Reflecting on the ShareTable Deployment

The ShareTable was my Ph.D. thesis project and the paper about its deployment will be presented at CSCW 2013. Since everything is officially accepted, I thought that I’d give y’all a preview of the paper and summarize a few of our findings. I’m also going to give an overview of our process, which may be helpful to other students who are in the same boat.

A diagram of the system components and photos of the ShareTable in the homes of participants.

We wanted to address two common issues in remote parent-child communication that we discovered through interviews with divorced families: (1) children don’t feel empowered to initiate the interaction and (2) its hard to have a longer interaction because just talking is boring for the child. To address these challenges, we designed and deployed the ShareTable — a system that provides easy-to-initiate videochat and a shared tabletop task space — in four divorced households.  We compared the families’ previous communication practices (from a 2-3 week diary baseline study) with their use of the ShareTable system. Throughout the month of its use, the families employed the ShareTable to participate in shared activities, share emotional moments, and communicate closeness through metaphorical touch. The amount of parent-child communication more than doubled for both families because doing activities together was more compelling than just talking. Additionally, children initiated a much greater proportion of conversations over the ShareTable than they had previously done with the phone. However, the ShareTable did also introduce new concerns over privacy and new sources of conflict about appropriate calling practices between the parents. Overall, our experience showed that the combination of videochat and an activity space provided a compelling medium for communication with young children. A similar approach may be useful with other types of geographically-separated families, as well as in supporting children in remote play and learning.

I also wanted to reflect a bit on the whole process. While I was working on this project, I frequently felt frustrated and like things weren’t moving along fast enough. Indeed, there were a lot of times that I ended up backtracking on ideas, rewriting the code (twice completely ), and reconsidering the best way to approach the whole idea. However, reflecting back on it, that’s a kind of progress as well and perhaps that’s what research is all about. Indeed, even in the slowest of years, I made some progress on the overall idea. Sketches (while they almost seemed a waste of time while I was doing them) turned out to be a great way of getting early feedback on my ideas, considering alternatives, and most importantly attracting good people to this project. The design would not have been possible without Stephen Cuzzort, Hina Shah, Hendrik Mueller, Brian Di Rito, and Berke Atasoy. The implementation would not have happened without Stephen Cuzzort, Jee Yeon Hwang, Sanika Mokashi, Shashank Raval, Duane Rollins, Jasjit Singh, and Anthony Tang (even if not everybody’s code ended up in the final system). And there was no way I could have deployed it in the homes without Sanika Mokashi, Yi Han, Eugene Medynskiy, Kurt Luther, David Quigley, Caleb Southern, and Jay Summet (there was a lot of truck driving and furniture-moving involved!). And, of course, my advisor Gregory Abowd was there every step of the way.

The process of developing this system took several years, granted with a lot of side projects and learning along the way.

So, if you are currently a Ph.D. student and you’re feeling like you’re climbing a never-ending mountain, keep at it, you’ll feel great when you reach the top! In the meantime, try to find good people to help. Even though it’s only my name on the thesis, the giant list of names above shows that I couldn’t have done it alone. Ask for help when you need it!

Tech Hand-Me-Downs and Repurposing

Grant shared some ways that old technology is repurposed in his home.

A few months ago, I was at Ubicomp 2012 where I saw an interesting paper about what people do with outdated technology. In my experience working with families, I’ve seen many examples of something not mentioned in this paper — families repurposing or handing down technologies to children as a way of giving old technology new life. An example from my own family is using an old laptop as a dedicated Skype terminal, but another researcher in the audience at this paper’s presentation had many examples that were even better. Grant Schindler is a research scientist at Georgia Tech and the founder of Trimensional and I was able to catch up with him at GVU 20 and interview him in more detail about his experience:

Grant: I gave our 2-year-old son my old digital camera after he showed interest in using my current camera. He uses it to take pictures of things, especially when he sees me using my camera which is just a newer version of the one he uses. He often will take a picture of something (sometimes they’re pretty good!) and then look at the LCD screen and say “That’s cute” because he thinks that’s what you say after you take a photo.

I have a 3rd generation iPod from 2003 that still works just fine and we have used it as a white noise machine for both of our children as infants. It stays plugged into the JBL speaker ring that I received as a wedding gift in the same era. The half-hour-long MP3 of ocean surf that we keep on repeat is one that I ripped from a CD that I sometimes listened to in the early 1990s to relax or to fall asleep.

