Wednesday, 29 August 2007

What do you decide in the car?

While waiting in Stuttgart in the lounge of the railway station I picked up a paper called “Auto-Bild” (the selection of magazines is really poor ;-) and I found an interesting news item in it.

KIA has done a survey (with over 2000 people) in the UK on decision making in the car. It appears that people use the time in the car to discuss major issues in their lives and that they make significant decisions during long journeys. I have not found the original survey from KIA but there are several pages that discuss the results, e.g. gizmag.

Some findings in short, people talked about/made descions: going on holiday (63%), buying a car (50%), moving (40%), getting a pet (26%), getting married (23%). The main reason for the car on a long journey being an effective environment for communication seems the fact the people are close together for a long time and no-one can walk away (41%). Also the fact that you have reason not to look the other person into the eyes, as you have to watch the street, was valued.

Thinking about it there it may also have to do with the function of space. A car puts people close together – in some case to intimate distances (up to 50cm) but defiantly to personal distances (50cm-125cm). There is a comprehensive overview by Nicolas Nova, Socio-cognitive functions of space in collaborative settings: a literature review about Space, Cognition and Collaboration (original reference to my knowledge is Hall, E.T. (1966). The Hidden Dimension: Man’s Use of Space in Public and Private. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday.).

This survey made me think more about the design space "car". Recently two of my students - Anneke Winter and Wolfgang Spießl - finished there master projects at BMW looking into search technologies and user interfaces in the car. It seems there are a lot of ideas that can be pushed forward realizing Ubicomp in the car.

Basics of Law - Talk by Herbert Burkert

Herbert Burkert gave a presentation at IAIS on the very basics of public law. He is professor of public law, information and communication law at the research center for information law at the University of St. Gallen, Switzerland. He is currently on leave from Fraunhofer IAIS.

For developers and researchers in computer science that build real systems which can be deployed it is a great challenge to ensure compatibility with the law. In particular systems that are accessible over the world wide web in almost any country it appears really difficult to conform to all laws in the countries where potential users are.

With our current summer project where we built a search engine for people the legal conditions are besides the technological challenges a main concern.

It is clear that there is a distinction between morally right (or common sense right) and legally right - that is why many TV-pseudo-quiz programs are on and legal even though it is clear that common sense would see them as fraud. With new technologies there appears to be often a gap between on one side what is illegal and on the other side what is wrong but legal. The second one seems to be a domain where people make money...

Friday, 24 August 2007

Great tutorial on eXtreme Programming/Agile Methods

Today Karl-Heinz Sylla and Reinhard Budde (both senior researcher at Fraunhofer IAIS) gave for the summer research project a tutorial on agile methods for software engineering. The experience they have from large scale real world projects is impressive! We looked at different approaches to software construction and discussed the pros and cons. Short iterations, user stories, pair programming and test driven development seem to fit very well to our work approach and project goals. A good starting point for more on the topic in particular with a teaching perspective are the following 2 papers: LeJeune, N. F. 2006. Teaching software engineering practices with Extreme Programming. J. Comput. Small Coll. 21, 3 (Feb. 2006), 107-117 and Schneider, J. and Johnston, L. 2003. eXtreme Programming at universities: an educational perspective. In Proceedings of the 25th international Conference on Software Engineering (Portland, Oregon, May 03 - 10, 2003). International Conference on Software Engineering. IEEE Computer Society, Washington, DC, 594-599.

From a user interface engineering perspective is very positive that agile methods are good to integrate with user centred design – in my experience much better than traditional software construction processes. Especially the fact that XP (eXtreme Programming) is open to change in functionally throughout the process is a key.

In this summer research project one great challenge is that the students have to build up knowledge in various areas (e.g. search technologies, web technology, user interfaces) while creating high quality code. There is a very interesting paper that discusses software engineering issues in the context of web applications: Jazayeri, M. 2007. Some Trends in Web Application Development. In 2007 Future of Software Engineering (May 23 - 25, 2007). International Conference on Software Engineering. IEEE Computer Society, Washington, DC, 199-213.

Always when the discussion comes to programming languages a debate on strong typing starts. Especially in the web context this seems come up again and again…

Thursday, 23 August 2007

Tico Ballagas defended his PhD in Aachen, New insight on Fitts' law.

