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Mobile Devices and Ambient Intelligence

We're starting the second day at ICA2006 with a session on mobile technologies. Cara Wallis is the first presenter. She frames the arrival of new communication technologies by discussing the standard metaphors of community and connectivity, but also alienation, which are often attached to them, and focusses here especially on privacy and impersonality. This happened with the telephone as much as with more recent technologies - for example, there were significant eavesdropping concerns when the phone was first introduced. At the same time, the phone also offered more privacy, for example for business transactions. The case is similar for the mobile phone - and the process of coming to terms with mobile phone privacy issues is still being negotiated at present. Children, for example, gain a good deal of new privacy using mobile phones (especially also by using cryptic text messaging, of course) - but at the same time there are issues around surveillance and data mining, including also the geographic tracking of phones. Another issues is impersonality: the reduction to a phone number and a voice on the line has long been held as an impersonalising trait of mobile phones - and for mobile phones, there is the emergence of a kind of telecocoon which mobile phones offer: mobile users detach themselves from their immediate surroundings by entering a different communicative sphere.

What's different about mobile phones, then? There is in many cases an intense personal connection between users and phones - in a fairly McLuhanite twist, phones can be, and are, seen as a real extension of their users, and of course they are also increasingly customised to express users' personality. Camera functions in mobile phones also add to this, as they are now used as a capture device for what can be very personal experiences. Further, there is also a move from mobile telephony itself to the use of mobiles in broad- and narrowcasting (one-to-many as well as many-to-many), and further 3G and 4G developments remain in the pipeline, of course. Worldwide, there are now more mobile phones than Internet connections, and this has clear effects on previously disconnected communities, of course. Communities lacking physical spatial mobility are now afforded new virtual mobility, while mobile phones also enable a greater involvement in the business world for upwardly mobile but poor participants. Further, the phones are also used for increased political engagement, which has also generated a good deal of state concern in various countries.

Multipurpose Mobile Devices, GUIs, and Physical Affordances

Sorin Matei is next, presenting two papers co-authored with various colleagues. He notes that there is a kind of Swiss army knife dilemma with multipurpose devices - they do a lot of things, but none of them necessarily very well. This is further compounded by the fact that mobile devices tend to be very small, creating a mess in terms of useability. So, what physical affordances should be built into a multipurpose device - how can they be made more user-friendly? ('Affordance' is used here in a sense of providing shape cues that suggest what the object is to be used for.) This is relatively simple with basic uses, but with the complex uses which mobile devices are put to it is a lot more complicated, of course.

This is a question of developing a communicative and tactile language for using such devices, and Sorin and his colleagues studied a Motorola prototype device which further expanded on current functionality within handheld mobile devices. The study used interviews with potential device users to identify whether they 'got' how the device worked, and found that the physical affordances were perhaps the key to this. Interestingly, it found that some 71% of respondents liked the idea of a multipurpose device, but only 21% would actually use its features. Further, some 40% did not understand the device GUI, 65% had problems with the physical user interface, and 60% wanted hardwired controls for video facilities.

This means that there was a clear conflict between the theoretical capabilities and actual use of the device. Respondents also manifested a clear preference for physical rather than GUI-based controls - GUIs clearly were not enough. Instead, there is a need for controls that address the entire range of human capabilities and senses.

Location-Aware Information Systems

Sorin now moves into a broader discussion of location- or space-aware systems, for the second paper. Using such devices it is now possible to imagine a world in which geographic locations are 'seeded' with additional information which is made available to devices based on their current location. Advantages of this are convenience and mobility, but also the filtering of information based on current location (using geographic as an indexing system), and perhaps even a potential for improved learning and recall because of such filtering - a kind of direct linking between physical and mind maps. Can location-aware technology play on the native human capacity to remember information based on where this information is located spatially, and can this be demonstrated through research?

Sorin used a simulated location-aware system which was seeded with information that was delivered to test subjects walking the environment using a tablet PC, and an alternative search engine-based environment seeded with the same information. Recall of information was measured - and the experiment seems to point to the observation that information learning is little different between both groups, but that the location-aware systems group was better at remembering the information in the longer term. There are many further parameters to be researched here, too - including the modes of information retrieval (audio, video, etc.), as well as the nature of the information concerned.

Promoting Ambient Intelligence in the Networked Home

Somaya Ben Allouch is the last presenter, analysing promotion materials for ambient intelligence (AmI) applications in homes. At this point, AmI remains largely a conceptual technology, which is presented as putting people rather than technologies at the centre; further, users do not necessarily know exactly what is going on behind the scenes, and see only the results of technologies responding to their presence and activities. What ideas are presented in promotion materials for such applications, and how are users portrayed?

Amongst the key attributes used were 'connectedness', 'control', 'easiness', and 'personal'; pictures were focussed on showing humans, applications, and human hands; more males (24%) than females (12%) were portrayed; and wide screen, small screen, home control panels, and wall screens were amongst the most depicted communication devices. Interestingly, too, applications were portrayed using larger images than were humans. These findings seem to correspond with the current characteristics described in the literature, but they also show that common promotional materials ignore other key issues such as privacy and security which are often raised in the relevant literature. Overall, convenience, adaptation,and empowerment emerge as key term clusters - which seems to indicate the central tropes in the current promotional literature around ambient intelligence.

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