You're sat at the computer and out of the corner of your eye, you notice the bouncing little icon that means new mail has arrived, so you stop writing in the middle of a paragraph because you just have to check, although like as not it'll turn out to be spam. You're in the middle of lunch and the mobile rings, and you feel obliged to answer it because it might be the office and it might be important, although like as not it's just your mate wanting to chat about the cricket. Or you're in an important meeting, and a vibrating in your pocket, breaking your concentration, lets you know an SMS has arrived - should you surreptitiously take a look and see, or is it just that horoscope service you inadvertently signed up for?
Now that the culture of 'always on, always available' has become more or less ubiquitous, it is not surprising that the pendulum is swinging and much research is engaged in trying take us back the other way.
One proposed method for bringing mobile phone communication back to a more acceptable level of intrusiveness is the Context-Aware Computer-Mediated Call Control, or Autonomous Interactive Intermediary, that made the news this week, otherwise known as the Cellular Squirrel.
This cute little critter is the invention of Stefan Marti as part of a PhD project at the MIT Media Lab. Marti believes that current mobile communication devices "do not grab our attention in a socially appropriate way" - and I don't think there are many who would argue with that - and says that the Squirrel will "use the same subtle but still public non-verbal cues to get our attention and interrupt us like humans would do (like eye gaze and small gestures)".
So what happens is this: there's a call, the squirrel 'picks it up', and has a brief conversation with the caller. The squirrel checks the identity of the caller against a whitelist that you set up (eg, 'Always accept calls from my daughter'), and analyses the caller's voice for signs of excitement that would indicate that the call is urgent. The clever little beast then turns its attention to what is happening in the room: are there people talking? Are you talking? Are there other things going on? Is this likely to be a good time to answer a phone call?
If the squirrel deems that the answer to that question in 'yes', rather than make a loud noise which would unduly distract you, it gently uncurls from its slumber and tries to catch your eye. If it has deemed the call to be an important one, it might start waving at you, in a 'yoo-hoo!' sort of a way, much as a person would if they were subtly trying to get your attention. You would answer the call by pressing its paw, but if you choose not to, it soon goes back to dozing and takes a message.
Cutesiness aside, this is an awesome bit of programming, with some interesting social implications. We've pretty much gotten used to being able to get in touch with whomever we like, whenever we like - now we've got to get used to the fact that there are situations where that just isn't acceptable. Context is everything.
The squirrel still just a prototype so you sadly can't rush out to the shops and get one, much as I know that I for one would like to, but expect to see similar techniques coming to a communications device near you soon.
Short movies of the squirrel (and his predecessor-prototypes Bunny and Parrot) shaking their Autonomous Interactive booty can be seen here.