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October 2009

Coffee, conversation and continuing education at Kirkland Zoka

Kirkland Zoka I've met with good friends at Kirkland Zoka the past two mornings, enjoying great coffee, stimulating conversations of considerable breadth and depth, and a continuing education about a range of topics, including social media, Foucault and social dialogue, the challenges of living without a goal (or, at least, living without attachments) ... and the finer points of fine coffee.

Friday morning, I met with Jason Simon, a connoisseur and cultivator of caffeinated conversations, to talk about the ways that coffeehouses are using social media (e.g., Jason has been tracking how coffeehouses are using Twitter, the resurgence of controversy about WiFi use in coffeehouses and a collection of photos of conversations at coffeehouses), as well as the ways that social media is affecting - or might affect - conversations in coffeehouses (which was one of the design goals behind CoCollage).

Four-cone pour-over station Upon my arrival at Zoka, I was happy to reconnect with Matt, one of the baristas who had been working at Trabant when we initiated our collaboration on the initial deployment of CoCollage (and who has one of the coolest pair of forearm tattoos I've ever encountered). After telling Matt that I was interested in trying something with full body - subtlety is nearly always lost on me, and I need big, bold flavors in anything I drink to really have [positive] impact - he suggested the Kenya Kirimara, and I followed his recommendation, enjoying a great cup via their ceramic Melitta "pour-over" system (pictured left).

A stacked pair of ambient displays @ Kirkland Zoka While I was waiting for the coffee to be prepared, I became intrigued with the pair of 37 inch LCD displays showing dynamic patterns and sequences of Zoka-related photos on the southeastern wall of the coffeehouse. The upper display shows a scrolling collage of photos while the lower display shows a single photo at a time. As far as I can tell, all the photos are of, about or by Zoka, its owners and staff, the coffee they serve there and the places / plantations from which the coffee is sourced.

Although I was mostly engaged in the conversation(s) with Jason while I was there, my long association with CoCollage led me to occasionally monitor the level of attention and engagement the displays were attracting. It seemed to me that they were less engaging than the CoCollage displays - which also show a collage of photos (but the photos are contributed by customers, not just owners / staff, and their selection is influenced by who is in the coffeehouse at any given time) - but of course I'm [still] biased. I suspect part of the difference - in addition to who is contributing photos and whether / when they are shown - is due to the size and placement of the displays. The 37" LCDs (vs. 50" plasma displays used for CoCollage), coupled with the position in a corner of the coffeehouse some distance away from where most people sit, makes them somewhat less noticeable than most of the CoCollage installations. Interestingly, I had talked with the manager of the Greenlake Zoka (or "Original Zoka") and University Zoka about a CoCollage installation, but there was no interest in having any kind of display in those two coffeehouses. A recent post on the Zoka blog - Zoka Getting "With It" - which mentions the Zoka Facebook page and Twitter account (@zokacoffee) - suggests that they may be becoming more engaged in / through social media ... at least online.

Kirkland Zoka This morning, I returned to Kirkland Zoka to meet another friend, Mike Buckley, founder of Inventcor, which produces, among other things, a water tracker bottle (for monitoring daily personal hydration), to talk about personal, professional and philosophical issues not as closely related to coffeehouses, per se. The coffee house was much more crowded this morning (a Saturday) than yesterday morning, and I noticed that the community table had a much larger pool of people gathered around it today. The sun was shining for much of our time there, and the large, open windows, light colors and strategically positioned mirrors helped accentuate the delightful, but increasingly rare, absence of clouds today (though, alas, it did cloud over after a while).

After a post-coffee walk along the lakeside with Mike, I realized I was still undercaffeinated, and so after he left, I went back into Zoka for a second cup. Having recently started reading Everything But the Coffee: Learning About America from Starbucks, by Bryant Simon (no relation to Jason) - in which the author complains, among other things, about how customers at Starbucks stores tend to either keep to themselves, talk only with people they come in with, or talk with people they go there to meet, I was eager to spend some time there observing conversations (rather than participating in them). Although there seemed to be a few examples of spontaneous / serendipitous conversations among people waiting in line - perhaps due to the relatively inefficient layout of the counter (order on the left, pay on the right, go back to the left to pick up your drink, with the food display case in the middle) - I can't say I saw any more such conversations taking place at Zoka than I've seen (or Bryant Simon reports seeing) at Starbucks ... and despite Simon's critiques, I've had some pretty amazing coffee and conversation experiences at Starbucks.

Keith Hampton and Neeti Gupta, in their fascinating study of Community and social interaction in the wireless city: wi-fi use in public and semi-public spaces, distinguish between true mobiles - who do not want to interact with others in the coffee shop (other than people they arrive with or meet there), and [so] often use laptops as "portable interaction shields" and/or mobile phones as "legitimate momentary diversions" -  and placemakers -  coffee shop customers who desire and seek out serendipitous social interactions. Hampton and Gupta studied both independent coffee houses and Starbucks coffee houses in two cities - Seattle and Boston - and did not report any significant differences between the types or numbers of conversations - or the relative proportions of true mobiles and placemakers - at either kind of place [Correction: they did note more true mobiles at Starbucks and more placemakers at independent coffee houses]. I plan to post another entry about the Bryant Simon book - and the Hampton & Gupta paper - once I'm done with the book ... and, perhaps, conducted a few more first-hand observations of Starbucks and third wave coffeehouses like Zoka.

Meanwhile, returning to first-hand experiences of coffee and conversations, in addition to observing conversations at Zoka, I was also eager to expand my coffee horizons. I asked Conner, another barista there (who also looks familiar ... perhaps he also worked at Trabant), for a recommendation of another full-bodied coffee to try. He told me they had Ethiopian Sidamo, and asked me if I wanted some of the old batch or some of the more recently roasted batch. I asked him which was bigger and bolder, and he said the older one probably had an edge in that regard, so that's what I ordered.

Ethiopia Sidamo, old (natural) and new (washed) As it turned out, although my plan was to only observe conversations, I become a participant in yet another engaging discussion. Conner went on break shortly after serving up my coffee, and sat down next to me for a bite to eat ... and didn't get as much of a break as he'd probably anticipated. I asked him what the difference was between the old and new batches of Ethiopian Sidamo. He explained that the older batch was "natural", i.e., after picking the coffee cherries, the cherries are laid out to dry before extracting the beans from their casing. This allows more of the fruit of the cherries to be imparted (infused?) into the beans, and increases the acidity. The newer batch was "washed", i.e., the beans are removed from the cherries - and washed - soon after picking, before they are allowed to dry. [I've since found a blog post with information about "washed" and "natural" Ethiopia Sidamo.] Conner asked me if I could taste any blueberry in the cup I was drinking, and I had to admit that I could ... continuing an educational process that started with a Clover tasting at Trabant over a year ago. There was only a handful of beans left from that batch, and he kindly put them in a bag for me to take home with me (see photo to the right). I now wish I'd asked for a cup of the new batch, to try them side-by-side, but then I probably would have been overcaffeinated.

Perhaps I'll go back soon to pick up a bag of the newer batch ... in any case, I'll definitely be going back there, as Kirkland Zoka is my new favorite independent (or, perhaps more accurately, micro-chain) coffee house on the Eastside.

Blessing and Wounding: Longing, loss, pain and transformation

I was transfixed by an article in today's Wall Street Journal - In Praise of the Crackup: A novelist peers through darkness to find glittering gems in writing and art - by Jeanette Winterson, in which she explores "the collision of creativity and mental instability", digging deeper into the way that artists are often able [driven?] to transform personal pain and loss into works that offer great meaning and value to others. I was first struck by her illumination of the connection between blessing and wounding:

The French verb "blesser" means "to wound." Original etymologies from both Hebrew and Anglo-Saxon bind "bless" with a bloodying of some kind—the daubing of the lintel at Passover, the blood smear on the forehead or thigh of a new young warrior or temple initiate. Wounding—real or symbolic—is both mark and marker. It is an opening in the self, painful but transformative.

Rumi-225px-Mevlana This notion of wounding as opening resonated with one of my favorite poems by one of my favorite poets in an audiobook by one of my favorite modern authors. In Your Heart's Prayer, Oriah Mountain Dreamer recites the poem "Not Here", by Rumi, in which he celebrates the broken-open place:

There's courage involved if you want to become truth.
There is a broken-open place in a lover.
Where are those qualities of bravery and sharp compassion?
What's the use of old and frozen thought?
I want a howling hurt.
This is not a treasury where gold is stored; this is for copper.
We alchemists look for talent that can heat up and change.
Lukewarm won't do.
Halfhearted holding back, well-enough getting by?
Not here.

