Sunday, December 17, 2006

Loopt Mobile Messenger, Friend Finder, and Event Service, description via Joe McCarthy

...they already have 40K users, and will be doing a
major launch in December (at which point the application
will be pre-installed on all Boost phones).

...Managing privacy issues will be crucial to their success;
Mark said everything is opt-in, requiring an explicit
invitation, acceptance, and activation, and it only works
if you know someone's phone number."

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

China-Carnegie Mellon University Herbert A Simon Visiting Scholar Program

The goal of the China-Carnegie Mellon University program is to promote and influence next-generation Chinese academic leaders in Computer Science.


The Simon-Scholar program is designed to bring exceptional young professors (lecturers, assistant professors, and assoicate professors) at leading Computer Science Departments in China to visit Carnegie Mellon for 6 to 12 months. Carnegie Mellon will match each scholar with a host professor, and together they will conduct research of mutual interest. This program is supported by The Chinese Ministry of Education, The China Scholarship Council, and Carnegie Mellon University.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Top 10 Scams of 2006 (and 2005)

From ConsumerAffairs, Top 10 Scams of 2006 and Top 10 Scams of 2005. Some of these scams are quite ingenious, preying on people's fears, greed, or compassion. Some highlights:

Government Grants: This was the most common scam in 2005. A typical version of the scam worked like this: The caller claimed that you won a $12,500.00 federal grant and all you must do is pay the taxes, either by wiring the money or by providing your checking account numbers over the phone.

Jury Duty: A widespread scam where the caller claimed that you missed jury duty. One version of the scam said that an arrest warrant had been issued, and when you would insist that you didn't receive a notice for jury duty, the caller would ask for your personal information to verify they were speaking to the correct person. Another version of the scam would ask you to pay a fine by using your credit card or checking account.

Phony Job Scam: Scammers are increasingly responding to job seekers posting their resumes at online employment sites, such as The job offer usually has nothing to do with the job seeker's experience or qualification. Even so, they are offered a job on the spot, serving as a "courier."

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Programming by Demonstration for the Nintendo Wii

Quite impressive, you can simply demonstrate the gestures you want the Nintendo Wiimote to recognize.

I wonder if it uses a simple linear classifier? I also wonder what their threshold value is for recognizing gestures, since it seems to be able to classify things as unknown gestures. Lastly, how good is the performance? The program seemed to have a slight lag in recognizing gestures, but the Nintendo sports game I tried out seems to respond quite well.

Overheard at Dan60

Overheard at the 60th birthday celebration of our department director, Dan Siewiorek:

A: You look familiar, have we met before?

B: I'm not sure, I'm [anonymized].

A: Oh, you were on my dissertation committee along with Dan!

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

In the News: Another article on our Anti-Phishing Toolbar Study

By contrast, the new study, Finding Phish: An Evaluation of Anti-Phishing Toolbars [jih - we actually spelled it "Phinding Phish"], was conducted by researchers at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, backed by organisations as worthily anodyne as the US National Science Foundation and the US Army Research Office.


Even the best of the bunch - Earthlink, Netcraft, Google, Coudmark, and Explorer 7 - detected only 85 percent of fraudulent websites, a good but far from secure level of effectiveness. The rest scored under the 50 percent mark, with McAfee’s SiteAdvisor unable to spot any.

Here's a link to our study, Phinding Phish: An Evaluation of Anti-Phishing Toolbars

In the News: Our Anti-Phishing Toolbar study

A new study by the CyLab at Carnegie Mellon University, "Phinding Phish: An Evaluation of Anti-Phishing Toolbars" shows that anti-phishing browser toolbars are generally not up to the task. The research, carried out by Lorrie Cranor, Serge Egelman, Jason Hong, and Yue Zhang, examined 10 of the 80-90 free anti-fraud toolbars currently available.

Here's a link to our study, Phinding Phish: An Evaluation of Anti-Phishing Toolbars

Friday, November 17, 2006

Rich Gold's Plenitude

FYI, Rich Gold was an artist and designer that was part of
the original ubiquitous computing team at PARC. He also
helped establish the PARC Artist in Residence program.

