Handheld CSCW workshop submission

Supporting Group Collaboration with IPAD:s - Inter-Personal Awareness Devices

Lars Erik Holmquist
PLAY: Applied research on art and technology
Viktoria Research Institute, Box 620, S-405 30 Gothenburg, SWEDEN
The Hummingbird technology described in this paper will be presented as a demonstration at the CSCW '98 conference, on Tuesday, November 22nd, 4-8 pm. If I am accepted for participation in the workshop, it might be suitable to also do a short demo of the technology at the workshop. -- LEH


This paper introduces the concept of Inter-Personal Awareness Devices, or IPAD:s. An IPAD is an IT device designed to support awareness and collaboration between people when they are in the same physical location. The IPAD is a handheld or wearable device that supplies constant awareness information without relying on any underlying infrastructure. We have constructed one such device, the Hummingbird, which gives members of a group continuous aural and visual indications of when other group members are in the vicinity. We have performed several user test, which indicate that IPAD:s such as the Hummingbird can support collaboration and awareness between group members, and that they can complement other forms of communication such as phone and e-mail. We argue that the IPAD concept can serve as a useful starting point for discussions about handheld CSCW.


Handheld CSCW, awareness, mobile computing, wearable computing, ubiquitous computing, augmented reality


The work situation in a modern office can be very different from the setting of only a few decades ago. Nowadays, employees do not necessarily come in at regular hours and spend their whole time working at the same desk. Instead work is often much more flexible, and much time can be spent working at other places than the office. While much communication can now be carried out via phone or e-mail, informal face-to-face communication is still very important [11]. However, much time can be spent looking for people in order to initiate communication or call a group meeting, which in turn makes it important to fully utilize the situations when people really are present. Many groupware systems support informal communication by conveying awareness of other people's activities, e.g. Portholes [2], @Work [8] and TeamRooms [7]. The recent success of the commercial product ICQ (http://www.icq.com/) shows the need for people to keep track of the activities of colleagues and friends.

However, solutions such as those above assume that people spend most of their time at a desktop workstation. If people are working from several places (using laptop computers or PDA:s), workstation-based solutions will not work very well for initiating face-to-face communication. Beepers and mobile phones are tools which can be used regardless of where the user is situated, but these do not provide continuous awareness information. A call via phone or beeper can also be disruptive, since there is no way of knowing what activity the person at the other end is engaged in, and for this reason many people are wary of using them when not absolutely necessary.

Based on these observations, we argue that there is need for solutions which combine the advantages of desktop-based awareness applications - constant, undisruptive awareness - with the freedom provided with mobile devices such as beepers and mobile phones. We propose that a new class of IT devices, Inter-Personal Awareness Devices, or IPAD:s, as a solution to the problems outlined above.


The basis for the IPAD concept comes from the observation that it is often important for people to know when they are in the same place, but that it does not necessarily matter which place they are in. For instance, noticing and talking to a co-worker at a café may be as important as meeting her at the office. Therefore, any solution which supports this kind of communication must be usable independently of the physical location.

We define an IPAD as a small device, designed to be carried at all times. By some method (e.g. wireless communication) it searches the environment for other IPAD:s, and gives an indication - aural, visual, tactile, etc. - when another IPAD is in the vicinity. The search can be selective, so that it only gives indication when sensing another IPAD belonging to a member of the same group. Since an IPAD is only detectable to users of IPAD:s of the same type, it does not unnecessarily broadcast its presence to others. Following from the name, an IPAD has the following characteristics:

An IPAD is a contact facilitator rather than a mediator. This means that the IPAD is used as a help for initiating a contact, but not for sustaining the actual communication. IPAD:s extend the range of awareness provided by our ordinary senses, so that for instance a user may know that a colleague is nearby even though he or she is not close enough to be directly heard or seen. Many groupware applications perform the same function, but as mentioned they are tied to the location of a user's desktop workstation rather than to the user herself.

