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Designing for a Workforce That Acts More Sustainably – Part 4: Using Ambient Media to Support Awareness of Remote Colleagues

By Gerd Waloszek, SAP User Experience, SAP AG – July 26, 2011

In this fourth article in my series, Designing for a Workforce That Acts More Sustainably, I look at the second of four action items, namely "using ambient displays for supporting the awareness of remote colleagues". In the meantime, I have learned that the visual mode is just one of several options for providing ambient information. Ambient information can also be conveyed through sound, touch, and smell, or a combination of these. I will therefore refer to ambient media rather than ambient displays in the following.


Introducing Action Item Number Two: Using Ambient Media to Support Awareness of Remote Colleagues

As with the first action item, I identified this one particularly for the "commute and travel" field. I assigned it not only to the "reduce" but also to the "restore/rethink" aspect (see second article). With hindsight, I might question my initial decision to assign groupware solely to the "reduce" aspect – there is definitely enough scope for rethinking groupware from a sustainability point of view as well. As I already mentioned when discussing groupware, employees' commuting and travel activities consume a great deal of energy and resources, and therefore have a considerable impact on a company's environmental footprint. In contrast to groupware solutions, however, using ambient media to provide awareness information usually does not directly reduce the consumption of energy and resources – it may even add to the consumption of both. As I will go on to point out, it is actually the indirect effects that have the potential to make this approach a viable alternative. I will return to this argument in the concluding discussion.

Approaching Ambient Media

While writing the articles in this series, I realized that there is a connection between the first and second action items: Groupware can face severe adoption problems if , for example, the tools do not provide the intimate social cues that we are used to from face-to-face meetings (however, as I mentioned in my previous article, the lack of social cues may not always be an issue). A basic social cue, one that helps to coordinate the communication between people, is that people are aware of each other. Consequently, providing awareness information is a long-standing action item when designing groupware. Many of the solutions that designers have come up with are now familiar to us: text, audio and video chats. Some discussion boards even provide status information about possible communication partners, referred to variously as "buddies", contacts, or participants. As an example, the video chat application Skype indicates whether contacts are online, offline, absent or present, busy, or even "invisible", allowing users to assess whether it is appropriate to contact a specific person or not.

In this article, I propose a different approach to conveying awareness information – using ambient media. Ambient media were promoted by Hiroshi Ishii from MIT in the late 1990s – he called them "tangible (user) interfaces" – and involve dedicated physical objects or properties to provide awareness information in an unobtrusive and sometimes intimate way using light, sound, and other modalities – without the need to use one's computer. The devices themselves, however, make heavy use of computing technology and wireless communication. At conferences, I have also encountered "ambient" designs that use computer displays. In contrast to the respective authors, I would not regard these as "ambient displays" (at times, it is hip to add certain labels to projects...).

My proposal has been inspired by projects experimenting with ambient media that I have encountered at various HCI and design conferences. These projects were, however, targeted at close relatives or friends – not at work environments. Therefore, I will not only briefly sketch a few prototypes from the DIS 2010 conference, but I will also attempt to transfer them to a work place environment. In addition, I will sketch two prototypical work place scenarios that employ ambient media. I describe the projects and prototypes in more detail in an article series entitled, Using Ambient Media to Support Awareness of Remote Colleagues.

Awareness Information

Before I focus on ambient media and determine their characteristics, I would like to draw my readers' attention to an article about awareness information in the context of groupware that is available on the SAP Design Guild Website. In her article, Supporting Groupware with Awareness Information, Annette Jann lists basic elements that are central to awareness. She categorizes them according to the following three questions: who (for example, is anyone there?), what (for example, what are others doing?), and where (for example, where are the others working?). People involved in face-to-face activities are, either consciously or unconsciously, aware of all the basic elements, whereas users of groupware – and ambient media in particular – can utilize only a subset of them. The article also explains why people would want to be provided with awareness information:

  • People want to be/feel connected
  • People do not want to disturb others in certain situations
  • People do not want to contact others in vain

These reasons apply not only to groupware. They also seem to apply to ambient media. All in all, like awareness indicators used in groupware, ambient media add a social touch to remote collaboration by strengthening the awareness of relatives and friends, and – in the context of this article – colleagues or teams who work in remote locations, perhaps distributed all over the world. For me, the main differences between groupware and ambient media stem from the way in which the information is provided and how much information can be delivered. To understand these differences better, we need to take a closer look at ambient media.

