Alan joins the Talis Platform Advisory Group

Last week Alan agreed to join our Talis Platform Advisory Group. Here’s the official announcement over on our Nodalities blog.

I was over-the-moon when I discovered that Alan had agreed to join our advisory group, I wasn’t sure whether he would due to his other commitments but after spending a wonderful weekend with him and his wife Fiona up in Kendall following HCI 2007 (some pics), I knew that there was so much he could help us with. We spent a long time talking about some of the work we’re doing here at Talis and Alan kept offering me his insight, and sharing his ideas with me and it became apparent that he could offer our team a unique perspective which is something they all seem to agree with … it was Paul, one of our resident evangelists (all round nice guy … and the keeper Cadbury’s Creme Eggs), who suggested asking Alan to join the group.

Alan has been more than just a wonderful friend to me over the years, he’s been a mentor, a muse, a confidant, in many ways he’s been like a father to me … the idea of collaborating with him again to build something special, like we did at aQtive, feels inspirational … 🙂

Whilst were on the subject of inspiration …. consider for a moment who the other members of the advisory group are …

That’s a pretty special group of people each of whom brings a wealth of experience and knowledge that will be invaluable in helping us grow the platform, they’ll tell us when they think we’re right or tell us when they think were making mistakes. I know were all looking forward to working with them.

Marriage of Brain and Computer

I really enjoyed this talk by
Stuart Hameroff
. I’ve been following some of his research over at for a while now, this talk is a wonderful introduction to his current research in trying to understand the nature of consciousness, and how to model this in a computer architecture … so that Consciousness itself might be an emergent output of some kind of computation. In many ways this presentation provides an excellent introduction to neuroscience has tried to understand the workings of the human brain and how this resulted in our understanding and building of artificial neural networks.

Gears and the Mashup Problem


Mashups are the most interesting innovation in software development in decades. … all » Unfortunately, the browser’s security model did not anticipate this development, so mashups are not safe if there is any confidential information in the page. Since virtually every page has at least some confidential information in it, this is a big problem. Google Gears may lead to the solution

… very interesting tech talk, I think I need to play around with Gears a bit more!

Othello at the Old Rep

Apparently I’m becoming cultured … at least that’s what Amanda seems to think! :p Several of us went to see The Birmingham Stage Company’s excellent performance of Othello last night.

It was a wonderful production that was wonderfully performed, by an excellent cast. As the play begins you immediately realise that it isn’t set in Venice back in 1604, instead, director John Harrison chose to dress the play for a time roughly around World War One:

I also wanted to place the story firmly in a time when it was certainly not done for a nicely brought up white girl to marry a black man, however eminent. We took the decision to dress it somewhere just before World War One.

Actually whilst I’m writing this, and transcribing John Harrison’s, comment above I just burst out laughing because it reminded me of something Rob jokingly suggested to me at lunch yesterday … when asking me when I was going to find myself a woman! (roflmao).

It’s no secret that I love the works of Shakespeare. I spent a lot of time reading his collected works when I was younger and even to this day I can still recite, at will, large portions of some of them – something that does become quite annoying when I see one of his plays live at the theater because I unconsciously start reciting the words .. which usually results in someone elbowing me in the ribs telling me to sssshhh :p fortunately I wasn’t that bad last night apart from when Othello who is getting ready to murder Desdemona  and says:

When I have pluck'd the rose, 
I cannot give it vital growth again. 
It must needs wither

It’s immortal stuff … 🙂

As for this production, whilst Cyril Nri is excellent in the title role, its Neal Foster‘s performance as Iago that stole the show for me. Iago is the villain of the piece, and unusually for one of Shakespeare’s play’s, it’s Iago that has the most lines in this play. It’s Iago that manipulates all the other characters in the play trapping them in an intricate web of lies, to avenge himself upon Othello for promoting Cassio ahead of himself. I’ve always thought that Iago was one of Shakespeare’s most malevolent villains and yet his ability to manipulate those around him was made all the more potent because of his charm, intelligence and wit – in this regard Foster’s performance is truly inspired his Iago exudes these qualities throughout and reveals the characters true malevolence for his soliloquies … one such example was when Foster delivered these lines:

I have't. It is engender'd. Hell and night
Must bring this monstrous birth to the world's light.

With reference to the character Iago I found something quite interesting in the Programme for this production, it contains a two page spread describing The Nature of Pyschopathy, it lists Dr Robert Hare’s Psychopathy Checklist in detail … and then at the end after describing this checklist it simply says … .”Around four hundred years ago, before this checklist was published, William Shakespeare wrote a character called Iago.“.

