XXV.2 March-April 2018
Page: 82
Digital Citation

Inviting silence: An ambient digital living media system in the home

Foad Hamidi, Melanie Baljko

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In her seminal book Alone Together, Sherry Turkle draws a sobering picture of the confusion and stress that many young children expressed when interacting with autonomous robot pets, such as AIBO and Furby [1]. These robots are specifically designed to be taken care of by children and to simulate a range of emotions in response to human input, including pleasure, affection, and distress when neglected. Using results from several years of observational studies, Turkle warns about the emotional attachments that children form in response to the robots’ simulated signs of caring and love, even though these signs do not correspond to authentic emotions. Turkle posits that this kind of child-robot interaction, in which caring relationships are reduced to simplified, predictive models, might undermine the users’ understanding of the complexity of human relationships. Indeed, some children exhibited signs of confusion and an inability to distinguish between simulated and real emotions.

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Even heeding Turkle’s warning, engaging children using technology that they care about and feel responsible for is a compelling design idea. So how might we leverage the dynamics of caring and responsibility to motivate children to use a system or change their behavior, without deceiving them? Further, how can such a system support existing human relationships, rather than simulating or replacing them? These questions are even more intriguing when considering the design of such systems to motivate communication-skills practice by children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). Previous research has shown that children diagnosed with ASD often have a tendency to be interested in digital technology [2].

We approached these questions in a recent research project called Rafigh (companion in Farsi) [3]. In this project, we created a system that allowed child users to take responsibility for a living organism and care for it. We wanted to use these dynamics to motivate the children to engage in learning and therapeutic tasks, and to increase communication and collaboration in their families.

Designing an engaging system for children can be a difficult task. It is hard to know what will capture their interest and what will not. Of course, a great source of inspiration and, indeed, excellent design ideas—children themselves, whom we included in the design process as early as possible. While we included direct communication from these children in the design process as much as we could, some of them were diagnosed with ASD, which limited their direct communication with us. We also benefited from the children’s adult communication partners, including parents, teachers, and therapists, who served to mediate communication. Thus, during the design process we worked closely with children and adults who work with them, live with them, and care for them. We also drew upon the extensive and inspiring research in the area of child-computer interaction. In recent years, many projects have emerged in this space that successfully use avatars, digital tablets, and digital tangible multiplayer games, among other means, to engage children with communication disorders and help them participate in collaborative activities (e.g., [2,4]).

A theme that kept reemerging during our participatory design sessions was the children’s interest in living beings: animals, plants, and even insects. Several parents described how having pets in the home teaches children about caring and responsibility toward other life forms. Using these ideas, we designed Rafigh as a hybrid digital-living media system that combines digital components and living organisms. For the living organism, we employed edible oyster mushrooms. For the digital components, we implemented a customized irrigation system that administers specific amounts of water to the mushrooms, which effectively controls their rate of growth (the growth and health of the mushrooms are correlated in a linear way to the amount of water they receive, as long as they are not overwatered).

Our goal was to motivate children to undertake digital target activities; that is, activities that were felt to have beneficial learning and/or therapeutic outcomes. Therefore, we correlated the amount of water administered to the mushrooms to the time the children spent on these target activities. Thus, the more the children completed target activities, the faster the growth of the mushroom colony and the mushrooms themselves. This effectively meant that the children were caring for the mushrooms by completing the activities. Finally, we designed the system such that children had to collaborate with each other (siblings or playmates) to complete the activities.

We considered many factors when choosing the particular living organism to incorporate into Rafigh. The children had many imaginative suggestions: For example, a young girl asked for a system to help her care for a horse. However, we also had to consider factors such as safety, ease of control, and perceptibility (i.e., the organism’s state could be changed in a way that children could perceive). We considered several possible living media, including sea monkeys and bean sprouts before deciding on edible oyster mushrooms, which can grow in recycled coffee grounds.

The mushrooms and their growing medium were specifically tested to be safe for children and adults to grow in home or school settings. We also created a custom housing for Rafigh that separated the digital and living media components and was durable and safe for use by children. Prior to user testing, we experimented with administering different amounts of water to the mushrooms to determine appropriate water levels that would correspond to high, medium, and low speeds of growth. We determined minimum and maximum amounts of water that can be administered by the system without killing the mushrooms. We designed the algorithm to always water the mushrooms within this range. Finally, the mushrooms grow over a period of 7 to 12 days; once they start growing, changes in their appearance over a period of hours can be easily perceived with the naked eye.

ins02.gif The Rafigh system consists of a colony of living oyster mushrooms and an embedded networked irrigation system.

We intended Rafigh to be used in users’ homes, as a living entity that shares space with the family and whose quiet, ambient existence is woven into the fabric of everyday life, akin to a houseplant or family garden. Given the slow changes in the system’s appearance, it was desirable for the children to be able to do spontaneous checks, taking place over long periods of time (hours and days). We also hypothesized that having the constant presence of Rafigh in the home would support a sense of caring and responsibility in the children and provide opportunities for spontaneous communication about it between family members. Therefore, we decided to evaluate Rafigh in two case studies conducted in participants’ homes.

