Simon Perrault

Working as a researcher at the HCI Lab at the National University of Singapore, Simon Perrault has a background in mathematics, computer science and human computer interaction. He defended his PhD thesis (on the subject of mobile and wearable computing) in the spring of 2013 and left a cold France for a hot and sunny Singapore the following winter. We met in the HCI lab’s facilities to talk about his experience of relocating to Singapore and working at NUS.

What exactly is it that you do at NUS?
I’m a post-doctoral researcher. It’s one kind of position you can get after doing a PhD. It’s really full-time research. That’s a really nice thing about it – that you only do research and you can basically work on any topic you like. I don’t have to teach. On the other hand, it’s not a permanent job. It can last for 2 years but really not much more than that.

What kind of research are you working on right now?
I’m working on mobile and wearable computing. Wearable computers are everything that’s small enough to be embedded on yourself – like smart watches, rings. I’ve been working on interacting with this kind of device that don’t have much space for neither input nor output. So I’m trying to enhance these devices with new input and output capabilities.

What was it that drove you to come to NUS?
After getting a PhD, it’s usually good to go to some other country to learn new methods to work and meet new people, extend your network. I’ve also been very interested in going to Asia for a long time. In Asia, there’s a few good universities in Japan and then there’s NUS in Singapore, which has a very good ranking in terms of research. Also, I happened to meet professor Shengdong Zhao (who leads the HCI lab at NUS) at an HCI conference in 2012 and has been in contact with him since. So here I am.

How big is the HCI lab?
It’s big and small at the same time. We only have 1 permanent researcher – which is professor Zhao, we have one post-doc – which is me, and about 10 PhD students and almost always a couple of interns.

Is this group purely about research or do you do other things as well?
We provide a few “modules” of courses which are taught by professor Zhao and some of the PhDs, but otherwise it’s mostly research.

How does NUS compare to your previous universities?
There are a few things that make NUS especially nice. The first thing that’s quite good, not in terms of work but how you *feel* at work, is the campus. It’s really huge, there’s space everywhere. It’s really green. You can see palm trees everywhere and forest to some extent. So it’s really nice to walk around campus. The weather, once you get used to it, is also a plus.

Another thing that’s good about NUS is the atmosphere in the lab. People are really nice. People are very collaborative. As a PhD student, you only have a few years to complete the PhD so usually you try to focus on your own work but in this lab, if you have trouble you can always ask. The PhDs help each other.

One last thing is that we have people from all over the world. Everyone has cultural differences but we hang out over food and try to discover more of Asia and each other’s cultures.

Oh! One final, good, academic reason – that pushed me to come here is that this is one of the labs that publishes the most first-tier conference papers in Asia: they managed to do 4 last year and for having only one permanent researcher that’s really good. So the research is great and it covers a lot of different topics.

Did you experience any culture clashes when you arrived in Singapore?
So I’ve been in China a few times before, and I’ve been in London in the UK – which for French people can already be quite a clash. I would say Singapore is a good mix between western (especially English and American) and Chinese culture. A little bit of Malay culture, but you don’t see that too often. Actually, I expected more culture clashes because people are coming from all over the world, but overall I haven’t had any major problems.

The first thing that’s really different from Europe, and it might not seem like something huge, is the food. It can be a bit different. I don’t really know what kind of food you have in Sweden but from a French perspective it’s quite different. You get used to it though.

Working in Singapore is not very different from working in Europe. Outside of work, it can sometimes be quite different. Like.. housing. Since flats are very expensive in Singapore people tend to do co-locations with other people. So you might have to get used to living with other people. But that’s actually really nice! I lived 6 months with other European people – from Germany, the Netherlands and Switzerland – which was very cool. It was a very nice experience, very interesting. Right now I’m staying with a Chinese family which is quite a different experience.

Oh, people tend to work a lot. The Chinese family I’m living with they work 6 days per week and they come back very late at night. So that’s something I’m not really used to.

