My personal report from AmI 2008 conference

After three intensive days with presentations and discussions in Nuremberg (German Nürnberg, Bavaria), it is difficult not to think in terms of Ambient Intelligence.The third European Ambient Intelligence conference was held here during 19-22. November 2008. I was fortunate enough to co-organize a workshop on the 19. and attend the following two conference days with keynotes, invited speakers and paper presentations. I will write here my biased report from the conference. To answer the question “will I go back next year?” I will say yes definitely, provided my company pays. To answer “what did I like about the conference?” I will say the manageable size, the informal atmosphere, the many invited talks and keynotes, the single-track organization, the people I met, the organizers and the location, and of course the overview over European AmI research that you get during the four days. To answer the question “what did I not like about the conference?” I would say the scientific quality of some of the papers (especially with respect to state-of-the-art), and the general positivist mood of the conference (i.e. technology can solve all our problems).

While reading my report, please keep in mind that I am an average researcher with an information systems background. I have worked some years in telecommunications business, with links to AmI but never having extensively explored this vast research topic. So my report will definitely be biased and limited. I also did not submit any papers to the conference, but plan to do so in the future. Please don’t hesitate to use the comment button at the end of this report to write your own views and comments!

Overall impressions

The AmI conference is in its third year. Since all the presentations (except for one keynote speech) were from European projects I assume the organizers are focusing on European projects as the main audience. It seems the conference indeed has become one of the major arenas for the European projects working in the area. It is a young conference, and future organizers need to actively market the conference in order to make it an established forum. Additionally, if AmI is to be an internationally high level scientific conference there will also be a need for a more international program committee. Currently 32 of 34 PC members are from the continental Europe. Having an international PC can also make the conference an evaluation forum for European AmI conferences in general.

I have mixed feelings regarding how well the conference covered the field of ambient intelligence. A lot of good research was showcased, and most of the discussed technology was empirically evaluated (although most of the reported user studies had quite low statistical significance). The conference in general had a very positivistic approach to technology, and lacked reflection and introspective. The only critique of AmI that I heard was in the invited speech on PERSONA (The critique was related to the user-centered methodologies often used in AmI, I will come back to this later). There were also some “deep” questions from the audience (thanks to Atta for many of the “deepest” ones!). There were a lot of what I would call point solutions, and good ones also. I missed however papers or speeches discussing overall challenges related to ethics (in particular for AAL scenarios), business models, organizational issues, overarching frameworks, standardization, methodological issues, etc. For instance, a technological solution made for independent living of chronically ill people will not be sustainable if it does not consider medical ethics, interfaces to various organizations (primary/secondary care), statistically significant effects, reimbursement schemes etc. But these issues did not seem to bother many of the presenters.

I would say (with the danger of being patronizing) that this is a discussion of the role the AmI research community should play. Should we be the creators of devices, sensors, actuators, etc.? (when the industry seems to do this better? E.g. Jean had a nice presentation of such devices from Phillips). Should we create new futuristic scenarios that will drive development of new technologies? (when Mark Weiser’s scenario from 1991 and ISTAG scenarios from 2001 still seem like science fiction?). Should we, as good old-fashioned researchers, observe how ambient “intelligence” is being used by ordinary people and societies, and influence future technological developments? Should we work for a universal AmI architecture and platform? I guess the answer is “yes, all of them”!

Keynotes and invited talks

I enjoyed a lot the keynotes and the invited talks. José Encarnacão’s keynote opened the scientific discussions by giving us a crash course in AmI, outlining a long list of challenges (also some societal challenges such as privacy, impersonating effects of AmI, and lack of a compelling overall value proposition). I hope the slides from Dr.Encarnacão’s speech will be made available online because they are good educational material! The second keynote was by Joe Paradiso from MIT Responsive Environments Lab. Dr. Paradiso showcased their research on sensors. Their work on combining performance art with wearable sensors was very fascinating. Also I liked the research they have done in combining the physical and the virtual in e.g. Second Life.

Dr. Alois Ferscha from University if Linz held the first invited talk titled “Zones of influence” (or was it intelligence?). He gave a fascinating analysis of space and its properties. I will study Dr. Ferscha’s work closely because it gives some fundamental input to the discussion of using space as resource. In the second invited talk, Dr. Sergio Guillén gave an overview of the methodology used in the PERSONA project. His observation was that even though they had used extensive user-centered methodologies to define a set of services for the elderly, they did not know whether these services, when implemented, will have the desired long-term effect on the lives of the people using them. I think this is a fundamental issue in AmI. I am interested in knowing how people deal with it. AmI technology is developed for long-term co-habitation with its users. So laboratory-based evaluation will have little validity beyond the ergonomic aspects. Moreover, the technology needs to be robust over long periods of time, an aspect that is lacking from almost all research prototypes I have encountered. Additionally, the technology needs to interact with other existing technology (for context etc.) in order to be really integrated with the daily life and routines. So a stand-alone prototype cannot be evaluated for its real effect unless it talks to other systems in user’s environment. How do we solve the methodology issue?

