Friday, October 07, 2005

Intel and the Study of Urban Atmospheres

Eric Paulos (and colleagues) of Intel Research is researching how people use and live in urban spaces. Not only do they look at how space is used from a functional, productive approach (for example, we get on public transportation to go from one place to the next) but more so from a social perspective. Specifically they're interested in the social aspects of "urban computing".

One project they are working on is "Jabberwocky" and the idea of "familiar strangers". These are people who are familiar to us but are strangers in the sense that we don't really interact with them. They color our lives where the relationship is an understood agreement to ignore each other, but not with any hostile intent. The idea is that there's so many people in urban environments we can't maintain more active relationship with them. The goal of this project is to find out how technology can facilitate this type of relationship. To study this phenomena they work with artists, urban planners, architects, and anthropologists. They also take advantage of bluetooth-enabled phones, just like the MIT Media Lab.

Intel Research also did some interesting work on public interaction with trashcans as well as the lost postcard technique (where postcards with a friendly message and URL were left around a city to see what people's curiousity would be). A number of the postcards were never heard from. Some people checked out the URL on the postcard but never mailed it back. Some looked at the URL and mailed it back. And some even mailed it back with their own personalized response.

A lot of this research is exploratory, conducted in order to understand the subtle, social dynamics of daily urban life. The take-away point is that technology needs to be designed to take into account such subtle social dynamics. Also, by studying the ways people engage with public spaces organizations can design programs that better engage their stakeholders.