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When technology interacts with you - a critical perspective – University of Copenhagen

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1 July 2014

When technology interacts with you - a critical perspective

Interaction design, proxemic interaction

Imagine you're using a public restroom. You step towards the sink to wash your hands and as you look into the mirror, the mirror senses your presence and exploits your attention by suddenly presenting an ad. Is this good or bad? Read the researchers' analysis.

Big data is quite a theme these days. In many ways, big data is a gift to mankind, making life easier, because your personal data and preferences are registered digitally and can be used by search engines to present personalized ads, suggestions for new social relations, videos and films, etc.

Related to big data and an upcoming area of research is the field of Proxemic interaction where digital devices in public places interact with people passing by, either by tracking people's physical movements or using personal data from mobile devices to interfere with the social relations between persons standing close to each others.

Best paper article describes 8 possible scenarios of misuse

While opening exiting new perspectives, this technology also brings about a natural sceptisism. An article which was given a best paper award at the recently held  DIS 2014 Conference on Designing Interaction Systems presents a critical perspective on 'proxemic interactions' presentíng potential misuses and calling for a code of conduct on how to design such systems to avoid misuse.

Sebastian Boring

One of the authors, Sebastian Boring, Associate Professor at Department of Computer Science, University of Copenhagen, says:

"The problem is that many of these innovative systems involve designing for ubiquitous computing situations that are extremely sensitive to intentional or unintentional abuse (e.g., privacy, distraction and intrusion concerns). Rather than wait until some future field study of our technology solves the problem, we should consider the 'dark side' of our technologies already at the outset."

Researchers look at dark patterns of innovative interactive devices

Proxemic interaction systems are designed to track people and devices in a specific environment and to act upon this to fulfill a certain purpose. To address and prevent the potential misuses of proxemic interactions a group of researchers have identified several root problems or "dark patterns" and discussed potential solutions that could lower their harmfulness.

A dark pattern is defined as: "A type of user interface that appears to have been carefully crafted to trick users into doing things [where theses user interfaces] are carefully crafted with a solid understanding of human psychology, and they do not have the user's interest in mind."

The paper presents eight such potential misuses of proxemic interactions based on examples from both research and real-world scenarios. Below are listed some of the examples of misuse mentioned in the paper.

The Attention Grabber

The person happens to pass by the field of view of a strategically located system. The system takes deliberate action to attract and keep that person's attention.

Bait and Switch

The system baits the viewer with something that is (from the viewer's perspective) desirable, but then switches it to something else after the person directs his or her attention to it and moves closer.

The Social Network of Proxemic Contacts or Unintended Relationships

The system tracks your proxemic relations with others and constructs a social network on the assumption that you are somehow socially related, when there is no relationship.

By identifying potential dark patterns, demonstrating how proxemic systems can abuse people either intentionally or unintentionally and speculating on potential solutions, the paper concludes with a call for a common code of conduct on how to design systems to avoid potential misuses. 


Proxemics theory explains peoples’ use of interpersonal distances to mediate their social interactions with others. Within Ubicomp, proxemic interaction researchers argue that people have a similar social understanding of their spatial relations with nearby digital devices, which can be exploited to better facilitate seamless and natural interactions. To do so, both people and devices are tracked to determine their spatial relationships. While interest in proxemic interactions has increased over the last few years, it also has a dark side: Knowledge of proxemics may (and likely will) be easily exploited to the detriment of the user. In this paper, we offer a critical perspective on proxemic interactions in the form of dark patterns: ways proxemic interactions can be misused. We discuss a series of these patterns and describe how they apply to these types of interactions. In addition, we identify several root problems that underlie these patterns and discuss potential solutions that could lower their harmfulness.

Best Paper Award

The paper "Dark Patterns in Proxemic Interactions: A Critical Perspective" was presented on June 24th in Vancouver at DIS'14 and was awarded the best paper award.

Read the paper

Read the entire paper here