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When People Vanish: A Study to Investigate How Human Presence Changes the Scenario Speculation

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Designers have used everyday photos as stimuli to speculate alternative scenarios about the future. Many studies have developed diverse ways of re-designing roles of an actor to stimulate scenario speculation; however, a lack of understandings of how the presence of an actor influences the scenario speculation process. Therefore, this work conducted a study that investigates how everyday photos with and without human actors affect people to speculate possible scenarios. We recruited 29 crowd workers from Amazon Mechanical Turk to generate 80 scenarios for two groups of photos (i.e., with-actor and non-actor photos). We analysed these scenarios and found that with-actor photos led people to speculate consistent scenarios around human actors and their activities. By contrast, non-actor photos allowed people to speculate the scenarios flexibly and diversely. These insights suggest a new design opportunity of using non-actor photos as potential materials to encourage people to generate diverse scenarios.
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When People Vanish: A Study to Investigate How Human Presence Changes
the Scenario Speculation
YU-TING CHENG,
Eindhoven University of Technology & National Taiwan University of Science and Technology
YI-CHING (JANET) HUANG, Eindhoven University of Technology
Designers have used everyday photos as stimuli to speculate alternative scenarios about the future. Many studies have developed
diverse ways of re-designing roles of an actor to stimulate scenario speculation; however, a lack of understandings of how the presence
of an actor inuences the scenario speculation process. Therefore, this work conducted a study that investigates how everyday photos
with and without human actors aect people to speculate possible scenarios. We recruited 29 crowd workers from Amazon Mechanical
Turk to generate 80 scenarios for two groups of photos (i.e., with-actor and non-actor photos). We analysed these scenarios and found
that with-actor photos led people to speculate consistent scenarios around human actors and their activities. By contrast, non-actor
photos allowed people to speculate the scenarios exibly and diversely. These insights suggest a new design opportunity of using
non-actor photos as potential materials to encourage people to generate diverse scenarios.
ACM Reference Format:
Yu-Ting Cheng and Yi-Ching (Janet) Huang. 2021. When People Vanish: A Study to Investigate How Human Presence Changes the
Scenario Speculation. In Companion Publication of the 2021 Conference on Computer Supported Cooperative Work and Social Computing
(CSCW ’21 Companion), October 23–27, 2021, Virtual Event, USA. ACM, New York, NY, USA, 6 pages. https://doi.org/10.1145/3462204.
3481781
1 INTRODUCTION
In designing future applications, designers often face a challenge to envision future scenarios with emerging technologies.
As a Japanese writer, k
¯
ob
¯
o Abe, said, “the future is forever a projection of the present”, design researchers use diverse
everyday scenarios as an inspirational material to envision possible futures and discover new design spaces [
17
].
However, these everyday scenarios may cause designers to only discuss the existing practice and neglect to think of
alternatives ways of being. To inspire designers to speculate beyond the existing practice, researchers have explored ways
to extract scenarios from sci- movies [
5
] and investigated strategies to generate diverse scenarios by re-designing the
roles of actors in everyday photos [
6
]. Actor and background information are two essential components for composing
a scenario [
17
]. By changing the identities and perspectives of the actor, researchers can make everyday scenarios
strange and unfamiliar [
1
]. Such unfamiliar scenarios can inspire designers to gain new understandings of the current
practice. For example, Desjardins et al. [
6
] used everyday photos of participants’ homes as a background context and
added novel actors on top of these photos to co-speculate with their participants about IoT future scenarios at home.
Brown et al. re-mixed everyday photos with emerging technologies (e.g., drones) to present a future IKEA catalogue [
2
].
This catalogue presents diverse scenarios and potential users to inspire designers to understand new relationships and
lifestyles of the future. Moreover, Giaccardi et al. attempted to change a viewing perspective from human to things
and used photos with dierent perspectives to engage designers to imagine new relationships in everyday life [
8
].
Similarly, Vaucelle and Ishii [
14
] attached a camera to a toy and encourage participants to generate stories through
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Manuscript submitted to ACM
1
CSCW ’21 Companion, October 23–27, 2021, Virtual Event, USA Cheng and Huang
Fig. 1. We designed an interface to assign non-actor and with-actor scenarios to dierent participants to tell what was happening.
the toy’s eyes. These examples show that ‘actor’ plays a key role to inuence people to speculate scenarios. While
prior work has identied actors’ roles and perspectives as an eective strategy to defamiliarize the everyday scenarios
for generating alternative scenarios [
8
], a lack of studies investigate whether and how the presence of actors aect
the scenario speculation process. We wonder, what if we remove any actors presented in everyday photos? Would
these non-actor photos limit people to speculate possible scenarios? Therefore, this work investigates whether and how
everyday photos with and without human actors aect the scenarios speculation process.
