An interview about models of perception of telepresence with Wolfgang Prinz, Monika Fleischmann and Wolfgang Strauss
The subject of awareness as electronically supported perception of activities at different locations is generating a great deal of interest in CSCW (Computer Supported Cooperative Work) research groups, particularly since the advent of e-commerce / e- business / e-learning applications on the Internet. While research in this area is focused strongly on group awareness in distributed work scenarios, media artists deal mainly with aspects of perception in media spaces and the issue of private and public space.
netzspannung: What does the term awareness mean to you?
Wolfgang Prinz: For me, awareness means the perception of activities within the workgroup I'm working with, as well as the perception of activities which take place in other locations. The question is, how do you support group awareness within teams distributed across a local area so as to overcome the social divide between them? One example of concrete scenarios is the TOWER. TOWER stands for Theatre of Work Enabling Relationships, and its aim is to visualise a »theatre of work« in order to link up the different locations.
In general, you obviously have to realise that awareness is only one side of the coin, the other being surveillance and control and/or protection of the private sphere. In principle, all awareness systems can be used and interpreted as »Big Brother« systems. In presenting our awareness projects, we have found that people already working intensively with groupware systems see the value of these systems in networked processes. Those who have never worked with them before tend rather to see the problems connected with such systems. I think that it will take a while before the need for awareness as functional support for cooperation processes becomes clear. Ways still must be found to deal with social processes which lie between surveillance and protection of the private sphere.
Fleischmann / Strauss: Awareness encompasses consciousness, the state of consciousness and recognition. In information technology, the term is associated with the perception of activity in conjunction with telepresence. It involves developing a teleconsciousness of communication processes. These communication processes rest on the activity of people, robots or data streams.
In the same way as there is a social awareness between people, you can also talk about an awareness between different pieces of data. In genetic algorithms and neural networks, the closest neighbours respond to the current status of a communication model because they are »able to learn« and have artificial intelligence.
Awareness methods which combine the media space and the real space are interfaces such as computer vision or tracking systems, web cameras, electronic fields, sensors, etc. They measure and signal the change from one digital status to another. These changes are made visible, audible, noticeable, perceptible - i.e. they can be experienced. It's all about the development and perception of the electronic double, the traces it leaves in the network and the effect of this network activity on the real space.
What projects best depict the current approaches to awareness in the area of CSCW research?
Wolfgang Prinz: There is an EU initiative dealing specifically with future office technologies and future methods of work. The EU is also sponsoring a range of projects on the subject of the disappearing computer. One of the key questions at the moment is how signallisation media other than screen-based visualisation can be used to communicate awareness - e.g. artefacts from everyday life. Lotus Research is working on supporting awareness through public displays. Much of this work was carried out in the early days of the Internet at Xerox Parc. The first ambient awareness display for visualising Ethernet traffic started there, for example.
What current work in the area of media art and design best depicts the different approaches to awareness?
Fleischmann / Strauss: Tangible media is a research group led by Hiroshii Ishii at the MIT Media Lab. Its »tangible bits« approach originated in research into man- machine interfaces (HCI) and cooperative environments (CSCW). Hiroshii Ishii held a postdoctoral position at the GMD Research Centre for Information Technology in 1986-87.
Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby teach awareness concepts in architecture and product design at the Royal College of Art in London. Their FLIRT project deals with mobility, social interaction and play and the fusion of the information space and the municipal space. Data relating to real location, date and time is viewed in relation to the information space.
As part of the EU's i3 programme on Inhabited Information Spaces, in the eRENA project we at GMD are continuing the research into interfaces for dynamic situations which we began at Art+Com in Berlin in 1987. These are interfaces which digitally measure a person and his movements in space and convert these data signals into light, sound, dynamic sculptures or objects. Interfaces which respond to their environment and reproduce the movement of a person or robot as a »disruptive factor«. The MARS Bag signals its own movement, for example, as well as the approach of a person. In this case, movement is converted into sound and serves both as an expression in its own right and as a personal alarm system.
