Design Research, HCI
Time difference and location distance create separation for people who are living far away. Current telecommunication technology allows us to connect in an efficient way using text messages, voice and video chats, but fails to provide intimacy over distance or a feeling of mundane togetherness creating evocative memories over time.
The scent machine allows distant others to connect through a sense of smell. The Scentie-Talkie is less about a being a solution to the problem of separation or does not intend to replace the current way of communicating, but it provides a more unique and emotional way to foster conversations and feelings by sharing mundane or habitual behaviors when loved one is far away. This thesis explores possibilities in building anticipation, moment of reflection, and everyday togetherness using olfactory interface.
1. Cultural Probes
For conducting research, I created research probes kit to gain new insights about communication dynamics in my family and potential needs for a new way of conversing. Cultural probes are developed by William Gaver, Tony Dunne, and Pacenti in 1999 to provide more artistic ways of researching participants other than in a scientific way. The probe materials can be anything from postcards, maps, cameras to elicit inspiring responses from the research participants. Through my probes, I aimed to get inspired and identify design opportunities to enrich the existing messaging technique that we use. I also participated using the probes kit so I could discuss my perspectives about the whole process and results at the end.
The probes kit was sent to Korea to my families in early November. The kit contains three activities: Sketch cards to draw moments that family members wished to share, an envelope to collect receipts to possibly learn everyday routines, and a disposable camera to capture daily interactions.
2. Semi-Structured Interviews
Now that I have a channel to collect inspirations from the probes kit, I wanted to conduct a few semi-structured interviews to gather information from participants. I ended up interviewing three people who have either families or friends overseas or in a different state. I prepared interview questions grouping into three categories: about their values, methods, and chat possessions while doing a long-distance communication.
Insights and Design Opportunities
1. People are looking for different ways to have implicit remote communication rather than having informative conversations all the time
From conducting semi-structured interviews and getting feedbacks from the MDes process poster show, people who experience long-distance relationships responded that aspects that they miss the most about their loved ones are having their constant presence in their daily lives or spending time together enjoying the moment together. This contrasts with current preconception of ‘keeping in touch,’ which is usually explicitly updating on one’s status. This brings an interesting design opportunity area where designing for shared moments for far-away loved ones can become valuable.
2. Designing for asynchronous communication while having a constant presence in a house supports stronger sense of emotional connections over a distance
A frequent challenge that long-distance families face is finding time that works for them to get together. This becomes especially difficult for people living in different time zones. It’s nice to have synchronizing activities such as eating together or watching something together while video chatting, but it is difficult to manage schedule with the time difference. However, having a constant presence at home while designing for asynchronous activities allows remote family members to connect without time constraints.
3. Spontaneous and non-verbal communication can provide unique ways of communicating with families and friends living far apart
Our current popular platforms for remote communications (video chats, text messages, voice calls) tend to fall into a cycle of having somewhat repetitive and expected conversations. Part of the reasons why this problem space emerges is that there is no element of planning leading up to anticipation for conversations. So, what creates anticipation when it comes to communication? Through my research probes, especially the one with using the instant camera, having an expectation of receiving some non-verbal cues about your loved-ones sparked curiosity which led to follow-up conversations to find more about the photos that were taken. This activity of building anticipation between receiving signals to pondering about the cues to finally finding about the contents provides unique ways of communicating transcending likely short-lived remote communications.
Designing the Prototypes
For designing the system, I wanted to create a technology probe in order to (1) get a sense of the needs and desires of users in a real-world setting, and to (2) inspire users and researchers to think about or come up with new technology venues in this area. (Hutchinson, 2003)
Using HIVE motion sensor and IFTTT/Adafruit channel, the prototype was able to send signals from one house to activate scent to another house.
Although I’m providing a system for people to experience this novel way of communicating their presence from distance, I wanted to maintain openness and ambiguity for its use.
Planning for User-testing
Now that I have two sets of the technology probes built, I wanted to deploy them in the real-world scenarios. I currently have two different groups for user-testing: the first group is a romantic relationship, which is my partner and me when he’s away for a week to Amsterdam, Netherlands and me in Seattle, Washington.
And the second group is a multi-generational relationship, Annie the daughter from Seattle with her mom in North Washington. I interviewed Annie about scent prior to sending above user-testing kit. After hearing her stories about her relationships with her mom in relation to a sense of smell, we were able to narrow down to specific scents: Geranium and Bergamot. And for me, I picked Bay Laurel for my partner since it reminded me of his regular habit of tea brewing at home.
More to come in upcoming months…!