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VI.6 Nov.-Dec. 1999
Page: 8
Digital Citation


Kay Hofmeester

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A prototype digital video camera in wristwatch form was recently launched. A dream out of a James Bond movie, it could come within the reach of Joe Slightly-Above-Average's pocketbook in the foreseeable future. Technology is staggeringly smart. Technological advances are still treating us to a constant stream of new products and new possibilities. But what's the use of a wristwatch-sized video camera if your daily life doesn't happen to include things like infiltrating the secret labs of the unscrupulous Dr. No or trouncing the sadistic Goldfinger?

The Maypole project, one product of which is this issue of interactions, conducted 2 years of research into the communicative behavior of the family. At the same time, the Maypole project team developed new applications for communications technology. But technology was not the starting point for this Europe-wide project. We deliberately left open the choice of technology to force ourselves to establish direct contact with people in real social settings. Our team of sociologists, psychologists, interaction designers and electronics engineers aimed to learn more about people's daily lives, wishes, and frustrations.

We became fascinated by the kinds of communication that take place among members of a family: a little private joke you have shared with your brother since you were kids; a note to grandma to tell her you are thinking of her; or a call to reassure your worried mother that all is well. Interactions like these do not have a work-related goal. The best term for them is simply "socializing." People spend a surprisingly large proportion of their time socializing; as psychologist Robin Dunbar says in this issue: "about two-thirds of our conversational exchanges are social chitchat."

What kind of future can we picture for communications technology aimed at family-level socializing? Maypole's work concentrated on this question instead of on the traditional work-related focus of "purposive" communications technology. It is a question that is particularly relevant now that ever more and younger children have their own mobile phones.

"What kind of future can we picture for technology aimed at family-level socializing?"

Pictures are important to people. A child makes a drawing for Mom's birthday; Grandma can watch baby growing up from month to month in the photos her daughter sends her; and a father can watch his little boy at play in the day care via the Web. Image-related communication technologies are rapidly becoming available to everyone, so in Maypole we looked at the use of images in family communication. What use do people make of images? How will that use change once it becomes easy, quick, and cheap to record images, manipulate them, send them to other people, discard them, and archive them? How might image-based communication support or enliven interaction among family members?

In our quest for answers to these questions, the team developed prototypes of digital cameras that allowed the users to send images to one another at the press of a button. We gave them to 11 test subjects in four families—without telling them what they were supposed to do with the devices. After an initial familiarization period, family members began sending pictures to one another. First they did this just to see if the system worked. Gradually, however, they started using the cameras to send visual messages—faces, visual jokes, and images that expressed emotions and moods. The experimental subjects devised their own methods for keeping contact. It worked! The results we saw gave us the feeling that we had stumbled on a phenomenon that was much broader and more interesting than we had dared expect.

A technology that does not support or enhance human behavior is pretty dumb. The way people act and live should always be the point of departure for developing new products and new services, whether or not they are high-tech. New products aimed at the general public are not likely to flourish unless their designers and developers are well versed in the everyday lives of the people their products are meant for.

"A technology that does not support or enhance human behavior is pretty dumb"

This special issue of interactions, which is devoted to Maypole, brings together a variety of outlooks on visual communication and the family. In some respects the structure is more like that of a book than of the usual magazine. In the first part, five experts in psychology and sociology give their views on the "Maypole domain." The second part presents a number of examples of existing and possible applications of visual communications in a family context. For the third part, we asked business specialists at Nokia, Philips, Kodak, and Polaroid to give us some idea of their strategies on visual communication and families. Finally, we added an annotated list of books, links, articles, and periodicals that gives a bird's-eye view of the latest sources of knowledge. We hope that by presenting this information, we will succeed in opening up a broader perspective on this fascinating area of communication. Above all, we hope we will inspire others to explore it too.

With this publication, the Maypole project has completed its work <>. The project was a collaborative enterprise of Nokia Research Center and the Usability Group at the Helsinki University of Technology in Finland, IDEO Europe in the United Kingdom, the Center for Usability Research and Engineering in Austria, and Meru Research and the Netherlands Design Institute in The Netherlands. Maypole was supported by the European Commission as part of the Intelligent Information Interfaces (i3) Research Program. i3 was established to look into the role of new media in social renewal and in communication in local communities. Our special thanks go to Jakub Wejchert, representative of the European Commission and initiator of i3, and to Editor-in-Chief Steven Pemberton and the staff of interactions for their enthusiastic support of this special issue.

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Kay Hofmeester
Maypole Project Manager

Translation: Victor Joseph

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©1999 ACM  1072-5220/99/1100  $5.00

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