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Socio-Digital Systems | Past Themes

SDS Past Themes

This group approaches the business of inventing a different future by identifying themes that represent interlocking sets of social and technical concerns. Currently, SDS is investigating the following.

Theme: Beyond Search

When we think of the experiences that search engines are designed to support, criteria such as speed and efficiency instantly come to mind. However, one of our main interests is in how Web use is intertwined with daily life, and understanding the activities in which search engines play a role. Within this larger, human-centred context, we find that the richness of Web use, and the activities in which search features, point to many other human values to design for in addition to fast, relevant search. More...

Theme: Interacting without Touching

Through our bodily relationship and actions with objects, places, and each other, we are able to express and create a rich variety of meaning. Gestures, movement trajectories, spatial positioning, and proximity are all means through which we communicate, interpret, and control our world. With the emergence of ever more sophisticated sensing techniques we are able to interact in new ways with the digital world without touch. These new mechanisms open up opportunities for exploring new genres of experiences and applications in a variety of new contexts where touch-based interactions alone may neither be possible, desirable, or as engaging. The important concerns for this theme are to understand the properties, challenges, and social consequences of touchless body-based interactions and how to design experiences with these mechanisms that achieve value and meaning for people in everyday contexts. More...

Theme: Human-centred System Architectures

Recent technological advances in computing are allowing massive redesign of processing, storage, and network capabilities and architectures. All of this is often encapsulated in the term cloud computing. These changes often seem distant from human affairs. Indeed, when someone posts to their social network, when they create and store a Microsoft Word file, or when they take and send digital images from their mobile phones, it is rare that they think of the cloud as they do it. People may not even care where the file in question resides. They might not care that it is a file. But sometimes these computational issues do matter to them. When someone hands over a digital picture, say, they may want that digital object, that file, to really move from their own device to another’s. They are giving it; they are not giving another rights to access it, to go to the cloud and view it. When they delete a digital file they might really want that file to cease to exist; they don’t want to find that others have copied it and made it their own. This theme is investigating how the design of computer architectures in the cloud and elsewhere can be altered to more effectively bind the social and the computational together, making them allies rather than distinct, separate phenomena. More...

Theme: [Big] Data Studies

Data is all the buzz. It's being seen in everything and found everywhere. From the human genome to our personal tweets, from the vastness of the universe to our planetary ecosystems, we're imagining just about anything can be subject to the analytical tools of a new data science. But what are the consequences of this vision of a data-rich world for those of us on the street; what impact, if any, does it have on our everyday experiences and with the things that matter most to us. Here, we aim to reflect on the rise of (big) data and investigate what it does mean for us, and what it could come to mean. More...

The Future of Looking Back

This theme examines the possibilities for amassing and interacting with diverse collections of data and media related to personal experience, and asks what will become of this all in the future. Rather than to assume that such collections will provide us all with a prosthetic memory, we wish to explore a much larger and richer set of human values that such personal archives might highlight. This includes the way people construct a new sense of the past, how we can use such materials to honour and commemorate others, how we might use these materials to reminisce, and even the consideration of the importance of forgetting. In so doing, this theme is not just about memory, but is also about notions of identity, expression, narrative, and reflection. We examine these topics not just from the point of view of technology, or indeed psychology. Here we take a more multidisciplinary approach incorporating design, sociology, and anthropology too. The ambition in this work is not just to more deeply understand what value people derive from looking back, but also to open up the design space to new kinds of technological possibilities. More...

Related Projects

At the Intersection

Technological innovations continue to raise important questions about the ever-changing intersections between humans and machines. These innovations not only change the way we conceive of technology and what it is to be human, they also have the potential to dramatically change the relations between the two. For example, artificial intelligence and robotics offer the building blocks for some very different kinds of computing machines, machines that might behave, independently, in new and unanticipated ways. The prospect of these new machines invites questions around how we may want to relate to them and what roles they play in our ordinary experiences. More...

