Computer to user: You sort it out

Researchers in the US and the UK are developing computer systems that make deliberately ambiguous interpretations of human environments. What's more, the systems are often flat-out wrong. But the developers are delighted with their progress so far, and claim that with computers, sometimes less is more.

The work is a branch of affective computing, which attempts to make computers recognize and respond to users' emotions. And then there's culturally embedded computing, as Cornell University information science professor Phoebe Sengers calls it, which applies a twist to the concept.

"We are shifting from the idea that affective computing is about computers understanding emotions to thinking about how people can understand their own emotions better after interacting with computational devices," Sengers said.

The notions of ambiguity and simplicity are being tested in a house in North London, where a prototype system called Smart Home will develop a sense of a home's emotional climate and present its observations to the family in a daily horoscope. Input comes from shy sensors that don't directly track movements and activities - which many people find intrusive. Instead, they collect indirect clues about daily living patterns, such as the positions of doors and light switches, water flows and sound levels. The project, a collaboration between the University of London's Goldsmiths College and Cornell, is funded by Intel and the National Science Foundation.

"The notion of the 'horoscope' is to give people a prompt to reflect on the well-being in their home -- whether people are getting along, whether they are busy," a professor of design at Goldsmiths. William Gaver, said. "It might say, 'You've been very busy lately; you should think about taking some time off.'"

The system will often be wrong, acknowledges Gaver. Maybe you weren't that busy; you just left the light in the study on all night. But it will be right often enough to get users' attention.

"It's not clear we are trying to be 'useful' in a very direct sense," he said. "We are trying to be more thought-provoking. The idea is to shift the center of interpretation and reflection from the system to the user."

Low-bandwidth love

Meanwhile, Cornell graduate student, Joseph Kaye, has taken the concepts of simplicity and ambiguity even further in an experiment he calls intimacy one bit at a time. The idea is that meaningful interactions between geographically split couples can occur with minimal communication.

A number of couples in long-distance relationships were given a virtual intimate object (VIO), which displays a small circle in the Windows taskbar. When one person clicks on the circle, his or her partner's circle glows bright red. Over time, the circle fades to blue, unless the partner clicks again.

Though they continued to use cell phones, email and instant messaging, the subjects became surprisingly attached to, and concerned about, these little signs of intimacy, Kaye said. On average, the subjects used their VIOs 35 times a day, and 70 reported that it made them feel closer to their partners. A number of them continued to use their VIOs after the experiment ended.

While they couldn't really tell from the circles just what their partners were doing or thinking, they interpreted each click as a gift, Kaye said.

The richness of the experience reported by participants stemmed directly from the VIO's simplicity and ambiguity, which invited active interpretation, he said.

"A lot of computer technology is about efficiency and maximizing the amount of stuff you can do," Kaye said. "But we are saying maybe that's not the way to do it; maybe you want an opportunity for richness and interpretation."

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Ambiguity goes to the office

Other researchers at Cornell are working on displays intended to give workers a sense of the emotional climates in their offices. A prototype combined input from sound sensors around the workspace with a daily survey of workers - "How are you feeling today?" - to produce distortions in an animated image based on a painting by Joan Miro displayed on a big screen. A red oval on the image changed position and size, as did several dots, in ways that users found difficult to interpret.

"We could have projected, 'The happiness level today is 5'," graduate student, Kirsten Boehner, said. "But we wanted to do something that would draw people into playing with it a bit more. People would stand there looking at it and say, 'Oh, the color is moving to red; that means there's a lot of stress'. That might not be the correct interpretation, but it provided a stimulus for people to reflect on emotions and talk about them.

"Ambiguity is not something you always want in your system," Boehner said. "It's not something you want air traffic controllers to have. But for systems that are about inspiring creativity or reflection or conversation, it is really useful to signal to people that there's no right interpretation. It's about building new interpretations."

While such work may seem purely academic: "Simplicity and ambiguity are incredibly important concepts," said Genevieve Bell, director of user experience for Intel's Digital Home Group. "I find them a useful vantage point for critiquing existing systems. There's been a startling disconnect between the people who develop computational technologies and the people that consume them."