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HBI: Human-Bubble Interaction

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The logo of CHI 2014

One of the best things about attending CHI 2014 is that you get to play with things.


One of the best things about attending the ACM CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (CHI 2014) is that you get to play with things. This mostly happens at Interactivity, an area of the main exhibit hall where hundreds of researchers present prototypes that span practically every area of human-computer interaction (HCI) and interaction design. Here is a sampling of CHI 2014's Interactivity:

It was fun to learn about and interact with these and many other projects demoed at the conference. But one of the highlights for me this year was something I did not get the chance to play with. SensaBubble was shown only one night, as part of CHI’s Research Demos program, where authors of select papers have the opportunity to demo their prototypes on the Interactivity floor. Unfortunately, I missed the demo and was only later made aware of SensaBubble during a paper presentation by Sue Ann Seah two days later. She presented her paper in a session on sensory experiences focusing on taste and smell.

What is SensaBubble? Its formal description is "a chrono-sensory mid-air display of sight and smell." It’s probably best to just watch the video, but very briefly, SensaBubble is a prototype system that emits soap bubbles of specific sizes at specific time intervals. The bubbles are optionally filled with fog, which enables them to be tracked by a Kinect-based system and projected upon with select letters, images, or icons until—poof—they burst and release their fog. But that’s not all. The fog can be scented, leaving an olfactory trace of a bubble’s existence long after it has burst.

As with most projects featured at CHI, SensaBubble is a research project, so there are no commercial applications of the system. Right now, it’s just being used to study human-bubble interaction. But there are envisioned potential uses for a system like SensaBubble. One is as an ambient display. Think of all the jarring, annoying, and sometimes competing alarms and alerts our devices bother us with. What if, instead, while seated at your computer at work or having morning coffee at the kitchen table, a small bubble gently floated into view, glowing green and displaying a white email icon? "Ahh, I have received an email," you calmly notice, as you continue to sip your coffee and read the news. "I wonder whom it’s from." As it drifts away, the bubble bursts, releasing a scent into the air. "Ooh, palo santo. Must be from my friend Carlos, who’s living upstate now off the grid. I should probably respond right away, in case he’s at the library checking his email."

One of the defining qualities of this prototype display system is its non-invasiveness. It gently grabs your attention, communicates some simple information, and then—poof—disappears, leaving the scent, another ephemeral though longer-lasting sense experience that conveys some information—in the example here, the identity of the email sender. I think this is what defines it as a "chrono-sensory" display—that it involves multiple senses and for different lengths of time. (Interactions recently covered similar "ephemeral user interfaces" in a feature article by Tanja Döring et al. , who discuss their own soap bubble interface, which was mentioned by Sue Ann in her talk.)

The other aspect of SensaBubble that really stands out is its playfulness. Bubbles are inherently fun, celebratory, happy. Encountered in reasonable intervals, they are difficult to be annoyed by (though I have experienced situations that included way too many bubbles, and in far too rapid succession). Even the word itself—bubble—has an almost onomatopoeic levity that raises ones spirits. During Sue Ann’s talk, I became of aware of the word appearing in almost every sentence—often several times in one sentence—and did not tire of hearing it. In fact, quite the contrary. I was soon reveling in the repetition—bubble bubble bubble bubble bubble bubble bubble bubble bubble bubble bubble bubble bubble bubble bubble bubble bubble.

I like describing projects like SensaBubble to people outside the CHI community, because in addition to being somewhat unusual, it highlights one of more positive developments in HCI that so many smart, creative people are working on: bringing computing and interaction off of our flat, fragile touchscreens and out into the richness of the world. And CHI is a wonderful showcase for those efforts.

John Stanik is managing editor of ACM Interactions magazine.


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