Ubicomp and user experience at LIFT07

Not very well structured thoughts on the LIFT07 talks about ubiquitous computing. There was a dedicated session about it with Julian Bleecker, Ben Cerveny and Adam Greenfield but some other talks can also be considered as part of that topic (Frédéric Kaplan, Fabien, Girardin, Jan Chipchase).

Adam Greenfield, thoughtfully get back to the definition of ubiquitous computing; starting by explaining the horrible terms (pervasive computing, ambient intelligence...) that lead to the neologism Everyware. Adam's talk was a must-see/read/listen/... about the user experience of Everyware ("information processing invested in the objects and surfaces of the everyday").

Adam gave some examples and moved to the discussion about the upside and downside of people's experience of these technologies. As opposed to his book that starts from more positive aspects, Adam started here with the drawbacks, using a Jeremy Bentham's panopticon to show the foucauldian consequences of Ubiquitous Computing. He exemplified how the data streams produced by our interactions with those systems are colonizing our everyday life and that there are risks about who control them. From the designer's point of view, he showed 3 aspects that are important to consider: people make mistakes (pressing wrong buttons...), inadvertent or unwilling use happens and there are concurrency issues (when technology is everywhere there can be interactions between them: "the all is more than the sum of the parts"). The upside Adam describes concerns how these technologies enable to dissolve into behavior and become transparent (especially as physical manifestations). So, why this is an important? I really like Adam's perspective on ubicomp, it's very balanced and the way he discussed the advantages and drawbacks resonates. I was very interested by his discussion about how machines can derive knowledge from inference and how users can determine that these inferences has been made or they could be seen as invalid. That's a topic I find important, in terms of the research I did about automating location-awareness.

Ben Cerveny then gave us a metaphorical talk called "The Luminous Bath: our new volumetric medium" in which he described the user experience of ubiquitous computing. Ben showed how we live in a luminous bath: the spilling out of information onto physical space; and this is very attention demanding. His talk was about using this metaphor to describe the characteristics of ubiquitous computing.

The first one that struck my mind was "Memotaxis" (maybe because my previous background is in biology), referring to the process of self-organization enabled by the fact that objects gather meta-data. The aggregation of those "morphologies" (that others describes as "mash-ups" make then intelligible. He also used notions of accretions (continuum between an object and a medium), signalling (flows of data are produced not only by mobile objects and ambient displays but also by whatever objects), schooling ("a fish does not know what the school looks like..." meaning that the organisation on a group level is not comprehensible to the members), decanting (distilling information into something less fluid), crystallizing (creation of temporary structure of information) or acculturation ( emergence of practices from being immersed in the environment). So, why this is an important? Ben's talk are always high level (with super-nice slides) and that one was in the same vein. Such metaphors are pertinent in the sense that it allows to move the ubiquitous problem (mostly context-aware computing as described in this IFTF report) into a different semantic description. This allows to rethink the issues and provide some food for thoughts for designers. Tom Hume has a good take on the topic (see his blogpost) by explaining that people attach/categorize meaning to artifacts and record it digitally. The categories created can be aggregated and the information then blend in the environment. What happens in the end is that users could not see this from the inside but can only get the meaning from the interactions.

The day before, Frédéric Kaplan presented his "Beyond robotics" talk, which addressed the notion of ubiquitous computing form the robot side [yes I include robotics in ubicomp because in the end there is more and more convergence between communicating objects and robots].

Frédéric explained different ideas to go beyond current robotics. First, he showed how his former team and himself improved the learning capabilities of the Sony AIBO by implementing a "curiosity algorithm" that allowed the robot to learn how to interact in various environments (walking, swimming...). Second, the discussion about artifacts adapted to the robot morphology (and not linked to a specific usage) was a way to innovate: bikes, water suits. Third, and maybe more interestingly, Frédéric posited that the crux point was to use the history of interactions of the robots with its owners and the environment [very well into the blogject line, I fully concur!]. This connects to what Adam described about prediction that can be made on data collected by the artifact (a topic also addressed by Nathan Eagle in his presentation). According to Frédéric, the point is to use this history of interaction to build predictions, something that artificial intelligence knows how to do for ages. So, why this is an important? In the end, one of the bit he brought to the audience was an open question about what should be one using these ideas. He actually questioned the "calm computing paradigm" to propose the idea of "chili computing": the ones that surprise, stun the users by providing disruptions in the context. This is close to the idea of rude tutor I described last week; I really enjoy when my Nabaztag starts being rude by saying that the party sucks or that we should really go having lunch.

