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Too Much Information – Context-Aware Applications 67

ChelleChelle writes with a link to IBM research on the limits to and lessons learned from two context-aware computing projects: "As the researchers Moran and Dourish put it, 'Context awareness is fine in theory. The research issue is figuring out how to get it to work in practice.' The article lays out two attempts by IBM to do just this. Grapevine and Rendezvous are services offered to IBM employees as a means of looking into the promise and perils of context-aware computing. From these two experimental services the authors have drawn several valuable lessons." From the article: "What computer scientists commonly call context often has more to do with technology than with work situations, people, or frames of mind."
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Too Much Information – Context-Aware Applications

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  • by __aaclcg7560 ( 824291 ) on Tuesday September 05, 2006 @02:25PM (#16046410)
    I work on the help desk for a large company. Every time I ask the customer to right-click on something and the context menu appears, the customer just freaks out. That makes my job tougher than it should be.
    • by suv4x4 ( 956391 )
      Every time I ask the customer to right-click on something and the context menu appears, the customer just freaks out.

      Lesson learned: don't work with clients who have a right-click phobia.
      • by Apocalypse111 ( 597674 ) on Tuesday September 05, 2006 @02:38PM (#16046506) Journal
        Alternatly, find customers that are more familiar with technological advancements since the mid 90's (if not earlier - Wikipedia didn't have information on the date of origin of context menu's). Here's how to find them:

        • Ask them if they have any experience with 1960's era tape-driven Honeywell mainframes.
        • Ask them if they know what an iPod is.

        If they answered no to the first and yes to the second, then you'll probably be fine.
      • hell, don't work with clients who have a right mouse button. Mac uni mousing is the only way to go........
    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by wtansill ( 576643 )
      I work on the help desk for a large company. Every time I ask the customer to right-click on something and the context menu appears, the customer just freaks out. That makes my job tougher than it should be.
      I haven't had to call the HelpDesk here since the arrival of Clippy (tm)!
  • by QuantumFTL ( 197300 ) * on Tuesday September 05, 2006 @02:32PM (#16046460)
    One of the hardest things it seems is to find times to gather that an entire group of friends is free. I really hope that as more people's schedulekeeping is mediated via computing devices, that this information can be used to automatically suggest meeting times, activities, etc that would be interesting for a group. Doesn't take the place of good old-fashioned event planning, but it might increase the possibility of real-life socialization, which, to me, is a very big plus.
  • by ReidMaynard ( 161608 ) on Tuesday September 05, 2006 @02:33PM (#16046467) Homepage
    Dave ... you may want to close your bathrobe before the video conference ...
  • No! (Score:5, Insightful)

    by mqduck ( 232646 ) <mqduck@m q d u c k . net> on Tuesday September 05, 2006 @02:34PM (#16046475)
    No, no, no, no.

    As I commented on the intuitive OS thread or whatever it was called, users (or at least I) don't want an OS that acts unpredictable. I don't want to wait around for hours for a message before finally figuring out that my cell phone decided I didn't want to be reminded of them right then. Consistency is uncompromisable.
    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by Anonymous Coward
      Now see, I'm just the opposite. I believe that Conformity (which includes Consistancey) should be a choice. You don't want your cell phone to be adaptive and adaptable? Fine, thats probably good for you. I LIKE being able to customize things. I want my computer to remember the things I have done in order to help me do things easier in the future.

      There does need to be room inside of the human/machine interface for choice, however. I would love to see interfaces be deve
      • Re:No! (Score:4, Interesting)

        by jacksonj04 ( 800021 ) <> on Tuesday September 05, 2006 @03:40PM (#16046931) Homepage
        I'd be happy with that providing the system always errs on the side of caution and lets you know about something if it's unsure.

        For example, I'd want my phone to not ring between 11pm and 7:30am unless it was somebody in my 'close friends and family' group, because they only ring me during that time if they need me urgently, right now, yes I do need to wake you up.
        • by jimicus ( 737525 )
          Pretty certain my phone can already be set to do this automatically (Nokia 6230i).

