women! Luckily, there were still many people who commented that they had children and didn't regret it at all.

I've had more than a couple of opportunities to ask other women their advice on good times to have a baby since starting with CU-WISE. The most common answer I get is that if you want one before you are done your PhD, a great opportunity is after courses and comprehensives, since you are really just getting into your research and can (hopefully) do some lit-review at home. Otherwise, if you wait until after your PhD, it seems that you more or less need to do your post-doc, get a job, and establish yourself at your new institution before it's a "good time." (Incidentally, this seems to be what a good number of FSP commenters did.)

So far, for me, it sounds like within the first two years of PhD might be best. I would like to take advantage of the only mat-leave money I'd ever be able to get via my NSERC scholarship, and I only have my NSERC for the first two years since I also had it for both years of my Masters. NSERC will give you an extra four months of your scholarship for leave. Plus, I want to have kids before I'm 30, so I can't wait until I'm done my PhD. The scariest part of this situation is that it means I have to try to get pregnant within about a year! Eep!

I would love to hear from some of my readers (male and female) about their experiences with babies in or after grad school. Or, if you want, just a little encouragement. ;)

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

How to Use Social Media to Benefit Your Career

Carleton's Women in Science and Engineering's November guest speaker event last night was about How to Use Social Media to Benefit Your Career. With a general theme of "just do it," our guest speaker Natasha D'Souza of VirtualEyeSee explained how to get our names out on the social web, and why we should care.

After a brief introduction to some of the technologies out there (RSS feeds, Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, etc..), the discussion turned to tagging. The basic gist of it is that if you tag your content, other people are more likely to be able to find it. That's a good thing, whether you want your company to be more visible or you want potential employers to be able to find you. The trick is to come up with some standard tags agreed upon by a certain group of people. For example, we might want to start tagging everything relevant to CU-WISE with cuwise.

Next comes social bookmarking, which includes sites like Delicious, reddit, and Digg. It can even include things like the Posted Items section of your Facebook profile. Here, we get to use tagging again, sharing and finding content relevant to our interests. Many web sites have social bookmarking shortcuts to encourage users to spread their content (when you notice a quick link to share on, say, Facebook, you somehow are more likely to actually do it).

Wikipedia was an interesting topic to me. Natasha said that she knows of people who have failed job interviews because of their answer to how many Wikipedia articles they've written! As Canadians, we have a real opportunity to contribute, because many of our companies' and institutions' pages are somewhat sub-par. The reason this one intrigued me is that I feel the community may be its own worst enemy in some ways; by flagging so many articles with all the things that are wrong about them (citation needed! tone is inappropriate!), many people might assume they don't have the expertise to contribute. Natasha's response is that this is a childish reaction and that we should just do it; I don't mind this for myself, but I do think it's a genuine roadblock in general.

Blogs can really help you find your voice online. If you have the dedication to keep a blog going but don't know what to write about, simply ask yourself what you are passionate about. Set yourself a goal, pick a time of day, and just do it! Writing on blogs has the advantage of being linked to easily, being indexed and searchable, and to provide automatic updates via RSS.

So why would you want to do all this? Doesn't it just suck up all your spare time?

Well, you have to decide for yourself how much you want to put out there and how much time to spend on it, but providing content puts you in control of your image. Whether they do it properly or not, HR people are Googling potential employers to get a sense of who they are beyond the job requirements. Do you want photos from that last party to be the first hit they find?

By contributing to group discussions, answering questions, writing content for Wikipedia, and so on, you are showing that you are part of a community, can problem solve, and are generally interested in what you do. You show that you understand the new social landscape is about sharing, not about me-me-me. How could this not impress?

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Grad School Time Management

Grad school's different from pretty much all school before it.

In high school, everything was very structured, with the same classes happening every day. You always knew what homework you had to do because you either had to hand it in the next day, or your teacher reminded you about it.

In university during undergrad, things are a little less structured than in high school, but it was still possible to keep track of everything. You could easily write down your assignments in a paper planner, and in computer science, there weren't usually many large term projects until fourth year. Even then, it was possible to finish in a few days at the end of the term (ahem ... you didn't hear it from me).

Then comes grad school. You can forget everything you used to know about time management, because while it might seem like it's working, it probably won't for long. Courses in grad school are really different from undergrad courses. There are still set assignments, but these assignments are usually more open ended and take longer to complete. Now you also have to read papers, give presentations, and do a big term project. These projects are often more research-oriented, and tend not to be the types you can finish up the night before.