Tangible Interfaces and Ambient Displays/Media

As already mentioned, tangible (user) interfaces, of which ambient media are a subset (so-called "background information displays"), were promoted by Hiroshi Ishii from the Tangible Media Group at the MIT Media Lab in the late 1990s. On its Website, the Tangible Media Group still links to Ishii's and Ullmer's original paper presentation (PDF) held at the CHI 1997 conference that I had the privilege and pleasure to attend. They describe their research direction as follows:

  • Guided by the Tangible Bits vision, we are designing "tangible user interfaces" which employ physical objects, surfaces, and spaces as tangible embodiments of digital information. These include foreground interactions with graspable objects and augmented surfaces, exploiting the human senses of touch and kinesthesia.
  • We are also exploring background information displays which use "ambient media" – ambient light, sound, airflow, and water movement. Here, we seek to communicate digitally-mediated senses of activity and presence at the periphery of human awareness. The goal is to change the "painted bits" of GUIs (Graphical User Interfaces) to "tangible bits," taking advantage of the richness of multimodal human senses and skills developed through our lifetime of interaction with the physical world.

To sum up, one of the research fields of the Tangible Media Group is the exploration of background information "displays" that use ambient media to communicate senses of activity and presence at the periphery of human awareness. This is more or less exactly what I mean by "conveying awareness information through ambient media".

Physical Properties

With respect to the physical properties that are explored and utilized in ambient media, the authors mention ambient light, sound, airflow, and water movement (see above). Other modalities and properties can be integrated in ambient media, too. Here are some of the options:

Modality Physical Properties Examples
Vision Intensity, color (hue), color composition, movement (peripheral!), frequency/temporal pattern, shape changes, composition Light bowls/spheres (or other shapes), ambient light, light reflected by surfaces, objects (natural or abstract), moving water, water drops, ...
Hearing Intensity, pitch, frequency/temporal pattern, direction, harmony/dissonance, composition Music, bird song, human and animal voices, noise, ocean waves, sounds from nature, artificial sounds, sounds of technical devices, ...
Touch Intensity, duration, frequency/temporal pattern, direction, temperature Airflow, vibration, pinch, surface characteristics, ...
Smell Intensity, frequency/temporal pattern, direction?, type Type: animals, flowers, perfumes, ...
Warmth/Coldness Temperature, frequency/temporal pattern, direction of radiation Radiator (airflow, radiation), touch devices, ...



At the DIS 2010 conference, Kim, Hong, and Magerko (2010) listed four characteristics of persuasive ambient displays that also have a large overlap with design strategies for technologies that support behavioral changes (abstract & reflective, unobtrusive, public, aesthetic, positive, controllable, trending/historical and comprehensive; Consolvo et al., 2009). In my opinion, with some adaptations these characteristics also apply to ambient media that provide awareness information:

  • Information from a focused domain: Low information capacity conveying only necessary and critical information about a specific activity or domain (presence, activity level, ...).
    To provide further knowledge beyond the conveyed default information, a system can be coupled with complimentary information/tools.
  • Low distraction for checking: The notification level should be minimal and unobtrusive.
    The system should be hidden enough for a user to ignore it while focusing on his or her primary task (that is, it should be peripheral for them) and become visible only when he or she wishes to check the information.
  • Visual appeal: Designs should appeal aesthetically.
    A highly aesthetic representation triggers the user's interest and deep/emotional engagement.
  • Representation through abstraction: The "abstract & reflective" design strategy mentioned by Consolvo et al. suggests using abstract data rather than raw or explicit data.
    Ambient media drive abstraction further than any other form of information display (like iconic images that were used in the Kim et al. study).

