Writing and Presenting a Paper

post by Harriet Cameron (2018 Cohort) 

Hiiii everyone, it’s Harriet here. Hope you’re all doing well and finding ways to support yourselves and the folks around you. I’m going to share a few words about my experience of writing and presenting a paper at the Designing Interactive Systems (DIS) conference in this, the year of our undoing, 2020. Now I know you are all sick of reading about this so I’m going to get it out of the way early and then only reference it in thinly veiled metaphors where I absolutely have to. Obviously, when we first had our paper accepted into DIS, we weren’t expecting a pandemic to barrel in and seal off the opportunity to hop over to Eindhoven for the week, present our paper in person, and have a good ol’ chin wag with other researchers about our findings. So this blog post might be a little different given that chunks of it will be dedicated to navigating a virtual conference and the changes that have resulted from that.

So first of all, I’ll start you off with an introduction to the paper. I was a co-author on the paper with a number of other amazing and talented folks – Dr Jocelyn Spence (lead), Dr Dimitri Darzentas, Dr Yitong Huang, Eleanor Beestin, and Prof Steve Benford. It was about a project called VRtefacts [4], something I have written about previously[1]. The TL;DR for VRtefacts is that it was a fantastic project which came about as an offshoot of the GIFT project [2] – a series of international projects funded through Horizon 2020 that look at ways of using gifting to enhance cultural heritage experiences. VRtefacts used a combination of physical props and virtual reality to encourage visitors to a museum to donate personal stories inspired by a small selection of artefacts on display. Our paper explores how the manipulations and transitions embedded in VRtefacts can enable personal interpretation and enhance engagement through performative substitutional reality, as demonstrated through storytelling.

I first joined the squad because my background in human geography offers up a different approach to HCI analysis that can draw out themes of place, space, and identity in novel ways. For this research, we conducted thematic analysis on post-experience interviews and videos of participant stories captured in the deployment. I primarily focused on conducting a section of the analysis to examine how space and place were represented and understood throughout participants’ experiences. Through the different passes conducted for the thematic analysis [1], these loose concepts of space and place evolved into how physical distance and scale affected the experience, and how the transitions between different spaces and places – both physically and emotionally – impacted on the storytelling. At the same time as I was working on this, Jocelyn and Yitong were conducting their thematic analyses on the data to explore other concepts that came up like contextualisation of stories, attitudes towards the objects and the museum, and the influence of touch and visuals.

Working together like this was a really interesting experience. I’m familiar with NVivo [3] – the software widely used for this type of qualitative coding – having used it a few times before in my work. However, finding ways to navigate NVivo as a team – exploring how to compare notes, cross-reference emerging codes, and merge/condense/combine the codes that overlapped – offered a whole new challenge. The version of NVivo we had access to did not allow multi-party editing of one database and we were using different operating systems (which each have their own incompatible versions of the software), so we had to get slightly creative in just how we did team working. After some trial and error, we decided to each work on our own dataset and periodically combine them into one master document. Sometimes this meant having to compare the documents and painstakingly comb through them for wayward spaces and capitalisations just so that we could merge our files – a great joy to be sure. But we also regularly got together and went through our codes side-by-side with the other members of the team, deciding on how best to combine our efforts. By doing so, we essentially added a new kind of ‘pass’ per pass that sure, created extra work, but genuinely helped us to better understand and be able to justify not only our own codes but each other’s as well.

This was an approach that we also extended somewhat to the paper writing itself. We each branched off and wrote our own specialised sections, and then came back together to work on the overall flow and content. Across several iterations of the paper, we worked out what the core findings were and how best to present them, ultimately landing on performative substitutional reality as understood through manipulations (of physicality, visuals, and scale) and transitions (between spaces and through storytelling). On a personal note, it was really validating and exciting to see my contribution come to life and become such an integral part of the paper. It was also a brilliant first foray into paper writing – to have such a supportive and generous team to work with took large amounts of the panic away from ‘am I doing this right?’ and ‘how does all of this even smoosh together?!’ If you get the chance to work with others for your first paper-writing experience, I super duper recommend it. Especially for when it gets to the final details: formatting, submission, keywords etc etc etc, where I wouldn’t even have known where to begin without the (very) patient guidance of Jocelyn and Dimitri. For a whole host of reasons beyond the control of anyone, the paper came to its final form just a couple of hours before the submission deadline, with three of us sat on overleaf culling, and prodding, and spellchecking on the night of Brexit. The fireworks erupting in the distance just as we agreed it was done added a special kind of bathetic farcical atmosphere to the completion of my first paper.

