Urban Environments and Interactive Technologies

General Discussion - Morning Session

Friday, Sept. 25, 1998
12:00-12:30 am

Moderator: Bernard Frieden

[These are edited summaries, not complete transcripts.]

Bernard Frieden: One of the themes of the early presentations was the death of the city and how commercial interests commercialize their dim view of the city and its future. But from the presentations just given, it would seem that there is a counter trend which is more upbeat about cities. SimCity is one example. Its implication is that if a city is managed properly it can be very successful. I don't know if there is an option to evacuate and burn the city, but if Louis Mumford and Frank Lloyd Wright are among the advisors, perhaps there is.

Consider things like City Walk at Universal Studios in Los Angeles, which is a simulated city block featured as entertainment in the midst of a theme park. Or the Las Vegas hotel that simulates the New York City skyline. Or the business that's created by the boom of downtown hotels, who market their location and the accompanying sectors of the city. We've had record breaking construction of downtown hotels and there is still a shortage. So it seems to me that there is more to the story than the commercialization of the dim view of the city. Perhaps that suggests some topics you'd like to raise questions about.

Keith Davson: Linda, in the real world of institutions and medicine in general, people have negative experiences of all kinds. The more detail you get into in the real world, the more chance you have of encountering those negative aspects. Have you run into conflicts with the institution or philosophical dilemmas about whether to accurately model negative aspects or smooth them over?


Linda Stone: One of the thoughts we had originally was that we would link this to the Bone Marrow Transplant ListServe. Well, some of those folks on the Bone Marrow Transplant have had great experiences at the Hutch, while others have had terrible experiences. Sometimes the procedure doesn't work. At first the Hutch was interested in having that link, it was they who had proposed it. But as we started going down that path, looking at that population, issues arose. There were so many Web behavior precedents that didn't work with the institution. So that was one of the challenges, but what we realized with that was a virtual world that was going to be done by the Hutch should not be taking over that existing community, it should really work with its own community.

One of the other points of tension that came up for me was that I found during my own treatment and care that I did a lot better with people who were involved in complementary medicine -- naturopathy, acupuncture, and so on. The Hutch now, a year and a half later, is becoming very interested in looking at things in a more interdisciplinary way and yet early on, they felt very strongly that they wanted to stay within the bounds of what was safe and known to them. Issues like that came up and we worked them out. I really think that anything you do online is going to mirror reality. If you have an x percentage of a deviant population in real life, they are going to be there online, too.

Keith Davson: You are talking about the really substantive parts, I was thinking more of the trivial negative things. I mean, everything looks kind of pretty and DisneyLand-ish in the video and there is always the desire to make everything upbeat. But what if you've got a receptionist with a sour personality for example? Isn't there a constant pressure at all levels to make everything a little prettier in the virtual world as opposed to presenting the real world?

Linda Stone: This is pretty much a realistic rendering. At the Hutch my experience has always been good. It's like Prozac Central there; everyone is always nice. The people who have chosen to work in this environment are so dedicated and so positive, it has been incredibly eye-opening for me and my staff. I don't know that I would have the courage to go through a bone marrow transplant having seen what those people go through. The amount of empathy and positive energy exuded by the staff is remarkable.

Bernard Frieden: It seems to me that simulations plot out unpleasant things that exist in real environments. At one conference I was at, several software companies were sellilng GIS packages, most of which dealt with crime prevention. One exhibited a map of downtown Washington. I asked it to focus on the area around the White House and there were no symbols of crimes taking place anywhere near the White House. Granted this was before Kenneth Star, but even before Kenneth Star there have been numerous indictments of cabinet members, numerous convictions, even a few prison sentences, but I suppose those things don't go over very well if you are doing a GIS approach to what Washington looks like. I guess you might focus on just the more violent crimes.

Pengkai Pan: As you might know several months ago, Kenneth Mannon gave a report claiming that the more time you spent on the Internet, the more depressed you felt. Any comments?


Malcolm McCullough: Owing to the fact that that report emanated from the institution that I am now affiliated with, I will field that one. It's not the Internet, it's the tube. The more time you spend haptically challenged the more depressed you feel. We were not born to wiggle our wrists all day. So if the folks upstairs in this very building can get the ambient interfaces to go with the graphical interfaces and get the tangible interfaces together with that, maybe that will help. It's converse also: the more depressed you feel, the more time you spend on the Internet.

David Thorburn: There are other answers.