The Birmingham Stage Company deserves great credit for putting on such a memorable production of one of Shakespeare’s great tragedies! If you can get to watch this play when it tours around the UK, then I defenitly recommend it!

Rough Crossings

I was fortunate enough to see Rough Crossings at The Birmingham Rep last week. The play was adapted for the stage by Caryl Phillips and was based on Simon Schama’s book of the same title.

In summary the play tells the tale of a group of slaves who join the English army during the American war for independence – on the basis that the English have offered them their freedom from slavery and a new home in England. However at the end of the war the English, who are retreating, abandon the ex-slaves in Novia Scotia which is a harsh place where they suffer much hardship and death. One of their number (Thomas Peters) travels to London to fight for better conditions for them and to try to English to honour the promises they had made. John Clarkson, one of a group of anti-slavery campaigners, agrees to help him. Clarkson sets up the Sierra Leone Company and the Novia Scotia settlers are assisted to move back to Africa and settle in what is aimed to be a society based on democratic principles. However when they arrive in Sierra Leone they discover that the lands promised to them have not yet been acquired from the locals and the English who were sent in advance are both corrupt and prejudiced, which leads to disputes between Peters and Clarkson’s about the nature of the latter’s leadership of this colony.

The play at its core is about the nature of what it means to truly be free, to Peter’s that means self-determination and its this that creates the tension between him and Clarkson who Peter’s views as a white moses leading them freedom.

There is no doubt in my mind that Schama’s book ( which I have since started reading ) is a revisionist examination of the American War of Independence which touches on some important issues about the founding principles of the United States … for example if the War of Independance was fought for freedom and it was such a wonderful thing, why did all these black people want to fight for the British? They did so because they knew that the American Republic was grounded in hypocrisy. Where the play succeeds is that it examines these issues through characters and relationships. As a result the characters are complex and don’t easily fit into cliches or the kinds of stereotypes I suppose we are used to seeing when dealing with such an emotionally charged subject … I guess what I’m trying to say is that they aren’t polarised … they’re not just black or white.

In order to develop these characters the play switches from scenes depicting the struggle of the abolitionist movement in England with scenes depicting the struggles and hardship suffered by the blacks during the war of independence in America, yet I did find it disturbing that the abolitionists solution to the problem of ending Slavery wasn’t to free the slaves and give them lands here in England the attitude that seemed to prevail was … its right that they should be free but that doesn’t mean we want them living next door to us.

The play showed two attempts to create a colony in Sierra Leone the first failed when one of the Black Slaves, wanting to be rich, wealthy and powerful, like the white men he saw in England and America conspired with local tribes to sell his fellow emancipated slaves back into Slavery. This resulted in the destruction of the colony. This was largely because the abolitionists only considered that their mission was to commission some boats, and gather some wealth so that they could ship the slaves to Africa and leave them to sort themselves out, they have their own little democracy, they never considered that these people would need protection or some kind of oversight … does this sound familiar to anyone?

The second expedition led by Clarkson promised self determination for the Slaves but with protection from England the Sierra Leon company.  Clarkson believed that they couldnt simply abandon the slaves to fend for themselves, that their responsibilities to these people ran deeper than that. Yet whilst this new colony thrived , it was still, largely, whites ruling over blacks. It’s the dynamic between Peters and Clarkson at this point in the play that was so captivating … and finally led to Clarkson to ask the question

how do you balance benevolence with authority?

It was a wonderful, captivating and moving production which is well worth watching. I believe the play is now touring around the UK, I thoroughly recommend seeing it.

HCI2007 … Day One Summary

 The last couple of weeks have been extremely busy and consequently I haven’t had much of a chance to post up about the conference. I thought I’d write a summary of some of the presentations that stood out the most for me.

For anyone interested you can view all the papers that were presented during the conference which are available from the BCS website on this page.

Day One

View the schedule for the day.

The day was divided into three sessions. During each session there were three concurrent tracks. This was essentially the format for all three days of the conference. I decided to stick with the Creative and Aesthetic experiences track for most of the day.  During the first session the presentation that captured my imagination the most was Dharani Perera’s short paper on Investigating paralinguistic voice as a mode of interaction to creating visual art.1.   In the paper Dharani and her colleagues reported on their research into how it is possible for people to use the volume of their voice to control cursor movement to create drawings. The research is especially hopeful for artists with upper limb disabilities who  show remarkable endurance, patience and determination to create art with whatever means are available to them. Listening to her presentation and watching one of the video’s they had recorded of an artist using the system was quite inspirational.

