Reflections on CHI '22

by Kent Lyons, May '22

CHI 22 in New Orleans

My last in person conference was UIST 19 in New Orleans. Little did we all know at that point the pandemic was around the corner and we wouldn't be able to meet up in person for a couple of years. Being back in New Orleans for CHI 22 was great. This year CHI was hybrid with about 2k in person and another 2k online.

Why in person?

I had "attended" a couple online conferences but they were nowhere close to the same. While I appreciate the organizers' efforts to scramble and pivot to online formats, they were missing key elements. We can all read the papers in the proceedings and get to know the research that way. However as a community we have invested our resources into conferences for many reasons. Hearing the authors give a talk about a paper is only one of them. Likewise, there is value in being able to ask the authors a question right after the talk, but a conference is way more than that. It is the chat with the authors at the podium after the session. It is the side conversation in the audience with the person you're sitting next before or after a talk.

All of those center around the program itself. There are other benefits not captured with this focus. The hallway sessions where you skip out and talk with colleagues and the breaks in the program are equally valuable. Lunches, and the (informal) events in the evening after the day is done is where you get to learn about different perspectives and get to know the people behind the research. A conference is way more than the program. It is bringing the community together. We still have much to learn and build before we start to even get close to being able to do that online. And until then, I'll be getting on an airplane and look forward to all of the others feeling the same way!

As a bit of a tangent, Gregory Abowd in the Ubicomp conference has been a proponent for adding in more discussion. Part of this is driven by the shift to the IMWUT model at the papers being available online beforehand. Why show up to the conference if you can (or did) read the paper ahead of time? I think the answer is the same one as why go in person and not virtually. It's to have the discussions and community building, and the program is only one dimension of that. So in addition to trying different formats of Q&A with the authors, leaning into other ways to have interesting discussions is worth trying. The hard part is in many ways it's only the paper that "counts" in the end whereas the value is likely deeper and broader than just that paper.

Hybrid reflections

From an in person perspective, the hybrid approach seemed to mostly work. The virtual parts were very much bimodal. Either it worked flawlessly or was a train wreck. When it worked, the live online talks themselves were not all that different than having an in person speaker. The exceptions were the prerecorded talks which were very different in style. It seemed the online experience was less than ideal from some of the comments I gathered, but either way, given how much is missing from an online experience, I will not be doing an online conference again. For me, it will either in person or not at all.

There were a couple of things CHI did this year as part of the hybrid experience that I appreciated and would like to see continue for in person conferences. One is the prerecorded youtube talks. It was really nice to spend a day or so before the conference and watch a lot of talks at 2x speed. I could see the content I was interested in, find some I obviously didn't need to see at the conference, and alleviate any guilt about skipping talks and doing hallway sessions instead. I think the other thing it did was help with the live talks as well. By being forced to prepare a talk ahead of time, I think the quality of all of the live talks was much improved.

The other thing I appreciated was the discord server. I am not a discord user in general, but I appreciated the communication channels it provided while being at the conference. I think the biggest downside was it seemed like only a small fraction of the community was actually on it. I'm not sure if that was the choice of platform (eg instead of something like slack), novelty, or something else. Either way I think having such a platform would be great going forward for even fully in person conferences.


I know CHI always has a lot of first time attendees and I'm pretty sure this year was no different. On a couple of occasions I realized I was surrounded by people that had never been to CHI before. They might had done a virtual CHI but this one was the first one in person. That also made me reflect and realize that my first CHI was two decades ago in the snow in Minnesota. So I had a few grey beard stores to tell. I think the other difference which was pointed out to me was that a lot of the more senior set of folks were more sparse in attendance this year. That includes the people that had been going to CHI forever, but even my generation plus or minus was much more lightly populated in person. Time will tell if that continues or not.

Why go to CHI?

I didn't have any papers at CHI, and I don't have the budget of a big company behind me anymore. But I did have several reasons to go to CHI. The first was on the social side, the second was about research, and the last was about my work, Inovo Studio.

On the social side, I realized that being in research, I've managed to make friends with people from all over the world. This has been awesome in so many ways. Both from a cultural perspective, but research also pulls together a unique set of people all deeply interested in similar things. So it's been great to make those connections over the years. Unfortunately with the pandemic, and the challenges of online communication in general, that also means I had poor access to that social network over the past few years. So it was awesome to catch up, chat, and have a few beers with old friends. And of course, meet some new ones as well!

The second reason was on the research side. For the past couple years I was helping create and lead a new research department. While there were some great research ideas and discussions in that time period, a lot of the effort was really getting the team off the ground, up to critical mass, and getting an interdisciplinary team to start working in an interdisciplinary way. Before that I spent my time at Tesla on the product side and did things like completely replace the speech rec system by myself. It was a great experience to really learn the product and software engineering side of the world better and to make the cars fundamentally better. But it also was disconnected from research which I missed.

One of my favorite things about being at a conference is seeing the research presented and being inspired about new research ideas. Either taking the work a step farther or in a different direction, seeing a connection to a different kind of problem, being reminded of an old idea, or some combination thereof. For the first day of CHI that didn't really happen and I was a bit worried. But I also didn't see too many talks - too many hallway sessions! But luckily the second day it did. I settled into some talks, and even though I'd seen many of the pre-recorded videos on youtube, that inspiration did strike. I walked away with a handful of ideas that I need to revisit post CHI and see if any make sense to move forward.

And the last reason was to talk about Inovo Studio - my new endeavor. I'll write more about what I'm up to separately, however it was a good chance to practice my elevator pitch as I caught people up on what I'm doing now. I went from a way too long and complicated story to a few lines which was good. The other part is this audience will likely be key to Inovo's success. So talking to professors about the hole I'm filling and the approach I'm taking was also useful validation.

Wrapping up CHI

I'd forgotten how much of a marathon CHI (or any conference is) and I'm out of practice! By the end of day one, it felt both like it'd just started (which was true) but that it'd been about 4 days already! With a fire hose of information coming your way, the social engagement of catching up with everyone and meeting all of the new people, and in general all of the CHI activities, it is a lot. And then there is the 7am-2am schedule which caught up to me pretty fast! And the last bit of CHI, knowing that the next conference was a good ways away, there was the after after after CHI party which ended up with a few of us closing down the last bar in New Orleans. And the next day, well afternoon, I spent at Jazzfest which was great in it's own way. And then home! However in those final hours of New Orleans, it was my turn to become really inoculated with covid. So this write up was bit delayed with getting ill for the first time in a couple years. It was kind of nice to forget what it is like to catch a cold. But the costs were very high, so I'm glad the real world is back. And now that I'm back to myself, I'm looking forward to following up on all of those CHI threads and pushing my own work forward.