200px-Tagore3 It also reminded me of other ancient wisdom that I [also] first encountered through Oriah, a piece by Rabindranath Tagore, of which I do not know the name:

I see a light, but no fire. Is this what my life is to be like?
Better to head for the grave.
A messenger comes, the grief-courier, and the message is that the woman you love is in her house alone, and wants you to come now while it is still night.
Clouds unbroken, rain, all night, all night. I don't understand these wild impulses - what is happening to me?
A lightning flash is followed by deeper melancholy. I stumble around inside looking for the path the night wants me to take.
Light, where is the light? Light the fire, if you have desire!
Thunder, rushing wind, nothingness. Black night, black stone.
Don't let your whole life go by in the dark.
Evidently, the only way to find the path is to set fire to my own life.

220px-Leonard_Cohen_2187-edited And, just to round out a selection of relevant poems shared by Oriah, here's a segment she quotes from Leonard Cohen's song, Anthem:

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That's how the light gets in. 

Returning to the wisdom channeled by Jeanette Winterson, there were a number of other highly resonant insights and experiences, written with such elegance and poignancy that I cannot bring myself to do anything more (or less) than simply excerpt them here:

We know from 100 years of psychoanalytic investigation that an early trauma, often buried or unavailable to consciousness, is the motif that plays through our lives. We meet it again and again in different disguises. We are wounded again in the same place. This doesn't turn us into victims. Rather, we are people in search of a transformation of the real.

Creativity takes the heavy mass of our lives and transforms it back into available energy. Taking the mundane or the weighted, the overlooked or the too familiar, art is able to re-show us ourselves and ourselves in the world. Art holding up a mirror to life is commonly misunderstood as realism, but in fact it is recognition. We see through our own fakes, our own cover stories, we see things as they are, instead of how they look, or how we'd like them to be.


Art isn't a surface activity. It comes from a deep place and it meets the wound we each carry.

Even when our lives are going well, there is something that prowls the borders, unseen, unfelt. The existential depression that is becoming a condition of humankind, experienced as loss of meaning, a kind of empty bafflement, is different from the situational depression we all go through from time to time. Job loss, bereavement and catastrophe will throw us into situational depression, but existential depression is different. When life loses all meaning, we cannot live.


Longing is painful. Every work of art is an attempt to bring into being the object of loss. The pictures, the music, the poems and the performances are an intense engagement with loss. While one is in the act of making, one is not in loss, and one has meaning.

[Addendum: While Jeanette Winterson focuses on art and literature, in Wired's recent article on "An Epidemic of Fear: How Panicked Parents Skipping Shots Endangers Us All", Amy Wallace describes a transformation of a wound into a blessing in the realm of science:

To understand exactly why [Paul] Offit [inventor of the rotavirus vaccine] became a scientist, you must go back more than half a century, to 1956. That was when doctors in Offit’s hometown of Baltimore operated on one of his legs to correct a club foot, requiring him to spend three weeks recovering in a chronic care facility with 20 other children, all of whom had polio. Parents were allowed to visit just one hour a week, on Sundays. His father, a shirt salesman, came when he could. His mother, who was pregnant with his brother and hospitalized with appendicitis, was unable to visit at all. He was 5 years old. “It was a pretty lonely, isolating experience,” Offit says. “But what was even worse was looking at these other children who were just horribly crippled and disfigured by polio.” That memory, he says, was the first thing that drove him toward a career in pediatric infectious diseases.]

Strands Labs Seattle, A Retrospective

New sign for Strands Labs Seattle On October 1, Strands Labs Seattle effectively closed. With the tightening economy, our parent company, Strands, has decided to focus its resources on its three primary business units - Strands Business Solutions, Strands Personal Finance (moneyStrands) and Strands Social Discovery ( The CoCollage application that we developed in the Seattle lab continues to be supported by Tyler Phillipi, our Business Development Manager, who will continue to develop business prospects for the system: generating revenue by selling advertising on our network of 23 community displays around Seattle. However, further sociotechnical research, design and development activities have been suspended. Our former Tech Lead has left the firm to join another startup company down in the SF Bay area, our former Lead Designer has been reassigned to support one of Strands' three core business units, and our former Principal Instigator (me) is now, in effect, an instigator without portfolio. I've had some time to work through most of the first four stages of grief, and as part of the fifth and final stage - acceptance - I wanted to engage in some personal reflection on this latest chapter of my professional life.

Shortly after joining Strands (then called MyStrands), I defined the mission upon which we were preparing to embark:

To design, develop and deploy technologies that weave together the various strands of our activities, interests and passions to bridge the gaps between the digital and physical worlds and help people relate to the other people, places and things around them in ways that offer value to all participants.

As we converged on an application designed to manifest this mission, we iteratively pared it down to a more manageable mouthful:

Cultivating community in great, good places

CoCollage-Screenshot CoCollage-Trabant The application we created, CoCollage, was designed to promote conversation and connection in coffeehouses and other community-oriented places by showing a dynamic collage of photos and quotes uploaded by customers and staff to a special website on a large display in that place ... or, as I sometimes like to put it, CoCollage is a place-based social networking system designed to bridge the gaps between people by bridging the gaps between their online and offline worlds.

The initial design and deployment of CoCollage at Trabant Coffee in Seattle's University District - two blocks from our now-former office - in August 2008 was reasonably successful, attracting hundreds of users who uploaded thousands of photos and quotes. Our interactions with the owners, staff and customers - through a combination of semi-structured interviews, online and offline surveys, and other sources of online and offline feedback - provided a number of insights, many of which are captured in a paper on "Supporting Community in Third Places with Situated Social Software", which we presented at the 4th International Conference on Communities and Technologies (C&T 2009), the slides from which are included below.

These insights were also incorporated into a second version of the system, released in November 2008, just in time for our expansion into four additional coffeehouses in Seattle: Tougo, Neptune, Kaladi and All City. We continued our expansion throughout the first quarter of 2009, partnering with a total of 20 venues by April, incrementally adding new features to support conversation and connection, as well as the integrated advertising - on the large displays and on the web sites associated with each venue - that we hoped would eventually support CoCollage as a profitable product for Strands. While most of our new venue partners are coffeehouses or cafes, we also started working with other types of third places, including a bookstore, a bar, two restaurants, a barbershop and a religious community center.

During the second quarter, however, we encountered some unexpected turbulence. Our initial goal was for the advertising to come only from local businesses: ideally, independent "mom & pop" stores within walking distance of our venue partners. Just as each CoCollage instance was designed to provide a window into the commonalities and diversities among individual members of its community - helping customers and staff better appreciate the interestingness of the people around them - the advertising component was intended to provide a window into the relevance of local businesses - helping people better appreciate the value small businesses right around the corner had to offer. Unfortunately, selling advertising to small businesses - many of which had little or no experience with traditional advertising, much less a new-fangled approach to advertising on a community display and web site - turned out to be far more challenging and time-consuming than we'd anticipated.

Others have commented more extensively on the challenges of hyperlocal advertising, and I'm reminded of a remark made by Scott Svenson at NWEN's Entrepreneur University 2005 about one of the greatest strengths he and his co-founder at Seattle Coffee Company (acquired by Starbucks in 2003) benefited from was what they didn't know (e.g., they didn't realize that opening 8 stores in 12 days was something that not even Starbucks would have attempted [at that time] ... and even Starbucks is still learning about a sustainable number of stores). In any case, we relaxed our advertising constraints, shifting from community-based to community-oriented, hoping to tap into a broader base of potential advertisers while still maintaining relevance to the communities with whom we we were working.

We finally succeeded in signing a significant advertising contract in the third quarter, but by then there were other, external pressures mounting: the continuing recession was creating increasing constraints on Strands. The company had created two innovation labs in late 2007 / early 2008 - one in New York City, the other in Seattle - and had also funded a smaller innovation project in the fall of 2008. By the summer of 2009, the company decided to focus its resources on the three larger, more established, business units, which were producing the most revenue, or expected to produce the most revenue in the near term. Prospects for spinning off the other projects into new, separate companies were discussed, but in the case of Strands Labs Seattle, we were unable to converge on terms acceptable to all parties.

