Tuesday, December 13, 2005

A New Theory of Surfaces?

I am at the Ambient Intelligence conference this week in Grenoble, France. There are some very interesting papers on what happens when you have intelligence in things around the home or office.

Emile Aarts of Philips presented a view of the future that is remarkably in sync with my own thoughts. I have to say, that, while he may be overly optimistic about timeframes for e-ink, intelligent textiles, and many other things that are coming out of Philips, Sony, nd other companies soon (just as I probably am) he does 'Get It'. I recommend his books too.

Many of the presentations, though, have to do with interactions with common objects and i have noticed a common theme. Most of these objects are actually surfaces...that is, many of the papers are about interacting with horizontal or vertical surfaces that can connect to computing resources in some manner.

There are, of course, interactions with blocks, and tools, and phones, etc...but much of the ubiquitous computing interest and the ambient intelligence work concetrates on interactions with horizontal and vertical surfaces.

This brings me to my point. Do we need a new theory of surfaces? ...a line of research (probably already underway) into how humans use vertical and horizontal surfaces in their day to day lives..

I recall thinking about this a lot when I first moved to San Jose and had to furnish an apartment from scratch...I needed SURFACES...in particular horizontal ones upon which to dump things...other than the floor.

And I thought then that diffferent cultures might think about this differently...some cultures are more at ease with using the floor for a horizontal storage surface than others...American culture really likes tables and shelves and surfaces above the floor.

Vertical surfaces such as mirrors, windows, walls, TVs and other such things are important too, but we don't seem to have a concise body of research on how they are used.

So I propose someone do some thinking and research into a Theory of Surfaces as a line of inquiry to support studies on ubiquitizing computing...integrating computing into modern life will involve integrating it into the surfaces we surround ourselves with...

Architects, interior designers, gallery owners, ethnogrpahers...we need these people to help us understand how to better use and design our surfaces.

Maybe the editors at WallPaper and Surface magazine would be interested.


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AUTHOR: arno verhoeven
EMAIL: hey.arno@gmail.com
DATE: 12/02/2005 01:29:10 PM
thanks for the posting!I'm a design student in Eindhoven actually, doing a Masters degree based upon touch, and the emerging notion of AmI. I feel that exactly as you do, a theory of surfaces, or more deeper, a better theory of touch and manipulation is greatly needed before we allow engineers to put electrical probes into our coffee mugs that allow us to get weather forecasts in the morning.How do we use things? What is our emotional attachment to the materials we use? How does AmI fit into the recent fad of DIY home improvement? Can I cut a AmI shelf in two when I need it in another room? Psychologists and Physiologists still have very little idea about our sense of touch and how we extract information from it...and now we want to put sensors into everything, but I really have to ask myself, why? do I need this kind of immersion interface with my PC?Thanks for the thoughts and the chance to post mine

Arno,thanks for the comment. I agree we need to have deeper studies into touch and manipulation. You lost me on the AMI reference , though. What is it? With respect to a Theory of Surfaces, I was not so much looking at issues of touch and manipulation , but at the psycosocial aspects of furnishings (although I agree, touch, feel, amnioulability, and usability all fall into this as well). I was specifically wondering about how we percieve the architectural spaces we lib=ve in and around as a series of horizontal andvertical spaces...many of which are completely innocuous and intended to be covered...with objects, artwork, devices, appliances, etc. I think you are talkinga bout taking that idea even a bit further into realms of how things feel, what we learn about them from texture and touch, etc. This is a very rich area for investigation, because you are quite correct...we know very little about how these senses provide us with a very richly communicated model of the world.There is an experiment where a blindfolded person is stimulated with a noise directly in front of, above, and behind their head, always the same distance away and always the same distance from both ears. According to theory, the person should not be able to tell where the source is because the stereo effect is exactly the same each time.However, people ARE able to determine the source direction. I suspect that it is because their SKIN is ALSO responding to the noise (hairs vibrated by the wavefront, for example) and this provides the unconcious clue to notify the brain of where in the person's cognitive world the sound is originating.Touch is such an ancient and primitie sense that many of its signals are no longer conciously percieved. for example proprioception is a part of the sense of touch, but we are seldom aware of it specifically...rather we simply feel that our mental model of our own extension into the world is accurate. And we are cognitively disturbed when we discover it is not.You are correct in thinking that this NEEDS to inform product design and usability. I do not think it does so enough as yet.

Thanks for writing...let's keep talking


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