Sunday, December 21, 2008

Beneficial, ubiquitous interactivity

Earlier this month, I dropped by an exhibition of masters student projects from the "Theory and Practice of Tangible User Interfaces" course at UC Berkeley. While waiting for the exhibition to open, Liz Goodman, teaching assistant for the course (that is her to the right side of instructor Kimiko Ryokai in a photo from the San Franciso Chronicle) told me about students' desire in this kind of course to take on projects of great importance, though such projects are often very difficult to figure out. Liz's words reminded me of some of Jon Kolko's words from our September+October 2008 edition of interactions cafe (in interactions magazine) entitled, "On Addressing Wicked Problems...":
"When I used to teach, my students would become enamored with the possibilities of design, and would make grandiose, and unintentionally trivializing statements like 'World hunger? It's just a design problem; we could solve it, if only we had the right model...'"
According to Liz, the challenging project of greatest popularity this year involved monitoring home energy use. However, only one group of students stuck with such a project, creating a demo of an energy monitoring system interface via which residents of an apartment building could see how much energy is being used in different apartments. The visual display showing energy use by apartment -- to be placed in a common space of an apartment building -- did not reveal the identity of any apartment unless an apartment resident approached with a device which enabled the display to identify only his or her own apartment. The student designers wondered whether multiple residents would take the opportunity to approach the interface simultaneously to discuss their relative energy use and what might be done to lower it and that of others.

(Two energy monitors for use inside a home were among products already on the market reviewed by James Pierce and David Roedl in "Changing Energy Use Through Design," the cover story of our July+August 2008 issue of interactions magazine. One of them is the Wattson home energy monitor pictured at left, which, among other things, enables people to be peripherally aware of their energy usage via the color and pulse of its mood light. "The novelty of this ambient energy awareness may stimulate reflection, behavioral change, and conversation.")

The foci of the other UC Berkeley student projects were very different, ranging from digital shadows of personal information that follow people around to cafe table surfaces that remember and remind you of how you make use of them. A mockup of a system via which students can unobtrusively communicate their views of the appropriateness of the pace of a class to its instructor reminded me of a system developed by Eric Paulos via which conference attendees can use their cell phones to communicate their presence or absence in the conference hall, how they are feeling, or their vote on an issue raised by a speaker; for both systems, the individual communications impact a display visible to all attendees, such as the display of attendees pictured at the right.

Eric's system was used during the Interactive City Summit held in San Francisco during 2006, an event that critically examined the rhetoric comprising "a future vision filled with beautiful, delicious urban technologies that will sooth the souls of our communities, generate playful neo-geo-landscapes, and celebrate our omni-connected harmony." The summit immediately preceded "a global festival of art on the edge" a few miles south of San Francisco in San Jose, where just a week and a half ago was unveiled a large piece of art consisting of thousands of LED lights that change color and pulse and pattern in response to codes communicated via the phone of anyone who chooses to call. The artwork, called "Show your Stripes," occupies the surface of the outside of a high-rise building.

Will "Show your Stripes" sooth the souls of the San Jose community?

An interactive light installation in the U.K. perhaps achieved this type of goal and other important goals much more. From "Dancing in the Streets" (interactions, May+June 2008):
"How do you transform a city center at night to enhance the experience of residents and visitors and to combat the public's fears over safety and security at night?

This challenge was set by York City Council’s ‘Renaissance Project: Illuminating York’, and we took them up on it. We made it our goal to get pedestirans to engage with our interactive light installation, and to get them dancing without even realizing it.

People out shopping or on their way to restaurants and nightclubs found themselves followed by ghostly footprints, chased by brightly-colored butterflies, playing football with balls of light, or linked together by a ‘cat’s cradle’ of colored lines. As they moved within the light projections, participants found that they were literally dancing in the streets!"
A video of this dancing is available on the interactions website. And you can read more and watch a video about some of the UC Berkeley student projects in an online San Francisco Chronicle story entitled, "Tangible fun at UC Berkeley's virtual projects."

(Note that according to Liz, one of guest speakers during the UC Berkeley course was her husband, Mike Kuniavsky, whose presentation in class was based on an article of his entitled, "User Experience Design for Ubiquitous Computing" from the November+December 2008 issue of -- you guessed it -- interactions magazine.)