Category Archives: Interaction

An overview of our TechFest 2009 booth

As I mentioned earlier, a bunch of us from the Socio-Digital Systems team are in Redmond for our annual TechFest 2009 event. This is our big chance to show our work both to Microsoft employees, and also to the press and industry partners. The press day was yesterday. Today and tomorrow we present work to employees.

We’re starting to get some nice press coverage for our work. I’ll post some pointers to that in a later post, but I thought it would be interesting to give an overview of what we’re doing. The advantage of being in the press room is that I can talk pretty freely about our work.

We’re showing work along three themes, really. The first is all about digital content in the context of families, including how family members create a shared notion of history amongst themselves. Next we have a bunch of projects that are about different levels of casual communication, some location based, some focussed on the elderly. Finally we have a couple of projects that deal with network traffic, both ways in which data might be exchanged over the network, as well as ways in which family members might negotiate bandwidth use in their homes.

Here’s a couple of shots of our booth this year while we were still setting up on Monday.

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FAMILY ARCHIVE

The first of the projects we’re showing is Family Archive. The goal here was the creation of a piece of furniture that a family could used for collaboratively storing, managing and sharing both digital photos, and also shots that they captured of physical things through the built in camera.

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Here’s a close up of the UI, which is based on some multi-touch technology. It’s quite metaphorical. People can create virtual boxes within which they can store their photos, and which they can label with digital ink.

Here’s a shot of a set of real clogs, and the virtual version that’s been captured of them using the overhead camera. The scenario here is that when the family goes on holiday they can store both the digital photos they captured while away, along with shots of the physical things they brought back with them.

 

TIMECARD

In a similar vein to Family Archive, Timecard deals with personal and shared histories. People create timelines of their lives, or the lives of people they know, through an online service, and that content is then visible to them in their home through a dynamic digital photo display that shows pictures like a normal display, but when clicked presents a historical view of the content they entered.

Here’s the Timecard in slideshow mode. I’ve created this one in honour of my grandfather, so it contains a lot of content from his career in the Royal Air Force during WWII. Here’s it’s showing a postcard that he had of a Hampden, one of the aircraft he flew early on in his career.

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Here’s the timeline which you get once you click on the screen of the device. You can see all the content above where it says “1940” which is stuff I’ve entered about my grandfather. Clicking on each item shows details about it.

Below that is a row of items that are just general world history, which help me better understand what was going at a broader context while my grandad was living his life. The idea here is that there might be multiple of these “contextual timelines” that get more and more specific about the history of places, people and events that relate to my grandfather.

 

SPIBS

“SPIBS” is an acronym that does actually stand for something, but I can’t remember what! It’s a UI that allows the filtering of large quantities of photos by laying out tokens spatially, each of which represent different criteria. The nearer that those tokens are to the center of the screen the stronger they act as a filter.

There are tokens for Red, Green and Blue for example. Dragging the red token near to the center of the screen results in a set of photos, shown in the rectangle in the middle of the circle, that are increasing red. Moving the Red, Green and Blue tokens at the same time allows for the mixing of colour. Other tokens include photos of landscapes, photos of faces and photos from different dates.

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CELLFRAME

This is the first of the projects that is about simple communications. The idea here is to get the elderly involved in a very tentative way with the sharing of messages and digital images. We’ve created a technologically simple digital photo frame device, based on cellular technology, that requires very little infrastructure. This would live at the elderly person’s home. It wouldn’t require that they have a wi-fi network, for example. It should just plug in and work.

Other family members can then send messages and images to this device, and locally the owner can type out simple responses through an onscreen keyboard.

In this shot we’re combining the CellFrame (at bottom) with Homebook, a wall mounted family social network device that we developed last year. Family members can send messages to one another through the Homebook, and if they think their Grandparent might be interested they can drag a message down to the virtual representation of the CellFrame in the bottom-right of the screen, which automatically sends it on to the real CellFrame.

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WAYVE

In the same vein of casual communications, Wayve is a device the we imagine would live in the kitchen. it allows the sending of messages through e-mail, SMS and between Wayve devices. It has a built in camera for taking shots of people locally to send in a message, and also has a pen so people can write out or sketch messages to one another.