Although I've been reading more about the perils of positive thinking, I remain an irrepressible optimist. While I'm sad about the dissolution of Strands Labs Seattle, I'm grateful for the opportunity I was given to create and lead - or, as I like to put it, "instigate" - a research lab: defining a vision, hiring and working with some amazing people, finding and furbishing a fabulous office (and deck), and producing a prototype that progressed so far down the productization pathway. I'm also grateful for the opportunity to work closely with so many owners, staff and customers of independent coffeehouses and other third places around Seattle. It has been an honor, a privilege and a delight to engage in such a variety of conversations and connections that have been cultivated through our collaborations on CoCollage.

Interactive Displays at Disney World

As I noted in my notes from UbiComp 2009, I missed a few sessions during the last day of the conference so I could explore more of Disney World, taking advantage of my free birthday pass to look for examples of how interactive displays were used to enhance guest experiences at Epcot Center. It felt a bit odd to be spending [part of] my birthday alone at Disney World, but as I noted in my earlier post on pins, positivity and practices at Disney, I was sporting my "Happy Birthday!" button during part of the day, so although I was alone, I didn't feel [as] lonely.

I'd heard reports of an interactive game on big screens for those waiting in line for Soarin', so that's where I went first. The line was the perfect length when I arrived - I was able to walk right up to a point at which the first few of the five giant screens was visible, and the line had just started moving, so I was able to advance to the edge of that first screen before the line stopped.

Waitin' for Soarin' The five ambient / interactive displays in line at Soarin'

The displays appear to operate in two modes: ambient and interactive. In ambient mode, each display shows a different sequence of intriguing landscape sketches, accompanied by music that I might characterize as reflective and complex.

Ambient display for the people waiting in line at Soarin'

One of the interesting effects of this mode is that as the crowd enters this area, they shift from being rather boisterous and chatty into a somewhat more subdued state; the attention of many of the people in the queue seems to shift from their family and friends to the images and music. After about five minutes of ambient mode, the displays shift to interactive mode, wherein the people in line are explicitly invited to play a game, in this case, "Experience the Land".

Ready to Play? (in line @ Soarin') Experience the Land @ Soarin'

In each game, the projected images are influenced by the actions of the people in line. According to a report on Soarin' in AllEars, the interaction involves a combination of motion detection and heat sensing (another report alludes to infrared as the underlying technology). Silhouettes of [parts of] people in line are projected onto the screen, and as they move around and/or wave their arms, they affect the story unfolding on the screen.

In the first game, "Form the Land" (shown on the left below), people's movements help to "push up" regions of virtual landscape into virtual mountains; I kept using my hand in a pushing up motion, but seemed to reach plateaus in some of the formations. In the second game, "Grow the Seeds" (on the right), waving physical hands over virtual seeds helped sprout the seeds into virtual plants; I suspect that additional waving helps grow the plants, and I was biding my time between sprouting new plants - requiring jumping to get the ones high up (perhaps these are within standing reach of people in line that are farthest from the screen, and so I may have been hogging the ball, so to speak) - and tending to existing plants, but at one point I inadvertently hit the person next to me, so I curbed my enthusiasm a bit after that.

Form the Land @ Soarin' Grow the Seeds @ Soarin'

The entire two-game sequence lasted about 5 minutes - about the time it takes for the Soarin' ride itself - and then I was in line for another 5 minutes of ambient mode before reaching the final destination, so I suspect that the queue is designed to toggle between ambient and interactive modes every 5 minutes, and if you have to wait 10 minutes or more, you get to try the game at least once.

I have since read an Orlando Sentinel blog post - Soarin' queue games a hit - which references "a bird game" so I suspect that there are a set of different games that are - or have been - provided for those waiting in line for Soarin' (and a more recent report in the Orlando Sentinel - Wait may be more fun at Disney's Space Mountain - suggests that an "interactive queue" and "audio-visual upgrades" may be included in the rehabilitation of that ride).

Update, 2009-11-11, via BoingBoing: a new post on Disney Parks Blog about "Walt Disney World’s Classic Space Mountain Attraction to Reopen with a Few Surprises" includes some updates and photos, from which excerpts are included below.

Passengers will be able to immerse themselves in unique game play as they prepare for blast off, becoming part of the space station adventure. During a recent walkthrough, we deflected asteroids to keep runways clear as part of the story.

The interactive experiences are based on duties you’d find on board a long-traveling space craft, according to Walt Disney Imagineering Senior Show Designer Alex Wright. Each game lasts about 90 seconds with a 90-second interval and the games can accommodate 86 players at one time.


Had I known about the possibility of multiple games at the time of my visit, I would have looped back through, just to see whether I could try another game. The post describes some group dynamics - "many people were yelling, in unison, 'lean left!' and 'lean right!' while trying to lead the bird through the forest" - that I did not observe in the Experience the Land games, so if I were to go through the queue again, I would also explore more of the collective dimensions of play in this context. There is a debate in the comments on that post about whether the game ultimately makes the queue move slower - i.e., whether people are so absorbed in the game that they don't move forward as the line opens up. While I was there, the timing was such that movement seemed to take place only when the game was not in play; I'm not sure whether this was a game feature added after the initial roll-out or was part of the original design.

More coffee, content and community One of the most challenging dimensions of designing large display applications for public and semi-public places is achieving the contextually appropriate level of engagement. If the displays are too engaging, they virtually (or attentionally) take people out of the physical space, reducing "task performance" among the people in that space. If they are not sufficiently engaging, then it is not worth the time or money to deploy them. We encountered this Goldilocks dilemma - not too hot, not too cold - in the design of our CoCollage proactive display application, where our ambient visualization of photos and quotes uploaded by people in a cafe was designed to  promote awareness and conversations among those people while they were in line (and/or elsewhere in the cafe) without unduly interfering with the "task" of placing their orders when they got to the end of the line. In some cases we got it right, but in others - due to a complex combination of factors including place, placement and community in places - the display appeared to be either too engaging or not engaging enough [and before moving on, in this context, I can't help but mention that there is a 1939 Disney short film on Goldilocks and The Three Bears.]

After searching around for some other uses of displays, I decided to take a break from my field exploration in order to attend the closing keynote and post-conference UbiComp steering committee meeting back at the Disney Conference Center. Fortunately, this was within easy walking distance.

800px-Spaceship_earth When I resumed my journey at Epcot later that afternoon, the next stop was Spaceship Earth, where in this case I was more interested in the use of displays after the ride rather than before the ride. Shortly after embarking on the ride, the riders are invited to "Look up", whereupon a photo is taken of each rider in a two-person car. The ride then progresses through a series of animatronic exhibits highlighting the relentless march of technological progress. During the ride, and at the end - while the car is backed down into the catchment area - each rider is asked a series of questions; I'll include the questions below, with my responses highlighted in italic, and links to photos I snapped of the kiosk when the questions were shown:

I was then shown my freshly semi-customized video from the future, which given the constraints imposed by the questions and multiple-choice responses, represents an example of user-influenced content vs. user-generated content. A further constraint I encountered is that the Disney site does not permit embedding, so I downloaded the video, uploaded it to YouTube and embedded it below. I'll also include a transcript of the narration.

Interestingly, in this context, the video includes a number of displays, including a portable medical scanner, a portable smart health card reader / display (shown in the keyframe for the video below) and a wearable cast-mounted display for monitoring / expediting the healing of a broken arm mended by a microscopic (or perhaps nanoscopic) robotic team. 

Your Future: Portable Medical Scanner Your Future: Portable Health Card Reader / Display Your Future: Mending Monitor

I don't know how the video might have been affected had there been another real passenger in the car providing input to the questions above, but my assigned virtual co-star in the movie appears to bear the brunt of the health problems we encounter during the episode.

Welcome to the future ... or should I say _your_ future?

Here in your future, it'll be more fun than ever to enjoy nature in the great outdoors. But even in a perfect world, accidents do happen. [video shows skiers on an icepacked ledge that breaks up falling down a mountain]

Don't worry, with your take charge attitude, you are prepared. A portable medical scanner analyzes the situation. Fortunately, your entire history is with you at all times on a smart card.

Your first day might include nanotechnology, a microscopic robotic team that fixes the injury from the inside.

And while you relax at home with a cup of soup, technology speeds recovery time. In no time at all, you're back on your feet. Uh-oh [video shows another icepack breaking up under skis]. Fortunately, in the future, help is never far away.

The end ... or should I say the beginning ... of your future.

