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Mobile Community Design
Research and design information for mobile community developers.

Sunday, December 25, 2005

Collective action and community

There's an interesting podcast on the topic of supporting collective action in communities by Marc Smith of Microsoft Research.
Thanks to Martin of TravelPod for the tip.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

New paper on observing mobile groups

We have published a new technical report:

Axup, J., & Viller, S. (2005). Conceptualizing New Mobile Devices By Observing Gossip and Social Network Formation Amongst the Extremely Mobile - Mobile Information Sharing 1 (MIS-1) Study, ITEE Technical Report (No. 459). University of Queensland: Brisbane, Australia. http://eprint.uq.edu.au/archive/00003287/

For those of you who don't know: technical reports are a great way to see cutting edge research about a year before it actually gets published in journals (see the FAQ section to find out why). E-prints is a cool system a lot of universities offer to promote self-publishing and open access to research (unlike many journals and conference proceedings).

The paper is about our experiences observing groups of backpackers on tourist activities. This was done to elicit requirements for the design of a mobile travel assistant simialr to a guidebook. It will shortly be followed by another report on the second iteration of the study which introduced foam prototypes of various wearable devices.

Here's the abstract:
Backpackers are a large number of young, budget travellers that move through Australia and the rest of the world each year. They tend to seek new experiences, travel cheaply, and many prefer to let chance occurrences guide their journey. Backpackers primarily flow in a bi-directional North-South current through the East Coast cities of Australia. They often form eddies to unknown locations, or pause to rest in pools of other backpackers. Backpackers often wish to organize group activities, but have few collaboration methods available. They regularly explore unfamiliar locations quickly, but have only basic resources to inform them about those places. Despite the desired collaboration, only a trickle of communication is possible between them as they move. Many opportunities exist for mobile devices to assist them with their difficulties.

We used a combination of mobile group ethnography, contextual group interviews and participatory activities, to explore current communication behaviour between backpackers engaged in a typical tourist activity. Research methods were also evaluated to determine their utility for studying mobile groups. Results indicate a long list of inconveniences backpackers face, which have translate into a list of 48 user requirements and a table of 35 product ideas. Ethnographic observation worked well in person and with audio recorders, but not well with video. Participatory methods allowed rapid, inexpensive exploration of a social pairing system and provided redesign data. We also learned how different phases of mobility can effect communication and behaviour of groups of backpackers.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Mobile phones and public displays

I was just reading through the Textually blog (check it out, it's cool) and happened upon an interesting article on LocaModa. The latest hot trend is put up big plasma screens and use them as "public displays". The only problem is nobody seems to know what to put on them except the same old boring advertising. They haven't figured out that it is an interactive medium, that will have a host of group-usability problems that go along with them. Putting in location-sensing or multimedia might make them techie, but it won't necessarily make them usable or useful.

Of course the most obvious way of allowing interactivity is through the mobile phone. There's a lot of interesting issues surrounding this, such as the fact that the mobile is a private device and the screen public. So what information do you put on each one and how does the interaction occur? The answer depends a lot on what you're trying to do with them. One possibility is to show travellers information about the city they are in.

LocaModa wants to use voice prompts and number punching in a style similar to IVRs (think automated phonecall redirection) to do this. Here is their scenario from their site:

He sees a large plasma screen on a wall of the lobby displaying details of a local map and playing short highlights of local restaurants, bars, entertainment, shopping and tourist information. The screen displays an invitation to be ‘remote controlled’ from a cell phone.

John dials the number on the screen. He hears a voice prompt on his cell phone say “Press the key on your phone that corresponds with an item of interest on the screen”. Simultaneously, the screen displays animated instructions showing how to browse the content. For example, He can press 1 on his cell phone keypad to see local entertainment options, or press 2 to see local restaurant options. He can also use his * and # keys to zoom the map in and out.

Can anyone see any problems with this? Why wouldn't John just go up and use the touch screen on the public display to select what option he wants? How is he going to know to listen to his phone after he dialed an inanimate object? Isn't this going to be a very clunky interface and much slower than going and asking the maitra d'? What happens when another visitor arrives and wants to use the screen at the same time?

The nice thing about using scenarios is they allow implausible portions of designs to be seen easily. It means mobile requirements can be re-written before they are built. One of the biggest challenges for public interfaces (e.g. museum exhibits, public displays) is handling multiple people trying to use them at the same time. Mobiles will have a role to play in this, but it's still a research question as to how.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Context is Dynamic

Context is a dynamic construct. This paper indicates that allthough some contextual situations are fairly stable, discernable, and predictable, there are many others that are not. Similar looking contextual situations may actually differ dramatically, due perhaps to people’s previous episodes of use, the state of their social interactions, their changing internal goals, and the nuances of local influences. The consequence is that, for all but simple cases, the designer of a context-aware application may find it difficult or even impossible to (a) enumerate the set of contextual states that may exist, (b) know what information could accurately determine a contextual state within that set, and (c) state what appropriate action should be taken from a particular state.

This is one of several high-quality papers which take issue with the systems & context modelling approaches to context and contextual awareness.

Greenberg, Saul (2001): Context as a Dynamic Construct. HUMAN-COMPUTER INTERACTION, 16, 257–268.