To do so, we conducted a study by comparing the scenarios generated by two groups of everyday photos with and
without actors. We selected a total of 40 photos from the MS-COCO dataset [
10
], in which 20 photos contain everyday
activity/event with humans (with-actor photos) and the other 20 photos contain everyday scenes without humans
(non-actor photos). We recruited 29 online workers from Amazon Mechanical Turk to generate 80 scenarios for these
photos. Each photo has two scenarios generated by two distinct people. We annotated and analyzed their results by
identifying the narrative styles and the scenarios of the actors and activities. The results showed that participants
speculated the consistent scenarios for the same photo by using with-actor photos. In contrast, when human actor
vanishes, people speculated scenarios exibly and generated more diverse scenarios than with-actor photos. This insight
suggests ‘non-actor scenario ’ as a potential ‘scenario stimuli’ to support people to generate diverse scenarios using
everyday photos.
2 RELATED WORK
Photos have been recognised as an eective visual material for stimulating ideas among people because photos
containing real-world events can “connect an individual to experiences or eras even if the [photos] do not reect
the research subject’s actual lives. [
9
]” Researchers have developed various tools using photos as stimuli for idea
generations [
13
,
15
,
16
] and identied that changing roles of actors can inspire people to speculate dierent stories [
3
,
14
].
However, a lack of studies investigate how with-actor scenery and non-actor scenery aect people to generate the
story using photos. On the other hand, photos with a non-actor scenario are widely found in photography and cinema.
For example, ‘scenery shot’ as a lming style often presents a scene with the landscape without human presence.
Eugène Atget, a pioneer of documentary photography, uses his landscape photographs, which contain “doorways,
balconies, ruins, and streetscapes devoid of people [
11
]” to engage viewers to imagine a new form of urban experiences
aesthetically. In the eld of cinema, people apply a scenery shot to shape the ambience of the story at the beginning of
the lm [
11
]. Lukinbeal has further identied scenery shots as alternative narrative perspectives to engage viewers to
imagine any possibilities in photos [
11
]. Researchers have also explored dierent perspectives to conduct their studies
depending on dierent interests [
4
,
7
]. Cheng et al. proposed a tool to capture photos without human presence [
4
] at
home. While their motivation is to protect participants’ privacy, their non-human photos encourage their participants to
2
When People Vanish: A Study to Investigate How Human Presence Changes the Scenario SpeculationCSCW ’21 Companion, October 23–27, 2021, Virtual Event, USA
Fig. 2. A) 80 categories in the MS-COCO dataset. B) Our filtering process of selecting home indoor non-actor and with-actor scenarios.
C) The final selected categories for with-actor and non-actor scenarios.
share more diverse contexts beyond what photos can capture. Inspired by these studies, we see a potential opportunity
of a non-actor photos to open a space for rich interpretation. Thus, this work focuses on investigating whether and
how with-actor and non-actor photos change ways of people’s scenario generation process.
3 METHOD
To prepare non-actor and with-actor scenario photos, we found an open-source library called MS COCO dataset [
10
],
which has 80 categories of object types (see Fig. 2-A). Using these 80 categories, we ltered the types to select dierent
photos representing the with-actor and non-actor scenarios. Meanwhile, our primary research domains focus on future
smart home design. Therefore, we aim at collecting diverse home and indoor related scenarios.
Our ltering processes are: rst, we used the category of ‘human’ as a major lter for capturing with-actor and
non-actor scenarios (see Fig. 2-B-1). Second, we used ‘indoor’ (e.g., kitchen appliances) and ‘outdoor’ object types (e.g.,
transportation) as sub-lter and only focused on the categories of indoor object types (see Fig. 2-B-2). Third, we used
‘size’ and ‘mobility’ to capture both large (were rarely moved) and small (easy portable) object types in the indoor object
types (see Fig. 2-B-3). Our rationale is that people may use a long-distance camera shot to capture large objects. Thus,
we can capture a zooming-out perspective of the location where multiple activities might happen. In contrast, people
may use a close-distance camera shot to capture one or a few small objects with zooming-in perspectives. People may
also easily take the small object to dierent locations and capture diverse activities in distinct contexts. Fourth, we used
electronic and non-electronic object types as the nal lter because we were interested in capturing diverse contexts
with dierent technology for smart home design (see Fig. 2-B-4). Finally, we got four dierent indoor object types and
randomly picked four categories from the types: bottle, hairdryer, couch and fridge. We collected the top ve photos
from the four categories. We used the lter, human, to capture 20 non-actor scenarios and 20 with-actor scenarios with
the four objects (see Fig. 2-C).
