UbiComp 2013 Social Media ChairLast week I had the chance to do a short interview with Gregory Abowd, Distinguished Professor in the School of Interactive Computing at Georgia Tech. Gregory organized the third UbiComp conference, back in 2001, and was responsible for actually renaming the conference series from “HUC – Handheld and Ubiquitous Computing” to UbiComp! Read on for how he remembered the “early days” of the conference, and for his view on how the field has changed since then!

How do you feel the field has changed since Ubicomp 2001?

Gregory AbowdIt has changed a lot, in both good and bad ways.  In a good sense, the quality of work has gone up from the early days and our ability to review has gotten better. In a bad sense, and I wrote about this in my Ubicomp 2012 paper, we have sort of lost our identity and need to rekindle it or reconsider whether Ubicomp has reached its sunset.  I won’t go into that opinion any further here.

The other interesting thing that has happened since 2001 is that the community greatly expanded the number of venues for publication, so much so that we have actually decided to throttle down a bit on expansion and have done some good contraction.

What three things would you tell an aspiring young ubicomp researcher?

Gregory AbowdI would say:

  • Keep in mind your long-term goals while you seek out short-term activities.
  • Don’t ever rely on one person for your happiness and progress intellectually.
  • Your career will be filled with highs and lows. Don’t get too high or too low during any of those periods.

What were your most memorable moments/what do you still remember of HUC 99 and 2000?

Gregory AbowdWhat I remember most about HUC 99 was its placement in a museum in Karlsruhe, the fact that I was so jetlagged on the Sunday I arrived that I went to my hotel room to “change” into clothes for the evening, fell asleep and woke up the next morning! I also remember that this was a dual-track event and that Hans and Albrecht worked very hard to be inclusive and excite lots of people to come. To that end, they asked me and my student at the time, Anind Dey, to organize and moderate a panel on context awareness and what the future held. Several of the panelists talked about the search for an elusive killer app, and I remember very clearly Nigel Davies stating that what he wanted was the ability for his phone to know where he was, know that he was hungry and needed a lift, and to simultaneously request the dispatch of a taxi and a pizza to be delivered to him where he was. There was also a wonderful demo session spread throughout the museum, and the MediaCup project from the Karlsruhe group was on display there. Or at least I think it was the MediaCup project.

My memory of HUC 2K is also pretty vivid. The most vivid memory was the Reception speaker, an Australian performance artist named Stellarc. Mad scientist with a truly memorable evil scientist laugh and outrageous ideas about what he wanted to do to merge the human and technological experience. He ended his talk with the proposal that he was going to have a surgery performed to either add an additional nose or ear to his body (can’t remember which), but was having trouble finding someone willing to do the surgery. I heard not too long ago that he had found someone to do it, but I never followed up. I also remember that it was at HUC 2K that some student “complained” about me to one of my students that i was asking too detailed and hard questions at the talks. The explanation for why I was able to do this, according to what my student told me, was that I had an unfair advantage in that I had seen all of the papers for the conference before the actual conference. Not true. I just found this whole area of ubicomp very interesting and I really enjoyed listening to all the papers and thinking about them as if I was having a conversation with one of my students about it and I had lots of questions.

It was at the end of HUC that I went to the stage and presented myself to the crowd as the general chair for the 2001 version of the conference. I announced that I wanted the conference to have a shorter name and that that name would be Ubicomp. I also stated that I wanted the 2001 conference to have a serious set of contributions and activities around location, because at that time location was a topic that the Ubicomp community could own and advance.

When you were a PhD student, what was the single best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
Gregory AbowdIt wasn’t exactly advice, but the most influential person in my academic life when I was a PhD student was Alan Dix. Alan didn’t say anything specific to me that you would consider advice, but I was always in awe of how this person who had such unbelievable raw genius was so giving of his time, energy and support to EVERYONE. He taught me by example that it is important to lead your life in a way that empowers others to be the best they can be.

What is the single best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
Jim Foley once advised me, “Leverage the talents of those around you.”

Many thanks for sharing your insights with us!