I just found out that a book he had been working on before
his untimely passing away is online (and his wife is also
looking for a publisher, if any of you know of one).

Rich has some really good insights about the nature of
art, science, design, and engineering; intelligent
houses; and how the act of reading has changed over time.

Embodied Interaction

I've heard a lot about embodied interaction, but until now, haven't yet seen a good explanation of why it is so important. Oddly enough, the article is about the upcoming Nintendo Wii.

"What kind of an emotion of fear would be left," James wondered, "if the feeling of quickened heart beats nor of shallow breathing, neither of trembling lips nor of weakened limbs, neither of goose bumps nor of visceral stirrings, were present?" James' answer was simple: without the body there would be no fear, for an emotion begins as the perception of a bodily change. When it comes to the drama of feelings, our flesh is the stage.

For most of the 20th century, James' theory of bodily emotions was ignored. It just seemed too implausible. But in the 1980s, the neuroscientist Antonio Damasio realized that James was actually right: Most of our emotions are preceded by changes in our physical body. Damasio came to this conclusion after studying neurological patients who, after suffering damage in their prefrontal cortex or somatosensory cortex, were unable to experience any emotion at all. Why not? The tight connection between the mind and body had been broken. Even though these patients could still feel their flesh—they weren't paraplegic—they could no longer use their flesh to generate feelings. And if you can't produce the bodily symptoms of an emotion—the swelling tear ducts of sadness, or the elevated heart rate of fear—then you can't feel the emotion. As Damasio notes, "The mind is embodied, not just embrained."

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Yahoo Term Extraction

This looks neat, Yahoo! is providing a way of distilling text into the main terms. However, it's not clear to me how much content you can send it (their demo only has about a dozen words) or how well it works.

Monday, September 25, 2006

Sunday, August 20, 2006

And this is what passes for news these days?

I finally saw Good Night, and Good Luck today, and was greatly inspired by Edward Murrow's closing lines:

To those who say people wouldn't look; they wouldn't be interested; they're too complacent, indifferent and insulated, I can only reply: There is, in one reporter's opinion, considerable evidence against that contention. But even if they are right, what have they got to lose? Because if they are right, and this instrument is good for nothing but to entertain, amuse and insulate, then the tube is flickering now and we will soon see that the whole struggle is lost. This instrument can teach, it can illuminate; yes, and it can even inspire. But it can do so only to the extent that humans are determined to use it to those ends. Otherwise it is merely wires and lights in a box. Good night, and good luck.

And then, just now, I checked out CNN's web site and see that the main headline deals with what an alleged murderer ate on the plane:

There are days when I think Neil Postman was right.

Sunday, August 13, 2006

CMU one of the new Ivies

According to MSNBC / Newsweek / Kaplan College Guide, Carnegie Mellon University is one of the "New Elite 'Ivies'".

A major national research university, Carnegie Mellon serves 5,500 undergrads and 3,000 grad students in seven colleges reflecting CMU's academic diversity: Carnegie Institute of Technology (engineering), the College of Fine Arts, the College of Humanities and Social Sciences, the Mellon College of Science, the Tepper School of Business, the School of Computer Science and the Heinz School of Public Policy and Management.

I have to admit that I don't quite understand this obsession with Ivy League schools. Perhaps it's the journalists writing these kinds of stories. At any rate, it's good that CMU is getting more recognition. Hopefully, we'll be able to avoid more of Randy Pausch's experiences when he was trying to give away Carnegie Mellon branded CD's of Alice, where one person asked "Why is a bank giving away free software?"

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Google TechTalks

Just discovered this nice resource, Google has about 130 seminar talks online. Topics range from current affairs and science to entertainment and the arts.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

10 Steps for Conducting a User Evaluation

Back in the early 1990s, Kathleen Gomoll wrote a short and useful article on running user studies. I find myself sending this to people all the time.


