Pervasive Computing and Ethics

Together with Boriana Koleva I organized the doctoral colloquium at Pervasive 2007 in Toronto. We had 9 students presenting and discussing their PhD work with us.

One central observation was that we come to a point where we have to make more and more ethical decisions. Many things that are technical feasible and harmless within the lab may have sincere implications in the real world. If technologies for tracking, tracing and mining (e.g. social network analysis, location based services, context-aware systems) are deployed beyond the lab the question of choice becomes a real issue – are users aware of it and can they opt-out?

In the area of context-awareness technology has moved on since I started my PhD on the topic nearly 10 years ago – but amazingly scenarios did change little. Automatically detecting a meeting is still on the students slides. The more I learn and understand about context-awareness the more it becomes apparent that this apparently simple use case is amazingly hard!

Public Displays in Restaurant Bathroom

After the Ubicomp PC meeting we went to a nice restaurant in Toronto for dinner. In the bathroom they had mounted TFT-screens above the urinals showing a TV program or adverts (was hard to tell in the short time I was there). It found it was quite distracting. The displays reminded me of a poster I saw at CHI 2003: You’re In Control: A Urinary User Interface by Maynes-Aminzade and Raffle ( Given the distraction experienced, I wonder if a design where visualization and control is spatially separated and hence control is indirect make sense for such applications.

In summer during the soccer world championship in Germany I saw a low-tech version of a bathroom game: a ball on a string in a goal. Here control and visualization is in the same place and it felt more natural to use. (sorry for the low quality pics – they are done with my old phone).

Observation at FRA, Terminal 1 B

The number of power plugs available to the public seems to be very close to zero at Frankfurt airport. If a persons sits somewhere on the floor in an odd corner it is likely that there is energy for the laptop or phone.

The number of Bluetooth IDs visible when scanning is amazing. It seems that many people have it switched on continuously now (quite different from 2 years ago). The friendly name used by people seems fairly boring, mainly the preset model name of the phone, combination of first name an phone model, initials, full name and the occasional “hi there”. These observations are quite encouraging for one of our projects.

Looking at the scans I wonder if it is likely that people who travel together have similar phones (e.g. same manufacturer).

Nothing Matches Real Experience

During our strategy meeting there was time for a canoe adventure and some late night reflections. To get the full experience we chose the rainy afternoon for our trip on the river Lahn. Even though we were pretty wet after the trip (some more some less 😉 it was a great experience.

When comparing real experience vs. virtual experience (e.g. second life) it becomes clear that the central issue is, that the virtual is risk-free with regard to our immediate physical well-being. This sounds great in the first place. But what does it lead to when we live in a risk free environment in the long term? How will it shape our perception in the further?

Enjoying the real experience inspired some ideas for mobile adventure games that take place in the real world with real experience but including virtual aspects. A central design goal would be to create a game, where the technology becomes invisible and the user only realises his or her activity in the real world.

Lecture at CDTM in Munich

The CDTM is a joint elite study program from LMU Munich and TU Munich ( It offers a set of complementary course for students from different backgrounds including math, business studies, engineering, computer science and media informatics. In their course on multimodal HCI I gave today an introductory lecture on the motivation for and the basics of user interface engineering.

In the seminar room was a real typewrite – in fact a travel type write. It was a real good prop to discuss micro- and macro-efficiency.

One question about the sustainability of a competitive advantage based on user interfaces made me really think. As the user interface is visible it is really hard to protect the competitive advantage and IPR are difficult on this topic. Desktop GUIs are a good example how quickly ideas propagate between competing systems. The only real option to maintain a competitive advantage is to continuously innovate – keeping the status quo means falling behind. The fact that one can not keep new user interface concepts secret (if one includes them in a product) is one of the most exciting aspects of user interfaces research – it is fast moving because everyone shows off their results!

Visit at the Academy of Media Arts Cologne

Today I was invited at the Citizen Media seminar to discuss mobile and ubiquitous computing topics with people working in the project. Fraunhofer IAIS and the Academy of Media Arts Cologne are both partners in the European Citizen Media project ( It is a difficult question how to create and support a mobile community. The provision of software and infrastructure is obviously required – e.g. Alexander De Luca and Michael Müller (students I supervised in Munich) designed and implemented an open source software as a basis for mobile blogging (mobile reporter) – but the process that forms and evolves specific community is still little understood.

It was great to meet Georg Trogemann, who is professor for audiovisuell art and computer science at the Academy of Media Arts Cologne. Only after I had left I realised that he is the author of a quite interesting book a recently got (Code@Art; ISBN 3-211-20438-5).

We had an interesting discussion on how to most effectively involve users in the design process of novel products. In particular when we expect that technology drives innovation and when future user needs are to be anticipated. I reported from our very positive experience with technology probes (article at IEEE Percom). To me it is central to involve users from the very beginning and throughout all stages of a project and at the same time allow technology to drive innovation beyond current users’ needs.

We had much too little time to see all the interesting projects that are going on there so we have to go back there 😉 the lab and setup in Cologne reminded me of Bill Gaver‘s group at RCA (when we worked together in Equator some year ago).

