Archive for the 'Ubicomp' Category

Notes on “Design for Privacy in Ubiquitous Computing Environments”

November 25, 2008

Design for Privacy in Ubiquitous Computing Environments: Victoria Bellotti and Abigail Sellen

Design for Privacy explores how ubiquitous computing applications change existing privacy conventions and expectations. It focuses on the media lab at EuroPARC, where nearly everything is recorded and transmitted widely. The authors extract the privacy design principles that have emerged from EuroPARC.

The two broad principles are control and feedback. Control is about what the user can do about information collected. Feedback is about what the user knows about information collected.

The paper talks about how the researchers at EuroPARC have adapted to having every aspect of their working lives watched and transmitted. It doesn’t bother them. Yet, visitors to the lab are disturbed. To me this shows that even highly intelligent people can be convinced to give up a great deal of privacy. Since privacy is necessary for security, I interpret this fact to mean that we must be vigorous in  our opposition to privacy violations, lest we stop noticing them.

The paper talks about Disembodiment and Dissociation. To cut through the academic jargon, even PhD researchers who spend all day thinking about recording devices make mistakes about when they’re being recorded and where that information is going. What hope is there for the rest of us?

Furthermore, they talk about a problem they call “Breakdown of social and behavioural norms and practices.” To quote from the paper, 

For example, breakdowns associated with disembodiment include a tendency for users to engage in unintentional, prolonged observation of others over AV links.

In other words, the researchers got creepy.

To remediate these problems, the authors propose a list of design principles. If obeyed, these principles ought to safeguard against abuses of a ubiquitous information capture system.

I’d be very interested to see if systems designed with the principles really solve the problems.

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Notes on “Privacy by Design – Principles of Privacy-Aware Ubiquitous Systems”

November 25, 2008

Privacy by Design – Principles of Privacy-Aware Ubiquitous Systems: Mark Langheinrich

Privacy by Design explores the intellectual history of privacy and applies it to ubiquitous computing. It explores the legal history of privacy in Western culture, outlines the principles of the top thought leaders, and explores contradicting viewpoints on the importance of privacy issues.

Ubiquitous Computing applications can mean more eyes and ears in our lives. Current research hasn’t spent much time exploring the privacy implications of these applications. Langheinrich makes an important contribution by summarizing the important principles to make it easy for an ubiquitous computing application developer to think through the privacy dimension of a technology. The structure he establishes allows some systematic evaluation of a system. 

The principles are simple:

  • An ubiquitous computing system should notify nearby people what it is recording.
  • An ubiquitous computing system should allow nearby people to control what is recorded or opt out of the recording.
  • An ubiquitous computing system should not violate the anonymity of a person.
  • An ubiquitous computing system should keep local information local.
  • An ubiquitous computing system should secure the information it collects.
  • An ubiquitous computing system should provide access to the information it collects. It should be possible to remove information.

I think the paper represents an important call to action for the ubiquitous computing community. These applications are increasingly widespread. At the same time, current lack of attention to privacy pushes back the boundary of acceptability.

Like many ubiquitous computing research papers, this one lacks a connection to reality. In the end, thinking about privacy issues and fixing them takes time and money. These are scarce resources and enforcing privacy principles will require more than papers in journals.

Notes on “At Home with Ubiquitous Computing: Seven Challenges”

November 17, 2008

At Home with Ubiquitous Computing: Seven Challenges: W. Keith Edwards and Rebecca E. Grinter

The authors outline seven key design challenges for ubiquitous computing applications in the home.

  1. No group of technologies will be introduced wholesale. Ubicomp technologies will enter the home piece by piece, so we cannot take advantage of whole-system design.
  2. We must somehow solve a hardware version of the polymorphism paradox. That is, adding new types of devices or new device capabilities can require modification of all existing devices.
  3. Most homes do not have a technology expert on call.
  4. Technologies must integrate into home routines.
  5. New technologies may change housework in undesirable ways.
  6. Home technologies must be highly reliable.
  7. Many applications must solve the “wizard” problem, in which unintelligent and perfectly intelligent systems are desirable but anything in between just causes problems.