Another interesting paper presented during the first session was by Jennifer Sheridan from on Encouraging Witting Participation and Performance in Digital Live Art 2. Jennifer and her colleagues worked on developing a framework for characterising people’s behaviour with Digitial Live Arts. They identified three key categories of behaviour with respect to a performance frame – these are defined as performing, participating and spectating. They used an iPoi to illustrate their framework. Imagine spinning or throwing a tiny computer round your body to create your own visual projections, music or light show. Poi is a traditional Maori art form. iPOI (pictured above) is a sensor packed upgrade of the original that can trigger visual and audio soundscapes in real time using wireless technology. The goal of this peer-to-peer, exertion interface is to draw people into the performance frame and support transitions from audience to participant onto performer. The presentation was really about describing how evaluating and measuring interaction in public performance is very differnt to the frameworks and measures currently employed to understand interaction in tradtional HCI. I think what Jennifer and her team showed was that traditional HCI, like it or not, has focused on understanding interactions in desktop computing, however as computing moves away from desktop into more ubiquitious, mobile devices we will see a shift to non task based uses of computing, and as such we need to new ways to understand this new kind of interaction.

The first session was followed by the first of the conference keynotes by Professor Stephen Payne on the subject of Deciding how to sped your time the keynote was an excellent presentation of Stephen’s current research area of Cognitive strategies and design heuristics for dealing with information overload on the web3. He began the keynote with the simple and yet insightful observation that …

time is natures way of preventing us doing everything at once

The talk was about the very real problem that many of us face … In a world where the internet and search engines can provide individuals with relevant texts on any given subect how can readers allocate time effectively across a set of relevant documents, and how can they be helped so to do. So when faced with more relevant texts than time to read them all what strategies do you use when you have a specific learning goal.

Stephen presented the results of an experiment where a number of test subjects were presented with four texts to read in 6 minutes, after which they would have to take a test. Whilst the four texts covered the same subject (the functioning of the human heart) the complexity of the texts varied. For example Text A was a primary school text on the topic, whilst Text D was a post graduate medical text. B and C were both somewhere in the middle.

Now, before seeing Stephen’s presentation, I would have assumed that people in this situation might have attempted to sample each of the texts, in other words review each on briefly. What Stephen’s research has begun to demonstrate is that individuals, when faced with a specific learning goal, don’t sample but rather Satisfice, in other words in their minds they set a threshold of acceptability and if it’s met by a particular text will settle on it. It’s sometimes referred to as Information Foraging, which is analagous to problems faced by animals foraging for food in nature, how long do they stay in one patch patch before moving on to another.

What I found most interesting in Stephen’s presentation was the idea that even when skimming documents we build a mental representation of the mapping between the physical structure of the text and the meaningful content of the text. Now if this is true then it would suggest that it might be possible to find ways to construct documents so that they take advantage of this structure map. It was an excellent keynote, and I must admit I wasn’t at all suprised to learn that Alan has worked with Stephen4 on this area since much of Stephen’s talk seemed to remind me of ideas and theories of the mind that Alan had related to me in the past.

After lunch the second session of talks began. Again I opted to start off in the Creative and Aesthetic Experiences track. The first paper presented was by Shaowen Bardzell, and had the intriguing title – Docile Avatars: Aesthetics, Experience, and Sexual Interaction in Second Life5. It’s no secret that I’m not a huge fan of Second Life, but listening to this talk made finally accept that even though I don’t understand why people in second life seem to take it so seriously the fact remains that many do and because they do it’s important to understand their needs as users and the communities that are emerging within Second Life. I did find this talk to be somewhat surreal the whole idea of sexual interaction and in particular BDSM as something thats possible in a virtual environment felt kind of bizarre. I did laugh about it with Alan at the bar later when I recounted to him a conversation I had with someone from the second life team who couldnt understand why i wasnt willing to spend more time in it and asked me what the real world had that second life didnt and I had replied “real women” (stop laughing Alan!). What did emerge from Shaowen’s talk was that it is possible to construct powerful aesthetic experiences and that were only now beginning to try to understand through the use of virtual ethnography and HCI theories of experience design to understand how and why this complex phenomenon emerged in Second Life.