I have always been very good at time management, thanks in part to my organizational skills. Things kind of went ok when I started my Masters, though I think I was thrown off by having fewer courses with more work each. But when it came time to direct my own research project... it got a lot harder. That's when things are really open ended, and it can be easy to lose track of yourself.

I did a lot of things wrong during my Masters, but lo and behold, I've learned from my mistakes. Here's how I've been keeping things straight so far in my PhD adventure (which, mind you, only began September 2009, but seems to be going much better so far).

(1) Carpool

When I drove myself to school, I often figured I'd go in after rush hour; after all, sitting in traffic for more than twice the normal off-peak commuting time actually really stinks. But if I do that, I may as well not show up to campus until my class actually starts. Then, to avoid the rush home, I may as well leave at 3pm. I could work from home before and after being on campus.

Except I don't.

I have no idea why, but this strategy seemed to lead to sleeping in, finding chores to do, generally being distracted... The amount of actual work I did wasn't what it could have been.

So this year, I started carpooling with my husband, since he works pretty close to campus. Now I have to get up, I have to be on campus all day, and I may as well do something useful while I'm stuck here. Oh, and I don't get to leave until 5:30pm. It's amazing how much my productivity has gone up - I even have weekends free (at least for now)!

(2) Keep a time sheet

This is going to sound more annoying than useful, but trust me. This works.

Tracking all your work hours can be an incredible way to make yourself accountable to... yourself. Oddly enough, even though nobody else will ever see how my time breaks down, I feel that I must push myself to meet my own goals in terms of time spent on certain activities. This can also mean not spending too much time on other things that are much more enjoyable than that annoying bug in the ol' research project (you know, like CU-WISE stuff - much more fun).

When I was trying to write my thesis for my Masters, I used a time sheet that tracked number of pages written rather than hours spent. I even used a formula in the spreadsheet to set a goal and see how many page I had to do that day to reach it. You can modify what you track to suit whatever it is you need to get done.

I currently use a Google Docs spreadsheet for my time sheet. This is the template that I copy every week and fill in. This is a nice easy-access, flexible solution. Give a try, and keep honest!

(3) Keep research organized

This has suddenly become even more important to me than ever. I'm trying to juggle a survey-based psychology class with a data structures class, finishing up a paper for my Masters research, and working on ideas for upcoming projects. If I can't keep it all straight, I'll spend more time trying to remember where I left off than moving forward.

I've written about research tools and organization here and here. My current setup involves Mendeley for reading papers and taking initial notes, a Google Notebook for a list of tools and interesting links (since Notebook is no longer supported, you might also try Delicious, which I'm starting to use now), and Google Docs for jotting down research ideas and keeping a dynamic to-do list.

There are just some of the things I do to manage my time effectively; what are some of your tricks?

Saturday, October 24, 2009

ISMAR09: A Few Demos

There were many cool demos at ISMAR this year, and you can check out the description of them in the conference schedule. In this post, I've included a few photos and a video of some of my favourites. Click through the images to get a brief description. EDIT: You can also visit this blog post by Tom Carpenter to get a more detailed description of what you see below.

Object depth and shape extraction for Augmented Reality Interaction



Put a Spell: Learn to Spell with Augmented Reality



A Mixed Reality Painting Experience for Physical Rehabilitation


ISMAR09-25 ISMAR09-26

Computing Alpha Mattes in Real-time for Noisy Mixed Reality Video Sources



ProFORMA: Probabilistic Feature-based On-line Rapid Model Acquisition


Animatronic Shader Lamps Avatars


Thursday, October 22, 2009

ISMAR09: Human Factors and User Interfaces

There were more than a few good papers presented at ISMAR this year on human factors and user interfaces. Here's just a taste of them. See the conference schedule for information about authors and their affiliations.

Using Augmented Reality to Support Cross-Organizational Collaboration in Dynamic Tasks

This student paper was an honourable mention for the best paper awards. It was all about a crisis management system designed for use by commanders with different backgrounds. Augmented reality is intended to give each user a personalized view that they can most easily understand based on their culture and so on.

The scenario used for the user study - the first such study for joint realtime operations - was planning the fight again forest fires. Rescue, police, and military helicopter units are all involved.

The initial brainstorming stage with field experts in these areas suggested that hand held displays should be used to give individualized views of a command map. But we all know how important it is to ask the real users what works best for them, not their managers; it turned out that the field workers couldn't use the handhelds. They were too clumsy and took away their ability to use their hands freely. They wanted a shared map that they could point to and have the others see. In other words, they wanted a heads up display with joystick control.

