How an Ambient Display works

16 Feb

Ambient displays draw on the way we receive information through our peripheral senses. They use our capabilities for processing multiple information streams, the ability to move information in and out of the focus of our attention and the way we sense and manipulate our physical environment. Ambient displays map quantitative data in a qualitative manner. Just like a graph sometimes people prefer information in a summary(gives a general state) and this is how ambient displays provide information (personal ambient displays p. 41). Nature is filled with many ambient displays – the sound of rain, the movement of trees in the wind etc (Ambient display, Wisneski et al.). We can interact with the physical environment, completing everyday tasks and at the same time receive and process information. We are constantly receiving information while going about our everyday tasks. As I am writing this I am aware of the weather outside and the people in my environment although it is not at the centre of my attention. In this way while we are going about our daily lives we can be made aware of the amount of unread emails, traffic reports or in the case of my project promote environmental awareness.

At present I aim to implement my project in the domestic environment. In these “relaxed” environments people are more inclined to swap attention rather than divide attention. Research shows that it must be easy and quick to swap attention between the display and task in order to not break the mental continuity that person has in the environment. It is also known that it is easier to understand if the information and the task are using different modalities (Personal Ambient displays p 16, 17). For instance, it is known that when two visual stimuli are processed concurrently, there exists a capacity limit when loads get beyond a certain point. It has been strongly indicated that if the load is divided between two modalities, performance is better than when everything is in the same modality (Pashler, 1998). (Personal Ambient Displays p. 16)

Especially relevant is the notion of the “cocktail party effect” – the ability of a person to selectively move his or her  attention around a busy environment (Cherry, 1953). One goal in designing ambient environments is to exploit this human capability. The divided attention studies of Treisman shows that information can be processed even if it is not in the foreground of a person’s attention (1960). (Ambient Displays: Turning Architectural Space into an Interface between People and Digital Information)


The choice of modality is very important and will depend on where the display is going to be placed and what tasks the user will be performing for example in the kitchen audio could be best because people will be making food etc (tasks in the kitchen are generally visually intensive) and using their visual sense already. People would have to look away from the task at hand to look at the display to see if there are any changes. But if sound was used when it changes perhaps the user would automatically become aware. The focus must be on not making it harder and more frustrating for humans. The designer must consider ergonomics while designing Ambient Displays. Because future HCI will involve interacting with the physical environment and objects, the user must be able to perform a task without injury or fatigue and the interface must be accessible and practical allowing users with a variety of disabilities to perform tasks. It is extremely important that we must always consider the role of the user. (Jacob et al., 2008)


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