My Journey to CHI 2017
My name is Chi-Jui Wu (吳啟瑞), or just Charles.
I am an English teaching assistant in rural Hualien, Taiwan as a part of the substitute military service program (替代役). I am going to begin my Computer Science PhD in Human-Computer Interaction at Lancaster University (UK), supervised by Dr. Steven Houben in the Interactive Systems research group, in January 2018.
So I just got back from CHI 2017.
The ACM CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems is the premier international conference of Human-Computer Interaction.
CHI’17 was held in Denver, Colorado, USA [~25% acceptance rate; 2424 submissions; ~3000 attendees].
In basketball terms, CHI would be like the NBA all-star weekend. I was extremely lucky to have 20 minutes on the court as a rookie — presenting my first-author paper EagleSense at my first academic/research conference. Many people liked my work and my presentation. Therefore, I thought I should write a blog to reflect upon myself and my work leading up to CHI, and also share my conference experience.
To really understand how I got my first CHI paper, I must look at my entire life experience as a whole. I will share my personal journey from being a shitty undergraduate student to getting an excellent PhD position to presenting a paper at CHI. Perhaps you can’t relate to my stories, but I will try to provide an unbiased account of my successes and failures, as well as strengths and weaknesses, so you may still benefit from the lessons I have learned along the way. This blog post is not about how to write a CHI paper or how to to do research (I am new too), but how I have developed personally and professionally to be able to present at CHI.
I believe that only you could judge your own success, and everyone has different histories, interests, motivations, goals, challenges, and triumphs, etc. Life is unpredictable, and our aspirations change overtime (I wanted to become a policeman when I was 7). Nonetheless, we should strive to become the best we can be — I try to be the best Charles I can be. Furthermore, we should find true happiness in life, a lesson which I will keep emphasizing throughout this writing. My personal reflections may seem overly critical in places, but I want to keep it authentic to show how I really see myself in the past, present, and future. This blog post marks my new journey to becoming one of the top HCI researchers, and it will happen…Probably not, but I want to be bold.
Being an Anti-Studying and Anti-Social Kid
I had no idea what I was doing.
I was born in Taiwan, and I moved to China at the age of 10. I graduated from American International School of Guangzhou, the best international school in the area, but it was super bad in so many aspects. I honestly think education is broken; it’s a difficult problem. Education should be about building a great human — intellectually and emotionally — and answering the question “Who do I want to be?” (This idea is from Stanford University, which really does amazing work in education.)
I can honestly say that I know “Who I want to be” only after finishing my Master’s degree.
Before going to university, I never enjoyed studying and going to school. I liked solving problems, and I knew getting good grades was the easiest way to leave options open. I never planned on going to graduate school. I didn’t know what I wanted to do in life, so in that regard, I would say I almost failed high school (or high school failed me). I didn’t have passion for anything. I was stressed at times, and I felt very lost. I guess I just kept going.
I was able to do this because I knew what I want in life. I want to become the best and have true happiness. I was lost searching both, but I am now slowly accomplishing my first goal. Sadly, I am still looking for the path to my second goal.
I slept through lots of physics classes, but I enjoyed those extra sleeping hours. I actually did alright on my IB exam (5/7 score) after cramming the entire textbook in one weekend, and I could now appreciate the beauty of physics. I knew I could do anything I want if I put efforts into it. I wasted a lot of time playing computer games, and I wasn’t even good at it (Defense of the Ancients). If I were to go back in time, I would try to play the game of DotA better. It’s sad that I don’t play games anymore.
I had terrible social skills.
Computer Science just seemed like a good fit. I was glad we had a course in Information Technology in a Global Society. I spent a lot of time in front of computers, and I had a lot of patience for problem-solving (I still do). Looking back, I would definitely like to start programming sooner. I only started learning the art of programming when I got to St Andrews. Unfortunately, I think it was already too late to become one of the best. In high school, I noticed Social Science Professor Sherry Turkle at MIT from her TED talk. Since then, I started thinking about the relationship between humans and computers, and now I am doing HCI. It’s still my dream to study at MIT.
I was a hard-working and above-average high school student (3.71/4.00 GPA). Like many other Asian kids, I spent a summer cramming SAT, and I got an above-average score (1970/2400 score). It’s retarded, but I had to play the game. Along with good recommendation letters and an over-hyped personal statement, I received an offer from the School of Computer Science at University of St Andrews (UK).
I am very grateful to come from a wealthy middle-class family and have somewhat decent English language skills (exactly because I come from a wealthy family who sent me to an international school), so I had an easier time abroad. I had more socioeconomic advantages than most people on Earth.
