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In this straw-man position paper I attempt to explain why I still get excited about one possible situated computing appliance that is sufficiently controversial (or pehaps down-right whacky) that if I didnt fly the flag it would be dismissed for sure.

Hyperbolae: *****

Business analysis: *

ContactLense is...

...a device that is able to identify everyone in the vacinity and provide a stream of information about them. Ideally it incorporates eyeglasses to allow the information to be overlayed on the user's view of each person. The information is filtered according to the user's pre-defined interests and according to what individuals are prepared to volunteer. Information is brokered using a series of computer-based domains and some access control scheme to protect the interests of all participants.


... that I know whenever I have a common interest with the person standing next to me in a party, queueing for lunch, shopping at Tescos, milling at a conference or waiting on a train platform. Its not that I always want to follow up the links, frankly much of it is just the feeling of excitement that comes from so many diverse possibilities. This might be the same sense of possibility felt by first time web-users, except that now information surfing is not an isolated activity; it happens automatically, synergistically and simultaneously with real life. Crucially, the information is presented at exactly the moment when it has greatest potential value; at the moment when you are in a position to act on it using the highest fidelity and bandwidth communication mode of them all: face-to-face. In this sense the ContactLense is a wearable web-browser focussed on enhancing opportunistic interaction in the real world.

The buzz stems from wonderment at coincidences and connections completely undiscernible in the physical world, from that innate curiosity about others and from a new sense of belonging within a group of people who on the surface may appear so unrelated. Of course once contact is made there may be all kinds of completely incalculable benefits (or, to be honest, costs); and in truth the user's pleasure in browsing with the device will stem mainly from their expectation of high returns even if only very infrequent.

The device also has a kind of lottery appeal - even if the odds of making a really exciting contact are small, people are still prepared to pay for the right to be hopeful. What they dream of is a chance happening that will effortlessly elevate them above whatever problems they feel defeated by in their current circumstances. The parallel with the lottery raises the same moral dilema: is it wrong to furnish people with possibly false hopes, even if this is what they want? Nonetheless, this is why I see the long odds on forming lasting friendships or exciting new business contacts as being disproportionately exciting compared to the more reasonable odds of many possibly pleasant but transient interactions.

The device would effect people's perception of society. The information provided could begin to make society discernible in the visible spectrum; replacing gross deduction based upon physical stereotypes with volunteered, direct statements. In other words the device makes "social information" into a new visible dimension.

More specifically...

... in situations that are expressly social it's a lot of fun. At parties and at conference breaks it provides a direct way of getting on with people (fast-forwarding through breaking the ice). Of course it takes a little getting used to at the start: the nerdy image and initial embarrassment at the directness that it enables - but once you get used to it the conversations become relaxed again and the benefits shine through.

I can also use it for opportunistic reminders; for example, when I am approaching a colleague in a corridor it can remind me that I wanted to arrange a meeting or ask for a quick opinion on some topic.

I can also use it to recall names of even the most fleetingly met people. Its a cheap trick, but it looks impressive!

Unfortunately it wouldn't work as a celebrity spotter, because much as Id love to know when Esther Rantzen is in the same supermarket as me. I can't imagine she'd want to publish this kind of stuff. Maybe just a few celebs would get off on this kind of thing!

Some examples...

... that don't really do justice to the idea in the same way that a few web pages wouldnt really demonstrate the potential of the web. Like the web, this device is an immensely flexible social tool whose value will evolve driven by the collective imagination of its users. So as for below, never mind the quality, just feel the width: (that's never what they say down Allied Carpets is it?!) The examples below describe things I might like to know about other people (or places)

Controlling information flow...

...this is how information providers and consumers can determine who sees what. The scheme is based around hierarchical computer-domains that collect information providers offering similar kinds of information. The nature of this similarity is entirely up to the domain administrator; for example, it may collect people who live in the same city or in the same street or it may collect people who wish to offer address information according to a specific format. The domain may contain no information other than a list of its members or it may allow each member to provide associated information. Information requestors may interact with domains in an attempt to obtain information from it. The domain may enforce an access control scheme to protect the interests of its providers. Some domains could be accessible world-wide using a public network, sub-domains might only be visible to members of super-domains, other domains may be only accessible through private networks or computer systems if this reflects their access control policy. Domain indexes and search tools could be provided as a public service for those looking to find appropriate domains to join or solicit.

Some examples of information control policies...

Identifying people... not easy. It especially depends on what infrastructure you allow. Possibilities are: active badge, passive badge scanned by IR, face recognition and voice recognition. In all case a database is needed to convert signatures into identities used in computer-domains. However, this is an area where technology is begininning to mature. This is why now is a good time to investigate the potential for ContactLense devices.

The unknown things...

So... how would people use this kind of tool? What would constitute an acceptable way to proceed having identified commonality with a companion. What would prove to be the major application area. Is the randomness and serendipity a major thrill (James Redfield's novel: "The Celestine Prophecy" is thought-provoking about the importance of chance meetings) or does this component not figure in the overall value? Is it intimidating to have to chose what information to publicize and how to control it? How will early adopters be perceived by the rest of society?

ContactLense potentially provides criminals with more efficient access to victims. For example, ContactLens could be used by muggers to identify people with characteristics that indirectly suggest they are wealthy or vulnerable. How can ContactLense users be protected against crime? Controversial aside: new technology is often first exploited by criminal organisations: e.g. telephones used to contact "call girls". Commercial pressure and the inability to univent things normally ensures the preservation of the technology; instead new legal measures are set in place even if they prove hard to enforce.

There is a need for devices to be in tune with the emotional state of their users. Does the user feel like either broadcasting or receiving at that moment? Capturing such etherial input is bound to be problematic (and will be the downfall of many projects to do with "software agents"). Emotional state can change without notice and even simply by being observed. Furthermore measuring emotional state requires an introspection that users may find uncomfortable. I believe that the volume knob controls in the previous section provide a pragmatic compromise to this problem.

The policies that people chose to govern the broadcast and receipt of information may be observed (even if only indirectly) and interpreted by others. Users lose privacy since even the act of opting out can be assigned meaning. This is especially the case for users who are observed changing their state of participation in the system; for example, putting on or removing ContactLense glasses.

The ContactLense system will probably require peple to wear glasses. People who dislike wearing glasses for whatever reason may chose not to use the system.

[Philips have thought of something very similar called Hot Badges! (spotted by DMF)]

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