Hiking the Appalachian Trail: Reflections and Experiences

At the conclusion of the Technology on the Trail Workshop, I had the pleasure of spending my spring break out on the Appalachian Trail (AT) with my hiking companion, Herb Stelter.  The workshop impacted my approach to my week out on the AT.  I engaged in interesting discussions on how people interpret being out in nature and its space, how we can utilize technology to outdoor teaching with kids, and whom would benefit having technology out on the trail.  

Two of our guest speakers, Ellie Harmon and Alan Dix, both accomplished extended hiking feats for which they reflected on technology use.  Ellie noted that during her Pacific Crest Trail thru-hike in 2013 she noted that smartphone devices were everywhere and being used for music, maps, communication, and more–particularly in comparison to her thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail just five years earlier.  Alan hiked the perimeter of Wales with an expressed purpose of collecting vast amount of data using various technologies.  However, he found most technology was more trouble than it was worth–with the exception of his audio recorder, which he stated was the only reliable piece of technology that didn’t die on him constantly.  Of course, not everyone will want an audio recorder; it worked well for Alan’s (and my) self-reflection goals. The takeaway message is to choose technology that is simple, reliable, and does an important task well.

I modeled my hike into three phases to reflect the Technology on the Trail’s high level focus:  Preparation, Experience, and Reflection.  

The preparation of the my hike was the most important step out of the three, given my lack of experience in multi-day hiking situations.  It was important to have safety as a top priority while hiking the AT.  During the preparation there were many meetings with self-identified hikers to offer their opinions on what was best to prepare. Understandably, with all these opinions there were a lot of contradictions about “best” options for a new hiker such as myself.  While my hiking companion Herb dealt with planning out the exact route and testing the hiking gear, I identified and purchased the technology to take based on criteria like power usage, weight, cost.  Here is a list of the technologies taken on the trail:

  • Garmin Fenix 3 HR Watch with GPS
  • GoPro HERO Session
  • Sony Audio Recorder
  • ETON FRX-BT All-Purpose Device
  • RAVPower & Anker external battery pack
  • Motorola Droid Turbo 2 & Kyocera Brigadier E6782 smartphones

The experience was a 6-day hike in the first week of March 2017 that lasted for 53 miles, avoiding all towns and urban areas.  The section of the AT was in the Shenandoah Valley, an average of 2900 feet above sea level.  The temperatures were between 9 – 70 degrees Fahrenheit during the trip, pushing the limits of the operating temperatures of the technology.  Physical artifacts of the experience included pictures, videos, audio recordings, GPS coordinates, and memories.  All are important for developing an understanding for interpreting an experience especially when reflecting on these artifacts to potentially come across a new perspective–in this case, how technology positively and negatively influenced my hike.

The reflection can be summarized in some key findings:

1) Design of technology for outdoor use needs attention.  For example, we noted some issues with the Garmin Fenix where in certain scenarios that our wrists would hit a button on the watch. Perhaps this was due to the more physical nature of our movements while hiking, as we did not notice this during our testing phase.

2) Be mindful to choose/create technology that is noninvasive of the experience.  Both physical and software side need to appropriately minimize flashing lights, noises, other distracting notifications unless their utility far outweighs the enjoyment of the nature experience.

3) The dynamics of group hiking versus individual hiking has an impact on hiking dynamics and can influence design choices for technology.   For instance, communication apps are geared towards group based activities while individual hiking don’t benefit such apps.

4) The view of usefulness of technology changes based on the current situation.  As mentioned above, the ETON radio provided moral boost by having music during the hiking portions of the day.  But when resting and setting up camp, the more leisurely environment saw the GoPro camera frequently used.

5) Leave time to do a day hike trying out all the gear.  During the hike (for a beginner) I would have saved myself a lot of trouble if I took the opportunity to spend a day with all the gear to get out all the kinks we came across during the hike.  This INCLUDES the use of the technology. I used it in my day-to-day life, but hiking puts forth far different situations.

For a more detailed account on this post, feel free to check out my extended abstract paper (and the other papers) accepted to the NatureCHI ’17 workshop. And you can read the Roanoke Times article about me and the Technology on the Trail workshop that appeared prior to my hike.