Being a Shitty Undergraduate Student
I worked a lot, a lot.
I was rejected by many universities for undergraduate admission, including University College London (where I later did my Master’s) if I remember correctly, but whatever. I think I was meant to go to St Andrews, and I loved it. St Andrews is the best place in the UK for undergraduate Computer Science, and I highly recommend high school students to go there.
Four years were lost in the midst of attending/skipping lectures, programming/hacking, being shit in team but winning hackathons, being mediocre at internships, drinking, gaming, traveling, falling in love, getting heart-broken, and more programming/hacking. Although I was always in the lab (almost daily), so were my best friends, I still had a vague idea of what I truly wanted to do. So in that regard, I had once again almost failed higher education (or higher education failed me). I lost motivation, many times. I was depressed. I think at some point Computer Science students, or top university students in general, get symptoms of depression, because we try too hard. Luckily, I have always been able to get through it by myself. I am really good at coping with immense stress and sadness :)
I still had terrible social skills, but I made friends from all over the world, because I went to St Andrews.
I had been really bad at finding interesting projects and topics to do or study. I think it had to do with my personality, which finds many things in life boring, and I don’t care about a lot of things, too. I was very fortunate to have an extremely enthusiastic and encouraging thesis supervisor, Dr. David Harris-Birtill. Professor Aaron Quigley was also very keen on getting my work published.
I was passive, too. However, good things always happened when I took initiatives. The summer before my final year, I interned at the St Andrews HCI lab (I was given the opportunity because I did well in HCI course), and David was that very keen and positive postdoc. I had planned to do my undergraduate thesis in game development with type-dependent programming language Idris, which was fine but I wasn’t passionate about it. I decided to ask David to be my thesis supervisor and work on a HCI project instead. It was one of my smartest decisions in life. David was always encouraging in weekly meetings, which invariably began with “Well done, Charles!”, no matter how little work I had done. I also met my future supervisor at UCL, Dr. Nicolai Marquardt, during his seminal visit to St Andrews. He was incredible, and I learned so much from his talk. I wanted to do exactly the kind of research that he did. Proxemic Interaction was WOW!! So I showed him a demo of my early work on Out of Sight and said hi. In my first few weeks at UCL, I contacted him about supervising my Master’s thesis, then Nic introduced me to Steven. And last week, we presented our work on EagleSense at CHI’17.
Most of the time I worked really hard, but often not cleverly. In retrospect, I was struggling in my first two years of undergraduate degree. For instance, I was very slow at translating ideas into code. I practiced a lot, but I was still nowhere near the best. Again, I just kept going. It was normal for me to leave the lab at 3 or 4 in the morning and have endless all-nighters. In my final year, I would often start working on my thesis at 11 p.m. and stay in the lab overnight, and my research progress suffered, but it was all for good romantic reasons. I sacrificed a lot of sleeping time and weekends to get shit done. Like most people, I barely slept before major deadlines. I now remember Psychology Professor Paul Gardner at St Andrews (I tried to go Computer Science and Psychology double-major) once told me that it’s really bad to have a working schedule like this and not be able to go to 9 a.m. lectures.
Apparently, I didn’t work hard enough to publish my work from research internships. Research is difficult, but I now think failure (to obtain results or publish) is just a part of the process. I lost motivation, but I was also motivated by failures and fed off broken code. However, I didn’t “see” nor “understand” research when I was an undergraduate. I was just trying to build cool stuff.
At St Andrews, I was surrounded by groups of really smart and motivated individuals, whom helped me become a better person (also a programmer and a researcher) in many subtle ways. I would not have accomplished so much without them. Seeing how good they were impelled me to improve, and working relentlessly became an integral part of myself. I acquired the skills and opportunities to eventually publish a CHI paper. I would not have become who I am today if I went to another university (say, University of Edinburgh). At last, I knew I enjoyed programming and doing research, but programming or researching what? I wrote another over-hyped personal statement, and along with good recommendation letters and grades (16.6/20.0 GPA, first-class), I was accepted by UCL, which offered what I vaguely wanted to do — machine learning and human-computer interaction. Also, my first CHI submission was brutally rejected (1.0/5.0 score).
Being a Research Graduate Student
I also worked a lot, a lot.
I wanted to do research and publish. Naturally, I spent most of my time working my research project. I really liked the course on reinforcement learning, which was taught by Google DeepMind researchers. I attended many research talks, seminars, and workshops while I was in London. I had to constantly keep myself motivated. It was the toughest year in my life, and I went through it alone, for the most part. Life was hard. I felt pressure from both academic and personal life. I had a lot of negative energy. I collapsed, both mentally and physically.