The more the children completed target activities, the faster the growth of the mushroom colony.

In each case study, two siblings used Rafigh for two weeks. Prior to bringing Rafigh to the participants’ home, the parents identified a series of target activities that they wanted the children to conduct. We monitored how much time the children spent on these activities before Rafigh was introduced. The target activities included using tablet applications with therapeutic and learning outcomes, such as “Autism iHelp: Play” and “Touch & Learn: Emotions.” In both case studies, Rafigh motivated children to complete more target activities when it was present. Rafigh also motivated the children to collaborate and communicate with each other when completing the activities. The children showed signs of caring and responsibility toward the mushrooms and checked their growth regularly. Additionally, the children asked their parents about how mushrooms grow and reproduce. The parents used the children’s curiosity as opportunities to have conversations with them about nature, life, and technology, including the consequences of one’s behavior on other living beings and the environment. Interviews with parents and children revealed that they clearly understood the system functionality and how the children’s use of applications controlled the mushrooms’ growth. At the end of the study, the children brought the harvested mushrooms to their school to show to classmates; afterward, the parents cooked and ate them.

Interesting and often unexpected dynamics emerged between siblings who participated in the study. In one study, two brothers, who were both diagnosed with ASD, exhibited different and complementary interests toward Rafigh. The older brother was interested only in using digital applications and did not pay attention to the mushrooms; the younger brother, on the other hand, was fascinated by how the organisms grew and kept asking questions about them. The younger brother was not initially interested in using digital applications, but once he realized that their use helps the growth of the mushrooms, he started to use them together with his brother. Their mother observed that throughout the time that Rafigh was in the home, the brothers spent many hours doing target activities together. She observed that the younger brother asked his brother several times to help him use the digital applications so that “the mushrooms can grow faster.”

Rafigh, both its physical form and its ambient presence in the home, supported unobtrusive and consistent possibilities for being observed and interacted with by the children: It existed in the family home and, like a houseplant or garden, became a part of the family’s physical environment. Once the mushrooms started growing, there was no on and off button; they were “just there,” creating possibilities for reflection and conversation. This contrasts to digital media that can be paused and turned on and off. Rafigh constantly existed in the users’ homes, but it did not need constant attention. Its persistence meant that attention toward it could quickly move from the periphery to the center of focus, slipping back to the periphery again as needed.

The idea of combining digital and living media to create interactive systems is slowly being studied in human-computer interaction (HCI) (e.g., [3,5]). Using living media as materials is, however, well known in the vibrant art movement of BioArt and has been explored for many years by prominent bioartists such as Joe Davis, Eduardo Kac, and Oron Catts [6]. Rafigh and other similar projects, such as Babbage Cabbage, which uses color changes in living red cabbage heads to communicate and visualize different types of data [5], are situated at the intersection of HCI and BioArt.

Rafigh is a design artifact that combines the interactivity of digital technology with the living cycles of a biological organism. It does not simulate affection or love toward its users, dynamics that Turkle criticized in “social robots” such as AIBO or Furby [1]. Instead, it reflects children’s digital activity in the silent growth pattern of the mushrooms. We feel that it is this silent, slow change of the living organism that opens up space for more conversation between children and parents. Rafigh is engaging not only because of the fact that the mushrooms are alive but also because the system is designed for the whole family. Once its interactivity engages children, possibilities for conversation about life, growth, and death open up. In a world where children and adults are competing with engaging digital technologies for each other’s attention and care, it is important to explore the design space of systems that can support and enrich human relationships rather than compromise or replace them.

back to top  References

1. Turkle, S. Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other. Basic Books, 2011.

2. Hourcade, J.P., Williams, S.R., Miller, E.A., Huebner, K.E., and Liang, L.J. Evaluation of tablet apps to encourage social interaction in children with autism spectrum disorders. Proc. of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems. ACM, New York, 2013, 3197–3206.

3. Hamidi, F. and Baljko, M. Engaging children using a digital living media system. Proc. of the 2017 Conference on Designing Interactive Systems. ACM, New York, 2017, 711–723.

4. Frauenberger, C., Good, J., Alcorn, A., and Pain, H. Supporting the design contributions of children with autism spectrum conditions. Proc. of the 11th International Conference on Interaction Design and Children. ACM, New York, 134–143.

5. Fernando, O.N., Cheok, A.D., Merritt, T., Peiris, R.L., Fernando, C.L., Ranasinghe, N., and Karunanayaka, K. Babbage cabbage: Biological empathetic media. VRIC Laval Virtual Proc. 2009, 363–366.

6. Kac, E., ed. Signs of Life: Bio Art and Beyond. MIT Press, 2007.

back to top  Authors

Foad Hamidi is a postdoctoral research associate at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC). He has a Ph.D. in computer science from the Lassonde School of Engineering, York University, Toronto.

Melanie Baljko is an associate professor in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science in the Lassonde School of Engineering, a member of the graduate programs in critical disability studies and science and technology studies at York University, and an affiliate scientist at the University Health Network-Toronto Rehabilitation Institute.

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