gets people talking
Technology Research News
Although electronics have increased our
communications options, devices like headphones can also be isolating.
Sharing is difficult, and if you can't hear what the other person is experiencing,
it's impossible to time a graceful interruption.
Researchers from Xerox's Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) have made using
audio devices a much more social activity by enabling eavesdropping among
companions who are wearing headphones in close proximity, like people
taking audio museum tours together.
"The first factor we considered... was the ability of shared audio to
facilitate social interaction," said Paul Aoki, a research scientist at
PARC. "When you and your friends hear something at the same time, you
can have much more rich social interaction."
Ultimately, the researchers are aiming for a "conversationally-compatible"
computer interface that will make the information retrieval abilities
of computers available in distinctly human social contexts, according
In a previous study, the researchers used electronic guidebooks at Filoli,
a historic house in Northern California. The guidebooks were personal
digital assistant computers that presented a user entering a room with
a picture of the room with certain artifacts outlined. Users could tap
a highlighted artifact to hear a 30-second description of the object.
In that study, the researchers offered pairs of people visiting the historic
house together the ability to play descriptive audio through a speaker
or a headset. Because they were taking the tours together, the participants
preferred the speaker. "Each participant had their own guidebook, so using
the speakers meant that they could hear their chosen audio content, overhear
their friend's audio content, and listen for their friend's comments,"
The researchers' observations of couples using the guidebooks this way
showed how important sharing information is to basic patterns of social
interaction. Video recordings taken during the study showed that "couples
often treat the guidebook in the same way they would treat an additional
person in their conversation -- they give the guidebooks turns in the
conversation, they let the guidebook introduce topics of conversation,
and they follow many of the same patterns of conversation with the guidebook
that they would follow with a human storyteller," said Aoki.
The patterns of conversation worked out well because the guidebook descriptions
are about the length of a person's average conversational turn, said Aoki.
"And because they're hearing a description at the same time, they can
have a shared moment of response to look at each other and say "oh," or
laugh, or tell a related story, and then move on with their conversation,"
In addition, being able to overhear a friend's audio lets you know when
it is okay to talk, said Aoki.
The open-air speakers that were key to this type of interaction, however,
are impractical in many real-world settings. "You just can't have 50 museum
visitors in Rome, all listening to audio through speakers," the Aoki said.
At the same time, the researchers realized that it was important for each
person to have her own guidebook. There is a "tension between wanting
to share and wanting control. Participants compared the guidebook to a
TV remote control -- sharing content is good, but having only one person
in control is bad," said Aoki.
The researchers allowed for audio eavesdropping through headsets in order
to let users share audio without introducing a cacophony of differently-timed
museum descriptions into the traditionally quiet museum atmosphere.
The eavesdropping-enabled guidebooks, dubbed Sotto Voce, or "in a low
voice" in Italian, have only one earphone, leaving one ear free for human
conversation. The main hardware components are off-the-shelf: a $10 headset,
and a $60 networking card. The devices communicate over a wireless network,
and the eavesdropping happens automatically. If a person is not listening
to a description on his own headphones, and if he is standing near enough
to his companion, he will hear the description his companion is listening
to. "You never hear more than one audio track playing at a time, and you
always hear your guidebook in priority" over your companion's, said Aoki.
And to help a person distinguish the descriptions she has tapped on from
those she is tapping into, she will hear her companion's descriptions
at a lower volume and with reverberation, which suggests distance. "As
a result, you always have an ear open for conversation; you always hear
descriptions that you want to hear; and if you're not otherwise occupied,
you get a sense of what I'm hearing, which [also] lets you know when I'm
busy," said Aoki.
Nobody but the pair hears the audio descriptions that they are playing,
A surprising part of the study was how well people adapted to the eavesdropping
model, said Aoki.
"As it turned out, the couples who used eavesdropping with each other
were actually more... engaged than the speaker-audio couples in the first
study," said Aoki. "They were even less likely to wander away from each
other, and they were less likely to spend a lot of time negotiating over
whose turn it was to tap. Their interactions were even more like a really
extended conversation," he said.
The researchers also tested the Sotto Voce guidebooks with 47 random visitors
to the Filoli house, and found that they followed the same interaction
patterns as the original couples, according to Aoki.
The researchers are currently working on improving the guidebook hardware,
said Aoki. "We're playing with... audio equipment like bone conduction
headsets," he said. These would allow people to hear audio through the
bone surrounding the ear, leaving both ears free for human conversation.
They are also working on expanding its applications. There are "many situations
outside of museums where people would want to share audio content," said
Aoki. "Nearly any kind of tourist activity could benefit from this - city
tours, parks, anything where people would want to be provided with [audio]
The audio-sharing guidebook is a great idea, said Robert Jacob, an associate
professor of electrical engineering and computer science at Tufts University.
"Personal electronic devices tend to isolate you from the world around
you and from other people. This work is an interesting twist," he said.
Isolation is an issue for computer interfaces in general, said Jacob.
"Most existing -- especially desktop -- systems assume the user's full
attention. But now we're seeing computer use more closely integrated into
people's lives and jobs, especially with PDAs and other notepad-like devices.
The user interface needs to be designed to coexist more gracefully with
the rest of the user's life and, especially, with interactions with other
people," he said.
The project is innovative, said Luigina Ciolfi, a European Union research
officer at the University of Limerick in Ireland. "The social nature of
the museum visit experience is a crucial aspect that many existing technologies
fail to support," she said.
Proposed electronic guidebook designs have pushed for shared note taking,
instant messaging, or viewing a companion's location. "Sotto Voce allows
for the first time social interaction to happen through the priority channel
of audio," said Ciolfi.
Aoki's research colleagues were Rebecca E. Grinter, Amy Hurst, Margaret
H. Szymanski, James D. Thornton and Allison Woodruff. They presented the
research at the Association of Computing Machinery (ACM) Conference on
Human Factors in Computing Systems, Minneapolis, Minnesota in April, 2002.
The research was funded by Xerox.
TRN Categories: Computer Science;Human-Computer Interaction
Story Type: News
Related Elements: Technical paper, "Sotto Voce: Exploring
the Interplay of Conversation and Mobile Audio Spaces," presented at Association
of Computing Machinery (ACM) Conference on Human Factors in Computing
Systems, Minneapolis, Minnesota, April, 2002, and posted at xxx.lanl.gov/abs/cs.HC/0205053.
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