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 if...you 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."