Talks and Demos at PerCom 2007 in White Plains, NY

This year we (my previous group from LMU Munich) have a significant presence at PerCom. Form the 20 full papers the Embedded Interaction Research Group ( has 3, and additionally 1 of the 7 concise papers is from us. With a total of 207 submissions and an acceptance rate of around 10% this is quite an achievement for the team – and a good high point for the project before moving it to University of Bonn.

Gregor(y) Broll had the demo developed in the Perci-Project yesterday. Lucia Terrenghi and I had our talks today. And Gregor Broll, Sebastian Boring, and Raphael Wimmer have their talks tomorrow. Overall the conference has quite a diverse and interesting program, which seem to be more technical and network oriented than Ubicomp or Pervasive. The publications will be online available at the IEEE digital library or on our new publication webpage.

What can you do with a Wii controller? Use tape and connect a toothbrush and program a nice UI (fish tank) in Flash. Quite an interesting demo from Waseda University in Japan – at least the person who did the demo had really clean teeth in the evening.

PerTec Workshop in NY, Ripping off the Antenna

At PerCom 2007 ( Florian Michahelles (Auto-ID labs, ETH Zurich), Frédéric Thiesse (University of St. Gallen), John R. Williams (MIT Cambridge) and I are running the the PerTec workshop ( There is quite some interest in the topic and the range of topics is from technical to user interface and security.

In contrast to the workshop 1 year ago at Pervasive 2006 it seems that item level RFID-tagging is undisputed and that the only discussion point is when it is coming – in 6 month or 10 years. There is also still some discussion about what types of products are the first ones that are tagged – is it pharmaceuticals or cloth?

There was an interesting contribution by Paul Moskowitz from IBM, the clipped tag. It is a tag where you can physically rip off some part the antenna to reduce the read range from several meters to centimetres (see the pictures). It is really interesting that people can do a very clear and visible action to change the characteristics of a tag. The only questions that remains for me – will people trust that this really rips of the antenna? Probably yes…

The topics we discussed included security, privacy, location and RFID, end user issues, and connection of sensors to RFID, we hope to write it up in an overview article.

In the break out groups one discussion centered on the question what would we need to enable end-users to create novel applications using RFID? Further results of the discussion will be available on the workshop webpage soon.

The overall theme that emerged again and again is impact of real world constraints in RFID systems. Questions like: Can you achieve anonymity with a certain protocol? Can not be answered without knowing how it is used in the real world. Especially having recently learned a lot about data-mining (being at Fraunhofer IAIS) for me the questions of exploiting data collected in RFID systems looks really challenging.

Thoughts on Wearable Computing and Communication

This morning we took some time to walk along Nevsky Prospekt, crossing Anichkov Bridge all the way to the Hermitage and to the river Neva (which was nearly completely frozen). The streets were very busy with people.

… but nearly nobody spoke on the mobile phone. It does not need much brain to figure out why – after just taking a few photos with my phone I had really cold fingers and quickly put my gloves on again! Remembering a summer day last year in Rome – were nearly everyone spoke on the phone – I wondered what phone terminal it would require to transform the scene in St. Petersburg.

After this, many ideas that we recently discussed on wearable computing and communication made much more sense (at least a lot more that skiing and snowboarding scenarios). A headset in a fashionable scarf, a pair of gloves with camera and display, and controls included in a jacket appeared at once very reasonable. Creating an interactive experience – especially controlling the communication and the applications is an interesting challenge (perhaps an interesting student project?).

Educational Fair in St. Petersburg

Together with Alexandra Reitelmann I am in St. Petersburg (Russia) to advertise our study programs at the B-IT and University of Bonn ( In particular we talk to potential students about the master programs in Media Informatics and Life Science Informatics. The educational fair is held in the centre of St. Petersburg at the Russian Museum of Ethnography, which is a truly magnificent building. Overall I was surprised by the city, the buildings, the shops and the quality of the hotel.

The discussions with potential students and in some cases with their parents were interesting. It showed that there is a demand for high quality education and that Germany is an attractive place to study. Given the background of many people we talked to it could be interesting to look into the potential of a conversion master in media informatics, where people with different degrees (e.g. psychology, business studies, math, or engineering) can enter. In comparison to other countries education seems to be a bargain in Germany.

Keynote at TEI’07 by Tom Rodden

Tom presented (in socks) a very inspiring keynote at TEI’07. He questioned if the notion of seamless integration of technology based on several examples from the Equator Project (

A central lesson from his talk for me is to look more closely how to design interactive systems so that people can exploit the technical weakness of system creatively. We will always have to deal with sensors systems, context-recognition, and learning algorithms that are not 100% perfect. I find it interesting to see this rather as a resource for design than a problem. The experience Tom reported from CYSMN ( show nicely how people make use of GPS inaccuracies in a game.

A further point to keep in mind is that when triggering events based on context you may get boundary effects that can break the user experience. Tom gave an example of children finding virtual animals based on location. The effect was that they stopped when the saw an animal on their device – and this was at the boundary of the trigger area. This led to cases where the animal appeared and disappeared on the device and the children were puzzled about this effect. Hence one should really be careful how to put triggers – and I would expect that this is generally applicable to context-awareness not just to location-aware application.