Mapping Report

Alcatel-Lucent, Touchatag by mapit

Used kit: Media Arts Practice

Project: Smarttouch. Browsing Through Smart Objects Around You (Touchatag)
Organisation: Alcatel Lucent
Moderator: Liesbeth Huybrechts, Priscilla Machils, Annet Dekker (Virtueel Platform)
Date: 09/12/2009

According to its website, Alcatel-Lucent is “the trusted transformation partner of service providers, enterprises, strategic industries such as defense, energy, healthcare, transportation, and governments worldwide, providing solutions to deliver voice, data and video communication services to end-users. A leader in fixed, mobile and converged broadband networking, IP and optics technologies, applications and services, Alcatel-Lucent leverages the unrivaled technical and scientific expertise of Bell Labs, one of the largest innovation powerhouses in the communications industry.” For more information, see:

For this mapping, the moderators used chalk paper which allowed the participants to still see the writings and icons on the first sheet of chalk paper while other sheets were put on top of it. The group explained the icons – also printed on chalk paper – to the participants. The usage of bombs and locks made a critical reflection possible after the mapping session was over, which is useful to understand the process.

Participants in the mapping were most of the core members of the research group that worked on Smarttouch (both inside and outside Alcatel-Lucent): Marjan Geerts, Johan Criel, Marc Godon, Laurence Cleys (Alcatel-Lucent) and Dries De Roeck (CUO). The group was a particularly dynamic one with an open debate culture.

The composition of the group was very rich. Marc and Johan were the engineers in the group, although – over the years - Marc had become more of a creativity coach than an engineer. Marc is the leader of the project and followed the research process from start until the end. Alcatel also hired a sociologist, Laurence, who started working in the company during the project. She investigated the possible relations between context and social participation. In the last year of the project, Marjan, who graduated in industrial design at TU Delft, was hired with the motivation to make the interaction and communication concept under development tangible and experience-rich.

The project was engaged in many external collaborations. The project functioned in a European and national frameworks. It was funded by the European ITEA (23 organisations in 8 countries). It was also a pan-European consortium (Stolpan) funded by theIST program by the European commission. Finally, the Flemish IWT program also supports it for the period 2006-2008. Also there was a partnership with CUO (Centre for User Experience Research) and earlier also with the department of Mass Communication (KULeuven). Via this department first Veerle Van Rompaey, Laura Vanderwegen en Cindy Rutten, were involved in the project. Dries, graduate from Product Development Antwerp, was connected to the KULeuven, the Centre of Usability Studiesand was engaged in the project until the end. 

In the internal and external collaborations the social scientific approach clashed at some points with the Research & Design (R&D) approach. This expresses one of the most important bridges to cross via participatory work in this project. Designers like to use research to inspire their own work and that of others (like other disciplines or end-users). Second, the bridge between management and marketing versus research appeared an important challenge. Dries also perceived a third bridge to be crossed, namely between the internal Alcatel team and the external partners (like CUO) that worked on a physical distance and often in isolation of a group.

The project consciously inscribes itself in the phenomenon of participatory cultures. The group called SmartTouch the first 'real' participatory project by Alcatel-Lucent, in the sense that the internal team was never composed in such a cross-disciplinary manner in former projects. Although this participatory work was generally perceived as strength, the group also referred to a high sense of loneliness and need for a bad character in these participatory contexts. The constant negotiation during the participatory creation process is perceived as a success factor for innovation by the research group members and repeated in new projects, because they feel that participatory work makes the debate between disciplines and with users human and tangible.

Smarttouch had the explicit goal to create designed/technological outputs, preferable in a Telecom application, that would trigger participation using touch based interactions and provoking new communication experiences. During theproject, many objects - experiences in the form of physical, digital or mixed-reality objects - were created that stimulate participation. Methods like probes, prototypes or design games were used, because the group felt that in order to create technological experiences that are relevant for society and that can function in participatory cultures the process must follow a design research trajectory.

At a certain time, the research group in Antwerp got the attention of Alcatel-Lucent International via “AmigoTV”, an application that would turn the TV into a social network. This event provided the team with the opportunity to do a thinking exercise around Prince Edward Island. This resulted in three structuring concepts, around which inspirational hybrid objects were built: cultural grid, tangible media and Fröbel spaces.

Cultural grid means that culture and physical space could be structured in a grid, with points and trails, which people can control, walk through, using an object or device. The group explored this grid in a little room, called the Deep Dive. The name of the room is based on a concept by MIT of a helmet with a microphone and speakers. People can put their head in the helmet, while floating in water to immerse themselves in a phone conversation, isolated from outside intrusion and disturbing no one. To explore the cultural grid in the Smarttouch project, some ethnographical observations took place, e.g. in the railway station. While research students of the Antwerp University, department of Economy (TEW) did questionnaires, the Alcatel research group did experiments with ethnographic photographing, called “Wandering Through the City”. These photographs were interpreted with several drawings and schemes, like an emotional map with red dots, indicating meaningful places to people. This generated - however never realised - ideas around “proxyvisuals”, namely photos that adapt, depending on the physical space that people navigate through.