When compared with a paper based map, the AR system with custom markers for each type of field worker performed significantly better.

Interference Avoidance in Multi-User Handheld Augmented Reality

Have you ever wondered how safe multi-user augmented reality games really are? I mean, when you're competing furiously while looking through your mobile device, it seems like it'd be pretty easy to knock into each other as you move around in the virtual world in front of you, right? Well, trying to avoid this is what this paper is all about.

The concept is pretty simple. As you move closer to your opponent, the virtual objects in your view shift slightly away from them. The key is to make sure that you as a user don't notice thisvhappening, so certain compensations are needed, such as covering the playing surface with a flat texture that can also shift with the virtual objects.

The amazing thing is how effective this approach is compared to other proximity warnings, like dimming the screen, beeping, and disabling user actions when they get too close to another user. Users perceived the shifting to be less distracting but also less effective than other methods. However, the real distance maintained between players in a competitive two-player game was significantly better than the other methods, making it quite effective in reality.

Interaction and Presentation Techniques for Shake Menus in Tangible Augmented Reality

The investigation in this paper sought to find a way to interact with objects directly in the environment using some kind of menu system. Objects should not require any kind of tags or electronics added to them beforehand, and hands should be able to manipulate the object freely without having to pick up something else as well.

The idea of a shake menu was inspired by shaking a gift to see what's inside. So you shake an object to open a menu, and then move the object to the desired menu selection and hold it there to make the choice. But what's the best way to present the menu items in relation to the object?

A user study looked at a clipboard paradigm in which menu items (which look like cubes) are aligned along the right of the object, and "stick" to it as it moves around in the camera's view. Other layouts include aligning the choices surrounding the object (this seems very similar to the clipboard version), aligning relative to the display only (so it sticks to the screen and doesn't move again), and aligning to the world coordinated, but not the object's.

The hypothesis was that the object alignment would be the fastest and most intuitive, and would be appreciated for the ability to examine the menu choice from different angles (after all, it could be any 3D object). However, user studies proved this wrong. The object was almost tied with the display alignment for the best speed, but display had far fewer errors than any other method. The display choice was also the best in terms of perceived intuitiveness, with object in second place.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

ISMAR09: Workshop on Handheld Augmented Reality Games

This was a great workshop given by Blair MacIntyre from Georgia Tech on mobile augmented reality games. I got a lot out of it, from being reminded of some solid game design topics to getting new ideas about the game I want to make for my PhD.

The goal of augmented reality in this context is to embody social interaction in the physical world, enabled by a tight integration of the physical and virtual world. In terms of games, it's important to remember that design is more than just form and function - it needs context, too (which AR can give). Game design is about solving a problem within a set of constraints, and making something fun, challenging, awe inspiring, and captivating.

In augmented reality, mobility is usually assumed. But it's not just a combination of the physical and virtual world - there should also be registration between the virtual and physical worlds and real time interaction.

It's worth remembering that there are two classes of AR systems: task based and experiential. Task-based AR is perhaps not as well suited to handhelds, since your hands aren't totally free to complete the task, and it's hard to hold something light up for a long time. This is one of the areas that give head mounted displays (HMDs) an advantage: they can provide zero-effort, hands-free interaction and continuous peripheral information. Both interfaces provide some privacy, an in-place display, and per-user customization.

So what makes "good" AR anyway? What is unique about it that can be leveraged? Multiple people can work in a shared space, for one. Each person gets a unique view of the world while not giving up the global perspective. It allows for direct and natural interaction, and the physical world can be leveraged with props, spatial understanding, and dexterity.

Some of the graphics issues to consider when determining a platform for your game (cell phone or something more advanced?) include lighting, shadows, occlusions, and physics capabilities. Graphics don't always have to be real, either - non-photorealistic effects can help alleviate the processing power needed. Remember that latency is a bigger issue with AR.

Back to game design. We, as computer scientists, have to think like a game designer when coming up with new ideas. AR games shouldn't be all about the technology, turning them into demos, essentially. We need to create something that's fun to play. "The designer needs to envision how a game will work during play ... planning everything necessary to create a compelling player experience." In other words, you need to decide first what you want the player to experience, not what they will do, or learn, or whatever. This is a key point for me in thinking about my educational game.

