Jul. 24, 2005. 01:00 AM
A PhD student fights the rudeness of cellphones


If your cellphone were a person, it would be terribly ill-mannered. It would holler during dates, squawk during meetings and do the shimmy at the movies.

Frustrated by such tactless behaviour, MIT student Stefan Marti has created a device that makes our boorish phones more refined.

Marti's Cellular Squirrel is a cellphone accessory that is designed to gauge how "interruptible" a user is at the time of an incoming call — acting, in a way, as a personal administrative assistant.

Placed on a desk or table, the animatronic squirrel "watches" the user to determine if he or she is engaged in an important conversation.

When a call comes in, the squirrel then intercepts it and asks the caller to rate the urgency of his or her call. If the squirrel deems its owner to be available for a conversation, it alerts the call's recipient by using human-like cues, such as motion and eye contact.

The Cellular Squirrel isn't actually a cellphone (imagine the looks you'd get walking around with that thing pressed against your head). Rather, it's an intermediary device that communicates with the phone remotely through Bluetooth technology, activating the phone only when the user explicitly commands it to do so — by squeezing its paw.

"It's an interface that interrupts with more socially appropriate signals," explains Marti, who received his PhD in June.

"The idea is that instead of ringing or vibrating, the squirrel interrupts us with human style, non-verbal cues, like eye contact and motion. Those are social cues that we are hardwired to understand."

Marti is interested in designing electronics that are more sensitive to the nuances of human behaviour. The cellphone, he argues, lacks social sensitivity because it alerts the user regardless of the social situation, and by using very un-human signals, as well.

"Cellphones are very limited in terms of how they can express themselves," says Marti. "They interrupt us by either ringing or by vibration, but that's a very binary interruption — and it interrupts regardless of what I'm doing, or who the caller is. It's up to the caller to decide whether or not I'm interrupted.

"If you look at how humans interact, there is a much more complex vocabulary of non-verbal cues going on about when to interrupt or not. Cellphones are just not aware of that. In this sense, they're lacking social intelligence."

Marti decided to place the device's workings in a mammal-like housing — he has also designed bunny and parrot versions— to advance the relationship between the device and the user.

"The cellphone is a nice piece of technology, but it's just a square brick and it has a display and keys," says Marti. "The squirrel is embodied in a anthropomorphic form that allows it to use similar cues as humans do."

So will the Cellular Squirrel start appearing on desks any time soon?

Sadly, no.

Marti's invention is a one-off, created solely for the purposes of his dissertation.

Also, the technology was developed in the MIT Media Lab and therefore belongs to the school and its sponsors.

But Marti does expect to see more socially sensitive electronics on the market eventually.

"Electronics have to become more human," he says. "They need to become aware of social context."

To see a video of the cellular squirrel in action, visit web.media.mit.edu/~stefanm/phd/cellularsquirrel.

Additional articles by Christopher Hutsul

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