1. Introduce yourself.
2. Describe the purpose of the observation.
3. Tell the participant that it's okay to quit at any time.
4. Talk about the equipment in the room.
5. Explain how to ├Čthink aloud.
6. Explain that you cannot provide help.
7. Describe the tasks and introduce the product.
8. Ask if there are any questions before you start; then begin the observation.
9. Conclude the observation.
10. Use the results.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Current Design Practices on the Web

Web Design Practices is a site devoted to helping designers understand what design practices are currently in use on the Web—and aims to gather research about the usability of commonly-employed design practices.

Sort of like web design patterns, shows what are common practices for online design. Author also has a nice summary article on boxesandarrows entitled Examining the Role of De Facto Standards on the Web.

Friday, July 14, 2006

The Importance of HCI

From an ACM Queue article written by John Canny entitled The Future of HCI. (Disclosure: John was two offices down from me at Berkeley :) )

In spite of their unfamiliar content and methods, HCI courses are strongly in demand in university programs and should be part of the core curriculum. At a recent industry advisory board meeting for U.C. Berkeley's computer science division, HCI was unanimously cited as the most important priority for future research and teaching by our industry experts.

Monday, June 26, 2006

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Best Definition of Web 2.0 Yet

From the Devil's Dictionary 2.0

The name given to the social and technical sophistication and maturity that mark the— Oh, screw it. Money! Money money money! Money! The money’s back! Ha ha! Money!

Monday, June 12, 2006

Internet2 Rich Presence

Rich Presence trials are participatory, distributed, and experimental. Participants download and install a specially tuned integrated communications client on their laptops. This client allows participants to initiate voice, instant messaging, and video calls to each other using the receiver's email address as a single, converged electronic identity.

Communication is enhanced through the inclusion of rich presence services, through which participants may see not only who is on-line, but also where they are and what they are doing. As participants connect to the wireless LAN, their location and calendar presence is updated automatically. Room location is derived through triangulation of 802.11 signals and is cross-referenced with the meeting calendar to learn the name and duration of the session in that room at that time.


Wednesday, May 31, 2006

CNN - Making Cell Phones Simple is Hard

As the universe of people who want a cell phone and don't already have one gets smaller, wireless carriers are counting on advanced services to generate the bulk of new revenue in coming years.


That has providers working hard to make their devices easier to use -- fewer steps, brighter and less cluttered screens, different pricing strategies -- so consumers will not only use data functions more often but also be encouraged to buy additional ones.


"IPod was not the first MP3 player on the market, but once they figured it out (the user interface), they became the predominant one overnight"

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

SATs poor predictors of performance?

From the Chronicle of Higher Education

According to Human Capital Research, a college-admissions consulting firm, rated on an index from zero to one, SAT test scores predict a freshman's grade-point average at 0.03 to 0.14. "I might as well measure shoe size," the firm's president, Brian Zucker, was quoted as saying in "The Best Class Money Can Buy," one of a series of thoughtful articles on the admissions process that appeared in the November 2005 issue of The Atlantic Monthly. Zucker argues that the SAT's have "made schools lazy and stupid at the same time." The opportunity costs involve "looking past literally millions of kids who would do a great job."

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Java 2 AJAX

Google has just released a web toolkit that lets you convert Java GUIs to AJAX.

I proposed something like this as a class project for SAUI (Software Architectures for UIs), and even thought about doing this as a long-term research project. I'm now glad I didn't because I would have been seriously scooped.

Whole Food Watermelons

Whole Foods' watermelons are simply amazing, the best I've ever had. That is all.

Friday, May 12, 2006

Rainbows End

I'm about halfway thru Vernor Vinge's new book Rainbows End. What's really amazing is how he ties together a lot of technology trends in a single coherent story, including:

  • wearable computers with contact lens displays
  • sensor networks
  • augmented reality
  • robotics
  • new biomedical therapies (I'm sure there's a sexier name for that)
  • silent messaging (I'd love to know how people could do text entry that fast!)
  • paper displays
  • autonomous vehicles (self-driving taxis)
  • micropayments
  • holographic displays
  • digital libraries

There's a funny section early on where the protagonist, who has missed the last decade due to Alzheimer's, is asking where all the robots and flying vehicles are. Vinge also does a good job of tying things to our present world by forecasting how existing entities such as Bank of America, Google, and Homeland Security fit in.