Does everyone work 6 days a week here?
It depends. So, in academics people work for 5 days, exactly like the experience I had in Paris. Around 40 hours, maybe slightly less per week. It’s really standard. But if you work for a super market or a restaurant or such you’ll work more time.

What’s something a newcomer to Singapore should experience?
Most exchange students I’ve met so far, including myself, have taken advantage of the fact that it’s very easy and very cheap to travel all over Asia from here. Like, you can go to Bali, you can do Thailand. You can go to Malaysia if you want or perhaps Vietnam. Hong Kong even, is not too far. A few hundred euros to go anywhere in south east Asia and you can live in very nice hotels for a few tens of euros – it’s really very cheap. So Singapore’s nice because within Singapore you already meet a lot of different people and cultures but you can also go everywhere else to know more about each country. And as Europeans I think we can go everywhere without visas. And if you need it it’s quite easy to get.

Another thing is that the food is very very cheap. So, the food is different, but if you want you can try a lot of different kinds of food. We have food from China, Malaysia, India, Thailand and it’s very easy to find.

What’s the worst about living in Singapore?
Singapore is a tropical country which means it can rain a lot. Sometimes it can rain for 6 or 10 hours straight but it doesn’t, like, rain a few drops here and there, it really pours for 10 hours.

Another things, that’s weird is that since it’s close to the equator night always comes around 7 pm. If you’re used to the kind of summer we have in Europe – like where I come from it starts to become night after 11 pm – that could be strange.

Oh, and one last thing, though it’s compensated – especially for students. If you come to Singapore you might want to go to and enjoy parties. Now, the alcohol is quite expensive but the clubs are not. The metro, however, stops around 11:30 pm. So if you want to go out and come back between 11:30 pm and 05:00 am you’ll have to take a cab. The cabs are very cheap though. So it’s still pretty convenient. And overall Singapore is quite safe. I haven’t had any problems compared to some big cities in Europe.

What’s the best thing about living in Singapore?
As someone who works in academics, a plus is that the salary is higher. You don’t have all the social advantages you get in Sweden or France, but on the other hand you do way more money.

Also, for instance, I spent my new years eve on the beach. It’s a never ending summer. So you can go to the beach, or walk in the jungle whenever you want. The lowest we’ve ever had in Singapore was 22 degrees Celsius. So yeah it’s always hot but that’s really nice. I had to go back to France last winter and it really was a nightmare for me. I was sick all the time.

Oh, and people are nice. I say that as someone who lived in Paris for 4 years. If you try to interact with someone in Paris they’ll ignore you because they’ll think you’ll mug them or ask for money. But in Singapore people are curious. I actually have had a lot of people come up to me and say “hey, where are you from? What are you doing here?”. They want to know and they want to discuss. People are very social. For young people it’s easy to meet students and spend time with them and make friends.

Do you have anything you’d like to add?
Well, as a masters student I always wanted to go to another country. It is actually a great time for students to discover and spend one semester somewhere. After that you’ll probably come back to Sweden and find a job somewhere. But being a student you have this great opportunity to move to Singapore or any other place. I’m able to do it now but not without sacrifice – my wife remains back in France – but as a student you can do that much more easily. So do so if you can!

Amanda Yeo

Amanda is a native Singaporean who spent the previous semester as an exchange student at Chalmers. We met at the Clementi Market hawker center to enjoy some local cuisine and talk about the National University of Singapore, Chalmers and the two surrounding cultures.

To get us going, why don’t you tell us about what you’re studying?
I’m in the school of computing, but my major is Electronic Commerce, which is, using IT to help business. So when we graduate, what most people will do is maintain the e-commerce websites for companies. We dabble in design stuff like Photoshop, and might design websites for a living.

How much do you have left of your studies?
I’m actually in my final year right now. So by next may I’ll have graduated.

So if you compare NUS to Chalmers, is it easier or harder?
It’s definitely harder, because, the work load seems heavier. You’re kind of under this pressure to at least revise or do extra work even when it might not be necessary. So it can get pretty stressful over here if you’re not used to this kind of culture. At Chalmers it’s completely different, because you work really hard in school but when you are at home, that’s your time completely. In your personal time, you don’t really do much work unless it’s very necessary or if you have a deadline or something.

