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Using Ambient Media to Support the Awareness of Remote Colleagues – Part 1: Examples

By Gerd Waloszek, SAP User Experience, SAP AG – December 21, 2011

This series of two articles supports and extends my article, Designing for a Workforce That Acts More Sustainably – Part 4: Using Ambient Media for Supporting the Awareness of Remote Colleagues, by discussing in more detail the following topics that I already touched on in the article:

  • Prototypical examples of ambient media conveying awareness information that I encountered at the DIS 2010 conference in Aarhus, Denmark
  • Ideas about how these projects might be transferred to an office environment

Thus, there is some unavoidable redundancy between the article and this series. This series is for readers who want to learn more about how ambient media could be used in a work context and who also like to engage in brainstorming. This first article in the series addresses the first item, namely, prototypical examples of ambient media conveying awareness information from the DIS 2010 conference in Aarhus, Denmark.


Introduction: Three Examples of Using Ambient Media to Provide Awareness Information

I intend this first part of the article series to serve as an introduction to the theme of "using ambient media in an work context". Here, I present three prototypes of ambient media for use in a private context, which I encountered at the DIS 2010 conference in Aarhus, Denmark. Many more examples have been published in the literature or presented at conferences, but I hope that these samples will suffice to illustrate my point. I discuss the following three prototypes:

  • Home Awareness – Connecting people sensuously to places
  • SnowGlobe – A prototype awareness system for longitudinal field studies
  • Somnia – Enhancing the sleeping quality of partners living apart

In the following, I will briefly present each prototype and then suggest a potential application in an office environment.


Home Awareness – Connecting People Sensuously to Places

People living a global lifestyle connect remotely to their families while away from home. But, according to researchers from Denmark, they also want to connect with a – particularly remote – home as the physical place itself. At DIS 2010, the researchers demonstrated the Home Awareness system (Figures 1-3) they had designed to satisfy exactly this need. It connects people "sensuously" to remote places, which means that it 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 is placed at the remote home and senses ambient data from the environment, and (2) a reproducing part is placed at the primary home and exposes the sensed ambience to it. At the reproducing end, a dimmable light bulb resides in a "wooden lamp" – obviously typical of Scandinavian households – and simulates the remotely recorded light intensity. Furthermore, a modified heating fan imitates the temperature levels from the remote home. Light and temperature sensors monitor the proper reproduction of ambience. The orientation and shape of the leaves on the outside of the lamp provide a surface for the light to reflect on and illuminate and also funnel the air from the fan upwards. When "idle", the lamp lights up and plays the streamed sounds to imitate the visual and auditory ambience of the remote home. When a person approaches the system, it detects their presence and also reproduces temperature using the heating fan as necessary.

Home Awareness    Home Awareness closeup    Home Awareness active

Figure 1-3: Home Awareness (first two photos by the author, third photo from the conference proceedings)

According to the authors, installations like Home Awareness hold great potential in supporting the emotional and sensuous relationship with a remote home. But they also point out that more work needs to be done to integrate sound in the primary home in a way that is not too intrusive. The authors also concede that more research is needed to couple more than two homes or places in this way. I also have some reservations regarding the reproduction of temperature:

  1. People may not be sensitive enough to sense the remote temperature, particularly when there are only small differences between the primary and the remote home.
  2. What about low temperatures that may, for example, be caused by an unexpected shutdown of the remote home's heating system? Do we need a refrigerator unit for this purpose? (Peltier elements might help because they can work in both directions, cool things and heat them.)

Application in the Work Context

This leads me to the question of what potential such a solution has to offer in a work context. The authors point already to two issues – connecting more places and the use of sound. I would add that using temperature as a cue might not be appropriate in a work environment and that generating heat would also consume energy unnecessarily. Thus, we can simply leave this feature and its potential issues out of our considerations...

One potential work place scenario that I can think of is as follows: Remote workers who are members of a small team are connected by devices such as this one to the central team, which ideally sits together in one room. This allows members of the central team to monitor the status of their remote colleagues, such as their presence and activity (level). With respect to sound, I would extend the concept to offer voice communication as an additional channel. Sound is not as distracting as video – that's why we still have radio stations – and would allow team members to stay in contact through verbal communication in both directions without the need to avert their gaze from the computer screen or use other devices. For example, they might ask quick questions without having to use the phone or a VoIP solution. Verbal contact could be initiated through some extraordinary activity of the respective indicator (for example, the light might flicker or the leaves might flap).

The individual indicators could be made much smaller than the Home Awareness system, arranged like a chandelier with lights pointing upward (see Figure 4), and hang close to the ceiling to illuminate it as well and, thus, provide more subtle cues. Sound might be reproduced by a sort of home theater sound system that allows sound sources in space to be distributed.