I want to thank Scott McCrickard, the Technology on the Trail Workshop guests (especially invited guests Alan Dix, Allison Druin, Ellie Harmon, and Norman Su), and Herb Stelter for the discussions and inspiring to take advantage of this opportunity.  I also want to thank Phyllis Newbill and ICAT for allowing the opportunity to present my experience of technology use on the trail at ICAT Day 2017.  And a big thanks to Matt Gentry from the Roanoke Times for doing an article on both Ellie Harmon, the Technology on the Trail Workshop, and myself.

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Workshop Wrapup: Unpacking the Case of Hunters

Our Technology on the Trail Workshop featured a talk by Norman Su from Indiana University titled The Case of Hunters in the American Midwest: Examining and Designing the Resonance of Artifacts in Nature.  The talk was related to his similarly-titled upcoming paper, to be presented at CHI 2017.

Michael Horning from Virginia Tech served as discussant for the talk. Mike is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Communication with an interest in civic and information apps that help to support citizen engagement with news content. He had an up-front role in making comments and leading discussion for the talk, but also a behind-the-scenes series of communications with Norm about the paper.

A few highlights from their email exchange (posted with permission from Norm and Mike) that focused on the impact of constantly evolving technologies on hunters, particularly their interactions with each other. From Mike:

What I find interesting about your observations is that your findings suggest that users may actually live within worlds of constantly shifting ethoses, depending on the terms dictated by the hunting tradition. Do you agree? It seems to make the design challenges even more difficult.

Norm responded:

I think it is indeed interesting that we are not only talking about multiple users, but how each user themselves may “adopt” different practices reflecting different interpretations of fair chase. I suppose, at a fundamental level, it is perhaps just fun for hunters to don these different caps when hunting. Most hunters I encountered regularly hunted in multiple weapon/species seasons.

Technologies certainly alter the interactions between hunters and their prey.  As Norm noted in his talk, with modern technology you can hunt and kill animals that don’t even know you’re there. Mike connected that interaction with the “fair chase” notion introduced in Norm’s paper:

I see some parallels between your observations and Harrison and Dourish’s observation about Space and Place, where “space is the opportunity, and place is the understood reality.” Jacques Ellul’s concept of technique is perhaps also relevant here with the notion that every technological innovation alters in some way how we respond to the physical world either socially or cognitively. I am wondering if the term “fair chase” is self imposed by users or by traditions and technologies (in other words the places) that they find themselves in. I think this too has some interesting implications for design.

Norm noted:

I admit to being ignorant of Ellul, but I think certainly we can talk about space and place–in particular, I think use of particular technologies provides a different “filter” into the physical place. It might also be interesting to talk about technologies like weapons in terms of a medium that alters our perception of reality (e.g., a recurve bow filters our view of the world/opportunities to one within close proximity).

Mike identified some specific examples from his “youth” that highlighted some of the issues related to cheating and fair chase:

…you observe that hunters often rejected what I would call modern innovations in hunting technology (cross bows, drones, trail cams). I’m old enough to remember when muzzleloader hunters who were flintlock purists rejected modern inline muzzleloaders and when compound bows were considered “cheating” by recurve shooters. I bring these up as examples of technologies that began as unethical and have more recently moved to mainstream. It suggests to me that some of the “newer” innovations may as well. One question this may raise for HCI is the extent to which we should trust users with their own assessments, given that those attitudes may be more generational/experiential than cultural. Beyond hunting, I think this may also raise a larger question for other forms of outdoor sport as well. Many hikers, for example, may reject certain changes that future hikers eagerly embrace.

Norm responded:

I think there is also the conundrum of how to resolve the age old cycle of rejecting the new, eventual adoption of the new, and now the new becomes the old. The resolution is difficult in terms of design because I personally think design can’t dismiss these snapshots of admonishment, but at the same time, as you said, we also need to realize that assessments often become outdated.

At the heart of this debate seems to be values, and the consideration of values on the design process.  I agree with Norm that resolution is difficult in terms of design, but there are certainly ways that design can account for the tensions between changing technologies and human reaction.