Early awareness concepts can be found - going by different names - in telematic art projects ranging from » Hole in Space« by Kit Galloway and Sherrie Rabinowitz and »Telematic Dreaming« by Paul Sermon through to Steve Mann and his personal surveillance system, one of the first wearable computing projekte.
Since the mid-90s, there has been a growing trend towards the networking and surveillance of everything and everyone. How do you see the issue of privacy and surveillance in the context of awareness?
Fleischmann / Strauss: In 1984, George Orwell's »Big Brother« was a vision which had not become reality. In the year 2000, when we're watching daily »Big Brother«-style »reality soaps«, Orwell's vision is no longer picked out as a central theme. It's no longer relevant. These days, everyone wants to be seen, nobody is afraid of the camera and the issue of surveillance has become one of general exhibitionism instead. The primary role of surveillance cameras in shops these days is no longer to intercept shoplifters, but instead to assess and respond to customers' shopping behaviour.
Cameras are our constant companions and computers have become major players in our personal environment in the form of mobile phones. In a games-loving society like Japan, there are public services for the games community. In the district of Shibuya in Tokyo, Panasonic and Sony use their huge public screens to compete for the greatest number of visitors and invite people to send in emails from their mobile phones to be displayed on the screens in the public square and on the Internet. The square is also monitored by a web camera. Most of the young players make themselves known by waving at the camera in order to have their images projected onto the skyscraper screens.
This continuation of the » Hole in Space« project of 1980 shows in its approach a transparent system which overlays the public and the private using an interface which is both architectonic as well as portable and personal. The linking of architecture and mobile communication interfaces creates a new public space. It is certain that public monitoring is and will remain a form of protection. It's not just an instrument of power, and obviously flashpoints always need surveillance in both the real and the virtual space. You just have to ask yourself who actually needs to be protected from whom.
One work of art which has dealt intensively with issues of public space and online culture is » Smell Bytes« by Jenny Marketou. This arose from the desire to go beyond the usual CU SEE ME network environments. It's about the appearance of people sitting in front of web cameras whilst working at home or in their offices and putting their pictures onto the network. An extremely small, independent agent travels through the network measuring the faces, and assigns chemical formulae to them to reflect their beauty, similarities or anomalies. The formulae represent certain smells and are associated with beauty or ugliness. The project is reminiscent of the character studies carried out by the Italian criminologist Cesare Lombroso (1853 - 1909) and his bizarre theories about the link between beauty and intellect or anomaly and criminality. Smell Bytes was shown for the first time in an exhibition with the title »Cannibalism«, which is a very fitting name for the status of the network and the way in which people deal with each other there. The e-business and e-commerce market is a very competitive one.
We would therefore like to see public surveillance technology used to create a publicly accessible information and communication space. Surveillance cannot be the strategy for solving social problems which are becoming visible as they escalate. Instead, environments need to be created in which people can perceive the situations which bring out these problems, recognise the causes and try out strategies for dealing with them in a productive manner. For example, electronic games and learning fields ought to be installed at the flashpoints of society. This would mean putting media laboratories in cities, schools and playgrounds as a way of renewing the public infrastructure of outdated and wooden strategies. Since this is not going to happen, society and industry will create a new environment for politics and build up an electronic surrogate-space using technologies such as the Internet, cellular phones and mobility.
While the subject of awareness developed very rapidly along with the Internet, the area of computer-supported collaborative work goes back to the early 1980s. What were the key milestones in the development of CSCW?