Today I finally got around visiting Jan Borchers (media computing group at RWTH Aachen). Tico Ballagas hat as part of his PhD defence a public talk and took the chance to go there.

There where new parts in the talk on the impact of the selection space resolution on Fitts’s law that I had not seen in his work before. It is published in 2006 as a technical report (Rafael Ballagas and Jan Borchers. Selexels: a Conceptual Framework for Pointing Devices with Low Expressiveness. Technical Report AIB-2006-16, RWTH Aachen, Dec 2006) which is worthwhile to have a look at. This could be very interesting and relevant for the work Heiko Drewes does on eye-gaze interaction. Discriminating between input and output space for the index of difficulty could be helpful to understand better the impact of the errors that we see in eye gaze interaction.

One part of Tico’s research was concerned with a definition of a design space for input devices. This is partly described in a paper in IEEE Pervasive magazine, see: Ballagas, R., Borchers, J., Rohs, M., Sheridan, J.G., The Smart Phone: A Ubiquitous Input Device. IEEE Pervasive Computing 5(1). 70-77. 2006.

Wednesday, 22 August 2007

Navigation by calories - New insights useful for next generation navigation systems?

In a German science news ticker I saw an article a inspiring post reporting an experiment on orientation in relation to food. It describes an experiment where men and women were asked to visit a set of market stalls to taste food and afterwards they are asked where the stall was.

The to me surprising result was that women performed better than men (which is to my knowledge not often the case in typical orientation experiments) and that independent of gender the amount of calories that are contained in the tasted food influenced the performance. Basically if there are more calories in the tasted food people could remember better where it was. I have had no change yet to read the original paper (Joshua New, Max M. Krasnow, Danielle Truxaw und Steven J.C. Gaulin. Spatial adaptations for plant foraging: women excel and calories count, August 2007, Royal society publishing, and my assessment is only based on the post in the newsticker.

This makes me think about future navigation systems and in particular landmark based navigation. What landmarks are appropriate to use (e.g. places where you get rich food) and how much this is gender dependent (e.g. the route for men is explained by car-dealers and computer shops whereas for women by references to shoe shops – is this political correct?).

Apropos: landmark based navigation. There is an interesting short paper that was at last years UIST conference that looks into this issue in the context of personalized routes:
Patel, K., Chen, M. Y., Smith,
I., and Landay, J. A. 2006. Personalizing routes. In Proceedings of the 19th Annual ACM Symposium on User interface Software and Technology (Montreux, Switzerland, October 15 - 18, 2006). UIST '06. ACM Press, New York, NY, 187-190. DOI=

Perhaps this ideas could be useful for a future navigation system…

Tuesday, 21 August 2007

Meeting the inventor of the Petri-Net

In the castle Birlinghoven on the Fraunhofer campus I had the privilege to meet Prof. Carl Adam Petri. He is a great mathematician and computer scientist who invented the Petri-Net. Today was a reception to celebrate that he received the “2007 Academic Gold Medal of Honor” from “the Academy of Transdisciplinary Learning and Advanced Studies”.

Prof. Petri was from 1963 to 1968 head of the computing centre at the University of Bonn and after this head of a GMD institute in Birlinghoven. (The GMD was merged with Fraunhofer in 2000/2001 and became part of Fraunhofer). To my knowledge he is probably one of the most prominent researchers of the GMD.

When I studied computer science I got introduced to the concept of Petri-nets but I never really thought about the person who invented it. It was only when I got the invitation to the reception that I really started thinking about the person and inventor and I was really impressed by the person. He got quite a few other awards before: Werner-von-Siemens-Ring, member of the Academia Europaea, Konrad-Zuse-Medaille etc..

I have recorded part of the speech by Prof. Petri where he reflects on his dissertation (be aware of poor audio quality as it is recorded with my phone and I was sitting in a back row)

the count down started - about 5 weeks to the prototype

Yesterday our summer project started at IAIS. The students are highly motivated and the combined skill set of the participants is impressive. We discussed a lot what we want to achieve over the next weeks.

Creating a new special purpose search service – basically from the rough idea to a working prototype – in 5 weeks seems a bit crazy but I am confident that we get there ;-) In certain areas we already have an idea how much pages we have to crawl and how much content we have to analyze.

It is interesting that it already now becomes apparent that user interface issues and system architecture decisions are closely linked. E.g. doing a meta search while the user is waiting requires some other content that we can present while the user is expecting the results.