Vinge also seems to subscribe to Brin's notion of a transparent society, where everyone can easily find almost any piece of information about another person. There was a frightening section about on-demand information retrieval, where you simply stare at a person to initiate retrieving a person's biography, and can drill down on past speeches and current hobbies of that person (from Google no less!)

One thing that really bothers me, though, is that the book is supposed to be set in 2025, just 19 years from now, and it just doesn't seem plausible that all of these advances would happen, seamlessly mesh together, and be economically feasible in such a short timespan.

It's also not clear to me that people would accept wearable computers so easily, that our educational system could be so radically restructured (elders and school children in the same class?), as well as the dramatic loss in privacy (though given today's polls that most people support the NSA wiretapping, maybe I'm wrong).

At any rate, it's a really fun read, and really underscores the question of where we are going, and whether that's something we want and can be proud of.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Anatomy of a Nigerian Email Scam

Very interesting look at Nigerian email scams, takes you thru one person's story (who has a PhD in psych, no less).


The scammers, who often operate in crime rings, are known as “yahoo-yahoo boys,” because they frequently use free Yahoo accounts. Many of them live in a suburb of Lagos called Festac Town. Last year, one scammer in Festac Town told the Associated
Press, “Now I have three cars, I have two houses, and I’m not looking for a job anymore.”


When I asked Worley what he wished he had done differently, he didn’t answer directly. Instead, he spoke about hoping that the Abachas would get back in touch with him. However, before they could resume work on the multimillion-dollar transfer, he expected them to send the six hundred thousand dollars that he needs for restitution.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Phishing Scams up to $1000

All right, the phishing scams have moved up from $20 for surveys to $1000! Now that's progress!


• The Washington Mutual Bank Online department kindly asks you to take part in our quick and easy 5 questions survey. In return we will credit $1000.00 to your account - Just for your time!

Web 2.0 and Research

I've been chatting with many of my friends and colleagues about an issue that's been bugging me for a while, namely whether academic research has any role to play in the emerging Web 2.0. I've been slowly coming to the conclusion that the answer is not much.

I had a similar discussion with other researchers at HotMobile a few weeks ago. When the web first came out, pretty much every systems researcher ignored it because it was so ugly. The web was not very sophisticated in terms of distributed systems, HTTP lacked elegance, HTML conflated many different ideas, and so on. There were also not any really new ideas with the web, as evidenced by the fact that Tim Berners-Lee's first paper on the Web was (probably rightfully) rejected from an ACM conference on hypertext.

I'm sure one thing that really irked researchers about the nascent web was that it completely ignored the large body of work in hypertext and distributed systems that had preceded it. Even in 1997, as the web was rapidly expanding and well after Netscape's explosive IPO, Infocom (one of the leading conferences on network communication) only had one paper about the Web. However, by this time, it was already too late, and the Web had taken on a life of its own.

The main lament here is that, if only we researchers had engaged with the early developers of the Web, we could have avoided many of the problems we face today. I'm not entirely convinced of this, however, since researchers really like to explore the full design space of things and be highly rigorous rather than letting things be ugly and good enough. (But that's another rant for another day.)

(Another fun one I hear often from computer science researchers is, why didn't we invent the web? I've heard this from digital library people, systems people, and HCI people. It's also funny to see how many books and articles I see from researchers saying that they had anticipated the web... No, you didn't, otherwise you would have gotten it out first. It's like the number of people that worked on the original Macintosh: for some reason, the number seems to keep increasing with time.)

So the question comes up again: is there any role for the research community for Web 2.0? I'm increasingly thinking that the answer is no, because the cultures, goals, and incentives with these two communities are far too misaligned.

