“Day in a lab” / section of the Sept-Oct issue of Interactions Magazine (link)
Authors: Michal Rinott
How do you describe your lab to visitors?
I describe the lab as a space for designing interactions. We explore the meeting point between people, design, and technology, creating prototypes that propose new interactive experiences and new qualities of interactions. We are interested in both the product and the process of interaction design.
Architecturally, there are two connected spaces in the lab. The smaller one is a classroom; the bigger one contains the lab equipment, junk for tinkering, individual work tables, a big shared table, and whichever projects are in process. Everything can be easily moved around. In this way activities fluidly move between the classroom and the open work area, and the students get real exposure to the research work we do. It gets a bit hectic and messy sometimes, but we like it this way.
What is a unique feature of your lab?
The lab emerged in a bottom-up process. We started a course, called “Interaction Design Hands On,” in which students of all disciplines in the Holon Institute of Technology—design, engineering, sciences, educational technologies, and management—met to create prototypes of new interactions. The dramatic effect of this interdisciplinary collaboration led to another course, which led to the institute giving us a room of our own to teach and work in, which led to us deciding it’s a lab and putting a sign on the door! We have since assembled a group of researchers, defined research themes of interest, created collaborations with museums and academic institutes, given presentations at HCI conferences, and developed a line of activities within the community.
On another track, for a while we had a lab rooster! He seemed to have escaped from some nearby backyard and took a liking to the area outside the lab door.
How many people are in the lab, and what is the mix of backgrounds and roles?
There are five or six of us who work in the lab (not all full time), between 20 and 40 bachelor’s and master’s students who take courses here each semester, and a bunch of people who hang out, work on their own projects, help out, or just come to see what’s going on.
Those of us who work in the lab come mostly from design backgrounds, often with some special twist like a cognitive psychology background, a degree in engineering, or a childhood spent hacking. In terms of roles, there is a lab head, a technology lead, a community lead, and two or three researchers. Despite these seemingly formal titles, we all work on interaction design research.
Students are a mix of all disciplines present in our institute, with designers composing about 50 percent.
Briefly describe a day in the life of your lab.
This semester, Thursday is our busiest day. We start the day working on our research—a project about sound in public spaces, a pair of connected bicycles enabling people to synchronize their movement; a new conceptual model for a remote control—and convene around noon for the weekly lab meeting. Sometimes we have a guest presentation, often we discuss one of our ongoing projects, and usually we have lunch co-prepared by us.
During the afternoon, students taking courses in the lab start popping in, and they work in groups. They get advice and equipment as needed. Sometimes other students come in for help on a project in a different course. Someone might pop in and ask, “What is this place?” Sometimes there will be an afternoon workshop for kids, or another community activity, and the space becomes even more lively.
Activities often continue until late at night. A sometimes astounding amount of Turkish black coffee is consumed.
What is one feature of your lab that you could not do without?
This will sound cliché, but… the people. It always feels like the right people find us: individuals with the unique combination of a poetic soul, great capabilities around technology and design, high levels of curiosity, and a sweet disposition.
What is one feature of your lab you want and do not have?
A sink! We hate using disposable cups, but it has proved difficult to get hooked up to the water pipeline.
How would you describe how people interact in your lab?
There is a good mix of alone time and together time. Some projects are shared—almost democratically, especially ones aimed for public spaces and museums—while each lab member leads a project or sub-project of their own choice. The atmosphere is very informal, and people help each other with what they know best. With students, we try to instill this attitude by example.
What is the one thing you see as most important about the work you do there?
With the abundance of electronics and the fondness of physical computing, we are sometimes mistaken for a lab that is about technology. I see our work as revolving around the human experience, and in particular, the ways in which technology can improve and enrich the interaction between people—whether they are together or apart, have special needs, or want to work, learn, or play. Currently we are doing research on interpersonal synchronization, from which we hope to gain insights that might somehow aid the search for peace in our region.
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