Mike brings up one way that this can be addressed, through value sensitive design:

You also mentioned the theme of moving beyond value sensitive design. I think this is an interesting and important question. I would look forward to the discussion that comes from it. I could see this also being a good starting point for smaller group discussions during the talk. I thought about this issue as I read your interviewer’s comments. While their concept of fair chase resonated with my own experiences, you mentioned that the hunters acknowledge that they were not paragons of virtue. It does raise the question of whether value sensitive design is giving us a comprehensive view of users or more of their reflections on their ideal types of users. And if it isn’t accurate or is limited what are we missing?  Does a hunter, for example, who has not seen any success after two weeks of hunting give up on his/her concept of a fair chase and pursue less approaches? How can we design experiences that help hunters maintain their ideals?

Norm responded:

Ideal vs what is done in practice is interesting to consider. I might argue that perhaps hunters need to see that living up to an ideal is difficult but should nonetheless be aware of what that ideal is. It reminds me almost of something like what many religions preach that we should try to seek an unreachable ideal.

Mike closes by circling back to the core tension between people with different values, and hints at similar tensions in other Technology on the Trail domains.

at two points in your paper you discussed the design of what I’ll call restrictive or limiting designs. The first was related to technically mediated experiences that limit capabilities and power relationships with nature. Near the end of the paper, you discuss designs that address unethical behavior. This seems like an observation that may get at the heart of this tension that exists between the desire to commune with nature and the tendency to see technologies as intrusive on that experience. Perhaps users may be more willing to adopt technologies that create additional challenges or that in some way intensify their struggle with nature. Such technological designs wouldn’t violate the norms of fair chase or be seen as “cheating” in other contexts (e.g. hiking). I think it might be worth thinking about what designs that “limit” look like and how we go about identifying requirements for such a design.

Norm closes with:

I think if we create designs, we might ask how we can cater to people who only want to hunt on weekends vs those who basically live in large private lands for hunting.

Certainly there are similar tensions between thru-hikers and day-hikers on the Appalachian Trail and similar hikes, as well as the tensions between hikers and people who live in the towns along a trail.  Mike led an activity at the workshop that identified over 30 different roles for people on trails, many with overlapping values but many with values that lead to conflicts, too. All too often, design focuses on the target users, but one lesson from this exchange is the need to consider the great many stakeholders that are impacted by the introduction of any new technology–particularly in places where people often go to escape technology.

Workshop Wrapup: Used, Amused, and Confused

One the second day of TotT’s workshop, which brought together interested academics and students of different backgrounds to discuss tech on the trail research, I (Gracie) had an opportunity to present to everyone my ongoing thesis work. The spotlight was particularly unnerving since the returned data from the several completed probes had only just come in, so I hadn’t had a chance to do a deep dive analysis yet. Even so, both polishing a presentation and having discussions about my probes were a good way to start off my data analysis for my thesis.

As a reminder, the basic gist of my probe can be read here; this post will be long enough without rehashing all that.

To start broadly, the most challenging question I received from the audience while presenting boiled down to, “Why? What’s the point of this?” The other day, I attended my friend’s dissertation defense about using big data sets in introductory CS education, and he received a similar question from the audience. In his case, the room was discussing the limitations of CS education research in regards to having no experimental control group and being rife with other uncontrollable variables, and someone finally asked, “Why should we believe any of these results?” For my friend’s research, I think having a good course outcome for students is a valuable goal in and of itself, but it seems to me that the qualitative side of HCI (and of social research in general) is often criticized as being pointless or inconclusive. In my case, even if I can draw solid conclusions about how hikers feel about technology on the trail… so what? How does that help anyone?

When I was designing my study, it would’ve been easy to craft a list of specific questions to ask participants. Do you ever bring a smartphone on a hike, yes or no? Do you feel like people are overly dependent on GPS, yes or no? The thing about asking specific questions is that you get limited and often expected answers. Questions can be more open-ended, and they could be posed in an interview that allows some back and forth, but the problem is still that I’m creating these questions that are limiting the answers I get. How do I know what questions to ask? Before joining TotT, I never knew trial angels existed for thru hikers, so I wouldn’t have known to ask any questions in that vein. I don’t doubt there’s a wealth of other trail and hiking related knowledge that I haven’t been exposed to yet.

