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Using Ambient Media to Support the Awareness of Remote Colleagues – Part 2: Ideas

By Gerd Waloszek, SAP User Experience, SAP AG – December 22, 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 the following topics that I already touched on in the article in more detail:

  • Prototypical examples of ambient media conveying awareness information that I encountered at the DIS 2010 conference in Aarhus, Denmark
  • Ideas about how these projects could 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 second article in the series addresses the second item, namely, ideas of how the selected DIS 2010 projects could be transferred to an office environment.

 

Introduction to Two Prototypical Sketches for Workplace Scenarios

To complement and extend the examples from the first part of this article and to transfer the ideas to a work context in more detail, I would like to sketch two work place scenarios, in which ambient media are used to convey awareness information:

Although I discussed both scenarios in part 1 in the context of a specific prototype, namely SnowGlobe and Home Awareness, we will see that the characteristics of the prototypes will actually blend together and that scenarios are more important to the design than their "sources of inspiration".

The design ideas for both scenarios will use vision as the primary source of information, because in a work environment, vision is the primary modality to use. Visual signals do, however, compete and conflict with visual attention that is focused on the computer screen. Below, I will suggest how the competition issue can be dealt with. I will also consider the use of sound. Sound is generally regarded as being too obtrusive, particularly in settings where several employees sit together in one room or work in cubicles. But there are valid reasons for considering its use – I will discuss this below, too. Temperature, touch, and smell, on the other hand, do not make much sense in a work context; they are better suited to one-to-one connections.

Both scenarios are addressed with two-way designs: There is a central installation for a "central" team or person and there are remote devices for remote colleagues. Information flows in both directions. The designs can be symmetric or asymmetric, depending on the purpose of the installation. For example, in some scenarios one party can be more a receiver than a sender of information while, in others, there is no difference between the participants.

 

Scenario 1: High-Level Manager with Direct Reports Who Are Distributed all Over the World

The first scenario, for which I want to explore the use of ambient media, comprises a high-level manager who has about half a dozen direct reports at various locations. The manager has a room of his own, and, typically, the direct reports do, too. I already discussed this scenario as a potential application of the SnowGlobe prototype, although the original SnowGlobe design is only suited to one-to-one connections. The ambient medium that I propose here consists of two elements:

  • Manager: The high-level manager has one indicator for each of his direct reports. He may arrange the individual indicators according to his preferences, for example, in an order that reflects the locations of his direct reports. The indicators should also be located in a way that they are in the periphery so that the characteristics of peripheral vision – such as sensitivity to movement and change – are exploited. A sensor captures the manager's presence and activity level.
  • 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. A sensors captures the direct reports' presence and activity levels.

Exploiting the Characteristics of Vision and Sound in Ambient Media

As indicated, I would like to suggest exploiting the characteristics of peripheral visual attention in this scenario. Spatial (movements) and temporal variations are good candidates for ambient signals, because human peripheral vision is very sensitive to changes at the periphery. If work conditions permit, sound is also a good candidate for use as an ambient signal, because it does not interfere with focused visual attention to, for example, the computer screen. Sound can, however, only be used if the direct reports have a room of their own. Otherwise the sound signals would disturb other colleagues who sit in the same room.

A Proposal for an Ambient Medium

In the following, I propose a number of similar indicators that use (1) movement to attract attention and indicate the activity level and (2) brightness and position to indicate local time and presence or absence. Remember, however, that the proposed visualizations may not be acceptable for everyone and that an abstract visualization might be more appropriate.

Butterfly indicator for high-level manager              Butterfly indicator for direct reports

Figure 1-2: 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)

Butterflies in Jars

  • Manager: The ambient medium consists of artificial butterflies in jars – possibly resembling local species – that are controlled by software and represent the direct reports. The butterflies may move and fly around to reflect the direct reports' activity levels and come to rest and hide under the lid when they are not in the room or at home. 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. Light sources illuminating the jars from the lid might additionally modulate their intensity to indicate the local time of day (dawn, daylight, dusk, night) for the respective direct reports.
  • Direct reports: The indicator consists of one butterfly in a jar similar to the butterflies that the high-level manager sees (see Figure 2).

Birds in Cages

  • Manager: The ambient medium consists of artificial birds in small cages – possibly resembling local species – that are controlled by software and represent the direct reports. The birds move around and flap their wings to reflect the direct reports' activity levels and sit on a branch at night or hide when they are not in the room or at home. Characteristic bird song may support activity information. This is easier to distinguish than other sounds but also more obtrusive. Environmental noises like the rustling of leaves may make the scenery more natural. Light intensity might additionally indicate the local time of day (night, day, dusk, dawn) for the respective direct reports.
  • Direct reports: The indicator consists of one bird in a cage, similar to the birds that the high-level manager sees.