To sum up, ambient media convey abstract information with low information capacity in an unobtrusive and aesthetically pleasing manner.


Ambient media provide awareness information in much more unobtrusive ways than text- or image-based information on a computer screen for groupware does. In particular, they usually do not require focused visual attention and often leverage peripheral vision or modalities that complement vision, such as sound or touch. Sound can be an issue in the context of work places, because certain sounds are definitely disruptive. On the other hand, natural sounds like ocean waves can be pleasing and comforting. Typical information that ambient media convey are the presence and activity level of a person. For example, the brightness of a diffuse light source or the volume of the sound of ocean waves might indicate the activity level of a remote person. No light or sound at all might indicate that the remote person is absent or sleeping.

Another Distinction

When I started writing this article, I thought that I could shorten the lengthy term "providing/conveying awareness information through ambient media" to "ambient awareness". But I soon learned that the latter term is already in use with a different meaning. Therefore, as in my first article, where I distinguished between a sustainable workforce and a workforce that acts sustainably, I have to make another distinction in order to avoid confusion: the one between ambient awareness and providing awareness information through ambient media:

  • Ambient awareness: According to Wikipedia, ambient awareness is a term used to describe a new form of peripheral social awareness. This awareness is propagated from relatively constant contact with one's friends and colleagues via social networking platforms on the Internet. Some examples of social networking Websites are Facebook, Myspace, Twitter, Blogger, and delicious. The term essentially defines the sort of omnipresent knowledge one experiences by being a regular user of these media outlets that allow a constant connection with one's social circle.
  • Providing awareness information through ambient media: This is basically what the title states – awareness information is propagated in one or two directions through ambient media (or displays), as described above. Typically, no Internet social networking platforms are involved, at least not "in the foreground".

Thus, the term "ambient awareness" seems to have become restricted to the use of social media on the Internet, and in a wider sense to groupware (in my first article, I indicated that a distinction has to be made between both despite a certain overlap between the two). Ambient media, on the other hand, provide awareness information in the "physical space" using physical objects and properties. Because the term "ambient awareness" entails the use of social media, I once again have to stick with much longer and clumsy terms, namely "using ambient media to support awareness" or "providing/conveying awareness information through ambient media".


Some Examples of Using Ambient Media to Convey Awareness Information (from the DIS 2010 Conference)

In the following, I would like to become more specific and briefly present three exemplary prototypes of ambient media that I encountered at the DIS 2010 conference in Aarhus, Denmark. While many more examples have been published, I hope that these sample – though not designed for work places – will suffice to illustrate my point. I will also suggest a possible application of or extension to the design for work places.

Home Awareness closeup    SnowGlobe   Somnia necklace

Figure 1-3: Home Awareness, SnowGlobe, and Somnia (first two photos by the author, third photo from video)

I describe the projects in more detail in an article entitled, Using Ambient Media to Support Awareness of Remote Colleagues - Part 1: Examples.

Home Awareness – Connecting People Sensuously to Places

According to researchers from Denmark, people not only want to connect remotely to their families while they are away from home, they also want to connect with a remote home as the physical place itself. Home Awareness (Figure 1) has been designed for this purpose and transmits ambient sound, light intensity, and the feeling of temperature from a remote to the primary home. The prototype consists of two parts: (1) a sensor part at the remote home senses ambient data from the environment, and (2) a reproducing part, consisting of a dimmable light bulb and residing in a "wooden lamp" (obviously typical of Scandinavian households), simulates the remotely recorded light intensity and imitates the temperature levels from the remote home. The orientation and shape of the leaves on the outside of the lamp provide a surface for the light to reflect on and illuminate as well as funneling the air from a modified heating fan upwards. By default, the lamp glows and plays streamed sounds to imitate the visual and auditive ambience. When it detects the presence of a person, it also reproduces temperature using the heating fan.