Recent riders - and their hometowns - on Spaceship Earth After disembarking from the ride, I entered an area dominated by a large spherical display of the earth, with photos of the people emerging from the ride momentarily superimposed on the display, after which the photos are whisked away to the points on the earth representing their hometowns. Surrounding the globe are a collection of large rectangular displays showing the keyframes for the semi-customized videos that had been produced by recent riders, and a set of kiosks at which riders can find their videos from the future and send them to themselves - and one other person - via email. I found myself wishing I could have simply swiped my magnetically-striped Disney card rather than having to manually enter my email address on the touch-screen (and waiting in line in order to even get to a free kiosk). I'll include a Flickr slideshow of the sequence of events - and displays - encountered at Spaceship Earth below.

One of the interactive games I heard about, but did not experience first-hand, was the Kim Possible World Showcase Adventure, in which players use their "super-secret Kimmunicators—interactive, handheld, cell-phone-like devices that help maneuver agents through their mission". This was a game that encompasses several screens - the screens on the hand-held devices, as well as larger screens at different pavilions around Epcot.

A "fiesta" margaritaOne reason I didn't try it is because I heard several reports about the game being boring (for adults) and crassly commercial - many of the adventures are designed to lure the agents into specific areas of the shopping areas of the various pavilions. The other reason was that, it being my birthday, I wanted to take some time off from my field study to simply enjoy other dimensions of the guest experience, such as the warm weather, a beautiful sunset - a more naturalistic, but less interactive, public display of sorts - and the tasty margaritas I discovered around the Mexican pavilion.

Update, 23 October 2009:

Wired's GadgetLab published a short article - and video - on Interactive Art Pushes Boundaries of Viewer, Artist, highlighting the work of Camille Utterback, which seems closely related to the Soarin' game:

Digital artist Camille Utterback makes installations that combine cameras, projectors and custom software to create interactive, playful paintings.

Stand in front of her work, and you’ll soon be waving your arms, walking around, spinning or hopping to figure out how your movements get translated into the abstract, colorful strokes on the screen.


Notes from UbiComp 2009

UbiComp2009-logo Having earlier posted some notes from the pre-conference Doctoral Colloquium and Hybrid Design Practices workshop, I've finally gotten around to compiling - and augmenting - some notes from the main technical program of UbiComp 2009, the 11th International Conference on Ubiquitous Computing, held at the Disney Yacht Club in Orlando, Florida, last week. Before delving into my personal and rather idiosyncratic recollections from and ruminations about the conference, I want to note that there are a variety of other sources of social media around the web tagged with "ubicomp2009", including presentations on SlideShare, photos at Flickr and messages on Twitter (archives of which may be more reliably found on Twubs). I also want to note that I missed parts of some sessions, and missed both Saturday morning sessions entirely, so most gaps are due to nonattendance rather than disinterest.

PA015291 Sumi Helal, General Chair of the conference, began the opening remarks [and has shared the slides from the opening remarks] by welcoming us to the conference, thanking all the volunteers, and reporting on some statistics about attendance at the conference: 255 people registered for the conference, of whom 116 were students. The Program Co-Chairs, Hans Gellersen and Sunny Consolvo, then shared some further statistics: 251 submissions (180 ten-page "full papers" and 71 four-page "notes") - the highest ever submitted to a UbiComp conference (!) - of which 31 were accepted (25 full papers and 6 notes), yielding an acceptance rate of 13.8% for papers, 8.5% for notes, and 12.4% overall.

PA015304 Henry Tirri delivered the opening keynote, "Poor Man's Ubicomp", reviewing the past, present and future prospects for computing in various form factors, and finishing with an invitation to focus on how the mobile computer (aka mobile phone) can have greater impact on people in emerging economies. Henry highlighted 5 important dimensions in which mobile computing is new, that I will characterize through 5 C's (harking back to my own time at Nokia, working on a project with 3 C's):

  • connectivity: mobile computers have at least one radio, and there is a global wireless infrastructure to support them
  • context: they have an increasing number and variety of sensors (microphone, camera, accelerometer, light sensor, Bluetooth, GPS, WiFi and [of course] cellular radio)
  • continuity: they are always with us (although a paper presented at UbiComp 2006 revealed that they may sometimes be farther than we think)
  • consumption: resource tradeoffs are becoming more important [again], e.g., it may be cheaper to compute a bit than send a bit
  • copiousness: there are 1-2 orders of magnitude more mobile computers than desktop computers

Henry presented a number of emerging "supersensing" capabilities, as well as some projects / applications focusing on three primary areas: traffic (e.g., automatic alternate routing), health (e.g., tracking influenza outbreaks) and entertainment (e.g., mobile games and social tagging ... which, of course, can be combined in some cases). However, the part I most enjoyed was his discussion of the ways that mobile computers can help those most in need, e.g., "the next 1 billion" people in emerging economies, or people coping with natural - or unnatural - disasters ... what he referred to as "black swans". Henry's reference to a recent special report in The Economist on telecoms in emerging markets: "Mobile Marvels" - combined with a pre-conference workshop on Globicomp and a number of papers later in the program - suggests that this is an area that is receiving increasing, and well-deserved, attention.

PA015337 Clara Mancini presented "From Spaces to Places: Emerging Contexts in Mobile Privacy", in which she and her colleagues found that it was useful to augment experience sampling methods - wherein users are periodically prompted to provide information about their current or recent activities - by adding a user-specified memory phrase to mark their reported experiences. In an ethnographic study of 6 users of the Facebook iPhone application, they found that the use of these user-generated context cues during followup interviews helped reveal a variety of categories of privacy-related boundaries in the use of this popular mobile application - personal policy, etiquette, proxemic and aggregation - as well as a layer of socio-cultural subjective meaning of a location's function.

Powerful indeed Irina Shklovski and Janet Vertesi presented "The Commodification of Location: Dynamics of Power in Location-Based Systems", in which they reported that the GPS ankle bracelets that must be worn by all convicted sex offenders in California to track their movements are resulting in increased workloads, and [possibly] less effective monitoring, for the parole supervisors who must now incorporate the huge volume of GPS tracking data into their work processes. By having to devote more time to virtual tracking, the parole officers have less time to devote to physical tracking (direct contacts with the parolees) - which is often more effective in policing their movements - and are reporting that their caseloads have shrunk from 80 to 40, and the number of cases they can effectively manage amid the deluge of data is probably closer to 20 (!). Among the new vocabulary terms I acquired during the talk was commodity fetishism, a Marxist concept in which the value of an object, once determined through the social relationship between the producer and consumer of the object, is entirely determined by other means; in this case, the commodity is location, which was once determined through direct communication between parole officers and their parolees, and is now determined through GPS tracking technology that offers questionable "value" (in this context).

Donnie Kim presented "Discovering Semantically Meaningful Places from Pervasive RF-Beacons" in which he and his colleagues improved the accuracy of tracking short, frequently visited places via an algorithm (PlaceSense) that imposes a moving window or buffer on the stream of sensed RF signals, resulting in a more stable detection of entering and leaving events. In two studies using a Nokia N95 as the location tracking device - one involving scripted tours (10 frequented places, 10 visits for each of three durations: 8, 10 and 15 minutes), another involving 4 weeks of real-life data - they demonstrated a significant improvement in the precision and recall of visited places using their algorithm vs. previous algorithms.

PA015387 Andreas Bulling presented "Eye Movement Analysis for Activity Recognition", in which he and his colleagues used electrooculography (EOG) for sensing certain eye movements - saccades [another new vocabulary term], fixations and blinks - via skin electrodes (or, as Andreas put it, "ECG for the eyes"). They developed a wordbook encoding of 24 eye movements, and used a sliding window for detecting patterns, trained a linear support vector machine (SVM), which distinguished among 6 different activities of a user at a computer terminal (with 5 minute durations) - copy, read, write, video, browse, NULL -  with 70.5% recall and 76.1% precision ... though I'm not sure how this compares to other approaches, nor what would represent "good enough" in this context.

Wispgen3hw Michael Buettner presented "Recognizing Daily Activities with RFID-Based Sensors" [I can't find a link for Michael or the paper], in which he distinguished three approaches to activity recognition: location-based (where you are), kinematics-based (how you move), object-use based (what you use). In the paper, he and his colleagues adopted the object-use based approach, and compared the accuracy of the Intel WISP (Wireless Identification & Sensing Platform) - which is powered by a 3-dimensional RFID tag that receives energy transmitted via an RFID interrogator rather than a battery (shown left) - and the iBracelet wrist-worn RFID reader for recognizing activities based on the use of 25 tagged objects throughout various rooms in an apartment. In a study involving 10 subjects performing 14 tasks, they found that the WISP achieved 90% precision and 91% recall, while the iBracelet achieved 95% precision and 60% recall.