The structure of a game includes the following components:
  • players
  • objectives
  • rules
  • resources (making the game not too easy, not too hard)
  • boundaries
  • outcome
Games are dynamic systems. They have a 'magic circle' defined by the boundaries. Dramatic elements make it emotionally engaging. Design is about balancing all these elements.

Remember that to make a game something more than a toy, there must be goals, and interesting and meaningful choices to reach those goals. The story and characters are brought out through actions.

Some questions to ask when making a handheld AR game:
  • Who is your target player?
  • When or where are they playing?
  • Single or groups?
  • Will there be props? How comfortable and easy to use are they?
  • What exactly will the player do while playing the game?
Some of the constraints to consider when designing a handheld AR game:
  • Fast motions are a problem.
  • How will having the device (phone) in the player's hand affect things?
  • It's tiring to hold up a relatively light device for long stretches of time.
  • Awareness of other players.
  • Small screens are tiring to look at for a long time.
  • Vibrations and sounds to give feedback, especially when looking elsewhere.
The future of mobile AR gaming looks pretty exciting. We first need to make some good progress on tracking, and when we do, there will be some amazing opportunities to be immersed into a terra-scaled world. Plus, we will be able to create more social experiences and casual games, possibly hooking into social networks. How will you contribute to this future?

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

ISMAR09: Experiential Learning 3 of 3 - Group Discussion

This is the last of three posts on the ISMAR09 experiential learning workshop. Post one and post two covered the morning presentations on current applications, while this one will attempt to capture the excellent group discussion that took place in the afternoon.


The afternoon's format was to look at three main questions about education and augmented reality, each one building on the last. For each question, we broke ourselves into three groups, discussed the topic for 15 minutes (or more, in most cases), and then shared our thoughts with the group. My notes below will consist of our own group's findings first, which will naturally have more detail. Points from the others groups will follow - members of these groups are most definitely invited to add more insight or links to their own blog posts in the comments.

What are the Key Elements of Mixed and Augmented Reality that Create a Meaningful Experience?

I got this one started by explaining something I tell my friends and family when they want to know about augmented reality. I feel that one of the big benefits of AR is that you essentially reduce the number of levels of indirection required to do something. For example, consider a traditional map. You have a bird's eye, (usually) non-photorealistic view of the world that you must rotate and project onto the real world in front of you. What if that information was augmented for you in the first place? You can free up all that cognitive power for the actual task at hand (such as learning).

Another key element suggested was the idea that augmented reality should not provide the entire story - the imagination should have the ability to work its magic, too. You should also be able to bring in other senses beyond vision, making the presence of the physical world so important. Having an EyePet in a completely virtual world is somehow different than playing with it in your living room - in the latter case, the broader context of your own culture is included in the gameplay.

Augmented reality allows non-experts to participate in and understand tasks outside their field. For example, it seems unlikely that Disney could have succeeded in getting permission to build Disney World here in Orlando today. But if the city council (or whoever needed to vote) were able to see with their own eyes exactly how it would all look, and how, say, emergency evacuations would work, things might be different.

Our group also believed that the most meaningful experiences would come from free-range AR, where much larger environments can become immersive sandboxes for learning. This setup could also lead to a more social experience.

Another key point was on the adaptability of software. Ideally, AR programs would learn you as you learned them. Of course, this requires much more advanced artificial intelligence than what is available today, but we do get better all the time in mimicking this ability.

Finally, we decided that AR would be most meaningful when it was personalized. This refers to not just the changing viewpoint of the virtual objects, but also the content of the virtual portion of the environment itself. This, among other things, will help avoid information overload.

Points from other groups:
  • AR needs to be consistent with what's expected in the real world (it has to "make sense").
  • There must be an element of surprise and magic.
  • It should be social, approachable, and easy to use.
  • Users should enjoy being tricked/surprised.
  • The end user experience is key (not the technology itself).
  • There should be some degree of being novel or special.
  • It should be scalable in terms of time, space, size, and orientation.
  • It will provide the ability to experiment where it was once impossible.
  • It must be reliable enough to reflect realism.

How Do We Continue the Learning Experience Once the User Leaves

The first example our group discussed was the idea of capturing information about the experience that can then be used later in various ways. For instance, a military training exercise might record the decisions made for a particular scenario, and the user can bring that home and show his or her family what they experienced. They can compare their stats to others who have done the same scenario, and so on. The question then becomes: what is the best way to present the data? Whatever it is, it shouldn't replace the original experience. Otherwise, there's no reason to use the augmented reality again (or, for instance, no reason to go to a museum again).