Linda Stone: In my group we read that research pretty carefully. Our sociologists have really dissected it. And I encourage you to read it carefully. The press, which is really interested in what Bill Clinton does with cigars and women, decided that the thing they were going to pick up was that the Internet makes you sad, because it makes good headlines. That was not the statistically significant element that was found in that research. In fact it was barely significant. The most significant finding in that research was that people who had behavior that was oriented around email, communications, and social relationships, tended to spend more time searching the Web and were more facile with what they did on the Net. And those folks that didn't have any email or social connections over the Net, ended up spending less time on the Net. That was the really significant finding in that research. The people in the sociology community have been confused as to why that wasn't the finding that was brought more to light after that report. It is great to read the paper and great to question also.

I would also add a question about television watchers and cell phone users, are they more depressed? I mean, there is probably some element of technology that can take you away from people, but there are parts that bring you closer as well.

David Thorburn: That study itself is vulnerable in other ways that we need not pursue. Many people are dubious about it. Amy Harmon, the reporter who wrote the NY Times story about that study and -- because it's the Times -- is more responsible for this myth than any other writer, is a very gifted reporter, even though I don't know that this was her best story. She is going to be speaking in the Journalism and Cyberspace Event that we are sponsoring in November.

Bruce Joffe: I don't know how true or distorted that story is, I'll just present the Luddite's point of view: I get depressed just thinking about the Net. I hardly ever use it, except for email. Looking at what Malcolm was showing us about adjacencies and such -- it's just full of all this junk! There is so much stuff there, it is just total information overload. Unless I have a very specific thing I want to look for, such as what Linda was describing with regard to her medical research, that 's one thing, but to just search on the Net and get bombarded with huge numbers of ads and commercial opportunities that don't interest me, it's just noise! Like people who have their televisions on all the time. It's a cacophony. I find it very enervating. The best switch on there is the off switch.

Malcolm McCullough: The two most depressing things in the world are to be stuck at home alone all the time or stuck all day in meetings. So you really need some of each -- the jargon for that is "cave in common." Remember that the first thing said on the telephone was, "Watson, come here."

Carol Strohecker: I have a question about the state of virtual communities. I have more of a research perspective so I see waves that come and go very quickly. We went through CSCW quickly then we had virtual communities that kind of came and went through the discourse and now we are onto tangible interfaces and all that. And it is all well and good, but since I have just one view of it, I am interested in another view. How is it happening with virtual communities? Are they really taking off in the way that people said they would? Is there any business in this at all? Or is there any learning? What is happening?


Linda Stone: Is there any business in this? Well, I would back up and say is there any business on the Internet except for IPOs? I think there are still a lot of things that we are figuring out in terms of internet business models. So while I think that this area of social life and community life on the Net is an important one to research, I don't think it's completely ready for prime time, in terms of business opportunities.

My second point is that this is the kind of thing that has happened with every example of an adoption of a particular technology. CD audio went first to classical music lovers and then to jazz music lovers and then ultimately after many, many years went out to a broader population. The same is true with video technology. I don't even need to mention this. We've all heard it a million times how certain populations are hit with a new technology and then it ultimately reaches a much broader audience. Even today with CD-Roms. A lot of people were hoping to make a bundle in the consumer based CD-Rom business. They never made that bundle, but what's happening is that the business to business CD-Rom business is booming like you wouldn't believe!

Many people who started working in virtual worlds and virtual communities wanted so badly to get it out to the consumer immediately, and this was before any base-paced technology platform supported that, first of all. Secondly, it wasn't ready. What we are finding with our software and our technology is that a lot of the experiments we are doing right now are with closed communities: graduate students in a small department of a university who are self-contained and password-protected communities of people who are all facing a similar health challenge.

If you go to our research Website and look at the Distance Learning Project, you will see one of our other interfaces which has streaming video combined with PowerPoint or URL, a chat window for back channel conversation, and the ability to have voting or questions. So you have a speaker and you can change between speakers and then you've got the community of people listening -- it's built on the same technology that the 3-D UI is built on, it's just a different interface made with javascript and VHTML. With that model we are finding that a smaller community all in the same class are starting with that and then figuring out how it can scale, and what happens once it scales.

So I am grateful every day that I was not out in the world trying to figure out a business model for a company that was going to look at enabling software for virtual worlds. Because I think it is still a research area and I think we are going to learn what we can from experiences and then develop on top of that.

At the same time -- and Malcolm's last comment is related to this -- we can look at our experiences along the axes: fidelity and intensity. Real life is right up there in the high fidelity, high intensity quadrant. Email and being at home alone is right down there in the low fidelity, low intensity quadrant and if you look at the balance of how we spend our time, to be in a virtual world is right up there. You know, your avatars or someone expects you to talk to them. You have got to be present for them especially if there is video involved and they can see where you are. Yet we also spend a balance of our day in the low intensity, low fidelity experiences. And if you look at software like ICQ that Mirabilus created and that AOL just bought for $300 million dollars, it blends better than pitching people right into a virtual world.

