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I`ve had several meetings lately with design professors and researchers at AHO, where I discussed my hypothesis and subject matter for my thesis. Apparently, the issue of personal information security in a ubicomp society is an important one and a possible fruitful area for design intervention. The feedback from these meetings was concrete and to the point, and I feel I got some ground to stand on with my hypothesis. However, even though a solution for the elderly letting them stay in control of their interactions with ubiquitous technology is interesting, it was pointed out that I should continue to work on different types of concepts further, to increase my solution space. I very much agree with this, and I will try and develop several concepts side by side, utilizing a common scenario, but playing on different strings.

The project has changed a lot since my initial project brief; it contained a desire to create a fun, positive and motivating service for the elderly in a future ubicomp setting. However, reading about this coming technological society, several problems has come into consideration; and the issue of visibility and a sense of personal control I believe is very central to a future scenario of this kind, and a particularly interesting one for the future old. However, an issue like personal control (a psychological issue as much as an actual one) and new technology (about which an elderly person will possibly have little knowledge of, or interest in) is possible to adress i different ways. The product designerly way would be to produce a device, object or service rendering the elderly in actual control of their transactions and interactions with ubicomp. Another way, which I find very interesting, is the critical design approach, which through a more artistic installation or object explains and puts the finger on a specific issue, through which the technology itself is explained to the “user” or beholder.

The third way is of course to device a service or product utilizing the coming technology in a constructive manner, working out a way for people, the new old, to enjoy it. In my “ideabank” there still isn`t a convincing idea as I see it; but I will continue to work on it in paralell for a little while longer, to see if something comes out. Our AHO design theorist is right; we should not lock into a single concept to early! Diversity is gold..

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This post is long overdue, as I`ve seen and read much about the very certain things that are about to come in terms of ubiquitous computing and our technological future, and some documentation that I`m aware of them could be useful.
The fact that more and more everyday objects are becoming wirelessly connected and able to communicate with each other, sending and transmitting content, personal information etc., is now almost an accepted reality before it`s even here. One of those technologies is the MultiTouch interface. I first heard about this when scanning web resources for coming technologies, and saw Jeff Han`s presentation at TED. Microsoft`s Surface computer is also much viewed on Youtube. Basic scenarios like using your breakfast table as an interface to read the news, control the TV, send an email etc, and being able to walk in to a cafe somewhere and get access to the internet on the tabletop there are being projected right now. Already certain restaurants have their menus on a surface screen on the table, and you can browse not only the food being served, but also its origin, the history of the country it`s from etc. It`s the natural heir to the touch screen from our train stations and drawing pads. The multi touch surface interface will soon become a more normal interface to use in homes and in public spaces, and it obviously opens up for a much more intuitive and hands on interaction with a computer. Whether it will include more people in using a computer is also outside any doubt.


When we think about new services and products for the future, linked to, or using mainstream technology to come, we have to be able to envision an everyday use of it; put ourselves in the context of the culture, age, workplace or home, and the actual application. The way to think about it could almost be taking the technology for granted and using it as a stepping stone to see beyond it, to the people using it, and in which way. This is not always an easy task, when the technology never stops evolving. However, inventions are always done on the basis of something already in existance. The Multitouch interface is almost here now, in 2008. So what will happen in the following years? Will we go from firm surfaces to projected, lucid ones? Plastic paper surfaces? Glasses? Will the screen disappear completely by 2020? Will our own bodies be used as conductors for visible information?

Some things we are sure of today we will have tomorrow:

– MultiTouch screen interface

– Flexible Silicone Screens

– Wireless network access everywhere

– Intelligent Clothes

– Nanotech Medical Robots

– Everyday products built by Nanotechnology

– Several new virtual worlds (virtual business, stockmarkets, real estate, schools, universities, relationships will grow)

– Intelligent Robots

– Quantum computing

– Cheap space travel

..and a lot more which already are “mainstream concepts”. The interesting part for me is the way we will react to the development of these technologies, and how the generation of the new old will react to it and to which degree they will use it. Will they be pioneers the ubicomp future or will they be the excluded class citizens?

