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My thoughts on Equator and principles
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?
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).
Exploring a new close intertwining and interaction of digital
("virtual") and material ("real") worlds. This in turn implies:
- 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?)
- 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).
- 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
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
- 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
- Interaction means input as well as output
- User input is generally necessary in order that the output should be useful
to the user: most adverts miss their mark, as do most museum labels, most
lectures. And this inefficiency and ineffectiveness fail at two levels: on the
occasion, and in that they do not give their authors any information about the
failure and so do not support improvement.
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.
These are rules it can be worth applying to each topic or project we consider.
- Are input and output both there, and in balance?
- 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
- 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.
- 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"
Brought together, here's a summary list of key phrases:
- Closer intertwining and interaction of digital and material worlds
- The triad of mental, digital, and material worlds
- Sensors, particularly of the user e.g. time, place, ...
- Alternative delivery mechanisms
- Information delivery to just the right place (or person)
- Delivery of just (i.e. only) the right information
- Indexing by object, time, place, human task
- Equality of input and output i.e. lots of user input
- Unintentional user input
- User behaviour as data
- Combinations, not replacement
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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