Friday, 17 August 2007

Mirror with memory and a different perspective

This morning I corrected the proofs for the Pervasive and Mobile Compting journal for the paper I had together with Lucia Terrenghi at Percom (Methods and Guidelines for the Design and Development of Domestic Ubiquitous Computing Applications, Proceedings of the Fifth Annual IEEE Conference on Pervasive Computing and Communications (PerCom), New York, NY, USA, Mar. 2007).

This brought again a topic to my attention that we have focused on for some time in Munich but never really completed. Mirrors with enhanced functionality, that can display information, capture what you were wearing at a certain date, or give you a new perspective (e.g. back, top) – such new perspectives can be really revealing, see the top of my head in the picture.

More details on the design concept can be found in the paper in section 5.2.2. I think it is worthwhile to look again more into it in a bachelor or master project. Even though Philips Home Lab has done some work there in there Intelligent Personal Care Environment project, I think there is much potential left.

Thursday, 16 August 2007

Will caching and Redundancy be key?

Skype is down for a few hours and is has an impact on users. It is interesting that for some people I do not have regular phone numbers anymore. This minor (at least to me) inconvenience and the massive reaction in the news shows however how much we start to rely on network centred infrastructure tools.

Thinking about myself: xing and linked have largly replaced my local contacts database and my calendar is online, too; the acm-digital library, springer link, and google-scholar make me through away papers after I have read them (at the beginning of my PhD-studies I still sorted them in folders); gmail and gmx hold my private mail in the network; I have not bought paper maps for quite some time, and as recently posted access to knowledge is nowadays often via google. The current move of putting applications online – which I really like greatly – speeds up these trends.

With current sizes of hard drive and future network connectivity I think caching and recording becomes key. For many domains this is easy. Everything you have ever seen on the screen will be forever on the computer (easy for static content such as web pages, even for videos this is not far in the future; assuming 365 days x 8 hours x 1Gbyte/hour is about 3TByte/year). In many domains Pre-fetching seems useful. In some areas this seems straightforward. When you view a paper all papers that are cited and papers that cite this paper will be cached locally (and not just short term, but forever ;-), too.

I wonder when we can by the entire index of the web (e.g. google cache) for offline use. Will this every be possible or is content growing faster than storage?

At least I will start caching important information (e.g. mail & contacts) in the future locally.

From a business perspective this is interesting, too. Even if there is a major provider (e.g. Skype) people will create their own redundancies with a further provider (e.g. messenger) - so there will be always room for several players.

Wednesday, 15 August 2007

Ubiquitous, Pervasive and Ambient Computing – Clarification of Terms

In the resent month the question about ubiquitous, pervasive, ambient computing came up several times. An email by Jos Van Esbroeck motivated me to write my view on it…

Clarifying the terms seems an ongoing process as various communities and individuals use each of those terms for new things they are doing.

For me the best way to discriminate the terms ubiquitous computing, pervasive computing, and ambient intelligence is by their origin, history and research communities.

The first term (ubiquitous computing, ubicomp) is linked to Mark Weiser and his vision of computing in the 21st century [1]. In the research community its is very much connected to ubiquitous and pervasive systems that have the user somewhere in the loop. The ubicomp conference [2] seems more focused on user experience than on pure technology.

Pervasive Computing was pushed in the mid 1990s, more by industry and in particular by IBM. Pervasive computing seems from its origin more focused on technologies and solutions than on a particular vision. The two major conferences related to this topic: pervasive [3] and percom [4] are more systems and network focused, however always keeping some attention to the user experience perspective. Here, in particular with percom, many in the research community have their origin in the networking and distributed systems world. To me pervasive computing seems more technical than ubiquitous computing and includes systems that do no have direct human users involved.

The term ambient intelligence was introduced by the European funding agencies in the Framework 5 vision. Around the same time as the Philips Home-lab that drives the term, too. Here, similar to ubicomp, the vision of a new quality of user experience is a driving factor. The research that falls under this label by now is broad and I think it is very similar to the research in ubiquious computing. There is also a European conference on ambient intelligence [5].

Many people that are involved in ubicomp/pervasive/percom are also active in one more traditional research community. In particular many people are additionally involved in user interface research (e.g. CHI-Community), mobile computing and mobile systems, networking and distributed systems.