Related Projects

Domestic 2.0: Constructing Ideas of the Family

Here research is examining how the ‘idea of family’ can be a sociological topic and a design orientation leading to technical innovation and new user experiences. Various research activities are seeking ways of capturing traces of family activity, assembling and creating new representations of these activities, as well as inventing new ways to interact with and display those traces. Ideas about, and tools for, user-generated content (UGC) are salient here, as are concerns with how such content might be combined with broadcast content, and the emergence of what one might call a domestic version of Web 2.0 and, in particular, the idea of mash-ups: hence the eponymous name of this research theme. Examples of projects in this area include Epigraph which has evolved into Homebook, Videoplay, Family Archive, Sonic Gems, and Photo Displays and Digital Postcards. These are exploring various social and technical agendas

Related Projects

  • Epigraph
  • Digital Postcard
  • Visual Answering Machine

Domestic 2.0: Connecting and Partitioning the Domestic Space

If the idea of constructing family is one theme, then another is the converse: the idea that domestic spaces might be socially and technologically fractionated in ways that people desire. Hence research in this theme is looking at how ‘domestic’ or private settings may be constituted by connections to other places and people and in other cases by partitionings and separations of places and people. Technology is obviously central here, as are social structures and systems of kinship and status, each of which might allow bonds in some cases and inhibitors in others. Example projects here include sociological investigations of Teens’ Bedrooms, Old Folks and Flat Sharers, and technical research into novel ways of creating distinction and cohesion such as Photo Illume and Digital Shoebox.

Related Projects

  • Digital Shoebox

Visible Consumption

Whatever the social or technological context, consumption is itself an increasingly important and worrying property of our day and age. We need ways of measuring, assessing and comprehending what our consumption habits are causing. Of course, the issue here is not simply the obvious one – that a PC consumes electricity for example; it is rather that, as we move towards complex eco-systems of technologies, our consumption patterns are becoming opaque and complex. This theme is thus investigating how to design devices and ecosystems that raise awareness, feedback and control in ways that brings visibility to issues of energy consumption and cost however obscure they might have become. Projects here include PARTICIPATE, BigBoard, Photo Illume, Intelligence Work and Home Networks.

Related Projects

  • Big Board
  • Participate


It is now possible to interact with digital objects in numerous ways. It is far from certain which method is ideal or perfect, and certainly there is now little faith in the idea that there might be an ‘ideal’ or ‘natural form of interaction’ that one should orient all interaction experiences toward. This theme is taking the view that there might be benefits from exploring diversity in interaction technique by studying how physical, virtual, kinship, and temporal ‘nearness’ can be leveraged as a design resource for interaction with new systems, devices, and ecologies of devices. Example projects include Picture Puke, BigBoard and Grab and Share.

Related Projects

  • Grab and Share
  • TimeMill
  • Whereabouts Clock

Hands-On Computing

Until recently, most computer systems entailed indirect interaction as a method or means for user input. Yet, ordinarily, people use their hands as a primary and direct mechanism for getting to grips with information and material. As new technologies are beginning to allow more direct interaction, just what ‘handedness’ might enable, and how it might be supported is far from clear, however. Simply allowing touch, for example, does not equate to making digital content tangible; making things tangible does not make them suited for all kinds of interaction. This theme is seeking to explore and develop what hands-on computing might mean, where new technologies and techniques that exploit the full richness and expressiveness of physical manipulation and gesture can be combined with new displays and materials to produce interactions beyond analogues of bodily interaction with real objects.
Example projects here include Family Archive, Tangible Gooeys, Shake2Talk, VideoPlay, Designer’s Notebook, E-books and Flutter

Related Projects

  • Shake2Talk: Multimodal Messaging for Interpersonal Communication
  • Family Archive
  • Text-it-Notes

Machine Encounters

As the role, function and power of computers alters, so the relationship between ourselves and computers affects what one might call our elemental assumptions. Our systems of accountability and intelligence are shifting for example; as our notions of what it means to be human as against machine-like. Research in this theme is investigating the evolving nature of this ‘moral distinction’ between person and machine with a view not simply to characterising philosophical shifts in contemporary consciousness, but with regard to the design of novel devices that reinvent what intelligence might mean. Projects here include the Intelligence Project and Human Values in a Digital Age (HCI 2020).

Related Projects

  • Rudimentary machines
  • The Other Brother
  • Rethinking RFID
  • Energy autonomy
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