In fact, I was close to failing my degree several times. I actually failed my reinforcement learning coursework, and I sat in my first exam (Graphical Models) being completely blanked out and knowing I might not graduate. I just tried not to give up. Thankfully, I was able to negotiate grades with the marker. I gamed the system and finished my degree with distinction.
I struggled in research, too. EagleSense went through many iterations before it actually works, and it still has many limitations. I read a lot of papers, succeeded and failed at implementing their methods. Our submission of the early prototype was straight rejected by another conference. Further, I still didn’t quite grasp the concepts of research and framing. I had only come to “see” research much later when I finished the EagleSense CHI paper and my PhD research proposal.
I almost gave up. I didn’t believe EagleSense actually had a shot at CHI, well, it’s CHI! And I had zero publication experience. Steven was kind of pissed at our paper not accepted to the other conference, and later he said EagleSense had a good chance at CHI. Either he really believed so or he lied to keep me motivated. Anyway, I listened to his wise words. I just didn’t want to give up yet, so I worked my ass off…Not really, I worked my ass off for a year already, so I was exhausted. Somehow I used all my remaining energy to improve the system and write the paper. I was extremely focused. And I wanted to publish.
London was a magical place, and I had a few but good friends. I also had a wonderful trip to Spain before submitting my thesis, which was one of the few good memories during my Master’s.
Getting a CHI Paper
It was surreal.
The reviews were mixed but overall positive, and it was on the line of accept/reject. I had to write a strong rebuttal to push the EagleSense paper over the acceptance bar, but it turned out many people liked our work. So I guess rebuttals do work.
I couldn’t believe my paper got accepted. I didn’t think I was any better than other researchers in the CHI community, so I thought it must have been luck. I wasn’t excited — I said to myself, “What’s going on? Is it real?” I wasn’t happy, too. I just felt more pressure, because I thought my work was not at CHI’s caliber. Therefore, I had a tough time getting started on my CHI presentation. It was probably imposter syndrome. I was never confident about my work, because I always wanted to do better. If my paper were not accepted to CHI or any other top-tier conference, I would think I was not good enough to do research (especially since I had already spent one year on it), and I would probably not have pursued a PhD. I had been unhappy in life, but CHI changed me. I was excited about going to CHI, and it was all uphill once I got to Denver, except the thunderstorm near my Airbnb house.
I feel like my IQ must have boosted by 100 points after my paper got accepted.
Getting a PhD
Good things happen.
Before I even started my Master’s degree at UCL, I knew I would be able to get a PhD position at St Andrews or UCL later on if I really wanted. I was good enough. However, I was only absolutely certain about doing a PhD after I graduated from UCL. I wanted to do my PhD in cross-device interaction, but I also wanted to venture out, not going back to St Andrews or staying at UCL. I was lucky to have find an excellent PhD position.
Steven was going to Lancaster University to start his lectureship, and he needed PhD students. He is an expert in cross-device interaction and is reasonably smart. Actually Steven surprises me every time I talk to him; he has a lot on his mind. I was a top student at UCL, and we wrote a CHI paper together. Steven wanted me to go to Lancaster, and so do I.
I was accepted to the substitute military service program in Taiwan (military service is still compulsory here), and I got a really good teaching position with many interesting teaching challenges. I had enough free time to write my PhD research proposal and prepare my CHI talk. I was also able to attend CHI’17 in Denver, which would otherwise be impossible. This blog post is specially dedicated to the students at Wanrong Junior High School. They have so much potential!! As their teacher, I really want them to do better than me in life.
I applied only to Lancaster University for PhD. I got it. The fellowship interview was rather intense, but I liked the questions from my reviewers. One of the tough questions was research versus engineering, and they kept challenging my responses. If they didn’t make me feel this way, I would probably have been disappointed. And Steven said it was good, since the reviewers would only ask difficult questions if they were really interested in you and your work. I got the fellowship.
I worked a lot during my undergraduate and master, and often I was the last one to leave the lab (if I ever decided to stay). I would probably do the same at Lancaster.
CHI’17 was fun, amazing, inspiring, and life-changing.