Are there any other differences one should be prepared for when coming to NUS?
Yeah, another difference I’ve noticed, and this has been noticed by others of my friends that have been to Sweden as well, is that the classes in Sweden are a lot more practical – like projects and post-it-stuff and such. In my three years at NUS I’ve only had a single module for one semester (which is 6 months) where I did prototyping and all that. Everything else was just theory based. Which kind of sucks because you’re just reading stuff from a text book and you don’t really know what you’re doing. But in Sweden you do a lot of hands-on stuff which is way better.

Having spent some time on campus, I’ve gotten the impression that the NUS campus must be huge!
Yeah, it’s pretty big, but it’s usually not a problem. There are actually a few shuttle buses on campus. I think there are 2 or 3 different lines that go to different parts of the campus. In my opinion it’s like, the best thing the school has. You get a bus in like, 2-3 minutes and it’s completely free. The buses go to almost all the main faculties in school, probably every faculty in school. So going from one end of the campus, like the business school, and University Town is at the other end, it takes only about 10-15 minutes by the shuttle bus so it’s really fast.

Do you have classes at opposite ends of the campus often?
Um, no. On the very first day here, what our senior students tell us is that, other than watching for time table clashes, to watch for the venue so you don’t have one class here and another at the other end. But this usually won’t happen because similar faculties are usually grouped together in one area. So for instance, I’m doing business with IT so the business school is actually right inside the IT-school. So I don’t really have to travel across the campus unless I have to do some other module off my faculty that I want to.

You mentioned the University Town, what is that?
It’s basically this really new area that they built when I first started school, which was like 3 years ago – so the whole place is really new. What they wanted to do was to integrate learning and student life together so you get some kind of life balance. Over there they got lecture halls and a lot of student dormitories. They also have a lot of food – ’cause Singaporeans eat a lot of food. Other than the school stuff there’s also a gym, a pool, this large field for people to play frisbee, and they even have concerts and everything. So it’s basically this really nice and new pretty place where they hope people can get everything they want out of university life right over there. If you come to NUS as an exchange student, that’s probably where you’ll live.

So, imagine that you’re coming to Singapore as an exchange student. Where would you go to find new friends?
Oh, you wouldn’t have to worry at all because we have this committee of people called the NUS Peer Advisors. These are people that are dedicated to helping students blend in – kind of like CIRC at Chalmers. They are actually pretty active. They’ll plan many different activities, orientation stuff for newcomers to Singapore and they’ll try their best to find local guides, for international students.

Do you act differently with friends in Singapore than in Sweden?
Not really. The main difference is probably the language.. In Singapore we have this strange blend of English called Singlish where we speak a lot of weird stuff like “lah” and.. I don’t know, our sentences are not usually grammatically correct but since all of us grew up speaking like that we’re very used to it. But when I’m speaking to you, for instance, I’ll try to be more grammatically correct. I will, for instance, not use the word “lah” because you don’t know what it means. I don’t even really know what it means! It’s just something you add to the end of sentences to.. Like, if I would want to give a command like “sit”, I wouldn’t just say “take a seat” I would be like “Sit lah” to make it like “I’m not ordering you but I want you to take a seat”.

So Singlish is a blend of English and the other common languages in Singapore?
Yeah, so, in general, all Singaporeans, not just me, speak two languages. English is our main language because.. there are many different races here so we need a common language – which is English. And because I’m a Chinese Singaporean I do Mandarin in school as well. The other two main races are the Malays and the Indians. The Malays will learn Behasa Melayu and the Indians will learn Tamil in school.

If you’re worried about making a bad impression with Singaporeans, is there anything in particular one should avoid doing?
Generally, it’s ok. Because we are very used to seeing foreigners and tourists around, we understand that they don’t really understand the Singaporean culture or anything. So there’s nothing much that you can do to offend people, unless you’re blatantly rude. I mean, if you just don’t know and you’re doing something innocent – it’s fine, not a problem at all.