An interesting discussion started about whether doing a good enough job in creating the experience is enough to spark interest in a certain topic such that the user will go home and learn more about it. The example of the Louvre was that most visitors look at art for only 30 seconds or so, when you need at least two full minutes to fully appreciate the details. If the proper viewing was encouraged by the AR experience, perhaps this is enough to want to find out more. What if the Mona Lisa had an augmentation of da Vinci putting on the finishing touches after acting out some story related to life in that era? Would you be more inclined to find out more about da Vinci?

Finally, we felt it was key to avoid making it about the technology - the tech needs to be invisible. This way, the focus will be on the topic at hand, which again will make for an easier transition to, say, a follow up activity to be done at home.

Points from other groups:
  • A museum exhibit can have a take-home piece so the adventure can be continued (for example, your own fish from the main giant fish tank exhibit). The individual experience is sparked thanks to the larger context of the exhibit.
  • Make the follow-up activity viral. Share with friends and family.
  • Allow learners to finish the story at home when they run out of time.
  • Provide networking opportunities online.
  • Create physical activities later on.

What is Novel When it Comes to Augmented Reality and Learning?

We agreed that augmented reality isn't a new paradigm shift, but rather another tool in a teacher's toolkit. However, this tool might benefit a teacher in many ways. For instance, it may be easier to employ than other computer-based demonstrations if it's as easy to use as we insisted it be in the earlier questions. Furthermore, the exploratory nature makes for an environment that allows a teacher to say "I don't know, let's find out," avoiding the fear of teaching a topic they don't understand well themselves. Finally, it might be something that much better than just Googling a topic because it would certainly be more immersive.

Other advantages of AR in the classroom are that it would be more repeatable than more free-form techniques, making it possible to standardize the content (though not the experiences) of AR scenarios across the board.

It may also open up opportunities for standardized learning at home. This might help capture the attention of the gifted students and help the struggling students catch up. It would even be possible to have distributed study groups who could interact with the same virtual object.

In a training context, augmented and mixed reality has already proven to be very effective. Apparently many commercial pilots take their first flight in a real jet because the simulators are just that good.

Thinking more simply to see what could be done now, it's clear that printed material can be augmented with markers and cell phones used to view them (and kids would love getting permission to pull out their phones in class!).

Points from other groups:
  • Will AR be a revolution or just an evolution? Can we truly improve learning with AR? Perhaps we won't truly know for another few decades.
  • AR provides a different dimension related to creativity and self-reflection. It can be about exploration, not necessarily just making abstract concepts concrete.
  • Main barrier: How will it improve peoples' lives? We just don't know - there is a lack of understanding that won't be solved until we start getting more products in peoples' hands.
  • What are trying to accomplish with AR? Connection, relevance, and perspective? How?


That concludes the workshop on experiential learning. I will be taking away the excellent thoughts and insights from the three posts on this blog, as well as a better appreciation for the big picture. I hate to admit it, but when thinking about the game I want to build for my PhD research, I got stuck in thinking of a basic marker based interaction. There's so much more to AR that it would be tragic to miss considering it all.

ISMAR09: Experiential Learning 2 of 3 - Current Applications 2

This is the second of three posts on the experiential learning workshop held Monday at ISMAR09. The first post introduced the topic and summarized the first three presentations given in the morning on current AR applications. This post will summarize the last three speakers, and the last post will be on the group discussion held in the afternoon.

Infinite Story, Finite Space

Chris Stapleton, co-chair of ISMAR09, gave us his vision for augmented reality and told us about the projects he's worked on. He says "we think that if we deal with physical space, we can only deal with one story." But if the augmentations can change, this is no longer true. Using augmented reality, we can allow users to add their imagination, rather than just give them the story - imagination is the third reality.


A project that really intrigued me was a memory scape for the Maitland Holocaust Museum. The idea was to recreate stories told in children's diaries of the Holocaust so visitors could understand what happened in terms of humanity. A physical space would be created, and embedded projections used to bring the space to life. Bits and pieces of the story can be told through these augmentations, and imagination can fill in the rest. Even better, you could experience a different story each time you visited the museum.

Chris goes on to lay out the spectrum of levels of engagement:
  • Passive : Absorb the media (TV)
  • Engaging : Think and feel (film)
  • Active : Participate (amusement park rides)
  • Reactive : Choose (games)
  • Interactive : Contribute (Second Life)
  • Experiential : Live (enhanced media? augmented reality?)
Finally, he notes that we should bring problems from the community to academia, where prototypes will be built and passed on to industry. Industry will then create products, and complete the cycle by passing them on to the community.

