I’m currently on the train which will take me to yet another conference in Oslo. This seems like the perfect time to look back and write about what I have done in the past, during my years at KTH! Today, I will write about why I started to work with haptics and why I stayed at KTH after my master’s degree and in later blog posts I will write more about the research I conducted during my time as a Ph. D. student. Below, I will also shortly comment on the article, about collaboration between visually impaired and sighted pupils in primary schools, which was based on my master’s thesis project.
A key lecture in human-computer interaction
When I reached my third year of the computer science program at KTH, in autumn 2003, I still did not have a clue what my master’s thesis subject was going to be. The only thing I was sure about was that I wanted a specialization in human-computer interaction (a very inspiring pitch made half a year earlier by Henrik Artman, who is now a professor in human-computer interaction at KTH, convinced me that was the best choice 🙂 ).
During the second semester of the third year, though, everything changed when I was attending a guest lecture held by Eva-Lotta Sallnäs Pysander about collaboration in haptic interfaces. It was a very inspiring lecture clearly illustrating the potential that haptic feedback can have in collaborative interfaces. She used numerous examples from e.g. Ian Oakley, Stephen Brewster, research at Certec in Lund and even master’s thesis projects within the area, conducted at KTH. I was just attending a very interesting lecture – little did I know this was going to be my main research area for years and that Eva-Lotta, who is now an associate professor in HCI at KTH, was going to be my master’s thesis supervisor as well as one of my Ph. D supervisors!
Master’s thesis in haptic communication
When the time had come to choose a master’s thesis subject I remembered the lecture from a year earlier and I contacted Eva-Lotta and asked if there were any projects I could do my master’s thesis work within. I was quite lucky since an EU-project, MICOLE, had recently started and they needed new applications that should support collaboration between sighted and visually impaired pupils during group work activities in primary school! The entire project aimed at supporting inclusion of visually impaired pupils during group work. I found this to be a very interesting challenge especially since I had never programmed haptic interfaces before – outputting forces is completely different from outputting graphic content in so many ways. After a first meeting with Eva-Lotta we decided to move along and that she was going to be supervisor. Kerstin Severinson Eklundh became the examiner for the project.
I really enjoyed the master’s thesis period, even though I never really got in contact with any of the other research partners involved in the project (I did that a lot later on, though). I learned rather quickly how to think when programming haptic interfaces and most parts of the master’s thesis went smoothly. The only big challenge had to do with logistics. Eva-Lotta and I conducted the user evaluations of my applications together in schools where visually impaired and sighted pupils went to the same class. To pull those evaluations off we needed to bring ALL the necessary equipment to the schools, including stationary computer, large screen and two haptic devices. We had to move this ridiculously heavy and bulky (and expensive) equipment back and forth several times. But in the end it was worth it – we got really interesting results and most of all we got the chance to work with the real target group in settings they felt comfortable with. Those who want to know more about the master’s thesis and the results can find the report here.
And now…, I’m in!
Soon after the master’s thesis ended (June 2006) Eva-Lotta, Kerstin and I started to discuss how we could continue working together. Kerstin made it possible for me to get a scholarship so I could continue with conducting new studies during autumn 2006 and when 2007 started I got a position as a research engineer at the HCI department. One of the first things we did, when we knew I was going to stay with the team, was to write a few research contributions to conferences about the main results from my master’s thesis. The first short paper was accepted for presentation at the third International Conference on Enactive Interfaces and the second short paper was accepted for presentation at World Haptics 2007. I learned a lot from those contributions since they, for the first time, forced me to condense information about a study into a form that could actually be published in proceedings. Those research contributions are quite outdated now, I guess, but interested readers can find the Enactive one here (page 86-87) and the World Haptics one here (unfortunately, only the abstract is available for this one if you don’t have a subscription).
Years later, after I had gained new insights from my first years as a Ph. D. student, I revisited the master’s thesis again, remade the entire analysis and got a journal publication out of it! Interested readers can find the article here – I will write an entire blog post about the process leading to that paper later on. As far as I can tell this is one of the very few studies in which haptic functions for collaboration have been tested with the real target group (visually impaired pupils) in a group work setting.
So. This was my background story about how attendance to a specific lecture led to a challenging master’s thesis project, which in turn led to academic positions and several publications with a focus on collaboration in multimodal environments. In later blog posts I will write about my time as a Ph. D. student and the circumstances leading to my current position as a postdoc in Uppsala. Those posts will also focus more on research contributions made.