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thesis

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I was fortunate enough to earn an NSERC scholarship as an undergrad, which meant I could go to grad school. I was foolish enough to attend the same institution for both my degrees, the "esteemed" (or is it just steaming?) University of Manitoba.

A third-year undergraduate course titled Human-Computer Interaction set me on a path to studying the various human factors involved when dealing with computers — not the kind of stuff the general public typically associates with Computer Science. Practitioners of HCI look at the way people use computers and come up with new and improved options. Just as an example, maybe we'd study people trying to complete a few tasks using a mouse versus using a touchscreen. We'd look at the data and formulate a theory that suggests which input device is more appropriate for certain kinds of work. Sometimes we study common computer interfaces, like keyboards and mice, but just as often we're inventing new methods to interacting with machines and examining what special things they're capable of doing.

Any technological discipline is vulnerable to faddish ways. Near the beginning of my grad studies, the flavour of the month was tabletop/surface computers. The idea, I guess, was that a group of people could work together around a single screen to accomplish a collaborative task. In retrospect, interest in tabletop computers was driven primarily by technological advances, rather than, say, a strong practical reason. Some dude came up with a cool way to make really cheap tabletop touchscreens, and before you knew it, every HCI lab in the world was working with tabletop computers.

At some point I realized that making music was the most collaborative exercise I could imagine, and thus, a promising platform for exploring collaboration on a shared screen. (I'd like to believe this was before I discovered the reactable, but I can't be sure.) That led me to develop, with valuable assistance from my colleagues, a collaborative musical instrument that I called WallBalls. At the time, I envisioned my thesis as a sociological examination of the issues that would arise when a team set out to accomplish a common goal using a single computer (which happened to be a tabletop).

I wound up abandoning that plan when I remembered that I was, in fact, hoping to earn a degree in Computer Science, not Psychological Foofaraw. It became clear to me that the old-fashioned attitudes of the U of M were likely to rub unpleasantly against my plans for a largely interdisciplinary and highly unorthodox plan for a Masters in Comp Sci. What could I do but adapt?

I can't remember the precise circumstances surrounding my big epiphany, but I can remember the moment with great clarity. I completely took it for granted that our tabletop had the ability to tell which user was performing which action. Most don't; most just know that someone is doing a particular action. When you have the extra knowledge of who is doing what, you gain a lot of power.

I called this power identity awareness and it becaome the cornerstone of my thesis.

Have you ever used a drawing program like Paint or Photoshop? When you click or drag on the drawing, the action that occurs depends on the tool you have chosen. If you have more than one person using a tabletop (or a tablet, or any other kind of computer, really), though, you need to have identity awareness to do that kind of thing. Otherwise, each person can't use a different tool.

I didn't invent the concept of identity awareness, but I gave it a name. I came up with a set of terminology that allows people to actually talk about this stuff in a meaningful way. I designed a couple of experiments to explore the power of identity-aware (IA) systems relative to non-IA systems, and showed that for certain tasks, IA can offer major benefits. I also invented ways to fake up identity awareness on touchscreens that were never designed to support it, and presented evidence that shows they were better than nothing, at least. I also gathered all the literature that was related to the topic, as one does when writing a thesis.

I'm incredibly proud of my work as an individual achievement. Many of my labmates relied heavily on their advisors for direction and ideas, whereas my research was almost entirely self-driven, and eventually inspired a bunch of related work as well.

I think a big reason why things turned out so well is because I was had the privilege to set up my life in such a way that I had no need to rush through things. I took my sweet time doing my Masters degree. I busted my ass as an undergrad, so once I had the scholarship in the bag and saw that my fellow grad students weren't exactly overachievers, I relished in the opportunity to explore all the extracurricular joys that I missed during the first five years at the U of M. After two years, the scholarship ran out, so I ramped up the hours at my part time job when the scholarship ended, which caused things to slow down even further at the midway point of the whole process. So there were periods of weeks, sometimes months when I didn't accomplish much of anything. Pretty much the typical student experience, except much less frantic.