We’ve had these in deployment with families in the UK, and they seem to have had a lot of fun taking shots of themselves, colouring them in and giving themselves facial hair, then sending them to other family members.

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DION

DION is a project that’s all about taking advantage of the proximity of people to one another to create opportunities for casual social engagement. Two friends can associate their cellphones through Bluetooth (a process we call “mating”), and then the system offers a range of features that are triggered when these two, or multiples of “mated” individuals are in the same location.

For example, you can write yourself a reminder that pops up when you next meet your friend. Or you can write a message to them that only gets transmitted when they are nearby. Similarly, when you’re near a “mated” friend or set of friends, you can create a virtual “event” that everyone gets associated with, then through web services any photos and other content that were created during the duration of that event are connected together.

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HOMEWATCHER

HomeWatcher is a bandwidth monitor for families and friends sharing a home. It basically helps them answer two questions: “Why did my network slow down?” (When their network slows down it tells them which machine (and therefore probably individual) is causing it). And secondly “When’s the best time for me to use the network” (It gives them some sense of bandwidth usage over time, so that they can select when to do network intensive activities (like watching the BBCs iPlayer)).

What we’re really interested in with this kind of device, and others like it (such as home energy monitors) is how families go about negotiating these kind of resources when they are made visible, and how they change the dynamic between family members.

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I’ll highlight some of the press we’re getting in another post. Here’s a show for Richard Harper presenting some content to a camera crew, followed by an embedded version of the resulting footage, which shows SPIBs, Wayve and CellFrame.

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Royal Mail Games

Really liked this project by Harriet Russell testing the capabilities and, to some extent, sense of humour of the Royal Mail. She sent 130 envelopes each of which represented an address in some cryptic way, from crosswords (see below) to anagrams. Only 10 didn’t get through.

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“Despite fears of a Royal Mail backlash, Russell found the system more than willing to play her game.  The crossword edition was returned completed with the comment “Solved by the Glasgow Mail Centre”

Mail Games: Testing the System | PSFK – Trends, Ideas & Inspiration

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Lovely example of real world user interface use, this time to vent against unsightly street advertising.

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“Through their blog, the leaders of the movement (which started in France) give instructions on how to order the little red “X” boxes, designed to look just like the click-out boxes in the corner of pop-up windows. Participants are encouraged to stick these pop-down stickers on posters, billboards, vehicles – basically on any advertisements or otherwise unsightly items in the public space that they wish they could control-W out of. Pictures of successful pop-downs are then shared on the blog.”

Pop-Down Project: Closing the Window on Real Life Pop-Ups | PSFK – Trends, Ideas & Inspiration

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Should we stop designing for purpose and use?

This sentiment from Lebbeus Woods, on the meaning and purpose of architecture really resonates with me when it comes to thinking about technology. He’s talking about how people should adapt to space, rather then space be totally pre-conceived with use and purpose in mind. I think the same can be true with technology.

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“One of my earliest statements about the meaning and purpose of architecture was: “We should make our buildings first, then learn how to live in them.” Born into a world we did not create, this is always the task facing us: to adapt ourselves to the world as we find it, or the world to us.

Why should we find only architecture limited to some assigned purpose? Why should architecture limit its potential to create space to satisfying the demands for the already known, for some normal ‘program of use’? Architecture should be freed to follow its own rules and ways to its own spatial, and spiritual, conclusions. Architecture should awaken in us new understandings and knowledge, and inspire us to embrace previously unimagined experiences. It should demand from us a level of invention of our own lives at least equal to the level of invention that brought it into being.”

We tend to think that the correct process for the design of software and hardware experiences is with a specific use or situation in mind, with a pre-imagined scenario of how people will interact with a “thing”. But many of the technology tools and objects that we use every day didn’t come with those pre-conceptions in mind. They may have come with SOME pre-conceptions, but invariably they didn’t match the real way in which the technology has ultimately come into everyday use.

SMS (texting) is a classic example, as it was designed as a general broadcast technology rather than for one-to-one communication:

‘According to Cor Stutterheim from CMG, “It started as a message service, allowing operators to inform all their own customers about things such as problems with the network. When we created SMS (Short Messaging Service) it was not really meant to communicate from consumer to consumer and certainly not meant to become the main channel which the younger generation would use to communicate with each other,” added Stutterheim.’

