How Two Bowls And A Handful Of Pebbles Could Help Solve Communication Overload

AT&T's research lab is building a simple physical tool for fine-tuning digital availability.

Smartphone power buttons present a choice between two extremes: We can either be available to everybody or be available to nobody. But using just two bowls and a handful of pebbles, a new product brewing inside of AT&T’s research lab in New Jersey adds some options in between.

If AT&T decides to produce the product, currently in early stages of development and dubbed “Availabowls,” here’s how it would work: You’d get home from a long day at the office, hang your keys on a hook, put down your mail, and then pick up the set of RFID-tagged pebbles, which would each represent a group of people in your life such as “work contacts” or “family.” You’d sort them into the two bowls, putting pebbles for people you did and didn’t want to talk to into green and red bowls, respectively. The contacts in the green bowl would see that you were up for a chat, and when they called, texted, or messaged, they’d reach you. But when contacts in the red bowl tried to contact you, they’d be notified that you’re busy.

Two Availabowls with tokens representing people or groups of people who would see you as available to talk (green bowl) or unavailable (red bowl).

In another scenario, the pebbles could each represent different types of communication and, when placed in the bowls, signify, for instance, that you’re available for text messages but not available for video chat. They could also be programmed to represent how busy you are, with eight of 10 pebbles in the red bowl showing contacts that you have more going on than last night, when there were five.

Lana Yarosh

Lana Yarosh, the AT&T researcher who created Availabowls, compares them to the physical availability status signal of closing an office door. “There are cues people instinctively get,” she says. “There’s something about a physical object that is kind of immutable. If I’m going to change [my availability using a physical signal such as a door], people respect those settings.” Physical, rather than digital, controls are also ideal for a product designed to help people unplug.

Yarosh, who has dual bachelors degrees in psychology and computer science in addition to a PhD in human-centered computing, started working on Availabowls after conducting interviews with kids and parents who live apart. She found that families most often chose to communicate via phone calls, and that setting up something like a video chat usually involved a series of text messages or phone calls in advance. “That kind of works for adults,” she says, “but kids are much more spontaneous, and I think all of us have a little bit of that inside of us, where it’s much more fun to be able to talk to someone in the moments when you’re excited about something, when you just want to go, ‘Oh my gosh, let me tell you about this.’ That’s what is missing from this very negotiated and scheduled communication. Rather than just being able to say, hey, this person is around and I can talk with them.”

Availabowls, if AT&T decides to take them to market, would allow users to communicate their availability, and to make it specific, without ever logging into their computers. “You’d have much better control over the types of people and the type of media that can contact you over time,” Yarosh says. “It [wouldn’t just be] you’re all out there, or you’re not at all out there--which leads a lot of people to always be out there, and that can be very stressful. I think this would give more opportunity to draw those boundaries in your life.”

[Image: Flickr user Mike Johnson]

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