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Watching smartwatches

April 26, 2016 13 comments

Smartwatches provide easy access to personal data in a wearable device. Modern devices sparking the latest wave of use include Pebble, Android Wear, Apple Watch. An important aspect of the popularity of these platforms is their open programming and app distribution platforms. For little or no cost, anyone with programming knowledge can develop and distribute an app. However, excitement about the platform and availability of a programming platform does not necessarily translate to useful and usable apps.

Two big hurdles exist that are particularly relevant for app designers: domains of use and continued use. First, it’s not yet clear what the domain for the smartwatch “killer app” will be—the apps that are so necessary and desired that people will pay for the technology necessary to use them.  Candidate areas for the killer app include health and fitness, highly accessible notifications for email and messaging, and social media. Second, an unanswered question is whether people will use them long term–there’s lots of attrition for even the most popular hardware.

We set out to understand these questions in my CS 3714 mobile software design class. An assignment asked that students perform an analytic evaluation of a smartwatch over the course of at least 5 days. Pebble, Android Wear, and Apple Watch smartwatches were available for checkout. Students were asked to identify at least three smartwatch apps to use prior to the 5-day period, then use the smartwatch and apps over the course of the 5 days for several hours each day. It was asked that at least one of the apps be a health- or fitness-related app, and at least one of the apps (perhaps the same one) was to have a companion app for the smartphone.

Students completed a form indicating whether they generally wore a watch (standard or smartwatch), which smartwatch they chose to wear for the assignment, how long they wore the smartwatch for the assignment, and which apps they used. The students were asked to craft a narrative to describe the experience with your selected hardware. The narrative covered display and interaction experiences as well as experiences with each of at least three different apps. It is expected that the narrative cover about 800-1000 words.

Students tended to complete this assignment with a higher completion rate than the other (programming) assignments for the class–68 out of 71 students submitted it. 24 students used the Pebble, 38 used an Android Wear watch, and 6 used the Apple Watch. Most used the smartwatch for longer than the requested 5 days; the median usage time was 7 days and the average was 8.9 days. Only 40% of students reported that they regularly wear any sort of watch, and only 10% reported having worn a smartwatch regularly.

Students tended to use more than the 3 apps that the assignment asked them to use. Most students used fitness apps that came with the smartwatch (e.g., Android Fit, Apple Activity). Others used run tracking apps, and a few tracked other diet or exercise. Map alerts and other notifications were popular, as were games. Surprisingly, only a few people reported using social media in a meaningful way (i.e., beyond receiving text messages); perhaps that is because of the short usage time.

Comments from student narratives reflected a general interest in the technology. They found the smartwatch “pleasant”, “nice and convenient”, and “very handy”.  Notifications seemed to be an advantage, with the smartwatch “a great way to read and dismiss notifications” (though others found notifications annoying or “glorified”). However, few people seemed poised to purchase or use the technology based on their experiences. The most common complaints were that the hardware was “ugly”, “awkward”, “incredibly silly”, and “not aesthetically pleasing”. Others found the technology hard to use, with comments like “my finger takes up half the screen”, “small buttons”, and “no way for users to type”. Lots of students admitted that they were “just not a watch person” or that they “disliked watches”, and there was nothing about the smartwatch that they wore to change their minds.

An important side effect of the smartwatch watching assignment is that students better understood the capabilities of smartwatches. In prior semesters when students did not have the experience of wearing a smartwatch, designs tended to be unrealistic or impossible to implement. Students in this semester seemed to have a better understanding of how a smartwatch would be used, and as such their homeworks and projects were targeted more appropriately for the smartwatch. There’s a danger that their experiences may stifle their creativity by highlighting what has been done, but that seemed outweighed by a realistic understanding of capabilities and scenarios of use.

There’s an interesting history for smartwatches, from the Dick Tracy vision to the poorly-received models from Seiko, IBM, and others through the 1980s and 1990s. The new wave of smartwatches seems to be booming, but it’s unclear whether that boom is here to stay. My research group has been exploring smartwatch use in the classroom as reported in a SIGCSE paper, demo, and poster in 2015.  And we put together an app set to look at reactions to smartwatches in an elementary school outreach experience.  A previous in-class activity comparing games across platforms (smartwatch, smartphone, and laptop/web). It seems likely that young people will help define whether and how smartwatches will be used (or whether the movement will fizzle, or appeal only to niche groups) in upcoming years.

NSF Graduate Research Fellowships: Maximizing Chances for Success

September 10, 2015 Leave a comment

The U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) offers Graduate Research Fellowships (GRF) to applicants who are beginning or about to begin a Ph.D. I’ve advised a student who has written a successful one, I’ve reviewed applications internally for people in my department, and I’ve become intimately familiar with the current review process for the NSF. There’s no magical formula for getting one that I’ve discovered, but there are definitely things you should and shouldn’t do to maximize your chances. This post seeks to capture my experiences and advice—of particular relevance to those in computer science and human-computer interaction but perhaps applicable in other fields as well.