Food for thought. Take a look at phycisist Michio Kaku`s documentary giving a vision of the future :

I found this set of questions related to the sense of personal control interesting. They are related to persons living with cancer, an insecure state of living, where the people involved are asked to identify what gives them a sense of control. Under the link you can see what they answered. Note that Knowledge – Information is on first place. Perhaps drawing a paralell between living with a serious illness and living as an elder in a ubicomp society is stretching it far, but sometimes people who are in such an insecure situation give very honest answers, and can give an indication on what is relevant for all of us.

A Sense of Personal Control

In today`s online society and communication framework we use interfaces and services which allow for some degree of control of ourselves by ourselves, but we still relinquish a lot to chance, thinking that nobody will probably bother looking at MY information. This is nowhere as evident as in Facebook, where alot of possibilities for control is embedded in the service, but very few people use them. Another trait is that all the “fun” applications on Facebook requires you to give the service provider access to your personal information and your consent to use it.

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Facebook users have shown that we are moving the limits for what we consider privacy online, not just through giving consent to access personal information(more or less conscious), but also sharing pictures and messages online. An important trait of Facebook is that it`s usually Your identity shown online, not a manufactured one, like you would do in online games or in SecondLife, building an avatar to act as an agent for you in the virtual world. This avatar can look like you or be something completely different; an alien or a different species. These are two different directions of exposing oneself online, that in my opinion are converging as we become more of an online based society, having the possibility to have many different identities online. This is one way to stay in control of your online prescence, and a way to stay free. The feeling of staying in control, and not be controlled by technological services can be a blurred line, and not easy to understand, especially for older people. I believe that when we move toward a type of society where we are constantly online, and most of our transactions are done online, our information and communication exchange happens online, we will have to redefine our concept of freedom; in a society where you are visible all the time, the concept of freedom becomes dependant on a concept of control. Your control over our own online presentation of self.

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Throughout my research period, which is still ongoing, I`ve come across alot of evidence and future visions about our society; an all-connected, all wireless, all including one. But will the future old feel that way? The reality for today`s elderly, and for many adults today is the notion that technological development; “progress”, is running at top speed, and it`s just too much to even think about keeping up with, let alone take a stand on. In short; many simply do not care. Is that the reason why we accept yet more invading tech solutions and less privacy? Or do we willingly pay the price to get more and easier communication channels, yet more accessibility to content and apparently useful services? Then of course there is the fear of the unknown; every system put into place that has a farther reach than that which you can oversee in the moment you use it implants insecurity and fear of the further use of it. Will my personal information be scrutinized by unauthorized others? Could I become robbed by a sweep of an RFID reader? Could I lose face being observed when I don`t want to be?

The upbringing of the boomers had little or nothing to do with technology in the way we now think about technology; it wasn`t even lo-tech as much as no-tech. Toys and games were tangible, natural and exploration was done through physically interacting with the world. And as much as this generation has been pioneers of our ongoing technological advancement, as users they are as diverse as any demographic, and they also need time to adjust to new developments. I still talk to people in their 50`s who rarely use the internet, always prefer a newpaper to an online one, and lead their lives as unplugged as possible. Others are pure technology buffs, taking joy and pride in having the latest cell phone and using the internet every day to communicate and work. So, designing for a future ubicomp scenario could have two obvious directions; either finding a solution utilizing the technology, or looking at the flip side of it; rooted in a growing concern for the misuse of it, the fearful notion of being locked to a grid, of being under surveillance.

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Which is more probable to hit home with an elderly of tomorrow? Hard to say. Especially in America, where the Patriot Act was passed after 9/11, personal freedom is a very sensitive issue. The idea that phone calls, emails and internet chat logs could be viewed by the government under a pretext of fighting terrorist activity, created extreme controversy. This feeling is not limited to America. The fear of a Big Brother society runs deep in most cultures. Japan, traditionally having a very welcoming and open attitude toward technology, has already implemented RFID tags in many services beyond logistics, but some of the most vivid depictions of the downsides of a supertechnological society also comes from Japan; Ghost in the Shell, Akira and the manga version of the classic Metropolis are films showing futuristic scenarios where humanity lives under the foot of a single controlling political entity.

Which take on the future scenario would make the more interesting concept, or an interesting discussion? The latter offers a view on many possible dangers of technology, and can raise a needed discussion on how to include elders when designing for the future. It can also say much about the different cultures you design for. Many of the new products and services to come will be online based, which means a great deal of development of new software will be made to accompany them.

March 2008
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