What potential does such a solution have in a work context? The authors point to two issues – connecting more places and the use of sound. Furthermore, the use of temperature might not be appropriate in a work context and also consumes unnecessary energy. A possible usage scenario for this prototype could be as follows: Remote workers who are members of a small team are connected to the central team by devices such as this, which allow the team to monitor their status. I would extend this concept by adding voice communication. This would allow team members to stay in contact through verbal communication in both directions and, for example, ask questions. Verbal contacts might be initiated through some extraordinary activity of the lamp (for example, the light might flicker or the leaves might flap).

SnowGlobe – A Prototype Awareness System for Longitudinal Field Studies

SnowGlobe, developed at the University of Delft, The Netherlands, is a system that aims to increase people's experience of social connectedness with their relatives by focusing on one-on-one communication. The final design of SnowGlobe comprises a presence lamp that displays light and snow (see Figure 2) and sensors for detecting light and motion. Whenever a close relative equipped with a globe moves around in the proximity of his or her globe, the globe lights up and shows snow fluttering, the intensity of snowfall depending on the amount of movement detected. Additionally, a user may "nudge" a relative by shaking his or her own globe to trigger snow and a short burst (about 10 seconds) of intense light in the relative's globe. Conversely, a SnowGlobe user can also cover his or her globe with a cloth to stop communication. Relatives do not receive any feedback about whether the globe is covered or uncovered.

SnowGlobe is a symmetrical awareness system, but is restricted to contact between two persons. With respect to a work context, consider the following scenario: A top-level manager wants to be in close but unobtrusive contact with his direct reports. He therefore places a couple of SnowGlobes on his desk, each having a different color and conveying both presence and activity information (including nudging to initiate immediate contact). Each of the direct reports has a similar globe on his or her desk. Making the SnowGlobes for the direct reports considerably smaller would allow them to take their globes home in order to stay in contact with the top-level manager in cases where working hours overlap only partially.

Somnia – Enhancing the Sleeping Quality of Partners Living Apart

Somnia (Figure 3), designed at the University of Eindhoven, The Netherlands, is intended to help remote couples fall asleep faster and enhance their sleep quality. It is also a symmetric system that uses light and temperature to convey awareness. Each partner has a necklace that indicates when the other person goes to bed by lighting up, and a pillow that heats up when the partner is in bed. Thus, warmth is used to convey presence using pillows, and the persuasive principle of consensus – people do as others do – is used to synchronize sleep onset in couples via necklaces. When one of the partners goes to bed, the light signal encourages the other to go to bed as well.

Transferred to an office scenario, remote colleagues could use using the principle of consensus to synchronize their breaks and meals. This way, they might feel more connected than when resting and eating in isolation.


Thinking Aloud: Two Prototypical Sketches for Workplace Scenarios

To complement and extend the examples above and to transfer the ideas to a work context in more detail, I would like to briefly sketch two simple work place scenarios in which ambient media are used to convey awareness information:

  1. A small work group with a few remote colleagues (extension to Home Awareness)
  2. A high-level manager with about half a dozen direct reports who are distributed all over the world (but with at least some overlap in working hours) (extension to SnowGlobe)

In a work place environment, vision is probably the primary modality to use, although visual signals do compete with visual attention to the computer screen. Therefore, both design proposals will primarily resort to vision as primary modality. Temperature, touch, and smell do not make a lot of sense in a work context; they are better suited to one-to-one connections.

Do not expect too much, particularly details, in the following. Otherwise, I would have presented the scenarios at a conference and not here. Nonetheless, I provide more details in an article entitled, Using Ambient Media to Support Awareness of Remote Colleagues – Part 2: Ideas.