Most of these Web 2.0 web sites are from small startup teams that care about making a successful product that lots of people use. They have the time, money, and resources to engineering that research teams do not. Most Web 2.0 teams also don't care about novelty, but rather the best implementation of something. For example, when some developers felt that sold out by going commercial, they just set up a clone site called (though the site seems to be down now).

There's also no incentive for web sites to do fully rigorous evaluations like you would see in academic papers, because there's no time, resources, or credit for doing so. Likewise, there's no reason to publish papers at all, as it might help your competitors.

Lastly, it's not immediately clear to me what research papers could be published in this domain. Pretty much every single Web 2.0 interaction technique was done decades ago on desktop computers, the only thing that's new is being able to do it in a web browser with Javascript and XML. There might be some new things, like tools for helping with development, but it all seems well within the state of the art, and is a standards issue rather than a research issue.

There could be papers published about how people use it and the community that develops around such web sites, but that seems less about anything in particular about Web 2.0 and more about the general usefulness and utility of the web site.

So, in summary, I think that the research community will have little to directly offer to the emerging space of Web 2.0 apps, but may have some things to contribute with respect to evaluating and understanding how people use these kinds of apps in the wild and how to improve the user experience. You know, the stuff that we've already been doing at CHI.

Now, I just have to figure out what I'm going to teach Web 2.0 in the Software Architectures for User Interfaces (SAUI) class this fall.

Six cool Quicksilver plugins you might not know

I can't take any credit for it, but two of the six that this person lists were developed as part of the Software Architectures and User Interfaces class I taught last Fall.

Just a quickie to bubble up some novel Quicksilver plugins that are new-ish or even a bit esoteric.


3. Abracadabra triggers - Associate a mouse gesture with any command. Seems especially cool for people using pen and tablet. (more)
4. Constellation Menus - Love it, hate it, or just find it wildly geeky and beautiful, this is kinda A1c0r’s version of right-click on graphical steroids. (more and more)

Monday, April 10, 2006

Ubicomp: Gawker Stalker?

See where movie stars are in Manhattan in near-realtime based on reports by people. A weird (and somewhat scary) form of a smart mob.

Ubicomp Law #1: All devices will grow in power until they can run Doom

I made this prognostication a few years ago, and it just keeps coming true. Now, you can run not just Doom, but Doom II and Halflife on a video ipod.

YouTube Link

Reminds me of Zawinski's law: "Every program attempts to expand until it can read mail. Those programs which cannot so expand are replaced by ones which can."

Sunday, April 09, 2006

Why is it faster to connect to Amazon than to the computer across the room?

At the latest HotMobile: Workshop on Mobile Computing Systems and Applications, IBM researcher John Barton poses an interesting question: Why can we connect to Amazon so much faster than the computer across the room?

Also reminds me of Bruce Sterling's question: why can I easily pull up pictures of the moon, but can't see what's inside my walls?

Sunday, April 02, 2006

Wired on "Lost and Found, the Online Way"

Wired Magazine's web site has an article about people using Craigslist to find things that they've lost. It would be really compelling if we could actually figure out the stats for how effective something like this is.

In an increasingly cynical world, there are still places where people try to do the right thing. Everyday on Internet message boards, honest folks post notes about valuables they found: cash, bank cards, diamond bracelets, engagement rings, wedding bands, digital cameras, and even a cockatoo valued at $1,200.

In turn, when there is no place left to look for something missing, the desperate sometimes take the longest of longshots and look online themselves.

Occasionally, it works for both sides. People such as Silliman get back their iPod, still loaded with Radio Head and Broken Social Scene.


Thursday, March 30, 2006

Monday, March 27, 2006

More on MMORPGs and Credit Cards

Makezine thinks that online games and credit cards will combine, similar to what I wrote about it a few weeks ago.

Very soon, credit card companies and game makers will reward their customers who spend money in the real world using private label "rewards" credit cards. They will use gifts of virtual currency such as Blizzard's World of Warcraft gold and Second Life's Linden dollars.