The most interesting of the talks from this session, under the Communication and Sharing Experiences track, was entitled Thanks for the Memory6. This was a join project between Manchester Met University, The BBC and Microsoft. It was based around a piece of life-logging technology developed by Microsoft called The SenseCam,which they decribe as a piece of memory prosthesis. The SenseCam is a passive device that users wear, the device is designed to take photographs, at regular intervals of around 30 seconds, without user intervention whilst it is being worn. Unlike normal camera’s it doesnt have a view finder, it’s a simple camera fitted with a special fish eye lense that ensures that the field of view is maximised so that almost everything in the wearers field of view is captured. Whilst it sounds a bit strange the effect on the six test subjects seemed to be quite profound, the authors of the paper put it in these terms …

What we have seen is that the relationship between things-as-remembered-by-thesubjects-in-ordinary-ways and things-as-presented-by-the- SenseCams is complex. For one thing, SenseCam data captured things-that-might-have-been-remembered-but-not-intentionally and things-that-were-beyond-the-possibility-of-being-recalledby-the-user-but-which, -when-presented-to-the-same-user, -somehow-provoked-a-recollection … This awkward language alludes to the difficult and complex relationship between human memory and digital traces of action. We have seen that SenseCam data makes livedexperience, in various ways and in varying degrees, strange to the persons who had the relevant experiences in question. Strangeness here is not a negative thing, as we saw. Strangeness brings values of various kinds. The crux, it seems to us, is that in creating discongruent experiences to the one’s imagined or recollected, SenseCams brought to bear ways of seeing that were not obviously the subject’s own, but which were nevertheless empirically related to those experiences, though in complex ways.

For the final session of the afternoon I decided to stay with the Communication & sharing experiences track. There was a very interesting paper presented The Devil You Know Knows Best How Online Recommendations Can Benefit From Social Networking7 which I thought was quite relevant to some of the stuff were looking at here at Talis. The content of the paper seemed to be me be fairly obvious but nevertheless it was interesting to see some empiricial research done to prove some of the points. In short there thesis was that the defining characteristic of the internet is an abundance of information and this is problematic, how do we know which information to pay attention to and which we can just ignore? Recommender Systems were envisaged to try to solve this problem but have for the most part been unsuccessful. Research would suggest that this is due to lack of social context and inter-personal trust. What the researchers presenting this paper discovered was that participants overwhelmingly favoured recommendations made by people familiar to them, and if they recommender was not someone familiar then recommendations were favoured if the recommender could be identified as having the same interests. Consequently the conclusion offered, and this all felt terribly obvious t me, was that Recommender Systems should be integrated with Social Networking Systems.

The next paper from Day One that I want to mention was the presentation by my HCI tutor and aQtive Colleague Russell Beale Blogs, reflective practice and student-centered learning8. Russell argued that Blogging can be used to enhance education by encouraging reflective practise. Russell defines reflective practise as

an approach to learning that encourages thought about what has been experienced and seen, which can then drive new theories and investigations to test those theories, leading to new experiences that may, or may not, validate the original ideas. This leads to them being modified, extended, and refined, and the cycle continues.

Whilst the notion of reflective practise should be familiar to everyone, this is the first time I’ve come across any real research into using Blogging as a medium to encourage and enhance reflective practise in education. Russell was keen to point out that from a social and pedagogical perspective blogging can support a sense of community amongst students – they can interact with each other, post comments on each others blogs. But because of the semi-public nature of the content they are generating students can see the work done by other students and as such gain an insight into how much work they themselves need to do – since others can see the level of their activity. This creates a kind of peer-pressure that exerts influence over students to at least maintain some kind of acceptable level of activity. Russell has always been a good presenter, and I enjoyed his presentation – even though I do think I have some misgivings about the kind of peer-pressure this creates – but that doesnt mean its a bad idea.

The last paper of the day was also very interesting, the researchers sought to compare traditional and novel user interfaces for exploring a blog. The paper is entitled Contextualizing the Blogosphere: A Comparison of Traditional and Novel User Interfaces for the Web9. They investigate how contextual user interfaces affected blog reading experience and also how novel contexstual user interfaces can increase user performance and statisfaction. They compared a standard Blog Interface (WordPress), with StarTree, and the Focus Metaphor Interface. Star Tree uses a dynamic navigation tree that presents all nodes in the navigation concurrently. Each node correlated to a category on the blog. When a user selects a node it displays the associated article in a content pane. The presenters argued that by providing the entire structure of the information space concurrently this could result in superior orientation in the information space, making it much easier to find what your looking for. As such Star Tree out scored both the standard blog and the FMI interface in terms of task performance.

What this demonstrated to me was that when you have a large data set that you need to navigate or traverse in order to discover key bits of information tradition interface metaphors like facetted browsing, key word search etc. don’t provide enough context especially when the information space is large or complicated. What you need is a way to intuitively navigate to the bit that your interested in. It’s an idea some of us here at Talis have been playing around with and we think we have come up with some interesting results. 😉

At the end of the day most of the delegates attended the reception where we had some nice food, tonnes of drinks and I managed to have a lot of conversations with some very interesting people. After the reception many of us ended up in the bar where I camped out with Alan and Russell and spent the evening being introduced to tonnes of people spoke to them about their research and interests as well as what we do at Talis. The evening was a lot of fun and a great way to round off a very intense first day. All in all the first day seemed pretty fast paced, there was a lot to absorb ( some of which im still absorbing … ).