Fishes in an Aquarium

  • Manager: The ambient medium consists of artificial fishes in small aquariums – possibly resembling local species – that are controlled by software and represent the different direct reports. They swim around to indicate the direct reports' activity levels, lie on the ground, or hide when they are not in the room or at home. Bubbling and other "fish-like" sounds may support activity information, but may be difficult to distinguish. Light intensity might additionally indicate the local time of day (night, day, dusk, dawn) for the respective direct reports.
  • Direct reports: The indicator consists of one fish in an aquarium similar to the aquariums that the high-level manager sees.

Note that it is not necessary for the manager and his direct reports to use the same realization of the ambient medium. While the manager may prefer bird cages because the bird song allows him to monitor his direct reports' activities without looking at the indicators, the direct reports might prefer a butterfly in a cage or a fish in an aquarium.

Compound Indicators

The indicators for the high-level manager can also be combined into one compound indicator, like one larger cage for all the butterflies or birds, or a larger aquarium for all the fishes. Here, the idea of a software solution springs to mind: The behavior of the birds, butterflies, or fishes can be controlled by software and the ensemble presented in a device similar to a photo frame, which can be placed on the high-level manager's desktop (see Figure 3).

Photo frame with aquarium

Figure 3: A collage of an artificial aquarium (Marine Aquarium 3 Deluxe application) presented in a photo frame-like device

I will pursue this idea below with further "natural settings", like artificial plants swaying in the "wind". Instead of presenting the ambient display in a dedicated device, the displays could also be projected onto the wall or ceiling using a small LCD projector.

Abstract Indicators

I mentioned already that the indicators presented so far may not be acceptable to some employees. Therefore, it is important to look for indicators that present the same information using an abstract representation. Here are some suggestions for abstract indicators, which are based on changes in brightness, color, form, movement, and sound:

  • Snowing activity (as in SnowGlobe)
  • Lightning activity in a globe (see below)
  • Water activity in a globe or small aquarium (no plants or fishes)
  • Projected images of water waves (ripples) varying along different dimensions (color, speed, sound)

Below, I present some more potential ambient displays that could be used in the work environment irrespective of the specific scenario.

 

Scenario 2: Small Work Group with Remote Colleagues

In the second scenario, for which I want to explore the use of ambient media, I consider a small team of about a dozen members that consists of a core team and a few remote colleagues. Ideally, the core team resides in one room, and the remote colleagues work from home. I already discussed this scenario as a potential application of the Home Awareness prototype, although the original design is only suited to asymmetrical one-to-one connections. Once again, the ambient medium that I propose consists of two elements:

  • Core team: The core team has a compound indicator that reflects the status of the remote colleagues (see Figure 4).
  • Remote colleagues: The remote colleagues use a more complex status display that includes the core group as well as further remote colleagues (see Figure 5).

Ambient Media

  • Core team: In the compound indicator for the core team, individual indicators reflect the status of the remote colleagues (see Figure 4). These could, for example, be differently-colored small globes or cubes – having one color for each colleague – that emit light signals with changing intensity. "Light on" indicates the presence of a remote colleague, and changes in intensity reflect his or her activity level (flicker effects are easily detected by peripheral vision and attract attention), with higher brightness levels and faster flicker effects indicating more activity. The compound indicator may be positioned at the ceiling or close to it and may illuminate it. Each core team member also has a sensor that detects his or her presence and activity level. This information is used by the remote colleagues' ambient displays and not shown to the core team.
  • Remote colleagues: The ambient display for the remote colleagues is more complex. It includes indicators for the core team as well as for all the remote colleagues (see Figure 5). In this proposal, there is a "gray" (inactive) indicator that acts as a placeholder for the remote colleague him/herself. The individual indicators are the same as for the core team (the actual presentation could also be different as long as the functionality is preserved). Each remote colleague has a sensor that detects his or her presence and activity level. This information is also used by the core team's ambient display.
Indicators for central team        Compound indicator for remote colleagues

Figure 4-5: Installation for the central team (left; remote colleagues only) and the remote workers (right; core team at the center, remote colleagues at the periphery, gray = remote worker him/herself)

Sound is not used in this scenario because it can be disruptive in an office. However, it would make sense to supply the system with a voice communication facility as an additional communication channel, as I already indicated in part 1 of this article series. Sound is not as distracting as video – that's why we still have radio stations – and allows 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 fast or the leaves of a wooden lamp might flap).

