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Whereabouts Clock

The Whereabouts Clock is a situated display for the kitchen wall which displays the general whereabouts of family members using cell phone data. The use of the “clock” metaphor is deliberate because it implies some important things about its design:

  • First, it is a situated display designed for the home, to be attached to the wall in a useful place in the home (like the kitchen) where it becomes part of the routine of family life, much as a clock does.
  • Second, it broadcasts information to the whole family, rather than to one individual. There are many tracking applications in development and also available as commercial products. However, these are generally accessed via a personal computer or personal mobile device. Such devices are more like a watch than a clock, in displaying information for one person only.
  • Third, the interface is deliberately designed to let the family see information “at a glance”. In this case, anyone in the kitchen can see at a glance where their loved ones are. One reason for this is that the display is “always on”, persisting in the periphery of vision in the way that information on a clock persists.
  • Fourth, it can only be seen when in the home (not looked at remotely) which means only people who are entitled to be in the home (i.e., family and friends) can see the device.
  • And fifth, like a clock, it displays only coarse-grained information. In this case, it shows only that a family member is at “home”, at “work or school”, or “out”, as precise location isn’t necessary for the purpose of planning a meal, knowing someone is on their way home, or being reassured a child is at school, for example.


The Whereabouts Clock works by using cell phone data. When a family member's cell phone is on, it automatically transmits SMS messages to the device when that person moves from one registered zone (such as "home") into another registered zone (such as "school"). Registering these zones only needs to be done once for each zone when the software is first installed. Thereafter, users need do nothing except switch on their phones. If they do not wish to be shown on the clock, they simply switch the application off. Additionally, users are given the option of texting in more specific information about their activities in each zone. So, for example, if a person is "out" but shopping, they can text "shopping" and the text will appear under the person's icon on the Clock.

We have already tested a version of the Whereabouts Clock for the office (as shown above). This version was used by our own research group to evaluate not only the robustness and reliability of the application, but also as a test of its value. The office version of this also provides an interesting point of contrast for the home version of this system. There are many important differences between office and home environments which impact upon its value, its design and issues such as privacy. Based on this internal trial we are making several changes to the home version. For more details, see the paper published in CHI 2006.

We will soon be testing the “home” version of the Clock in selected households in the Cambridge area. This version will be more like a clock in its physical form, and will allow greater freedom of expression through SMS messaging to the device. This prototype will also allow touch input so that family members can touch a person’s icon to read the accompanying text message.

It must be stressed that this is a research prototype which allows us to explore the potential value, technical aspects, and design of this concept. Whether this prototype would eventually become a product is at the moment, appropriately, an open question and depends on the results of the research.

Related Publications

Sellen, A., Eardley, R ., Izadi, S., Harper, R. The Whereabouts Clock: early testing of a situated awareness device.Extended Abstracts of Conference on Human Factors and Computing systems, CHI ’06. Montreal, Canada, (2006), 1307-1312.


Abigail Sellen
Shahram Izadi
Richard Harper
Rachel Eardley