Total Immersion

Unfortunately I didn't catch the presenter's name (wasn't on slides, didn't see it in the schedule), but he was from Total Immersion. He pointed out that 20-30% of the population are auditory learners, 40% are visual, and 30-40% are kinaesthetic. Naturally, augmented reality helps the kinaesthetic learning type unlike many other mediums. Experiences will allow for engagement, reflection, insight, and of course, learning.


Also touched on was a set of best practices for augmented reality. It needs to attract users, be easy to use, and give instant access to the experience.

Finally, a comparison between entertainment and education was made to highlight some of the differences.

  • Audience: Groups
  • Duration: Quick
  • Engagement: Immediate gratification
  • Outcome: Something immersive or magical
  • Audience: Small groups or individuals
  • Duration: Long term engagement
  • Engagement: Deep exploration
  • Outcome: A new visual perspective on topic of study

Museum Learning and AR

Last but not least, we have Kate Haley Goldman from the Institute for Learning Innovation. She's all about informal and free choice learning, creating voluntary, non-sequential learning experiences like Wolf Quest. Though Wolf Quest is not a space-based game, it's interesting nonetheless for its great success; kids played it much longer than the expected two to three hours it was designed for.


Kate explained that personal, sociocultural, and physical context are all factors that help influence learning. These are all things that can be employed in, say, museum exhibits. But why do people visit museums? Research has shown that reasons range from fun and entertainment, to social activity, to being a site of interest (a 'must-see' while on vacation), or even specifically to be challenged or learn something. How might augmented reality help with all this?

One project Kate talked about was an AR system that augmented the wing of a plane. Visitors could adjust various settings or move the wing, and see the resulting forces in the augmentation. They could then figure out whether the plane would actually fly under those conditions. This system helped with some of the above goals (especially learning, as tests showed), but not all. For example, the system was too separated and thus lacked the social aspect of a museum visit. Users couldn't really talk to or interact with each other.

Some of the aspirations of augmented reality that Kate mentioned were:
  • creating conversations
  • making the abstract tangible
  • helping visualize change
  • adding sensory capabilities
  • supporting critical thinking skills
  • ability to act like a scientist (collect data, form and test theories)
These ideas along with those of the other five presenters are all very insightful, and give me much excitement about the future of AR - both in terms of learning and in general!

Monday, October 19, 2009

ISMAR09: Experiential Learning 1 of 3 - Current Applications

The International Symposium on Mixed and Augmented Reality (ISMAR) held workshops today, and I was lucky enough to be assigned as student volunteer to exactly the workshop I wanted to attend.

From the program (though it was referred to as experiential learning on the conference signs):
Falling in Love with Learning: Education and Entertainment Converge with Learning Landscapes is designed to meet the needs of people who are currently designing memorable and lasting experiences for visitors and students through AR technology. These include professionals in the areas of:
  • cultural heritage preservation
  • education and in-situ learning
  • entertainment and games for learning
  • museum curation and design
The leaders of this workshop will discuss how they are currently using Mixed and Augmented Reality for education and entertainment and the challenges they face or most wish to tackle in the future.

First Post of Three

This is the first of three posts covering this workshop. Here, I will summarize the first three of six presentations given in the morning by those already using augmented reality for their particular purposes. In the next post, I will cover the remaining talks. Finally, the third post will cover the afternoon's discussions that sought to answer three main questions about augmented reality's place in education.

What Is Augmented Reality?

If you really want to know, check out the Wikipedia article. The points mentioned before the six presentations began include:
  • AR gives context to the situation. It's not an out-of-body experience or a separate thing from the world we know.
  • Blends the real and the synthetic.
  • When the technology disappears, the imagination is enhanced.
  • Involves multiple senses.
  • Can record experiences in detail (such as high scores, stress of learners, etc).

What's Happening at UCF

Eileen Smith, director at the Institute for Simulation and Training at the University of Central Florida, spoke first, telling us about some of the projects surrounding experiential learning going on at UCF. Some examples include informal learning at museums, teacher training, recreating the World Fair, and military training.


One of the most interesting and unique uses of AR was, for me, the green kitchen. This is a reconfigurable set of cabinetry that can be arranged as per anyone's kitchen. Someone requiring cognitive rehabilitation can then wear a head mounted display and see what looks a lot like their own house, and then practice performing simple tasks like making cereal.

