Introducing touch as culture

Hello. My name is Anne Galloway and I’m very pleased to introduce myself as the newest member of the Touch research project team. Some of you may know me from my blog purselipsquarejaw, or my involvement in the spaceandculture journal weblog, but for those who don’t - I’m a social researcher working at the intersections of technology, space and culture.

Where I’m coming from

When Timo and I first started talking about the project, I was working through some ideas about the relationship between design and social science, and more specifically, about how social and cultural research could serve as materials for design. When I was offered the opportunity to put some of this thinking into practice, I simply couldn’t refuse!

As it so happened, I had also recently finished reading Constance Classen’s wonderful edited volume, The Book of Touch. Unique in its approach, it begins a cultural history of touch, and starts to draw out our cross-cultural experiences of touch. Of special interest to me was her claim that a cultural understanding of touch was probably best served not by detached or objective intellectual analysis, but rather by a “rough and ready approach that acknowledges and grapples with the tangled, bumpy and sticky nature of the topic.”

I was taught, and I now teach students, that it’s always a good idea to start any research project with a literature review. Not only does this help the researcher better understand the field in which they seek to intervene, and locate them within that field, but it helps identify strengths and weaknesses, or gaps in the existing research that can provide points of entry to further understanding.

But how could I turn the rather stodgy academic lit review into something “rough and ready” for other researchers and designers to work with? Well, one possibility was compiling a cultural encyclopædia of touch, and so my first contribution to the project will be the Touchpædia.

What’s the Touchpædia?

First of all, it’s being created as a rich and fundamental design resource for the project team. And since we’re all committed to open research, the Touchpædia will ultimately take the form of a wiki-based, publically accessible and modifiable resource. (After all, when is an encyclopaedia ever done?)

The content of the Touchpædia will be organised thematically - along the lines of “touch as contamination” and “touch as pleasure” or “touch as magic” and “touch as pain” etc. - and each entry will include the following:

1) a summary of current social and cultural research;

2) suggestions for further reading;

2) possible research questions, focussed on design and material culture;

3) possible ethnographic research methodologies, focussing on participatory, performative and playful engagement;

4) simple design briefs.

We plan to have Touchpædia Version 1.0 online first thing in the new year - but that’s not all of it. Timo and I are currently working out the details on some exploratory cross-cultural probes, interviews and observations in Norway and Canada, and a variety of international and collaborative workshops.

In other words, there’s lots more good stuff to come before summer 2007 and we’re excited!

And last, but certainly not least, we’re really looking forward to hearing people’s thoughts and sharing our experiences along the way. Cheers.

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The dashed line in use

In previous work I have advocated for the use of dashed lines, my paper for Mobile HCI 2006 [pdf] represents Touch-based interactions with dashed lines, and work on ubicomp iconography uses the dashed line to represent borders, or seams.

I’ve had trouble justifying my excitement about this intricate visual detail, so I thought it would be good to collect a bunch of examples from over fifty years of information design history, to show it as a powerful visual element in ubicomp situations.

Even though the dashed line has emerged from a designer’s shorthand and from the limitations of monotone printing techniques, it has a clear and simple visual magic, the ability to express something three- or four-dimensional in two dimensions.

The dashed line as hidden geometry

The dashed line

The dashed lineThe dashed line

Examples from Open Here: The Art of Instructional Design, Paul Mijksenaar, Piet Westendorp, 1999.

The dashed line as movement

The line is used to indicate temporal positions:

The dashed line

The dashed lineThe dashed lineThe dashed lineThe dashed lineThe dashed lineThe dashed line

Examples from Open Here: The Art of Instructional Design, Paul Mijksenaar, Piet Westendorp, 1999.

The dashed line as paths

Very similar to the representations of movement, but the line is used as the path itself:

The dashed line

The dashed lineThe dashed lineThe dashed lineThe dashed lineThe dashed lineThe dashed line

Examples from Open Here: The Art of Instructional Design, Paul Mijksenaar, Piet Westendorp, 1999.

A more modern image showing an overview of Auto ID RFID supply chain management, by Xplane:


Colin Ware defines dashed, dotted or wavy lines as linking lines:

“A linking line between entities represents some kind of relationship between them. A line linking closed contours can have different colours or other graphical qualities such as waviness, and this effectively represents an attribute or type of relationship.”