The paper was accepted with only minor adjustments and we were off to Eindhoven. Except not really, because of “the event”. Instead, we were asked to put together a 10 minute video presentation which would be broadcast as part of the newly styled virtual DIS 2020. We divided the presentation up into chunks and Jocelyn, Dimitri and myself each took a few slides and narrated over them. Recording over presentations is a skill I haven’t had much reason to use since GCSE ICT, but increasingly it’s been becoming an essential skill, and one I am rapidly reacquainting with. You know. Because of “the issue”. Unfortunately, when the time for the conference itself came about, DIS wasn’t particularly interactive and presentations and papers were simply left online for people to interact with as they came across them. I did engage with the hashtag on Twitter regularly and found some new academics to follow, but aside from that, there isn’t much to say on the reception of the paper. I did, to the bemusement of my housemates, however, go rather overboard in the kitchen to make the most of the situation e.g. breaking into the last of my waffles, lovingly made according to the recipe of my fabulous friend’s Oma, to make the Dutch experience come to me. The ultimate power move.

Being involved in the GIFT project in the ways I have, but particularly from being part of VRtefacts, has completely changed certain paradigms through which I approach my PhD. Not only has it provided a grounded example of how integral donation can be as a framing device to bridge the gap between audiences and galleries, but it also offered me an amazing chance to practise multi-disciplinary writing which spanned both of my subject areas (HCI and human geography). I’ve already had opportunities to be involved in other parts of the GIFT project and we have also submitted an article to the HCI Journal special issue on time, exploring how manipulations of time and time-space contributed to the experience of VRtefacts. I’m looking forward to seeing what other opportunities come my way from being part of these papers and practising my shiny new paper-writing skills in the future.

[1]          V. Braun and V. Clarke, “Using thematic analysis in psychology,” Qualitative Research in Psychology, vol. 3, no. 2, pp. 77-101, 2006/01/01 2006.

[2]          GIFT Project. (2019). GIFT Project. Available: https://gifting.digital/ (Accessed: 8/5/2019)

[3]          QSR International. (2018). NVivo 12. Available: https://www.qsrinternational.com/nvivo/nvivo-products (Accessed: 01/07/2020)

[4]          VRtefacts. (2020). VRtefacts Homepage. Available: https://vrtefacts.org/ (Accessed: 28/05/2020)

[1] https://cdt.horizon.ac.uk/2019/11/04/the-gift-project-2/

The GIFT project

Post by Harriet Cameron (2018 Cohort)

The GIFT Project is an international project funded by Horizon 2020, which explores new ways of engaging with cultural heritage through gifting . The scope of the project is huge, and draws together researchers, artists, designers and museum professionals from across Europe, including the University of Nottingham’s Mixed Reality Lab . GIFT has developed and deployed various experiences with museums in Denmark, Italy, Norway, Spain, Serbia, the UK and the USA since it began in 2017. It has several different ‘tracks’ within it, each of which explores different elements of gifting, interactivity and cultural experiences. For example The Gift Experience allows the user to choose objects or places within the museum; photograph them; personalise elements of it, for example with a written note or audio comment; and then gift it to someone to experience for themselves. Another example is The One Minute Experience, which uses templates and guidelines to enable visitors to write short texts about objects viewed in the museums, which they can then leave as gifts for other visitors. I was lucky enough to meet the wonderful Dr Jocelyn Spence, the lead Research Fellow at the University of Nottingham for the GIFT project and originator of VRtefacts (developed alongside the equally wonderful Dr Dimitrios Darzentas), early on in my PhD. Through her, I learned about the GIFT project and the amazing work they were doing.