CHI is a huge networking event. I traveled to CHI’17 alone, but I met many other students, professors, academic and industry researchers at the conference and parties. It found it difficult to socialize, especially with senior researchers (so pretty much everyone except students), but I think I did alright for my first conference. I couldn’t participate in the Student Volunteer program this year (because of the military service), but I’d definitely like to get involved at CHI’18. It was so cool to finally see the top researchers and HCI pioneers in real life, and they were all very nice. I also got to know more about the CHI community from Taiwan. I wanted to talk to Dr. Pei-Yu Chi from Google, who worked on Weave and DemoScript, both really good work, but unfortunately it didn’t happen :(
I actually liked the breadth of research covered at CHI, but it was also a very intense schedule. I had about 4 to 6 hours of sleep each day, because I was jet-lagged and nervous about my presentation, so I woke up early in the morning to practice my presentation. Hence, I kept falling asleep in the afternoon sessions. Naturally, I was exhausted by the last day of the conference.
My talk went really well, as I was told, but I just tried not to get too nervous on stage while talking to the microphone. Less than 50? people showed up to the camera-based tracking session, but I still got good positive feedback after my talk, and I would like to incorporate their ideas into our follow-up work. Andy Wilson from Microsoft Research suggested a paper that I could use to extend the EagleSense tracking infrastructure. I really liked other work presented at our session, and I thought the short skits shown in Dr. Jens Grubert’s talk were on point and hilarious. I don’t have a favorite talk at CHI’17 because there were so many (pen-touch interaction, cross-device interaction, sensing techniques, case studies, the physical web, room-scale collaboration, social responsibilities, Professor Jacob Wobbrock’s social impact award talk, ...). The keynotes and panels were fantastic.
I will list a few things that I didn’t like about CHI’17 before saying how wonderful it is again. 1) The panel after the opening keynote was awkward. There was hardly any discussion. 2) The closing keynote was plain and uninspiring. 3) Too many parallel sessions. 4) No video recording for some sessions. I am just sad that my talk was not recorded. 5) Lack of conference gifts, not even a CHI’17 pen or notebook. Also unimaginative merchandises.
The opening keynote was WOW!! Neri Oxman discussed how us humans can coexist with nature through novel designs in the Material Ecology. She has a brilliant mind. Despite talking about her amazing work, she reiterated the importance of societal contributions and impacts. What history/legacy/impact will the EagleSense paper leave, if any? What contributions do I really want to make? And is it even possible to make a profound impact during my three-years PhD? I think real impact is only ever so substantial and tangible when looking at the breadth of a person’s work over his lifetime, such as Ben Shneiderman’s.
“The best is yet to come!” — Ben Shneiderman
“The best way to predict the future is to invent it.” — Alan Kay
I truly believe in these words. I have so many research ideas after attending CHI, and it’s really up to us to fulfill our own research visions. I want to bring cross-device interaction to novel and important application domains, including education, healthcare, and economic development, empowering individuals (inclusiveness and accessibility) and enabling striving communities. I don’t know how (and perhaps not through cross-device interaction research), but I strongly believe that doing research in this direction can really help the world become a better place. And on this note, looking back at all my previous work and my most recent PhD research proposal, I have not been bold enough even in my wildest visions.
Lastly, I want to talk about a special friend I met at CHI. I always believed that we could meet again at CHI, and we did! Although we had vastly different skill sets (one is good at design; the other is good at implementation), we both wanted to do great HCI research. I was truly happy to see us en route to achieving our dreams despite taking different paths. I would never forget all the memories we shared. It was the best thing that had happened to me at CHI’17.
I learned a lot.
Pursue what really matters to you and the kind of person you want to become. Knowing what I really I wanted to achieve kept me motivated in times of utter despair.
Nothing is easy. If the thing you are working on is easy, you are not learning and improving. Or you are a genius.
More hacking, less optimizing. There is a trade-off between hacking new things and writing beautiful code. The best are good at both.
Meet different people. Be proactive. I always learn a lot from other people. Creativity requires exploration. At CHI, everyone was interested in different things, and by talking to them, I formed new ideas for my own research.
Have fun and be truly happy. I actually have no idea how to have fun, and it’s really difficult for me to be truly happy. I am always chasing the things I don’t have, be it new knowledge or a CHI paper, and I am never satisfied. I think achieving work-life balance will become one of my most important topics in life, and it will determine how much success I will have.
Thank you for everything.
I have always fought the battle alone, but I always have support from my family, friends, and supervisors. I just work really hard, and people like my work. You need to trust yourself. Trust the process. In the end you will achieve your goals. Just keep doing research, and you will succeed. You will fail sometimes, but they are just really high walls to test how much you want the thing you are chasing (see also Randy Pausch’s Last Lecture). One day you will make a breakthrough. You will write a CHI paper about it, and get rejected. You will write another, one after another, and eventually you will get a CHI paper accepted, an honorable mention, and a best paper award. But it’s never about the papers. It’s just a part of the process. It’s also not about the research. It’s about making the changes you want to see in the world.