          Unfortunately at least one person in that circle has had the telephone company permanently disable caller ID from their line, and I can't set it up so "if there's no number, ring". It can be overridden on a per-call basis but anyone in my closest family/friends who needs to call me at 2am is unlikely to be in a fit state to remember that.
      • Re:No! (Score:5, Insightful)

        by arth1 ( 260657 ) on Tuesday September 05, 2006 @04:39PM (#16047403) Homepage Journal
        Now see, I'm just the opposite. I believe that Conformity (which includes Consistancey) should be a choice. You don't want your cell phone to be adaptive and adaptable? Fine, thats probably good for you. I LIKE being able to customize things.

        Being able to customise something is one thing. A computer deciding what should be customised and how is something entirely different. You can have one without the other.

        Just because I called Jane Doe's work phone the last time I called her doesn't mean that I want her mobile phone number to replace her home number as my preferred number. If I want that, I can set that.
        Just because I looked at a book at the online book store that was incorrectly classified as "Juvenile" doesn't mean that I want "Juvenile" added to the top of the list of categories that show up.
        Just because I recently paid yearly taxes doesn't mean that I want "Town of Springfield" to show up each time I enter a "T".
        Just because I haven't used the CD ripping program for a month doesn't mean I want it to disappear from where I know it is in the program menu.

        Let me choose these things, dammit!

        I want my computer to remember the things I have done in order to help me do things easier in the future.

        Remembering things you have done is fine. It doesn't imply replacing something else with what you have done, which is what appears to happen way too often. An easily accessible history function is nice. A mandatory history replacing your own configuration is not.

    • Re:No! (Score:5, Insightful)

      by arth1 ( 260657 ) on Tuesday September 05, 2006 @02:56PM (#16046627) Homepage Journal
      If I had mod points, you'd have them.
      Yes, we don't learn well by reading each and every option given to us each and every time, because the options change. We learn by repetitiveness, and always finding the same options in the exact same place is necessary for that. Context sensitivity is HELL on users who try to use tools efficiently instead of having to check for possible layout changes every time they do something.

      Context sensitivity impresses the suits, who only sees a tool once or twice, if that, and it's the suits who decide. IBM is all for catering to the suits.

      • Re:No! (Score:5, Informative)

        by Irish_Samurai ( 224931 ) on Tuesday September 05, 2006 @04:44PM (#16047443)
        This is not exactly true.

        I have noticed that users generally fall into two distinct groups, those who understand the underlying concepts and those who don't. This difference seems to dictate how a user will actually respond to a change in interface.

        Someone who doesn't understand the underlying concepts completes computer related tasks by mimicking a previous action that brought about the desired results. They couldn't answer a single question regarding what they were actually doing or how it worked. These are the type of people who cannot transition between OSes or even APP versions very well. This group is exemplary of your statement.

        The second group has a firm grasp on the concepts they are working with. They can transition between OSes and APP versions much quicker because they understand WHAT it is they want to do, they don't rely on the HOW.

        I do agree that if you had a constantly changing interface that it would be difficult to become an efficient operator. Yet I can also see how some people might function better with something like this. There is the opportunity to strike a nice balance between constantly changing interfaces and completely static ones. Your web browser is a perfect example of this. High level functions that have triggers in a static layout, but content navigation that changes drastically from site to site. While there are some best practices concerning site navigation, they are still extremely dynamic. Just look at how frequently the terminology changes from site to site concerning the navigation.
        • Re: (Score:1, Insightful)

          by Anonymous Coward
          Spot on.

          I've always noticed that the users who memorize the steps (who probably think they are being efficient) associated with a particular task tend to be the most spaced out when minor elements change - perhaps due to a quick slip-up or oversight of their own - which then changes the context of the app's response. Then they're completely lost, and mad at the computer to boot.

          As a person involved in HCI work, I often wonder if we'll be able to bridge the gap between these two camps. Clearly, everyone who
        • by Magada ( 741361 )
          I beg to differ. Look at the success of tools like the GreaseMonkey mozilla extension and its associated scripts, or even at that of simpler things like popup blockers and filtering proxies... A large class of users (many of them technophiles, btw) want everything to behave JustSo(tm), even if they happen to be dealing with remote content, which theoretically is not under their control.
          DVD killed the VCR with its menu, instant ff/skip and reliable freeze-frame... all ways by which the user controls how cont
          • by Ant P. ( 974313 )
            I prefer VCR, because it doesn't try to dictate to me whether or not I can use my own hardware to skip certain parts of the video.
          • Picking Nits, but the subtle difference is pretty important in this case.