I also remembered that I use an Aiwa all-in-one stereo system from my college years to pipe audio from my Xbox into a pair of headphones. I looked multiple times into getting another device to serve this function, but it seems most people use expensive home theater receivers. There are some $30 mini-amplifiers that I think could do the same thing, but then the question is why get a new device when my current method works?

Lana: What kinds of technologies do you think lend themselves better to this kind of reuse?

Grant: Technologies that are standalone devices work best, so that the input and output mechanisms don’t matter. While we could pull the photos off of my son’s camera via SD card, we have not yet — the important part is that it has a built-in screen on which we can view the photos together right after he takes them. The iPod + speaker/charger is effectively a standalone device that outputs audio. Bear in mind, I have not synced that 2003 iPod in several years — the firewire cable that the iPod came with won’t hook up to any of my current machines, though I’m sure I could use a more recent USB cable if I needed to.

Lana: Have there ever been features of a particular device that prevent it from being reused in a way that you might want?

Grant: In the mid-2000s, I replaced my Sony CRT monitor with an Apple Cinema Display that carried power, USB, and the display signal in a single cable. It served me well for many years, but Apple has changed their display connectors so many times since then that it is too much hassle to continue using it as a second display for a laptop due to the many-tentacled adapters and external power supplies involved.

So really, it’s the fact that it’s not a stand-alone device. The connection interfaces are the issue. We were using my wife’s 1999 HP LaserJet until it stopped functioning in early 2012 via a series of adapters (parallel to serial to USB) along with some open source printer drivers. It was ugly but it worked. But, I realize these last two are less re-use examples and more “continued use as intended” situations.

As ideas like sustainable and cradle-to-cradle design gain more and more momentum, perhaps another approach is to think about how the devices we make could stay useful longer, even if they end up serving new functions. There’s an opportunity in designing for handing-down and repurposing.

Making the Switch

My new phone is pretty sweet!

Recently, I won a Samsung Galaxy S3 phone in an AT&T company raffle. After the initial surprise of “I never win these things!” wore off, I had a choice to make. Up until now, I’ve had an iPhone 4 and I was thinking of upgrading to 5 around Christmas, but this presented a whole new option. On one hand, there are a lot of things I don’t like about Apple business practices. On the other hand, I was worried about having to repurchase all of my apps, accessories, etc. The final decision was made by my feet — after Apple Maps gave me walking directions that suggested that I walk along a major highway, down two dark alleyways, and scale a cliff to get to a destination. So, I made the switch and I wanted to share my experience here.

Things that I like about the S3 (other than navigation and developing for it, which pretty much everybody likes better on Android):

  • Swype typing lets me draw the words on the screen. I can actually effectively answer my emails on the phone now.
  • NFC means that I can easily share data with other NFC phones just by touching them, but also I’ve been experimenting with NFC tag stickers that you can use to program phone behavior. For example, when I touch my phone to an NFC tag near my home’s entrance, it connects to my WiFi, turns off my 3G, and checks me into my house on FourSquare. The things I can control are still fairly limited, but I can see a lot of potential for this in the future.
  • Large and wide screen means that I can now comfortably read and (more importantly to me) draw on the screen with a stylus. Is it too big? Well, phones were already too big for my jeans, so even though it’s bigger, there is no change in my practices. I still have to put it in my jacket pocket or backpack most of the time.
  • Desktop widgets and shortcuts. I like not having to open an app to start my music, check something off my todo list, or check my calendar. I like that I can just have a shortcut to the Google Spreadsheet that I use for my Happiness Project, instead of always having to go through the list of my docs.
  • Finally being free from iTunes and iPhoto! Now I can just transfer the music that I want on the phone or the photos I want off the phone with AirDroid, which is great!
  • Google Marketplace is better than the Apple App Store because you can try an app for a bit and then return it for a refund if you didn’t like it. I frequently buy apps to see what they are like or to take a screenshot of some aspect of it, so this is probably going to pay for the entire cost of the transition in about a year.

Things that I don’t like:

  • EpicWin my favorite gamified to-do list app is not available for Android. Woe is me! Astrid is pretty good as a to-do list, but I really want to get points for doing stuff.

So, in terms of my user experience, the transition was worth it, but it definitely cost a bit in terms of replacing apps and accessories:

  • Stuff I would need anyway for a new phone (protective case and an anti-glare screen protector): $18
  • Repurchasing stuff I already had (apps, a dock for my bedside, car charger): $45
  • Things that I didn’t need with the iPhone that I want now (NFC tags, stylus, new apps, car mount): $70

So, if you’re thinking about switching, those costs are definitely something to figure into the decision. Have any of you recently switched your phone? What prompted the switch and what was the experience like?