Unfortunately, on Day 2, I arrived rather late to the first session, which was composed of a series of shorter presentations (15 minutes) on shorter papers or "notes" (4 pages). I did see - and have some notes on - the last two presentations, and among the many reasons I'm sad I missed so much of this session is that the session chair, John Krumm - one of my favorite speakers (and people) in the UbiComp community - introduced each paper with a joke that was supplied by the author(s). It was a great way to inject some levity - and increase attention - before the start of each talk. John later told me that he'd learned that a dose of humor primes the reception and recall of the next few minutes of a presentation (I've since found a few online resources devoted to humor and presentations, including a research study that suggests that "[t]he effect of the cues produced by humor is interpreted as creating a more distinctive and thus more accessible memory"). I'll experiment below with inserting the jokes before my notes on each of the two presentations I saw from that session.

[Introductory joke: A dog sees a public display advertising for a place that sends dual-tone multi-frequency telegrams. The dog goes in and asks the telegraph operator to send a telegram that says, "Woof woof woof." The telegraph operator says, "There are only three woofs here. You could send another one for the same price." The dog replies, "But that would make no sense at all."]

BlueTone-YouTubeDavid Dearman presented "BlueTone: A Framework for Interacting with Public Displays Using Dual-Tone Multi-Frequency through Bluetooth", in which users can pair their Bluetooth-enabled mobile phones with an appropriately configured public display by renaming their phone, and then use their phone as an input device - entering text, manipulating the cursor and/or selecting menu items - without having to download or install any special software on the phone. The display must have a Bluetooth adapter, and be running an EventServer, BluetoothScanner, DisplayClient and one or more DTMFReader processes. I didn't find the example shown during the presentation - manipulating a YouTube video - terribly compelling, but I imagine BlueTone could be very useful for some special-purpose, large [proactive] display applications that I've been involved with, e.g., the Context, Content and Community Collage at Nokia (which we presented at CSCW 2008) and CoCollage at Strands (which we presented at C&T 2009), and it would be a nice augmentation to the ProD Framework for Proactive Displays by Congleton, et al. (presented at UIST 2008). 

[Introductory joke: An upset woman carried her baby out of the research lab and told the man standing there, "That blended public display just told me that my baby is ugly." The man says, "I think you should tell that blended public display that you’re offended, and if you like, I’ll hold your monkey for you."]

CityLab Joe Finney presented "Toward Emergent Technology for Blended Public Displays", in which espoused a vision in which every pixel on a display is an intelligent, self-organizing device working with others to form a coherent image, enabling any collection of light sources to become a coherent display surface and - ultimately - to provide for pour on (or spray on) displays. The Firefly system is a step in this direction, consisting of a collection of individually addressable lighting elements (LEDs with microcontrollers) and a network of control elements for creating large scale displays. The system was used to create a 5m x 7.5m display of 3000 lights (consuming only 300w of power) during the Christmas 2007 season at Lancaster City Centre. Given the example Joe presented near the start of his talk - a large BBC screen in Birminham, UK, that generated large-scale user (or viewer) acceptance issues - and other examples of objections to large public displays in Los Angeles and other U.S. cities (Joe mentioned that over 709,900 such displays had been deployed in the U.S. in 2008 alone), I hope that human-centered design practices will keep pace with technological advancements that make it easier to deploy large public displays.

[No more jokes :-( ... on to the next session.]

PA025581 Tamara Denning presented "A Spotlight on Security and Privacy Risks with Future Household Robots: Attacks and Lessons" [slides (PDF)], which almost seemed like a work of science fiction, describing how household robots - such as Rovio ("a WiFi enabled mobile webcam") or Spykee ("the WiFi Spy Robot") - could be hacked via unprotected - or underprotected - wireless networks, and used for eavesdropping, minor vandalization, tripping up or simply confusing the hapless human residents ... or band together with other hacked household robots to create larger scale mischief and/or destruction ... creating a whole new dimension of cyber-bullying ... and/or an evil new twist to crowdsourcing. To illustrate the risks, she showed a video of a robot stealing keys that had fallen on the floor (if I can find it, I'll add a link, or embed it here update: video of the remote-controlled multi-robot key-stealing attack now embedded below). One of the issues she raised was that some of these robots are designed for children ... and one can imagine "Trojan robots" given as gifts.

Tim Kindberg presented "Authenticating Ubiquitous Services: A Study of Wireless Hotspot Access", highlighting the risks of phishing scams via WiFi hotspots, in which unsuspecting visitors to public and semi-public places might be lured into connecting to the Internet via a rogue wireless access point. Tim and his colleagues investigated three different "physical linkage" vehicles through which people could be notified of how to connect to a wireless access point in a cafe - a leaflet on a table in the cafe, a printed poster on a wall or a plasma display mounted on a wall - and three different "virtual linkage" mechanisms through which access to the network could be gained - password, interlock and synchronization. They found that the perceived strength of physical linkage (bolted to a wall vs. loose on a table) and virtual linkage (number of transactions or steps) were associated with a higher confidence in the security of the access point. They also found that usability was a significant factor among their participants (customers of the cafe). Based on my personal interactions with dozens of cafe owners and staff about the adoption and use of technology (for CoCollage), I suspect that adding any extra complexity to the wireless access process - which may increase questions, requests for assistance or other demands on the staff - would be resisted or rejected by most owners (even more than their customers).

SatanismoWaltDisney Susan Wyche presented "Broadening UbiComp’s Vision: An Exploratory Study of Charismatic Pentecostals and Technology Use in Brazil" [and has since posted her slides (!)], in which she described some of the ways that Pentecostals perceive and use information and communication technologies (ICTs) as part of their religious beliefs and practices. Charismatic Pentecostals - who now make up 28% of the Latin American population - believe in biblical inerrancy and miracles, and report experiencing both the divine and the demonic through ICTs (an example of which is shown to the right ... and I'll embed a close-captioned YouTube video by Pastor Josue Yrion on Satanic Disney [which I discovered after the talk], in which he describes an incredible array of purportedly hidden agendas in various Disney movies that violate one or more tenets of the pastor's belief system, below).

Susan argued that in order to be truly global, ubiquitous computing needs to take account of non-normative belief and value systems outside of the Global North. I agree that it is important to take account of such systems, and that we ought to think carefully about what kinds of practices we want to support. As I mentioned in my notes from CSCW 2006, I think that many of the examples that Susan had earlier presented in a paper on "Technology in Spiritual Formation: An Exploratory Study of Computer Mediated Religious Communications" offer some intriguing insights into design issues that include not only the religious / secular spectrum, but power paradigms such as "command and control" vs. "listen and participate". Toward the end of her talk (slide 17, to be precise), Susan posed a couple of provocative questions:

  • What if individuals want to use ICTs to support activities that contradict some technology developer’s personal value systems?
  • Whose user needs are marginalized at the expense of furthering a western normative agenda about appropriate ICT use?

I think it's important to be sensitive to other value systems, and to be aware of our own [often implicit] agendas, and I was fascinated to learn more about the alternate realities of Charismatic Pentecostalism ... but I found myself thinking about a dark side of non-normative western belief systems - a pervasive system of belief in Africa involving HIV/AIDS, the virgin cure and infant rape. I don't believe that Susan, her co-authors or any others in the ubiquitous computing community would propose supporting this belief system, but I do believe that, generally speaking, we ought to design ICTs that promote more rational practices ... or at least, given some of the more playful applications I saw at the conference and elsewhere, practices that are not considered harmful (within the context of our western / Global North value systems).