Wolfgang Prinz: It all began with an attempt to provide a very mechanical means of supporting work. People were seeking models with which to model processes. These models enabled work processes to be controlled and monitored. Many workflow systems, which played a key role at the start but have since faded into the background, stem from this time. In the next stage it was recognised that a better understanding of the need for support could be achieved by observing everyday work and situations of cooperation. These contributions came mainly from ethnographers. For example, Lucy Suchman played a key role in shaping the concept of the »situated nature of work«. Through her ethnographic studies, she demonstrated that work is always situated in a particular context and that users always react to these contexts. Moreover, their reactions are ad hoc and not premeditated. Later, Kjeld Schmidt argued that plans should be viewed as resources rather than as strict rules governing people's work. There was therefore an increasing number of systems for supporting communication on an ad hoc basis. Task management systems were also developed which enable team members to coordinate their work with one other. An example of this is the » Taskmanager« developed by our research group. The realisation that tasks can be turned down, delegated or passed on and that not everything has to be carried out according to a pre-set pattern was of great significance in Taskmanager's development. Procedurally focused systems gave way to systems which supported collective group work with the aid of joint workspaces. In principle, this is also where the ideas for the BSCW system for shared workspaces lie. Documents can be stored in a simple manner in structurable workspaces to which tasks can be delegated.
Another system which relies very heavily on the space metaphor is DIVA, which is also the brainchild of our research institute. Teamrooms is a similar system developed at the University of Calgary. Both place strong emphasis on using the space metaphor for coordinating shared work. Each space corresponds to a different work topic, process or project. Staff can visit these different spaces and signal their presence there. However, it must be added that all these space-based systems have not generally proved popular because they require too much structuring of work. Always having to visit a space first to find documents is an additional effort which does not assist the work process. Current approaches to CSCW systems have moved away from the explicit idea of a space or place where one goes to meet someone. More popular is the concept of a shared space which is created implicitly by the fact that members are aware of each other's presence and activities. »Virtual meeting places« for shared work are created implicitly via automatic contextualisation of content.
What is the relationship between the issue of awareness and telematics and virtual reality?
Fleischmann / Strauss: While the current approaches to awareness are definitely being determined by the Internet boom, the historical development of virtual reality (VR) has been equally important in this context. It motivated people to conduct scientific and artistic experiments with themes such as telepresence and the perception of virtual or remote spaces and people. This exploration lies at the root of our current understanding of awareness.
The development of virtual reality took place in different contexts, including the computer industry, the military, the NASA, science fiction, art and alternative culture. Virtual reality developed from the fictional idea of jumping into a data space in William Gibson's » Neuromancer« (1984) into a broad-ranging discourse and became a marketable technology from 1992 onwards. »Neuromancer« was also the source of the term »cyberspace«. The concurrent development of virtual reality technology in many different places shows how closely linked it is to current culture. We are seeing the development of an illusive space of high-definition, immersive, graphic representation of data.
The technological forerunners of today's systems were the data spectacles (head- mounted display) developed by Ivan Sutherland in the late 1960s and the Air Force »super cockpit« developed by Thomas Furness in 1982. In August 1989 the companies VPL and Autodesk introduced their first virtual reality products with sensational success at the SIGGRAPH exhibition. It was a culture shock. By 1990 we were cooperating with VPL through ART + COM.
In 1990, John Perry Barlow's article » Being in Nothingness« appeared, in 1991 Howard Rheingold published his book » Virtual Reality« and 1992 saw the release of the Film » The Lawnmower Man«. In 1992, Ars Electronica awarded the Golden Nica for interactive art to our virtual reality installation » Home of the Brain«. It was the first work of art to use this new technology and make it its central theme.
In parallel to this development of a virtual space - as a utopia and a simulation - the networked space has been with us since the 1960s. During the cold war, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency of the USA developed a decentralised communication space (the DARPA network) as a protection against the consequences of a possible attack. This was the first networked communication space which allowed people to communicate on a one-to-one, one-to-many, many-to-many and many-to-one basis.
The subsequent invention of the World Wide Web (Tim Berners-Lee, 1989) initially came about as a tool for cooperation in the high-energy physics community but soon spread around the world to serve universities and research institutes. The WWW marked a fresh starting point for the way people looked at the question of awareness, an issue which had already shaped the development of virtual reality.