            Aside from the menu, ff/skip and reliable freeze have to do with the manner of consumption - not presentation. The same material is presented in the same way, all your doing is regulating how you consume it. This is true on websites too. You are controlling the consumption of pop ups and ads by thwarting them. The content is provided to you as it, it doesn't change depending on who you are. Your browsing agent does that for you.

            Even th
    • Re:No! (Score:5, Interesting)

      by lpangelrob ( 714473 ) on Tuesday September 05, 2006 @03:01PM (#16046662)

      You may not want an unpredictable OS, but I don't like wasting my time, either. You're probably thinking of instances like Windows' "feature" to customize your menus, which is more annoying than helpful. Or Clippy, for that matter.

      On the other hand, if I'm trying to contact my cousin, in 2006, I have four options: e-mail, text message, cell phone, home phone. I would rather not go in order if some sort of context-aggregator service knows that her cell phone is on the move somewhere in north-central Illinois. Businesses would appreciate knowing where their employees, or other employees, were at any given point in time.

      Or, imagine a website (Gmail, for example) that responds to the user depending on if it knows you're at work, home, or the library, and adjusts its security settings accordingly.

      I'm not a time freak and I don't demand to utilize 100% of my time, all the time, but if this could save me some hassle that's come in this age as a result of our technology, I'm for it.

      • I'm a little upset that you didn't mention the other four methods to contact cousins and family members - paper letter, post card, clown-gram, and skylettering plane. Or blog post with the words Paris Hilton, Coulter, PS3, and Apple inserted.
    • Re:No! (Score:5, Insightful)

      by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday September 05, 2006 @03:09PM (#16046723)
      It has already started.

      - You leave while a 6h long computation is running, come back later to discover that Windows XP decided to work for 30 min and hibernate for 5.5 hours.

      - At a critical moment, Norton decides its pop-up is more important than whatever you're doing.

      - You want to show a video to people but your media player decides it should first spend 5 minutes auto-updating.

      - You leave your car headlights on and walk in the woods to take a leak at night. Some timeout feature decides to turn off the lights and leave you stranded in the dark.

      Some technologies are past their prime. Engineers are bored, so they add automatic features. Consumers have to waste time understanding those features, and turning them off or outsmarting them.
      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by bdcrazy ( 817679 )
        Similiar things happened a couple times over the weekend at my parents house. It was mildly annoying. I used this trick occasionally, but it worked almost anywhere. Stereo mini-jack to rca cable. Plug cable into audio player other end into a/v jack on tv. This used to allow anything with an a/v input to play sound off an audio player. No luck, the tv couldn't select that input because there was 'nothing' connected. Tried their vcr, found the same problem, wouldn't allow selection of the input. Ok, n
      • Yes! I mean, this features *are* interesting enough to be researched :-) The problem is: the computer doesn't have our feedback. We need to say "thank you" or "hey, what are you doing?", and they need to be able to interpret it. When devices like the ones FTA starts to interpret our feedback, they'll be able to decide more accurately what to do and what not to do.
        • Why the hell isn't the parent modded insightful?

          Chris Crawford defines interaction as a form of conversation - ndamentals.html []

          Computers are getting pretty good at their end of the conversation, and this IBM work suggests the thinking about a response part is improving. But they still really suck at listening to us.

          Just a simple way of telling a computer good/bad when it does something "automatically" would help immensely. It's how we train a computer to rec
      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by mqduck ( 232646 )
        All of those things are annoying, I agree, but they're consistant. If my headlights automatically turn off whenever the cars parked for a certain length of time, that's alot less frustrating than it /sometimes/ doing it.
      • by doti ( 966971 )
        So, why do you insist on using this dumb OS?
        Worse than dumb, closed, so you can't fix it!
      • by syousef ( 465911 )
        You forgot to mention clippy.
    • by CODiNE ( 27417 )
      Total assault on the culture by any means necessary, including rock n' roll, dope and fucking in the streets.

      I suggest that your cultural assault include unpredictable cell phones. :-) Yay anarchy rawkz dude!!
    • by TheLink ( 130905 )
      I think we should make many of these UI designers use lifts/elevators with context sensitive lift/elevator buttons.