Apart from the practical function of facilitating communication, the use of IPAD:s can also be comforting. They can be used to convey the sense that a user is not alone or cut off from the group even when the other members can not be directly heard or seen, for instance when the user is situated alone in her room or in a crowded public place with many unfamiliar people around. Our evaluations have shown that this is a not insignificant function of our current prototype.

Related work

IPAD:s share many characteristics with wearable computers [6]: they are computational devices designed to be carried everywhere, they provide the user with augmented information about their environment, and they are always "on", i.e. constantly scanning the surroundings and providing information. However, rather than being general information processors like most wearable computers, IPAD:s are designed to perform a single specialized task. Since IPAD:s are always providing information to the user, they are designed as a background information source rather than a foreground source. In this they are related to the design principles of calm technology [10] and ambient media [4].

In the research community, there are several examples of computationally augmented badges, intended to be used in an office or in a social setting, but none of these confirm completely to our classification of an IPAD. For instance, Thinking Tags [1] compare a profile input by a user to that of another tag, and give a visual indication whether two users’ profiles match. They are similar to IPAD:s in that they do not rely on a local infrastructure or absolute positioning, but differ in that their primary function is to augment a communication that has already been initiated, rather than to provide continuous group awareness. Active Badges [3] are a system which provide continuos location information of their wearers, which may be used for awareness information, but unlike IPAD:s they rely on an infrastructure of sensors in the environment and can not be used outside this setting. A related system is PARCTABS [9], palm-top sized computers which provide location-specific services in a ubiquitous computing environment. Significantly, all these systems communicate with infra-red light, which means that there range is limited to sensors in direct view, making them unsuitable for extending the physical awareness range.

A commercial product which conforms to all the criteria of an IPAD is the Lovegety [5]. These small devices are equipped with radio transceivers, and come in two colors - pink for girls and blue for boys. There are three user-selectable settings - "talk," "karaoke," and "get2" - and when two differently colored Lovegetys on the same setting are close, an indication is given in the form of a beep. Lovegetys are used to initiate contact between users of different sex who are on the same "wavelength". The huge commercial success of these devices indicates that they fulfill an important need, at least in their native country Japan where they have sold in record numbers.

Figure 1: The Hummingbird prototype


To explore the concept of IPAD:s we have developed a prototype which we call the Hummingbird (see Figure 1). The Hummingbird fulfills all the criteria of an IPAD and can be modified to provide various levels of functionality. We intend to continue developing the functionality of the Hummingbirds, thereby letting them serve as a test-bed for the IPAD concept.

Usage description

Hummingbirds are used in the following way:

Each member of a group is given his or her own Hummingbird. The user brings the Hummingbird with her at all times when she wants her presence to be detectable by the rest of the group. Whenever two or more Hummingbirds are in the vicinity of each other, they will "chirp," and the identity of other Hummingbirds in the vicinity will be shown on a display. Thus a Hummingbird will give their user continuos information of which other Hummingbird-using group members are close, whether in the place they usually meet, or somewhere else. "Close" in this case is approximately when users are in the same building when indoors, or within "shouting distance" when outdoors.

Technical Description

A Hummingbird consists of a circuit board with processor, a small amount of RAM, an LCD screen, a miniature speaker, and a radio transceiver operating on the 433,92 MHz band. The Hummingbird gets its power from a set of rechargeable batteries. The range of the radio transceiver varies between 20 and 200 meters, depending on external conditions and antenna configuration. Unlike most communication devices, IPAD:s such as the Hummingbird need to have a short operational range, otherwise the information they provide will be too general. This gave rise to some interesting engineering problems, which were solved by measuring the strength of the radio signal and introducing a cut-off point at a suitable range.

To make the prototypes useful, they needed a protective "carrying case". For our user tests we had the Hummingbirds encased in mobile phone "holsters" of a type readily available in electronics stores. The holsters were comfortably soft to the touch and provided with "carrying hooks" to make them easily wearable.