So how would cultural probes fix that? I’d never heard of a research method in this vein before coming to grad school here. (In fact, I hadn’t even really heard of Human-Computer Interaction despite doing Computer Science and Interactive Media in undergrad, but that’s a different discussion.) In my Models and Theories of HCI class, we spent a day talking about cultural probes as a way to creatively draw out a response to a particular prompt or idea. I loved the idea as soon as I read about it. Personally, I’m bad at speaking unprepared; I’m fine if I have a script or thought about it in advance, but for something like an interview, it’s difficult for me to shape a response with any depth on the spot. Even taking written surveys can produce the same problem as I continue to think of more things relevant to the survey questions long after taking them. Having a probe stay with me over a period of time as I continue to shape my answer solves those issues, as well as a few others.

A cultural probe can be shaped for its audience. And it can hit a wider audience with the flexible nature of the responses. Prefer to respond in writing? Go ahead. Prefer to record a video? Have at it. This is demonstrated well in my scrapbook responses, where one participant filled the pages with writing, and another pasted only photographs. Probes allow the questions to be fuzzier as well. One of the scrapbook pages is themed “Proof you were there,” which doesn’t suggest what form proof needs to take. The way that participants interpret and answer the questions will say a lot about what’s most salient to them regarding tech and the trail.

It also offers a lot more room for creativity, which is something I’m passionate about. There was a good example of this at the workshop as well. After my presentation, I divided the attendees into three smaller groups to have a hands-on look at my early data results. One group was given the responses for the Indoor Hike (2) and the Hike Club (1). Whenever I passed by, I heard this group discussing one particularly well written Indoor Hike response, and by the end, they were happy to share with me another odd Indoor experience: have someone act like a trial guide to a group, but have it be inside a mall, so they’re giving their group a running dialogue of the environment and flora/fauna of the mall. They suggested a few phrases that might be passed around and had a good laugh. Later, one of the participants and I were chatting, and the Nacirema article which really captures the idea of taking something familiar and making it “strange.” That was one of the main driving themes behind the Indoor Hike activity, so it was gratifying to hear it discussed.

So, what do I hope to get out of these probes? A lot of unique perspectives that I wouldn’t be able to get by just talking with someone. I want a broad range of thoughts and opinions. I want a better look at the diversity that exists in hiking and outdoor communities. And that knowledge should be fueling tech on the trail discussion, making our conversations more nuanced and our views more accurate. I don’t want anyone’s voice to get lost just because they didn’t thru hike the entire Appalachian Trail. And really, there’s no point in designing technology if we don’t even know who we’re designing for or what need we’re filling.

Workshop Wrapup: Technology on the Trail Day 2

The second day of the Technology on the Trail workshop at Virginia Tech consisted of a pair of work sessions and a workshop wrapup.

The first work session, led by Nicholas Polys and featuring John Munsell and John Jelesko, looked at science on the trail. It delved into the challenges of taking technology outdoors, balanced with the opportunities that it provides. Of particular concern are problems of cleaning up “dirty data” from erroneous readings. It’s great to get more people involved in data collection, but without knowledge, training, and high-quality equipment, we run the risk of collecting erroneous data.

The second work session, led by the project research associate Grace Fields, focused on her cultural probes. We got to try out some of her “would you rather” probe questions, e.g., would you rather hike on a rainy 60 degree day or a sunny 30 degree day. It was noted that these aren’t opposites (they aren’t meant to be!) and often the answer is “both”. Other probes and, importantly, some early probe results were presented. The results really drove some interesting conversations, and also highlighted the need for follow-up interviews or focus groups to delve deeper into the “why” behind the responses. Alan Dix noted that probes are better at putting forth questions rather than answering them, making it important to discover the key questions that emerge from looking at the probes.

The wrapup sought to both look back as well as look forward. There were great ideas shared about possible partnerships, follow-up events, opportunities for funding, and venues for writing. At this stage of the initiative, it is important to cast a wide net and to work in directions that meet real needs for people and organizations that care about trails and that see value in technology. All are encouraged to share ideas and help out!