Nithya Sambasivan and Nimmi Rangaswamy co-presented "Ubicomp4D: Infrastructure and Interaction for International Development—the Case of Urban Indian Slums" [slides], which offered another opportunity to learn more about the practices - and predicaments - of large groups of people outside the Global North. They defined UbiComp4D as the application of ubiquitous computing to address poverty-related issues (riffing on ICT4D, Information and Communication Technologies 4 Development). After outlining some of the characteristics of "the slum ecologies" in Mumbai and Bangalore, they presented three vignettes highlighting the ways ICTs - mobile phones, televisions and DVD players - are used to support family ties, work and entertainment. They then recommended a number of design considerations: look for opportunities for inserting people into the loop(s), design for failures and other disruptions in the ecosystem, accommodate varying levels of literacy (e.g., support oral or auditory information exchange), and explore ways that ICTs can enhance and/or interlink existing technologies and be appropriated in new ways ... and places. Nokia phones played a prominent role in these ecologies, reminding me of some of the [other] ways that Nokia helps empower people through mobile technologies in developing regions that I'd discovered in preparing a presentation for a Pop!Tech 2007 session on "The Future of Mobility". Toward the end of the talk, the authors suggested that informal community gathering spots may offer opportunities for large public displays, reminding me of the Big Board public display application and associated SnapAndGrab interactions that Gary Marsden and his colleagues have worked on in South Africa.

David Nguyen presented "Encountering SenseCam: Personal Recording Technologies in Everyday Life" in which he and his colleagues conducted experiments to determine how people who encounter a SenseCam - a wearable device with a camera and sensors that can take periodic photos of the wearer's environment (including the people in that environment) - feel about the prospect of being passively photographed by the device. The 19 SenseCam wearers in 4 locations across 2 countries encountered 686 people, of whom 413 were willing to take a survey, and 15 of them were interviewed. Among the issues that arose were the quality and quantity of photos (lower = more acceptable), visual vs. audio recording (audio recording = bad), and different stages at which they may want to be asked for permission - e.g., before the SenseCam takes a photo and/or before the photo is shared. Participants seldom reported being willing or able to take action about the use of SenseCam (despite their level of discomfort), and there seemed to be interesting differences among different populations, i.e., people in the U.S. were generally more concerned about attractiveness and image management, while people in the UK were generally more aware of the issues (perhaps because of the greater prevalence of CCTV cameras in that country [which may soon be used in a "game" - Internet Eyes - in which voyeurs viewers can monitor CCTV cameras and earn prizes by reporting crimes, possibly leading to greater success than Texas Virtual Border Watch Program]).

David Nguyen @ UbiComp 2009 What was particularly interesting about this work - for me (aside from the fact that several of the authors are close friends) - is that one of the intended uses of SenseCam (a relatively uncommon camera platform) is to assist people with physical or mental disabilities, and yet throughout the conference, I was encountering similar issues among able-bodied people in response to more common types of cameras (including cameraphones and video cameras), suggesting that these privacy concerns are far more prevalent than might be anticipated. I've posted several photos from the conference on Flickr, and I've labeled some of them with the names of the people who are in them. Some of the photos from Mario Romero's fabulous Flickr set for UbiComp 2009 that I've used here (with permission) have people's names embedded in the photos themselves, e.g., the ones of Sumi and Henry near the top of this post. I wonder how many of these people would object to these labeling practices ... um, or how many of them might object to my blogging about them.

Michael Weber moderated a panel on "Achievements, challenges, obstacles, and perspectives – where shall we be in another decade of ubicomp research". The slides from the four panelists have been posted to SlideShare [thanks!], so I will restrict my notes here to a single sentence about each of their opening statements. James Scott [slides] complained that much of the work at UbiComp is carried only far enough to enable writing a paper (or three) about it, and suggested ways we might encourage larger-scale, longer-term deployments. Tim Kindberg [slides] asked "what kind of tribe do we want to be?", positioned ubicomp research somewhere in the middle of the "magic" of custom experiences (represented by Mickey Mouse) and the sea of common APIs and platforms (represented by City Mouse) and suggested we collaborate with other tribes. Shwetak Patel [slides] proposed that we push beyond the lab, toward commercialization (engaging with other tribes, such as entrepreneurs, venture capitalists and other businessfolk), which may eventually loop back by providing "off-the-shelf" technologies for future ubicomp research[ers] to use. Jeff Hightower [slides] rhetorically asked "what are our widely adopted Ubicomp success stories?" and then provocatively answered "None!", but he did note that we are only 10 years "young", and despite his indictment, he believes there may be opportunities for future wide adoption success stories in persuasive technologies and life-assistive solutions. If I were to summarize the common themes in the panel, I would say that to achieve success in UbiComp, it takes a village of interdisciplinary people and tribes.

Sandy Pentland @ UbiComp 2009 I missed the morning sessions of the next (and last) day - it was the only day I could visit a Disney World theme park for free, and I'll post a separate entry about my semi-structured field exploration of Epcot Center that day - but I did make it back in time for the closing keynote by Sandy Pentland, "Honest Signals from Reality Mining", based on a similarly titled book. Due to time constraints, Sandy condensed his talk down to 30 minutes, but I'll embed a 50-minute video of a similar talk he gave at Google below (there is also an 8-minute version). Sandy and his colleagues have mined the data from mobile phones, wearable sensors (sociometric badges) and other devices to track - or infer - certain individual, group and organizational behavior patterns. He talked about neurophysiological systems and what they indicate about our internal states and how they influence behavior in others (this is more succinctly captured in the slide I fuzzily captured in the photo shown on the left, a clearer version of which can be found around the 8:00 mark in the 50-minute video). He also referenced work on task roles (giver, orienteer, follower) and social roles (protagonist, supporter, neutral, attacker) by Bales, and claimed that computers are as good at identifying these roles as people are.

Some of the most interesting applications of reality mining are in the workplace, where signals can be used to infer such things as face-to-face proximity, identification as peers and group affirmation, which have been shown to affect group interaction quality, common task performance and homogeneity of opinion. The feedback provided from these signals in a meeting context (via a Meeting Mediator device) can help participants recognize when one or more of them are dominating a discussion ... which may influence subsequent behavior by the participants. Noting a study that showed that increasing face-to-face cohesiveness can lead to a 10% increase in productivity, Sandy suggested that capturing and sharing these signals can have significant impact within an organization.

While I can imagine that measuring and showing visualizations of these signals can have positive impacts, I can also imagine unintended negative consequences. As a chronic loud mouth who frequently speaks up at meetings, I have sometimes spoken with people who have been more quiet in meetings in which we've jointly participated, and some have told me that they prefer to have one or more people play a more vocal role in meetings, as they tend to be more inclined to post-process the interactions and information shared during a meeting, and respond or [re]act more effectively afterward. The theory of multiple intelligences suggests [to me] that diversity in thinking and interaction styles can be a good thing for an organization, and the measurement and display of interaction patterns may produce a Hawthorne effect, encouraging more people to speak up - or pipe down - when that is not their natural style, which may ultimately yield suboptimal results.

Well, I've done my best to mine and synthesize some of the signals I detected at the conference. I want to finish off by thanking Sumi Helal for doing such a great job in organizing the conference, and thank all the other organizers, reviewers, authors, presenters and attendees for co-creating such an engaging experience!

[Update: The Miami Herald - the paper that Dave Barry calls "home" - published an article by technology reporter Bridget Carey about some of the demonstrations and posters, helping to fill a[nother] "gap" in my coverage of the conference: "Technological devices offer glimpse into future: Researchers from universities around the world gathered in Orlando last week to present technology that can better people's lives"; discovered via Chris Jablonski's ZDNet post, Ubicomp 2009 and the fusion of our digital and physical worlds]

[Update: videos from the UbiComp 2009 Video Program have been uploaded and are now available for viewing.]

Pins, Positivity and Practices: Hybrid Design at Disney World


The day after the Doctoral Colloquium at UbiComp 2009, I attended a workshop on Hybrid Design Practices. Given my interests in hybridity, design and practices, I was eager to see how these all might fit together, and to meet others with shared interests. The Call for Participants included a number intriguing dimensions, including a field exploration of the public spaces of Disney World, reflecting on interdisciplinarity in ubiquitous computing, and developing a new vocabulary for this area of inquiry. Among the field exploration discoveries I found most interesting were the extensive use of pins (and tags, buttons and badges) and an almost preternatural promotion of positivity throughout this carefully constructed hybrid world.

The organizers who facilitated the workshop - Lucian Leahu, Silvia Lindtner and Karen Martin - led off with a brief summary of the goals of the workshop, an outline of the day, and an invitation to pair off and introduce ourselves to each other, including our favorite Disney character, and then introduce our partner to the rest of the group. I had the good fortune of pairing off with Matt Ratto, who has designed a number of interesting hybrid objects that integrate the online with the offline; in fact, I got so interested in learning about Matt's work I forgot to ask him about his favorite Disney character.

