SIGGRAPH Asia 2014

SIGGRAPH Asia 2014

Having just returned from participating in my first international conference yesterday, I thought I would post a few thoughts on SIGGRAPH Asia 2014 and my short trip to Shenzhen, China

My paper was accepted as part of the workshop titled, Designing Tools For Crafting Interactive Artifacts, and headed by Kening Zhu from the City University of Hong Kong. In my paper, I speak about the research I am doing at UNSW Art & Design (the art school formally known as… actually, more like the laboratory formally known as an art school) and how Design can be used to structure an observational study, looking at issues of communication and agency in children with autism.

Such is the long lead-in time of conference submissions, by the time I presented my work at SIGGRAPH Asia, I was a lot further along in my research than my paper would indicate. I discussed the implications of my design decisions on the results of the first human study (more on this shortly) and how the experience of the first study might inform the next iteration.

Proof that I made it to SIGGRAPH Asia.

I had some great feedback on both my paper and presentation, and the experience of participating in such a prestigious conference was hugely motivating. To have genuine interest from respected career academics and be able to engage with them in an open and even platform gave me confidence that I’m heading in the right direction with my research. It’s something that most research candidates struggle with on occasion and an experience I wish I’d had earlier in my candidature.

All presentations as part of the workshop sparked interesting discussion. Personally, I found the keynote of Thecla Schiphorst (Simon Fraser University) inspiring; her amazing body of work and sensitivity to aesthetics in HCI was incredible. Also, the work of Justyna Ausareny was fantastic; her Dorkbot-style approach and enthusiasm for electronics and sharing was infectious. Despite commentary about computer science being dominated by men, I can see many women (maybe more than men?) kicking goals in the space where HCI and Art/Design collide.

Also inspiring was the Emerging Technologies (ET) area as part of the main SIGGRAPH Asia exhibition. My expectation of ET was that there would technologies ready for market and presented by large corporations (as is the case with most of the exhibition, where you can see plenty of 3D software packages on show). Instead, most of the work was speculative or at a prototype stage and being shown by researchers from international Universities. After seeing some of the work there, I would feel comfortable in also presenting my own prototypes in this space.

There were a couple of standout ideas for me in ET. The first was a haptic feedback device for the sight impaired, by researchers from several Japanese institutes. Using an off-the-shelf DIY approach, the technology itself was very simple, but the feedback experience was mapped incredibly well; using a proximity sensor, a motorised arm would push against the users finger when within a certain range of an object.

‘Touch At A Distance’ haptic feedback.

Also interesting for its relevance to my own work was the A-Blocks exhibit. Embedded with wireless sensors, these toy blocks for children were designed to measure the quality of play. Most compelling was their attempt to track the blocks’ relationship to one another (stacking, etc), which is something that is quite difficult without the use of camera tracking or similar, and the reason that I steered away from internal sensors in my own work.

Overall, the scale of SIGGRAPH Asia was much smaller than I expected. This is the younger, smaller cousin of SIGGRAPH in the United States (generally attended by 3D behemoths, like Pixar and other animated movie companies), but despite this knowledge, I found the size and content of the general exhibition underwhelming. The lineage of SIGGRAPH is computer graphics (particularly 3D), with Interactivity and other HCI work being a more recent addition, but the exhibition was focused almost entirely on 3D software, with little to keep me there beyond an hour or so.

A view of housing in Shenzhen from my hotel room.

The city of Shenzhen is bleak. I’m not sure if there’s a nice way to describe the intensely rapid and continuous skyscraper construction, or oppressive air pollution. If you’re not familiar with Shenzhen, it’s most likely the birth place of the device you’re reading this on, as well as a majority of electronic gadgets you come into contact with every day. Whilst SIGGRAPH Asia was running, the 2014 International Printed Circuit exhibition was underway in the same building, neatly dwarfing SIGGRAPH many times over – such is the focus of Shenzhen.

It was difficult not to reflect on the current state of humanity while we were there. Though that might sound hyperbolic, the dots connect pretty quickly: the seemingly infinite workers that can’t afford to live in the city that they are building; the city itself, which is actually mostly empty (many areas are much like abandoned theme park facades); the resulting smog from surrounding industry which obviously affects not only the local population, but on a ‘clear’ day, is actually affecting other countries instead (at least the visual pollution), such as Hong Kong; and the fact that much of this pollution is created by burning coal, which is exported to China from Australia.

Looking toward the Civic Centre, pre-notherly breeze.
Looking toward the Civic Centre, post-notherly breeze.

This final point is the kicker for me. It’s easy enough to distance myself from the industries creating the pollution, but I feel complicit as a citizen of a country that not only has comparatively excellent living conditions thanks to selling off these fossil fuels to the other side of the world, but benefits from the awful living conditions of China, as I happily consume the objects they can produce much more cheaply than at home.

Despite my complaints about the city, I think Shenzhen is a place that could be enjoyable if you had the right purpose (Electronics Market anyone?) and a local to ease you into the culture. SIGGRAPH Asia was certainly worth the long flight, if only to reaffirm my focus in my own research. I’ve got the bug now, and will be looking to get to at least one more international conference before my studies finish in just over 12 months – it’s something that I would recommend any new researcher to experience as soon as possible.

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