Edgar attended the VL/HCC conference in Innsbruck last year. This was his report to the lab group on the event.

Last October I went to the VL/HCC conference for the first time. I was part of the Graduate Consortium (GC) presenting the main elements of my PhD research in 10 minutes. The GC was the first activity of the conference (on Sunday). I have to say it was a really satisfactory experience – I received positive feedback and got to meet some young researchers from the USA working on similar topics. The main GC’s topics were Programming, Software Engineering. There were some bits of Security, SpreadSheets and Modeling for Engineering processes.

Some GC participants

Fig. 1. Jill Cao from University of Oregon (Left), Michael Lee from University of Washington (center) and me :).

Since there were considerable amount of papers, I’ll spotlight just a few that may be interesting to explore in detail, probably with some bias on the programming topic (sorry about that :)). For more detail, please try the conference webpage or the IEEE digital library.

From Monday to Wednesday there were 8 sessions: SpreadSheets and Tables, Design and Notation, End Users: Mobile Devices and Programming, Symbols and Notations, Code Understanding, Domain-Specific Languages, New Approaches to Program Specification and Social Computing.

I was a bit surprised about the spreadsheets topic; it seems this track has been “regular” during previous conferences. I don’t have any real knowledge about this field, so I’m afraid it all looked like “black magic” for me.

The first paper of the second session, “The Shape of Empty Space: Human-Centred Cognitive Foundations in Computing for Spatial Design” by Mehul Bhatt, Carl Schultz and Minqian Huang presented a model and framework to help architects providing “human-centred models” of special designs rather “engineering models”. My understanding without architectural knowledge is that this model will allow architects to analyze other views of the space designs, which may improve the “user experience”. It may be defined as “automatic building usability tests”. They showed a CAD application based on the model that can assist during the stages of spaces design.

During the third session (End Users), “An Exploratory Study of Blind Software Developers”, by Sean Mealin and Emerson Murphy-Hill (North Carolina State University) was presented. Sean is a blind student at NCSU. They presented the result of interviews with blind software developers focusing what challenges blind people must face and when writing code. The presentation finished with a quick demo tool for screen reading and coding on the Eclipse interface. It will be interesting to follow further developments and research.

The fifth session (Code Understanding) started with the paper “GUI-Driven Code Tracing” by André L. Santos. This is the best paper VL/HCC 2012. Andre presented an interesting prototype that allows GUI debugging. The prototype is based on the idea of “GUI-driven code tracing— to enable developers to navigate from UI elements of a running program to related source code”. Initial results showed that the debugging prototype could be useful when complex GUI code needs to be maintained.

The sixth session included the paper “Blocks Languages for Creating Tangible Artifacts” by Franklyn Turbak, Smaranda Sandu, Olivia Kotsopoulos, Emily Erdman, Erin Davis and Karishma Chadha. They developed two visual blocks-based TurtleBlocks and PictureBlocks, which produce tangible objects as output using laser cutters and vinyl cutters (Fig. 2). The paper discusses some interesting visual language design aspects, regarding with concepts such as connector shapes, typing, and polymorphism. The feedback collected from a workshop indicate that students “were more motivated to create designs when they could get tangible output from the turtle and picture worlds as opposed to just drawings on the screen”.

Fig. 2. Some tangible “output” where presented to the conference audience.

Fig. 2. Some tangible “output” where presented to the conference audience.

The seventh session (New Approaches to Program Specification) included the paper “Investigating the Role of Purposeful Goals on Novices’ Engagement in a Programming Game” by Michael J. Lee and Andrew J. Ko (University of Washington). I’ve read some work from Michael Lee, since he’s interested in novice programmers. Michael developed an online game called “Gidget” which is used to teach basic design algorithms aspects using an imperative language. This paper presented the results of an experiment where three different set of characters were tested as condition of engaging (Fig. 3).  They found that “1) those using vertebrate elements completed  twice  the  number  of  levels compared  to  those  using  inanimate  elements,  2)  those  using vertebrate  and  invertebrate  elements  spent  significantly  more time playing the game overall compared to those using inanimate elements, and 3) those using inanimate elements were more likely to  quit  the  game,  especially  on  difficult  levels. These findings suggest that the presentation of game elements that influence the purposefulness of goals can play a significant role in keeping self-guided learners engaged in learning tasks”

Gidget conditions

Fig. 3. The three conditions (game characters) tested in ‘Gidget’.

Last session (Social Computing) was focus on visualization of information. “KikuNavi: Real-time Pedestrian Navigation based on Social Networking Service and Collective Intelligence” by Hikaru Nagasaka, Makoto Okabe and Rikio Onai (The University of Electro-Communications, Tokyo, Japan) presented a real-time pedestrian navigation system as a social networking service operating on a mobile phone. It is a interesting concept to use the social network as a service. However, the paper is missing a formal user test.

Finally, my overall impression was highly positive. I found a friendly environment, which is really important for those who are “freshers” or less experienced presenters. The venue, Innsbruck, has really impressive views from the Alps, good food and tasty wine; all this helped to have a more pleasant conference. Looking forward for the next one.

View of facilities

Fig. 4. Outdoors view of the Congress Facilities