My grad student Greg Wilson received an NSF GRF in his first year at Virginia Tech. His proposal discussed solid and interesting ideas related to mobile and ubiquitous computing, but what really appealed to the reviewers was his outreach efforts. He has a passion for K-12 education, and his application discussed that in detail. He described prior outreach efforts in his personal statement, thus demonstrating an interest and ability in similar efforts in his graduate work. Receiving this fellowship allowed Greg to pursue his own ideas and really make a difference with his work. He completed his MS at Virginia Tech and went on to a Ph.D. in education at the University of Georgia.

The Virginia Tech Computer Science Department hosts an internal review process for national and international graduate scholarships and fellowships like the NSF GRF. It is organized by faculty member T.M. Murali and includes work sessions, early reviews by fellow grad students, and reviews by faculty in the department (including myself some years). It’s a great way to get feedback both from peers and from potential committee members, and I feel like it really made a positive difference for my student Greg. If you don’t have this available to you, find a way to get feedback from a breadth of other people.

I am very familiar with the reviewing process for NSF applications. For the last couple of years, it has taken place via teleconference, in which reviewers read and comment on applications prior to a pair of online meetings. The meetings present a listing of ratings, then ask for champions of lower-rated proposals that seem particularly worthy. The 20+ person online panel breaks into smaller 3 person groups to discuss moving proposals up (or down) the ranking if a proposal’s champion makes a compelling case for why it should be moved. If you can attract a champion, you’re greatly improving your chances. The final listing serves as a recommendation to NSF program officers and other personnel, who make the final determination as to who receives an award.

A few summary thoughts and recommendations that can help with a successful submission:

  • Follow the guidelines. Yes, there are lots of them, and I’m sure you have great ideas that you might feel should carry your proposal even if you don’t pull together your application just right.  But failing to follow the guidelines can obfuscate your expected contributions. You risk annoying the reviewers and the program managers by making them dig for (or guess at) certain elements of your proposal.
  • Provide a roadmap for your proposal. Keep in mind that reviewers will be looking at lots of proposals, and secondary reviewers and program managers will be looking at even more—sometimes for very short periods of time. As such, make sure the key points of your proposal can be found at a glance. Label sections and subsections, highlight key terms, craft figures and tables that are both descriptive and easy to understand. And don’t use a tiny font just to squeeze more in—find a way to say what you want to say concisely. Of course, none of this matters if the content isn’t good, but good content that can’t be understood easily can also sink a proposal.
  • Think about intellectual merit. The NSF cares a lot about this (and the next bullet, broader impacts). Read the full description on the NSF site and specifically address ways in which your work will have intellectual merit. Even if you feel your entire proposal is all about intellectual merit, make sure to explicitly highlight your expected contributions.
  • Think about broader impacts. This one is even harder, but as with my student it really matters. It’s important to show how your work will make a difference, keeping in mind that reviewers will be generally knowledgeable about your field but not necessarily deeply knowledgeable about your topic. As such, don’t just make a laundry list; e.g., stating that your work will lead to improved interfaces for scientists, bricklayers, moms, bartenders, etc. Instead really draw the path to the future utility of your work—and if you can show yourself guiding the research down the path, all the better.
  • Get good letters. This one, to some degree, is out of your hands—but that doesn’t mean you can’t make choices that maximize your chances for good letters. The best letters are from people who BOTH know you AND know how to write good letters. A letter from someone who knows you very well but doesn’t understand NSF GRFs might be a poor choice, just as a letter from a highly regarded individual who clearly knows nothing about you and has little to say about you likely will be unhelpful. Seek to approach people who’ve been part of successful NSF GRFs in the past, and from people who will help you toward your proposed goals. But make sure these are people who can either say good things about your prior work and/or good things about your proposed work—people who have been a meaningful and integrative part of your research life.

Finally, keep in mind that, for better or worse (usually better), the NSF regularly changes the guidelines and procedures for fellowships, so make sure to verify that your submission matches the way things are done. There’s lots of other advice out there, so seek to find it and identify the path that is most promising to you. There’s always a bit of randomness to the procedure, but there are steps you can take that can increase your chances of receiving an award. Most of all, pursue interesting and important ideas that appeal to you and your collaborators. Good luck!

