Date: 2006-11-22 Category: Interviews
Future Interaction Technologies: The ITWales Interview
by Sali Earls
Future Interaction Technologies are the complex devices that can affect everyones lives, for better or worse. They are in our homes and our cars, and can be found in a range of devices from mobile phones to hospital drug delivery systems. The FIT Lab in the Computer Science department of Swansea University is about evaluating and changing design through better technology.
Dr Matt Jones is a Senior Lecturer in the department, and recently relocated back to Wales from New Zealand, to help develop the FIT Lab. Specialising in mobile interaction issues for ten years, Matt has published a large number of articles in this area, and has worked closely with handset and service developers including Orange, Reuters, BT Cellnet, Nokia and Adaptive Info.
Matt took time out of his hectic teaching and research schedule to talk to Sali Earls about the work of the FIT Lab, and his involvement in projects which are looking at bridging the digital divide at home and globally.
You worked in New Zealand for some time, what attracted you to Computer Science in Swansea?
I was there for over four and a half years, and there were a few things really that brought me back to Wales.
Professionally, there was the opportunity to work with Harold Thimbleby again, setting up the Future Interaction Technologies Lab FIT Lab, to do something which is really unique in terms of human factors and computer science, and the strong use of computer science to shape the way in which we interact with computers, and thats very different from many of the approaches from around the world.
So that was a professional goal, but also, Im originally from South Wales, just outside Cardiff, and its nice to be back.
Finally, I have to say that ITWales was a factor in my decision. Everything Ive done in my career has involved reaching out to society, industry and governments, and Swansea, out of all the universities that I was looking at, was the only one that really had a serious infrastructure in place and track record of third mission activities through ITWales that really appealed to me. Long may it continue.
With computers becoming smaller, mobile and ubiquitous, the work of the FIT Lab is becoming increasingly important to research into the ways in which people currently, and will in future interact with technology. What is the mission of the FIT lab, and how does your area of expertise fit into this?
Well, think about something like Google, which is a very effective and powerful search engine. The reason that its so effective and powerful is because it has a marvellous algorithm, and what were saying is that the kind of way you design a system - the algorithms you use, the computer science behind it - can really shape the way in which people interact with computers.
Often when people think about Human Computer Interaction or usability, they think of words like "user-friendly", or they think about the look and feel, the colours on the screen. Those are a very small part of the things we want to address. Were interested in interaction, which is a much deeper level of humans involvement with machines.
The mission of the FIT Lab is to change the world, and transform it into a more interesting, better, and exciting place. There is a lot of frustration with computers, but theres also a lot of pleasure that people have from them, and we want to reduce the amount of frustration, and enhance the sorts of experiences that people can have.
Because computers get everywhere, not just into mobile phones, drug dispensers, ticket machines, the role of the FIT Lab is to have a much broader reach out into society.
Computer science is not a service - computer science is a shaper. I think a lot of people just think that computer science is something you buy in PC World off the shelf. But what we want to say is that computer science has as much of a role in the wider society as something like political science. Its about shaping Wales, shaping the UK, and shaping the world.
You talk about reaching out to society, and I think thats a great point. The work of the FIT Lab is a lot more tangible than some of the other areas of computer science, so how do you think researchers in your area and in computer science in general can work more effectively with business and society?
We already do. We engage on research contracts with people like Microsoft Research, its a collaboration where they have provided funding, but are very interested in working with us to develop ideas.
There are obvious ways that you can reach out to the Public Sector and the wider issues of society. People have problems that need to be solved.
Computer science and the FIT Lab is about thinking about new ways of people can work with computers, looking at problems people have currently in terms of sharing information, finding things out, and building solutions for that. There is no end to the possible opportunities and the partnerships that can be forged.
With small companies, there are problems that are not necessarily research problems. The FIT Lab will want to do consultancy with that sort of company, and there is a project currently underway looking at using a mobile device to gather particular information. There is research in that, but its more about consultancy.
The grand challenges in the FIT Lab will come from engaging with national and international governments and commercial organisations. We definitely want to reach out and involve SMEs, and in the FIT Lab we now have Masters students and were hoping that some of those will get involved in that programme.
