BEAMing into CHI 2017

The Princeton HCI group enjoyed the CHI 2017 conference in Denver, Colorado two weeks ago. Katie and Janet attended in person and Marshini BEAMed in to attend via Telepresence. Here’s what Marshini had to say about telepresence:

It was really exciting to sign up last-minute to attend the CHI conference via telepresence. I attended Ben Schneiderman’s plenary talk on Tuesday, networked and attended several talk sessions on that day, and was fortunate to attend the conference and watch our collaborators Victoria Chang and Pramod Chundury present our CHI 2017 paper on Drones, Privacy, and Security late on Thursday. Here are my quick thoughts on using the BEAM!

The pros:

  • Navigation: The BEAM was extremely easy to navigate and move around without bumping into objects or people. There are two cameras – a forward facing camera to allow you to see a fish eye view of what’s in front of you and to the periphery of your vision and then a camera facing downward towards the wheels. The downward facing camera allows you to see where you’re rolling the BEAM and helps with avoiding objects, treading on toes, and general navigation. I operated the BEAM from my mobile phone using my fingers and from my desktop using my mouse. The desktop experience was far superior because of the larger screen and I preferred the control of my mouse over my finger but both modes were very easy.
  • Networking: The best part of using the BEAM was feeling present at the conference and meeting up with colleagues and friends (old and new) as if I was there. I found the face to face interaction with others almost as good as being there in person since the BEAM moving around and general shape appeared to lend me a physical presence that made others feel more comfortable to interact with me. This stands in contrast to my experiences with attending events via teleconference alone. I “bumped” into and reconnected with several colleagues and met a few new faces, many of which followed up with me post-conference as would typically occur with in person attendance.  Since the screen on the BEAM is so large, it was easy for others to recognize me and I also added my name and affiliation in a status tag to be more easily recognizable in lieu of a conference badge. I also felt post-conference as if I had attended CHI which again was not something I expected – rolling around the venue gave me a good sense of what it was like being there in the venue – I even learned my way around by the third day of using the BEAM.
  • Talks: It was great to feel present at the talks I attended and to interact with attendees. I usually found a spot near the front of the room to get the best possible view and I even watched another talk given remotely by telepresence (Evan Golub from Human Computer Interaction Laboratory) about telepresence which was fun and somewhat unusual.
  • Teleconference support, chairs, and student volunteers: From the minute I signed up for telepresence, the support was amazing. The chairs ensured that the process of learning how to use the BEAM was smooth and help was always just a few seconds or minutes away. Without the volunteers and support, it would have been difficult to navigate the entire conference venue with elevators and places with sporadic connectivity but the telepresence team with its accompanying Slack channel was key!
  • CHI and normal life intermingled: It was great to be able to attend sessions, pop out in Princeton for lunch, and take care of meetings on the days I chose not to attend,. This intermingling of conference days with day-to-day life would not have been possible without telepresence. Also, it was great to cut out the hassles of travel – flights, hotels, and taxis while still getting value out of the conference.

The cons:

  • Cost: While I knew what I was getting myself in for by being forewarned of the costs of using the BEAM, I did feel being charged the full conference fee was probably not fair for the experience. After all, I did require quite a bit of assistance from student volunteers to get me from floor to floor, I could not take advantage of the conference food (what is a conference without snacks!), and telepresence is still not the same as being there in person.
  • Talks: Despite being able to attend talks, I lost out on important information. For instance, I found that even if I zoomed into the slides, I could not quite clearly see them so it would have been more helpful if there were slides available for the talk session ahead of time. If I zoomed into the speaker instead, that was marginally better but often the sound quality varied depending on the room, with some rooms offering better sound and others not as much. Also, when zooming in, I lost the context of the room and could not tell who was coming into the room or coming close to me which was at times unnerving (Were people watching my enlarged face on my BEAM?).
  • Sitting in one place: On Thursday in particular, I attended several sessions in a row and I did find myself becoming tired of sitting at my desktop. This is a peril of remote attendance in general even via teleconference but it would have been nice to be more active during the attendance (time for a standing desk with a treadmill perhaps?).

Overall, I had a great time with telepresence and I would consider using it again if the circumstances required it.