In 2014, Facebook launched an app that, miserable failure though it seems to have been in terms of uptake, yet contained an interesting and problematic germ of an idea for ambient displays. The app, “Nearby Friends,” tracks the positions of people listed as a user’s “friends” on Facebook and notifies the owner of the app when a friend enters into a certain geographic range. Additionally, the app, when one clicks through a menu or two, is able to tell the owner the distance of other users from the owner’s position (in miles). And though I don’t believe you could watch friends’ progress on a map in real time, the app indeed provided the app’s owner with notifications of the proximity of other users near and far.
In the language of Pousman and Stasko’s “A Taxonomy of Ambient Information Systems,” Nearby Friends almost comprises an “Information Monitor Display” insofar as it is a “peripheral part of a user’s computer desktop” (an app that can be minimized), that “display[s] multiple sources of information,” and is “capable of notifying users in multiple ways about changes in the source data, including … interrupting, and even demanding user attention when necessary”).
What Nearby Friends lacks is a way of affecting “subtle awareness”: what if one were to develop a TUI that changed according to the proximity of friends and acquaintances? This seems to me among the most primal of “nuggets” of data a person can seek–a list of which might otherwise include weather conditions, information on food scarcity, sources of shelter, and, as in the case of Nearby Friends, the position of allies. Could a system be made that offers a user constant, slow, and subconscious data on the proximity of those around them?
I have been thinking about this general idea for a while now. The idea that the clothes we wear are indicative of our own personal style, but that they can be made furthermore personalized (and intimate), is a compelling art and fashion piece. The fabric would tell a story that is specific to the person wearing it, and perhaps not understandable without them providing the context. I see a visualization — of paths walked throughout a day, a few days, a week; of the number of hugs received plotted on a plane; of brisk and lull moments depicted through color — showcased on the fabric of the material. In this vision, the garment is usually a sweater, but could potentially take other forms (scarf, pants, tee shirts). In this vision, the visualization grows quietly, denoting aspects of the person’s time wearing it without interrupting the person’s day. This way, the wearer may go about their business, getting lost and consumed in their daily activities, able to remember and reflect on the day once they remove the garment from their back. Additionally, because the garment is worn, it is inherently public. And in this way, the wearer is choosing to narrate a bit of their personal, unique story to an audience — any audience that crosses their path. Again, the audience may be unaware of what the plot may be, but it could be a probe that makes them curious (even if it is momentary, a stranger wonders about the life of another).
Artist Natalie Jeremijenko created the “Dangling String” which I found to be an interesting concept expressed in a unique and artistic fashion. The part I found most fascinating was how the artist made something that’s traditionally invisible, visible. This led me to think about how to surface other invisible facets in our lives.
I think that a real time display of one’s electricity usage would be useful and could also be displayed in a non-intrusive and aesthetically pleasing manner. For example, homeowners, corporations and those trying to live a more eco-friendly life are typically concerned with their monthly electricity bills. One way to monitor it more efficiently would be to have a visual and dynamic display of its usage. Similar to the “Dangling String,” the display would need be a clam technology, traversing seamlessly from one’s periphery, to their center of attention and back again. This way, the user is subtly aware of their electricity usage, their impact on the environment, and they may even be motivated to make changes.
I think it’s also important to note that typically, electricity usage is monitored and read from a box located outside of one’s home or building. The information is displayed using indexical signage and generally, it’s rare for someone to spend time interpreting the data. Instead, most people receive a monthly bill without fully understanding the scope and breadth of their electricity usage. By bringing this invisible item first into one’s periphery and then into the center of one’s attention, this display could influence change and enable people to monitor and improve their electricity usage.
In their article, Weiser and Brown give the Ambient Information Systems a name called Calm Technology. According to Weiser and Brown, “enhanced peripheral reach increases our knowledge and so our ability to act without increasing information overload” (P.2, Weiser and Brown 1995). This type of technology provide the users information they need to know for their actions in the background and only brings the user’s attention to these information when needed. The best example, which illuminate their point, in my view, is the inner office windows. According to Weiser and Brown, adding inner office windows in a office “connects people inside to the nearby world” by providing information such as “motion of other people down the hall (it is time for lunch; the big meeting is starting) or noticing the same person peeking in for the third time while you are on the phone (they really want to see me; I forgot an appointment)” ,etc.
