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My thoughts on Equator and principles

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Stephen W. Draper

Equator's research area is "uncovering and supporting the variety of possible relationships between the physical and digital worlds" for innovative improvements to the quality of life. How might this be unpacked into research directions and topics?

A. New personal user applications for ICT.

Applying new (and old) computing and communications technology; and inventing / exploring new applications. This implies to some extent new technology (new developments in the digital world), and new applications (newly studied parts of the material world).

B. Closer intertwining and interaction of digital and material worlds.

Exploring a new close intertwining and interaction of digital ("virtual") and material ("real") worlds. This in turn implies:

  1. A lot more use of sensors: can't have interaction if there's only displays, or only motor controls e.g. turning things on. Must also have a lot more sensing of the material state to feed back and affect the digital view. E.g. domestically, ubiquitous computing does not just mean turning on the oven from the bedroom, but equally having "the kettle's boiled" and "the bath's run" signalled in the sitting room. (Cf. Suchman's classic criticism of the advanced Xerox copier: could those criticisms be decisively undermined by an order of magnitude more sensing?)

  2. A lot more information delivery (from digital stores to the right place and time in the material world). Every material object has a huge amount of possible information that it relates to, much of which many humans do not have in their heads.
    2b. So, in part, lots of room here for alternative delivery mechanisms: an earpiece whispering, a PDA, displays anchored in the material world that receive output just for the person currently passing them, a projector carried on the person, but projecting images on to the surrounding things.
    2c. And having ways of delivering the retrieved information to a person on the spot: delivery to just the right place (or person).

  3. But a key underlying issue is that the amount of information a person can actually take in and use is very small. Maps and books, and their weaker screen successors, have made us accustomed to providing large displays from which the human rapidly selects a tiny part; but the alternative is to have the digital world more successfully select the small volume actually useful to the person before "delivery" i.e. output from the digital to the material world. So: not only just in time delivery, but just (i.e. only) the right information.
    3b. So using material "context" to index into stored information -- indexing by object, time, place, human task.
    3c. This entails sensing these things; and in particular, sensing the time and place of the user. More generally, we may regard this as suggesting that we develop the topics of unintentional user input (in contrast to the deliberate input actions of users), and of treating all user behaviour as data (cf. Matthew's interests; the way Amazon recommends books based on data of what other customers have bought, not what they deliberately recommend).

  4. Interaction also means more user input: less of high volumes of non-specific "output", more input. Output is not interaction. We need a nearer approach to equality of input and output for at least these reasons:

C. The triad of mental, digital, and material worlds

The mind constraint: you cannot retrieve anything from a database without already knowing what to put into the query: both metadata (existence and name of data tables and fields) and also keys (names of values). This is just as true of human memory and perception from the world. You can only access information from buildings, shops and so on by virtue of information already in your mind. A poorly labelled underground station is only "visible" to the locally knowledgeable (e.g. the new Glasgow Buchanan St. station); a well labelled one is recognisable to more people with more general knowledge (e.g. the other Glasgow underground stations all with a big orange "U" sign so that recognition transfers), but still requires prior knowledge that a Londoner (say) doesn't have. Similarly many advertisements are incomprehensible without the right prior knowledge.
Thus what Equator is really researching is new possibilities for the closer interaction of mental, digital, and material worlds: a triad, not a duality.

Steve's maxims

These are rules it can be worth applying to each topic or project we consider.

  1. Are input and output both there, and in balance?
  2. Focus on what disabled users absolutely need; and then provide for their requirements in a way that gives a benefit to all other users. A small benefit multiplied by the whole population usually gives more total utility than a big benefit for the tiny proportion with that disability, and in the long run is the best or only way to ensure continued democratic support for such provision. However, we often cannot easily measure or perceive the small benefit for all, nor easily invent the improved provision, without studying the frankly disabled.
  3. New transport methods, communication methods, education methods, media and activities almost always gain their biggest advantages from new combinations, not replacement. Airports are completely useless without roads and railways to get to them; railways without undergrounds and taxis. Email has not replaced faxes, phones, letters, but is used in combination. "Call centres" for banking, shopping etc. are actually the potent combination of networked computing and the phone system. The phrase "clicks and mortar" is suggesting that combinations work also best for E-commerce.
    In Equator, we should constantly check to look at combinations, NOT experiments on the properties of one technology in isolation. Thus portable PDA guides should consider delivering the location of the nearest human guide (e.g. the redcap information people Glasgow pays to stand around on the pedestrianised Buchanan St.), and the phone number of the tourist information office. The Glasgow university campus map should show the locations of manned Janitor's offices (for more information), and airline ticket systems should routinely autodial passengers' mobile phones when a flight starts boarding.
    Furthermore, in addition to the general force of this maxim, in Equator we are specifically interested in closer technological interactions.
  4. Learnability and time scales of learning are a pervasive issue, yet too seldom acknowledged let alone studied and designed for. For every single HCI issue, this has several distinct aspects: for the first time user, for the well-practised user, and for the cost of becoming one of the latter. Furthermore, we often need to attend to timescales quantitatively, and recognise that several different kinds of learning are relevant and may occur on very different timescales e.g. learning the interaction devices, learning the user interface, learning the work domain. We must also face the fact that the comfortable theoretical assumption that learning is constant and proceeds on a smooth curve has not been bourne out by the few real studies of this: it seems that learning is lumpy, stops for long periods then makes a "strategic" leap onwards.

Summary / review

Brought together, here's a summary list of key phrases:

In retrospect, it may be that the biggest kind of advantage to explore is not novel gadgets or software or user functions, but finding those niches in the world where each -- or some particular combination of them -- are strikingly advantageous. A mini-example of this could be the spatial awareness project, which may turn out to reduce to the active badges idea crossed with an application where people need much more such information than usual about other people, plus delivery to moving people (not just to workstations).

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