Sunday, October 19, 2003

UbiComp Reflections II - can ubicomp come out to play?

Thanks to Eric Paulos for the lovely question used in the title of the post. I am back home and still digesting my trips to Seattle and Montreal. Before I get to the Hybrid Reality conference, I want to get the UbiComp thoughts out ... I have updated my earlier posts, and discussed other projects in the comments, but want to focus a bit more here on ubicomp, intimacy and play.

The intimate computing workshop organisers talk about intimacy as cognitive and emotional closeness with technology, intimacy as physical closeness with technology, and intimacy through technology. My paper talked about technology as intimacy and intimacy as technology, but everyone seemed to remember it as the paper on the creepy spider-goat.

We spent the morning doing a show-and-tell of the intimate objects brought to the workshop, and the afternoon working on small group design exercises. From these discussions the organisers will compile a manifesto of methods and models for intimate computing, and I will link to it when it becomes available.

Elizabeth Goodman and Marion Misilim presented the Sensing Beds project I blogged some time ago. Marion also does some interesting work in physical computing.

[And now that I think about it, everyone I met at UbiComp who graduated from the ITP at NYU was working on fabulous stuff.]

I was quite struck by a brief demonstration Liz Goodman gave on taking a person's measurements for custom-made clothing. The act of measuring someone's body is quite intimate and ritualised. It involves asking a person to breathe in and out in order to reveal their "true" measurements, which conjured memories of holding in my stomach to appear thinner and how vulnerable I might feel in that situation. Taking measurements also requires getting physically close to a person, putting your arms around them and yet also having to ask them to measure the 'more intimate' parts of their body, such as the inseam. But what struck me the most about this was that Liz's intimate object - the tape measure - was not particularly intimate. For example, she claimed no attachment to the tape itself, and any tape would do. The intimacy of this situation arose not in the object itself, but in the performance of measuring. And yet, I am reluctant to say that the tape measure afforded intimacy, because the object did more than enable or afford a particular action: it both acted in, and enacted, the situational intimacy of measurement-taking. And surely that distinction allows us to approach the design of objects (and technologies in general) with greater intimacy (and embroilment) as well.

I also talked with Yuri Gitman (of noderunner fame) about his latest project Magic Bike - very cool! He talked about the value of play-testing technologies, and recommended Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman's Rules of Play. Yuri also teaches Wireless Art at the Parsons School of Design.

The last day of the conference kicked-off with a great panel on mobile play: blogging, tagging and messaging. Eric Paulos moderated, and made two claims about play: "1) humans seamlessly move in and out of the context of play and 2) when at play, humans employ a separate mental cognition. The scope of their current activity is more ambiguous, and their expectations about people, artifacts, interfaces, tools, etc. are increasingly relaxed. The mind is open up to widely fanciful interpretations, connections and metaphors. The rules of human engagement are completely altered."

I completely agree with the first point, but I'm not sure I get the second because questions of cognition are rather foreign to me. I do, however, disagree with the final point: if play involves learning - as Eric also claims - then clearly play also has something to do with socialisation. When I was little, we "played" Star Wars and I always had to be Princess Leia. I really wanted to be Han Solo but wasn't allowed - and I still remember this kid Matthew who wanted to be Leia but wasn't allowed either. I'm pretty sure when we fought about these things we all learned something about what was considered appropriate gender behaviour, even though I don't believe that either one of us was gay and that was the primary reason given for not being allowed to play the opposite sex character. (Oh, and apparently, neither myself nor Matthew were socially powerful enough to change the situation.) But my point is that the "rules of engagement" weren't altered at all. We had no problem imagining being Star Wars characters, but we weren't able to imagine different gender roles. Socialisation dies hard.

Anyway, I really liked that Eric set up the topic of play as mobile - as active events or practices. As with intimacy, it may be best framed in terms of performativity and performance, embodiment and duration. Eric also asked if playfulness might be used to prevent criticism - as in, are playful technologies excluded from critique? can they "just be fun"? Good question, and short answer: no (the least fun answer of all - and one which makes me think of when Howard Rheingold told me that intellectuals like to dis flash mobs and he wanted to know what we have against other people having fun? I laughed out loud, and stood humbled).

Marc Smith asked how play is instrumental? educational? informal? self-expressive? fun? subversive? He talked about "laminated reality" - nice imagery, no? - game theory, social network analysis and ecosystems of strategies - which reminded me of activity theory, but not de Certeau's "tactics" and Situationism, which I like much more).

And speaking of situationism, Barry Brown began with "under the paving stones ... the beach" or how play is "not a residual category, it's the stuff of life." He's interested in play in work and work in play, and if I remember correctly, he brought up the notion that people "work hard at playing" and he favoured "designing for the boundary" between work and play. Nice.

Nina Wakeford - Director of INCITE - talked about the 73 Urban Journeys project, mobile play and urban space. She started with something that also stuck with me: that sociology cannot impart some sort of sociological wisdom to ubicomp designers to make ubicomp better, but by thinking together about how ubicomp creates social objects and relations we can, together, be more reflexive about what it is we want to know about society and technology. She also brought up the relation between play and power: we've all experienced those contexts where play is clearly inappropriate ("Stop playing!" or less eloquently, and perhaps more honestly, "Stop fucking around!"). Huizinga and Caillois write about play in terms of being "outside" - of work, of utility, of productivity - culturally inappropriate spaces and states. Sutton-Smith writes more about the ambiguous and dynamic nature of play, or culturally liminal spaces - which is what Brown and Wakeford were getting at when they conjured play as in-between spaces and times. And she also brought up the idea that play is always already work, which makes me wonder if it is important to define play in terms of work to lend it greater credibility? and if so, for whom and to what end?

Bill Gaver spoke about everyday play as mutable, self-directed and non-utilitarian (i.e. not task oriented). Playful design would encourage exaggerated or strange roles for people and objects, as well as draw on ambiguity, imprecision and openness to create applications that make the 'how' of their use clear, but leave the 'why' undefined. He also talked about the Presence project - all of which remind me of Design Noir and SoMa's Private Reveries, Public Spaces project.

And finally, the panel raised interesting questions about the relationship between fantasy and the mundane everyday - although my first thought is that the everyday is always already fantastic. They also suggested that there is great freedom to be found in the gaps and breakdowns inherent in ubiquitous technologies, and how interesting play often occurs where play wasn't designed for. Of course.

All in all, I think that UbiComp is maturing. While certainly dominated by white-anglo males, systems thinkers and generally binary people, they/we are starting to ask better questions and there is a lot of really good work being done. I met some wonderfully bright people and particularly enjoyed conversations with Katherine Moriwaki, Jonah Brucker-Cohen, Liz Goodman - who also kept good notes on the whole conference - Lalya Gaye, Tana Green, Ariel Churi, Sha Xin Wei, Elizabeth Churchill, Eric Paulos, Allison Woodruff, Genevieve Bell, Nina Wakeford, Mike Perkowitz, Emilio Mercado, danah boyd, John Cass and others. Cheers everyone.

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