I’m going to start writing up the summary of day two ….

  1. D. Perera, J.Eales, K.Blashki [Voice Art: Investigating Paralinguistic Voice as a Mode of Interaction to Create Visual Art] [back]
  2. J.Sheridan, N. Bryan-Kinns, A.Bayliss, [Encrouaging Witting Participation and Performance in Digital Live Art] [back]
  3. Stephen Payne, IGR Report[back]
  4. A. Dix, A. Howes, S. Payne [Post-web cognition: evolving knowledge strategies for global information environments] [back]
  5. S.Bardzell, J.Bardzell [Docile Avatars: Aesthetics, Experience, and Sexual Interaction in Second Life] [back]
  6. R.Harper, D.Randall [Thanks for the Memory] [back]
  7. P. Bonhard, M. A. Sasse & C. Harries, [ The Devil You Know Knows Best: How Online Recommendations can Benefit from Social Networking ] [back]
  8. R.Beale [Blogs, reflective practice and student-centered learning] [back]
  9. S.Laqua, N.Ogbechie, A.Sasse [Contextualizing the Blogosphere: A Comparison of Traditional and Novel User Interfaces for the Web] [back]

Arriving at HCI2007

I arrived safe and sound at Lancaster University this afternoon all geared up to attend HCI2007.  Didn’t have too much problem finding where I had to go, there were a number of Student Volunteers on hand to direct wayward delegates, like me, to the registration office. After I got the keys to my room and dumped all my things in there,  I decided to explore the campus a little and try to get familiar with my surroundings (as well as find some food!). It’s a quite a charming campus and at the moment eerily silent because most of the students are off on the summer holidays.

After grabbing a bite to eat I went to sort out my WIFI access, grmbl grmbl, whilst I have access I can’t use it in my room, only in certain parts of the campus which is a little frustrating. Alan told me there were some problems with getting enough DHCP addresses … which sounded reminiscent of the problems delegates had at XTECH earlier this year.

So after wandering around trying to find one of the designated hotspots and checking my mail, I headed back to my room. On the way I ran into an old friend, Russell Beale,  who I haven’t seen or spoken to in almost eight years. Russell, along with Alan, were effectively the guys I worked for at aQtive all those years ago. Needless to say it was great to see him again and to catch up. We both commented on how time flies and how much has happened since we last spoke to each other. Russell is also one of the Co-Chairs for the conference and will be giving some interesting talks over the next couple of days which I’m looking forward to.

Russell reminded me that there was a pre-conference reception this evening for all the delegates and we agreed to meet up and head on down at around seven. The reception was really nice, got to meet lots of very interesting people. Alan and Russell were on hand to introduce me to many of the other delegates … it’s nice to have friends!- except Alan’s been telling some of them stories about me (Fiona if your read this can you sort him out for me?  ). 

Had some very interesting conversations with researchers like, Fredrik Gundelsweiler who is presenting an interesting paper on “Agile Human-Centered Software Engineering” on Thursday, in which he will attempt to present a cross-discipline UI Design lifecycle  that integrates Software Engineering with HCI under the umbrella of Agile Development. I’m particularly interested to see him describe this new methodology since one of the key concerns with Agile that some of us at Talis have are centered around the fact that usability is something we have struggled to factor into our agile process coherently, were still learning how to do it, I’m hoping Fredrik’s talk will give me some ideas.

It’s been a really wonderful evening what strikes me the most is the vibe at this conference. There’s definitely a buzz, you can sense everyone’s excitement, and almost everyone wants to go out of their way to talk about their work or research and share ideas. I was slightly taken aback by how much many of the delegates understood about semantic-web and some of the areas were exploring at Talis, and also how readily they were willing to listen to me try to describe what we do. I’m really excited about some of the talks around interesting ways to visualise and interact with large data sets, I have a feeling I’m going to be learning a lot over the next few days.

Finding Faces with Live Search

The images search on recently released a new feature that makes it easier to search for specific kinds of images. You can now search for portraits, faces and black and white images by adding some simple filters to queries.

For example if I wanted to search for specific kinds of images of my friend Alan I would use the following queries:

The search also incorporates the new Related People feature which is also quite interesting … for example try this image search:

 I’m not sure what heuristic it uses to relate people together but I find it quite an interesting discovery tool. Try it out for yourselves.