A novel idea, quite literally, came to life with the release of a book about human computer interaction in the outdoors, a topic that has gained tremendous momentum since the Center for Human-Computer Interaction hosted its first Tech on the Trail Workshop in 2017.

The outdoors, once seen as a place to escape from the digital world has, for some, become an important part of life on the trail, said Scott McCrickard, associate professor in the Department of Computer Science.

“HCI Outdoors: Theory, Design, Methods and Applications,” published by Springer Publications, is the first book of its kind to pull together the human-computer interaction research that is happening in the outdoors, said McCrickard, one of the three editors of the book. It describes challenges and opportunities in outdoor settings for communities, groups, and individuals, in domains that include recreation, education, citizen science, wellness, and games.

One of the driving forces by the Center for Human-Computer Interaction is to understand — and improve — the use of technology in the wild. McCrickard is one of 40 faculty members from more than 15 departments and other units at the university that work as a community of scholars for the center.

Using  human-computer interaction as a lens, the book seeks to understand what is meant by the outdoors, and how humans, computers, and their interaction together, have evolved to a point that they can address issues of outdoor use.  "It is a reflection on things that have happened in the past, while providing inspiration for the future," said McCrickard.

The 18 chapters in the book are organized into five parts, with each part representing a theme that a team of editors identified in prior literature, or that emerged from outdoors-focused human-computer interaction workshops and other events. The five themes are: rural contexts, willed and the wild, groups and communities, design for outdoors, and outdoor recreation. 

Outstretched hands holding up an iPad.
Stelter holds up an iPad illustrating the navigation capabilities used on the trail. The iPad also doubled for note taking, entertainment, and drive storage.

Both McCrickard and Mike Jones, one of the book’s editors and a computer science associate professor at Brigham Young University, integrated the book’s content creation into their coursework. McCrickard also led a special topics graduate class in tandem with a capstone undergraduate course.

“Each chapter has a unique author and Scott and Mike led their classes in reading the chapters and collecting input to be shared with the authors,” said Tim Stelter, the third editor and computer science graduate student at Virginia Tech “It was a huge exercise of thought with a lot of participants pushing at different angles, but it strengthened a lot of chapters,” said Stelter.

Scales of impact featured in the book include individuals with personal devices, small groups using technology to support common goals, and large communities of people whose ways of doing and being are affected by outdoor technologies. For example, one of the chapters addresses designing technology for shared communication and awareness in wilderness search and rescue.

“It gave students a voice,” said Stelter, whose research is focused in the Technology on the Trail initiative and was an instrumental part of hosting Virginia Tech’s workshop in 2017. His research studies the effect technology has on the hiking experience, for better or worse. 

"In this era of COVID-19, it’s shown how work can be done away from office environments and giving rise to how work spaces could include a lot of outdoor venues," said Stelter. "And that is just one avenue to explore when looking at technology in the outdoors." 

Virginia Tech computer science graduate student Tim Stelter holds his hands out at the start of the Appalachian Trail.
Virginia Tech computer science graduate student Tim Stelter as he started his four-month journey on the Appalachian Trail. Photo provided by Tim Stelter.

"Technology outdoors is becoming more modular, power efficient, and smaller," said Stelter. "This book allows a stepping stone into thinking of outdoors as a space, broken into different areas."

For Stelter, every step studying technology on the trail has been a discovery moment. He is just completing a four-month hiking excursion on the Appalachian Trail, where he was able to put some of the book’s technology on the trail examples to the test with his gear selection.

"Research wise, I began seeing how what we thought in the lab and my firsthand experiences overlapped and differentiated when thinking about hikers and technology," said Stelter. "I've developed an appreciation for trail culture and why people push to hike and where technology plays a role in day-to-day use cases and what is important enough to warrant the weight of technology.”

The hike allowed him a real-world application of drawing on his research and the love of outdoors that his father instilled in him. "It helps to  broaden the idea of outdoors and how technology and HCI can sit," said Stelter.

Reflecting on the experience, Stelter said it has been life altering. “Personally, I found trail life to be of a different wavelength when compared to contemporary lifestyles in the United States. What I mean by this is that there is a type of adventure and freedom that isn’t easily had when working, raising a family, and/or pursuing higher career paths."

Some of the tools that Stelter put to the test on the Appalachian Trail.
Some of the tools that Stelter put to the test on the Appalachian Trail.
A definite must-have items for the trip: a lantern and phone charger with USB.
A definite must-have items for the trip: a lantern and phone charger with USB.