Alternative Ambient Displays

The cubes shown above are just one of many possible alternatives for the ambient displays. The individual indicators in both the core team's and the remote colleagues' ambient displays could be implemented in many ways. The original Home Awareness prototype uses Scandinavian wooden lamps, but any other lamp type could also serve the purpose, including the (ugly) chandeliers that I presented in part 1 of the article series (see Figure 6).

Chandelier

Figure 6: Not to my taste, but hopefully illustrating the principle of arranging the individual indicators in a spatial array...

Moreover, the visualization of activity is not restricted to temporal brightness patterns. Spatial patterns can be used as well, for example:

  • Changes in position only: Light point or patterns that wander across the ceiling or the walls
  • Changes in form and position: For example, artificial "lightning" that moves within a globe (see below) or across a ceiling

As I already mentioned, I will present some more potential ambient displays that could be used in a work environment irrespective of the specific scenario in the following.

 

More Ideas for Indicators

This section of the article has even more of a brainstorming style than the remainder. Here, I collect ideas for potential indicators for use in ambient displays, irrespective of a specific scenario.

Small Indicators

Appropriate indicators are essential to the successful application of ambient media to convey awareness information. But where can we get inspiration for designing indicators from? For small indicators, inspiration can, for example, be gained from USB and other gadgets that are sold on the Internet, although these are not directly usable and not at all intended for being used in ambient media. Figures 7 to 12 show a selection of gadgets that I have found on the Internet:

9x9 light      Butterfly in jar   Rocket lamp
         
Fox saddle   Lightning bowl   Illuminated artificial fir trees

Figures 7-12: USB and other gadgets from the Internet might serve as sources of inspiration for ambient media

Here are a few proposals for ambient media that, at least in part, have been inspired by these gadgets:

  • Glowing stylized fir trees (light intensity and color, additional sound signals like the swooshing of branches in the wind)
  • Glowing stylized Christmas trees (light intensity and color, additional sound signals like the ringing of bells)
  • Flowers that open, close, and turn to indicate certain states (movements may also be accompanied by light and sound effects)
  • Animals or animal heads that open their eyes, raise and prick up their ears, turn, ... (movements may also be accompanied by light and sound effects)
  • Abstract animations like snow-fall, rising bubbles, or lightning (or similar light effects)

Effects such as color changes or movement should be subtle to avoid disturbing people too much. Nevertheless, they should also be able to attract the employees' attention for specific events, for example, when an employee in a central team tries to contact a remote colleague.

Further Inspiration

Further inspiration for ambient displays comes from nature and our environment, but needs, of course, to be implemented in software using artificial objects like the ones I have already described above (butterflies, birds, and fishes). Here are a few more examples:

  • Natural shapes that swing in an artificial wind, with the movements representing the activity level
  • Examples: Flowers, grass, trees, branches, leaves
  • Water that flows in different ways and at different speeds depending on the activity level
    Examples: Small creek, water-fall, ocean waves, circular waves (ripples), drops, ...
  • Sand that trickles down within an hour glass or in a natural environment in different ways and at different speeds depending on the activity level
  • City traffic viewed from above, for example, by night
  • A lively place with lots of people running around in various directions

Photo to demonstrate the principle of using different plants to convey the activity of several persons by swinging the plants in the wind

Figure 12: This photo demonstrates the principle of using different plants to convey the activity of several persons through plants swaying in the wind (photo by the author)

These ambient displays might be projected onto walls or ceilings or presented on large screens. They might also appear as a small window on the employees' computer screens.

Larger Ambient Media

Inspiration for larger ambient media, such as surfaces that act as ambient media, is harder to find. Perhaps a look at the work of some interaction designers (art and museum installations, media facades, and so on) might provide us with some inspiration:

Media facade      Floating numbers

Figures X-Y: Media facade (SPOT project, Tim Edler) and museum project (floating numbers, Dennis Paul and Patrick Kochlick). Both were presented at the Innovationsforum Interaktionsdesign, Potsdam, Germany, in 2007 (photos by the author)

 

Afterword

In my article, Designing for a Workforce That Acts More Sustainably – Part 4: Using Ambient Media for Supporting the Awareness of Remote Colleagues, I have already discussed the impact of providing awareness information through ambient media on sustainability. Therefore, I do not want to repeat this discussion here. Furthermore, if I were not convinced about the positive impact of ambient media, I would not have written this article...

This article is different from many others that I have written so far in that the ideas presented here are mere sketches that need to be explored and evaluated. Thus, hopefully, some designers will pick up the ideas presented here and explore them with "real" prototypes and – one day perhaps with real products.

 

 

References

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.

SAP Design Guild

 

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