One, two and seven are broadly applicable to many problem domains. There is no generic solution to #1. A good solution to #2 is unlikely as it’s a fundamentally hard problem. #3 is an instantiation of a need for simplicity in home technologies. I don’t think system designers need to worry too much about #4. I would consider it likely that home routines will bend themselves to new technology. #5 is a fundamental problem with any innovation and also shouldn’t trouble a system designer. We shouldn’t stop inventing things just because they might have some undesirable side-effects. #6 is a major open problem in software engineering. #7 is a well-known problem in all software design. Its implications are well understood and for this reason it is easier than the others.

Just as algorithm designers need to understand complexity to know when they have stumbled on known hard problems, home application designers should be aware of these principles to recognize a hard problem. This paper has value in that it provides a framework for thinking about the challenges in a clear way.

Notes on “The Heterogeneous Home”

November 17, 2008

The Heterogeneous Home: Ryan Aipperspach, Ben Hooker, Allison Woodruff

The gist: Homes are becoming too similar. More variety will help us be healthier and happier. We can use technology to provide some variety.

The good: <This space intentionally left blank.>

The bad: The authors don’t provide evidence for anything of their claims and they didn’t do anything.

The abstract of this paper begins,

Due to several recent trends, the domestic environment has become more homogeneous and undifferentiated. Drawing on concepts from environmental psychology, we critique these trends. We propose heterogeneity as a new framework for domestic design, and we present design sketches…

The introduction begins,

A growing number of scholars have noted the increasing homogeneity, or uniform and undifferentiated nature, of the domestic environment. For example, the modern housing landscape has been critiqued as offering limited variation in internal form and structure…

It is remarkable how much information I gleaned from these few sentences. From these alone, I immediately inferred:

  • The paper would be full of needless words. (Yes. E.g.: “Increased homogeneity in the domestic environment plainly offers attractions such as convenience.”)
  • The references list would be short on peer-reviewed journal articles in Ubiquitous Computing and long on books, old material and non-academic fluff. (Yes. By my count 19 of 55 references were peer-reviewed research in Ubicomp. Most of these were “We built something cool” conference submissions)
  • It would be hard to find a contribution to knowledge in the paper. (Yes.)

Just for fun, I quote from the “Approach” section the crux of the method:

“To generate the design sketches, the authors engaged in a collaborative dialog with each other that drew on several resources and perspectives.”

This crucial sentence almost slipped by, buried in a giant paragraph on the third page of the paper. To paraphrase: “We talked about homes and fluffed it into a nine-page conference paper.”

Notes on “Fishpong”

November 9, 2008

Fishpong: Encouraging Human-to-Human Interaction in Informal Social Environments: Jennifer Yoon, Jun Oishi, Jason Nawyn, Kazue Kobayashi, Neeti Gupta

Fishpong is a slow, casual game. An animated table with a display shows water. When someone puts a coffee mug on the table, it generates ripples and a fish. The fish swims in straight lines around the table. With one player, the fish might swim off the table, so the player must block it with his or her mug. With more than one player, it’s a game of pong with the mugs as paddles and fish as balls.

The idea is that strangers might spontaneously begin conversations when they find they are inadvertently playing a leisurely game together. This claim has not yet been evaluated.

It’s a clever idea. I’d like to see if it works in a real coffee shop.

Notes on “Uncle Roy All Around You”

November 9, 2008

Uncle Roy All Around You: Implicating the City in a Location-Based Performance: Steve Benford, Martin Flintham, Adam Drozd, Rob Anastasi, Duncan Rowland, Nick Tandavanitj, Matt Adams, Ju Row-Farr, Amanda Oldroyd, Jon Sutton

Uncle Roy All Around You is a game/performance in which participants travel London hunting clues to find a specific office. Along the way, actors and remote players watching online guide them.

The authors spin a paper out of the performance by talking about trust and explaining users’ reactions to the game elements. There aren’t many surprises in their findings: Online players are less engaged than real, on-the-ground players; Users did things while playing the game they wouldn’t normally do, such as stepping into a limousine; Unlabeled performers caused users to suspect everyone of being a performer; Users found workarounds for the game’s technical limitations.

