Light has long been a metaphor for guidance, and has literally provided guidance via lighthouses and beacons for centuries. It is thus a natural choice for creating an ambient interface designed to guide people. Sparks uses light to facilitate salient conversations by linking strangers with similar interests together in scenarios where the participants likely have many common interests, but little knowledge of those shared interest.
Before entering the Sparks environment, each user pre–selects a number of interests from a pool of keywords that cover a wide variety of areas. This selection represents the public face that the user wishes to present to others. Within the environment, Sparks projects the keywords in an aura around the user. The aura remains centered on the user everywhere within the environment, thus requiring no conscious interaction. By using the floor as a projection surface, Sparks prevents a user’s own visualization from intruding on their visual field. To help guide distant users with similar interests together, the common descriptors on their respective auras are connected by illuminated paths. The change in thickness changes the overall luminosity of the floor in the direction of the connected user. Users can also interact with the paths by sending pulses along them to signal others with a shared interest. The pulses act as a simple group paging system that allows one user to quickly form a group around a specific topic. To send a pulse, users simply tap the interest projected within their aura.
When the system detects a group, a group pad automatically forms between the individuals. The pad indicates an ongoing conversation, and also serves to kindle further conversation by displaying a stream of words and concepts related to the group’s shared interests as a form of free association on those interests. When the group dissolves, the group pad slowly fades away, leaving a momentary trace of the conversation that took place at this location.
Unlike traditional GUI social networking systems, Sparks strongly couples the system and its interface to its environment, which is intentionally chosen to be conducive to natural social interaction. By removing the barrier of the traditional keyboard and screen, the learning curve is greatly reduced, and direct interaction is encouraged. Additionally the system communicates to the user through ambient peripheral channels and therefore requires little or no additional foreground attention. This also reduces the penalty for having a system that operates continuously in real time, since users can easily ignore the output of the system if they so choose. Lastly, the components of the system that the user carries are inactive and therefore less obtrusive by nature than active systems tend to be.
SPARKS. Chew, A., Leclerc, V., Sadi, S., Tang, A., and Ishii, H. 2005. In CHI ’05 Extended Abstracts on Human Factors in Computing Systems (Portland, OR, USA, April 02 – 07, 2005). CHI ’05. ACM, New York, NY, 1276-1279.