Another neat project was Journey With the Sea Creatures. A magic window into a fossil exhibit that would otherwise never change made the museum worth visiting more than once. This particular program filled the room with water and brought in the amazing creatures alive many years ago. Apparently once the children discovered this feature, they would go back into the main exhibit area and start swimming around for their friends and family to see on the magic window.

Eileen closed with a suggestion on when to use augmented reality. Don't use it when the real world will do just fine (in other words, if you can just do what you are trying to simulate, why bother with the simulation?). Instead, employ AR when you want to explore space, time, and scale, or to collect data you can then use or display to others later.

Museum Exploration, DNP Digitalcom

Next up was Tsutomu Miyashita from DNP Digitalcom [Japanese]. He discussed the AR projects intended for use in the Louvre to encourage better appreciation of art by visitors, and route guidance.


His group wanted to use markerless tracking at first, since they felt that the 2D bar codes would probably detract from the art itself, not being terribly attractive. Visitors using this technology were surprised and gleeful, but because they were not familiar with the concept of AR, they did not use it as expected. Furthermore, the weight and battery life of the devices used were a problem. (Something that may not be as important in research, but crucial in the real world!)

The next iteration used cell phones and markers instead. In the interface, a computer animated character taught users how to view art and properly appreciate it in addition to showing them where to go next. They understood the marker-based system much better, and the system also performed better in terms of recognition accuracy.

The key takeaway was that users feel surprised when they see augmented reality for the first time, leading to strong attention. But if they don't really know how to use it, then engaging them is really important so that they actually want to figure it out. Finally, once their attention is obtained, retention, understanding, and satisfaction become the aim.


Istvan Siklossy spoke next, mainly showing us the new EyePet game for Playstation 3. He explains that in camera based games, you typically see yourself and use motions and gestures to interact. Player actions generally map to the game action, making the games accessible to everyone.

(Here Istvan is showing the shower game for EyePet -
the screen is all foggy like a shower door!)

In EyePet, an adorable creature comes to life on your living room floor. Your interaction with it, which occurs by gestures as well as with a special marker, is robust and responsive. It's quite impressive! To get the robust tracking even in low-lighting (noisy images), the group took the usual tracking algorithms and made some improvements, such as rapid multiple thresholding to find many contours and locate the marker. It's crucial in the skill-based games that the tracking accuracy is no less than excellent.

In terms of learning environments, the EyePet allows for experimentation in that some basic sketches drawn by players are interpreted and transformed into toys for the pet. Players learn how the pet reacts, get a personalized experience, and have an opportunity to record and share videos of their experience.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

ISMAR09: What I'm Looking Forward To

Ori Inbar over at Games Alfresco is doing a pretty top-notch job of getting me excited about this year's International Symposium on Mixed and Augmented Reality, or ISMAR, where I'm going to be a student volunteer. For example, who wouldn't feel giddy when they saw a program that could turn sketches made on paper into working 3D virtual models in real time?

Today I finally got the chance to look at the schedule in more detail. There are a few sessions that I feel are must-see's for me, so hopefully my volunteer schedule can somehow accommodate this. At the very least, I hope I can do my duties in the rooms where these talks happen!

There have been indications scattered throughout some of my past posts that I really wanted to do augmented reality for my PhD research. Lately I've been feeling more and more certain that I want to explore educational entertainment that makes use of augmented reality. My current vision involves building games for kids that help them learn computer science concepts, kind of like CS Unplugged does, but on an individual basis.

I hope to explore two main areas: first, I would love to look at how well children understand augmented reality and what interfaces are best suited for them; and second, based on those results, I want to build such an interface. I somewhat expect that kids will need some kind of tangible component to best understand augmented reality, as they don't seem to be very abstract in general, so I'm hoping there will be some major (or at least somewhat major) new technological aspects to explore.

Based on this, Monday's workshop Falling in Love with Learning: Education and Entertainment Converge is an obvious choice for me. If I could do nothing else all conference, I think I would walk away satisfied.

A close contender for top choice is my second must-see: Tuesday's tutorial on AR Game Design, given by Blair MacIntyre of Georgia Tech. You know, I never really knew much about Georgia Tech before about a year ago, being a Canadian who can't keep track of all the schools down in the good ol' US of A. But once I started to see the amazing videos of their projects, they gained a lot of respect from me. No wonder they seem to rank in top schools for computer science! Anyway, the connection of this workshop to my thesis ideas should be obvious.

