Changing winds

The new minimalist theme reflects some changes that have recently happened in my life. In the past few months, I’ve been getting into books about travel1 because I realized that it’s one of the things that keeps life exciting and meaningful for me. I’ve also done a lot of thinking about what I’m passionate about and what my “muse”2 is after going through a bit of a rough patch figuring out what kind of research would motivate me to work the most. Writing a fellowship essay a few weeks ago made me realize that constant self-improvement and positive behavior changes keep me not only healthy and happy, but challenged and excited about life.

Looking back on the sad state of my blog with its sparse updates since last year, I decided that I wanted to write more often, not about my research progress necessarily, but my take on some of the things that I’ve read that are inspiring to me. Some of my favorite travel blogs are by Tynan, Tim Ferriss, Gary Arndt, and Trey Ratcliff. These guys are living on the edge and extremely successful at what they do. What could I possibly contribute in my blog that they haven’t already more or less perfected? They were experts on various topics such as traveling, living minimalistically, photography, and optimizing your life. However, they are also all white, male, and living in ways that most of us gawk at and say, “That sounds great, but I can’t do that because of my job/family/financial situation/whatever.” I’m hoping to turn my blog into a place where I, as a relatively shy Chinese-American graduate student, can provide a unique take on what it’s like traveling to as many places as I can afford on a grad student stipend, owning less material things, becoming comfortable photographing strangers, and eating healthier.

I am not expecting to turn my blog into a successful empire, but rather, share experiences that I hope others can relate to, and stimulate more discussion (or introspection) about how to make the most out of your life with what you have. So what can you expect from this blog from now on? A hodgepodge of articles on traveling, photography, living minimistically, eating healthy, and various other adventures. If you’re in a similar boat, I’d love to hear from you. Here’s to embracing positive life changes!

1. Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert, Life Nomadic by Tynan, next: The Lost Girls by Jennifer Baggett, Holly C. Corbett, Amanda Pressner
2. 4-Hour Workweek by Tim Ferriss.


Upcoming trips:
December 18-January 5: NYC, MA, NJ, MN, MT for winter break.
January 20-26: Madeira, Portugal, for TEI 2011

Adding links to mentioned blogs. Also, my good friend and fellow traveler Kona, who’s traveling in Singapore and Kuala Lumpur right now, recommended Go Girl Magazine, featuring stories and tips from women travelers.

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Summer update: Outdoor mobility & Pachuino

I will try to update on my research more frequently from now on like when I used to write about my WiiPaint project. At the end of the week, it really helps to regroup my thoughts and remind myself what I have (or haven’t) accomplished.

Outdoor mobility project
People spend 5% of their time outdoors. This statistic from my Living Green Page-A-Day calendar struck me as awfully low. Per day, it translates to 1.2 hours of being outside, which may seem high or low depending on where you live. I’m currently working on a survey to better understand the activities people do indoors and outdoors, how their home and work lives play a part in indoor/outdoor habits, and the reasons why we are not spending more time outdoors. There is a lot of research on how physical activity, being outdoors, and nature have positive effects on physical and mental health, the factors that promote popularity of certain urban areas, and literature that focuses on specific populations: children, particularly overweight children, the elderly, and the mobility impaired.

Along with the broad survey I’m conducting to get a better idea of this area (and hope to find some interesting correlations), I’m also designing a second survey based on the literature on outdoor mobility and social interaction for the elderly. I hope to create an intervention for the home that brings the outdoors to those who are mobility impaired and might not be able to go out often. More to come on that soon.

Current: IRB undergoing review
Next: Hope to deploy by the end of the week

References I’ve collected:
Outdoor mobility, urban and public spaces
Outdoor mobility and social interaction for the elderly and mobility impaired

RFID/WiShield on ArduinoMeanwhile, I’m continuing building simple sensors using the Arduino as part of my engagement in public spaces research. I’m currently working on combining an RFID reader with a WiShield to upload tagged items to Pachube. I built this with logging elevator data in mind: the probe would be placed unobtrusively near an elevator door, and whenever it reaches a new floor, the RFID reader will read that floor’s tag and uploaded it to the Pachube server. The idea is that manually logging elevator activity for observation in public spaces is very time consuming, and this is one way to automate it.

I’m currently in the process of getting the WiShield to communicate with Pachube, but it’s a little harder than I thought. The tutorial on Pachube for connecting WiShield to Pachube is incomplete, and seems to be missing a chunk of code that’s present in the Arduino Ethernet to Pachube tutorial.

Current: Connecting WiShield to Pachube
Next: Create casing for probe, deploy in elevators

That’s all for this week. I’ll be visiting family in China for 2 weeks and will be back in early July. Will post later this week an update on some things related to public spaces.

