Purpose, Visibility, and Intersubjectivity in Video-Mediated Communication Technologies

Video-mediated communication may be able to benefit from a number of novel technologies, but designing for a good experience requires considering purpose, visibility, and intersubjectivity for both partners.

Skype, Google Hangouts, Facetime, and ShareTable are all examples of real-time video-mediated communication technologies. Designing, implementing, and deploying novel systems of this sort is a big research priority for me and every semester I get a few entrepreneuring students approaching me with ideas for cool new technology to try in this space: robots, virtual reality, augmented reality, projector-camera systems, and more. Frequently, I ask them to consider a few things first and if you’re new to thinking about computer-mediated communication, these may be helpful for you as well (many of these ideas come from my work with play over videochat).

In this case, let’s assume the “base case” of two people—Alice and Bob—using a potential new technology to communicate with each other (though the questions below can definitely be expanded to consider multi-user interfaces). Consider:

  1. (Purpose) Why is Alice using this technology? Why is Bob? The answer should be specific (e.g., not just “to communicate,” but “to plan a surprise party for Eve together”) and may be different for the two parties. It’s good to come up with at least three such use cases for the next questions.
  2. (Visibility) What does Alice see using this technology? What does Bob see? Consider how Alice is represented in Bob’s space, how Alice can control her view (and then flip it and consider the same things for Bob). Consider if this appropriate for their purposes. For example, maybe Alice is wearing VR goggles and controlling a robot moving through Bob’s room. It’s cool that she can see 360 degree views and control her gaze direction, but what does Bob see? Does he see a robot with a screen that shows Alice’s face encased in VR goggles? Does this achieve level of visibility that is appropriate for their purpose?
  3. (Intersubjectivity) How does Alice/Bob show something the other person? How does Alice/Bob understand what the other person is seeing? The first important case to consider is how Alice/Bob bring attention to themselves and how they know if their partner is actually paying attention to them. If Alice is being projected onto a wall but the camera for the system is on a robot, it will likely be difficult for her to know when Bob is looking at her (i.e., when he’s looking at the wall display it will seem that he’s looking away from the camera). It’s also useful to consider the ability to refer to other objects. Using current videochat this is actually quite hard! If Alice points towards her screen to a book on the shelf behind Bob, Bob would have no idea where she’s pointing (other than generally behind him). Solving this is hard—it’s definitely an open problem in the field—but the technology should at least address it well enough to support the scenarios posed in question 1.

Generally, I find that new idea pitches tend to propose inventions that provide a reasonable experience for Alice but a poor one for Bob. It is important to consider purpose, visibility, and intersubjectivity experience for both of them in order to conceive a system that is actually compelling.

Cross-Cultural Parenting and Technology

My parents had two primary sources for parenting advice: my grandparents and the Dr. Spock book. If you are a parent today, you know that this is no longer the case! Millions of sources in printed literature, online, and in your local community all have opinions on how you should parent! How do parents manage so many diverse opinions? What happens when the values of the parents conflict with their community, with other family members, or even with each other? We thought that cross-cultural families (where the two parents are from different cultures or who are raising their child in a different culture from their own) may have a particularly salient perspective to offer on these important questions.

The idea for this project grew out of a workshop on family technologies. Over the last two years, I’ve had the honor of working with three great collaborators — Sarita Schoenebeck, Shreya Kothaneth, and Liz Bales — to try to understand cross-cultural parenting and to find opportunities for technology to help. All four of us are members of cross-cultural families (in one way or another) and we wanted to learn more about this fascinating phenomenon, so we interviewed parents from 18 cross-cultural families all around the United States. We investigated how these families respond to conflicts while integrating diverse cultural views, as well as how they utilize the wealth of parenting resources available online in navigating their lives. In our upcoming CHI 2016 paper (available as a pre-print here), we share what these parents told us about how these families find and evaluate advice, connect with social support, resolve intra-family tensions, incorporate multicultural practices, and seek out diverse views. But, what I want to share here are three design ideas for new technology that were inspired by these interviews. We think that they may not only be good for cross-cultural families but may help all kinds of families better integrate multiple cultures into everyday life. We show some very preliminary sketches of these ideas below:

Some ideas for new technology inspired by our interviews with cross-cultural families!

Some ideas for new technology inspired by our interviews with cross-cultural families!

For me personally, this project was fascinating because I got to talk to so many interesting families. It was gratifying to think that maybe cross-cultural families could inspire ideas that could help all families and bring us all a little closer. What do you think, would you use any of the ideas we suggested in the paper if we went ahead and built it? Let us know below!

Whitelist Chat as a Strategy to Protect Children Online

The ability to interact with other players is one of the most compelling aspects of online multiplayer games. However, in games for young children, there are obvious privacy and safety concerns in allowing unrestricted chatting. The state of the art solution, implemented in practically every online community for kids is “whitelist” chat (on some websites, combined with live monitoring). Whitelist chat means that only real dictionary words are allowed (bonus: helps spelling!) and certain real words (e.g., names of place and numbers) are excluded from this list. As an enthusiast of children’s online communities, I’ve been fascinated by the many ways that children have found to get around these restriction. In this blog post, I will use the children’s online game Petpet Park as an example, though honestly it could be one of any number of communities (Roblox, Club Penguin, etc.).

In Petpet Park, children play a creature who does quests around town, plays mini games, buys clothes and toys, and decorates their own little corner of the world. The website combines a strict set of whitelist restrictions and live monitoring to ensure safe chat. However, kids always find a way!

Petpet Park

A screenshot from Petpet Park. Children create creatures that can do quests, play games, and chat with each other.

petpet park taboo

Creative combination of real words and referring to cultural landmarks as a way of conveying real locations — a taboo topic on children’s websites.

Consider the public chat to the right (username removed for privacy). This person has found a creative way of combining real words (“train i dad” = Trinidad) and references to cultural landmarks (“cowboys” = USA, “place with that arch” = St. Louis) to discuss places of residence (a taboo topic on a children’s website). I want to be clear that I am not criticizing Petpet Park. In fact, I was impressed that this discussion was almost immediately shut down by a live monitor (booting the over-sharing child off the server), but this behavior is quite common and the damage could be done before a monitor steps in. Here are some common ways that I’ve seen children getting around the rules:

  • Typing a single letter on each chat line to spell out a forbidden word. (Not possible on all websites — Petpet Park does not allow this, for example)
  • Using the letter “i” to convey numbers. (e.g., “I am i i i i i i i years old”)
  • Spelling out a non-whitelisted word using first letters of allowed words. (e.g., “Read only first letters. My name is Like Amazing Nutty Almonds.”)
  • Using the meanings of allowed words to convey forbidden information. (e.g., “I go to the school that’s named after the guy that flew the kite.”)

The point that I want to make is that no online community is going to be 100% safe. In particular, the state of the art whitelist strategy is only effective when augmented with live monitoring (and even then, it may be too little too late). Safe chat is not a replacement for parental engagement and keeping open lines of communication about online rules. The other thing to remember is that no online filter will ever be able to enforce empathy and kind interaction online or be able to protect the child from being excluded or hurt by others. Both conversations should be an important part of raising digital citizens.