Monthly Archives: September 2007

Twittering on…

Yesterday, I was gently prodded into Twittering more frequently. I signed up for Twitter about a week ago but had only posted a couple of times. Apparently some people at work noticed that I’d joined and were ‘following’ me, which is nice.

So I acquiesced and have since written a few ‘tweets’. I now apparently have 8 followers. :o)

I did just try to add my Twitter badge to the side of my blog but it doesn’t fit the design of my website. Probably a good thing because my blog is gradually filling up with badges. Maybe I should find a new theme…

SiSi (Say it, Sign it): signing avatars

The other recent event that impelled me to start my internal blog was last week’s Extreme Blue European Expo at Hursley. Extreme Blue is a student internship program that IBM runs every summer. It lasts 12 weeks. The projects are proposed by IBMers but are implemented by students. The Expos are held in different locations each year, I think, but this year the European one was held in Hursley, UK.

I’d heard a bit about the Hursley-based SiSi project from a friend who was mentoring the team, so I moseyed on down to Hursley House and spent a good hour-and-a-half visiting the Expo stands and hearing about those and other projects from around IBM sites in Europe.

I’ve been learning British Sign Language (BSL) for about a year and, having learnt just the basics about how to communicate in BSL (that is, it’s not just hand signs or fingerspelling but also facial expressions, lip shapes, and the spatial location of the signs that matter), I couldn’t imagine how an avatar could convincingly sign – especially not translated in real time from speech, which is what the SiSi project aimed to do.

The SiSi team’s demo blew me away. They use a third-party piece of software to convert speech input to text. The text is then sent to the client machine (I think) where an avatar signs the text in BSL or American Sign Language (ASL), depending on the language you selected. I can’t remember any more of the technical details than that but the demo text they tried was translated to BSL at a reasonable speed, I thought (probably as fast as a human interpreter). The demo was on a local system but the students reckoned it did okay over remote systems.

The project was done with the University of East Anglia and the RNID (Royal National Institute for Deaf people) who supplied the database of signs (which I guess is probably a database of video clips and associated labels). I’m not sure who marked up the signs in Sign Language Markup Language (SLML), a form of XML, but I expect that’s the most intensive part of it.

The great thing for IBM and the Extreme Blue scheme is that, like last year’s LAMA project the SiSi project has attracted loads of press coverage, here and around the world.

SiSi aside, there were loads of other cool projects including (you can probably spot a theme in my interests here!) the Accessibility in Virtual Worlds project. For a change, the virtual world concerned was not Second Life but, instead, Active Worlds. Active Worlds enabled the project team to devise a way to mark up objects around the world using XML so that blind people can walk through the virtual worlds using sonar. The user wears headphones (or has speakers set up) and the nearer something is, I think, the louder the sound (or something like that).

I came away from the Expo with a handful of really professional-looking Moo cards and leaflets from the stands I had time to visit. I think the most amazing thing that occurred to me about the Expo was the amount and quality of work that the students were able to produce in just 12 weeks.

HCI 2007 @ Lancaster University

At the beginning of September, I went to the HCI 2007 conference at Lancaster University (in the North of England).

I was Chairing the HCI Practice Day (the Thursday) of the conference so it was all a little bit hectic but still, as usual, a lot of fun.

This year, in line with the times I guess, there was a fair number of papers on Second Life and other virtual environments, including one about BDSM in Second Life. In fact, there was definitely a bit of a trend this year for erotic HCI… (that, as a statement, either makes HCI cool, or it just goes to show that academics can make *anything* boring 😉 ).

There also seemed to be a fair amount about emotions – that is, how we engage with technology; eg why we happily waste an entire evening on Facebook or watching random videos on YouTube. Web2.0 was also in there, of course.

There were also some papers on bluetooth, several (as usual) on eye-tracking, and stuff about Accessibility, usability of the Web, methods of evaluating interface usability, and so on.

IBMers featured quite heavily in the HCI Practice Day (as you might imagine):

  • Mark Farmer (IBM Warwick) introduced the IBM Task Modeler tool that he develops (the link takes you to the Task Modeler page on Alphaworks where you can download a copy to try yourself).
  • Colin Bird (Master Inventor and Information Architect at IBM Hursley) followed up Mark’s introduction with a presentation about how you can (and we do) use Task Modeler to support information architecture: to model user tasks and create the navigation for information centres.
  • Ben Fletcher (Senior Inventor at IBM Hursley) did a great presentation on deafblind technologies, including the possibilities of virtual worlds in supporting deafblind (and deaf or blind) users.
  • Me (Technical Author at IBM Hursley) – I was raconteur for Alan Dix‘s panel discussing the HCI issues in Web2.0 technologies.

The keynote speaker for HCI Practice Day was Jared Spool (the usability guru who isn’t Jakob Nielsen – and is much better and more credible, IMO) who moved heaven and high water (kind-of) to get here. He did a fantastic presentation that was very very funny and entertaining while being relevant and interesting too. He also attended as many of the other conference sessions as he could and participated by asking questions and making suggestions.

In fact, all the keynote speakers were great this year. Sometimes keynotes fly in, do their thang, then collect their expenses and go. All three (the others being Stephen Payne from Manchester Uni and Elizabeth Churchill from Yahoo!) all got involved in the conference, especially Elizabeth who was able to stay for the whole conference and seemed to be on every discussion panel going!

You can get the full proceedings of HCI 2007 (and, at some point, previous HCI conferences too) from the BCS eWIC site.

As a delegate, I also got the full proceedings as pdfs on a funky little USB drive, which I like.

It’s not long now until the call for papers will go out for HCI 2008 (to be held in Liverpool, City of Culture). If this blog is still active by then, I’ll post the call here. I encourage you to get involved in HCI – it’s more than user interface design or usability; it’s also about being innovative in how to design technologies for human beings.