TEI 2011

2011 February 7

The fifth Tangible, Embedded and Embodied Interaction (TEI 2011) conference is now over and I enjoyed every bit of it. The event was hosted in a fancy hotel on the coast of Madeira in Portugal. This was my first active participation in TEI after just attending the first three editions as a plain attendee. This year, I presented my paper with Richard Banks (MSR Cambridge) as a demo, plus I was part of the student volunteers.

I arrived Saturday after a long journey from Seattle. I met with Benjamin Lopez (IxD2) at the hotel, then had a nice dinner with the other student volunteers. The conference opened on Sunday with various workshops and studios. Benjamin and I took part in the Napkin Schematics workshop organized by Nathan Seidle, founder of Sparkfun. By mid-afternoon our group had a semi working interactive spoon that displays different color depending on the temperature of the food. It was a bit silly, but most importantly we had fun building it, and I had some nice discussions with my group partners. I spent a good part of the day running around helping the organizers and workshop leaders to get their things running. There is a clear pattern in the requirements for running a conference workshop, or any workshop: you need people, a projector, power outlets and some pen and paper. But it is easier said than done. Getting hold of tens of projectors is no easy task!

On Monday morning, Gillian Crampton Smith gave a nice keynote titled Bounce Back. She presented some reflections on why aren’t tangible, embedded and embodied interfaces out there in our everyday world? Some key elements that I liked from her presentation are that physical output is hard to do right, TEI have to make sense to the users (motivation beyond new/cool), and physical outputs require an attention to details that is not generally present at the moment in IxD. Details, details, details! She supported her points with a few nice movies. The main ones were Jaques Tati – Mon Oncle and L’età del fuoco – The age of fire. She also referred to a few examples from student projects at her school in Venice.

The day continued with numerous talks and presentations in a single track format. As always some contributions are really interesting, others are less satisfying to listen to. Just before dinner, about ten teams presented their Superhero interactive costumes. It was quite fun to watch the performances and all the hiccups associated with wearables, bluetooth and battery-powered projects. It was a lovely initiative and I hope it continues in future editions of the conference.

After dinner, I went and setup my demo in the main hall. I spent a few hours making sure all my stuff was working adequately. I brought some parts to add PS2 mouse control to a particular unit, but I totally forgot to bring a PS2 mouse (the old model). Thankfully I found one at the hotel and made the swap with the newest model I had with me. At 1h30am, everything was running as I wanted, and my poster was up, so I went to bed relieved and happy.

Tuesday after lunch, an industry panel discussed a few topics around TEIs, the job market and some business outlook for tangible activities. It was motivating to hear that the demand is strong for people with the mix of hardware, software and design skills that usually characterizes TEI. The exact profile or name is not defined yet, but there is definitely a need for it (tangible prototyper, tangibler, tangible designer, etc) . After the panel, everyone moved to the demo session. I rushed to my stand and stayed there for the next 4 hours. It was quite tiring to repeat the same 1 minute elevator pitch presentation over and over, but it also allowed me to meet and share my work with many interesting people. The majority of people seemed to understand what I was trying to achieve with my work. I guess that’s a good sign. Overall, I received very good feedback and established good contacts with people who work in that same domain. My only regret is not having any time to visit and try out the other demos. I missed very interesting works I think. Next time I present my demos, I have to take a bit of time to check the other kiosks.

Wednesday, the talks were a bit more design-oriented, so more in line with my interests. Some notable presentations that I enjoyed were Andrea Bianchi’s haptic authentication system, the Designing Soft Silicone work from Ronit Slyper, and MSRC’s Rudiments presented by Alex Taylor. The conference ended with a panel with Bill Verplank, Donald Norman, Justine Cassell and Norbert Streitz. I found that the panel members were discussing issues we are mostly familiar about. I expected more thought provoking or stimulating reflections, but it was nice to notice some fundamental divergence from Don, Justine and Norbert.

In the end, it was a really enjoyable event. It was nice to meet familiar faces again, and chat with new people from everywhere around the world. This community has many engaging individuals that are so humble about their work. TEI is a very friendly, refreshing, stimulating conference series. Next year TEI 2012 will be happening in Kingston, Canada, not the most exciting location, but it is close to home!

I am staying in Madeira for a few more days, to go hiking and discover the island a bit. Let’s hope the weather is better for the coming days. See more photos on my TEI 2011 and Madeira 2011 Flickr sets. Thanks to Benjamin Lopez for the help and documentation of the demo session.

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