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Yes, research value isn’t clear cut, but…

August 23, 2011

Since I posted a few thoughts about the returns on research that arose from Sam’s talk at Almaden and then immediately vanished off on vacation, I didn’t have much time to respond to the comments that a number of folks made. So I thought post-vacation I’d quickly follow up with a few additional notes.

First, while Sam’s comments were phrased as looking for the monetary return from research, his comments were in the context of a for-profit company and I largely continued that context in my discussion. But a number of folks correctly noted that not all return is necessarily monetary (and arguably funding research that benefits society in a way that doesn’t directly tie to monetary return is one of the reasons government does (and should) fund research (and am I the only person who finds nested paretheses in prose amusing?)). As a graduate student I helped out with the creation of Alice, and I’d argue the benefit it provides to society by making programming more approachable has provided more than sufficient return for the government funding it received.

Of course, that leads to a second common comment: it’s hard to recognize the value of research when it’s being undertaken. And while that can be true, I think it’s also used as a dodge. Sometimes I think the writing is really on the wall. I worked on interactive 3D graphics, and more specifically, at the height of the virtual reality boom. Virtual reality and VRML were going to conquer the world, man. The web was totally going to be 3D. I (and others) spent lots of time creating cool new 3D interaction techniques and publishing them. There was just one little problem: no one really had any big, compelling uses for VR (yes, there are some smaller cases where it was and is useful, but they’re few and far between). I think we all sort of suspected, particularly late in the 90s, that the emperor had no clothes, but no one was really willing to stand up and say it. We just all sort of drifted off into other areas.

So I think I’m justified in arguing that sometimes we need to be more careful to identify the value we’re providing from our research: been there, failed to do that. And I don’t think virtual reality was the last time the problem arose. To pick a single example, how many tabletop research papers has the community published where the applications for the presented hardware or interaction techniques are re-arranging pictures? Answer: way too many.

In short, yes it’s hard to identify the value of our research. There are different types of value, and it’s often hard to see up close and over the short term. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be trying to do a better job of it. And sometimes we do get it right. Of all the work I did during my graduate work, I was (and still am) most proud of the work I did with Ken Hinckley on sensing techniques for mobile devices. Microsoft might not have leveraged it much, but in our own small way I think we helped lead the way to the current generation of smartphones.

From → Musings, Research

  1. I find the two examples of bad areas (VR & tabletop) interesting, as I’ve criticized both areas for the same reasons you give. But, on the other hand I do know it is MUCH easier to be a critic than to find the RIGHT area or predict the area that will win. Sometimes you need to let/fund people to follow these paths to find out if they are worth it… the key is knowing when to move on. We as researchers can really work in an area for a long time as we see all of the possible potential (sketch-based UI design anyone? :))

    • Jeff permalink

      I agree it’s easier to be a critic than to choose the right area, which is why I was trying to focus a bit more on questioning the expected value of our work ourselves, rather than passing judgement on the work of others. Because as has come up yet again (“The Nastiness Problem in Computer Science”), computer scientists are right bastards when passing judgement on the work of others. =)

  2. Ken permalink

    Funny you mention the sensor work, because at least when I first started it, I pretty much figured it was a wild goose chase.

    But some really fun and cool stuff did end up coming out of that, and that’s now my most cited paper.

    Sometimes you just have to try stuff and trust yourself to unearth interesting things as you go.

    I have the paper and embedded YouTube video available here:

    I also seem to end up returning to this topic every other year or so in one way or another. Synchronous gestures (bumping), the sensors on the Codex dual-screen prototype, and most recently my work on combined touch and motion sensing with Hyunyoung song.

    Maybe I would be wise to switch to sensors full-time 🙂

    • Jeff permalink

      It’s too bad Microsoft gave up on the Courier prototype. It seemed like it’d be an interested toy to play with.

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