Beki Grinter

Vision, History, Brand: HCI and Ubicomp

In discipline, HCI on September 26, 2011 at 9:33 am

At Ubicomp 2011 (last week) there was a panel on Ubiquitous Computing, on its past—particularly its founding vision—and on the future. Panelists presented several different perspectives, ranging from a focus on the pragmatic (i.e., if ubiquitous computing has arrived is it time to declare it a success and cancel the Ubicomp conference series), to charting the next vision (one that would be more culturally relativistic, my everyday not being similar to many others that exist globally), and to using some of the technologies of ubiquitous computing for new societal challenges (particularly disaster response and prediction).

Having just reviewed the panel materials, I then turned to Interactions magazine and read a piece by Ben Shneiderman. The argument is that a number of new terms have recently surfaced in HCI such as human-centered computing. His position is that we should hold on to the name HCI, even if the scope of our endeavors have broadened because to lose HCI is to lose the association with our successful past. He coined the terms micr0-HCI (a continued focus on innovations in the human-computer interface experience) and macro-HCI (which I read as domain exploration and carving out new applications for HCI). And ended by saying that it was really all HCI anyway.

To my mind what happened at Ubicomp and this proposal for the future of HCI are related. I read the latter in the context of the former. The argument for HCI is to hold onto the history because it’s served us well in the past, and we should continue to leverage it while moving forward. But, the very presence of the panel at Ubicomp was really asking whether a historical vision can move the discipline forward, and if so, at what cost?

Pragmatically, I asked myself, has HCI been so successful that it is time to declare the ACM Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (colloquially known as CHI) done? If we did, and if we created a new vision what would it be? With HCI, given its size and scope, I think we could ask further whether there would be a single vision holding the people of HCI together, or would it make more sense to follow different paths? (If a vision is a means to create common ground, to provide ways of talking about what the enterprise constitutes).

What I liked about the panel at Ubicomp is that the idea of it suggested a time to reflect on what has passed and what is desirable going forward. What troubles me about macro- and micr0-HCI is that its a solution that under explores the questions that lye beneath it? So is it time to take a step back in order to look forward? Where are we going and why?

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