A brief teaser of some related critical - and provocative - work was offered, including Inside the Mouse: Work and Play at Disney World, by Kuenz, et al., The Society of the Spectacle, by Guy Dubord, and Simulacra and Simulation, by Jean Baudrillard, complemented by the screening of a short segment of a more positive piece, a video of Walt Disney World from The History Channel's Modern Marvels series. The portion of the video I found most intriguing was during an interview with Bruce Vaughn, Chief Creative Executive of Walt Disney Imagineering, following an observation by the narrator about Walt Disney's successful combination of technology and great storytelling:

The theme park is the first experience wherein the audience can actually walk through the frame into the story, and actually participate in that story in a way that was entirely unique. It went from being a passive experience to an active experience.

Our subsequent field excursions enabled us to become participant-observers in some of the active experiences designed for that environment. Before embarking on our journey, the organizers divided us into two groups - I was with the Downtown Disney crew, the other group explored the Polynesian Village - and presented us with some cue cards suggesting some aspects to which we might attend (Nature, Social, Spatial, Technological), and a outlining a few tasks within each of those aspects, during our investigations.

Hybrid design field study questions Hybrid design field study questions

I was assigned the Technological dimension, which included the following three tasks:

  • Document three examples of how technology links the past and the future
  • Find three examples of how technology bridges work and play
  • Record three points where technology brings out the visible or hides the real

Today is tomorrow's yesterday: pre-allocating memory storage I found that these dimensions - and the tasks within my assigned dimension - were helpful guides for the field exploration. I won't go into all the details here, but will simply note that my conception of "technology" was expanded to include a number of devices that I might not have thought of as technology, for example a photo frame annotated with a story about one's first visit to Disney ... which may in some cases be purchased at the outset of that trip, thereby anticipating or framing one's future memories ... a sort of prospective retrospective device, calling to mind the adage "today is tomorrow's yesterday" ... or the notion of pre-allocating memory storage (in more technical terms).

Nancy: a fountain of knowledge about Downtown Disney However, the most interesting uses of technology - to me - were discovered immediately after getting off the bus, where we were greeted by Nancy, an amazingly helpful cast member (the term Disney uses for all employees) who kindly provided some information about the technologies - high and low - used to cultivate experiences for guests (the term Disney uses for all customers / visitors). At the high end of the technology spectrum, she had a radio / phone with an earbud to communicate with other cast members who were on "downtown duty" (she told us that cast member leaders use Blackberries). What I found most intriguing, though, was the assortment of devices at the low end of the technology spectrum she had at her disposal: maps, brochures, stickers, certificates and a diverse collection of pins to give out to people ... and a few prominent pins of her own. Nancy's name tag revealed that her hometown is Seattle, WA - an immediate connection point for me (I was the only Seattleite in the group) - and she explained that the two other pins attached to the name tag were a 5-year Service Anniversary pin and a "Partners in Excellence" pin, the latter being a prestigious award that is given to a small number of cast members each year based on a process of recommendation, nomination and voting among peers (Jack Spence has a great blog post about the history of Disney name tags that provides far more details about the badges and the supplemental pins), confirming that we were not the only ones who found Nancy to be incredibly helpful in our Disney experience.

In addition to her own name badge and pins, Nancy had a ribbon full of 10 other pins that could not be given away but only traded (and only traded with guests, not other cast members ... and I've since discovered that there are more elaborate sets of rules and traditions surrounding Disney pin trading). But the highlight of the entire Disney experience for me was the discovery of a set of buttons that she had for giving away to guests to promote the ubiquitous theme of celebration. The buttons denoted celebrations for such milestones as birthdays, engagements, honeymoons, anniversaries, family reunions and an "everything else" button for simply broadcasting the sentiment "I'm celebrating".DisneyButtons

45th Anniversary Buttons @ Disney World Nancy told us that cast members regularly acknowledge these celebratory milestones whenever they encounter a guest who is sporting a button, wishing them "happy birthday", "happy anniversary" or simply "congratulations". She also said that guests also sometimes acknowledge other guests' milestones ... a practice I confirmed on our bus ride back, while I was standing next to a seated couple who was celebrating their 45th wedding anniversary ... and sporting "Happy Anniversary!" buttons with "45" marked on them. They told me that several other guests - especially others who were sporting "Happy Anniversary!" buttons - had congratulated them (forming an ad-hoc mutual congratulation society), and they enjoyed the serendipitous opportunities to meet and talk with other couples who were celebrating their anniversaries, especially others who were celebrating 40+ years of marriage. In fact, they said they'd love to have a special dinner where they could get together with all the other 40+ anniversary couples.

I've long been fascinated with name tags, and the way they promote reciprocal self-disclosure. As I'd written in a blog post on this topic several years ago:

HelloMyNameIsScott I spent a delightful hour reading "Hello, My Name is Scott: Wearing Nametags for a Friendlier Society", by Scott Ginsberg, yesterday ... Scott has worn a nametag every day since October 2000 because "it makes people friendlier and more sociable and also helps them remember my name."

I earlier posted a bit about Scott's front porch philosophy; today I want to elaborate on another topic Scott covers: reciprocal self-disclosure. One of the many interesting recurring reactions Scott has encountered is that people are more likely to verbally introduce themselves to him, presumably because he has already visually introduced himself (via his nametag) to them.

This reciprocal name exchange is an example of self disclosure, which is the act of making yourself manifest. The reason people are significantly more willing to give me their names as soon as we begin the conversation is because self disclosure is reciprocal respective to the level of intimacy that you have revealed. In short, when you tell someone something about yourself, e.g., your name, they will be likely to tell you that same thing about themselves.

I decided to experiment with some approachability enhancement - and reciprocal self-disclosure - later in the conference. Since I actually was celebrating my birthday while at the conference, I picked up a "Happy Birthday!" button that I added to my Pathable conference badge and ribbons. As expected, a number of people at the conference - and others I encountered outside of the conference (cast members and other guests) - wished me a happy birthday. And, like the couple I'd spoken with on the bus, I started noticing other "Happy Birthday!" buttons, and found myself almost unconsciously wishing them "Happy Birthday!". I was even wishing couples "Happy Anniversary!" ... and would have expressed other positive wishes about other milestones had I been able to recognize more of the other buttons. Talk about an effective technology for promoting the Disney theme of "celebrate today"!

Disney reserves the right to moderate user-designed tee-shits Another technology that we discovered during the workshop field exploration was the Design-a-Tee system. Guests can use a kiosk to customize a tee shirt with images of Disney characters, Disney slogans and/or user-generated - or perhaps guest-generated - content. In an experiment to test the limits of acceptability within this carefully constrained environment, one of the members of our group designed a tee shirt that started with an image of the Disney character, Grumpy (a character from the Disney movie, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs), in the center of the shirt, and then added the text "Disney makes me" above the image and the text "Grumpy" below the image (i.e., "Disney makes me ... Grumpy"). A receipt for the shirt was then printed out at the counter, and when we asked the cast member there, he consulted with his supervisor, who told us that this tee shirt design could not be used as it violated the acceptable use policy, which stipulates (among other things) that only positive - or at least non-negative - messages about Disney could be used on such shirts. We considered going back later, to generate another shirt, but not ask explicitly about the policy, to see if we could slip one through ... however, we never performed the followup experiment.

[Update, 3 Nov 2009: BBC reports that Feeling grumpy is 'good for you', so perhaps we really should be celebrating grumpiness :-) ]

Hybrid design objects When we returned to the meeting room at the Yacht Club Conference Center to process and share our findings, we adopted a variety of practices to represent and/or implement the results of our field exploration. A few of us started compiling photos from the day, incorporating some of them into a slide deck and others into photo albums (due to time constraints). Others started designing hybrid objects, continuing the theme of subversion that we had begun exploring at the Design-a-Tee store; some of those objects are shown to the right.

The other group had inadvertently discovered some of the local dependencies within the Disney World transportation system when the monorail broke down for a bit. They spent nearly 2 hours trying to get back to the Conference Center from the Polynesian Village, encountering various cast members in various spots, each with limited amounts of information about the best way to proceed ... and finding themselves moving along various suboptimal paths - including some dead ends - in their exploration. They decided to represent their experiences through an experiment in which each drew a map of Disney World, based on their perceptions along the journey. All of the maps contained the remarkable - and landmarkable - geodesic dome of Spaceship Earth at Disney's Epcot Center, but there were a number of interesting variations on some of the other details, reminiscent of Stanley Milgram's experiment on psychological maps of Paris (perhaps an early example of hybrid design).