The dashed line

From the perceptual syntax of diagrams in Information Visualisation: Perception for Design, Colin Ware, 1999.

The dashed line as expectation

Ellipsis from Mac OS X interface

I’ve spoken to some people that have made an association between the dashed line and an ellipsis. This example is taken from the Mac OS X interface, conventionally used to indicate that the action will be followed by another action.

The dashed line as ephemeral material

The dashed line

The dashed lineThe dashed line

Examples from Open Here: The Art of Instructional Design, Paul Mijksenaar, Piet Westendorp, 1999.

The dashed line as border or seams





The dashed line

A table of commonly used conventions from Information Graphics, Robert Harris, 1996.

Other examples

The dashed line

This is an example of dashed lines in information design from The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, Edward Tufte, 1983. I get the sense that Tufte prefers a simple, solid line, considering the overuse of patterns a form of chart-junk:

The dashed line

And lastly, an interesting thought from a conversation with Dave Gray, of Xplane and Communication nation:

“I think of lines: double-line, solid, dashed, dotted Similar to typeface conventions such as black, bold, regular, light. It’s a matter of emphasis. The thicker and more solid the line, the stronger the emphasis. A dotted line usually does not indicate “cut here” unless it is combined with a scissors icon. I think that trying to make a direct connection between the dashed line and what it represents may be a red herring. Think of a map, for example: Whether type is bold, all caps, or light relates directly to the designer’s decisions about emphasis, but I am not sure it relates so directly to the subject matter. There are a few direct correlations of this type: for example, type representing water is usually set in italic. I like your use of the dashed line – it is clear that they serve as a guide and invitation to “place things there”.”

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Everyware icons (visualising ubicomp situations)

In December 2005 Adam Greenfield asked me to work with him on icon concepts for his book Everyware. Here is Adam’s description of his book:

“The age of ubiquitous computing is here: a computing without computers, where information processing has diffused into everyday life, and virtually disappeared from view. What does this mean to those of us who will be encountering it? How will it transform our lives? And how will we learn to make wise decisions about something so hard to see?”

The icons were for the section headers of the book, covering the ideas that Adam felt were important around making aspects of ubiquitous computing visible. These were the suggested themes:

  • Augmented-reality information is available in this location
  • This object has invisible qualities (could be almost identical with the last of these four)
  • Warning: sensor field
  • Information processing dissolving in behavior (i see this as bits flowing through a handshake)
  • Media surface
  • Network dead zone

    I made a quick sketch that has some icons that are consistent with my earlier work on a graphic language for touch-based interactions. I’ve used the dashed line again to show borders and invisible geometry. Not all of these are successful, but I think they show some interesting directions for the future.


    Click for a larger size image. Download as pdf.

    I think in particular the Network dead zone, Warning: sensor field and this object has invisible qualities are particularly successful. The book used a set of icons inspired by these, you can see a selection on Flickr.

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MIRW 2006

Participants of MIRW 2006

The workshop Mobile Interaction with the Real World (MIRW 2006) at Mobile HCI in Espoo was a timely gathering of practitioners concerned with similar issues: connecting the mobile phone to places and things.

The proceedings [pdf] are now online, and well worth looking at.

Some interesting excerpts from the papers:

Telling a Story on a Tag: The Importance of Markers’ Visual Design for Real World Applications

This project designed, implemented and tested a kind of visual tag that can be designed to look like ordinary text or pictograms, but contains a unique code in its topology.

“When designing the physical tag for the Electronic Lens project, the aim was to tell a story by transforming the markers into sets of icons. Supplemental text, illustration and logotypes that had no technical functionality were also used to complete the design from an informational and aesthetic point of view. The design includes icons for expressing one’s opinion, for leaving one’s view of things through pictures, for a networked city with information accessible through mobile devices, and for the pleasure that comes up with exploring what potentially lies quiet behind this physical marker.”

A marker “hidden” in type, and the corresponding region adjacency tree.

User Perceptions on Mobile Interaction with Visual and RFID Tags

This project explored user-reactions to two different kinds of physical world interactions: barcodes and RFIDs. It tested what they thought of each technology, and how they might interact with them.

“The study results reveal that there are potential usability risks with the mobile interaction with RFID and visual tags. Currently, the mental model that people have on the technologies is still very vague, and although different concepts of using tags for mobile interaction have been considered in research communities for years and are currently gaining popularity in an enterprise context, the idea has not yet been adopted by large audiences because of the lack of existing commercial consumer applications. The study showed that there are no existing practices and mental models for the usage of visual and non-visual tags in the studied domain.”