I’m not quite sure if the paper had a point, so it is difficult to comment on the strengths or weaknesses of the paper in making its point.

I note that 19 papers cite it (via Google Scholar), of these, fewer than ten are not written by one of the paper’s authors.

On the Validation of Tool-Oriented Research

November 9, 2008

Or, Why the Little Computer Scientist Has Beef With “We Built Something Cool”-type Academic Papers.

Many papers describe a technology the authors built. I call these the “We Built Something Cool” papers. Most of the papers from my Ubiquitous Computing class fall into this category, along with a few Software Engineering reading group papers.

Here are some examples of papers in the category, of varying quality:

  • Fishpong: Encouraging Human-to-Human Interaction in Informal Social Environments by Yoon et al.
  • Uncle Roy All Around You: Implicating the City in a Location-Based Performance by Benford et al.
  • In Praise of Tweaking by Gulley
  • Digital Family Portraits: Supporting Peace of Mind for Extended Family Members by Mynatt et al.

There’s a common pattern: The researchers build a system, describe it, and publish. It’s getting old. 

Without some sort of validation of the utility of the system, there’s no answer to a claim of uselessness. We have a word for “useless things built for interest or fun”: Hobby. Go publish what you built on your blog. See if the world cares.

Here is the Little Computer Scientist’s Five-Step Plan for “We Built Something Cool” Papers That Don’t Suck:

  1. Name a clear problem. Quantitatively show that it exists and is worth fixing. (For those papers that don’t solve a problem but instead enhance the status quo, give a quantitative baseline to which you will compare your system.)
  2. Survey existing solutions for the problem. Explain their inadequacy.
  3. Describe the design of your solution. Describe the domain-specific lessons learned during the iterative development and testing of the solution.
  4. Show that your solution solves the problem better than anything else. Make sure that the testing generalizes to the target population. The results should be reproducible. I should be able to borrow or duplicate your system, evaluate it in the same way as you did, and get the same result.
  5. Describe how your solution has been made available to the public. Are you commercializing it? Is it available for download? Give some indication that it is on its way to enthusiastic adoption by those affected by the problem.

Some will argue that this bar is too high. There may be something to what they say. After all, it’s easy for me to say “do more.” I’m not writing papers yet; I’m no more than a practitioner-in-training and a cheap critic. It’s just that I’ve noticed a pattern in my reviews which is caused by a pattern in the papers I’ve reviewed.

Notes on “Embedding Behavior Modification Strategies into a Consumer Electronic Device: A Case Study”

November 2, 2008

Embedding Behavior Modification Strategies into a Consumer Electronic Device: A Case Study: Jason Nawyn, Stephen S. Intille, Kent Larson

The Gist: The authors built a television remote control that gently encourages exercise and discourages extended television viewing. Along the way, they thoroughly elaborated several design principles to support effective persuasive technologies. In a preliminary study with one user, the remote control showed promise to achieve its goals.

The Good: The descriptions of persuasive technology design principles are well thought out. It’s clear how they influenced and improved the design of the remote control system.

The principles include:

  • Just-in-time interactions: The technology needs to change behaviour at the behaviour’s time and place
  • No time commitment: The technology may grab attention but must not require a user to explicitly devote time to it.
  • Sustain interaction over time: The technology must not be abandoned by users after the initial novelty period.
  • Non-coercive: The technology must not force the desired behaviour. 
  • No extrinsic motivation: The technology must not treat the undesired behaviour as a reward.

The remote control system cleverly meets these criteria. It suggests alternative activities to TV at key moments (e.g. between shows or at commercial segments.) It makes it easy to switch from TV-watching to active games and monitor total TV watching time. It never actively interferes with TV watching or annoys the user.

The Bad: They didn’t have the resources to fully evaluate the remote, so it’s unclear that the technology actually accomplishes its goals.

