Research from Swansea University’s Computational Foundry leads the way at CHI 2018

Smart speakers in slum dwellings, shape changing mobile devices and pod-based mobile phone sharing: Research from Swansea University’s Computational Foundry leads the way at prestigious international conference

Staff from Swansea University’s Computational Foundry are unveiling a series of new research concepts at this year’s ACM CHI Conference, held between 21st-26th April in Montreal, Canada, which have the potential to revolutionise how we interact with technology.

The ACM CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems is the premier international conference of Human-Computer Interaction, where researchers and practitioners gather from across the world to discuss the latest in interactive technology. As part of the conference, academics from Swansea University are presenting three new and creative ways for people to interact with emerging technology to delegates from worldwide academic institutions and high profile companies such as Microsoft, IBM Research, Google and Facebook.

‘Make Yourself at Phone’

The ‘Make Yourself at Phone’ paper explores the opportunities for mobile phone users in developing countries such as South Africa and India to use a borrowed phone to access and manipulate their own content. This innovation allows users who may not want to carry their own phone (for reasons of safety or security), or those whose devices may have run out of power, to borrow another person’s device, but lets them interact with it as if it were their own device, with their own photos, messages and calls.

Dr Simon Robinson, a Research Officer collaborating on this work at the Computational Foundry, said: “The APPropriate design separates what we currently think of as a mobile phone into two key parts: the device itself, and the content it stores. By carrying their content on a separate accessory, users can quickly borrow any other device whenever they need to.”

Thomas Reitmaier,  a Research Assistant in the CHERISH Digital Economy Research Centre at the Computational Foundry, adds: "By evaluating APPropriate and placing it in the hands of real users in resourced constrained communities in Cape Town, South Africa and Mumbai, India, we saw how APPropriate-enabled deices can be shared for many purposes. Users saw particular benefits around personal security, lack of charge on their own phone, or simply to use another device’s features.”

Shape changing mobile devices

The team are also showcasing their research into liquid metal manipulation. They have invented ways to use liquid metal to create tactile effects and display physical shapes, and the findings represent an “extremely promising” new class of materials that can be programmed to seamlessly change shape. This opens up new possibilities in “shape-changing mobile devices”, the researchers say.

Dr Deepak Sahoo added: “This is a new class of programmable materials which can be dynamically controlled to transform their shape and motion. We are particularly excited about the potential for future mobile devices whose cases can gently tap your finger, or stroke your hand to give feedback.”

Smart speakers in slum dwellings

Their most recent research, into ‘Hole in the Wall Computing’ was also presented. Computational Foundry researchers have been working with slum communities in India, whose dwellings are usually very compact, personal home WiFi is rare, power infrastructures are far less robust, and financial resources put such smart speakers out of individual household reach.

Dr Jennifer Pearson comments: “We carried out workshops with slum inhabitants to uncover issues and opportunities for providing a smart-speaker-type device in public areas and passageways. We designed and deployed a simple probe that allowed passers-by to ask and receive answers to questions. We are now developing a design space for such devices in these settings.”

Dr Doon MacDonald –  a Research Assistant at the CHERISH Digital Economy Research Centre is also taking part in a workshop at CHI 2018, focusing on inclusive education design.  After a CHERISH-supported secondment with Microsoft Research Cambridge, she collaborated with the Human-Experience and Design Lab to produce a position paper, proposing the use of audio and voice-led interactions to support visually impaired learning.

Professor Matt Jones, Head of College of Science at Swansea University and Principal Investigator for the research concepts unveiled at CHI 2018, comments: “To make future digital content service devices you need to get out where human life is. What we are doing with our research at the Computational Foundry is exactly that. From the slums of India to the resource-poor communities in Kenya and South Africa, we are taking inspiration from the glorious hustle and bustle of everyday life and driving forward innovations to benefit everyone.”

This research was conducted by members of the FIT Lab (, funded by EPSRC grants EP/M00421X/1 and EP/N013948/1. As the main funding agency for engineering and physical sciences research, The Engineering and Physical Research Council’s (EPSRC) vision is for the UK to be the best place in the world to research, discover and innovate.

Swansea University’s new £31 million Computational Foundry facility is currently being built at the University’s Bay Campus and is due for occupation in September 2018. A global destination for computational research and teaching, it is backed by £17.1million from the European Regional Development Fund through Welsh Government.