Rituals of Trust

Exploring rhythmic expressions in computational things and their meanings

Everything in nature has a rhythm. Rhythms help us orient in time and space and make sense of the world around us. Yet, when it comes to technology, in this context meaning networked computational things, most so called smart devices seem to miss the quality of rhythm. However this does not mean that they do not have an internal operating rhythm. In fact, connected things, not unlike humans, have an inherent need to process, update, re-charge or simply disconnect.

Smart things are traditionally seen as entities conditioned by human users. In turn we adapt them to our lives by keeping them constantly connected and ready to be used. However there is a gap in our understanding of these things, since their computational processes are often hidden away or inaccessible to the one interacting with the thing. There is a lack of expression in things that help us understand what it is that they actually do, see, hear etc.

What if computational things instead expressed their internal processing rhythms?

What could these expressions be like? And how might humans interacting with the things respond to these expressions? What new narratives and inter-dependencies might this lead to and how might a rhythm be created in the interaction between object and human? In this project I have tried to explore rhythmic expressions of things and how humans in turn relate to these expressions in an attempt to create meaning out of them.

Rhythms could be described as recurring patterns of events that occur in timely intervals. Rhythms describe not only the actions, but also the passivity. They are about movements in attention, between engagement and disengagement, between action and rest. In addition, because they do follow a pattern, they can be predicted and thus understood and trusted. On the contrary, if rhythms are perceived as random (note: code logic is never random), they could make interacting with these things uncomfortable and confusing.

In the four design examples presented here, I’ve tried to explore the design space of temporality and rhythm and the issues of lack of expression in networked things. I’ve situated these things in a home environment, considering the home as a place for disconnection and reflection, in a reality where human users have adapted new rituals in relation to things as a way of sense-making. Each artifact is given a name that relates to its perceived function in the view of the human interacting with it, The Oracle, The Interpreter, The Motivator and The Storyteller. The four cases illustrate different scenarios, each with their own set of questions, but with these 3 interaction layers in common:

1. An artifact with an internal processing rhythm. (Code logic)

2. An expression of the artifacts internal processing rhythm. (Motion, sound)

3. A response from a human interacting with the artifact. (Ritual)

The Oracle

This artifact is an adaptation of the typical smart home assistant. The difference being, that instead of giving the user an immediate reply to a question or performing a requested task, The Oracle only listens to questions, not commands, and it will take its time to gather and select the information needed for a reply. This process can take several hours or even days. It might also ignore the question completely. While processing, it wobbles back and forth and the rest of the time it sits still. As a response, questions are carefully choosen and the reply, if any, is highly valued.

The Interpreter

A camera repeatedly captures its surroundings in timed intervals and reflects what it sees back onto its surface, kind of like a mirror. The continuous frame capturing by the camera is causing a fast flickering movement, until it times out and freezes. The twist in this example is that the mirror function is useless until the image freezes and becomes still. The human in this scenario is waiting patiently for this particular moment, when the image is clear and one can see one’s own reflection.

The Motivator

A curtain that alternates between two pre-set positions, A and B. In this scenario an update is being retrieved, making the curtain move up and down while installing a third parameter, position C. The human in this scenario sees this as an encouragement to get up and do some stretching exercises, as if greeting the outdoors as the curtain rises and bowing in gratitude as it lowers itself.

The Storyteller

A speaker that tells the story of a connected home. Its undefined sound changes depending on the current signal connection of the home, expressed in dB. Every now and then it also plays a very special message, as if wanting to reach out. It’s not exactly clear what the sounds are, where they come from or why they are changing. But it must want to tell us something, right?

All four design probes addresses the problem of lack of expression, which is dealt with by providing these artifacts with a number of expressions in movement and sound, like the wobbling movement of the The Oracle while processing, or the flickering movement of The Interpreter while recording. What is not dealt with in these examples is providing a solution or framework to how these expressions should be. In fact, all these examples illustrate cases where an interpretation is made by a human, that in some ways could be seen as a misinterpretation. As the scenarios demonstrate, when comparing the action of the human, to the code logic, the human interpretation is often significantly different from that of the internal logic of the artifact. But is this the same as saying that the human interpretation is wrong?

Instead the aim here is to highlight three main points. Firstly, to show the existing gap between internal logic, it’s expression and the perception of said expression. Secondly, to point out our inherent need as humans to create concepts around things as a way of sense-making. The third point, is about exploring how code might be used as a design material to purposely incorporate rhythms of equal action and rest, connection and disconnection into our computational things. This might potentially create more dynamic, interesting and perhaps even healthier relations to things.

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A research and teaching project at Umeå Institute of Design

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Sandra Lundberg

Sandra Lundberg

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