A common impression of Singapore is that it’s a pretty strict country. Do you agree with that or do you feel differently?
So, I was born here, so to me it doesn’t feel that way to me but I realize that that’s actually what most western countries view Singapore as. They say “oh, Singapore has a lot of fines and ridiculous laws”. But I think that since Singapore has gone from a very rural area to a modern city in just about 50 years, the government had to help and push people to adapt. From there I think it kind of snow-balled a little but basically it’s just commonsense social norms. I don’t know anybody who was actually fined for littering or anything – it’s just guidelines on how to make Singapore nicer and cleaner. Yeah, so as long as you don’t do anything stupid it’s really ok. It’s really not that strict.

What is something a visitor really should do when in Singapore?
There’s a lot, a lot, a LOT of food in Singapore. If you’re an exchange student, you should really take advantage of this – eat everything you can. We also have a lot of international food here if you’re just coming to Singapore and don’t plan to go to the rest of Asia then you can actually find very good Japanese food, Thai food or anything. Singapore is this melting pot of Asian cuisine. It’s definitely something you should do here.

In your opinion, what’s the downside of living in Singapore?
Even as a local, sometimes I feel that it’s really too congested. There are buildings everywhere because our population is growing and there’s not much green space you can enjoy. Like, in the newer neighborhoods like, Punggol or something, the only greenery you can see there is a man made park by the government. So you don’t really see a lot of nature stuff around anymore and it kind of sucks because I enjoy nature. But if you’re at NUS, you’re on a hill and you’re beside trees and plants so you’ll think it’s ok, but in general you see a lot of high rise buildings, a lot of people, the public transport can get quite crowded during peak hours and it can suck because you can feel like there’s way to many people here.

On the other hand, what do you think the upside of living in Singapore is?
The public transport here is excellent. I think only 1% of the land is untouched by public transport. So you can really get to any corner of the island using our public transport and it’s actually pretty cheap. Really, it’s very convenient to get to places in Singapore.

Also, if you’re from Sweden you’ll find some stuff here really cheap, like the food and stuff. I know because I thought everything was expensive when I went to Sweden.

Oh! And public toilets are free! I never thought of that as a plus point until many places in Europe charged for toilets. But it’s free here, and clean!

I think that’s all for now, do you have anything you’d like to add?
Ummm.. Actually, we’re not that scary. Come here and try for yourself!

Connecting the Dots – Balancing Human and Computers

Title: Connecting the Dots – Balancing Human and Computers
Speaker: Prof. Shengdong Zhao, NUS Singapore
Time: Monday 23rd June, 14:00 — 15:00
Place: Chalmers Lindholmen, Kuggen, Speaker’s Corner

Brief Bio

Dr. Shengdong Zhao is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Computer Science of the National University of Singapore. He founded the NUS-HCI research lab. Shengdong has a wealth of experience in developing new interface tools and applications, such as earPod, InkSeine, Magic Cards, SandCanvas, Vignette, etc. He is the recipient of the NUS Young Investigator Award in 2009. He earned his Masters and PhD degrees at the University of California at Berkeley and the University of Toronto, respectively. A wealth of information about Shengdong and his work can be found at


On the surface, Human–computer Interaction (HCI) may appear to be a very broad field without clear focus. There are a great number of HCI researchers from multiple disciplines working on a wide variety of problems that seem to have little connection with each other. However, underneath most of the problems is one underlying principle: how to seek the optimal balance between humans and computers? As our field is rapidly growing, it is easy to get buried in the details and lose sight of the overall vision.  In this talk, I will argue that it is imperative that we don’t lose sight of this fundamental principle, and will try to illustrate this guiding principle using a number of systems developed in the NUS-HCI lab, including SandCanvas, Vignette, Magic Cards, etc. The talk will end with a discussion of the prospect of human-computer interaction in the future.