Ethan Zuckerman’s online home, since 2003

Social lions, fiscally-literate mobile phones

One of the best parts of this gathering at Microsoft is not the cool new toys coming from Microsoft research, but the ideas presented by nine design schools who’ve been invited to the event. In a two-hour session this afternoon, the teams present their work for critique by a group of MS and other design experts.

Ennea, a project from students at the Eindhoven University of Technology is one of the cooler things I’ve seen in a long time, developed during a six week design class. The students focused on an interesting problem – the problems incoming Dutch high-school students have in building socialization skills. The Dutch education system doesn’t have middle schools, so students go directly from an elementary school to high school, a transition that can be difficult and stressful. Schools assign “tutors” to groups of pupils, and they meet for an hour a week to work on socialization skills. The designers talked with tutors and realized they had very little information about how their students were doing, and designed a fascinating social tool that works as a very clever form of surveillance and behavior tracking.

The designers produced a set of small, cute, wireless-aware objects that students carried with them for a few weeks. The objects measured interactions between children, timing the interactions each child had, and whether they were with individuals or groups. This information allows the designers to describe each child’s interactions in a two-dimensional matrix based on interaction diversity and intensity. (Meet a lot of people and you’re more diverse. Spend a long time with a person, and it’s more intense.)

Rather than scoring the children on good or bad types of interaction, the device characterizes a user as one of nine animals: Lions are very diverse and very intense in their interactions. Their opposites are Polar Bears, who interact infrequently and briefly. Users can change roles over time – the device vibrates when your state changes, but you can only see what role you’ve taken on by “mating” your device with another person’s device, giving the opportunity for conversation and interaction. For “complementary” roles, the animal icons will glow gold.

While the students only see what animal currently represents them, the tutors get rich data on student interactions and can see how individual students are doing. Both have evidently found it useful in prototype – I can imagine scenarios in which tutor “surveillance” becomes worrisome, especially if certain behavioral patterns lead to interventions from the tutors. But it’s a lovely way to generate useful feedback data from wireless social interaction, and it’s possible that this will become used within Dutch schools. (The devices are quite clever from an engineering point, including an Arduino mini controller and an XBee wireless module – those aren’t hugely expensive devices, and it’s concievable that these devices could be mass produced.)

Undergrad students at the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing has build a truly beautiful system called “Tai Chi Master“, designed to teach the martial art and meditation to a new generation of Chinese people. The students observe that the abstract ideas of Yi, Li and Chi are extremely difficult for masters to help students visualize. And they’ve noticed that office workers are often not able to practice in public parks, as a previous generation did.


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Tai Chi Master is designed as a system to allow individuals to practice Tai Chi in their apartments with feedback from Tai Chi masters. The system is gestural and opens when the student makes a Tai Chi gesture, the motion of opening a fan. It’s designed to be an immersive environment and films the activity of the user, while providing a wide-screen demonstration of the motions as performed by a master, entered into the system by motion capture. What’s especially striking are the gorgeous visuals the system uses – the team dropped ink into water to create smoke-like clouds that emenate from the master’s hands and feet as he creates movements. It’s a lovely way to visualize the sorts of energy channeled within the Tai Chi movements.

Two projects from US universities focus on the thorny problem of personal finance. A team at Carnegie Mellon wants to introduce a credit card that monitors and stores your spending via a very pretty interface. Called current.c, the system lets users make budgets that are available visually on the card, showing how much one has spent towards each month budget, and lets them monitor their spending, assigning funds from one budget to another in the case of an impulse purchase. The card continuously monitors progress towards larger spending goals. It’s hard to imagine credit card companies issuing one, but it’s easier to image an iPhone ap that spoke to a web service that uses credit card information. The system doesn’t nag or mother – it just shows the current situation in a powerful visual way.

Students at the University of Washington have tried a different model. They’re building a cellphone plan for teenagers called Emu. The system has a weekly limit of minutes. Those minutes can be saved week to week, and they earn interest if saved. If a user gets good at saving minutes, they end up with excess minutes they can spend on wallpaper or ring tones. If they run out of minutes, they move into restricted modes, where the phone might only be able to call parents or make emergency calls. Parents don’t have to play the bad cop – the phone attempts to persuade the users to behave differently and to learn about money – minutes – management on their own. If they can persuade a phone company to offer the plan, they’d like to get increasingly sophisticated, including the ability to make loans of minutes or to invest them in some sort of a stock exchange. I love the recognition that cell minutes have become money (something true throughout the developing world) and wonder whether this would actually provide helpful feedback to kids who are just learning how to manage money.

Lots of beautiful and interesting ideas here. It’s always encouraging when the projects from the design students are more impressive than those from the established computer scientists…

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