In his presentation entitled "What Happens When 1st Life Meets 2nd Life? How To Live In A Pervasively Networked World", Julian Bleecker described the bridges between "first life" (aka the physical world) and "second lives" (i.e digital environments ranging from MMORPG to blogs, IM, etc.).

His point was that we should be mindful of the material character of what happens digitally: 2nd life worlds have a material basis in there (just as Amazon has huge facilities from which they ship their books) and first life resources support and maintain the digital second lives. Julian additionally brought forward the important notion of embodiment (as opposed to the sedentary attitude of sitting on couches in front of computer screens). Then he described the more pragmatic implications of these statements: the physical environment is important for different reasons: as opposed to digital environments, there can't be any reboot, server updates/scale-up, once our health/body is harmed, we can't create a new one, there is only one possible world that we can inhabit, etc. Julian's stance was therefore that the development of second worlds/digital environments should take material contingencies seriously. He exemplified this through three elements that can be used to bridge 1st/2nd lives: motion (the wii controller is a physical experience), time (in Animal Crossing, the environment is different depending on the seasons) and distance (in Teku Teku Angel, the pedometer allows to use player's movement in space to control a tamagotchi-like creature. So, why this is an important? first bridging 1st and 2nd lives is a powerful was to think about innovative applications. Second, and more importantly, there is really an interesting paradigm shift here. If you think about the Metaverse-like digital worlds (read "Snow Crash" for that matter, Steaphenson described a clear model of separated environments; whereas in what Julian highlighted, there are inter-interelations and cross-pollination between them. I quite like this approach and the underlying reasons to adopt it are very valuable and pertinent. You can read more about this on Julian's blog and from the upcoming work of the Near-Future Laboratory.

During the open-stage Fabien presented an insightful account of how the technological world is messy: "Embracing the real world's messiness". As Frédéric with the idea of chili computing, Fabien questioned the calm computing paradigm and discussed how it is possible for ubicomp to cope with the inherent messiness of our physical world.

Nurtured by tons of examples in the form of pictures taken with his cameraphone, he exemplified what happens: infrastructures break down, standards are different even for things as basic as plugs, competing technologies co-exist, ownership of enabling technologies is fragmented, biased are cultural and contexts are unpredictable. To bridge this world with ubicomp, Fabien presented the idea of "seamful computing" by Matthew Chalmers (revealing limits, inaccuracies, seams and boundaries so that people can adapt) and how to design for user's appropriation (see what I posted about it here). So, why this is an important? working closely with Fabien this is really an ongoing discussion, I am also convinced by the fact that the world is messy and that design should take this into account. What I would upon this, is the notion of aging and dirtiness that could be added on top of the problems of technologies. A last thing I found nice in Fabien's talk was that he described the seams using photo taken from a cameraphone... which of course are not that nice and fluid... because they exemplify the reality of technology. This reminds me an excerpt from Sherry Turkle's book:

I took my seven-year-old daughter, Rebecca, on a vacation in Italy where we went on a boat ride in the Mediterranean; it could have been a simulation because it looked like a post card. She saw a creature in the water, pointed to it and says, "Look Mommy, a jellyfish! It looks so realistic!" (...) told this story about Rebecca and the realistic jellyfish to my friend Danny Hillis, who is a Disney Fellow. He responded to this story by describing what happened when Animal Kingdom, the new branch of the Disney theme parks, opened in Orlando. The animals are real; they are the ones that bleed. So he said that right after it opened, the visitors to the park are asked during a debriefing"what did you enjoy?" The visitors complained that the animals weren't realistic enough -- the animals across the street in Disney World were much more realistic.

Finally, a relevant way to design with this in mind is to follow what Jan Chipchase is doing with his user experience research (field research using ethnographical methods). Though what he presented was not about ubiquitous computing, it's very relevant anyway. Jan described his research about illiterate users and showed how the reality is a complex system in which even illiterate manage to carry out difficult activities. So, why this is an important? a common link between Jan's talk and what has been discussed about ubiquitous computing is the idea of delegation. AI and ubicomp research indeed deploy technologies that aims at assisting users or automating certain process. What Jan discussed in his presentation was that illiterate users are obliged to delegate things and task. He questioned the fact that we can delegate to technology rather than to people, a very compelling topic to me.