My PhD project is working with the Nottingham Contemporary art gallery  to explore relationships between audience, art and venue, and how those relationships can be better understood and developed into something more long term, personal and meaningful, through the use of novel technologies. Naturally, the GIFT project offered a fantastic insight into some of the ways work like mine is already being undertaken, and a chance to see how this work is received by the public users. When I was given the opportunity to help with a two day deployment of the VRtefacts experience as part of the GIFT project, I was delighted to get on board.

In late May 2019, at the Derby Museum and Art Gallery  we showed VRtefacts to the public for the first time. The project, without spoiling anything for any reader who may yet get a chance to experience it themselves, used virtual reality (VR) to encourage visitors to donate personal stories to the Derby Museum. Enabled by a combination of tactile and digital technologies, and a beautiful VR environment created by Dr Dimitrios Darzentas, visitors were able to interact with artefacts in a thoroughly immersive and novel way. My role for the course of the deployment was to get the visitor settled into the VR environment, set the scene for their donation experience, and then to guide them through their storytelling. We heard from a broad array of people, who donated an even broader range of stories. From hypothesising what the artefact may have been used for, to memories of related objects and places, to tangential personal anecdotes and fictional hyperbole, we were gifted with some fantastic tales that added a resonant, human layer to the objects displayed. The value of this to the museum, the visitor, and the research project are multiple. For example, for the museum, it gave a new avenue to understanding their audiences, and the meanings they take from the exhibits shown. For the visitor, it allowed them a deeper way to engage with the exhibits, a space to reflect on their own experience or expertise, and a platform to share those reflections with others. Finally, in terms of research, it demonstrated a novel, exciting way of accessing audiences, as well as the importance of inter-disciplinary projects in contemporary research.

The future for museums and galleries comes, in part, in a technologically driven, interactive format, which enables visitors to experience not just the exhibits, but the museum experience as a whole in novel and exciting ways. VRtefacts is a timely and exhilarating glimpse at what future museum visiting may entail, and the feedback from the public who engaged with the project was overwhelmingly positive. By providing a way for visitors to interact with artefacts and exhibits in a tactile, personal way, it became apparent that each visitor had their own interpretations, reflections, and indeed stories for each piece, brought to the fore by the enoblement of the technologies involved, that they were excited to share with the museum as well as each other. Enabling the visitor to share their stories was not only well received by them, but also by the museum who were pleased to learn about the histories of each piece, or the personal relevance of the artefacts to the individual. VRtefacts represents one face of the future for museums and galleries, in which personalised interactivity forms an important part of the visitor experience.

On a more personal note, the project demonstrated just one way that technologies can be utilised to enable and encourage connections between visitors, cultural venues, and exhibits. Despite my involvement beginning late in the process, just a few weeks before the date of the intervention, I was delighted that my feedback on the human engagement element was integrated into the final experience, and it provided a valuable insight into how these kind of projects are developed and deployed in a museum setting. Running the experience also allowed me to revisit storytelling skills I had established during my time working at an escape room, and develop those skills in a new context. Most importantly I think, it gave me an insight into the practicalities of running an intervention; potential pitfalls and opportunities, the value of a strong team, and the importance of foresight (like bringing spares for your spares!). I’m looking forward to being involved in more projects like this in the future, learning more and offering more back, even at some point using these skills I have been developing to stage my own interactive experience within a cultural institution as part of my PhD.

VRtefacts Outreach at Derby Museum & Art Gallery

Post by Joseph Hubbard-Bailey (2016 Cohort)

The VRtefVRacts project provides museum and gallery visitors with the opportunity to hold and explore exhibit objects which they would otherwise just look at behind a literal or figurative red rope. Throughout the day, visitors from around the museum were invited to come and put on a VR headset, interact with some 3D-printed VR-augmented models of artefacts, and share their own story or commentary about the objects as they handled them. They then moved into another room for a short interview about the experience, allowing for the next participant to get started with the VR. While previous outreach events I’ve done have felt engaging and productive, none have been as interactive as this VRtefacts trial; others mostly involved having conversations across tables, and the distance and dynamic between researcher and participant felt similar to a campus-based study scenario. Due to the nature of this event, with participants engaging physically and narratively during the session, members of the public seemed much more a part of what was going on, as opposed to passive spectators.

