As a researcher at the MIT Media Lab (1996-2003), I conducted HCI and ethnographic research on Situational Interaction in Transitional Spaces examining how the awareness of timely information, including presence of others in the workplace can be enhanced through shared information appliances with perceptual interfaces to support lightweight collaboration and distributed workgroups. I used this research to develop Aware Community Portalswhich leveraged temporal awareness patterns in causal public workspaces, gestural interaction and dynamic content filtering to provide relevant and timely information to co-located communities.

This work was informed by prior research in Computer Supported Cooperative Work (CSCW) as well as that of sociologists such as Erving Goffman and William Wythe who examined the psychology and social patterns of human behavior in public places. My ongoing ethnographic research has delved into social, technological and ethical dimensions of cooperative design, while examining the limitations of models for open access sharing and distributed collaboration across global contexts.

People wish to maintain a level of awareness of timely information, including presence of others in the workplace and other social settings. We believe this provides better exchange, coordination and contact within a community, especially as people work in asynchronous times and distributed locations. The challenge is to develop lightweight techniques for awareness, interaction and communication using shared information appliances. In this paper, we describe the design of an exploratory responsive display projected within a shared workspace at the MIT Media Lab. The system uses visual sensing to provide relevant information and constructs traces of people’s activity over time. Such aware portals may be deployed in casual workplace domains, distributed workgroups, and everyday public spaces.

How can we study the complex social and economic context of these activities and their workplaces? What forms of qualitative and participatory research (including ethnography) and quantitative data analysis and visualization can we engage to learn from these communities? How can we use human-centered design, distributed media and computational tools, as well as innovative urban and architectural practices to develop rich and compelling spaces for imaginative co-creation and spontaneous collaboration? How can we help devise new socio-economic cultures and communities of practice through radically re-configured spaces for living, work and communal exchange? Finally, how can we better examine emerging urban centers in the Global South to adapt to their distinct creative practices, socio-cultural and economic contexts?

These are the kinds of research directions and cooperative initiatives I believe would be exciting to pursue in the coming years. I would engage this experience as a design researcher working closely with others to examine diverse workplace cultures and communities of practice, from technology-based software and media production startups to those engaged in other low-tech creative industries such as in DIY maker spaces, gourmet kitchens, garment work, and small businesses supporting marginalized enterprises. There are immense opportunities to develop innovative and unconventional mixed-use spaces, while repurposing others to reimagine the cultures of creative urban co-production. Working closely with agile partners in city governments, real-estate, business and neighborhood communities, how can we leverage these ideas to reshape and revitalize not only thriving industries but also micro-enterprises and underserved neighborhoods in cities around the world.


Sawhney, N., Wheeler, S. and Schmandt, C., 2001. Aware Community Portals: Shared Information Appliances for Transitional Spaces. Journal of Personal and Ubiquitous Computing5(1), pp.66-70.

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