Monday, November 13, 2006

Non verbal presence

I have reported earlier how different media type can affect the nature of peoples' interaction and by consequence influence the medium chosen by an individual who wishes to communicate. Many factors are affecting the level to which a medium is perceived as sociable, warm, sensitive, personal or intimate when it is used to interact with other people. Peoples in distributed environments are adjusting to perceived physical contact and closeness, even if it is not possible, just as people strive for intimacy equilibrium in the real world. They are also eager to retain the possibility of doing interactive acts in this environment, even if they would not do them due to social rules in the real world or the mediated context.
They will thus look for technical mediations involving impressions as much as they involve expression. For technologies that mediate presence, this mean:

  • Assisting the medium in its production of perception.
  • Minimizing the distortion or amplification of affective movements.
  • Allowing the user's action structuring.

I have previously presented views on how some form of feedback, when added to presence technologies, was desirable to minimize the intrusive nature of notifications and, by consequence, to limit some of the medium induced distortion. But I believe presence systems have a natural bias towards machine to machine communication, and most UI (user interface) still fall short at conveying non-verbal contextual cues. Although we find a host of presence attributes that can be aggregated and used to infer "enhanced" availability states, the available rendering techniques to assist the medium and enrich the user's perception of its environment still fall short of providing an adequate answer.

For example, in text based communication systems, commonly used UI substitutes for non-linguistic cues, such as gestures and facial expressions, are avatars, smileys and other fixed design elements. Clearly these "signs" have at best a reduced correlation to the user's intended meanings. And where a user's facial expressions are directly expressive, these are indirectly expressive. In particular, their appearance doesn't vary from user to user. Further more, they have to be interpreted in context. When a smiley used in an UI, the user has to resort not only to its knowledge of the author, but also to the context of email, IM, chat, or whatever communication tool is in use. In that respect, I don't agree with the argument that these design features enhance presence. They just slightly increase the palette of expressions, and minimally assist the medium in producing an impression.

I believe current human facing presence systems, although they like to qualify themselves of "enhanced" presence providers, still exhibits a very primitive capacity to render information about posture and non-verbal cues as they are perceived by the individual to be present in the medium. Maybe this is further amplified by the strong application (vs activity) oriented nature of today’s windowing UIs, and the difficulty many designers have to free themselves from "best practices" when these are nothing but entrenched habits. I think our UIs are showing their age and definitively lack the dynamic and ingredients necessary to the required production of perception.

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