Awareness Of Presence

Awareness of Presence --- ?RonGoldman 4 Dec 2001

. . . the pattern TheContextOfOurLives provides for programs to act appropriately in different contexts. One of the most important aspects of any context is what people are involved.

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People are social creatures. We usually work or play with other people. It is important to us to know who those people are and what they are doing.

When we are physically present with other people we keep track of who is where and doing what. If someone appears to be deep in thought or very busy, then we won't interrupt them. If they have left the room we notice that and don't walk over to talk to their empty desk.

When we interact with people through our technology we currently lose this information. We have no way of knowing whether or not they are there to receive our phone call or email. Nor do we know if they have the time to read it.

The reverse is also true: they have no idea if we are sitting in front of our computer or elsewhere. In fact it has been pointed out that the autoflush toilets in airports nowadays are more aware of you than your high-powered "personal" computer---at least the toilet knows whether you are using it or have left (and it acts accordingly).

Our computers' ignorance of us can be seen by the common scenario of where we start up a long task, such as printing a paper, then go away expecting the work to be finished when we return. Often we come back to find no work done and a dialog box requesting a meaningless confirmation. Had the program known we were gone, a more intelligent outcome may have resulted.

Some systems, such as buddy lists, are starting to provide us with information about which of our friends or colleagues is currently online. We don't yet know what they are doing, but at least we know they are logged in.

The Awarenex project at Sun Labs ( is a system developed to help members of remote workgroups contact each other. At a glance, it makes it possible to tell if someone is active on their computer keyboard, talking on the phone, or engaged in an instant message conversation. It's a way to virtually peek into someone's office window to see if they are available.


Build into computers and other devices ways to sense if we are present and an indication of how active/busy we are. Provide ways for this information to be shared with others we interact with and utilized by programs we work with.

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We don't want everyone to have the same degree of access to this awareness information---I don't want telemarketers to know when I'm sitting by my phone---PrivacyGradient. The information on how busy we are can be used so our computer knows when it's ok to interrupt us---InterruptionGradient. This information is useful both to other people and to other software---PeopleTalkToPeopleMachinesTalkToMachines and AwayMessages. Awareness of presence over time also shows up in weblogs or bulletin board type discussions where it is important to see who is taking part in the discussion---SmallWorkGroupsComeAndGo.

Awareness of Presence --- RichardGabriel 6 Jan 2002

. . . We want to ensure a TimelyResponse when people try to get in touch with us, and we sometimes also want to provide other, non-verbal clues about the way we have composed our messages . . .

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When we are talking to another person, we can tell when he or she stops paying attention. The laws of physics and our senses combine to tell us that the person, let's say, has walked away, or started to talk to someone else, or has simply dozed off.

The physical interaction patterns are part of the communication. If we observe someone thinking for a long time and speaking slowly, then we conclude the person is thinking carefully and speaking cautiously, perhaps to not say the wrong thing, or because the topic is sensitive or difficult. Without such clues, it would be much harder to interact with people who are in close proximity. With letters, we can usually assume that writer took some care, because there is a relatively difficult process of creating it involved: With handwritten letters, there is the tactile effort, and with computer-printed letters, there is the need to do the printing and a strong urge to proofread it that everyone seems to feel.

When we are away from our computers, we may not answer even apparently urgent communications for quite a while. This can make us seem rude, impolite, careless, or insensitive. How we wish to appear when we step away should depend on who is trying to communicate and on our preferences.

Textual electronic communications systems don't provide much in the way of cues about how the communication was composed. Sometimes there are lots of typos, which could mean haste. The passage of time means little unless the response is quick, in which case we know it was quick. The software that assists the composition of a Textual electronic communication knows quite a bit about the interaction of the writer with the software while composing the message.

But a person may wish to use the fact that the recipient cannot see the composition-perhaps to send non-verbal signals as powerful as the words on the page. A passionate letter answered with a short note after a long delay indicates that the passion is not shared and communicates, possibly, a desire for the letter-writer to cool his or her passion.


Take advantage of the computer as surrogate eyes and ears for the recipient of a message. Arrange for the textual electronic communications software to know whether the recipient has stepped away, is busy working on something else without paying attention to received messages, has not been active on the computer all day or for days, or whether he or she seems to have stepped away for a few minutes.

Arrange for the software to keep track of how much time and effort was spent on the response and arrange for it to provide annotations or other sorts of cues for the recipient of the response-was this a quickly composed note, did the writer pause frequently in one passage with perhaps many edits and changes. Make it so that the RhythmOfConversation is available to the software as well, in order for it to better cater to the way the correspondents interact.

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The information noticed by the software can have a deep influence on how to complete ?DramaticEffect or Deep Emotion, GoAway, TimelyResponse, Workgroups (GroupDiscussions), SmallWorkGroupsComeAndGo, AwayMessages, PrivacyGradient, and InterruptionGradient.


Last edited December 24, 2002
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