Designing the cognitive future, part VI: Communication

Authors: Juan Hourcade
Posted: Tue, February 03, 2015 - 4:33:59

Continuing the series on designing the cognitive future, in this post I discuss communication. This is a topic on which the HCI community has spent a significant amount of energy, with conferences such as CSCW fully dedicated to it.

Two hundred years ago, most personal communications occurred face-to-face, with the most common exception being letter writing, for those who were literate. This meant that most communication was in real time with those in physical proximity, requiring the need to process information through the senses (mostly audio and visual), and respond through speech and gestures in real time. Letter writing involved different kinds of cognitive processes. Besides reading and writing, it also involved thinking about when the recipients might read the letter, their context, and how long it may take to receive a reply. Overall, most people lived in a very localized bubble; with perspectives and points of view that were very local, only expanded for those with the means and education through books and other print media.

The telegraph brought greater efficiency to remote communications, with the telephone significantly extending our ability to communicate remotely, eventually without intermediaries. However, expenses associated with these communication methods meant that most personal communication still occurred with those nearby. 

With the combination of mobile devices and Internet connectivity we have nowadays, we have the ability to communicate anytime, anywhere, with an unprecedented number of people. Not only that, but for many people in high-income regions, it can happen quite conveniently and at affordable costs. This trend is likely to expand into lower-income regions, with remote communication becoming more widely available, more convenient, and less expensive, while providing access to more people with greater fidelity. The cognitive processes involved in communication are still quite similar to those used for face-to-face communication, although the bandwidth is narrower, making these communications easier to process, but often more ambiguous. There are cognitive challenges, though, in navigating the myriad of communication options and their respective etiquettes. 

The trend moving us from communicating primarily with those nearby to communicating with our favorite people from around the world is likely to continue. One possible challenge brought about by this trend is that many people may end up communicating almost exclusively with people they like, who share their lifestyle, viewpoints, ideas, and values. This could be exacerbated by increased automation in service industries, meaning that people could avoid previously necessary interactions with strangers. People are also increasingly accessing personalized mass media. Taken together this could lead to people operating in a new kind of bubble, one that tends to only reinforce personal beliefs, and that may make people unaware of others’ realities, including those of people physically around them.

At the same time, communication technologies can enable people to stay in contact with others from halfway around that world, perhaps people they met only once. This could have the opposite effect, providing new perspectives, ideas, and realities. As translation technologies improve, there are also possibilities of people engaging in sustained communication with others with whom they do not share a language. Perhaps they could meet through a mutual interest (e.g., music, art, sports) and communicate in ways not previously possible. This could have even greater effects in lowering barriers between cultures and moving past stereotypes.

What about the technology? It’s easy to imagine extensions of what we are currently seeing: anytime, anywhere communication with anyone; higher-fidelity, fully immersive remote communications engaging all our senses with the highest quality audio, high-definition holograms, full-body tracking and haptic feedback, and who knows, maybe even smell and taste. My guess is most people would stick with the audio and video a majority of the time.

But there could be other communication technologies that go beyond. A longstanding wish and feature in science fiction stories is the ability to communicate thoughts. Something that may be more attainable is technology to help understand the feelings of others, during both face-to-face and remote communication. This could involve processing facial expressions, tone inflections, heartbeat, and so forth. The outcomes could make communication easier for some groups, such as autistic people. 

At the same time, personal communication technologies could further enable people to more fully express themselves. I saw an example the first time a girl diagnosed with autism used a tablet-based zoomable drawing tool. What on a piece of paper would have looked like scribbles turned into a person drawn from the details to the whole, with two large eyes looking at it. The tool enabled her to tell us what it felt like to be observed. This ability to express thoughts in ways that were not previously possible is something personal communication technologies can enable, something that could potentially make a big difference in the lives of people who have difficulty expressing their thoughts.

So what are my preferences for the future of personal communications? While I greatly enjoy easily being able to communicate with loved ones and people who share my values, I find the opportunities in enabling communication with those who live in very different contexts crucial to helping us make wise decisions about our world. Similarly, most of us are quite fortunate in being able to express ourselves at least to the degree that we can fulfill our basic needs and interests. As a community, we need to continue our work in extending that ability to all people.

How would you design the future of personal communications? 

Posted in: on Tue, February 03, 2015 - 4:33:59

Juan Hourcade

Juan Pablo Hourcade is an associate professor in the Department of Computer Science at the University of Iowa, focusing on human-computer interaction.
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@Arthur (2015 07 02)

Hi Juan Pablo,

I liked that article very much, thanks for posting this. And actually I am now working on an academic project in HCI that does exactly what you are talking about: helping people from different culture communicate better.
I think that the place with the most room for development is intercultural communication, because as you mentioned, the fact that the world is getting more and more interconnected allowed us to communicate with people we would never have met otherwise. And the speed of technological advances in the domain is much higher than the speed of our adaptation.
Especially, I want to augment video-conference tools by automatically analyzing facial expressions, emotions and gestures, and displaying information to the chat-users in order for them to learn culture-general capabilities.
Specifically, I am now looking for tools that can help me achieving this. Needs to be accurate and JavaScript-ready.
Have you already worked with e.g. Kinect, Intel RealSense, or VisageSDK? If yes, what is your opinion about them?
Any pointers?