      Put the worst of them into one with "personalized" buttons - the "least used" buttons are hidden by default...

      Look at Douglas Englebart's 1968 demo. We sure haven't really got very far in the past 40 years.

      I definitely don't like those stupid "innovations" like "wobbly windows" and silly animations that actually _DELAY_ responses to user commands.
  • by dpbsmith ( 263124 ) on Tuesday September 05, 2006 @02:48PM (#16046573) Homepage
    "First, users often were not comfortable with others knowing what they were doing. The Grapevine service provided complete control over who could observe which elements of context, and users commonly blocked all others from viewing their computer activity all of the time. Although the service allowed observer-by-observer blocking, it was rarely used. This is an area for further research."

    And in further news, the Thought Police reported today that Winston Smith has rented an apartment without a telescreen.
    • I guess they took this feature from IM programs, where you can be invisible for certain friends and family members. But guess what, friends and family are not like work relationships (or at least I hope not for y'all!) as at work there are people with higher hierarchy that might actually force you to do something, and you are dependent on that. Of course they turned it off, duh! A simple but sad solution is available, though, let the who-obverses-who function be configureable by the supervisor/manager only.
  • by Hahnsoo ( 976162 ) on Tuesday September 05, 2006 @02:50PM (#16046590)
    What they need is some sort of motion sensor that detects when the case is jostled, so I can provide feedback to the program in the form of a swift steel-toed boot to the DVD-ROM/drink holder. That'll give it some "context".
    • Re:What they need... (Score:5, Interesting)

      by The MAZZTer ( 911996 ) <megazzt&gmail,com> on Tuesday September 05, 2006 @03:13PM (#16046753) Homepage
      I think some Mac laptops already have that, so all that would be need to be implemented is the software side (ie violently shaking the laptop causes it to kill the process with the most cpu usage, would be most helpful).
      • by Hahnsoo ( 976162 ) on Tuesday September 05, 2006 @03:36PM (#16046902)
        Hah! Or, it can simply reboot the laptop. You can call it "Etch a Sketch"!
      • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

        by generic-man ( 33649 )
        The sudden motion sensor is also on ThinkPads. The ThinkPad control panel for it shows a picture of your laptop; as you shake the laptop around the picture of the laptop on screen also shakes. I still haven't seen any interesting uses of the motion sensor besides the intended purpose (shutting down the hard drive in case of a drop) and novelty things (imitating that Labyrinth game I used to play at the dentist's office waiting room).
    • I once read an article by a forward-thinking HCI/usability guy discussing how people should interact with increasingly "smart" devices.

      He pointed out that these devices will attempt to be context-aware, and will do or not do certain things based on what they think you want. These devices will screw this up.

      He suggested that the usability community come up with a simple, but flexible system for giving devices positive or negative reinforcement. I believe he proposed three buttons: "thumbs down," "not what I
    • "It looks like you're trying to take out your frustration on your computer. Would you prefer to use:
      • A baseball bat
      • A can of coke
      • A .45, or
      • Nukes ?"
  • by michaelmalak ( 91262 ) <> on Tuesday September 05, 2006 @03:36PM (#16046903) Homepage
    I question the use of the term "context-aware computing" in these two projects, which simply convey to users whether other users are available for IM. CAC usually refers to smart devices discerning the intetion of users and prompting the user, changing menus, etc. as a result. In this case, it's another user, rather than a system, making the decision to interrupt or not interrupt the user via IM. This is more CSCW (Computer Supported Collaborative Work) than CAC.

    Of course, CAC is the newer and hipper acronym.

    • I question the use of the term "context-aware computing" in these two projects, which simply convey to users whether other users are available for IM.

      That's only the grapevine project. The other one, rendezvous, doesn't involve IM, and does modify menus -- specifically conference call system menus based on knowledge of the user and the user's calendar.

  • ...welcome our new information overloads!
  • by aldheorte ( 162967 ) on Tuesday September 05, 2006 @03:55PM (#16047030)
    My subject says nothing. That's because "context" these days has become a catch-all buzzword for people in the technology industry and academic circles to try to abstract a very complex entity away to focus on some specific detail. Although this sometimes works, it only works when you the specific detail or thing you want to discuss, observe, or code can realistically be isolated from all those complexities you just swept away by calling them 'context'.