For the visitors who chose to participate in the VRtefacts project, the experience served as both a novel sort of ‘exhibit’ in itself and a novel way to access preexisting materials in the museum’s collection. The latter seemed of particular value in the case of visitors who lived locally and so visited the museum often, offering an unexpected new level of access to familiar objects. The opportunity to contribute or “donate” a story as part of the VRtefacts experience may also have been particularly appealing to those who visit regularly and were keen to ‘give back’ to the museum. Several visitors did fall into this category of ‘regulars’, but there were also plenty of people who were passing through and popped in to pass the time. Visitors across both of these groups commented about how the decision to work with VRtefacts reflected well on Derby Museum, showing its openness to new ideas and resistance to stagnate. For those who were visiting the museum in groups, engaging with the VRtefacts exhibit seemed to provide a great source of interest and conversation, as they emerged and compared experiences. The fact that the corresponding artefacts themselves were available in the museum’s collection also meant that there was a comfortable transition back into the rest of the exhibit, as people could go and find the ‘real thing’ they had just encountered virtually.

Before I left the museum for the day, I sat down on the duct-taped-still chair and had my hairdo sabotaged by the VR headset so that I could have a go at the VRtefacts experience myself. I chose and inspected a small intricate model of a giant jet engine, turning it over and fumbling around the prickly detail of the gaskets while I tried to think of something clever to say for the camera. It reminded me of a frighteningly massive aircraft housed at the RAF Museum in Hendon, where I’d been for relentless school trips as a child due to its proximity to school grounds. I remember cowering through the awful hangar where the scary plane’s wings were so expansive that you had no option but to walk underneath them if you wanted to get out. While this wasn’t a pleasant experience, I think the physicality of being below the Vulcan — which I now know was not just a war plane, but a strategic nuclear bomber — came to mind during VRtefacts because it was a similar example of the power of perspective.

Image credit: Kenneth Griffiths (Ascension Island, 1982)

When an object is in a glass case or on a screen or behind a rope, I think we often instinctively revert to what I can only describe as a ‘flat’ perspective on it. We might press our noses to the glass as children to try and get a closer look, but the glass fogs up and we get told off, so eventually our curiosity wanes and we take a respectful cursory look instead. What this tired perspective gives us is often limited to two-dimensional factual information about the object of interest, without the weight and contour  and color of the object’s life. I’m very glad I decided to have a go with the VRtefacts pilot myself before I left the event, because it made me aware of how cowering under the expanse of the Vulcan’s wings taught me more about the gravity of war than any of my history lessons had. There is a narrative power in an artefact’s physicality which cannot be accessed by simply looking at it — the VRtefacts project has the potential to provide that physicality in a way that protects the original object, which needn’t even be on the same continent as it’s VR counterpart.

Beyond the benefit this technology could offer in enhancing the habitual gallery-goer’s usual experience, there is also potential benefit to those who aren’t so familiar and comfortable with these venues. Having come from a family who didn’t really go to museums or galleries, I still feel quite awkward and out of place in these spaces at times. I don’t think it’s much of a leap to suggest that projects like VRtefacts — which offer more diverse ways of accessing meaning in historical and art objects — have the potential to make galleries and museums not only more engaging for visitors, but more accessible to a diverse range of visitors.

Thanks to Jocelyn Spence and the rest of the VRtefacts team for letting me join in for the day!

VRtefacts is a pilot project developed within the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement No 727040, GIFT: Meaningful Personalization of Hybrid Virtual Museum Experiences Through Gifting and Appropriation.

–originally posted on Joe’s blog