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Autumn 91 - THE VETERAN NEOPHYTE

THE VETERAN NEOPHYTE

DON'T FENCE ME IN

DAVE JOHNSON

[IMAGE 079-081_Dave's_column_ht1.GIF]

So here I am in Tucson, Arizona, standing in a dry streambed reeking of sunscreen with a notebook computer contraption in my hands and a walkie-talkie hooked on my pants and a squawking headset barely staying on my head, watching people tying white cotton string from one tree to another. Every time I move my head the headset slips forward a little more, but my hands are completely filled with this device, a fairly delicate thing due to the wire and duct tape and Velcro attachments, and I can't find any place safe to put it down. So I'm trying not to move my head, and I'm trying to look like an intelligent and purposeful person at the same time. It's hard.

I had written a little piece of the software that's running on the notebook computer, which is a GRiDPAD (pen-based, small, DOS). There are three others like it scattered around the canyon I'm in. Each has a tiny wireless modem and a battery stuck to the back, and each is running a sort of collaborative spreadsheet: data entered in one is quickly picked up by all the others. I'll call this contraption The Device from now on, to avoid funny capitalizations.

This event is an experiment in wireless communication and in collaboration at a distance. The main participants are a bunch of elementary school kids and their science teachers. They're here to study the canyon, and are split into four groups, each of which is being deployed to a different spot to take environmental measurements (pH, temperature, and so on) and to count species. Each group has one of The Devices, so once we're set up everybody will be able to see everybody else's data all the time. Each group also has a walkie-talkie, so they'll be able to talk to one another. We've just arrived for the very first field trials.

The string people have finished, neatly delineating the area that is our group's responsibility. The kids energetically begin fooling with thermometers and vials and yardsticks and--everyone's favorite--sling psychrometers. I finally find a rock flat enough to put The Device on, just as the headset lets go and slips over my eyes, pulling the earplug out of my ear. Gathering together the shredded remains of my dignity, I disentangle the headset from my ears and sunglasses, put it back on my head, and reinsert the little earplug in my ear. Who designed this thing? It just won't stay put. Maybe my head is a weird shape, or maybe this headset isn't meant to be used with sunglasses on. I take off the headset, take off my sunglasses, put the headset back on, and it's just as bad. Must be my head.

There are some very large issues that are touched on by this experiment, directly or indirectly: the implications of wireless communication, the nature of collaboration, and the nature of communication itself. I'll take a closer look at these issues, with the assumption up front that the goal is to provide technology that can enable--and hopefully enhance--collaboration at a distance.

First of all, what does wirelessness mean exactly? At face value, not much: it means that the wires are gone. The information flow hasn't changed; it's just using a different medium to flow in (or on, or around, or whatever). One person involved in this project compared the advent of wireless communication to taking down the fence around a herd of captive buffalo. Will they burst from their former confinement, joyously kicking their heels (I'm not sure if buffalo have heels, but you get the idea) and searching out new limits to conquer? Or will they not even notice, so used to the way things were that they can't conceive of anything else? That would be like some large, unimaginative corporation's vision of wirelessness: the wires vanish, which saves a little money and hassle setting up the office, but nothing else changes. Clearly an approach like this is doesn't take advantage of the situation.

Wireless communication adds a whole new degree of freedom to human communication, that of space. It makes communication position-independent, it unsticks people geographically. This is potentially a far-reaching freedom if high-bandwidth wireless communication becomes pervasive. Many existing institutions--schools, businesses, and so on--that largely evolved from the need to have a central physical place are now freed up, just like the buffalo, and have lots of new territory to explore. Maybe there are other ways of doing things without people's bodies in attendance that we haven't thought of yet, since we haven't had the opportunity. But will people take advantage of this new freedom? Or are we too cozy, too entrenched in our old familiar ways to transcend them?

Periodically pushing my headset back onto my head, I look around: chaos reigns, but it's a good, busy, productive sort of chaos. The kids are measuring things, counting plants and birds and spiders, clambering around in the brush, chattering incessantly on their walkie-talkies, and entering data into The Device; the video crew--ostensibly documenting the event but mostly invoking Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle--are running around poking their cameras and microphones at people; the adults are watching carefully, coordinating when necessary, commenting on the action over their own walkie-talkie channel.

One thing that surprises me about how the kids are relating to The Device is that they pretty much take it for granted. I guess I expected them either to ignore it or to be amazed by it, but they seem to just take it in stride, and use it when it's appropriate. It occurs to me that that's probably the best reaction we could hope for, to see it for what it is--a tool--and use it accordingly. And yes, by golly, the kids are collaborating a little. It's hard to tell, though, whether they'd collaborate on their own. They know that's what the adults are looking for, and every school kid learns early on to do what they think their teachers want.