    The trouble is, when you say you want something to be 'context-aware' you are saying you want it to be aware of all the complexity. Software cannot do this. You want to create something can run on your computer that is more aware than a human is and not just aware in the data sense of facts and trivia, nor simply in the analytical sense of adding facts to facts and substracting trivia. What you want is intuitive awareness and this is the one thing you cannot have in software and systems of the complexity available today (it remains to be seen if it can ever be gained through deterministic computation - the rote addings and subtractings of on and off states or, if it can be found, if it will collapse what was previously thought of as intuition into merely imperfect analysis that would only be acceptable for a human to conclude).

    So what am I saying? I'm saying that "context awareness" is just a buzzword for a de facto implausibility. I point you to this quote from the article: "While people clearly do these things today without additional help from context-aware services, the goals of such services are to allow people to make better communication choices, engage in a richer and more valuable interaction, and waste less time in accomplishing their interactions, while providing significant cost savings to the enterprise."

    This is contextual statement. It sweeps all the true complexity away in exchange for semantic complexity. It really says nothing and simply uses 30 or so words where two would do: work better.

    Why am I going on about this? Becuase it is intellecutally dishonest to pretend that you can brush away the complexity of the world by calling it context. It leads to pointless research projects where aggregations are made, imperfectly, from imperfect information when it could already be obviously judged from the outset that they would ultimately not scale to complexity at hand. It results in 'Xanadu' projects that will forever be stuck in a state of being 'so close' to being useful, but never actually becoming so. There are more concrete things we can attack, things were we can make actual statements rather than vague and amorphous statements about what a system might theoretically do. It's just a matter of rolling up the sleeves and doing some work instead of engaging in intellectual laziness and then wasting other people's time with our frivolities.

    Which is all to say that I found the article and information contained therein not worth the time of reading. :)
    • dems fighting words stranger.
    • I'm not sure I'm understanding your post correctly, because it basically sounds like you're making the argument that "understanding of context is an AI-complete problem, therefore there is no way my cell phone can automatically go silent when I enter a movie theater." The first problem the IBM'ers were trying to solve amounts to "Is now a good time to interrupt the user?" which would seem to require some sort of mind-reading API. But it seems like there are so many situations where obtaining context is tr
  • HELP! (Score:4, Funny)

    by Mister Whirly ( 964219 ) on Tuesday September 05, 2006 @04:28PM (#16047297) Homepage
    Can somebody give me a better breakdown explanation? I read TFA, but couldn't gather it's meaning from the context. Damn this non-context aware application...
  • by rice_burners_suck ( 243660 ) on Tuesday September 05, 2006 @05:55PM (#16048041)
    The only context aware application I need is context sensitive help. When I push F1 on my computer keyboard input device, the help menu that is loaded onto my display monitor output device should be the one that explains the field my text cursor was in at the time of said keypress.
  • by Anonymous Coward
    having the word program (like Microsoft Word type of program) know what you're typing about?

    Like, "Hello, I noticed you are writing an essay on "prostate problems". I have faxed your essay to a local proctologist for you. Thank you, have a good day."
  • I think a lot of comments are missing out on the prime feature of a contextual system - It must be rules-based. The problem with things like MS Office menus is that you can't decide how it is going to work. The other thing is they must have a good idea as to where you really are and who is with you. Imagine the following scenarios:
    - You're in a meeting with project team-mates and the project leader calls - ring through.
    - You're in a meeting with project team-mates and a non-project relate
  • ... so how could they be expected to develop software that is? It might be argued that missing both the Big Picture *and* the devilish details is the equivalent of blissful ignorance (or at least deniability), so please don't take that away from me!
  • I'd rather have computers and systems that augment humans and make them "smarter".

    Rather than computers and systems that allow stupid humans to stay just about as stupid as they are.

    There is a difference between the two. Really!

    For the latter, the goal is making AI or some other system to second guess individual humans (who are assumed to be stupid) and make decisions for them, or have some "expert" or "centralized authority" make the decisions for them (e.g. the RIAA decides whether you get to play the son

You know, Callahan's is a peaceable bar, but if you ask that dog what his favorite formatter is, and he says "roff! roff!", well, I'll just have to...