For the user tests, each Hummingbird was programmed to continuously transmit an identification code, while simultaneously listening for other Hummingbirds in the vicinity. Whenever another Hummingbird was found, an identifying letter would show up on the LCD screen and the Hummingbird would emit a "chirping" noise. Since each Hummingbird in the vicinity would give rise to a separate sound, a Hummingbird would generate noise at a level relative to how many other Hummingbirds were in its vicinity. The noise level would give a continuous indication of how "crowded" the environment was, even when the other Hummingbirds could not be heard directly.


We have performed two user tests with the Hummingbird prototypes, designed to contrast different ways in which they may be used.

In the first test, four subjects used the Hummingbirds for a few hours during the Roskilde festival, a major outdoor rock festival which attracts approximately 80,000 visitors. The subjects were instructed to wander around the festival area and use the information provided by the Hummingbirds in any way they wanted to. We found that the participants enjoyed using the Hummingbirds in this setting and that they found it comforting to be able to know when other group members where nearby. It was however sometimes frustrating to know that someone was near without being able to see them. This test showed that the Hummingbirds worked as intended in that they strengthened the awareness between group members and made the users more likely to keep in contact.

The second user test was performed in an office setting, where the test subjects rooms were spread out over several floors. Four co-workers, who were all associated with the same project, were equipped with Hummingbirds. For one day, the subjects carried their Hummingbirds with them at all times. The results on the work situation were pronounced, although not dramatic. The Hummingbirds gave users a much higher awareness of when other members of the group arrived or left the building, and the subjects started to rely on and use this information almost immediately. This test made it obvious that devices such as the Hummingbirds have very high potential for use in an office environment.


We think that it is important to open up the thinking about awareness in collaborative work, and move from traditional desktop-based applications to the mobile solutions that can be provided by IPAD:s and other handheld CSCW devices. Since people will work in different places and the line between work and social line will probably blur even more in the future, solutions provided should be flexible and not just tied to a specific workplace. We believe that the IPAD concept represents an avenue worth pursuing when continuous awareness of others is needed. IPAD:s also provide solutions to some of the privacy and security issues which arise from other mobile solutions, such as Active Badges and PARCTABS, since they are not reliant on any centralized information processing and there is no persistency of the location information they provide.

Our experiences with the Hummingbird prototype show that IPAD:s are immediately useful in a variety of situations, especially when combined with other means of communication, such as mobile phones and e-mail. We believe that Hummingbirds and other IPAD:s will prove to be a useful tool for supporting group collaboration, and that they therefore may play an important part in the future development of handheld CSCW.


We will continue to evaluate and develop the current Hummingbird prototypes, as well as to pursue the IPAD concept in new directions. Many refinements can be made to the current prototypes, including size reduction to make them more portable, increasing flexibility to allow for several different groups simultaneously, etc. Setting for different types of activity (e.g. a "busy button") might be introduced. The information might be routed to some other channel, e.g. a web page, but this may give rise to privacy concerns. More user studies should be performed in various context. We have looked at a large geographical area with a close group of people, and an office environment. Other test might involve users who are anonymous, to see if IPAD:s can facilitate communication between people not normally working together, and workers in other situations, e.g. very mobile field workers.

Since an IPAD should be carried at all times, the form factor is very important, and the current prototypes are severely lacking in that area. Design experiments should be made, where the physical form of the IPAD is integrated with the functionality. Ethnographic-type studies of specific work situations could be made to find the requirements for new form and functionality.

In a broader perspective, it will be important to examine how the use of IPAD:s change the way we work and communicate. Will constant awareness information lead to techno-stress, or will people learn to turn their IPAD:s off? If IPAD:s become popular, the development of their usage will most probably mirror that of the mobile phone, which is still in the stage of becoming naturally integrated in the daily life. A convergence of PDA:s, mobile phones and IPAD:s may be a likely future for mobile computing.


Joakim Wigström and Jennica Falk were instrumental in the development of the IPAD concept and were responsible for the construction of the Hummingbird prototype. Fredrik Ljungberg and Johan Redström gave many valuable comments. Thanks also to the people who participated in the user testing of the Hummingbirds. This work is part of the Mobile Media research area in the Intelligent Transportation Systems and Mobile Work research program and was funded by the Swedish Institute of Information Technology (SITI).


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