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Sometimes I Wish That It Would Rain Here

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

demo ability

giving demonstrations has been a large part of the culture of my graduate career. the first summer I spent working in the research lab, we had a demo almost every other day, if not every day, incorporating new features that had been added to the project. this became an incredibly motivating force to actually get things done, and it led to what I think was a pretty fantastic end product.

however, these regular demos don’t just happen during production as an impetus to complete your work. pretty much every week during our group meetings, people are asked if anyone has a demo, and it’s quite common that at least one member of the group has something to show. it also happens on a very regular basis that someone will come through for a tour, and we’ll give them a demo. sometimes this is planned well in advance, as when VIPs come through, and sometimes it’s much more ad hoc, because someone knows someone in the administration and got a tour. basically, the point is, we demo all the time.

danah a while back included, in a list of "secrets to success," to demo regularly. both our lab’s demoing practices and danah’s advice are influenced in large part by the demo culture of MIT’s Media Lab, as noted by Alan Blackwell in a great paper on metaphor in design. here, I want to consider the ramifications of this practice. how does constantly demoing affect our research? does demoing make you better at doing your research, or just talking about it? does it make you worse at doing research? does it bias us towards certain sorts of projects and away from others? are there certain types of projects that are more or less amenable to demos, and if so, how does this impact those projects?

one of the things I’ve noticed about demoing is that it can serve as a litmus test for ideas. if you can’t give a decently engaging demo, it means either that your idea or the tech is half baked, or that the idea itself might not be that good. furthermore, if your idea is decent but half baked, the act of demoing forces you to think it through, sift out the junk, and distill out the core valuable idea. in this respect, though, I wonder if doing demos is necessarily any more useful than giving talks or even to getting your ideas critiqued. furthermore, in a critique, rather than presenting your ideas to more-or-less random people, you’re getting generally constructive feedback from people whose opinions you usually trust.

however, the contrition of ideas that don’t stand up to being demoed isn’t necessarily a good thing. by its very nature, the format of a demo is a short (generally 5 to 10 minute) interaction. if the ideas or concepts with which you’re working are fairly complex incorporate a significant amount of previous work, it might not be feasible to present the idea in its entirety in the time allotted. another difficult arising from these short time frames is that systems intended for extended use cannot really be experienced within 10 minutes. for example, Bill Gaver et al.’s home health horoscope only produces a horoscope once a day, and it is intended to reflect large-scale patterns of activity and long-term trends occurring within the home. giving a demonstration of such a system in a 5 to 10 minute window would not only be nearly impossible but would likely lead to misunderstanding about the intended use of the system and its effect on a family.

I realize that being able to give an elevator speech (a quick one to two sentence synopsis) of one’s research is important, but I’m hesitant to say that not being able to pitch one’s research effectively within a short time frame means that the research isn’t worthwhile. furthermore, while many of the demos we give are at academic conferences, a large number of them are also to various VIPs, including elected representatives, corporate CEOs, various governmentally appointed officials, and all sorts of people who aren’t a central part of the research community. as danah argued, being able to talk to just about anyone is also an important skill, but I don’t think you should expect a senator to necessarily be interested in, say, phenomenological approaches to ubiquitous computing.

which raises another point about the sort of research biased by demoing. giving a demo is something that pretty much can only be done when one is constructing an artifact, and usually only with an interactive artifact. physicists or historians who often construct theories or analyses or critiques cannot necessarily give a demo of their work to a corporate CEO, not only because it’s difficult to get a CEO interested in quantum superposition or deconstructionism, but also because demos almost be definition revolve around a physical artifact, and (which the exception of high energy labs like CERN) quantum physics or performance theory don’t necessarily generate the type of physical artifacts amenable to public demonstration.

on the one hand, an emphasis on demos may discourage more theoretical research. on the other hand, it can over-emphasize building stuff at the expense of considering the motivations for that stuff. Blackwell has discussed some of the ways in which demonstrations act as reifications of the theories or guiding principles (his specific focus is on metaphors) behind them, such that, if your theory can lead to the creation of effective artifacts exhibited through demonstrations, these artifacts act to reify that theory. thus, we end up supporting theories that can lead to the construction of demonstrable artifacts, and less likely to support theories that do not.

despite the above critiques, I think demos can be a quite useful and positive force in the development of technology, especially interactive technologies. the act of demoing helps one refine one’s ideas, develops the ability to present one’s research to a wide variety of audiences, and can ultimately help lead to better interactions with technology. however, there are also drawbacks to a demonstration culture, such as the MIT Media Lab’s “demo or die” slogan (which is strikingly similar to the mantra of “publish or perish” that I have heard used to describe academia, but that parallel is beyond the scope of this already longish post). ultimately, the purpose of this post is not to argue that the uptake of demonstration should be considered harmful. rather, the point is to consider some of the ramifications of emphasizing demos, both positive and negative, so as to be aware and reflective about the incorporation of demonstrations into research practice.

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