These kind of technology is very exciting because it utilize the senses that are normally peripheral to us to provide information which enhances the users’ actions. For example, in the “Dangling String” example, The users will be able to notice something wrong with the bit transmission by some irregular sounds from the strings. In this way the users can focus on other actions and shift their attention to the data transmission part of the system only when the irregular sounds occur. As Weiser and Brown mentioned, in this way, “more information could be more encalming.” (P5, Weiser & Brown, 1995).
First off, I found it very interesting that the authors of Calm Technology chose to discuss glass office windows as an example—I found it very fitting, but surprising! However, it helped me bring the concept of calm computing more into my everyday life, since I don’t regularly encounter items like the Live Wire piece.
One aspect I think is missing from the examples is the concept of progress. One of the reasons, for instance, that users might have a dashboard is to know what their schedule is, what is upcoming, or what time it is. Is there a way to use ambient media to signal progress along some sort of continuum? Currently there are many variations tackling that problem using GUIs and traditional patterns, but it didn’t seem that any of the examples covered it. I take it as an assumption that one would need “progress” to be in the center of their attention in order to grasp it, but why? After all, we can judge progress in terms of distance out of our peripheral vision, or when there are tangible items within our view. But I’m having trouble calling to mind an example of calm computing that incorporates notions of progress when the TUI is in the periphery rather than central.
I’d also be curious to discuss how to bring in our other senses to calm computing. For instance, vision and hearing play a big role in the examples: one is looking at a dashboard, seeing or hearing a Live Wire, or looking through or hearing people through a glass window. But what about taste? What about touch or skin conductance? (These are, after all, classified as TUIs—but there wasn’t any discussion of their tangible properties.) What about temperature variations? And what about smell? Those senses always alert us to potential danger—original ambient media, as another student pointed out in reference to smoke detectors—but how are artists and creators incorporating them into calm computing as a way to communicate meaning and information?
The Pousman and Stasko reading took me back to thinking about my car’s dashboard along the design dimensions of information capacity, notification level, representational fidelity and aesthetic emphasis (Posuman et al:69). It has a high information capacity displaying between 15-20 nuggets of information including the status of doors, seat belts, fuel tank, air pressure, next service due date etc. However, excellent execution along the dimensions of notification level, representational fidelity and to some extent aesthetic emphasis make the TUI very intuitive and pleasant to use.
The Notification Levels of the fuel tank are a very good example of this excellent execution. It visually indicates the amount of fuel in the fuel tank and the number of miles remaining in an unobtrusive way. When the fuel level starts falling below a certain level, the display of icon of the fuel tank turns yellow. If not refueled after a certain point the yellow fuel tank icon starts blinking and if continued unfueled, it turns red and adds a beep to grab my attention. The iconic fuel tank and the scale metaphor that displays fuel status make for a good Representational Fidelity. On the final dimension i.e. Aesthetic Emphasis, I think the TUI is more functional while still looking decent but might not score too high on artistic measures.
Last but not the least, I would have liked a well designed ambient system to monitor speed wherein, it would alert me in an attention grabbing style if I were going over or under the required speed limit of the road I am driving on. Additionally, it could make me aware in an unobtrusive way of the average speed of the general traffic on the road at that time. I think of all the dimensions of the ambient system design, the combination of notification level and representational fidelity requires the most thought from the designer to differentiate the functional smoothness of a TUI.
It’s very interesting when I tried to think about ambient examples, the first one that came to my mind is actually quite a traditional example, which is almost everywhere today. I would argue that ambient design isn’t some concept that is entirely without industrial design background. This very first example I thought about is the smoke detector in almost every house in U.S. today. Why I think that’s a great example of ambient design? Several reasons are because of it being able to switch to the user’s main attention of focus, and being able to switch back to the background during the most of the time, and providing normally non-critical information, which is “no alarm”.
