Friday, September 09, 2005


person-to-person human computer interaction

Mobile communication is fast moving from being exclusively aural to being visual as well. With camera and video phones, we don't just talk about a situation to someone far away, we can show it remotely. I predict mobile visual communication will introduce radical new work patterns that could require establishing a new interaction paradigm in HCI: person-to-person human interaction with computers. Sorry if that sounds confusing, bear with me.

Visual cell phone communication allows managers to diagnose and instruct field staff on how to solve problems involving visual analysis. The highly paid expert doesn't have to burn precious time traveling to field locations. He can see the problem remotely, and have a lower paid novice carry out his instructions. Suppose the problem involves fixing an interactive device, say a vending machine, then two sets of eyes are looking the problem, one at the location of the device, who can touch the parts, another remote, who can only see the parts. There are two levels of interaction happening: the service technician's interaction with the machine, and the expert's interaction (via verbal instruction to the technician) with the machine. A problem arises if the two parties describe or see things in different ways.

Although corporations have focused extensively on remote diagnostics, most of this activity involves machine to remote machine, or machine to remote human, communication. To the extent no one needs to be physically present to carry out the diagnosis and repair, such a solution is wonderful. But in many situations, having someone actually handle something physically is necessary.

Everyone has the maddening experience of waiting for a service technician show up to deal with an installation or to make an adjustment. Consumers hate the waiting, and corporations find house calls expensive. I envision that soon we will use picture and video phones to get instructions from companies on how to adjust our broadband setup or our digital television wiring or satellite dish.

Currently, calling customer service or a help desk about a technical problem, without the ability to provide visual materials to orient the remote helper, is a frustrating experience. Much time is wasted just finding common understanding of what is happening and how to do trivial actions. Visual feedback will reduce that gulf, and may encourage greater use of remote advice.

While the issue of remote instruction to other people on interaction is now new, I am not aware of literature dealing with the topic. Traditional HCI assumes one person is doing both the thinking and the interacting. Computer mediated communication is generally focused on the process of communication, rather than interacting with a device. Some contextual research has looked at group problem solving and interaction with a device, but generally with people who are collocated. What I am calling person-to-person HCI involves split cognition, mediated communication, but only one party interacting with the device. If you are aware of work in this area, I'd be interested to learn of it.

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