Intentionally Immersive

AR as a tool for generating awareness around our data

Reuben DSilva, Juliana Lewis and Raunaq Patel

“Immersive” is most often used to describe memorable or meaningful experiences. We want to feel immersed in our nights out, on our trips, in our movies and books. Our memorable experiences are ones where we lose ourselves in surroundings, in sounds, or other people. But losing yourself isn’t always a positive experience. We are mindlessly immersed when we get lost scrolling through social feeds for no reason, climbing down into search query rabbit holes to answer a question, or watching random videos that are only sort-of interesting. We emerge from these moments in a mild stupor, having lost our sense of time and place, as if we’d just woken up from an uncomfortable dream.

Mindless immersion isn’t necessarily bad or wrong.

Scrolling for no reason is an excellent distraction from stressful surroundings. Watching random videos on loop could be a source of lateral inspiration for new idea. But when it comes to data privacy, mindless immersion suspends our ability to maintain awareness of connected device data collection practices, privacy settings, and, for European Union residents, GDPR privacy pop-ups.

Major web platforms make design choices that discourage active attention to privacy settings and data collection practices. The “Deceived by Design” report, recently released by the Norwegian Consumer Council, criticizes Facebook, Google, and Windows 10 for making design choices that use “privacy intrusive defaults and […] dark patterns [to] nudge users of Facebook and Google, and to a lesser degree Windows 10, toward the least privacy friendly options”. When a user is immersed in scrolling or googling, she is even less able to maintain sufficient awareness of the choices that, some may argue, are being made for her.

Designing for Awareness

Our team asked how we might design a screen-based experience that contributes to greater awareness of the personal data that gets shared from devices we use everyday. We explored this question through our project, DataTrails during the Immersive Experiences workshop at the Copenhagen Institute of Interaction Design, taught by Joshua Walton and James Tichenor.

The DataTrails experience uses AR to visualize the traces of personal data generated by smartphones and other screen-based devices.

The visualization distinguishes between data on device location, social media usage, and personal information.

Making physical social, location and private data

Participants in our experience are invited to use iPads to see the data being emitted by devices sitting on a desk, and then create a trail of their own by walking around the space with their smartphone. By using AR to give data volume and material beyond the screen, we hope to make personal data more present in screen-based device experiences.

Data Vulnerability

Through testing we discovered that witnessing one’s own personal data trail can trigger feelings of vulnerability or embarrassment. Upon beginning the experience, participants expressed self-consciousness about “dropping all this stuff,” “shedding data dandruff” and “littering.” A couple minutes into the experience, their reactions turned to curiosity about what they could physically do with the data, and what it represented. Overall, participants spent an equal amount of time feeling embarrassed and curious.

Participants’ split reactions lead our team to rethink our first prototype, which was singularly focused on visualizing “on-the-go” traces. Was the initial reaction of feeling exposed a productive, conversation-starting emotion? Or did it undermine our goal of establishing awareness and generating curiosity? We reconfigured our later prototypes to begin with discovery of the environment, and conclude with individual data-trail creation second, so as to invite people into the experience without sparking unproductive feelings of embarrassment or shame.

Visualizing all the data one shares, knowingly or unknowingly

Our manner of talking about data shifted over the course of this project. We began by trying to represent data in a neutral and abstract manner, treating private data as mere information. However, we learned there is nothing neutral about private information. Private data is inherently personal. Our iterations sparked a range of emotions, opinions, and diverging desires for interacting with the data objects, from wanting to destroy them, to wanting to investigate them. As a result, we started thinking about private data in a more personal manner, and began to reflect on how data connects to our identity. What will the data I “shed” expose about me? Do I truly know myself as well as my data trail knows me?

Imagining Data Shapes

The process of giving shape to data lead our team to ask questions about an alternate reality in which personal data exists as objects in our world. What shape would data have? How much space would it take up? How would people interact with data? Would data decay like a natural organism over time? What would distinguish one type of data from another? What would happen when different kinds of data collided with one another…would it form new data?

What would happen when different kinds of data collided with one another?
What if the digital traces we left behind were physical? What if we could see the data traces other people have left behind?

Our final design represents three types of personal data using coins (hinting at data as value) rendered with a retro arcade game 8bit aesthetic. This decision allowed us to communicate clearly the types of data while also leaving space for participants to imagine data differently.

Reflections on AR

Creating an AR experience for the first time was an exciting challenge for the team.

We felt energized by the process of translating hard-to-see forces into visible objects.

Over the course of this project, we came to understand the potential of this medium. In the near future, we imagine AR pushing people’s imaginations beyond the limits of screens, and we picture AR being used to empower individuals with alternative interfaces that translate obscure or hard to understand information into “objects” that invite interaction.