A study participants reading RFID tag with a phone.

Hovering: Visualising RFID Hyperlinks in a Mobile Phone

This project developed an application called Hovering that let users visualise the tags that are present in local objects or the environment before activating them.

“As links in desktop web, the physical hyperlinks should be visualised to let the user know that 1) there is a link, 2) where it is located, 3) how it can be selected and 4) what will happen after the link is selected. The visualisation can happen in many levels: in the physical object itself the tag may have some icons representing its action and selection method, or the link can be visualised in various ways in the graphical user interface of the mobile terminal.”

On the left is shown the single link display mode. Only one link is displayed but with more information than in the list mode on the right.

The Mobile Phone as a Universal Interaction Device – Are There Limits?

This project prototyped two interactions with consumer products where the mobile phone replaced some of the physical interfaces that otherwise would have been part of the product themselves. They tested out the suitability of the mobile phone for these kinds of interactions.

“We believe that this hybrid approach of a traditional, haptic user interface, combined with an extended user interface on a mobile device, offers many benefits. Users can continue to directly interact with appliances, which is desirable in most everyday situations. However, in special situations where users would have to remember complex and clumsy sequences of pushing buttons or manipulating the appliance, it is much more intuitive to use a mobile device with its powerful and versatile user interface for interaction. For user interface designers, this is an interesting approach, as it allows them to make use of the full range of possibilities offered by modern GUI toolkits, without the physical and monetary constraints of adding such complex functions as a separate physical control.”

Change of water filter prototype.

Thanks to the organisers Enrico Rukzio, Massimo Paolucci, Tim Finin, Paul Wisner and Terry Payne for organising this focused and timely workshop.

[tags] Mobile HCI, MIRW 2006, NFC, RFID, barcodes, mobile, mobile technology, ubicomp [/tags]

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RFID in parkour & urban orienteering

First year industrial design students at AHO recently looked at training and fitness equipment. The course encouraged students to look at the interaction design aspects of training, and to include innovative interfaces in their physical designs.

Theo Tveteras based his project around around the experience of Parkour in a project called urban orienteering.


He designed a system that would allow users to set up tracks in urban space, in parks, in the forest or in any freeform space. His system contained of 3 parts: a base station, some roaming discs, and a wearable clip. The base station acts as the focal hub of the system, where users can set up timers, see the best lap-times, and store the rest of the equipment. A number of small discs are placed around the area, each of which contains an RFID reader/writer. The traceur wears a small RFID that clips onto their wrist, shoe or other part of their body.


Mockup of the base-station in place

The experience would involve finding the best route through the discs, and setting up timed competitions around the same route. Different routes could be set up with different difficulty levels. The idea here is to have a base-line: a track through which all participants have to complete, but beyond that each participant can add their own style, techniques and such. Apart from some scenarios and bodystorming, the project didn’t explore the experience in great depth. The project would benefit from looking at the shared experience in this kind of activity, and how it may be made more accessible, enjoyable or extreme.


Display of timing information


Simple scenarios show that the basic interaction works

Although this project focused on physical design issues and largely overlooked technological aspects, the technology seems realistic and feasible. RFIDs strapped to buildings, or re-writeable RFIDs strapped to parts of the body are ideal locations for storing little bits of timing data, all of which can be put to good use in this kind of activity. The traditional downsides of RFID such as limited range, small capacity, and lack of visibility can be used to great effect in urban space. Perhaps a “cheap and dirty” technology like RFID more closely matches the ‘grain’ of urban space than other, high-end technologies.

See more student projects.

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Orooni table

Interactive table

Although the Touch project is primarily about NFC and mobile phones, we recently created a table-based interface. Why have we done this? Because it’s a quick demonstrator of near-field interactions in a setup that is instantly accessible.

Our intentions are:

  1. To probe the perceived relationships between physical characters and their digital counterparts. It isn’t yet clear to us what kinds of interactions people will want between physical things and digital content. This is an important question for user-centred interactions with the Internet of Things.
  2. To investigate the embedding of RFID in physical objects, from an industrial design and material technology perspective.
  1. To uncover opportunities for new interactions that are possible with limited-range RFID such as that found in NFC phones and contactless ticketing.

