Jabberwocky: Your Personal Compass

by Elizabeth Goodman

Editor's note: Elizabeth Goodman will be participating in a panel discussion at O'Reilly's Where 2.0 Conference on how social mobile applications use location and proximity to bridge the real world and the virtual. Jabberwocky is one such social mobile app, for Bluetooth-enabled phones. Elizabeth provides an overview of Jabberwocky and its potential. Did our world just get a little smaller?

Are all our interactions with people aimed at bringing us closer to them? It seems like designers of social applications often assume that the world is primarily composed of lonely people looking for dates, friends, or jobs. And sometimes all three at the same time.

Many social interactions in the real world are more subtle than the explicit connections, drinks, and dates. Busy streets are a case in point. Even surrounded by relative strangers, you can still sometimes spot some familiar faces--like someone you see every day at a bus stop. Or the regulars at a neighborhood café. You may never know their names but still find value in their presence.

These people are not friends, but they're not total strangers. Instead, they belong to a third group--what social psychologist Stanley Milgram called "familiar strangers." Though we keep our distance from them, our interactions with familiar strangers are still meaningful. They're a part of the landscape of our city or town . No matter how little you think you have in common with them, you share something very important: proximity.

Where 2.0 Conference.

We are continually making choices as we move through the world. Proximity is an extremely effective way of discovering similarities and differences between people. Some choices are conscious, and some we never recognize as choices at all. Eat at this restaurant or that one? Sit in this subway car or the next? Leave for work now or fifteen minutes later? For example, think about a coworker who claims to hate sports. If you see him at a football game once, you may wonder about his sincerity. But if you see him at three football games, then you know there's something fishy about his story.

Spotting a coworker in the stands of a huge and crowded stadium full of cheering fans is kind of unlikely, but what if you knew for sure that someone you knew from work was at the game with you? You might not be able to spot the person, but you'd know that you were in a place frequented by familiar people.

At Intel Research Berkeley, we've developed an application for Bluetooth-enabled mobile phones called Jabberwocky that does just that. When Jabberwocky is activated, the phone's Bluetooth radio repeatedly scans its neighborhood for other Bluetooth radios. Bluetooth has approximately 30 feet of range, so it parallels human eyesight. And since mobile phones are usually carried everywhere by a single owner, they are handy ways to identify people. Whenever Jabberwocky contacts a Bluetooth device, it compares the radio's identifying MAC address to a log of addresses stored in its memory. If your phone has seen the other phone before, a green square shows up on the phone's screen. If the other phone is unrecognized; that is, if the person carrying the phone is a total stranger, a red square pops up.

Where 2.0 Conference

Paul Bragiel, Julian Bleecker, and Elizabeth S. Goodman
Panel Discussion: Social Applications

Location technologies bridge the real world and the virtual. Social mobile applications use location and proximity on networked devices to tap into the real world: building new relationships, fostering existing ones, or just having fun. Learn the secrets of good social mobile applications and obstacles they face in the real world. Panelists include Elizabeth Goodman from Intel, Julian Bleecker from USC, and Paul Bragiel from Meetro.

O'Reilly Where 2.0 Conference
June 29-30, 2005
San Francisco, CA

That's all Jabberwocky reveals. It's not about matchmaking or grabbing friends for coffee. There are no profiles to create and no identifying names or numbers; only a small notification that someone you've seen before is nearby. In an added twist, Jabberwocky allows users to create their own locations (like "work" or "my commute") and link groups of phones to them. That way, Jabberwocky can give us some clues to our previous encounters with familiar strangers (that is, "office," "corner café").

Jabberwocky is a kind of personal compass, enhancing and extending our existing knowledge of the world around us. We like to think of Jabberwocky as a way to make our social life more playful, not more efficient. Jabberwocky inverts our usual expectations about location and sociability. Instead of using absolute coordinates to determine a specific location, it depends upon short-range Bluetooth signals. Instead of attempting to bring people closer to us, it hints at closeness with people nearby. Instead of using explicitly created profiles and social networks, it gradually builds its own portrait of where we go and what we like. Most importantly, it defines location not as a static set of coordinates but as a personally defined, shifting region.

While developing location-based services we also need to develop an understanding of location, apart from latitude and longitude, addresses, and satellite photos. Geography is a social as well as spatial phenomenon. With Jabberwocky and other Urban Atmospheres projects at Intel Research Berkeley, we're trying to move beyond GPS coordinates in addressing the unpredictable and personal ways people understand the everyday world around them.

Elizabeth Goodman is a design researcher in Intel's User Centered Design group. Her work there grounds the development of new products and future technologies in people-focused inquiry.

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