Social design in the physical world – touch screen table exhibits

With new interface technologies, social interaction design can come into play when people are in the same room. When I was in the Boston area on vacation, I ran into Henry Kaufman, one of the principals of Tactable a design and development shop that makes interactive touchscreen exhibits and technologies for museum and commercial installations.

Kaufman gave me a tour of their studio, in a carriage house in a residential neighborhood near Harvard Square. The installations have iPhone like touchscreens the size of one or two dining room tables. Kaufman explained that visitors typically engage with an installation for 30 seconds to 5 minutes – the designs need to be immediately understandable and offer an engaging experience in these little bursts of time.

One new project Tactable has under development is an interactive table called Map of the Future that will be part of an NSF-funded exhibit about climate change. Visitors need to figure out that coaster-like disks, placed on the table and rotated, control a set of variables like fossil fuel use, solar energy, and conservation in sectors like buildings and transportation. These variables change the climate, energy balance, and political stability. Controls are split between the developed world and the developing world, which have very different starting points and drivers of change.

Visitors get visual feedback of the state of the simulation via a thermometer that shows the overall level of atmospheric carbon, an animated cloud on the table shows the atmosphere becoming more or less polluted with carbon, and signs of crisis or unrest appear as flashing red dots around the image of the globe. As people turn the dials, brief messages pop up that tell the implications of setting a dial to the given level, for example, turning the Wind Power dial up may pop up a message like “You may see some windmills from your favorite beach”. Finally, “New from the Future” vignettes pop up periodically to play brief stories about the state of the world in 2075 given the settings of the whole set of dials.

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Disks allow visitors to explore the factors that affect climate change

The climate change model uses a climate change simulation from the Sustainability Institute that converts carbon emissions into predicted climate change. This is the same simulation used by the State Department in climate change negotiations with other governments.

To really play with the model it helps to have several hands on the controls. People quickly learn that several can cooperate at the same time to explore and manipulate the model, and talk to each other to explore the relative affects of various changes. The model doesn’t come with instructions – it’s designed so that people will discover the controls, and learn to cooperate with each other to see what happens.

The Tactable team has done several rounds of user testing in the climate change exhibit. They found that different people notice different aspects of the model – the cloudiness of the sky, the thermometer with the amount of carbon in the atmosphere, the symbols of change, the news stories. The different symbols enable different people to perceive different aspects of the model, and teach them to each other. Some participants figure out how to manipulate the model to cause the most havoc and destruction; even this is teaching the factors that cause damage.

Thermostat shows the level of and change CO2
Thermostat shows the level of and change CO2

Another example of social design is a table developed for a flagship store for Sprint, to promote the media and applications available on their mobile phones. Floating around the table are music player controls. A visitor can touch the player, choose which music to play, and play a song. How to make the experience of controlling a music player social? It is possible to pass a player across the table to pick another song.

But the most interesting social design decision was making it possible for more than one person to play different songs at the same time(!) One person can play a Lady Gaga tune, while someone else plays Taylor Swift. The people need to negotiate about the interruption (I’mma let you finish…) to determine whose music gets played. For the exhibit to be fun, people need to negotiate and have the opportunity to converse and share.

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Visitors can play music, share the player, and negotiate whose music to listen to

One principle for successful design is to leave key interactions open-ended, while choosing which goals if any to explicitly support. TacTable’s designs are intended to provoke open-ended social interactions that support the goals of learning about climate change, and discovering music. Each tools and services needs to strike its own balance between open-endedness and goal affordances, for example Twitter itself is extremely open-ended, with no goals other than sharing information and conversation, while FourSquare builds in specific goals by awarding badges for visiting venues.

Many of the emerging techniques for social interaction design will deal with the dynamics of delay, and interchange when people are not in the same place at the same time. Even so-called “realtime” tools like Twitter are not quite realtime, and really realtime tools like IM have developed affordances to leave messages. The social designs that TacTable builds really are for people who are in the same physical space at the same time. The social affordances have to do with people learning to negotiate, collaborate, and share with the physical gestures of the interface, and conversation that is outside the device.

The social interaction design issues for applications in the physical world that the TacTable team handles are going to become more common in the near future. The hardware that TacTable uses cost six figures a few years ago, is down to the low 5 figures of hardware cost per installation, and falling. Mobile applications are also enabling new types of real-world realtime and neartime exchanges raising similar design issues and opportunities. TacTable’s work is cool in itself, and a harbinger of social design to come.

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