With that, we could even argue that the natural environment we are nested in could also be a huge ambient information system. If it rains a little bit today, your windows at your house would give you a little bit of visual hint of the traces of raindrops. This might be drag-to-attention information, but not such a piece of information that would require immediate attentions. But if there is a storm today, your windows will give you much more visual hint of dynamic raindrops running down the glass surface, you will also be able to hear the large sound of the rain dropping on the window, and there could even be thunders dragging to your attention. And this will require more immediate reactions, such as checking if your family members who are still outside are ok or not, and if you’re heading out, then you would be looking for rain gear immediately.
With this thinking, I remember a PARV paper discussed about how they imagined ubiquitous design several decades ago, and in their fictional narrative story of Sai, who lives in a ubiquitously designed house, could be able to look into his glass window of the house, and read the emerging information on the window surface about buses, his neighbors activities, etc. Isn’t this digital example actually a translated usage of the windows giving people ambient information in daily context?
A lot goes on when you drive a car. Your attention needs to be clear and fixed on the road, your mirrors, and whatever is happening around you. Moreover, the surrounding environment can be hectic with cars honking, traffic, pedestrians. It is a zone of constant, centered attention, and for some can be quite stressful.
Yet, the car itself is also filled with ambient media. Take the dashboard as an example. The dash can tell you about the gas level, how many miles per hour you’re driving, whether a door is open… but most of this information is calculated and shown in the background. You can bring bits of information to the center of your attention when you need to access it – say when you enter a zone with a lower mph and have to adjust. Alternatively, the car will bring information to your attention if something is wrong, like when a door has been improperly closed.
Contrasted with the video game example discussed in the Weiser and Brown article, the user experience is entirely different. Rather than balancing ambient or calm media with attention-grabbing media, these games barrage the user with information as a means to keep them engaged, excited and at times, overwhelmed. The car could display information in a way more akin to the video game – showcasing metrics more in your line of sight, or using sound to keep the user more abreast of the state of their car when everything is running smoothly. However, by maintaining this balance, car designers are making a choice about where the driver’s focus should be prioritized – on the road.
I’d be curious about an ambient display of time, particularly one with a medium notification level. It seems like many systems we currently use for time are either low notification level (user poll – I must look to a watch, phone, wall clock, etc. to read off the time) or high notification level (my phone buzzes/a notification pops up on my computer alerting me of an impending meeting). I suppose sunlight could be considered the original ambient information system for time, but how might we increase the granularity of information displayed or make it accessible indoors? There’s also the question of if we’re conveying time (the hour/minutes in a day) vs schedule (time until your next meeting/class/assignment).
I think the taxonomy of ambient media should also consider the user’s point of view as well. While I do find the current archetypes and vocabulary very comprehensive, I think it all focuses on the system. However, the system is defined for the user to interface with. Therefore, I think that to add a dimension to the taxonomy, what happens after the user has shifted their attention to their “ex-periphery”. How much attention did each notification? How does the system want the user to react? What is the goal of the system? What is the system’s level of immersion?
Attention and interaction–this concept builds on the paper’s notion of notification level but is distinct in that it focuses on how the user deals with the notifications. Can a user simply turn their head to ignore the information, like the user can for the Dangling String? Or do they have to be more involved and give the system input? This is a measure of how interactive an ambient media system is. Does it allow the user to sit back and be passive before and after notification, just taking in the soft stream of information, or does it want the user to be more active after the periphery comes into focus?
Another aspect of ambient media to consider could be the level of immersion. When we assess these types of systems, we should also consider how easy it is for a person to extricate himself or herself from the system. In the case of all the examples mentioned in the taxonomy paper (Digital Family Portrait, Apple Dashboard, etc.) this would be easy: just look or tap away. After all, the focus of ambient media is to allow the user to naturally shift their attention. However, in previous reading examples such as the ambientROOM, the user is physically in the system. They have to physically leave behind the information to escape the patter of digital rain (their choice of representation) and information.