technologies for the home
traditional home of the long-forgotten past was a sanctuary for
the family. A place of co-habitation and co-experience. The dinner
table was the communicative centerpiece of the family. "Family
time" didn't sound quite so cheesy then. Heirlooms and hand-me-downs
were abundant in a home and connected a family to its ancestrial
roots. Knick-knacks and trinkets such as stamp collections, holiday
ornaments were pointers into social relationships and a great source
of nostalgia. Relatives, especially grand-parents, often lived in
the same house or within close proximity of the home.
days, families, and also homes, are as dysfunctional as ever. The
daily dinner table is nearly defunct, or a minimal ritual at best.
Knick-knacks and trinkets are now often ridiculed as more and more
homes become minimal and mod. Besides, they lose their sentimentality
now that they are mass-produced and mass-marketed. We have enough
complexity in our busy days that we do not need additional clutter.
Extended families, divorced parents, and children are spread across
the country. Homes are not the sacred sanctuaries they once were,
and families are adjusting to the 21st century reality of being
spread over long distances. Although the internet and mass communication
technologies have made the world a little smaller and allowed us
to be closer to strangers, the irony is that families are as far
apart as ever. A cell phone or email between parent and child cannot
fully replace face-to-face dinner table conversation. In "Studying
Online Social Networks," Garton et al. questions
the sustainability of social ties built up in a virtual space. How
can technology help us cope with the fact that families are rarely
assembled together in a "home" anymore, or that a "home"
may be split over thousands of miles? I argue that hope lies in
virtual presence technologies.
and foremost, the predictable presence of our loved ones brings
us comfort and safety. Traditionally, daily co-habitation in the
home has filled this role. However, since kids are off in college,
or a parent may be separated and living elsewhere, there is an opportunity
for technology to bring about a virtual presence. Tollmar and Persson,
in Understanding Remote Presence, have built remote presence
sculptures which link two spaces. They built a lamp called 6th sense,
placed at two locations, which lights up to indicate that a person
is present at the remote location. They report that this brought
about a great sense of comfort. Assigning remote presence to the
light worked well because lighting was of high value to
the culture of the study participants. The caveat is that the remote
presence effect is only experienced if the object conveying the
presence is of high sentimental value -- something which offers
a plausible reminder of a loved one. Trinkets and memorabilia and
other objects of personal memory would be good candidates. Donath,
Karahalios, and Viegas's Visiphone is an example of high-bandwidth
virtual presence, where two spaces are linked via audio. Other researchers
have also tried to link two spaces with video. One interesting question
is how verisimilitude affects the effectiveness of these technologies.
Invasion of privacy also seems like another potential concern for
high-bandwidth virtual presence.
just being there, people want to be able to communicate and coordinate
with their fellow family members. In Casablanca: Designing social
communication devices for the home, Hindus et al.
explores always-present message boards as a way for families to
jot down notes for each other. I am reminded of how my own family
used to leave post-it notes for each other everywhere, before the
cell phone. Digitizing the message board would extend the reach
of this communication medium to separate homes, or even delivered
to portable devices. What's nice about a message board is that it
is a public space for a family, not a dyadic communication between
any two family members. Wellmand Frank remarked in "Network
Capital in a Multi-Level World," that there seemed to
be trends away from group ties (e.g. family, church, etc) and toward
individual ties. I think this also applies to the family, where
ties are increasingly dyadic, and unsupportive of the group. I think
the power of common message boards is that it is more than merely
a communication medium, it also reinforces the identity of the family-unit.
technology gives us an opportunity to strengthen a family beyond
mere comfort or communication. In
Technology probes: inspiring design for and with families, Hutchinson
et al. demonstrates that family members will want to use
virtual presence to play and interact leisurely. The growing popularity
of picture-messaging on cell phones also supports the notion that
people want to play and not simply communicate. Upon further consideration,
play seems to be the most exciting of the three technological roles
in virtual presence. People are clearly motivated for it, and it
goes beyond merely connecting families, but also builds up families.