Ambient intelligence: the next generation of user centeredness

XII.4 July + August 2005
Page: 33
Digital Citation

New technologies for human connectedness

Stefan Agamanolis

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Humans have a basic need for contact with other humans. Authors like Lewis, Amini & Landon discuss the important regulating effects that social contact and healthy relationships have on human mental and physical well-being, and the consequences that arise from a lack of these requirements [2]. House, Landis, and Umberson have pointed out that a lack of social relationships constitutes a risk factor for health that exceeds that of more commonly known risk factors like cigarette smoking, obesity, and lack of physical activity [3].

Many factors jeopardize our ability to form and achieve balance in relationships with other people. Work requirements might necessitate travel or even living in a different place apart from one's immediate family and friends. Societal trends, such as those pointed out by Putnam, indicate that people increasingly lack social interactions with each other in everyday life [1]. But new technologies also undoubtedly affect our behavior in relationships as well, and in ways that are likely specific to each individual. Everyone can probably recall situations in which a technology enabled or assisted engaging in a relationship, as well as situations in which technologies "got in the way."

The mission of the Human Connectedness research group was established to explore the topic of human relationships and how they are mediated by technology. The ultimate mission of the group was to conceive a new genre of technologies and experiences that allow us to form and engage in relationships in new ways. The group operated at Media Lab Europe, the European research arm of the MIT Media Lab, for about three-and-a-half years in Dublin, Ireland. This article briefly recounts some of the major themes and results that emerged from the group during this period. More information and references can be found on the group's Web site [5].

Media Space Revisited. The notion of a "media space" was pioneered in the late 1980s in research projects like that at Xerox PARC which connected several offices and common areas in multiple geographic settings via continuous audio and video links. Many such spaces were developed in various research institutes over the following years, and our lab was no exception. One of the first projects that emerged from our group was a media space called iCom that connected several laboratory areas in the MIT Media Lab with Media Lab Europe on a 24-hour basis.

The iCom operated more or less continuously for about four years and served as a lightweight communication tool for holding project meetings for cross-lab collaborations, as well as for informal socializing between remote friends (including occasional flirting). Otherwise, the activities supported and behaviors observed in the space were not altogether different from those recorded in earlier efforts, and we began to think of ways to rethink the idea of a media space. We felt that in many earlier experiments, which often took the form of always-on video conferences between remote locations, passerby still perceived a sense of separation because they see each other through wide-angle views captured by cameras mounted at a distance from them.

In order to create a greater sense of intimacy, we developed a new computer vision system to enable interaction at a very short distance to a screen surface, to the point that passersby can actually touch it. The installation, named Passages, creates a bidirectional link between distant locations in which passersby can interact with and touch the projected silhouettes of their remote counterparts as captured by this vision system. The aim was to create the feeling of touching the shadow of someone standing directly behind a translucent screen.


Catalyzing Interaction through Shared Experience. Urban environments can often be unfriendly and isolating places in which to live and work. Sometimes you might find yourself curious about someone nearby yet unable to initiate contact for fear of appearing awkward or intrusive in an environment already full of distractions. Inspired by these observations, we wanted to explore ways that new technologies could facilitate lightweight contact between people who happen to be nearby. We felt that one way to support such contact would be through the creation of a shared experience that could serve as a starting point or catalyst for a conversation.

In the tunA project, the main focus of this shared experience is music. tunA is a mobile wireless application that allows users to share their music locally through handheld devices. Users can either listen to their own music or "tune in" to other nearby tunA music players and listen to what someone else is listening to. The application displays a list of tunA users that are in range, gives access to song information, and enables synchronized peer-to-peer audio streaming over ad-hoc WiFi links. An instant-messaging feature allows users to exchange short text messages without necessarily knowing anything about each other except what they are listening to. In initial user studies, this messaging feature was felt to be an essential component to support the desired ice-breaking effect of the application.

Keepsakes of the Future. Keepsakes are an important feature of human relationships. We often present people who are important to us with objects and things to remember us by and to remind us of each other. How can various technologies enhance the bonds that these keepsakes represent? From a wearable-computing point of view, this domain is an interesting one because keepsakes are often things that sit close to our bodies and that we carry with us all the time (like pocket watches, wedding rings, etc.). Thus, in addition to any technical challenge, there exists a design challenge in making non-intrusive objects that don't feel like "devices" and that are comfortable having nearby for long periods.

We developed the whiSpiral, a keepsake that explores how technology can enhance the way garments and accessories evoke memories of relationships. Miniature audio modules integrated directly in the textile allow friends or loved ones to record short audio messages at different points in a spiral-shaped shawl. These messages are whispered back each time you wrap the shawl around yourself, or by caressing different parts of the fabric. The project was inspired by the power of a simple human voice to evoke rich memories of a person, and by the power of a whisper as a medium of intimacy.


Slow Communication. Trends in the design of interpersonal communication technologies in the past several years have been toward efficiency, flexibility, and mobility. The mobile telephone, for example, allows you to talk on the telephone anytime, anywhere, no matter what else you might be doing. Audio quality may not be the best, but it's enough to get a message across. In these ways, the mobile telephone is a little bit like "fast food."

The work of our group proposes a converse approach to the design of communication technologies, one that results in the equivalent of a gourmet restaurant experience. Just as the "slow food" movement celebrates fine food and the enjoyment of an entire meal experience, "slow communication" devices celebrate our ability to telecommunicate and emphasize the purity and singularity of the communication experience.