The third invited speech was by Dr. Andreas Butz from University of Munich, titled “Physical Qualities of Interaction”. Dr. Butz’ talk represented his research on metaphors for UI design in AmI. The research is influenced by tangible user interfaces, and some of the examples reminded be of the work done by Hiroshi IIshi. His research is essential for those of us who want to go beyond PDA-based interactions in AmI.

The last invited speech was given by Dr. Petri Liuha from Nokia Research. Dr. Liuha’s message, as I understood it, was that Nokia sees a paradigm shift in how mobile phones are used, and that this shift will mean more focus on the integration of the mobile phones with the ambient. More and more people use mobile phones for various web services in addition to using them for calling each other. The selling point of such services will be support for mobility and for mobile social interaction. This selling point cannot be realized without connecting the mobile phones to the physical context of the users. This is good to hear for the AmI community. But Nokia will have to embrace open universal standards if they want to appear as a compelling research platform for us!

The number of keynotes and invited talks was high compare to the number of papers (22 papers vs. 4 invited talks and 2 keynotes). This means that one fourth of the conference time was occupied by invited speakers, which is quite unusual. On the other hand, the talks were interesting and showcased a number of very productive research groups in Europe and elsewhere.

The conference papers

I already mentioned that some papers, IMHO, were not adding anything significant to the state-of-the-art. I guess we have to accept this in any conference. I am also against highly selective conferences. Submitting papers to conferences with acceptance rates of say 10% feels like a game of probability. Maybe something around 20-30% should be a goal for a “good” conference? (I think AmI 2008 had something around 40% but I am not sure.) I will not write about all the papers here. You can browse the proceedings once they are published online. But some papers were quite relevant for my research.

The paper by Tomas Plötz et al. “Towards human centered ambient intelligence” introduces user modeling to AmI. Most AmI projects have some representation of users, but often this is not done systematically. Tomas presented a user model and user services connected to it. These user services are context-aware. Some are present in some situations and some are not. A service such as “Accept a phone call” can be provided by a user in one context and not in another. Tomas also presented a case study that uses perception (video and audio) to determine the context of the user and turn user services on and off. I think Tomas’ ideas can be extended to social interaction. I have to talk to him about this (Tomas also was an active participant in our workshop!).

“HOMEinTOUCH Designing two-way ambient communication” by Petersen et al. discusses a photo frame that promotes two-way communication between a mobile user with a mobile phone (e.g. on vacation) and the people around the photo frame (e.g. at home). This reminded me of the prototype we made for the first ASTRA project when I worked at Telenor. In any case this paper should be relevant to the ASTRA II project.

Two papers from the Independent at Home project (Martijn H. Vastenburg et al. and Erwin R. van Velhoven et al.) discussed the design and usage of a bulletin board for the elderly. This is relevant research for MPOWER project, although subjects are not dementia patients. Another paper demonstrating a navigation service for mild demented pedestrians was presented by F.N. Hagethorn.

I should take a look at the work done by people at the univ. of Parma on JXTA (paper Michele Amoretti et al.). The paper presented bi Chiara Laghi discussed wrapping of SOAP services as JXTA service advertisements. This is relevant for UbiCollab, and can be used in distributed service discovery.

The paper by Gregor Broll et al. introduced the metaphor of “Collec&Drop” where users read physical (two-dimensional) tags that represent various services. After reading a tag, the tag can be saved for later, and information from one tag can be fed to information from another tag. In this way some simple service composition can be created. Relevant for UbiCollab.

I should also look at the paper “Context-aware indoor navigation” that can be of relevance for UbiCollab’s space manager.

The paper from Nokia on their Sports Tracker (by Aino Ahtinen et al.) is of relevance for UbiLife. We need to contact these Nokia people before we start with our studies to get some input and tips.

The workshops

There were workshops both the day before and the day after the conference. Our workshop was on the day before, and I am happy for this. I think all the workshops should have been organized before the conference. I can imagine how tiresome it must be to participate in a workshop after two full days of conference! Unfortunately I could not attend any workshop other than out own. Our workshop on platforms and architectures for AmI had 18 participants and we had a lively discussion. I think we have started a series of workshops that we will continue also in the years to come!

Conclusions

I enjoyed the conference a lot. I learned a lot, and met a lot of nice people (loads of business cards!). The organization was well done. The food was excellent! Dinners were in lovely surroundings. We were greeted by officials from Nuremberg, which was an honor. Thanks a lot to Fraunhofer institute! A particular thank to the event manager Susane who was really pervasive and supporting us both on the day of our workshop and during the conference.

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