Notes on “Jogging over a Distance”

November 2, 2008

Jogging over a Distance—Supporting a “Jogging Together” Experience Although Being Apart: Florian Mueller, Alex Thorogood, Shannon O’Brien

The gist: This is a typical Ubicomp “we built something cool” paper. In this case, two joggers in different locations wear headsets that keep an audio connection alive. Spatial audio positioning makes it sound as if the other jogger is ahead or behind based on whether the other jogger is running faster or slower. 

The good:

  • Cool idea. 
  • They came up with a neat trick to do the spatial positioning with stereo headphones: Position the “front” sound at 1:30 and the “back” sound at 7:30 so that “front” sound is also slightly right and “back” sound is also slightly left.

The bad: They did no formal study of the utility of the system. This is a cool product prototype without much science backing it up. If they believe in it, they should commercialize and sell it, or do a formal study showing that users like it or that it encourages good behaviour.

Notes on “Augmenting the Social Space of an Academic Conference”

October 27, 2008

Augmenting the Social Space of an Academic Conference: Joseph F McCarthy, David W McDonald, Suzanne Soroczak, David H Nguyen, Al M Rashid

The authors built and systematically evaluated two Ubicomp applications. The applications were designed to augment an academic conference. Both relied on RFID tags in delegate conference passes.

The first system, AutoSpeakerID, projects the delegate’s profile on large screen when the delegate asks a question of a conference speaker.

The second system, Ticket2Talk, displays delegate profiles on a large screen as they interact in a coffee area.

The authors evaluated both systems by observing their use and surveying conference delegates for their thoughts.

Both systems are interesting additions to a conference. They are both simple to build. The evaluations suggested there is some value in them, even if it is only novelty value.

In general, I’m skeptical of any technology system designed to cause people to interact where they otherwise wouldn’t. In my opinion, the Ticket2Talk system fits in this category. I don’t understand why so many researchers keep trying to build systems to get people to talk to strangers more.

Notes on “The Familiar Stranger”

October 26, 2008

The Familiar Stranger: Anxiety, Comfort and Play in Public Places: Eric Paulos, Elizabeth Goodman

A familiar stranger is someone we recognize but we don’t speak with. The paper explores how emergent wireless technologies might affect our lives and interactions with these familiar strangers. The authors conducted two experiments and presented one ubiquitous computing device concept.

In the first experiment, they photographed everyone present at a train station at a certain time. A week later, they returned and asked everyone at the train station to identify which photographs they recognized. They also distributed a survey about public relationships.

In the second experiment, they walked around Berkeley with a test subject and interviewed him or her about significant places, comfort levels and relationships.

The proposed device transmits an identifier and listens for others of its kind. In this way it leaves a “digital scent” and smells for other digital scents left by others. Repeated detection of the same digital scent implies the existence of a familiar stranger.

The paper’s conclusion makes the following claims: 

The very essence of place and community are being redefined by personal wireless digital tools that transcend traditional physical constrains [sic] of time and space. New metaphors for visualizing, interacting, and interpreting the real-time ebb and flow of urban spaces will emerge. Crucial to this discussion will be the often ignored yet vital role of our Familiar Strangers. Without a concerted effort to develop new knowledge and tools for understanding the implications of these new technologies, computer and social scientists, city planners, and others run the risk of losing touch with the reality of our urban streets and their inhabitants.

If the authors are right about the assumptions made in these statements, it is conceivable that informal foundational work will be useful. In the end, however, this is a paper grounded in art more than in science. Books and art pieces dominate the citations list. The experiments consist of surveys unscientifically exploring the obvious. There’s not much here.

Notes on “A Taxonomy of Ambient Information Systems: Four Patterns of Design”

October 19, 2008

A Taxonomy of Ambient Information Systems: Four Patterns of Design: Zachary Pousman, John Stasko.

It is useful to discover meaningful dimensions on which ambient information systems vary. With multiple dimensions identified, a space is created which reveals clusters of similar applications and holes. The clusters can be named to create a common vocabulary for discussion. The holes focus our attention on opportunities for innovation.

In this paper, the authors describe a four-dimensional classification system for ambient information systems. They locate 19 existing applications within this space and identify four clusters which they call “patterns.”

