Reflections on my 12 years of CHI: From CHI 2006 to CHI 2018, both in Montreal.

You Never Forget Your First CHI(ss)

By Niklas Elmqvist, University of Maryland, College Park

This week I am attending ACM CHI 2018 in Montreal. CHI (pronounced “kai”) is the largest and most reputable of all academic conferences in human-computer interaction. The technical program includes a total of 666 (yes!) strictly peer-reviewed publications. The week is filled with talks, panels, workshops, courses, and posters. It’s a great big spectacle, a celebration of HCI research and design, a get-together for a lot of HCI researchers and practitioners and their 3,000 closest friends. And for me, it feels like I have come full circle.

CHI 2006 in Montreal was my first CHI. At the time, I was a visiting scholar in John Stasko’s lab at Georgia Tech, with my Ph.D. defense still 9 months in the future. When I had arrived in Atlanta early in the semester, I quickly gathered that virtually all of the GVU Center was going to pick up and move to Montreal for the conference, so I went ahead and booked my flight and registration to follow suit. I’d naturally heard of CHI and read plenty of papers published at CHI, but I really didn’t know what to expect.

While CHI in 2006 was considerably smaller in scope than it is in 2018, it was nevertheless a bewildering and overwhelming experience, particularly for a Ph.D. student like me who was still wet behind the ears. For example, the 2006 conference included a total of 151 papers (to put things in perspective, the conference received more than 2,500 submissions and accepted 600+ in 2018), and many additional events such as courses, panels, alt.chi, interactivity, and so on. I remember bouncing between one cool session after the other, taking furious notes, and being awed at all the creative work on display. It would take an additional two years for me to actually have a CHI paper of my own, at CHI 2008 in Florence, Italy, but Montreal cemented my view of CHI as the coolest HCI venue forever. (Btw, as I type this, I can feel my own mind being blown—10 years ago since my first CHI paper! It feels like yesterday!)

The papers from CHI 2006 that still stand out to me—for whatever reason—is Caroline Appert and Jean-Daniel Fekete’s OrthoZoom paper, George Furnas’s “20 years of fisheyes”, and Anand Agarawala and Ravin Balakrishnan’s amazing BumpTop system. I particularly remember Anand’s 30-second CHI Madness talk, in which he rapped about the virtues of BumpTop, as well as Tony Tang’s CHI Madness, where he begun—with mock-bashfulness—to explain to the assembled crowd that he was studying coupling on tables (later to be revealed as collaborative coupling on digital touch tabletop displays). I remember Jofish Kaye’s presentation on an in-depth qualitative study of personal archiving practice for academics (which was entirely new methodology to me), of which one of the surveyed academics was—if I remember correctly—an unnamed Nobel laureate. Luis Van Ahn had an entire session to himself. Ed Cutrell presented Phlat, which somehow got stuck in my mind. As for visualization papers, Bill Wright’s talk on the Sandbox is still with me, as is Martin Wattenberg’s presentation of his PivotGraphs technique—which I continue to cover in class when I talk about graphs. Needless to say, CHI 2006 left quite a mark.

While I don’t remember much of Montreal itself except for my hotel (the Holiday Inn right next to the conference) and that the hotel’s front desk helpfully provided me with a spare toothbrush when it turned out I had forgotten mine, I vividly remember the convention center (the multicolored glass wall is firmly stuck in my head) as well as the Georgia Tech party which I got to attend as a visiting scholar. Gregory Abowd even gave me a drink ticket! During the hospitality events on Wednesday night, I also recall that Google’s and Microsoft’s respective parties were set up across from each other on the same hotel floor with only a short corridor between them. This was at the height of the rivalry between the two companies, and people (maybe employees?) were playfully lobbying the foam darts that one of the two companies (I can’t remember which) was handing out as swag across the corridor and into the other’s suite. Fun times.

I also remember feeling like a complete outsider at the conference. CHI is not an easy community to break into, at least not in 2006, and as a lone Ph.D. student with no advisor in attendance and no lab or university community to draw from, I felt perpetually trapped on the outside looking in. While John Stasko and his students from Georgia Tech did their best to involve me in a bunch of things, I still felt isolated, with not even a paper of my own to bring to the table. All around me were cool people whose names I recognized and whose papers I had read, but as a mildly introverted computer science student, I never felt comfortable starting conversations with all the famous and busy people I saw at the conference. To top things off, there were all these invitation-only parties that I only heard about in passing, but which I never was invited to.

Twelve years later, it’s 2018, and I’m no longer a complete outsider. I have many friends in the CHI community, I can’t cross the conference floor without finding someone to catch up with, and I’ve published my own share of CHI papers. I’m also less of an introvert now, so talking to people, even those who I don’t know, no longer seems to be an insurmountable barrier. While I haven’t been invited to all of the parties at CHI, I do have enough invitations to fill my evenings at the conference. Indeed, I never eat alone while at CHI these days.

But this is obviously twelve years after my first CHI, and the question is what the conference is like for newcomers today. On the surface, it seems promising: there is a record 40+% new participants this year, and the conference seems to be explicitly trying to welcome them with a “My 1st CHI” ribbon for your name badge and events especially designed for newcomers. At the same time, when talking to friends, colleagues, and students who are new or newish to the conference, I still hear the same recurring issues: the secret parties, the busy CHI rockstars, the feeling of being a second-class citizen when not having a CHI paper of your own, and the elusive and almost mythical “secret sauce” needed to get a CHI paper accepted in the first place. While I have no way of comparing my experience to theirs, it sounds like joining the CHI community is still a challenge.

If you’re looking for a guide on how to break into CHI, this post is not it. I may get to covering networking at conferences in general and at CHI in particular at some point in the future, but meanwhile, you will have to indulge me for this walk down memory lane. I’ve seen twelve years of CHI, and the conference and its community now feels like home. It feels like it took forever to get here, as well as no time at all.

So: CHI 2030 in Montreal?