One example of such technology is the Iso-phone, which could be described as a cross between a telephone and a flotation tank. Iso-phone users are submersed completely underwater and wear a special mask that blocks out external aural and visual distraction while providing compressed air for normal breathing. The water is heated to body temperature, dulling the sense of touch, and blurring the physical boundaries of the user's body. The only sensory stimulus presented is a two-way voice connection to another person possibly using the same apparatus in another location.


Trials of the Iso-phone at exhibitions suggest that the system enables a more relaxed stream-of-consciousness style of conversation that might be well-suited to activities requiring creativity such as brainstorming meetings. Participants also lose their sense of the passage of time and display unexpected behaviors, such as gesturing not only with the arms but also with the legs and the entire body, which are unencumbered while floating in the water tank.

Sports over a Distance. Sports and other physical activities are a good way of introducing people to each other and maintaining relationships. In addition to physical benefits, numerous studies have shown that working up a sweat and getting your adrenaline moving while playing sports increases your propensity to bond socially with teammates and competitors. Inspired by this, the group created Breakout for Two, an interactive installation for playing sports over a distance. The game is a cross between soccer, tennis, and the vintage video game. In Breakout, participants in remote locations throw or kick a physical soccer ball at a wall to break through a projection of virtual "blocks" that partially obscure a live video image of the other player.


The project employs what we call an "exertion interface," an interface that deliberately requires intense physical effort. Our hypothesis was that augmenting an online sport or gaming environment with exertion would enhance the potential for social bonding, and we conducted a study to investigate this claim. The results were encouraging: Players of Breakout for Two said they got to know each other better, felt the other player was more talkative, and were happier with the audio and video quality, in comparison with a control group playing an analogous game using a traditional non-exertion keyboard interface.

Minimizing Mediation. Our impressions of people in distant places and cultures are often mediated by the biases of numerous "third parties" writing reports, telling stories, making documentaries¬óresearchers, directors, producers, camerapeople, distributors, censorship organizations, and so on. Thus, we don't always have a good sense of what people and their everyday lives are like in other places in the world, and having this sense might be helpful in improving understanding and relations between people in different cultures.

The goal of the RAW project was to develop a new kind of recording tool, together with a method for processing and presenting the material captured with the tool, that enables a more direct, minimally-mediated relationship between its user and the later audience, possibly in a far away place or time. The RAW tool consists of a digital still camera and a high-quality digital stereo audio recorder that captures one minute of sound before and after a picture is taken. Audio is recorded binaurally using high-quality miniature microphones that are placed in the user's ears. This design was chosen in an attempt to enable the later audience to immerse themselves "into the shoes" of the person who originated the content they are experiencing, and to place greater emphasis on the subjective point of view of this original source.

In order to evaluate if such a recording tool could be considered relevant and valuable in a plurality of cultures, we conducted workshops in Dublin and Paris, as well as a large-scale study in the country of Mali during which about 30 people used the RAW tool to capture aspects of their daily life. Through these experiences, we were able to uncover several distinct categories describing the ways participants would make use of the tool for different storytelling and documentation purposes, ranging social modes of engagement to more journalistic styles, and inwardly reflective commentaries. Overall, the results reaffirm the belief that introducing a new technology does not always have to increase a sense of something "standing in between" two parties in a relationship.

Next Steps. Media Lab Europe, which was established in 2000 and housed ten research groups at its height, closed its doors in January 2005 due to unfortunate political circumstances stemming from a lack of an agreement between its stakeholders on how its activities would be funded and managed going forward. Nevertheless, the vision of the Human Connectedness group is still alive and some of the projects discussed above are moving forward on independent tracks of commercialization or further research.

back to top  Acknowledgements

Thanks to all the members of the Human Connectedness group for their hard work, great ideas, and perpetual enthusiasm in developing these projects and other projects. Please see for full project credits.

back to top  References

1. Putnam, R. (2000) Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, Simon & Schuster.

2. Lewis, T., Amini, F., & Landon, R. (2000) A General Theory of Love, Random House.

3. House, J. S., Landis, K. R., & Umberson, D. (1988) "Social Relationships and Health," Science 241, 4865 (July 29, 1988), pp. 540-545.

4. Bly, S. A., Harrison, S. R., & Irwin, S. (1993) "Media Spaces: Bringing People Together in a Video, Audio, and Computing Environment," Communications of the ACM 36, 1 (January 1993), pp. 28-47.

5. Human Connectedness group Web site,

back to top  Author

Stefan Agamanolis
Media Lab Europe

About the Author:

Stefan Agamanolis holds MS and Ph.D. in Media Arts and Sciences from MIT. He was one of the founding research directors at Media Lab Europe and led the Human Connectedness group until the lab's closure in early 2005. He is currently working as an independent consultant on research and commercialization activities in the ICT and digital media domains and hopes that the Human Connectedness group will be able to resume operation in some form in the future.

back to top  Figures

UF1Figure. The Passages installation creates the feeling of touching the shadow of someone standing directly behind a translucent screen.

UF2Figure. The miniature audio modules integrated directly into whiSpiral's fabric whisper audio messages recorded by loved ones.

UF3Figure. Iso-phone, as exhibited at Ars Electronica Festival 2004, Linz, Austria

UF4Figure. Breakout for Two participants throw or kick a soccer ball at a wall to break through a projection of virtual "blocks" partially obscuring a live video image of other players.

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