The four dimensions:

  1. Information Capacity
  2. Notification Level
  3. Representational Fidelity
  4. Aesthetic Emphasis
The authors don’t make any sort of comparison between their taxonomy and previous taxonomies. This might be considered a fault in the paper but I think the intuitive appeal of the given taxonomy is sufficient argument for its use. The classification system seems to match the important features of ambient information displays. I’m not too worried about the construct validity or face validity of the system.
That said, the authors ought to present rubrics and show some evidence that novice users of these rubrics classify applications in the same way. I would hope for high inter-rater reliability but I think they would need to construct their rubric carefully to achieve it.

Notes on “Heuristic Evaluation of Ambient Displays”

October 19, 2008

Heuristic Evaluation of Ambient Displays: Jennifer Mankoff, Anind K. Dey, Gary Hsieh, Julie Kientz, Scott Lederer, Morgan Ames.

Jakob Nielsen’s Ten Usability Heuristics are the gold standard of heuristic evaluation for computer interfaces. He has established their validity and utility for the improvement of software. In fact, he established heuristic evaluation itself as a legitimate technique.

His heuristics don’t intuitively apply to Ambient Displays, however, where the goals are different from traditional user interfaces. In a traditional user interface, the user’s full attention is focused on a task. An ambient display is meant to capture the user’s attention only when necessary and even then only for a brief moment.

The authors of this paper brainstormed new heuristics for the evaluation of Ambient Displays. They compared the new heuristics with Nielsen’s heuristics and concluded that the new heuristics were useful and superior to Nielsen’s.

The paper provided insight into how they went about developing their new heuristics. They also made a significant effort to attach a quantitative and empirical foundation for the new heuristics. This seems like a difficult obstacle to overcome given the fluid and subjective nature of heuristic evaluation in general.

I’m suspicious of their results. First, they failed to find an effect for the hypothesis that “the number of issues found in the ambient condition will be greater and the issues will be more severe than those found in the Nielsen condition.” Second, they eliminated an outlier to find an effect for the hypothesis “The ambient heuristics will be more useful to evaluators than Nielsen’s heuristics. A heuristic that finds many, severe problems is more useful than a heuristic that finds fewer problems with lower severity.” I don’t agree that the elimination of the “outlier” was appropriate or even that the data point they eliminated was an “outlier.”

The problem was that they weren’t making a valid comparison. Nielsen’s heuristics are inferior to any set of heuristics designed for ambient displays, because Nielsen’s heuristics aren’t about ambient displays. It’s like applying an evaluation chart for a beauty pageant to a dog show. I think a more appropriate experiment would be to instruct evaluators to find all the issues with an Ambient Display. In one condition, give them the heuristic list and in the control condition give them no list.

Notes on Twelve Healthcare and Accessibility Technology Papers

October 8, 2008

Rory and I presented twelve papers to our Ubiquitous Computing class yesterday.

We looked at technology to help cancer patients, the elderly, the deaf, the blind and children.

Read the rest of this entry »

Notes on “The Computer for the 21st Century”

October 3, 2008

Mark Weiser introduces a specific and broad vision of the future of computing. He envisions a world in which there are computers everywhere. These machines will be seamlessly integrated with the world and interconnected through networks. He explicitly mentions three main types of computers: Tabs, which are inch-scale computers; Pads, which are foot-scale computers; and Liveboards, which are yard-scale computers. He also implicitly discusses a fourth type, which can be though of as embedded computers. He predicts that the ubiquity of these four types of machines will lead to a number of privacy issues.  

As the paper describes a vision for the future, the key insight of the paper is the clear communication of that vision. The paper includes a fictional narrative which gives the reader a concrete idea of what is meant. Humurously, the protagonist of this story has three cups of coffee in the space of a morning. Other important insights from the paper include its specific  and testable technology predictions: 60MB portable storage chips, WiFi, overlay displays and a few others. It also surveys some of the work that had already been accomplished at PARC.  

It is difficult to name limitations of this paper. Its only weakness is that it is not a description of real progress. The paper doesn’t describe new work that benefit anyone. It is purely theoretical, rather than a report of pragmatic work.