Finally, there is a talk in the Arts, Media, and Humanities Track that I'm also pretty pumped about. It's called Science Meets Fiction: Imagining the Future of Mixed and Augmented Reality. Aside from the inspiration for new ideas that I expect to get from this session, the speaker's affiliation is rather intriguing. He's a Disney Imagineer, something I learned about thanks to Randy Pausch's Last Lecture. I never really cared to go to Disney World until I heard about the Imagineers. Now I want to go solely to see what cool tech they've come up with!

So that's what's making me excited as I write my packing list for ISMAR. I fly out tomorrow and hope to document as much of what I see for you guys as I have time for. I am bringing my Nikon D90, which has a built-in video feature, so watch for photos and videos, too!

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

How Does Usability Engineering Fit Into the Field of Software Engineering?

I just finished reading Usability Engineering Turns 10, a paper from 1996 by Keith Butler. One of the main questions that jumped out at me, as a computer scientist, what how usability engineering can fit into the larger field of software engineering. I suspect things have changed in thirteen years (for example, a company that I did some co-op placements with has changed from being run by the engineers in the nineties to being run by the business and marketing types today, and there are now entire teams of user design experts). Despite this, I have noticed a resistance from some students to even consider making a basic user and task analysis course mandatory, even just for the most relevant streams in our computer science degree.

The usability engineering cycle outlined by Butler is fairly straightforward, and likely looks familiar to software engineers:
  1. User and Task Analysis
  2. Interface Design
  3. Building (Iterative Prototyping)
  4. Usability Evaluation
The design of interfaces wasn't always so focused on the user. This way of thinking seems to have started in the 1940's during the Second World War. The machinery and instrumentation in air planes was beginning to get too complicated for humans to safely operate. Air crews needed protection from extreme environmental conditions as well as operational safety. This lead to a book by Ross McFarland in 1946 called Human Factors in Air Transport Design. The 1960's brought Human Engineering Guide to Equipment Design by Harold Van Cott and Robert Kinkade, which considered the user to be an integral part of the system, the same as the machine parts.

Some interesting key points from the article:
  • The abstract objective of usability engineering is the minimization of cognitive and perceptual overhead required from the user.

  • Intuitive interfaces are the result of designers connecting the layers between the mapping of a user's conceptual model to the functions of the system, the user determining the exact commands and arguments needed to control various functions, and the user's physical execution of the commands.

  • User and task analysis has two objectives: first, to understand the situation as it is, and second, to improve it.

  • Analogies help users connect the software with their mental model of the world. If an analogy is not defined in the software, the user will invent one.

  • The default practice is often assigning only as many functions to the computer as budget and time will allow, but it's better to understand what the computer do better and what humans do better and assign functions accordingly.

  • When designing layouts and operation of screens in software, the low level details can be worked out using UI standards. Higher level details, on the other hand, are driven by analogy and mental models.
Back to the students who vehemently oppose having any courses that cover this kind of material in a Bachelor of Computer Science. They argue that this isn't computer science and shouldn't be forced upon us. They say that they will never have to be the designer, so why should they have to learn about design?

First of all, a lot of what we learn in computer science could arguably be deemed "not computer science" if one wanted to be particularly pedantic. After all, software engineering isn't about algorithms or system design; it's about engineering processes. Yet software engineering is a course we all have to take it. Wouldn't at least being aware of how the designers came up with their decisions help us develop their vision more accurately?

According to our undergraduate calendar, students in the software engineering stream have to take a quality assurance course. Again, this could argued as something a little less computer science and a little more engineering. If those students learn about what happens during and after development, shouldn't they have the complete picture by learning what comes before?

Here's another good point that Butler makes:
Application development projects, however, must already deal with function, costs, schedule, GUIs, data management, communications, software architecture, methods, tools, standards. Unless part of a comprehensive, integrated approach to application development, usability can easily end up being just one more tail trying to wag the dog.
So in addition to simply having a big-picture understanding of the entire software development process, we have to be careful that the usability design phase doesn't get shoved aside partially due to the attitudes of those on the development side of things. Unless, of course, you think that us programmers can design a perfect product on our own. (Yeah, right.)

Butler sums it up perfectly:
Cultural obstacles in the computing community must be overcome in adding a user-centered perspective to the existing technology-centered focus.
Once again, though I think things have improved, there's still work to do, evidenced by my school colleagues. Here's hoping that one day an introduction to user and task analysis will be on the curriculum of anyone taking a software engineering class.