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Emotional design and social interfaces

Earlier today, I watched Objectified, a great documentary about industrial design.  It reminded me of how permanently-built and unsustainable many material things are, and how easy it is for us to form emotional attachments to objects with personal stories that we then are reluctant to part with.  At the same time, I was thinking about different signs I could create for my public spaces project, signs that would tailor to people’s emotions in hopes of changing their behavior.  For example, an elevator will have a speech bubble sign on it that says “I’m feeling tired today. Please take the stairs!”  I started thinking about what the world would look like if our environment “spoke” back to us, even through inanimate signs. If we are taken off guard by a new friendly “Good morning!” thought-bubble-shaped sign on the door when we go to work, would our initial reaction be to say “Good morning!” back, before realizing that we were just about to talk to a door? Would we start noticing more things around us, and could we become more appreciative of them?

I applied the same idea to daily material things often taken for granted.  What if your toaster told you when your bread was done, and when you said “thank you,” it replied “you’re welcome”? I’m not talking about creating robot appliances that will chat with you about your day and the daily news, but simple conversation pieces that made you feel like you were interacting with someone who just did you a nice favor. Not everyone can say “ah yes, this [insert thing] was passed down by my grandma and has considerable sentimental value to me,” but what if by giving certain products simple voices, you will form an emotional attachment to them and are less likely to replace them when something shinier comes along? (Come on, do you really need this muffin toaster that cooks your eggs too?)

In this age, we are constantly making things faster, smarter, smaller, bigger, better, building more and more until you walk into a Walmart Supercenter and suddenly you’re dizzy thinking about how much stuff there is. Some people don’t think twice about replacing a 1-year old digital camera when a newer model arrives, or even a 1-month old bag for another bag (of course, this one is absolutely perfect and you will never ever have to buy another bag ever again). Instead of designing new products that come equipped with these voices, we could build our own little toaster soul and equip it to our toaster, adding another kind of “creator bond” to our new relationship with the toaster. These low resolution social-emotional interfaces have the potential to increase awareness of our surroundings and make people more appreciative of what they have.

Update 1/19 – Suggested readings (thanks to all those who contacted me and suggested the following)

Cziksentimihalyi, M. 1991. Design and Order in Everyday Life. Design Issues, vol. 8, no. 1 (Autumn 1991), MIT Press, 26-34. (Works that have cited this paper)

Alex Taylor, Microsoft Researcher.

Blevis, E. 2007. Sustainable interaction design: invention & disposal, renewal & reuse. In Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (San Jose, California, USA, April 28 – May 03, 2007). CHI ’07. ACM, New York, NY, 503-512. DOI=

Lim, Y., Donaldson, J., Jung, H., Kunz, B., Royer, D., Ramalingam, S., Thirumaran, S., and Stolterman, E. 2008. Emotional Experience and Interaction Design. In Affect and Emotion in Human-Computer interaction: From theory To Applications, C. Peter and R. Beale, Eds. Lecture Notes In Computer Science, vol. 4868. Springer-Verlag, Berlin, Heidelberg, 116-129. DOI=

Norman, D. A. 2004. Emotional design: Why we love (or hate) everyday things. Basic Books, NY.

[Door picture from ArchiExpo]

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Research focus, v.1

Last semester, I talked with my advisor, Jodi, about what I wanted to focus on for my research.  I decided that I liked WiiPaint’s research question, and tweaked it to ask broader questions such as:

– How can we encourage people to approach and engage with technology in public spaces?
– How can ambient technology in public spaces help us be more aware of 1) our environment, 2) our automatic behaviors in public?
– How can ambient technology in public spaces encourage us to make positive choices?
– How can ubiquitous computing affect our outdoors experience by tailoring to our emotions?

Although these questions mostly focus on the outdoors/public spaces, particularly cities and towns, some of them can also apply to private spaces such as offices or homes.

Also, here are a few research questions I had been thinking about social interaction in public spaces, as a follow up to an old blog post.  These questions were inspired by a visit to NYC as well as One in 8 Million, a collection of short documentaries about people in New York.

– How can collective public storytelling improve social interactions between strangers, particularly in waiting spaces?
– What’s the best way to share and display your own stories with others?
– How can we use design to address some of the privacy concerns?

I’m working on a few projects dealing with the first set of questions right now. I’ve chosen to look specifically at: stairs, trees, umbrellas, and maybe bike racks. I’m still thinking of ways that I can tie both sets of questions together, and to refine these questions further as I gain more experience with research.

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HCI group on Google Wave

For those of you who have Google Wave and are involved in the field of Human-Computer Interaction, come say hi at the Wave HCI Group! If that link didn’t work, search for “with:public hci” click on “Wave HCI Group!” and introduce yourself :) You can also use “with:public” and any other keyword/s to find public waves of your interest.

For those of you who have it, what do you think of it so far?

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