Last update June 2015.

Leon Watts' Home Page

Picture of Leon Watts by the Lake at the University of Bath Claverton Campus

In Brief

I am a senior lecturer in the Department of Computer Science at the University of Bath, with interests in Computer-Supported Collaborative Work and Human-Robot Interaction. My research informs the design of interactive systems as they stand between peopole. It puts people and their feelings first.

Interactive technologies routinely mediate between people: we understand or are put at odds with one another in part by virtue of the technologies we use. In mediated interactions, social cognition is framed both by personal experiences and the constraints interaction designers impose on relationships through the tools they have created. If they are to work well, communication tools should assist us to express ourselves and also help those who we address to show whether or not they have understood and how they feel about it.

All mediating technologies influence processes of mutual understanding and as a result our sense of belonging, our capacity for reaching agreement, toleration of dispute and recognition of concern. Whilst some interactive technologies appear to be beneficial to people, others seem prone to trip us up and thereby risk damage to relationships we care about.

For me, the key situations are those where emotions are at stake. I think of these as 'difficult' conversations. For example, when people have fallen out with one another and are angry or anxious, they must work to express themselves, to understand one another, and to show that they are doing so. Equally, when people love one another but must talk through technologies, they may struggle to find the right words for their relationship. So whether the tone of a conversation is positive or negative, people must somehow convey their feelings in the all-too-often harsh light cast by mediating technology. In these circumstances, 'reading between the lines' really matters and poses very challenging problems for designers of interactive systems.

Since 2012, my research has included communication in human-robot interaction, by considering the potential value of endowing robots with affective states. 'Affect' is anything to do with moods, emotions or sentiments. To build an emotional robot, a computer scientist must find a workable scheme for modelling and representing emotion in an embodied interactive virtual agent. I primarily envisage artificial agents as artificially intelligent collaborators that indicate self-reflection through emotional behaviours.

An analytical approach to the invention and study of mediating technologies can show how they cause problems and offer benefits to people. Knowledge of this kind has implications for personal relationships, business efficiency and democratic participation in the functioning of society. It is also significant for Robotics and Autonomous Systems. RAS demand consideration of how human and artificial agents might work together as partners in joint activities.

I am also concerned with the science base for research on people and ICTs. That means I conduct projects with a methodological focus (finding new ways to find out new things). I am equally interested in methods whether they are quantitative (using numbers to describe and compare) or qualitative (using other observational data, especially linguistic information).

Research Team at Bath

Any academic is only as good as the wonderful people with whom they share ideas and build understanding. I am fortunate to benefit in this way through my discussions and ongoing research with:

Former Members of Bath Research Team

  • Dr Ryan Kelly - Now at University of Melbourne Microsoft Research Centre for Social Natural User Interface Laboratory. Formerly, research officer on Leverhulme Project Investing Care and Appreciating Effort in Personal Communication Technologies
  • Dr Sylwia Hyniewska - Now at The Bioimaging Research Centre, Institute of Physiology and Pathology of Hearing, Warsaw. Formerly, University of Bath researcher on emotion perception modification (Department of Psychology) and on behaviour change (Department of Computer Science). Specialises in affective computing and non-verbal emotional expression.
  • Dr Jekaterina Novikova - Now at Heriot Watt Human-Robot Interaction Lab, working on natural language dialog; design and evaluation of emotionally expressive behaviour in Human-Robot Interaction.
  • Research Ethics

    I was the Research Ethics Officer for the Department of Computer Science between 2006 and 2011. Some fields of CS research necessarily involve the participation of members of the public for testing and evaluation. It is this kind of research that must be scrutinised to ensure that ethical standards are met, as explained in a Times Higher Eduction article. In such instances, the research must be planned so that rights and safety of participants (and research officers) are properly respected, and the activities they are asked to perform are properly explained. Ethical considerations apply to a wide range of institutional activity within the University of Bath. As of the 1st of August 2013, the Computer Science Departmental Research Ethics Officer role has passed to Professor Stephen Payne.

    I was appointed as the first Research Ethics Officer for the Department of Computer Science at Bath and devised a scheme to guide thinking about ethical research practice for my colleagues and students at all levels of study.
    I put together a self-checking scheme to help identify and manage ethical issues that may arise in CS research that involves public participation. If you are a current member of the Department of Computer Science at the University of Bath who is preparing a proposal for funded research, you can find information about what you should do on the Departmental Intranet.


    My teaching revolves around the connection between conceiving, designing, constructing and evaluating software technologies: software systems engineering and human-computer interaction for undergrads and collaborative systems for grad students.

    The connection between my research and teaching is in understanding how to define and reason about systems which are made up of human and software components. Besides the 'headline work' of a particular human activity, for example defining a new taxation policy, people also have to do a lot of 'cooperation work' just to be able to understand, cooperate and integrate their separate viewpoints. Software can be designed to aid in both the headline and cooperation parts of the work of any group wants to do. In that way, the quality and nature of 'the group' changes from being purely about human action to being about an integrated human-computer action. It depends on combinations of human intelligence ('nondeterministic wetware') and computational intelligence ('deterministic software'), working as a unified sociotechnical system.