Thursday, March 23, 2006

NYTimes on Adopted in China, Seeking Identity in America

There's a (somewhat) interesting article in today's New York Times on adopted Chinese children. I have to say that my experiences with adopted Chinese children and their parents here in Pittsburgh have been highly positive. The children are all wonderful, and their parents go to extraordinary lengths and sacrifices for their children. Shelley and I (along with others) have been helping to teach the children basic Chinese and a little about Chinese culture, and everyone is so excited to keep learning.

I also can't help but think that this will help the United States' relation with China in the long term. When there is greater awareness here in the United States (that China is more than Chinese food, the Great Wall, and martial arts), as the young girls go back to visit China, as we strengthen our connections between our two countries, we have a better and more grounded understanding of each other rather than the stereotypes and caricatures often presented in the media.

Since 1991, when China loosened its adoption laws to address a growing number of children abandoned because of a national one-child policy, American families have adopted more than 55,000 Chinese children, almost all girls. Most of the children are younger than 10, and an organized subculture has developed around them, complete with play groups, tours of China and online support groups.

Molly and Qiu Meng represent the leading edge of this coming-of-age population, adopted just after the laws changed and long before such placements became popular, even fashionable.

Molly was among 61 Chinese children adopted by Americans in 1991, and Qiu Meng was one of 206 adopted the next year, when the law was fully put into effect. Last year, more than 7,900 children were adopted from China.


Thursday, March 09, 2006

PhD Comics Creator Coming to CMU

Jorge Cham, creator of the PhD comic strip, will be on campus as the keynote speaker for the Graduate Student Awards Ceremony on Wednesday, April 5, 2006. The time for the event is still being set up but should be around 5:30pm in Kresge Auditorium in CFA. The Award Ceremony and Jorge's keynote speech will be followed by a reception and book selling/signing in the CFA Great Hall. We will be providing publicity about this event in the next couple of weeks. This is one of the main events in Graduate Student Appreciation Week- April 3-7.

[HCI] InfoViz maps

A huge collection of different kinds of infoviz maps. Very cool, some of them look like Jackson Pollock created them.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Quantifying Security

My colleague Satya has an intriguing idea for quantifying security:

[B]etween the first and second editions, Knuth had become very famous. For many people, his autograph was worth more than $2, so many saved the check as a souvenir rather than cashing it.

This suggests a metric for that elusive attribute we call fame: what is the largest amount Knuth could have offered such that some fixed fraction of the checks (say, 50 percent) would never be cashed? That dollar figure is a reasonable metric of fame.


An operational approach to [security] might proceed as follows: Use software package A to guard some secret (such as a large random number), and welcome Internet attacks on the package for some time period (say, a week). Offer a reward of $X to the first person who discovers and reports the secret. If someone reports the secret, the package is clearly not usable.

The interesting case is when no one reports the secret within the specified time period. We cannot immediately conclude that the package has no vulnerabilities.

Having discovered a vulnerability, one or more successful attackers might remain silent in the hope of exploiting the vulnerability many times after the package is deployed. We have to conduct a game-theoretic analysis of an attackers state of mind to obtain the correct inference.

Suppose the reward, $X, is a large figure, and suppose package A will only be used to protect very small prizes when deployed. In that case, the attacker has more to gain by reporting success than by remaining silentthe attacker will always try to maximize his or her expected lifetime reward. We can then view the notation Successfully protected a reward of $X on the Internet for time period T in year YYYY as a security rating for package A.

Because computing technology improves over time and attack techniques grow more sophisticated, periodic recertification will be necessary to ensure that security ratings remain meaningful.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

"Maybe I can be a scientist"

. . . . anyone can be a scientist. I saw people walking around in sweatshirts and jeans. Who knows? Maybe I can be a scientist.

Drawings and notions of scientists by seventh graders, before and after a visit to Fermilab. Very cool.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

HCII Twelfth Anniversary!