High-Level Manager with Direct Reports Distributed all Over the World

In this scenario, the high-level manager has about half a dozen direct reports in various locations. The manager has a room of his own, and, typically, the direct reports do, too. For the ambient media, I would like to focus on peripheral attention. Movement is a good candidate for an ambient signal, because human peripheral vision is sensitive to movements. If work conditions permit, sound is also a good candidate for an ambient signal, because it does not interfere with focused visual attention. In the following, I will list one possible design solution for the indicators – I present more alternatives in my already mentioned article.

The proposed ambient medium consists of two parts:

  • Manager: The high-level manager has one indicator for each direct report. He may arrange them according to his preferences, for example, in an order that reflects the locations of the direct reports. There is also a sensor to capture the manager's presence and activity level.
    The indicators look like butterflies in a jar (see Figure 4): Artificial butterflies, possibly resembling local species, represent the different direct reports. The butterflies may move and fly around to reflect the activity level of the direct reports (coming to rest at night and hiding under the lid when the direct reports are not in the room). Characteristic "flapping" and humming noises might support the activity/presence information. (bird song would be easier to distinguish, but is also more obtrusive.) Environmental sounds like the rustling of leaves might make the scenery appear more natural and light sources illuminating the jars from the lid might additionally modulate their intensity to indicate the time of day (dawn, daylight, dusk, night) for the respective direct reports.
  • Direct reports: Each of the direct reports has one indicator for the status of the high-level manager; there are no indicators for the other direct reports. There is also a sensor to capture the direct report's presence and activity.
    The indicator consists of one butterfly in a jar similar to the butterflies that the high-level manager sees (see Figure 5).
Installation for the high-level manager              Installation for the direct reports

Figure 4-5: Installation for the high-level manager (left; status of direct reports – one direct report lives in a time zone where night has already set in) and the direct reports (right; status of the high-level manager only)

Small Work Group with Remote Colleagues

In this scenario, the core team ideally resides in one room, and there are a few colleagues who work from home. Once again, the proposed ambient medium consists of two parts:

  • Core team: The core team has a compound indicator to reflect the status of the remote colleagues (see Figure 6). The individual indicators might be small globes of light or different-colored cubes – one color for each colleague. Light indicates the presence of remote colleagues, and its intensity shows their activity levels. The indicator may be positioned at the ceiling or close to it. Non-disturbing flicker effects may further reflect the activity of remote colleagues (the flicker effects are easily detected by peripheral vision and attract attention). Each core team member has a sensor that detects his or her presence and activity level.
    Sound is not used in this scenario as it may be disturbing in an office. However, the system may be supplied with voice communication allowing a kind of "audio conference", which is less disruptive and more comfortable than using phones. Again, special signals may be used to initiate verbal communication.
  • Remote colleagues: The remote colleagues use a slightly more complex status display, which includes the core group as well as further remote colleagues (see Figure 7). Each remote colleague has a sensor that detects his or her presence and activity level.
Installation for remote workers        Installation for the central team

Figure 6-7: Installation for remote workers (left; core team at the center, remote colleagues at the periphery, gray = remote worker him/herself) and the central team (right; remote colleagues only)


Discussion: What is the Sustainability Impact of Awareness Information Conveyed Through Ambient Media?

When considering conveying awareness information through ambient media, companies need to balance the advantages and limitations of such an approach. From the observations presented so far, I have derived the following advantages and limitations of using ambient media as indicators of awareness information:

Advantages of Ambient Media Limitations of Ambient Media
  • Are used independently of computers or mobile devices
  • May utilize modalities other than vision (sound, smell, touch), often in combination
  • Are unobtrusive and not in the focus of attention (they do not interfere with other, particularly visually-oriented, work)
  • Are physical and often aesthetically and emotionally pleasant
  • Provide social cues that other groupware tools may not deliver
  • Are suitable only for small groups/teams
  • Convey very limited, abstract information
  • Require the use of other tools for more specific information needs
  • Consume additional energy and resources


At the beginning of my article I pointed out that, in contrast to groupware solutions, the use of ambient media to convey awareness information usually does not have a direct impact on the consumption of energy and resources. This was an oversimplification in two respects: (1) As our list of limitations shows, ambient media are extra devices that consume additional energy and resources; (2) under certain favorable conditions, ambient media might be used alone, without the need for further groupware tools. In this case, they would have a direct reducing effect by helping reduce commuting and travel.