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The Cascades (a bit frosty around the edges)
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Chewbacca (Norm) and Yoda (Scott) staying warm
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Steve Harrison offering date and fig cake to Alan Dix and the masses

As a quick addendum and final photos: Day 3 saw us match our efforts to our talk, as we hit the trail for a hike to the Cascades. Ten of us made the 4-mile walk in below freezing temperatures to view the iconic waterfall and continue our conversations.

Workshop Wrapup: Technology on the Trail Day 1

Today we kicked off the Technology on the Trail workshop at Virginia Tech.

The morning started with talks by our four invited guests: Allison Druin from the National Park Service, Alan Dix from Birmingham University (UK), Ellie Harmon from Encountering Tech, and Norman Su of Indiana University. The talks were very different, but all touched on the self-discovery that takes place when people go out on trails, and the evolving and sometimes contentious role that technology has with it.

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Scott McCrickard’s giant selfie looms over Alan Dix during a discussion of the phenomenology of selfies.

The afternoon consisted of work sessions, when we delved into topics of interest. Steve Harrison led the first session, titled “Spectacle vs Experience”. Groups talked about the nature and phenomenology of the selfie, the mediation that takes place in technology on the trail, and the roles taken on in traversing trails. Michael Horning led the second session. It focused on seamfulness in nature, looking at different types (and subtypes) of trail users that exist. For example, hikers’ goals on the trail differ from hunters, and day hikers differ from thru-hikers.

The evening will feature a community reception in the lobby of the Moss Arts Center.  There will be posters about ongoing projects, exhibits of artifacts from a cultural probe on hiking, and a demo of a multi-person blog analysis tool applied to hiking blogs.

We will post the talks and the full findings from the work sessions in follow-up posts on this blog. You can tweet or follow tweets about the event at #VTechTrail.

Understanding Technology on the Trail: Updates on the Workshop, Cultural Probe, and Community Outreach

We’ve been busy lately setting up workshop logistics and talking to interesting people, so we thought we’d post a brief update with current happenings.

Workshop

With just 3 weeks left until the workshop, we’ve been promoting the workshop and getting colleagues excited. The agenda for the day has been posted, and there’s now registration to get us a headcount for food.  Titles, abstracts, and speaker bios are coming soon. Specific topics for work sessions are being developed, including areas like hiking communities and deciphering data.  Input is welcome, either via comments or direct email!

Cultural Probe for Hikers

Gracie has also been rolling out her cultural probe study with participants both locally and around the country. The probe box contains six activities she designed in hopes of teasing out how hiking fits into the lives of participants and how they feel about technology in relation to the outdoors. The study takes place for roughly a month as participants complete the activities on their own time in any order.

A brief description of the activities:

  • Would You Rather… – a short series of this-or-that choices to set the tone of the probe (we snuck a few of them into the registration form too!)
  • Scavenger Hunt – a list of 20 prompts challenges participants to find examples of various tech and/or trail moments, such as social media comments on hikes or examples of technology they think is overrated
  • Streaming Live from the Trail – a future fiction scenario of a platform that livestreams virtual reality experiences from the trail and the challenge to come up with popular channels
  • Hike Club – a hypothetical club which acts like a book club except with hikes, so members hike separately and meet to discuss it
  • The Indoor Hike – a challenge to attempt to recreate the experience of “a hike” but in an indoor setting
  • Scrapbooking – several themed pages in a scrapbook with crafting materials provided

Gracie is still actively recruiting participants, so email her at sgrace@vt.edu if it sounds like something you might be interested in! The only requirement is that you consider yourself to be a “hiker”.

Talking with the Community

As our plans and research have developed, we’ve been talking with people locally who have a vested interest in trails and the outdoors. There’s no shortage of hikers around here thanks to all the wonderful trails and parks nearby. There are groups that go hiking, of course, like the Boy and Girl Scouts, Venture Out, and the Outdoor Club at VT.  But there are also groups that come to work for or volunteer on our local trails. Some organizations support our local trails, like Appalachian Trail Club and Friends of the Blue Ridge Parkway. Other organizations wind up on the trail as part of a program or activity, like some Honors College programs.

We hope to feature some of the viewpoints from these various conversations in posters to be displayed at the reception during the workshop (March 2nd 5-6:30). It’ll give people something to wander and look at during the reception, showcase the diverse local perspectives, and start conversations.