Masters Thesis: Presence: How to Use Digital Technology to Live a More Analog Life, by Kathryn McElroy


Products of Design MFA graduate Kathryn McElroy’s thesis, entitled “Presence: How to Use Digital Technology to Live a More Analog Life,” explores approaches to limiting the distraction caused by modern information technology. After Kathryn fell in love with smart objects and electronics in her first year of graduate school, she knew that she wanted to pursue electronics in her thesis work. At the same time, however, she was keenly aware that information technology was capable of causing endless distraction and social interruption in her personal life. As a result, Kathryn directed her initial research and design explorations into mindfulness and technology-aided meditation, then quickly focused her attention toward limiting distraction and increasing focus as a way to help users become more present in their work and their experiences.

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Kathryn’s early research included surveying current literature around distraction, focus, and attention, including essays and articles in Fast Company, The New York Times, the Huffington Post, the Atlantic, Wired, Popular Science, Popular Mechanics, and various TED talks. The number of articles on the topic evidenced the immense impact and interest around the subject, and her reading list expanded to include The Distraction Addiction by Alex Pang, Smarter Than You Think by Clive Thompson, Alone Together by Sherry Turkle, Physics of the Future by Michio Kaku, and many others others. Douglas Rushkoff’s Present Shock had a great impact on Kathryn’s work; his observations resonated tightly with the project, especially the second chapter in the book—“Digiphrenia”—where Rushkoff discusses “how technology lets us be in more than once place—and self—at the same time.” Living simultaneously in multiple worlds consumes more cognitive energy, he argues, and the relentless onslaught of updates and information makes it difficult to find focus. His solutions included designing technology that embraces natural human cycles and rhythms, and seeking a balance in the demands of our attention.

Kathryn created speculative designs and conducted experiments throughout the thesis year in order to test approaches for limiting distraction in a variety of media—including software, smartphone apps, smart objects, and experiences. Her earlier speculative ideas included Motion Lock, a smartphone override that will cease function while the device is in motion (walking, driving, or on public transportation). Motion Lock helps users become more aware of their environment and the people in it, and decreases distracted walking. Critically, in car, Motion Lock not only decreases the distraction of the driver (resulting in fewer accidents), but will also encourage conversation between driver and passenger. Another second, speculative design was Signal Free in NYC, a public installation at Bryant Park using signal dampeners to block wifi and cellular signals from the grassy area of the park. Public spaces typically promote having free wifi as a draw, but urban dwellers may actually appreciate an area of the park that is completely “signal-free”—creating a space for intentional disconnection and analog interactions.

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In the second semester, Kathryn created the Presence Lab, a platform for building, user testing, and iterating a variety of experiments aimed at providing increased focus and a sense of “being present.” Each experiment contributed to a creative dialogue around the future of interactions with technology. Four experiments detailed below include Concierge, Cortex, Juice Bar, and Tempo.

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Concierge is a smart phone, tablet, and computer app that synchronizes Internet and notification controls across all of the user’s devices—streamlining the ability to control and limit all distractions. With current devices, it is conspicuously difficult to turn off notifications; users must manually turn off each and every individual app in the settings menu. Concierge solves this problem by providing the ability to disable all notifications at once, toggling notifications on and off in a global manner for predefined durations. “Providing focus during tasks saves time,” Kathryn argues, “and that time can then later be spent on more enjoyable endeavors. When you’re trying to get something done, Concierge lets users ‘focus on what’s important.’”

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The next experiment, Cortex, is a speculative software intervention that pairs with off-the-shelf EEG-sensors, providing a way to control a user’s display monitor when undertaking tasks at work. EEG sensors, worn on the head, detect electrical activity resulting from neurons firing inside the brain. (These sensors can detect and distinguish between many channels of brain waves.) An increased or decreased in specific activity can trigger events, and Cortex uses this input to prompt focus: When a user becomes distracted and begins to lose focus on their task at hand, the Cortex algorithm kicks in and slowly dims their computer screen. When the screen darkens, the user must focus her or his mind in order to brighten the screen and resume their work.

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Kathryn explored the social ramifications of technology-based distraction through an experience design intervention called Juice Bar. Popular, organic solutions to social distraction have emerged recently—including the “cellphone basket” (where each person places their phone in a basket when entering a house for a party), or the “cellphone stack” (where members out to dinner lay their phones in a stack at the center of the table; the first person who reaches for their phone pays for dinner!)

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Instead of treating the smartphone as the villain in such social situations, Kathryn explored how to design a delightful experience for both cellphone and owner in an energizing pop-up social hour. Juice Bar invited students from three graduate programs to take a much-needed break to recharge during their finals week. The event energized the students through conversations and fresh vegetable juices, while charging their phones through an inductive charging lounge bar. The smartphones were occupied during the event (with a beautiful view of wheatgrass); the humans were liberated to engage with one another, technology-free.

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The final experiment of the thesis was Tempo—a haptic pacing armband. Through small vibration motors that create gentle “pulses” onto the arm, Tempo creates a personal, user-determined rhythm for users to help them through their daily activities. Kathryn designed and created four working prototypes throughout the semester, testing each one with a new group of users to gain feedback and improve functionality.

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Research revealed that when users were initially introduced to Tempo, there was a slight feeling of anxiety; “People equated the feeling to their phones vibrating,” reported Kathryn. “But after just a little bit of continued use, the sensation became soothing and relaxing. Each person who tried Tempo came up with a unique use for it in their life, including counting poses and breathing during yoga practice; regulating their pace when walking or running; using the device as a silent metronome for musicians; to help them fall asleep; to time tasks; or to breathe deeply and slow down when giving presentations.” Kathryn designed a smartphone app that lets users wirelessly adjust the pulsing rhythm and intensity of the device, along with a selection of rhythm pre-sets for specific activities such as exercise or relaxation.

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True to the thesis objective, Tempo provides a unique way of sensing the passage of time, helping users to decrease distraction and increase focus.

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Moving forward, Kathryn plans to continue working in the field of smart objects and wearable electronics, empowering others to learn by making, sharing tutorials, and providing workshops.

Read more about the project, including subject matter experts and additional prototyping, in the thesis book above. View more of Kathryn McElroy’s work at KathrynMcElroy.com, and email her at hello[at]kathrynmcelroy[dot]com.