SIGCSE 2015

March 26, 2015 1 comment

Earlier this month a large group of Virginia Tech faculty and grad students attended the ACM SIGCSE Conference in Kansas City, MO—the flagship conference in computer science education. It’s an interesting conference, full of people at lots of levels of CS education: K-12, small colleges, big universities, and companies and book publishers that support them. The conference was is Kansas City, known for its BBQ, downtown plaza, long walks, and BBQ. VT faculty Steve Edwards, Cliff Shaffer, Manuel Perez, Dwight Barnette, and I all attended, along with a large number of grad students. Within my research group, Andrey Esakia, Shuo Niu, and Mohammed Seyam joined us on the trip to SIGCSE. I connected with lots of VT alums, along with with colleagues from Georgia Tech, UNC, NCWIT, Colorado, and elsewhere.

SIGCSE 2015 Pebble demo

our SIGCSE 2015 Pebble demo session with Shuo and Andrey

Our highlight of the conference was a full paper talk, focusing on our use of Pebbles in CS 3714. As far as I can tell, we were the first to use smartwatches in the classroom, and we had a well-attended talk. We touched on the assignments and activities from spring 2014 and summer 2014 sessions. We covered the core lessons related to smartwatches—including multi-device connectivity issues, wrist-mounted accelerometer use, and limitations in graphical and processing resources. At the end of the talk, Andrey demoed VT undergrad Jared Deane’s music synthesizer app—a class project in one of our classes—which was a big hit among those in attendance. There were lots of good and on-point questions at the end, showing that the audience was plugged in to our talk. Most of the questions focused on use cases for smartwatches that we were considering, though there was one on security issues with regard to smartwatch-phone pairings that merits future consideration.

We also had a demo in which we showed off the many apps that VT students have developed, including Jared’s and several by VT students Sonika Singh and Shuo Niu (favorites were Pebble-Paper-Scissors and Selfie Watch). That was a fast and furious hands-on session with some good discussions that hopefully inspired interest in using smartwatches in the classroom–as well as future outreach efforts like our Pebbles and kids program at a local elementary school. In addition, we had several posters as well. Seyam’s work on Pair Programming in the classroom was chosen as a finalist in the Microsoft Student Research Competition–yeah!  Andrey had a forward-looking poster on Android Wear in CS 3714.  These can both serve as stepping stones to bigger and better things.

VT folks on the SIGCSE road trip

VT folks on the SIGCSE road trip

Big thanks to everyone for helping make this trip a big success. Particular thanks to everyone for getting the apps working and available on the online store, and thanks to those who gave feedback on talks and posters and such.  And it was great to get to know the VT crowd on our massive road trip. CS Education is a big deal at VT, and it’s great that we were able to contribute to a big VT presence–over 20 faculty, students, and alums.  Next year’s event is in Memphis–a bit closer–so I’m hopeful we’ll have an even bigger presence there.

Pebbles and kids: Smartwatches in the elementary school

March 20, 2015 3 comments

Virginia Tech undergrads took Pebbles into a local elementary school computer club to show off the capabilities of smartwatches. 2015-02-10 18.07.07The Pebble smartwatch is a low-cost (and low-functionality) device with a low-resolution black-and-white screen, an accelerometer, haptic output, and Bluetooth connectivity. Thanks to a generous donation from Pebble, Virginia Tech received 100 of the classic Pebble smartwatches, presenting to us a great opportunity to use them in outreach events. At the elementary school, we set up stations with three types of apps: a graphics station, an accelerometer station, and a games station.

At the graphics station, students learned about the difference between the high-resolution color displays on computers and mobile devices and the low-resolution black-and-white displays on a Pebble smartwatch. Pebble’s 144×168 display may seem large (24,192 pixels!), but not so much when compared to the more than 2 million pixels on tablets and laptops.  Similarly, you can’t do as much with 2 colors (black and white) on a Pebble as with the 10,000+ available elsewhere. We highlighted this difference with the SelfieWatch app (that is at the heart of a Virginia Tech course-wide programming assignment crafted by grad student Shuo Niu). 2015-02-27 15.52.54 (2)This app allowed the kids to take a full-color picture of themselves with a smartphone and transfer a black-and-white version to the Pebble as a watch face—highlighting the difference in quality on the two screens, and letting the kids explore how faces, posters, words on the blackboard, and more don’t always look the same in reduced form.

At the accelerometer station, the students got a simple lesson in 3-degree-of-freedom accelerometers, learning how changes in x, y, z position can be used to measure steps, gestures, shakes, and more. The kids got to try out a simple step counter created by Virginia Tech undergrad Sonika Singh, as well as a more complex one that differentiated sitting, walking, and running. The kids tested out how many steps it took to walk around the school, and they saw how much the step count varied from person to person. They also had fun trying to “fool” the step counting algorithms by waving the Pebbles around.

