Physical Computing: Week 2 Observation Assignment

Here are my notes from my observation assignment from week 2 of Intro to Physical Computing at ITP.

Observation Assignment

The goal of this assignment is to develop the habit of detailed observation of what people physically do when they use the kinds of technologies we’re developing. In order to develop good physical interfaces, you need to know how people use existing ones. Do learn this, it helps to observe carefully, and to limit your assumptions as to what the person’s intentions are while you’re observing.

Counting Daily Uses

To begin with, take a one-hour hour walk or ride around the city. Try to travel as far as you can from your start and get back in an hour, this will give more variety. Take note of every time you see a person using a digital device. This could be anything from buying and using a Metrocard on the subway to playing video games in an arcade to making cell phone calls to using an ATM to swiping an ID at the gym. With each action you note, take note of:

* location and time of day
* apparent intent of the actor
* time taken for the action
* number of people involved
* motor skills needed (hands, legs, seeing, hearing, etc)

Collect your notes on your blog. Do this in pairs, with one person observing and the other keeping notes. Alternate roles as well.

The goal of this stage is to notice how many everyday technology interactions we experience that we’re largely unconscious of, and what it takes to do them. In many cases, the success of these transactions depends on the lack of attention we have to pay to completing them. The goal of most of these moments is not to use a technology, but to reach some other goal.

We chose to walk around Greenwich Village, in the immediate vicinity of NYU.  We noticed that the overwhelming majority of human-technology interactions we observed on the streets of NY involved mobile devices (cellphones, iPhones, Blackberries) and portable music players (iPods, CD players, etc).  We also observed a large degree of multitasking: people listening to music or talking/texting on their phones while walking/cycling down the street, a process that involves quite a bit of coordination between the senses and human motor functions.  For listening to music while walking the streets of NY, the intended purpose seems to be escape – a way of isolating oneself from the excess of sensory stimuli.  However, for people on their cellphones, the intended purpose seems to be connection with others, even when alone in the streets.  Technology thus allows us to be both isolated and alone (with headphones and iPod) or hyperconnected to others we know (cellphones) when we are in public space.  Headphones and portable music players act as an invisible wall that shields us from others, while cellphones and their ilk act as extensions of our voices and ears that allow us to reach out to those not in our physical vicinity.  This projection of the senses is both freeing and constricting.  By being able to multitask, for example, taking a walk and talking on your phone, one is freed from the physical constraints of having to be face to face to communicate with others.  But at the same time, the tether of social cohesion and pressures is extended.  One is not really “away” if one is reachable by cellphone or Blackberry.  Herein lies the paradox of technology – we are simultaneously liberated and constrained by it.

Well, enough holding forth for me.  Click below to read the raw data we collected.

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