What The Device provides very nicely is a kind of shared data space. It's as if each group has a magic looking glass that lets them all see the same thing, despite being physically separated. What The Device doesn't provide is a communication channel that lets them discuss the data with each other. The walkie-talkies provide that channel, although in a stilted manner. To collaborate effectively, you really need both kinds of communication: the communication of data (the shared thing you're collaborating on) and the communication of instructions (the conversation about the thing you're collaborating on).

One really interesting point (hotly debated in the post-study debriefing) is the importance of including voice capabilities in new communication/collaboration hardware. There is no question that voice, or more generally language, is the primary medium we use to communicate. The debate pivots on whether voice should be provided de facto in the technology or whether there is some new, as- yet-undiscovered mode of communication that technology can provide us that would render voice communication unnecessary, or at least optional. Pretty heady stuff, no? We're talking about a quantum leap here, a revolutionary change away from the familiar. Using voice only because it's the way we do it now might hinder or prevent our moving forward into the grand and glorious communication revolution.

On the other hand, why should we not provide voice? Voice compression technology is advancing quickly because of cellular demand. Good-quality voice can be transmitted at 4800 bits per second now, and soon it will be 2400. Those bandwidths are easy and getting easier and cheaper all the time. Full-duplex real-time voice transmission (in other words, a conversation) also provides a huge degree of familiarity to people, and it really adds to the feeling of being connected. Isn't that the goal? To be apart but not to feel apart? Voice alone provides lots of that "in the same space" kind of feeling. My thoughts seem to keep circling back to one central question: should we use this radical new wireless technology to adopt (and then attempt to improve upon) the way people communicate and collaborate now, or should we throw out all the rules and go for something really new? If you're interested in selling products today, probably you want something like the former. If you're a wild- eyed visionary intent on changing the world, you'll tend toward the latter. And in reality, let's face it, you always end up with something in between.

In my humble and inexpert opinion, we ought to build from familiarity. I don't really have any facts or studies to back me up, just personal observations and a strong feeling that building from existing modes of communication is the most effective way to get what we want. And I don't think that this method necessarily precludes radical advances. Look at the Macintosh. Few people would argue against the fact that it was a radical leap from any other machine. But the very thing that made it radical was its familiarity, its humanness . Humanness in a machine is extremely powerful, and extremely attractive to people.

Maybe I just have a soft spot for humans, being one myself, but I tend to give them a lot of credit. The advent of wireless communication does remove a fence, but it is a fence around people, not buffalo. People explore, it's one of the things they're best at. They won't stay huddled in the center of the corral for long. And I also believe that people already know how to collaborate. If you and I are standing next to each other looking at a piece of paper that we're working on together, we won't have trouble proceeding. So if we can provide communication tools that are truly transparent, I think that collaboration will fall out automatically. Now don't get me wrong. I know that there's plenty of room for improvement in the way people work together, but I think the communication tools need to be available before we can make much progress in collaboration. And yeah, I really think we should provide voice, if we can. If there are better ways to communicate, I suspect it will be quite a while until we find them, and in the meantime voice is the best we've got and really does make people feel connected.

It will of course take a while for all these things to come to fruition, but we are tantalizingly close. I think the best way to proceed is to build what we can right now, and get it out into the world as quickly as possible. Then, to learn how to make it better, we should watch very closely what people do with it. This way the tools will evolve as natural extensions of the people who use them, which seems like a good goal to me. Maybe if the headset makers had followed this approach . . .


DAVE JOHNSON was born in southern California, but moved elsewhere as a small boy, so he's never even been on a surfboard and doesn't say "totally" unless he means it. He did most of his growing up in a suburb of Chicago (and consequently has strong opinions about pizza and snow shovels), but was dragged kicking and screaming back to southern California at the age of seventeen. As soon as he could, he left for college at Humboldt State University, which was as far as he could get from San Bernardino and still be in the California school system. He and his wife Lisa now make their home in San Francisco with their two dogs and two cats (which is, incidentally, the legal limit on animals in a San Francisco household). They're currently looking for a big house elsewhere. *

The ideas and issues discussed in this column did not arise in a vacuum. I'd like to acknowledge the others who inspired me to think about these things and provided the grist for the mill. In particular, thanks are due to Wayne Grant and Rick Borovoy, who dreamed up this project in the first place and were kind enough to let me participate and observe. Also, I want to thank everyone who attended the post-study debriefing meeting: Tyde Richards, Kathy Ringstaff, Brian Reilly, and Rifaat "Rick" Dayem. It was at that meeting that I really began to see the implications and issues surrounding wireless communications and communication technology in general.*

 
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