Personal Reflections on IDC, nuigroup and Open Initiatives on User Interfaces

IDC and awesome people

I was invited about a month ago to attend IDC by “the nuigroup team”. For those that aren’t familiar with it, nuigroup is an online community of people interested in “natural” user interfaces. Last summer, I made some money participating as a student in google summer of code under the nuigroup organization. This year, I am lucky to share a mentoring position along side Mathew Virbel for a very talented student, Sharath Patali on his GSOC project related to pymt.  The groups feedback and sharing of ideas has been an invaluable resource for the software and studies I am working on at school.  Members of the group share knowledge, references, thoughts, ideas, and open source code for building and developing novel user interface devices and software.  At least thats how I had interpreted it so far.

I’m not sure I have one good word for conveying the entirety of my experiences from the Interactive Display Conference (IDC) in San Jose,CA this last week. It was certainly an interesting event.  I got to talk (albeit briefly) to both Andy Wilson and Jeff Han. Both of whom produce very inspiring and world class UI/HCI research on a consistent basis.  Further, it was a great honor to meet some of the other members of the nuigroup community in person, some of whom where inspiring not only because of their amazing intellect and artistic talents, but especially due to their friendliness, benevolence, and maturity.

Some concerning developments..

However, I am somewhat troubled by various apparent misconceptions and misunderstandings concerning the nuigroup community (a related blog post).  Many industry attendees where confused or even upset about the difference/associations between the nuigroup community and Natual User Interface A.B. of Sweden.   As if this matter wasn’t already confusing enough, other “nuigroup commercialization” efforts have apparently been underway by some of the individuals running the nuigroup.com forums and website.

Dont get me wrong.  I have no problem whatsoever with commercial ventures or proprietary software and business models.  I do however have a problem with what I think has been gross misconduct from some of the business entities involved with or arising out of the nuigroup.

Even more troubling to me personally, is the extent to which some of these issues have been seemingly intentionally kept under the table by individuals that consider themselves important members of the community.  An open community cannot function without transparent and honest discussions concerning its identity and purpose.

nuigroup needs to talk!

Of course, I can only speak for myself as a single member participating in the nuigroup community.  That however is the nature of communities, whether they be online research or hobbyist communities, academic communities, a small group of friends or entire countries. Here is a claim I make confidently without the need for a reference or argument: Organizing, maintaining, and governing communities is  a very hard problem.  And while many of us desire especially open, free, and democratic communities, these aspect make the organization and governance anything but easier.

I feel very strongly  that the community is entitled to an open and transparent discourse about these issues and its identity.  Whether the impact of the community is significant in industry or academia or not, the 5000 individuals contributing their thoughts and ideas have the right to know with whom they are sharing and under what conditions they are doing so.

I have been under the impression that many other community members have understood nuigroup in very similar terms as myself (at least most of the other members at IDC seemed to think so as well). Maybe that was ignorant and based on bad assumptions.  Either way, lets talk openly about what the nuigroup has been, is, and should be.  Here is what I think:

What I think:

I think I am way to busy with school work and trying to think about user interfaces to be able to worry about these issues.

I think teh community deserves an open dialog about nuigroup’s purpose, mission statement, and organization and that it is past due.  Maybe we have been to gullible or busy solving the technical problems we have been collaborating on. Maybe these issues have arisen only after the community has grown to a significant size.  Maybe ulterior motives have tainted the direction and caused the lack of appropriate steps along the way.  Maybe I am the only one who has been going along perceiving a very different community.  Maybe I am getting concerned about insignificant things.

To my understanding, the community itself has no direct affiliation with Natural User Interface A.B. of Sweden (NUI).  NUI was founded by early members of the nuigroup community and uses the same logo.  While NUI is free to contribute to the community like anyone else, the community cannot be responsible for the actions taken by NUI or endorse the company in any way shape or form.  The logo thing causes way to much confusion.  While I like the logo (and to my understanding nuigroup.com used it first), i could care less.  There is more important things in life to worry about than a freaking logo or name (unless your only objective is to make money through branding). Let’s get back to talking about novel UI’s.

The same things apply to NUIINC.  This is another  commercial entity founded in the US, by the individuals running the nuigroup.com webserver.  Apparently they are in the business of “creating communities and user interfaces”. It is my understanding that the community at large has not even been aware of the existence of this incorporation. At least I was’nt until last week.

Again, I think it is perfectly fine for a commercial enterprise to take interest in, support, or collaborate as part of the nuigroup community.  But you cannot claim to own, represent, or be anymore affiliated with the community than its other members.  Especially not if those members are lead to belive to be part of a truly open initiative.

It’s probably time to agree on some rules of conduct.  There are many ways to go here, but lets make sure everyone knows what is going on.  There is plenty of good research and examples of other online communities from which nuigroup can learn about how to organize itself (e.g Sugar Labs just went though some discussion last year.   John Hull pointed out this book:  ).  To what level it needs to establish rules for making collective decisions (e.g. hosting costs, gsoc, and other resources) needs to be established by the community as a whole.

At IDC, there was some talk about a foundation being formed to act as a legal entity and protect the communities collective resources.  The NUINC people apparently have already established such a foundation, much of this information was not layed out very clearly in my opinion though.  If a foundation or other legal entity needs to be formed, this needs to happen from within the community and based one some consensus.

Why the nuigroup community is a good thing

Despite these negative issues and circumstances, I do believe that the community has a very valid reason and purpose to exist.

For one I think that making the technology and knowledge we discuss more accessible is a good thing.  We do need to be more careful about respecting intellectual property and copyright!   Obviously no one should start a business using a patented technology after learning about it in the community without proper licensing.  We also cannot make available copies of copyrighted material.  We are free to discuss the knowledge, information and implications described in patents and copyrighted material.  If one disagrees with the laws governing these concepts, the appropriate venue or action to be taken has to be political or legal in nature.

What we can do is far more powerfull however, making the information and technology more accessible and easier to understand to people outside industry or academic communities only benefits us all.  Patent documents and conference papers can be hard to find or be very expensive.  No one can keep us from sharing the knowledge we gain from reading them. Neglecting the ideas of newcomers or those that aren’t privileged with direct acces to these materials would not only be arrogant, it would be counterproductive.  Especially in a field where so much of what we do is tainted by prior experiences and expectations about computer interfaces and their past limitations.

The assimilation and filtering of information and knowledge from various backgrounds is invaluable to members of all participating communities.  One nice aspect of IDC was the variety of backgrounds reflected in the speakers and attendees.  Yet, it came nowhere close to the unique and diverse backgrounds and demographics represented inside the nuigroup community.

A truly open online community about user interfaces and its collective intelligence can be a breeding ground for new ideas .  It can provide real time feedback and collaboration for our projects and work.  It spreads excitement about pushing user interfaces beyond our expectations.

An open and widely distributed community can provide valuable resources and novel evaluation methods for UI and HCI research.  Collaborative evaluation of user interfaces could provide many benefits besides just scalability and decentralization (we’re not all that good at recreating or confirming the user studies and experiemnts of our peers in the HCI field).

What do you think?

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2 Comments

  1. Posted June 25, 2009 at 9:47 pm | Permalink

    I think i’ve seen this somewhere before…but it’s not bad at all

  2. Posted June 26, 2009 at 4:42 pm | Permalink

    It is remarkable

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