ERCIM News No.47, October 2001 [contents]

Designing for Ludic Aspects of Everyday Life

by Bill Gaver

Researchers at Royal College of Art, UK, are developing design-driven techniques to explore people’s lives, create evocative design proposals, and develop prototypes of new systems that focus on emotional and sociocultural effects.

If technology is to become ‘ambient’ in the sense of surrounding us throughout our lives, the question is not only what form it should take – web pages, ubiquitous computing, tangible media, information appliances, etc. – but what roles it might play in our lives. What is technology good for? How can it support our values, individually, socially, and culturally?

There is a danger that as technology moves from the office into our homes, it will bring along with it workplace values such as efficiency and productivity at the expense of other possibilities. People do not just pursue tasks and solve problems, they also explore, wonder, love, worship, and waste time. These activities, captured by the notion of ‘Homo Ludens,’ or people defined as playful creatures, are meaningful and valuable, but difficult to handle from traditional perspectives on Human Computer Interaction. Thus we are developing design-driven techniques to explore people’s lives, create evocative design proposals, and develop prototypes of new systems that focus on the emotional and sociocultural effects.

What sort of technologies might be appropriate for Homo Ludens? One exploration took the form of a palette of design proposals called Alternatives. Over a period of about three months, we conceptualised about 20 products in the domains of home, street, intimacy, and wonder (see Figure 1). Presenting each using collages that suggested but did not specify their forms, and short descriptions that contextualised them and explained how they might be experienced, these proposals were meant to spur the imagination and open new spaces for design. The Data Lamp, for instance, is about the size of a floor lamp and allows images to be displayed on its façade or released to paint surfaces in a room. Dawn Chorus is an artificially intelligent bird feeder that trains local birds one’s favourite songs. The Intimate View camera allows separated lovers to transmit close-up pictures of their surroundings for moments of intense shared focus, while the Telegotchi is a virtual creature with no controls, allowing people to practice their psychic powers as they enter into a relationship with it. These proposals are what Tony Dunne has termed ‘value fictions,’ exploring unusual values using plausible technologies in order to question the restricted scope currently assumed.In order to develop possibilities for ludic technologies further, we are currently engaged in a long-term research programme called Equator in collaboration with eight UK academic institutions. The Equator Project is focusing on merging the virtual with the real in situations such as performance, play, museums, and cities. Our group is focusing on technologies for the home, seeking to explore the values people have in their lives away from work. To do this, we are expanding the Cultural Probes method originally developed for another project. Having recruited about 20 households through advertisements in the popular press and on shop windows, we have distributed ‘Domestic Probe’ packages, with a variety of rovocative tasks to which they are asked to respond (see Figure 2). These materials include disposable cameras with requests for pictures (eg ‘the most uncomfortable place in your home,’ ‘the view from your kitchen window,’ ‘something red’), a device for recording a vivid dream when they awake, a glass for listening to interesting sounds around their home, and a collection of bizarre news articles for them to annotate. The Probes are, in some ways, like the projective tests used by psychoanalysts: suggestive but ambiguous, they elicit revealing fragments from participants which inform and inspire our designs.

Figure 1: Alternatives proposals: Data Lamp, Dawn Chorus, Telegotchi and Intimate View camera.
Figure 1 Figure 1 Figure 2: Domestic Probe package.

With most of the Probe returns in, we are beginning to develop new product concepts based on the replies. For instance, one woman revealed rigid notions of a properly ordered house, shows a strong interest in horoscopes and fortune-telling, and seeks ‘positive energy’ in her life. For her, we are developing a system of distributed sensors so that the state of her home can be translated into prophecies and prognoses. One man enjoys gazing at his tank of tropical fish and identifies a certain chair as the most uncomfortable spot in his home, so we are thinking about transforming the chair into a control centre from which he can guide a small telerobotic camera to watch his fish from within the tank. Finally, a musician who lives in a penthouse flat may be offered a system in which sounds transmitted to his home from wireless microphones are sampled and ordered rhythmically to allow him to make music from the noises in his environment. These proposals are in their early stages, and no doubt will develop and change before implementation, but they capture some of the possibilities we see for technology aimed at supporting people’s domestic lives. They may seem whimsical, but it would be a mistake to dismiss them on that ground: for unless we start to respect the full range of values that make us human, the technologies we build are likely to be dull and uninteresting at best, and de-humanising at worst.


Please contact:
Bill Gaver - Royal College of Art, UK
Tel: +44 20 7590 4296
E-mail: w.gaver@rca.ac.uk