Figure 4: Not to my taste, but hopefully illustrating the principle of arranging the individual lamps in a spatial array...

The remote workers might have a similar system in their rooms, consisting of only one indicator that reflects the overall activity of the central team and provides sound and voice communication capabilities.

All in all, a two-way system, although not necessarily symmetrical and with additional voice communication capabilities, could be a potential application of the Home Awareness system to the office environment. In the second part of this article, I will look at such an application in the work place in more detail and present some design ideas.


SnowGlobe – A Prototype Awareness System for Longitudinal Field Studies

SnowGlobe is a system that aims to increase people's experience of social connectedness with their relatives. The associated studies were conducted at the University of Delft, The Netherlands, and focused on one-to-one communication, particularly between close relatives, rather than on a small network of users. The final design of SnowGlobe comprises a presence lamp that displays light and snow (see Figures 5-8) and two sensors: one for light and one for motion. Whenever a close relative 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 depends 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 cover the globe with a cloth (like covering a parrot cage) to stop communication. Relatives do not receive any feedback about whether the globe is covered or uncovered.

SnowGlobe    SnowGlobe in a participant's home
SnowGlobe and poster   Poster session with SnowGlobe

Figures 5-8: SnowGlobe with light sensor (detects when the device is covered), activity light, and motion sensor (top left); SnowGlobe in a participant's home (top right); snow globe demonstrated at the DIS 2010 conference (bottom row). Photos are by the author, except for the photo of SnowGlobe at a participant's home, which appeared in the conference proceedings.

The authors discovered that even "very simple visual cues, such as increased light when the movement in the other house increases, may already be effective in generating awareness." Furthermore, "users indicated that having a simple way to intentionally connect to their relatives on top of the awareness functionality, such as being able to press a button and make a light blink in the other house, might be of added value, even though the communication has no specific content. This is called a nudge. Finally, users confirmed that physical interaction with a device that mediates a relationship makes the experience more intimate."

SnowGlobe is, in contrast to the Home Awareness system, a symmetrical awareness system. In its present form, however, the SnowGlobe design seems to be restricted to contacts between two persons – this is, at least, the scenario that the authors investigated and presented at DIS 2010.

Application in the Work Context

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. If, as is the case at SAP User Experience, the direct reports live and work in different parts of the world, their and the top manager's working hours overlap only partially. Making the SnowGlobes for the direct reports considerably smaller (particularly the bottom part) would allow them to take their globes home in order to stay in contact with the top-level manager when needed.

All in all, this is a symmetrical system with potential applications in the office environment. In the second part of this article, I will look at such an application in more detail and discuss some design ideas.


Somnia – Enhancing the Sleeping Quality of Partners Living Apart

Somnia (Figures 9-10) was designed at the University of Eindhoven, The Netherlands as a system that helps remote couples fall asleep faster and enhance their sleep quality (the paper was presented by Tomasio Scherini). Thus, it is also a symmetrical system.

  Somnia necklace  Somnia cushion

Figures 9-10: Somnia necklace indicating that the partner is going to bed (left) and pillow (right) (from video)

Somnia uses light and temperature to convey awareness. It is composed of two elements for each partner: (1) a necklace that indicates when the partner goes to bed by lighting up, and (2) 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, this signal encourages the other to go to bed as well.

Application in the Work Context

Transferred to an office scenario, remote colleagues could use the principle of consensus to synchronize their breaks and meals and have them at the same time. This way, they might feel more connected than when resting and eating independently and in isolation. Further applications might include local and distributed meetings and other activities.

A necklace or a bracelet could be an option in an office environment, although not every colleague, including me, would want to wear one. A cushion, however, will probably not. But what about the seat or backrest of the office chair to convey warmth? A wireless bracelet, on the other hand, has two advantages:

  1. It could combine both types of sensory information, light and warmth. The light could indicate that colleagues are preparing for a common activity, while temperature could indicate that the activity has already started (this is less obtrusive than light).
  2. It would be independent of a computer and my current location. Currently, I use Microsoft Outlook for synchronizing with other colleagues, but this requires me to be at my office or carry my laptop with me wherever I go (a smaller mobile device would relieve this requirement). A wireless bracelet would be both independent of a computer or mobile device and of my current location.

As these are still vague ideas, I will not pursue them any further in the second part of this article series. There, I will focus on applications of the Home Aware system and of SnowGlobe.



In the second part of this article, I will explore ideas for the application of ambient media to two workplace scenarios: (1) a high-level manager with direct reports who are distributed all over the world, and (2) a small work group with remote colleagues.




DIS 2010 (Ambient Displays and Media)

  • 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.
  • 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.

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