I’d argue that the Internet is shifting our design processes from those with purpose and use in mind, to those that are open and free for interpretation. We’re presented daily with a stream of services that we don’t quite know what to do with, at the outset. Use becomes emergent.

Flickr emerged like this – initially intended as the photo repository for a massively multiplayer online game, it’s value as the public repository for the Internet’s photos (which is what you could argue it is becoming) is unexpected. It’s value comes through the choice to make photos visible publicly by default, rather than private, going against the grain of many other photo sharing sites. Public photos create their own value, as a source for shared experiences, shared themes and the collaborative documentation of the world at large.

Services like Twitter and Facebook are in the middle of the throes of this process, where patterns and etiquette of use are still being developed, much like e-mail in its early years, and even the core purpose of the services has still to emerge.

It’s cheap to try this process online – fairly straightforward for an individual or small group to knock together the notions of a site, and put it out there in the public domain to see what sticks. I wonder what the equivalent is for hardware? Maybe we’re already seeing purposeless hardware happen through sites like Make, which put out recipes for hardware that invites reinterpretation, and new, componentised hardware sensors and devices, that allow us to interpret use for ourselves.

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A sort of philosophy

A year ago Richard Harper asked me to put together a short document on how I thought we should approach our work in the Socio-Digital Systems, from a design point of view. Recently, a colleague who was visiting us in Cambridge at the time asked me to post the document somewhere public because he’d mentioned it a couple of times to others, and he wanted to be able to cite it more specifically. So here it is.

In some ways it’s more about what I DON’T believe about the design process as much as it is about what I DO believe. It’s a draft still, and something I’d like to keep on working on in one of those spare moments that we so rarely get at the lab.

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I’ve been asked to write a little on the potential processes and methods of design that might be brought to bear on the research themes that we are thinking about at the moment, such as Domesticity 2.0 and Propinquity.

To be honest, I’m not one to write about what I do as a designer. I tend to draw things more then write. And I don’t believe strongly in methods in any defined sense. But, maybe outlining some things that I DO believe about the design process would be useful. Here they are:

  • I believe that the design process is unique and adaptable to any given situation. Part of the designer’s job is to be open to that adaptability.
  • I believe that the design process is rarely formed of discrete phases, but overlaps and loops back on itself in unpredictable ways. Part of the designer’s job is to embrace and even encourage that unpredictability.
  • I believe that the design process relies partially on certainties but primarily on intuitive steps into the unknown. Part of the designer’s job is to hone and gradually learn to trust their intuition and instincts.
  • I believe that the design process is about making abstract concepts real. It’s never too early to do this, although how real or unreal you make things can radically change the conversation. Part of the designer’s job is to learn, develop or even invent new ways to create the appropriate level of reality.

For me, design is primarily about understanding a context; seeking inspirations from which many ideas can spring as solutions to that context; visualizing and testing those ideas in both informal and formal ways; making choices for which ideas to prune; and then repeating this process until the last idea is standing. The last idea isn’t necessarily the best idea. I’m not sure I believe in best ideas.

So in the context of this document the questions I’d ask in developing a design approach to our themes are:

  • What do we know, and how do we better understand any of the contexts for the themes that are described?
  • What sources can we use as an inspirational springboard for the development of many ideas for the themes?
  • How best should we represent those ideas?
  • How should we test and then select from those ideas?
  • Then how shall we go about iterating on those ideas that we’ve selected in order to build one or two examples?

 

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Fig 1. The Inspiration process
Above is a simplistic visual of the way in which I think of the design process. Many sources of inspiration, whether technological, cultural or even political, lead to a multitude of ideas, which, through iteration and pruning lead to artifacts which help with testing and selection.

 

Taking the topic of Values of Space and Place from the Domesticity 2.0 theme as an example, a rough outline of a design process might include:

1. Context: Understanding what we mean by values in the home, and looking for situations in which we might develop ideas that add value to these spaces, by revisiting research work that we’ve done to date, as well as instigating a new round of field research. Once we have an understanding of what we do or don’t know about what we’re interested in we can set up a new set of field research, perhaps even revisiting previous subjects, with a new set of questions in mind.