HCII 12th Anniversary Celebration
Thursday, April 20, 2006
Carnegie Mellon University
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

Carnegie Mellon has been at the forefront of human computer interaction research since the field's inception. The early book by CMU professor Allen Newell and CMU alumni Stu Card and Tom Moran coined the field’s name in the early 1980s. We created the first Human-Computer Interaction Institute in 1994.

Help us celebrate 12 years of HCI Institute progress by attending a one-day seminar with distinguished speakers from the HCI community followed by the 50th Anniversary of Computer Science at Carnegie Mellon! You are welcome to join all events, including the Spring Carnival festivities!


Can we use Massively Multiplayer Games for Good?

Note: This is a rant I wrote back in 2003 or so and had at my home page at Berkeley. I'm putting it up on my blog now since my old home page is no longer there. I've made some updates to the original, with additional updates at the bottom.

This is going to be a lengthy but serious discussion of Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games (MMORPGs). I wrote this after talking with Jen Mankoff (a fellow professor here at CMU), and after reading this article on the New York Times about how this person spends 7+ hours a day online playing a single game, having racked up 2400+ hours already.

Usually, when I read these kinds of articles about game addicts, I always think, "if only we could use his powers for good!" If only we could make it so that people get more out of games than just fun. If only we could actually get something genuinely useful at the same time (so we don't end up with stories like this one from The Onion).

My canonical example is Crazy Taxi. In this game, you drive a taxi, taking people from place to place in a pseudo-San Francisco city. You get more points for driving recklessly, getting as close as you can to crashing things without actually crashing into them. What could actually learn the streets of San Francisco while playing this game? I hate driving there because I don't know what the streets are, because of all the one-way streets, because of all the cars and pedestrians. But what if you could actually learn the streets incidentally while playing the game? You would actually be learning something useful beyond the game console.

Now, analogously, what if we could get something useful out of MMORPGs, more than just entertainment and player-killing?

Here's a crazy idea: what if we could actually simulate real problems of society in MMORPGs and harness the power of players in solving those problems? For example, homelessness or pollution?

What if these MMORPGs were modelled such that they actually reflected real aspects of the world, creating an environment where we could actually experiment with different public policies, or even have the numerous players (who are clearly very intelligent people) try to figure out different solutions to these problems? Try out different ideas that may eventually influence what we actually do in the real world?

One example that's pushing in this direction is University of Washington's UrbanSim, where they try to predict what the impact of different public policy decisions will be on the environment. (They also run tests on old data to make sure their model matches the actual

I'm aware of how difficult this would be, all of the barriers in making convincing and realistic models, in making an appropriate reward system to incentivize players, in convincing game developers to implement features to make it happen, in actually convincing academic scholars in sociology and public policy as well as policy makers that these ideas can be realistically and feasibly implemented with the expected results. (I'm a professor in Human Computer Interaction at Carnegie Mellon, I have a pretty good idea of how difficult it would be).

But think about the potential here as well. A simulation with thousands of people interacting with one another, where we could try out radical new ideas in solving problems. Think of it as SimSociety. Think of it as a variation of Doug Engelbart's vision, where we need to get better at solving problems because the ones we're facing these days are far harder than anything we've ever seen before. Players could be doing more than just having fun. They could also be making a difference, for the better.

(Special thanks to Jen Mankoff for brainstorming these ideas with me)


  • As more evidence of how many hours people are spending on massively multiplayer games, I would also add all of this excitement about how players in World of Warcraft are coordinating in groups of 100+ to conquer some difficult area and open up a new playable area]

  • One of my friends tells me that some motorcyclists and race car drivers play games like Gran Turismo before a real race, to get a feel for the actual track.

  • Apparently, Project Gotham Racing 3, for XBox, has made a great effort to replicate real cities. Evilgamerz has a side by side comparison showing actual photos taken in Tokyo with corresponding shots in the game. Not multiplayer, but a game where you will learn something useful as a side effect.

