Ambient Displays   |   Advisor: Professor Anind Dey   |   UC Berkeley EECS department


The field of ambient displays is one of the research fields studying alternatives to the current paradigm of task-oriented design. Ambient displays are ubiquitous computing devices that give a continuous stream of information in a peripheral, non-obtrusive way - they work together to enable, rather than hinder, multi-tasking. Ambient displays are particularly good at monitoring the status of a complex system, but can be anything that gives us information about the world that we don't need to directly attend to. Though they constantly display information, ambient displays are meant to be pleasing: though a window tells us time, season, weather, and other information, window offices are coveted spaces. Ambient displays reduce a user's cognitive load by alerting the user to an "interesting" development, rather than requiring the user to occasionally check the status of an information source.


While interface design and evaluation techniques are well-developed and backed by years of research for goal-oriented tasks, there has been little work done on evaluating ubiquitous computing devices and even less on ambient displays, which are, by design, not goal-oriented. The Ambient Displays group at Berkeley is focused on building simple displays and developing techniques for evaluating these displays, drawing from both existing techniques, psychology literature on peripheral awareness and cognitive processing, and the design dimensions that we feel are important for ambient displays.

Health Display

(posted 6/07/2002)
The display that I will build this summer is what we loosely term a "health" display. This display can take many forms, which will be decided by a design inquiry which we will conduct over the first part of the summer. This device could monitor the health of an individual - especially an elderly person, or someone with a chronic illness - and display the information for the person being monitored to aid body awareness, for loved ones to foster communication and a sense of connection, and for health care workers to facilitate diagnosis and care. This device could alternately take the form of a "health of the city" display that would be set up in a public space, giving information on pollution, crime, and community involvement. We will focus on the design of this display over the summer; through the school year, we will focus on evaluation.

Summer 2002 Research Diary

6/14/2002 I've had my first summer meetings with Anind, after he and Jen were married. We're debating whether to focus on a display for the health of an individual - something like Georgia Tech's Digital Family Portrait for self and health practicioners as well as for family - or a display for the health of a city, which piques my interest more. There's a guy at Intel Portland who wants to work on the healthy cities project also, and UC Art Practice prof. Greg Niemeyer is also interested in it. We brainstormed on each topic and it seems that we have many more ideas for the city health display - it looks like we'll probably focus on that one.
I'm also continuing my writing on a summary of ambient displays and evaluation techniques I was working on last semester.

6/21/2002 Today we had a meeting with Tim Brooke of Intel Portland, who wants to work on the healthy cities display, and had a preliminary brainstorm on what the display should show and (less on) how. I've gotten suggestions from friends in architecture, sociology, and design on what books to read, and I've checked out a bunch of William H. Whyte and Kevin Lynch from the UC library. The next course of action is to interview people in the bay area on what makes a healthy city - and the first thing I have to do is write a proposal for CPHS (Committee for the Protection of Human Subjects) to approve my study. Then I have to come up with a set of interview questions.
I've put up my list of ambient displays on my swiki also, with descriptions taken from the websites of the displays. The number of ambient displays listed is intimidating! I have to summarize them all, and fit them to the "design dimensions" our group has been talking about throughout the last year.

7/05/2002 I put a preliminary list of questions on my Healthy Cities swiki page. I've finished my CPHS proposal, and I need to turn it in on Monday. I've put up another page on the swiki for summaries of the city-health-related books that I've read.
This week, I read lots and lots of ambient display papers, and wrote summaries of them - each one takes me two or three hours, so it can get tedious, though the papers themselves are often interesting. Many computer scientists out there need more English classes, though.
I also prepared a bit for my birthday party!

7/12/2002 The CPHS proposal is in. I got a suggestion at the ambient group meeting today to look up Bill Gaver's culture probes, but he's difficult to find! I finally found some references to papers from, after meandering through ACM's crappy Portal for much too long. It seems that I may want to add a culture probe part to my interviews. I've designed a flyer to post at grocery stores to recruit participants, and I'm going to post something on Craigslist also. I'm hesitant to post to Craigslist for two reasons: first, other CS students who have recruited from there get these "Craigslist junkies" that seem to make most of their living from participating in these interviews; and second, it biases my participant pool to techies. Interviewing isn't designed to be "representative," but I'd still like to be equal-opportunity.
I'm generally very frustrated with myself lately, which spills into work, social life, everything. I feel like I don't belong in CS, I'm not qualified, I'll never catch up to all the hackers who have been programming since they were prepubescent, et cetera - the thoughts go on and on. My partner helps by saying that even he - who is a natural at computer science, and an excellent mathematician to boot - has similar doubts. Why is he so much better at handling it? He says I should learn the art of ego. :~)
I've also found a room to rent just last night, ending the two-month search. Yay!

7/19/2002 Anind is out of town. Jen gave me a book on interviewing to read, and I have many responses for interviews from Craigslist and a few from the fliers in grocery stores. Managers in some grocery stores, especially Safeways, like to tear the fliers down. On Craigslist, I posted to community>general and community>volunteers. I re-post every couple of days, to keep the posting at the top of the list where it will be seen. I'm giving participants $10 gift certificates to Cody's books for being interviewed.
I've read Lynch's The Image of the City, which is staid but informative, and one of the appendices has his interview questions. I've put up another iteration of my own interview questions on the swiki, and I've decided to do the culture probe. I'm having a hard time coming up with questions, though. I have a few more books lined up, and I hope to read one a day for the next while.
I had a long meeting with Anind on Wednesday, before he left, about the time span for this research project, the next steps to take, and even what classes I should take during my last two years here. It helped me feel much less frustrated with my progress, and better about being in computer science.

7/26/2002 On Monday I scheduled as many interviews as I could. I met with Jen this Tuesday, and she recommended trying a sample GRE now, if I'm worried about it. The subject GRE scares me. I've never studied for a standardized test, so I'm not sure how to go about it. I'm sure I'll need to study for this one, and I suppose I should start planning now to take the best classes for it.
I revised my interview questions for the last time, and I had my first interview this week. I have two more tomorrow (Saturday!) morning. I would have had two but my first interviewee forgot to come, so I interviewed Jen as a pilot. I have a few more interviews next week, and then I have to transcribe and interpret the results in light of my reading.
I read a couple books on city health this week - not quite one a day, but 'twas a lofty goal to begin with. I posted my notes on my swiki page.

8/02/2002 Six interviews down, and I've started to transcribe them. I've interviewed people from a suburbite in Concord to a resident of war-torn Beruit. Another Ambient student suggested that rather than transcribing, I just go off my notes because he found that transcribing wasn't that useful, but it seems to be good for me - I miss enough in my notes that it's nice to just go over the conversations again, and transcribing gives me an excuse to listen carefully. I'm leaving tomorrow for vacation, and I'm taking a couple of city books with me, but I won't be able to do any more interviews or transcribing until later.

8/07/2002 on vacation

8/16/2002 More trascribing and reading. The tapes were recorded at half-speed, so the quality isn't so good and it takes a long time to transcribe. I finished an interesting city book by Richard Rogers, and I'm reading some Wm. Whyte. Not much else happened this week - I just barely got back from my vacation.