My Melbourne with John Downs

September 14 / 144

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Welcome to My Melbourne. I’m Daryl Holland and joining me today is John Downs.

What is your role here at the University?

I am a research fellow in the Department of Computing and Information Systems and I work in the Microsoft Centre for Natural User Interfaces, which is a bit of a mouthful.

How long have you been at the University?

I started my PhD in November 2010, and I just finished it a few weeks ago. So I’ve been here about four years.

Congratulations on the PhD. Can you tell me a little bit about that?

My PhD was looking at the social experiences of videogaming in homes, and in particular I was interested in the role of people who aren’t actually playing games directly. The first part of my PhD was a field study looking at what sort of roles and interactions take place between people who are playing games and people who are watching.

For example, I looked at how people who are watching the game can commentate on the game and provide instructions and directions and those sorts of things, and I found a whole lot of different ways that people who are watching can participate indirectly.

The second part of my PhD looked at using controlled, laboratory-based studies. And I did this to work out how audience members’ engagement and enjoyment was affected by different important factors of the gaming environment.

For example, if they were told that audience members would have their own turns in the future, their enjoyment went up. If the game involved some physicality, such as (Nintendo) Wii games and (Xbox) Kinect games, that was also more enjoyable for audience members.

And then I also thought a little bit about how future gaming technologies and game designers might incorporate some of these ideas into how they design games. So, for example, could games technologies like Kinect incorporate an idea of who’s in the room, beyond just the person playing the game, and could they do things like sense that there’s an audience present and adjust the behaviour somehow, or could they provide audience members with things to do or opportunities to participate indirectly? That was my PhD.

What does your current role entail?

I only started my current role about two weeks ago so I’m still working out exactly what I’m doing. I’m a postdoc in the Microsoft Centre for SocialNUI and the idea behind the centre is that we are looking at the social aspects of natural user interface technologies so these include features like gesture and speech and touch – basically any form of interaction with computer technology beyond just keyboard and mouse. We are looking at some of the social aspects of using these types of interface technologies. One of the projects I’m looking at starting up in the near future is helping computers to understand how people are oriented in space in relation to each other and then using technologies like Kinect and other types of sensors to infer things about the social context and what people are doing and saying.

Sounds really interesting. What do you like most about being at the University?

I think the best thing is having people from so many different backgrounds and expertise on hand, all the time. My field, which is human-computer interaction (HCI), is a very interdisciplinary field. We involve people all the way from computer scientists and software engineers to psychologists and anthropologists and sociologists. It’s really only at a University that you’d be able to get those people in one room at the same time very easily.

Where on campus is your favourite place to go for a coffee or a bite to eat?

I wrote a lot of my thesis at Lot 6 café, and did a lot of editing there as well, so I tend to go there a lot. But for lunch I usually head to Egg Sake Bistro in the basement of Union House.

Was there a piece of advice that helped you with your PhD that somebody just starting now might find helpful?

It’s very easy when you start a PhD to think of it as a very long term project and something that’s very vague and it’s difficult to think about what you need to do to achieve anything, on a day-to-day basis. I remember at the start of my PhD there were days I looked back and I couldn’t think of anything I’d actually achieved that day that was going to be any help. When I started getting into planning and time management a bit more, that was when it really started to click into place. Breaking the PhD into manageable pieces and scheduling time to work on those was probably the biggest thing that I did that really helped to get it done.

Finally, what is something about you that, perhaps, your colleagues would not know?

I am pretty obsessed with cooking. I’ve built up a collection at home of some really weird kitchen gadgets and various ingredients that are a bit off the beaten track.

Perhaps there is some way of combining computer game, natural use interfaces with some kind of cooking.

I’d be all for that if I could work out a way to do it.

Thank you very much for joining us, and that’s My Melbourne for this week.

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