The concept of 'tangible media' explored a different relation to media. It related to the idea that objects could speak and media become literally touchable. It thus investigated the relation between people, objects and space. This was inspired by a large idea map wherein people, twelve families, in total fifty persons thought about the future of Telecom in 3050 in the framework of a project calledEncompas. In this project there were already some experiments with intelligent RFID stickers. The ideas related to this concept were also illustrated by a video and a series of conceptual drawings, illustrating how thing “speak”. Two additional, but quite important, hybrid objects in this process were Pietjesbak and Fluisterdingen. 

Johan materialised the concept of tangible media developed in group in a prototype that would communicate to outside partners and end-users, being the Pietjesbak. This refers to a popular game, being a box wherein people can throw with dices. They transformed the box into something that people can fill with objects, augmented with tags. If people put a, for example, toy giraffe in the box, geared with an RFID reader, the built-in screen would show certain media related to the rabbit. The Pietjesbak was a high tech prototype, since it already worked with software. It was also used at the Open Days at Alcatel to demonstrate to professional clients which concepts the research and innovation department was developing and was later installed in the Alcatel demo centre.

Second, to prototype the different relations that tangible media should generate, the technicians were working on the software architecture. Although they worked quite detached from the content and design work, they created a very open and generative software that was the basis of many prototypes linking objects to content, people or other objects. It was calledFluisterdingen and can be called a technical probe. It became the main third place between the research team, the programmers and partly also the end-users. It enabled non-experts to imagine quite clearly how objects could be attached to digital content and made it possible for them to start a conversation about that with the experts. Fluisterdingen proposed two forms of relations that could be created by using it, materialised by the bag and the act of whispering.

Third, to explore with which content people would fill in the link between themselves, objects and their surroundings (the cultural grid) the concept Fröbel space was used. In this framework, the research group gave the assignment to the Hogeschool Antwerpen, departmentProduct Development to brainstorm about two other concepts in relation to Fröbel spaces, namely the Maslow device (or devices that make you climb higher in the Maslow piramid) and Tribeware (or communication means designed to create or keep tribes together), to be used within five or ten years. The idea was to explore youth's engagement with these concepts, using RFID. While the experiments with the students did not generate much ideas, the research group did several more inspiring participatory design sessions, using four quite imaginative technical probes (such as a diary full of tags and suitcase research). The group also created many design games to explore the content dimension of attaching meaning to objects in the city (such as a citygame, using 10 mobiles and RFID, that was co-designed by the city of Antwerp, developers and game experts (an event organisation) and tested with engineering students of Artesis Hogeschool).

To link their thought experiments to the more commercial field, the research group used an advertising demo as an in-between object, called the Madonna-case. It demonstrated how people could encounter advertisements of a Madonna album in the city. To communicate with the end-users, the research group used less technological, but rather experience related, imaginative objects that explore which meaning people would attach to objects. Next to several in-depth interviews with people, which they call 'citizens', while walking through the city and around people's homes, the research group organised some collage sessions with artists (professionals and amateurs) and 'citizens' took place, using generative toolkits. These toolkits contain several 2D ad 3D icons that are gathered in collages.

In general, cultural grid, tangible media and Fröbel spaces the objects were evaluated as quite successful in triggering participation by the participants in the mapping session. They allowed feedback from users and experts during the whole process and not just in the end. The participants in the mapping expressed their critique on the Suitcase experiment and the different games, because of their lack of communicative value to all team members. They also lacked a hybrid object that could function as third place between the internal Alcatel-Lucent team and the outside project partners. Marc Godon, who lead the whole project, experienced a personal form of closure, namely the company gave him a golden medal for the good work.

The project generated three kinds of outputs. First, an inspirational book and, second, a large interactive table cloth in the form of a cityscape of about 10 meters on 8 meters summarised the project in an experience rich way. People could navigate through the cloth, using their phones and when they encountered an RFID the stories/results of the project, linked to a place or an object, would pop up. Third, Tikitag (later Touchatag) was built as a starter kit with the goal to stimulate people via the web to build their own applications with it. As a trigger the start-up Touchatag undertook many active 'nurturing' activities', like designing an urban 'flag game' themselves to seduce people into doing something active with their toolkit. Later, they made the design of urban games into a developer challenge. The Touchatag application created a quite large online network via several international blogs that picked up their story. Via this trajectory they reached many creative people, designing new applications with the kit.