Shared Presence – further considerations

30 July 2011

Two people sit in the same room, yet doing different things on their own. Both are fully immersed in their particular task, however, when one decides to seek to communicate with the other, he or she can mostly assess the interruptibility of the other person quite easily. There are also subtle cues to seek attention without interrupting too much. Conversely, when one of the two persons needs attention, possibly due to an emergency or simply because he or she desires to communicate, this urge comes to the other person’s attention quite easily. Usually, an attempt to interrupt can be ignored. This depends, though, on the urgency of the request and the state of immersion in the task. Finally, switching from unconscious to deliberate communication is also easy and seamless for both since the sense of closeness in an emotional way is much stronger when people are just sitting close to each other, even if they don’t interact consciously.

This scenario illustrates the core idea behind Implicit shared presence as it is common in our day to day practice. Interestingly, virtually none of these features are taken care of by current telecommunication systems; calling someone is disruptive and has no sense of context, urgency or interruptibility, writing a Facebook status message possibly does not reach the interaction partner in time and can therefore not carry urgency. Our aim therefore is to develop ways to constantly transmit information that would ideally be as rich yet as unobtrusive as actual proximity. We also put much emphasis on the emotional aspect of these forms of communication.


This aim of a constant subliminal connection does, however, immediately raise the question of privacy. Even though we often enjoy sharing a room with someone we like, we at times also enjoy being able to close a door between us and this person in order to put a wall between us. The perfect system therefore would enable us to adjust the kind and amount of information that is transmitted and it would also allow a user to monitor what is being transmitted.

This “adjustable door” or maybe adjustable wall can be imagined as a kind of communication gradient that runs from a full-blown audio-visual connection, perhaps augmented by new channels running at the same time, down to very basic channels that transmit very little information and are thus more likely to be accepted as running all the time. Additionally, we expect these basic channels to depend largely on context information which means that only knowing a person quite well (for example their schedule or habits) will enable the interpretation of ambiguous data as useful information. This context dependence helps to ameliorate the privacy intrusion as for the wrong person to gain a handle on the data stream won’t reveal much actual information to the eavesdropper. The persisting ambiguity does help to maintain the important aspect of plausible deniability by the way.

Mutual dependence of implicit and explicit communication

This importance of context also means, though, that we do not believe that using our newly proposed implicit communication channels exclusively would work for an extended period of time. In order to get the context information you need to make proper sense of the implicit communication channels, it is mandatory to perform explicit, symbolic communication (language) and richer, more obtrusive forms of communication (audio- or audio-visual links or of course real life conversations). We expect this to also be important for the emotional part – we actually postulate that both implicit and explicit communication will play their part and that stripping one or the other from an interpersonal relationship will impose serious strain to it although we acknowledge that explicit without implicit communication is arguably the more usual and less devastating form of constriction that the other way around. Some examples of such constricted interpersonal relationships that are interesting to consider are long-distance relationships, solitary confinement, annoying neighbors heard through thin walls or through the floor, pen pals or relationships described in epistolary novels, and e-mail conversations that regularly run out of control and end in so-called flame wars.

Unobtrusiveness on all levels

Part of the unobtrusiveness aspect is that the space around does not get stuffed with more technology or other additional artifacts. Therefore it was a design goal for us to use as much available artifacts as possible and to make it possible to also hide additional technology as much as possible that we can’t avoid. This usually also means that available objects are being augmented by us which already have a function and our systems are thus to be used implicitly although it is of course up to the users and their creativity and needs to find explicit ways to use such new communication channels. In any case, the hardware of the system ought to fuse into the background of people’s normal living environment just as much as its effect ought to do.

Research questions

Some research questions that arise are the following:

  • Does implicit communication as described above help keeping in touch emotionally over a distance?
  • How to sculpt information cues such that they can easily be processed on a subconscious level?
  • Does implicit communication can help to simulate the effect of “running into each other” in vocational relationships or does implicit communication support explicit communication in any other way?
  • Is the following hypothesis true: The less well you know a person or a group of persons (that is the less connected to feel to someone emotionally), the more you want to use artifical implicit communication channels with them in public spaces rather than private places.
  • Does explicit-only communication work better than implicit-only?
  • Does using only implicit or only explicit communication for a longer period of time make the other type of communication wither?
  • Why does letting a Skype session run in the background not work well to keep up an implicit link (in that it does not prompt you to use it all the time) most of the times?