So I think one of the things that we are also learning is that there are different levels of involvement, engagement, and connection. If we are just trying to model a conference room with a table with people sitting around it, to get that computer-supported collaborative work, or we're trying to model a representational city to try to create a commumity -- we're missing the boat, but we're doing what's always been done: we're just imitating what we know in this new medium and then learning from that and taking steps from there.


Glorianna Davenport: I would just like to pick up on Carol's question. The second half of the question was about learning and you talked a little bit about what you are learning. At some level we're in some kind of evolutionary scheme here, such that if you take the telephone and its capacity to connect people to over long distances, and then take the car and how it has enabled people to move -- away from their home towns, away from their families -- and now that people can meet each other in virtual space, we seem to have less of a hierarchical view of knowledge and learning. We have a much flatter, wider opportunity, which is also a more complex space so that people have to learn to make decisions and they have to learn to build stories for themselves. So it seems to me that we also have to look at the larger issue of what kind of transition human beings are going through prompted by these increased opportunities for communication.

Bernard Frieden: I have a thought on that, it seems to me that the whole question of how people make use of the Internet, with what purposes and with what results, and how they are affected by it, would make a terrific research subject. And that is the theme of the lecture series that Larry Vale mentioned.

The first group that we had in the series spoke about how citizens used the Internet for political advocacy and were very successful. The political community that they organized is very much like a virtual community; the people seldom meet face to face but they communicated a great deal over the Internet and elected officials as well.

The second one which will be in this theater at 5PM on Tuesday, will bring in some people from Bechtel Corp. They are using virtual reality as a design aid for the large scale projects that they do and also as a technique for public outreach. They make kind of public review of a project before it is done. That was never possible before the realism of what can be done with virtual reality.

Linda Stone: Just to add a point, the other interface that we developed and that I mentioned you could see a snap shot of on the Website, was in our minds a distance learning interface and so we started to work with Microsoft Training and Education to do some test deployments. But then the folks at ABC came through to do some interviews with people in Microsoft Research and they said, "That's not distance learning, that's a town meeting interface! We could put Ted Koppel in there and he could ask people, 'Do you think the president should be impeached?' and get an immediate response or vote." And we thought, "Oh-my-god, we are just inside these four walls too much, and you're right, this is also a way to handle town meetings." So there are some interesting things going on.

Malcolm McCullough: Unintended consequences are not just a good idea, they're the law.

Bruce Joffe: I think that no matter how powerful the technology continues to evolve, the limiting factor is that each one of us has only 24 hours in a day of which only a few hours of that day are available for high intensity, high bandwidth concentration. We have to have some quiet time, we have to think about who we are and what we think about stuff. So if I am going to get involved with a chat room like that -- and it sounds really interesting -- I am making a decision, just like I am today by being here and not many other places. And so it doesn't matter to me whether I've got a thousand or ten thousand really interesting, 3-D virtual worlds I could go visit, I've got a limited amount of time available to me and I have to make choices.


Malcolm McCullough: One possible outcome, to go back to the law of unintended consequences, is that the digital city might not be on the Internet, it might be the stuff we carry around with us, or attached to ourselves. It might be the fact that we can take money out of a wall. Or the Walkman might be a part of the digital city, who knows?

Question: Mine is more of a comment than a question, but your reactions are welcome. What prompted it was the final statement that Linda made to Carol's question about how her approach to technology has been imitating what we know best. Whether it's learning or education or communication or collaboration, whatever it is, our approach to technology is imitation of what we know best. For example, the way we use computers to simply instruct rather than other forms of education. If we had only tried to imitate the wing movements of birds, we would never have made it off the ground. So we might have to think beyond the borders of what we know when it comes to new technology and media.

Thomas Campanella: I would like to add to that. You're right, in some of these virtual worlds we have incorporated that which we know best and have already done. I am thinking of one virtual world which is supposedly the most popular on the Web and that's Alphaworld. Alphaworld is a virtual city in which you can acquire land and develop property and also interact with other citizens by means of avatars. But the fact that you can develop property and build things is the most interesting aspect of it. And what we've ended up creating in Alphaworld is very much a digital version of the sprawling city that we have in Los Angeles, for instance, where it just goes on and on. Last year somebody developed an aerial view of Alphaworld -- 400 square miles is the terrain it encompasses. If you go walking down those streets and boulevards, you will notice that it's actually a very place-less place.

Compiled by Mary Hopper

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