    Our demonstrator is similar in functionality to the Symbolic table by Mediamatic, but very different in content and behaviour. It also draws on long history of research and projects in table-based interfaces.

    Preparing for printRFID in 3D print

    The set-up involves a table with multiple RFID readers under a glass surface, physical characters (animals, birds, figures, robots and dinosaurs) and a large screen. Each character has a unique digital identity through an embedded RFID. When a character is brought into contact with a certain point, it triggers specific animated behaviours on a large screen. These behaviours are from Orooni and are typical Instant Message (IM) status like hug, angry, happy, sick, sad, etc.

    The characters have been designed by PhD student Kjetil Nordby and rapid prototyped using the selective laser sintering machines at AHO. Programming and the screen-based interface were created by Orooni.

    It has been remarkably quick to prototype; we have spent three weeks from concept to delivery and a week building the demonstrator. It is rapid prototyping in a broad sense: materials from IKEA, computation from Apple, off the shelf Phidgets and connectivity through USB. The software is also relatively simple, triggering events based on combinations of IDs and readers.

    We are rolling out the demonstrator this weekend at Forskningstorget where it will be used by hundreds (if not thousands) of people. We’ll post more about our experience soon.

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Forskningstorget 2006

RP character

Touch is demonstrating some initial experiments with RFID, table based interfaces and rapid prototyped toys at Forskningstorget 2006. This is taking place on the 22 and 23 September in Universitetsplassen, at the end of Karl Johan’s Gate in Oslo. Come and see us!

Table interfaceIDs

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Ambient findability in practice

Every time we run physical computing at AHO, some students want to make a system for finding lost things. So it makes me very happy that there is now a commercial product that does exactly that, so that we can move beyond technicalities to issues such as ambient findability in practice.


The product is called Loc8tor, designed in the UK, built in China, it uses active RFID tags (frequency and standards unknown) and a directional RFID reader in a system that detects things up to 180 metres away.

“Loc8tor is an innovative product using award winning patent pending technology that helps find important possessions and can even stop them from getting lost in the first place. By blending the best of old and new technology Loc8tor provides the first affordable personal homing device of its kind. For young and old, pet lovers to parents and gadget lovers to grandparents, Loc8tor is designed to be exceptionally easy to use and helps avoid that feeling of frustration when you mislay your valuables. From finding keys, handbags or mobile phones to ensuring the safety of your children, pets and personal possessions, Loc8tor’s versatility means it can be used in almost any situation by simply attaching the tag to any item you want to protect.”

In practice one attaches the tags to important objects by way of key fobs, adhesive backing or containment, and then name the tags one by one through the interface on the handheld finder. When you lose something, you press a button, select the thing you want to find and the unit starts bleeping: the intensity of the sound, and the bars on the screen are proportional to your proximity to the lost item. Because it’s directional, you can turn around slowly in a circle, and find an initial direction, then repeat this a few times and you normally find the thing you are looking for. This part of the product experience works very well. This is a remarkable technical achievement, given the small size of the handheld, the longevity of the tags, and the intricacies of RF communication.

Loc8tor attachedLoc8tor homing tag

Where this product fails miserably is in the interface. The arrangement of buttons and screen menus shows a lack of thought or design process: they are inconsistent, badly labelled, overly hierarchical, highly modal and very prone to simple errors.

The designers thought it would be good to have two main modes: a ‘locate’ mode for finding things, and an ‘alert’ mode for warning when things go out of a specific range. The usability of this second mode is questionable, this kind of asset tracking I think calls for another kind of device. Trying to squeeze so much into the handheld interface makes the main menu long, adds extra buttons to the interface, and makes the product more obscure.

When in ‘locate’ mode, a ‘signal strength’ indicators appears on screen in a formation that makes it look like directional feedback. But actually it’s just a fancy bar chart with a single axis. Quite confusing.

Loc8tor menuLoc8tor locating

Given that the act of losing something – or remembering to take things with you – usually happens in moments of stress: walking out the door, gathering things from around you, getting off the train, this interface is overly complicated for its intended use.

Earlier this year one of my students Giulia Schneider worked on a concept that integrated tags and readers much more seamlessly into everyday objects and activities. She used inspiration from Nokia’s Mobile Essentials, studies of brand identity, and her own ethnographic studies to find important things and ways of augmenting them with findability. More on this soon.

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