HCI and the challenges of mass communications

XI.2 March + April 2004
Page: 67
Digital Citation

Networked information services in context-sensitive environments

Giles Rollestone

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Networks not only have transformed the business models of organizations—they are reshaping existing social landscapes, creating new social shapes that affect the forms and communication structures within these environments inside and out. Imagine a place you could go where accessing information was more like moving about a city, where browsing was more like wandering down a street: a place of fleeting imagery, fragments of conversations, and chance encounters [8]... The Sushi Project is an attempt to create that environment.

Sushi was developed as a way of sharing information between people in small groups and networks within the Royal College of Art. Based on the idea of a notice or bulletin board, the system extended its original use by exploring the possibilities of networked screens to represent relationships between public and private, and real and virtual, drawing on ideas of both montage and the narrative of "the city." Sushi represents a small-scale community and all the associated interactions that take place in such an interpersonal space. The Sushi Project explores the very nature of the computing medium itself—how a system can be represented, how the system appears to people using it, ways people can interact with the system, and what qualities it suggests [6].

Our notion of place has changed with network infrastructures: We are moving toward an increasingly fluid way of communicating, working, playing, traveling, and being, with greater mobility and personal freedom [5]. Now we call a person, not a geographical location. This means that conversations—in fact, interactions of any kind—can take place potentially anywhere [4].

Historically, architecture was the social and cultural mediator of society's stories. Buildings—cathedrals, for example—were representations of power and knowledge; they were communication spaces in their own right [3]. Now, postmodern theory tells us that the medium is the message [7], the world is simulacra [2], leading to a fascination with the image—or at least the imagined image. There are many more competing communication formats: sometimes buildings, sometimes magazines, billboards, sounds, fashions, and shops—often temporary and ephemeral, sometimes tangible, sometimes intangible. Communication becomes a dynamic interplay of real space and virtual space, on the streets, within our communication networks, and in our heads [1].

The city has become a recurrent metaphor in the conceptualization of the Internet, from the Web to MultiUser Dungeons (MUDs). The form and structure of the Internet are like a stretching, organic city sprawl, creating cities within cities that are enormous, clumsy, and difficult to conceptualize, map, or navigate [8].

But virtual environments using this conceptualization have tended to focus on literal representations of rooms, buildings, and streets rather than on the sensory and experiential qualities of a particular environment or situation. Virtual environments with concrete, finite, three-dimensional qualities alone cheat virtual and real space of its full potential, missing the opportunity of mixed interactions among people, objects, and environments [8].

The sushi belt was developed as a reaction to these ideas. The sushi belt, which originated in Japan, carries food around a restaurant on a mini-travelator (reminiscent of airport transport), allowing customers to select food at their leisure. In our fast-food city culture this gimmick has been adopted worldwide. In this interactive project the sushi belt is used as a metaphor that explores our modern interpretations of information.

Sushi's look and feel evolved from a desire to create a visual-spatial environment that offers an alternative to user interface standards and conventions prevalent in Macintosh and Windows operating systems and applications. These interfaces and navigation systems generally attempt to offer control of, and access to, everything. Although this feature gives a particular richness, in some instances they do not afford chance encounters such as those we experience daily through chance collisions with other people, places, and situations. It was this randomness we sought to introduce.

The Sushi research team looked at the different social scales in which people live and communicate with one another; the city, the club, the dinner party, and personal conversations. Searching for means to characterize communication forms in different situations and media, our aim was to create the framework and infrastructure of a city. However, this became too ambitious; the focus shifted toward our primary target audience in the Royal College of Art [6], which fit the social scale of a club. The resulting application, called the Active Media Transit System, focused on dinner-party conversations; the belt became the output of a fictional kitchen; the information exchange was the conversation patterns situated around a dinner party of six to eight people.

We spent time talking to both students and tutors, improving our understanding of the culture and the environment, the activities people were involved in, and their difficulties and desires. We observed the information in their environment—notice boards, for instance—and casual advertisements for services and specific events were scattered in specific locations such as in lifts, corridors, the coffee bar, and the walls of the canteen around the Royal College of Art. These were places you either passed through or spent transitory moments in: perhaps drinking a coffee, eating a meal, or talking to colleagues and friends. Notices in these in-between spaces adopted an ambient presence. The random juxtaposition of different notices not only created multilayered information spaces, but also offered representations of short-term history and collective memory. This structuring resembled our plans for Sushi.

As we moved from research to designing a prototype, we asked: What could the experience be like in software?

As we have conceived it, Sushi is a visual-spatial environment for creating, manipulating, and viewing information. Layered images and interface elements express the content and tasks that need to be completed. Sushi fuses the language and syntax of tools and digital time-based media embedding features and functionality within the narrative space of the application.

Based on the metaphor of a Sushi bar conveyor belt, tiny images, text, or animated icons are pushed along a virtual conveyor belt simultaneously connecting everyone working at their machines. The icons are samples of what lies behind them; for example, links to Internet-based events, notices, and Web sites. In addition, the application includes a simple authoring environment in which people can easily create their own notices and icons and link in their own pages.

The first release of the Active Media Transit System needed to establish a limited set of features and functions. Essentially, we wanted to see how people inhabited the system before applying specific features. Features could be context- and location-sensitive and thus be built into the application at a later stage. Because of this simplicity, the opportunity exists for potential subversion, accidents, and perhaps different uses of the environment in ways we never imagined. The result is a textured environment, more akin to moving through a city, where browsing is like wandering down a street—that place of fleeting imagery, fragments of conversations, and chance encounters.

back to top  References

1. Auge, M. Non-places: Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity. Verso Books, 1995.

2. Baudrillard, J. Simulacra and Simulation: The Body, in Theory: Histories of Cultural Materialism. (Translated by S. Glaser). University of Michigan Press, 1994.

3. Best, K. Designing Experiences, Inhabiting Spaces. From Virtual Architecture, Papadakis Publications. 2001.

4. Cheverst, K., Mitchell, K., and Davies N. Investigating Context-aware Information Push vs Information Pull to Tourists. Mobile HC 01 2001.

5. Demarest, M. Cities of Text: Some Notes On Some Notes on Intranets, Knowledge Management, and Urban Planning. June 1997.

6. Interaction Design at the Royal College of Art, London, United Kingdom, 2003 (www.crd.rca.ac.uk/).

7. McLuhan, M., Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. The MIT Press, Cambridge, 1994.

8. Rollestone, G. and Greenfield, S. Urban Feedback. Consuming Architecture, Architecture Design Profile No 131, John Wiley and Sons, 1998.

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The Sushi project was conceived by Martin Locker, Ian Morris and Giles Rollestone. Software design and development by Ian Morris and Giles Rollestone.

The Sushi project team would like to acknowledge the contribution of Martin Locker during the early stages. I thank Gillian Crampton-Smith and members of the Computer Related Design Department at the Royal College of Art. The original project was supported by the Interval Research Group and the Computer Related Design Research Group at the Royal College of Art, London.

Author's Bio

Giles Rollestone is the creator and designer of the award winning "Urban Feedback" (Research Arts & Digitalogue, 1996) and 'Urban Feedback Tokyo' (Digitalogue, 2002) interactive CD-ROMs. A graphic and interaction designer he has worked for SBI and Company, Scient, MetaDesign and as a research fellow in the Computer Related Design department at the Royal College of Art in London. Rollestone graduated in Graphic Design from the Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design.

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