At the games station, the students tried out a bunch of Pebble-specific games, both those by Virginia Tech students but also some available on the Pebble store. Most were accelerometer-based, including a version of the popular 2048 game by Sonika Singh in which kids had to tilt the watch to slide the blocks. Another popular app is a Pebble-based synthesizer written by Virginia Tech undergrad Jared Deane, in which a user can control features of music by tilting the Pebble.

This was one of the many wonderful and worthwhile activities sponsored by Virginia Tech’s Computer Science Community Service (CS Squared) student organization. They teach about programming, web apps, and mobile apps at AHarding Avenue Elementary school and other schools in the area; they visit our community center and a senior center to teach local residents about web apps like e-mail, Pinterest, Google Maps; and they participate in a variety of outreach activities around campus. (Full disclosure: I’m the faculty advisor for this club, though the vast majority of the work is done by the students.)

This event is just one of the many things we’ve been doing lately with smartwatches—in elementary schools, in Virginia Tech classes, and in our research efforts. Many were highlighted at the SIGCSE Conference in March 2015, a conference dedicated to computer science education. Links to papers, posters, smartwatch apps, and other resources can be found at http://research.cs.vt.edu/ns/smartwatch.

Addition and CE21

February 2, 2011 1 comment

Just got back from NSF’s CE21 meeting. CE21 is short for “Computing Education in the 21st Century”, so good thing they shortened it! It’s a new program that melds/merges/replaces a bunch of other NSF programs: the BPC (Broadening Participation in Computing) program, the CPATH (CISE Pathways to Revitalized Undergraduate Computing Education) program, and various education programs. I was there representing two BPC Alliances–A4RC and STARS–and it was our job to connect with emerging CE21 proposals to help them address their BPC needs. There was an interesting mix of people from all three communities, with the goal of developing collaborations toward creating interesting and fundable CE21 proposals.

Any time you have such addition of areas, the sum total is sure to be interesting…to point of chaos at times! The CE21 program solicitation is large and somewhat vague, and by some accounts it was intentionally so. (The NSF will sometimes create a vague solicitation, see what directions the field moves in, then fund the most promising directions.) There were lots of academic hook-ups, and I picked up a number of “maybes” for partnerships with A4RC and STARS.

Jan Cuny was one of the people in charge of the meeting: one thing she liked about CE21 was that it provided an avenue for CS researchers to engage in education/EHR research, which is underrepresented in GK-12, ITEST, and the like. There’s a large and significant body of literature that needs to be considered, and she encouraged everyone to avoid the typical “1-2 day summer workshop” or “4-hour afternoon at a school” approaches that she indicated might have minimal impact. (However, in the next session Mark Guzdial referred to literature suggesting that even the most brief engagement and encouragement can have positive and long-term effect…hmm.) Jan also said that diverse teams are a must, and that researchers pursuing this first round of CE21 funding need to forge new ground, define things like “computational thinking”, use CSTA/ACM curriculum standards, leverage the CS principles framework, and, did I mention, connect to the BPC Alliances!

Jan also noted that it’s an important time for re-defining BPC Alliances, pointing to NCWIT and Access Computing as the ones that best fit the CE21 mission. She highlighted alliances that focus on underrepresented groups as most problematic–why does each underrepresented group need its own alliance was the question. (One with some good and well-reasoned answers, IMO.) She also noted NSF’s new focus on “Broader Impacts”–it’s going to be taken much more seriously moving forward.

Much of my time at the meeting was spent with fellow BPC Alliance members, trying to re-tool A4RC and STARS to fit the CE21 mission. STARS may have it easier–there’s a big component of STARS that’s all about outreach to K-12 and K-14. It seems that STARS needs to be making promises to CE21 proposers that their students will receive STARS stipends and invitations to the STARS celebration for doing STARS things that connect with CE21 goals. But A4RC may be more vital–the pipeline of African-American students from HBCUs to graduate programs doesn’t fit so well into the CE21 vision that I can see. There’s some talk that the repository of videos and other materials might be the way to go.

So moving forward with A4RC, we’re looking at various approaches–a name change to AACER (Alliance for African-Americans in Computing Education and Research), more emphasis on the materials repository (including videos to encourage K-12/K-14 students to pursue computing), and a new hub-spoke model. And Jan wants us to connect to the BPC Portal. And Ed Fox wants us to leverage Ensemble to do indexing, searching, etc. And…whew, lots of possible directions.

One other interesting note: Jan wants more “highlights”–short descriptions of interesting projects that can be reduced to 2-3 lines and a tiny 1-inch high picture to appear in the congressional record. They’ve gotta appeal to “people”…not fellow scientists.

That’s it for now–Mark Guzdial provides his own perspectives in his blog, Jan promises to post all meeting material and notes, CS@VT has a Digital Education Research Group meeting Friday at 5 to talk about pursuing CE21s, and lots more is sure to emerge in coming weeks.