2. Inspirations: I’m a strong believer that inspiration comes from many sources, any of which can lead to strong ideas. My goal here would be the generation and recording of MANY ideas, though. We have a tendency to sit around as a team and chat until ideas emerge, and we often have strong pre-conceived notions of what ideas we are already fans of. I’d like to see us make a more concerted effort at pushing ourselves, in a more typical brainstorming fashion, to go for a breadth of new ideas, rather than fixating on the details of one or two existing ones.

We should see ideas as a resource, as a sign of the creative output of our team. Instead, we tend to let go of our ideas and lose them once they are no longer of interest in our current work. Instead, I imagine making a concerted effort to record our ideas so that even if they don’t work out and apply for our current theme they provide some fodder for future inspiration. Ideas are an investment for our team.

It’s likely that any review of prior work described in the previous section on context will already throw up inspiration for a set of ideas for design work. Some other sources of inspiration might include juxtaposing our theme with unrelated work. We might, for example, review content from the Trends website looking for technologies and their social uses whose compliment or contrast with our theme provide some interesting new ideas. We might also look for inspiration in purely visually-stimulating content. One way of doing this might be to search a stock photo website looking for images associated with particular concepts and keywords.

3. Visualizing I’d like to see us go through a slightly more participatory process for visualizing our ideas earlier on. We have a tendency to talk about ideas in the abstract, and often the process of visualizing them helps bring clarity for everyone. We can do this by having me sketch during reviews of our ideas, but ideally there’s no reason that the team as a whole doesn’t draw what they mean as they say it. As we develop our ideas, we may chose to visualize them in different ways – as abstract 3D models made from found items, as simple thumbnail sketches, or as highly rendered items.

4. Testing and choosing: At this point “testing” really means discussing the pros and cons of different ideas in order to prune. Depending on how our ideas have developed, and what we may be more or less excited about, we may chose for this choice-making part of the process to include family members. Again, we’re not particularly rigorous about this part of the process. I’d like to see us go through a more structured, choice-making exercise, in the style of a design crit, at different points in the project.

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Getting your hands dirty

I did my undergraduate degree in Industrial Design at Brunel University in West London. I call it a jack-of-all-trades in which we did masses of hands-on as well as theoretical work. In the workshops we did welding, sand casting, jewellery, plastics, woodworking, metal work. In our electronics labs we designed and built our own PCBs, programming them in Assembly language through old BBC B computers. We learnt how to do product renderings with markers, and engineering drawings using Autocad.

Once I got my serious day job in the software industry I dropped most of that. It’s fair to say I’ve spent my last 12 years with a mouse as my only tool. But I’ve found myself getting my hands dirty, dusting off some of those old shop skills, since I started working here in Cambridge. Judging by this New York Times article I’m not the only one loving the energy and satisfaction that you get from building physical things, and how that feeds back positively into the way you think about virtual things.

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Pathfinder watch

I heard this object mentioned the other day on Radio 4, and I know it’s got a lot of other press attention, but now that I see it “in person” I can’t help but blog it here. What a lovely idea, and a lovely object, pre-dating GPS by some 70 years (according to MSN). The owner of the watch would load it up with one of a number of pre-printed, linear maps of their journey, and as they drive along in their automobile, they scroll the watch along to see where they’re going.

It’s on display as part of the Weird and Wonderful Inventions exhibition at the British Library in London. Other objects are in MSN’s photo gallery.

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Platform 12: Radio Active Presentation

Students on the RCA‘s Design Products course chose a “platform” on which they want to focus from pretty much the beginning of their two years at the college. Each has it’s own philosophy, process, set of tutors and so on. It’s a pretty big decision for them to make, as far as I can tell, since it helps dictate much of the way they work until they graduate.

Platform 12 stands out for me mostly because one of the tutors is Durrell Bishop, a graduate from the same course as me at the college, and a design star. He’s famous for emphasizing the connection between virtual and physical items through his marble answer-phone project, now 16 years old (see the Ideas section of Durrell’s site).

At the RCA’s interim show earlier in the year the students presented a the results of a project called Radio Active. Their brief was basically to disassemble and reassemble a radio, rethinking it’s interactions. I was really struck by the diversity of output by the students and was happy to find this page with shots of each of the resulting projects.

Mikael Silvanto developed his “08 Radio” from this project to something that he ended up showing at the final degree show, and which got quite a bit of attention in the press.

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