As the first item shows, ambient media seemingly enlarge the environmental footprint of a company instead of reducing it. Thus, conveying awareness information through groupware or social media may appear to be the better solution – provided that office computers are running all the time, which seems to be the rule these days. So why should a company consider the use of ambient media at all, particularly as they have further limitations? Let me begin with the limitations. Because ambient media convey very limited information, they can, particularly in a work environment, usually only be the first step in a hierarchy of communication tools. As soon as communication needs exceed simple awareness information, other tools must be employed, either by integrating them into the ambient media or by resorting to existing groupware solutions. The second item shows that this need not always be the case. However, relying on ambient media alone is probably the exception, not the rule. Furthermore and as the examples and prototypes presented above readily show, in their current form, ambient media are suited to small teams only.

And now to the answer to my question! As I pointed out at the beginning, it is mostly the indirect reduction effects that make ambient media interesting for companies. Firstly, ambient media can play a role in making remote work and collaboration socially more acceptable for workers. They may support the acceptance, adoption, and use of groupware by providing intimate social cues that other tools cannot deliver. In this role, ambient media offer the promise of reducing travel and commuting activities, and thus, saving energy and resources indirectly. Whether ambient media can also play an active role in reducing the consumption of energy and resources without additional support from other tools is, at least, questionable and an open point that needs further investigation. Therefore, this action item might better be regarded as a proposal and an invitation for designers – one for which the business case still has to be established. In my opinion, nevertheless, ambient media represent a promising approach that deserves to be taken into consideration and explored. That is why I also assigned this action item to the "restore/rethink" aspect.



In summary, my main argument for proposing ambient media to convey awareness information is based on social aspects: I expect, and I believe that designers do, too, that more employees would be willing to commute or travel less and to adopt groupware tools as a substitute if they were provided with unobtrusive, aesthetically pleasing, and emotionally connecting awareness information through ambient media that supply the kind of social cues that conventional groupware cannot deliver. As far as I know, there is no currently proof that this would actually be the case. Nonetheless, designers are already exploring this field (albeit in private settings), and we it remains to be seen whether they will arrive at solutions that will satisfy both, companies and their employees.

Last but not least, ambient media lead the way to our next action item "persuasive design/technology". Here, they are used to "nudge" people into the direction of desired behaviors – in our case, more sustainable behavior in the workplace. This will be the subject of my next article in this series.





  • Nathan Shedroff (2009). Design Is the Problem: The Future of Design Must be Sustainable. Rosenfeld Media • ISBN: 1-933820-00-4 (Paperback + PDF), ISBN: 1-933820-01-2 (2 PDF editions) • Review

Ambient Awareness

Ambient Displays and Media (DIS 2010)

  • Aviaja Borup Lynggaard, M. G. Petersen, R. Gude, M. Mortensen (2010). Home Awareness – Connecting People Sensuously to Places. Proceedings of the DIS 2010 Conference, p. 416-418.
  • Thomas Visser, Martijn Vastenburg, David Keyson (2010). SnowGlobe: The Development of a Prototype Awareness System for Longitudinal Field Studies. Proceedings of the DIS 2010 Conference, p. 416-418.
  • Tomaso Scherini, Paulo Melo, Toon Van Craenendonck, Wenzhu Zou, Maurits Kaptein (2010). Enhancing the Sleeping Quality of Partners Living Apart (Short Paper). Proceedings of the DIS 2010 Conference, p. 171-174. (Video)
  • Tanyoung Kim, Hwajung Hong, Brian Magerko (2010). Design Requirements for Ambient Display that Supports Sustainable Lifestyle. Proceedings of the DIS 2010 Conference, p. 103-111.

MIT Media Lab: Tangible Media Group

SAP Design Guild


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