One of the interesting aspects that arose in this multi-faceted processing of the field explorations was a discussion about whether we were really doing design (we were clearly doing something very hybrid), followed by a related discussion about whether we were really doing ethnography during the field exploration. I honestly don't know enough about either design or ethnography to comment on these debates, but I rather liked Matt Ratto's suggestion that we avoid the design debate by simply using the word "making" to describe some of the work we were doing after our field study.

I don't know if I came away with a better understanding of what the organizers intended by Hybrid Design Practices, but I certainly enjoyed the opportunity to meet and explore Downtown Disney with other interesting people, and to investigate the ways that Disney has designed space, technology and social practices in conjunction with - and opposition to - nature to promote positive experiences among its guests.

[Pictures in header via Flickr and Graham Coreil-Allen and Flickr and pinky09 via Hybrid Design Practices workshop page.]

Discussions about Doctorates and Dissertations at UbiComp 2009

UbiComp2009-logo I was a panelist at the Doctoral Colloquium (DC) at the 11th International Conference on Ubiquitous Computing (UbiComp 2009) last week, the first time I've participated in that particular track of a conference. The goal of the DC is to give graduate students working on their doctorates (PhDs) an opportunity to present their dissertation work to a panel of external experts - external to their thesis committees - and get feedback from them, as well as the other student who are participating. I want to share some notes from this event, and will write separate blog posts about a UbiComp 2009 workshop I attended and the main UbiComp 2009 conference sometime in the near future.

Each DC student submitted a proposal that was evaluated by two different members of the panel, which was composed of three people from academia (Gregory Abowd, Tanzeem Choudhury and Hani Hagras) and three from industry (Tico Ballagas, A.J. Brush and me). A subset of proposals was accepted for inclusion in the DC program, and those students were assigned a mentor from the panel, and allocated a 30-minute slot during the event, which included a 15-minute presentation and a 15-minute discussion. Thanks to a grant from the National Science Foundation, the DC Chairs (Andreas Butz and Raja Bose) were able to invite all the students who submitted a proposal to attend the event. I suspect - and hope - that all students benefited from the discussions, as many of the issues raised by discussants applied more broadly than to the particular presentations in which they was articulated.

I certainly benefited from the discussions. It was interesting to see the multidimensional diversity represented by the students and their work, with respect to topic areas, approaches, and states of progress in their respective dissertation processes. It was also interesting to see the kinds of feedback the students received, from their designated mentors, other panelists, and other students participating in the event.

Since I view the DC as a forum in which openness - and the attendant vulnerability - is paramount, I will not reveal any specifics about the presentations or specific feedback on any particular presentation. Instead, I will focus on some of the general themes that emerged during the event, especially those that were mentioned during a more general discussion about the dissertation process at the end. In a forum specifically focused on feedback, managing the feedback was itself a challenge. I found myself being uncharacteristically reserved during most of the presentations, taking careful notes and planning to followup individually with a few of the students via email.

One of the most common areas of feedback during the sessions had to do with the generality / specificity spectrum of the proposals. Students who presented rather broad or abstract ideas about their dissertation topics - or a large number of more specific ideas - were encouraged to identify one specific area (or a very small number) within that scope on which to focus for their dissertation. Some of the students who had identified a very specific area - or a few specific areas - were encouraged to provide a broader context for the work to help those outside those areas better understand the potential contribution of the work. In addition to issues regarding the specificity of the work itself, another factor that varied across presentations was the specificity - and measurability - of claims and anticipated contributions. Ideally, a PhD dissertation in UbiComp addresses a large, compelling problem area by identifying an important subproblem, proposing an approach to solve that problem, implementing the solution, providing evidence for the efficacy of the solution, revealing shortcomings and discussing lessons learned and future implications.

During the last session of the day, the panelists were invited to share lessons we learned through our own dissertation processes ... and how our careers have unfolded after the completion of our doctorates. Some of these revelations were rather personal, and so in order to strike a balance between sharing information that may be useful to others and preserving the privacy of the panelists, I will not attribute any of the lessons to any panelist ... except myself (a person whose privacy I rarely protect very diligently on this blog).

My three lessons learned had to do with openness and vulnerability, essentially, being open to

  • Change and possibilities: I changed my thesis advisor and area of research midway through my graduate studies, and although it lengthened the time to completion, I think it was the right thing to do; since completing my doctorate, my research focus has continued to change and evolve ... and I have probably had as many changes in institutional affiliation as the rest of the panelists combined.
  • Assistance: the members of my thesis committee were well-known - infamous, perhaps - for making significant demands on the students whose dissertations they supervised, leading to less-than-positive reputations among portions of the graduate student population; however, I believed they were genuinely trying to help me create a better dissertation - rather than [simply] creating obstacles - and found that their assistance ultimately proved very valuable. Since completing my doctorate, I continue to be almost pollyannaish in my belief that others who may initially appear to be creating obstacles in my career progression are simply offering assistance in refining or adjusting my path (and this recognition sometimes only emerges retrospectively).
  • Letting go: part of the assistance I received was an adamant refusal on the part of one committee member to accept a "claim" that I thought was the most interesting part of my dissertation work, as I could not find a way to effectively measure or assess it (and so it was merely anecdotal); I finally let go of that chapter, and now find that I can't even remember what it was I was holding on to (I think it had to do with the value of definite articles in resolving inter-sentential references). I have since had numerous opportunities to practice letting go of things I previously thought were absolutely essential.

I suppose all three of these might be more succinctly captured by riffing on a famous quotation by Dwight Eisenhower, the architect of Operation Overlord (D-Day):

In preparing for a doctoral dissertation I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.

I don't want to make too much of the analogy between doing a dissertation and launching the largest amphibious assault in the history of the world (although some graduate students may refer to the day of the Dissertation Defense as D-Day) ... but while I'm on the topic of analogies, I'll mention two other analogies that I referenced in my discussion of the dissertation process. One is to pregnancy: the thesis defense is somewhat like giving birth (from what I've observed), in that it can be painful, but by the time one reaches that stage, one is often so sick of working on it (being pregnant) that the pain of the transformational event seems less burdensome than the growing discomfort of continuing on. [Update: Andy Sack recently wrote about the parallels between a startup and a newborn baby, offering some interesting contrasts between entrepreneuria and academia ... and between starting something and finishing it.] The other analogy is the stages of grief - denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance - that one often progresses through in dealing with a significant life challenge; although this model was originally developed in the context of death and dying, I do think it applies to the Ph.D. process - and other practices that involve dark nights of the soul - as well.


Anyhow, moving on to other, potentially more useful lessons learned and shared by participants in the doctoral colloquium panel, here a few of the nuggets of wisdom shared by my learned colleagues:

  • Searching for related work is a continuous, incremental process: If you are working in an area of interest to others, then new work related to your dissertation will always be coming out. And, if your dissertation topic evolves to include new dimensions, then that evolution will open up new areas in which existing work should be explored. The point is not to compartmentalize this part of the dissertation process, or wait too long to begin it, as the exploration of related work may reveal ways you will want to - or have to - [re]define your own work.
  • Distributed mentorship: Several people on the panel did not receive the level of support they had hoped for from their primary thesis advisor, and thus sought out advice and guidance from other people - other thesis committee members, other faculty and/or other students. One panelist recommended this process of seeking guidance from numerous sources - possibly changing over time - as a lifelong (or career-long) strategy.
  • Collaborative research: The PhD dissertation is intended to represent a single individual's [initial] contribution(s) to the knowledge base of a discipline. However, just because the dissertation itself is a single-author document does not mean that the process of the research has to be entirely a do-it-yourself, solitary endeavor. The research itself can be conducted in the context of a larger effort in which a number of others participate ... reminding me of earlier ruminations on the balance between self-reliance and interdependence.

There were, of course, a number of other helpful insights and experiences shared during the day - too many to comprehensively enumerate here. I'll finish off by thanking the chairs, the other panelists and the students for an enlightening day, referencing a presentation with more nuggets of wisdom (and humor) on The Art of Doing a PhD that was prepared for the UbiComp 2007 Doctoral Colloquium by Jakob Bardram, who chaired the track that year - and is co-chairing the entire conference next year (UbiComp 2010) - and inviting others to share any additional insights and experiences on the dissertation process in comments on this post.