  • My economist friends also reminded me of DARPA's terror futures market, where people could bid on what incidents will happen. The idea, before it was canned, was that you could harness the knowledge of a great number of people and make more accurate predictions than groups of analysts. Good idea, terrible marketing.

  • Other researchers have pointed me to America's Army, a game where you take on the role of a US Soldier. This game has a novel design in that you always play "the good guys". If you are storming a base, then you see the defenders as terrorists. However, if you are defending that same base, you see the attackers as enemy forces (probably from North Kosan).

  • There is a new conference called the Serious Games Summit that looks at how to use games for more than just fun.

Sunday, January 22, 2006

[HCI] Color blindness as an advantage

Very interesting, I would never have thought of it this way. I wonder if there are ways of building information visualization tools along these lines too.

Color blindness is usually classed as a disability; however, in select situations color blind people have advantages over people with normal color vision. Color blind hunters are better at picking out prey against a confusing background, and the military have found that color blind soldiers can sometimes see through camouflage that fools everyone else. Monochromats may have a minor advantage in dark vision, but only in the first five minutes of dark adaptation.


The United States Military has found that color blind individuals can be more easily trained as snipers due to the fact that they are more acutely aware of differences in texture and pattern and thereby less likely to be fooled by camouflage patterns.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

[Just Plain Weird] Customer Rewards for MMORPGs

I had a whacky idea today, that these MMORPGs like Everquest and World of Warcraft should have special rewards program that are like frequent flier miles.

Some examples:

  • Buy products with the Everquest credit card, and get 10 gold pieces per dollar spent
  • For every dollar you donate to charity, Dark Age of Camelot will give you 100 experience points
  • For every captcha you help us break, Ultima Online will give you a lottery ticket to get [insert some powerful item]

[Funny][Just Plain Weird] Hong Wars

Last weekend, I came to my office in Newell Simon Hall and found that a small army of action figures were poised to invade. Reminds me a little of Toy Story.

[HCI][Cool] Watch Ed Chi get Kicked

I was digging around my old photos, and found some videos I took at UIST2004 of PARC researcher Ed Chi getting kicked in the stomach. This was part of his demonstration of a SensorHogu he and others helped develop for better scoring in Tae Kwon Do.

Plus, it's just fun to watch Ed get kicked (sorry Ed, it's true!)


Original Paper: Ed H. Chi, Jin Song, Greg Corbin. 'Killer App' of Wearable Computing: Wireless Force Sensing Body Protectors for Martial Arts. In Proc. of 17th Annual ACM Symposium on User Interface Software and Technology, pp. 277--285. ACM Press, October, 2004. Santa Fe, NM.

Monday, January 09, 2006

[Cool] 10 Architectural Wonders of China

I was expecting things like the Great Wall and the Three Gorges Dam, but it's really about modern buildings.

Check out the Central Chinese Television CCTV building, I can't believe it doesn't fall over. I'd hate to work on the top floor of that building!


Wednesday, January 04, 2006

[Design] What Makes Things Cute?

NYTimes article on The Cute Factor.

Scientists who study the evolution of visual signaling have identified a wide and still expanding assortment of features and behaviors that make something look cute: bright forward-facing eyes set low on a big round face, a pair of big round ears, floppy limbs and a side-to-side, teeter-totter gait, among many others.

Cute cues are those that indicate extreme youth, vulnerability, harmlessness and need, scientists say, and attending to them closely makes good Darwinian sense. As a species whose youngest members are so pathetically helpless they can't lift their heads to suckle without adult supervision, human beings must be wired to respond quickly and gamely to any and all signs of infantile desire.


Whatever needs pitching, cute can help. A recent study at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center at the University of Michigan showed that high school students were far more likely to believe antismoking messages accompanied by cute cartoon characters like a penguin in a red jacket or a smirking polar bear than when the warnings were delivered unadorned.

"It made a huge difference," said Sonia A. Duffy, the lead author of the report, which was published in The Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine. "The kids expressed more confidence in the cartoons than in the warnings themselves."