A peek into the papers presented at CHI 2021 on Interactive Technologies for Enriching Remote Communication

5 min readMay 17, 2021

As I’m transitioning into the field of HCI from architecture, my first-time experience of attending the CHI conference and learning about the design of interactive technologies, felt like a veritable intellectual stimulation. The breadth of the topics covered by the program, not just acquainted me with the expansive potential of HCI in influencing lives, but also helped me figure my subjects of interest that I’m stoked to explore further.

One of the many great topics covered by CHI 2021, that I’ll be elaborating here is, ‘Technology and Affection’. From the post-men delivered hand-written love letters to tapping on the heart emoji, technology has not just made the distant connections feel proximal but has also provided us with novel ways to express affection. Several prototypes have been published for remote hugging, touch, kisses while mobile apps like Between, Couplete and Twyxt dominate the app market. The social isolation elicited by the ongoing pandemic has made technology-mediated conversations gain more importance today than ever before.

Digital conversations over audio calls and texts lack the advantage of conveying information through non-verbal cues like gaze, facial expressions, and gestures. While video calls augment the experience by adding dimension and fidelity, Mehmet Aydın Baytaş and his team came up with an exciting contrarian design challenge of diminishing rather than augmenting reality to enrich remote communication. They introduce Azalea — a design that capitalizes on somaesthetics, comprising of a tactile cushion, a smartphone and a smartphone app. On launching the app, the smartphone is inserted into the cushion and thus the cushion and the phone become one. Inspired by the idea of having intimate conversations around a campfire, the interaction design of azalea uses lights and sounds which are intentionally limited in brightness, thus necessitating the users to move into a darker space. This facilitates a calm, relaxed and distraction-free experience by removing the option to engage with other stimuli in the environment or apps on the phone. The remote interlocutors co-experience the simulated shared context which elicits a cozy, zen and being-in-the-room conversation.

Azalea: idle (left), initializing (center), in use (right).

While Azalea meticulously instantiated how diminishing the reality can enrich remote communication, a paper by Fannie Liu, Chunjong Park and their team creatively explored the role sensed physiological responses can play in communication. Integrating heart-rate — a bio-signal, in communication, they created an app — Significant Otter, which enables remote couples to send heart-rate driven ‘otter animations’ as messages to each other providing them a novel emotional language to express intimacy.

Significant Otter: heart-rate driven otter animations

Another intriguing paper that shined a light on ameliorating connection in long-distance couples, was presented by Jan Kucera and his team, which explored ‘bedrooms as environment’ for interactive technology. As partners value sharing the Bedtime Window (falling asleep and waking up), the paper brings forth the evaluation of a ‘slow-photo stream’ (sharing of pictures every 5 seconds) and the introduction of a ‘collaborative drawing experience’ (a shared layer for real-time inking) in the bed-time scenario. While the slow photo stream lessened the tension, which an always-on video induce, and supported peripheral use, the real-time inking enabled people to handwrite messages, and draw to one another or together.

Bedtime Window: slow-photo stream and real-time inking

While the above papers showcase the ideas deploying specific apps, the next paper I’d like to mention here brings forth an interesting ‘app-agnostic approach’ in co-customization of keyboards — which means that the customizations can be used across the ecosystem of communication apps. Couples and close friends build special ways of expressing emotions on communication apps — for instance using the pizza emoji to convey ‘I love you’, and co-customization allows them to jointly customize their communication space. Their design of a ‘DearBoard’, a standard QWERTY soft keyboard, features two co-customizable interface components — its color theme(background color and key color) and a toolbar of expression shortcuts (emojis and GIFs). When one user changes a color or adds an emoji to the toolbar, the other also sees these changes but when the users open DearBoard in a conversation with anybody else, the co-customizations disappear.

DearBoard: co-customization in soft keyboard

These papers gave me a window into many new concepts that I’m intrigued to explore. I’m grateful to the authors of these papers (great design minds in tech!) who allowed me to mention their work in this article. Looking forward to delving deeper into these learnings during my graduate school and presenting a paper at CHI in the coming years. Hope reading this article added value to your day (I mean invoked some splendid idea in your head! :p)

Below are the links of the papers mentioned in the article:

Azalea: Co-experience in Remote Dialog through Diminished Reality and Somaesthetic Interaction Design

Significant Oter: Understanding the Role of Biosignals in Communication

Bedtime Window: A Field Study Connecting Bedrooms of Long-Distance Couples Using a Slow Photo-Stream and Shared Real-Time Inking

Mediating Intimacy with DearBoard: a Co-Customizable Keyboard for Everyday Messaging