What is the relationship between these developments and media art?
Fleischmann / Strauss: The subjects explored by telematic art are particularly focused on the relationship between the near and the remote and experiment with all possible forms of telepresence. How do I experience the presence of another person who is not here but appears to be here? » Telematic Dreaming« by Paul Sermon is a telematic installation in which the issue of awareness is made into an experience-space for the user. In virtual reality scenarios, orientation and navigation have become keys to the issue of how an artificially generated world or a virtually present person can be perceived. Visualisation and navigation methods and interfaces have been developed to investigate awareness in networked forms of interaction and communication.
In the Japanese virtual reality project »InterDis-communication Machine« by Kazuhiko Hachiya, two participants wear head-mounted displays which enable them to perceive the sights and sounds experienced by the other player instead of their own. In a similar way as in the film » Being John Malkovic« (2000), the idea is that the players enter someone else's body and take on that person's perception so as to see the world from his perspective.
Networking and visualisation techniques taken from science, art and architecture have shaped the current state of the art in media art, technology and design. The scientific background to the whole development process is cybernetics, a field led by Norbert Wiener, Heinz von Foerster, Gregory Bateson, Ernst von Glasersfeld and others.
On the one hand, we now have the dematerialisation theory, which says that the body disappears. On the other hand, there is an understanding of how the media exert an influence on the body and how this moulds and formulates the body in a constant, evolutionary process of »body shaping«. From these two theories and from current research in science and technology a third theory, the genome theory, is emerging. It argues that, instead of the »quasi-natural body« of machines of all types, virtual or real, intelligent, self-learning, autonomous models are emerging, which can in turn control our bodies, as Stelarc shows in his performances.
The interface which links the real body with the technical body places the user in a situation which does not reflect the perception process in an effort to create an illusion, but rather allows the user to see how this process works. Numerous media art projects are taking as their central theme the confrontation with artificial systems or independent machines which simulate new forms of awareness vis-à-vis a participant's own body. Since around 1998, we have seen the development of mixed reality concepts which link the virtual space into the real space. This produces the »awareness« of the hybrid space, which arises from the overlapping of a participant's perception of the real space and his own body with the perception of other participants in networked spaces. Our performance installation » Murmuring Fields« of 1998 is an example of this approach.
It is a historical feature of CSCW that teams working on the development of CSCW or awareness systems are mainly interdisciplinary teams. Which disciplines do these teams consist of?
Wolfgang Prinz: Most of the people involved, as developers of these systems, tend to be IT specialists. Social scientists are also involved. They evaluate the systems, assess their uses and above all are very closely involved in participative design processes. Psychologists experiment with the systems and ethnographers observe the work processes with a view to finding out how they can be better supported.
Where do you see the difficulty in communicating the relevance of the artistic research of communication processes and awareness to scientific projects and technological development?
Wolfgang Prinz: I don't know whether this needs a special language, but I think that openness on the part of all disciplines is required. The way to proceed is to organise and carry out events where the various disciplines work together and where you can try to find areas of synergy. I don't know whether just trying to find a common language or communication concept is likely to succeed. In the end, a great deal hinges on people working together. Let's take the analogy of what happened at the start of CSCW, i.e. linking IT with social sciences or ethnography. At the beginning, there was a whole host of misunderstandings between the various disciplines, making it very difficult to bring them together. Successes only began to come about when institutions or centres had been founded where the disciplines could work closely together, learn from each other and develop a common linguistic understanding through joint research in an iterative manner.
I believe that you first need real events from which web platforms can be created. The web is currently overloaded with meeting places, events, platforms and discussion forums. It is very important to bring people together first in order for a personal relationship to form. An attempt should then be made to create a platform which will keep this relationship alive. This brings us back to the subject of awareness. Once the people have been brought together they should be accompanied online, so that they feel a presence, be aware of a presence - and through this enter in communication.
Thank you for the interview.
The interview was conducted by Jasminko Novak.