What happens when computer science conferences go 'Gangnam Style'

From musical trees to mechatronic stilts, computer scientists at CHI embraced the offbeat.

Those who hand out the Ig Nobel prizes, awarded for the most outlandish scientific research, would do well to check up on CHI.

At the 2015 Computer-Human Interaction Conference (CHI) in Seoul this week, there was no shortage of bizarre projects and concepts, all undertaken to innovate the way we use computers and information technology. Since it was held down the road from the Gangnam district of “Gangnam Style” fame, there may have been something in the air.

From Germany’s Hasso Plattner Institute, there was Level-Ups, a pair of boots attached to mechanical stilts. At the swipe of a smartphone screen, metal trusses in the stilts extend with a scissor mechanism, instantly giving the wearer about 13cm more height.

The purpose? To give headset wearers a more realistic sensation when climbing stairs in virtual reality. Researcher Robert Kovacs plodded around in them slowly, insisting they offer users more freedom than traditional moving floors used to simulate locomotion in VR.

Some research takes a leap of faith, and a sense of fun can’t hurt. Even staid academic papers at CHI got a little exclamatory, with titles that ran the gamut from “I Feel Like I’m Taking Selfies All Day!” to “Look, My Baby is Using an iPad!”

In what seemed like a solution in need of a problem, Japanese researchers from Microsoft Research in Beijing presented a paper about magnetic paper. FluxPaper, as the project is called, involves pasting very thin magnetic layers on various kinds of paper—from printer paper to Post-it notes.

With the former, the sheets of paper can automatically align themselves in a neat stack. With the latter, the notes can be attached to a whiteboard backed by a mechanical magnet that moves around. This causes the notes themselves to move around on the board, for instance reflecting the developments of a brainstorming session.

When the notes are no longer needed, the board can automatically repel them and drop them into a small wastepaper basket below. It’s all very neat and tidy—for those who actually need such a contraption. After all, Post-its are designed to be disposable. But for those who want to save all their thoughts, the board could also use OCR (optical character recognition) technology to scan the handwriting on the notes and upload them to a smartphone for organization and sharing.

Other Japanese researchers looked into whether robots pose a threat to the job security of shop clerks. Scientists from Osaka University’s Intelligent Robotics Laboratory set up a lifelike female android as a clerk in Takashimaya department store in Osaka and had it chat to customers and attempt to persuade them to buy US$100 cashmere sweaters. The researchers evaluated how good it was at sales.

Over 10 days, the indefatigable bot dealt with 515 customers in total, nearly 40 customers per day, more than twice the tally of its human counterpart in the store. In all, it sold 43 sweaters. Interestingly, the lady robot struck out with real ladies but proved a hit with male shoppers, closing a much higher percentage of sales with men than with women. No wonder its next assignment, in May, is to sell men’s shirts.

In another robotics study, researchers from Australia’s RMIT University argued that quadcopters can actually motivate people to run. It should be noted that participants were jogging alongside drones in a kind of buddy relationship, and not running from them in fear.

But as far as motivators go, nothing can be a better than a sweet reward. From the same institution of higher learning Down Under comes a project called EdiPulse. Users wear a heart rate monitor and then hit the gym. The sensor is linked to a 3D printing machine that churns out chocolate according to exercise time. The more you work out, the more you can pig out.

In a project called ListenTree, MIT’s Media Lab pumped sounds through an augmented ficus tree by the conference’s registration. With a transducer-exciter attached to the tree’s base, various sounds could be heard coming from its trunk and branches.

The ficus prompted passersby to lean in and put an ear to its bark, whereupon they could hear a variety of recorded ambient sounds from urban and natural environments being streamed from a nearby tablet. To no one’s surprise, the tree also played “Gangnam Style” by Korean singer Psy.

Appropriately enough, Psy himself was on hand to deliver the closing keynote speech. The son of a semiconductor company chairman, he spoke about his pride in the irreverent song and its off-the-wall video that went stratospheric on YouTube with over 2 billion views.

Far from being a longtime YouTube master, however, the pudgy rapper at first saw no value in the video-sharing service. He initially dismissed his friends’ suggestions to upload the song, believing no one outside South Korea would be interested. He now believes the megahit has become a bridge that can unite people around the world.

The moral of the story? Never underestimate what can happen when high technology meets the bizarre.

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