A very early topic related to the whole field is context-awareness as introduced by Schilit [6] who was working with Weiser. In my PhD dissertation I have looked more into the relationship between ubicomp and context-awareness - it has the title Ubiquitous Computing - Computing in Context [7]

In parallel subtopic in the above field have emerged that look at specific aspects, e.g. internet of things [8] (not necessarily a human in the loop), wearable computing (computing in cloth), smart environments (computing in buildings and furniture), tangible and embedded interaction [9] (looking at the interaction side), smart objects, ... and probably many more.

There is also an interesting trend that many of the topics, if they are a bit matured, move back into the traditional communities.

[1] Mark Weiser. The Computer for the Twenty-First Century. Scientific American 265, 3 (September 1991), 94-104
[6] B. Schilit, N. Adams, and R. Want. (1994). "Context-aware computing applications". IEEE Workshop on Mobile Computing Systems and Applications (WMCSA'94), Santa Cruz, CA, US: 89-101 .
[7] Albrecht Schmidt(2003). "Ubiquitous Computing - Computing in Context". PhD dissertation, Lancaster Univeristy.
[8] http://

Monday, 13 August 2007

World Champion visiting IAIS

Sven Behnke, who won with his humanoid robots the RoboCup, visited us today at Fraunhofer IAIS. In his talk he presented the RoboCup vision – wining in 2050 with humanoid robots against the human world champions and his work towards this goal. There are interesting videos of the robots at

When I saw Sven presenting the first time (in 2003 at the DFG final round for the “Aktionsplan Informatik”) I was convinced that humanoid robots are far in the future and that the robocup vision is more wishful thinking than vision. Seeing how much it advanced over the last 4 years I am really curious if it will take till 2050.

In his group there is also some interesting work on human-robot interaction. For more see:

Saturday, 11 August 2007

Bluetooth marketing in the wild

Arriving in Zurich I was quite surprised by the masses of people in the train station. We picked the weekend of the Street Parade for our visit ;-) makes you really think about your own age…

In the railway station they had digital giveaways – you just had to switch your Bluetooth on.

Thursday, 9 August 2007

Zeppelin – air travel of the future?

Visiting the Zeppelin Museum I was impressed by the simplicity of the underlining principle and the great engineering that went into those air ships.

Thinking of fuel prices one could imagine that this type of transportation may come again. It only requires energy for propulsion – lift is provided by the weight.

School of the past – School of the future

We visited the school museum at Friedrichshafen. Looking around the exhibition it became very obvious that teaching material used to be much more tangible and physical as they are nowadays.

I think it is worthwhile investigating where the value of tangibility is!

Object with included sensing

I often wonder why one would like to include sensing into other objects. It seems however that there is a tradition and has its roots before the digital :-)

The pencil case has a thermometer included. The function is that the pupil can figure out when they get the rest of the day off due to high temperature (Hitzefrei). Not convinced that is was a great seller…

Wednesday, 8 August 2007

Museum Audio Guides – is there a way to make this a good experience?

We visited the archeology and Stone Age museum in Bad Buchenau For our visit we rented their audio guide system – they had one version for kids and one for adults. The audio guides were done very well and the information was well presented.

Nevertheless such devices break the joint experience of visiting a museum! We had three devices – and we stood next to each other listening but not talking to each other. Even though it may transport more information than the written signs it makes a poorer experience than reading and discussing. I wonder how one would design a good museum guide… There are plenty of projects but so far I have not seen the great solution.

Monday, 6 August 2007

Satellite Television –Challenges

My first day of the holidays I got myself into an interesting project – setting up a satellite dish that receives Astra 19.2 (German TV) and Astra 28.2 (major UK TV stations). Going back between my roof and living room I finally got it to work – thanks to many posts on the Internet. That brings me back to a question I ask myself more and more (not just for setting up TVs): how did people share technical and practical information before the Internet? It seems that the Internet really is a catalyst for implementation.

After having the hardware in place (which is more difficult than the theory of pointing it at a certain angle – especially without the right tools) I was surprised by the number of channels and the user interfaces of the digital sat receivers. It seems that much of the usage and interaction concept is still from a time where there were 3 channels – youtube is much easier to use… Perhaps satellite television could provide a much more exciting experience with new means for interaction (perhaps those devices are out there an I just got the poor ones).