Future watch: Computer to user: You sort it out

Researchers in the U.S. and the U.K. are developing computer systems that make deliberately ambiguous interpretations of human environments. What's more, the systems are often flat-out wrong. But the developers are delighted with their progress so far, saying that with computers, sometimes less is more.

The work is a branch of "affective computing," which attempts to make computers recognize and respond to users' emotions. And then there's "culturally embedded computing," as Cornell University information science professor Phoebe Sengers calls it, which applies a twist to the concept. "We are shifting from the idea that affective computing is about computers understanding emotions to thinking about how people can understand their own emotions better after interacting with computational devices," says Sengers.

The notions of ambiguity and simplicity are being tested in a house in North London, where a prototype system called Smart Home will develop a sense of a home's emotional climate and present its observations to the family in a daily "horoscope." Input comes from "shy sensors" that don't directly track movements and activities -- which many people find intrusive. Instead, they collect indirect clues about daily living patterns, such as the positions of doors and light switches, water flows and sound levels. The project, a collaboration between the University of London's Goldsmiths College and Cornell, is funded by Intel and the National Science Foundation.

"The notion of the 'horoscope' is to give people a prompt to reflect on the well-being in their home -- whether people are getting along, whether they are busy," says William Gaver, a professor of design at Goldsmiths. "It might say, 'You've been very busy lately; you should think about taking some time off.'" The system will often be wrong, acknowledges Gaver. Maybe you weren't that busy; you just left the light in the study on all night. But it will be right often enough to get users' attention. "It's not clear we are trying to be 'useful' in a very direct sense," he says. "We are trying to be more thought-provoking. The idea is to shift the center of interpretation and reflection from the system to the user."

Low-bandwidth love

Meanwhile, Cornell graduate student Joseph Kaye has taken the concepts of simplicity and ambiguity even further in an experiment he calls "intimacy one bit at a time." The idea is that meaningful interactions between geographically split couples can occur with minimal communication.

A number of couples in long-distance relationships were given a virtual intimate object (VIO), which displays a small circle in the Windows taskbar. When one person clicks on the circle, his or her partner's circle glows bright red. Over time, the circle fades to blue, unless the partner clicks again. Though they continued to use cell phones, e-mail and instant messaging, the subjects became surprisingly attached to, and concerned about, these little signs of intimacy, says Kaye. On average, the subjects used their VIOs 35 times a day, and 70% reported that it made them feel closer to their partners. A number of them continued to use their VIOs after the experiment ended.

While they couldn't really tell from the circles just what their partners were doing or thinking, they interpreted each click as a "gift," Kaye says. The richness of the experience reported by participants stemmed directly from the VIO's simplicity and ambiguity, which invited active interpretation, he says.

"A lot of computer technology is about efficiency and maximizing the amount of stuff you can do," says Kaye. "But we are saying maybe that's not the way to do it; maybe you want an opportunity for richness and interpretation."

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