    Technologically Mediated Conversations and Relationships

    There are lots of ways to talk through computers but the most familiar of all is probably email. Our everyday experience of email is one of mixed feelings. Email and SMS can be great. The are fast, convenient, easy to refer to, accessible from just about anywhere in the world. Unfortunately, their use can also be awkward and unpleasant. They can be too fast (replies can be sent too quickly), inconvenient (casual remarks are brought back to haunt us as promises), and has an unpredictable rhythm (batteries fail on a laptop, wireless goes down, the message recipient doesn't reply when expected).

    Converstations always take place for a reason. Sometimes we engage in them for several reasons and sometimes the original reason is lost, or rather superceded, as our conversations take new twists and turns. My research considers how groups of people collaborate with one another, the way they articulate their understanding and concerns to one another, especially their 'stories', and depends upon knowledge of the spaces they inhabit and how they maintain their identities.

    Tone and Emotional Force

    Possibly the hardest thing of all about email is to judge the 'tone' of messages, or statements within messages. It is hard to do this because we don't get to see, for example, the smiles or the frowns that accompany the harsh black-and-white of text-on-screen.
    Three people in discussion across a table

    Certainly, the loss of non-verbal signals is a part of the problem - even with the benefit of smilies ;-) The interpretation of what is meant by any message relies on an understanding of the conversation and also the relationship within which the conversation takes place. The tone of the conversation gives us grounds for reading the tone of a message.

    It is hard to work within an environment that relies on email conversations and still stay in touch with the broader context of which they are a part. To work through email is in some sense to be act in a world that is detatched. Famously, an internal email memo, no doubt sent in haste and without reflection, read: It's a good day to bury bad news.

    This message was sent at a time when, outside of the rarefied atmosphere of that organisation, and the ultra-rarefied atmosphere of email-in-haste, was absorbed in the horror of the 'bad news' itself.

    So what is this 'tone'? It is the emotional force of the message as it is read. How often have you thought, when you have received an email: How Rude!. Or had an overly terse reply to an email that you have sent, that makes you ask yourself: Was I so very rude in what or how I wrote to them? There seems to be more scope in text-based communication for emotionally significant misunderstanding than when we speak on the phone or meet for real. It's hard to manage, on occasion, the yawning spaces between words. These occasions are nearly always when we have to deal with contentious matters. People do this by searching among a set of possible interpretations (or simply jumping for the first meaning that comes to mind). One way of thinking about this is that every message tells a story and the interpretations we are able to place on messages therefore depends upon the number of narratives we are able to use to make sense of them.

    Contention is hard to manage through computer media

    My research is intented to understand what these matters involve, how to recognise them, and how to better design communications media that can cope with them. It builds on prior work on how groups of people work together by drawing on their social and working environment, and by shaping their appearance and behaviour for others. Mediation doesn't always mean that there are technologies standing between people and through which they therefore must communicate. There is a much longer history of 'medium' taking human form. Mediation is necessary to resolve disputes between people that have become so hostile or intractible that the parties can no longer communicate with one another effectively. This kind of mediation - the introduction of a third-party to act as a broker - can itself take many forms and is governed by a host of practice-based principles. Dr Matt Billings and I research these principles to better understand:

    Human-Robot Interaction or Human-Robot collaboration

    It is not at all clear that people and robots could work together in a manner that makes sense. However, it is is possible that robots might make better sense to people if they behaved in ways that correspond to expectations about how another social agent might behave. I am interested in exploring this idea and am fortunate to be supervising Jekaterina Novikova towards this end. Jekaterina is researching how people and robots might socially coordinate their actions by recognizing and acting on signals of their internal state. This approach is informed by Clark's model of conversation as a joint project, developing a set of mutually acknowledged states about one another and the progress of a shared activity in a common environment. She is considering how the concept of 'emotional state' might be translated into an architecture for robot action selection. She is co-supervised by Dr Joanna Bryson, who is interested action selection as an artificial intelligence research problem, and in robot control architectures.

    Presence and Empathic Communciation

    Despite all the pitfalls of using CMC technologies, most people find them to be useful - even invaluable - most of the time. More than this, some people are unable to find value in communication other than through technologies. For such people, often facing severe and disabling personal challenges, CMC technologies like discussion groups and bulletin boards are something of a life line. But why is this? Convenience is an important factor, particularly when mobility is limited, but the ability to share highly unusual experiences is probably a bigger factor. There are many unanswered questions about the quality and value of interpersonal support through specialist online communities.

    Dr Daniel Gooch and I investigate social presence (the feeling of being emotionally close to another individual) and how to mediate this through communication technologies.

    >Dr Ryan Kelly and I, advised by Dan Gooch, are examining how perceptions of effortfulness can influence caring and other indications of empathy. We believe that it is important to consider how designs support the investment of care and the appreciation of effort in the use of personal communication technology. The Leverhulme Trust is funding us to examine this question.

    Reasoning about Identity and Design of CMC Systems

    Dr Ahmad J Reeves and I worked together 2004-2006 to define An Identity-based Design Framework for Computer-Mediated Communication Systems. This research brought together some insights from social psychological investigations to better understand:

    The mission of The University of Bath

    The Charter of the University of Bath was granted in 1966. It commits the University to: the advancement of knowledge, the dissemination and extension of sciences and arts, the provision of technological, liberal and professional education

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