Tin Can was presented at CSCW 2012 in Bellvue, WA. Read the full paper or check out the slides.


Meeting Backchannels Made Visible


Communication technology has long strived to recreate the experience of being face-to-face with someone far way from you. But is the feeling of "being there" enough to make communication and collaboration effective, engaging, and efficient? In the Tin Can series, I explore ways of connecting both geographically remote and co-located groups using tablet-based applications to provide better awareness about the interests and attitudes of other people.
Although these projects focus on different kinds of contexts, they share an interest in giving people new non-verbal ways to express themselves. These new kinds of participation expand ideas about what legitimate participation in a meeting or conversation looks like. Perhaps you're not talking actively, but are helping to curate future ideas or tasks that will be useful to everyone after the meeting.


The Problem

Distributed meetings present a set of interesting challenges to staying engaged and involved. Because one person speaks at a time, it is easy (particularly for remote participants) to disengage form the meeting undetected. Meetings aren't just people talking, though. Participants have to remember future topics they want to discuss, tasks they promised to complete all while trying to judge the engagement of remote participants. By making these cognitive processes collaborative and visual, we can help manage the challenges of holding meetings with remote participants. Furthermore, there are a number of common challenges, like sharing whiteboard drawings, links, or documents that can make distributed meetings frustrating experiences.

The Project

Tin Can connects remote meeting participants and gives everyone a better sense of what's happening in the meeting beyond just who's talking. The system collects and visualizes background tasks like taking notes, managing the agenda, sharing relevant content, tracking to-dos, and managing meeting process in a distributed interface.

The system uses meeting participants' phones and laptops as input devices and represents the meeting on an iPad in the center of the table in each meeting location. By publicly representing these background processes, we provide meeting attendees with new ways to participate without clogging up the audio channel.


Whenever someone in the meeting mentions a task, anyone else can use their phone or laptop to write down the task. Unassigned tasks are shown on the iPad, and anyone can drag the task to their name to claim it.

Agenda Management

Need to put a discussion point on the table? Enter it into Tin Can, and it will add it to the agenda so you don't forget. The meeting clock will show how many items you have left to discuss and how much time you have left in the meeting. If a topic is taking too long, you can press the "move on" button.


When you want to share a web page, image, or document with meeting participants, use Tin Can to keep everyone in sync. Send it to Tin Can, and either use Tin Can's screen to talk about it during the meeting, or people can look at it on their own.

Post-Meeting Email

Everything that happens during the meeting, including tasks, topics talked about, shared sketches, and links gets sent out to meeting participants afterwards, so you don't have to duplicate any of those notes on your own.

The System

Based on our work on supporting meetings, we designed a variant of the core Tin Can system to work in a context where every student had their own iPad and our goal was to better support classroom discussion. Students could use the system both for taking personal notes as well as suggesting ideas in a public pool of ideas. For moderators, the system was designed to provide insight into the interests and potential future directions for the conversation.

The interface, study design, and analysis for the classroom-based version of Tin Can was done in collaboration with Eric Gordon.

The Study

To better understand the role that systems like this might play, we deployed Tin Can Classroom to a seminar discussion class at a local college. Both the professor and all the students in two sections used the system for 6 class sessions for a total of 24 hours of use.


Have something you want to jot down so you don't forget before it becomes your turn to talk? Save it in Tin Can. This way people can see what other students are thinking about. You can choose to share your idea with the group or keep it in your personal pool of ideas.

Post-Class Archive

After the class, all the participants get an email that contains their own personal ideas, plus a link to a shared class archive of all the topics that were talked about. For each topic, the ideas that were mentioned are sorted in order. You can also see who was in class that day and what their particular interests were.

Topic Tracking

Before each class, the moderator for the class prepares a list of topics to be discussed. Students can then see upcoming topics, suggest their own topics, and remind themselves about the current topic.

Like an Idea?

Each idea shared in the public idea list can be "liked", to show other students that you think it's a good idea. This helps other students build a shared notion of what kinds of contributions are valued, and helps motivate people to participate.