The FIT Lab MSc started in October 2006, with some funded places from ITWales. Weve started small, but we want to build on it. Its an innovative programme, and the influence in our Lab in research is very much on participation and collaboration amongst a group of peers, a group of equals, and were hoping to build that kind of environment for our students.
Its not just another Masters course, where they turn up to modules - we want to treat them as grown ups, and as people who are collaborating with the Lab rather than just learning from the Lab. So far theyve been involved in seminars with world leading researchers; were arranging away days where they will give talks; we hope its a different kind of environment and we want them to get involved with local SMEs using their project work to help solve some real problems.
You spoke at the Royal Institution in July about "Bridging the Global Digital Divide". In a small way, people in the west are aware of the digital divide in their own communities or own countries, but are often blind to the underclass that is being created on a global scale. How do you go about bridging this global digital divide, and how can computer scientists and businesses work together to do this?
Just recently we had a digital divide and storytelling workshop with people from the BBC who have been working on a digital stories project called "Capture Wales", and Gary Marsden from Cape Town who has been using digital technology to capture stories in Southern Africa.
There is a huge similarity with populations in some of the estates in places like Swansea and Cardiff, to some of the things going on in Africa and India. Functional literacy in some parts of Wales is very low; access to technology is very low. These projects that weve been involved with in Swansea, and the wider projects focusing on the global digital divide, are very exciting and important because its highlighting that it isnt just poor people in India and poor people in Africa, and we need to understand how we can address areas of Wales and the UK.
Also, its important to understand that wherever these people are, be they in the estates in Swansea, or in the little tiny village just outside Bangalore India that were working with, that theyre not complete victims. A big problem with technology is that all technologists, probably including myself, is that we see technology as some kind of healing, and that well be able to go in there, to parachute in, with the latest mobile devices and web software, and somehow make these peoples lives better. It turns out that these people in this Indian village have a vibrant cultural, social and educational life, and what were going to be able to do is celebrate that through technology.
I think its important for companies to see that, and part of the project were working on is exposing that element of life to a wider community of developers and engineers, so that they can build appropriate technology for those contexts and not just imagine people with very bad health, very bad nutrition and very bad education. Clearly in India and Africa there are people like that, but I think we over generalise and over stereotype both locally and internationally.
The StoryBank project that were working on is about building, in this little village about 250km from Bangalore, a way for people to capture and share their stories using a mobile platform with advanced camera phones, and then via a WiFi network in this village, people share and see each others stories. We also hope to expose those stories to the developed community, and the Royal Society of Arts student design competition next year to use these case studies as a resource pack for students to design for that context, which should be very exciting.
That project is one of four funded by the EPSRCs Global Digital Divide programme, and at Swansea, we administer the network grant, and in January were going to Cambridge to bring all those projects together to share experiences of the first six months.
Working at the cutting edge of technology research, what technologies do you think we will be depending on in five years time, ten years time and beyond?
Although were called the Future Interaction Technologies Lab, we are grounded in really trying to understand people. The answer to that is really hard, and I think its the wrong way of looking at it.
Theres a long history of computer science, information science and technology - building new stuff - and weve all seen the failures there, from video phones to various robot machines, etc. What we would want to do is understand what people want.
Actually people are pretty stable - they want to relate to other people; they want to communicate things; they want to share things - and technologies to support those underlying human values will become more and more important. Any designer who thinks they can just push a particular technology will at best fail, and at worst cause people frustration and despair.
People dont necessarily know what the future could hold, so we practice something called participatory design, and working together we can show possible visions of the future using advanced mobile devices, for example, and we also want to learn about peoples underlying values. If you put the two together, until people see a prototype they cant, or why should they, comment on them.
An example of this is some work were doing with Microsoft Research, who have funded a project to look at mobile search engines. We conducted a big study in Swansea over the summer, with almost 400 ordinary people from the area. Based at a variety of locations from the Waterfront Museum, the Quadrant Shopping Centre, the university campus and along the seafront, we showed people a potential future search engine on a tablet PC and they interacted with it. The research has helped us to find out some opinions about the future of these technologies - we had people respond to it, and weve modified the prototype accordingly and are working along from that.
Matt Jones is the co-author of "Mobile Interaction Design", John Wiley & Sons Nov 2005.
Find out more about Matt and his work at www.undofuture.com.
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