To investigate what possible scenarios can be stimulated by these 40 with-actor and non-actor photos, we created an
interface (see Fig. 1) to randomly assign 40 photos to dierent participants. Each photo was assigned to two dierent
participants to write a story about the same photo. We recruited our participants from Amazon Mechanical Turk
and nally received 80 scenarios from 29 participants. We analysed their scenarios by annotating the scenarios about
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CSCW ’21 Companion, October 23–27, 2021, Virtual Event, USA Cheng and Huang
Fig. 3. Six examples of the scenarios stimulated by (A) with-actor and (B) non-actor photos annotated as A1, A2, A3 and B1, B2, B3.
who (i.e., the main actor) and what (i.e., activities the actor perform). These annotations allow us to identify dierent
narrative styles between actor and non-actor and the diversity of scenarios stimulated from the same photo.
4 PRELIMINARY FINDINGS
Our results showed that with-actor and non-actor scenarios aect the scenario speculation process dierently. For
example, non-actor photos allow participants to project their interested actors and speculate possible scenarios exibly.
When the human actor vanishes in the photos, participants can imagine any actor (e.g., dierent genders, ages,
personalities) and speculate where they are and what they are doing. In Fig. 3-B, the non-actor photos made participants
speculate two dierent contexts: one was about the pregnancy in the hospital; the other was about a discussion
regarding the time and space between two men (see B3 in Fig. 3). In addition, one participant projected a scenario of
kids having breakfast (see B2[a] in Fig. 3); another participant interpreted the personalities of a family (see B2[b] in
Fig. 3). Furthermore, non-actor photos enabled participants to use diverse narrative styles to describe their scenarios.
4
When People Vanish: A Study to Investigate How Human Presence Changes the Scenario SpeculationCSCW ’21 Companion, October 23–27, 2021, Virtual Event, USA
For example, the narrative styles can be a dialogue between two persons (e.g., B3[a]), a description of a family type (e.g.,
B2[b]), an intention (e.g., B1[a], B3[b]), or an activity (e.g., B1[b], B2[a]). In contrast, with-actor photos only stimulated
a consistent description of the activities of the similar actor (e.g., A1, A2 and A3 in Fig. 3).
We also observed that the human actor plays a key role in driving the scenario speculations in the with-actor photos.
Participants paid more attention to the human actor’s behaviours and expressions and created possible scenarios around
the actor. The scenarios driven by the with-actor photos showed more consistent styles and contexts than the non-actor
photos. In Fig. 3-A, participants who were in the with-actor photos group speculated similar contexts such as teaching
(e.g., A1[a] and [b]), playing Wii (e.g., A2[a] and [b]), and cooking (e.g., A3 [a] and [b]). Our results show consistent
evidence from prior research and further explain why re-designing actors’ in everyday photos could guide people to
speculate alternative scenarios.
5 DISCUSSION AND FUTURE WORK
Our results showed that the non-actor and with-actor photos stimulated people to tell stories dierently. For example,
with-actor photos encouraged people to speculate a story around a specic role in detail. In contrast, non-actor photos
prompted people to generate diverse scenarios with their imagined actors. We envision developing a possible scenario
generator system that uses with-actor and non-actor photos as inputs to encourage people with dierent backgrounds
(e.g., online crowd, experts, inhabitants) to generate a variety of scenarios.
In this work, we only investigated how an individual speculates a story by using non-actor and with-actor photos. It
would be interesting to extend this work to understand how these two types of photos aect a group of people to generate
a scenario in the future. We are also aware that people’s speculations could be inuenced by some factors [
9
,
12
]). For
example, content (e.g., a neat or messy surrounding) and color impressions of the photos (e.g., warmth, contrast and hue)
might evoke dierent feelings, memories, and experiences [
9
]. People’s dierent cultural backgrounds, personalities
and previous experiences could also aect the way of interpreting everyday objects in the photos [
12
]. Additionally,
dierent ways of capturing photos can make people speculate narratives from dierent views [
6
,
8
]. Future work is
required to explore dierent factors that aect people’s speculations. In this work, we did not control the quality of
the photo representation due to the chosen dataset. Thus, future work is needed to consider other datasets containing
consistent photo contents, color impressions and photo-taking perspectives. Finally, we noticed that not everyone was
well-inspired by the non-actor photos. The instructions we provided (i.e., tell a story) could be too general, causing
some participants to only focus on background stu rather than a whole story containing who did what, when, and
why they did. Future work could explore diverse structures in guiding people to generate complete scenarios with
non-actor photos. A possible instruction could be ‘what is going to happen?’ It might encourage people to generate a
story about the future contexts with new but related objects and actors not presented in the photos.
6 CONCLUSION
This paper presented a preliminary study to compare dierent scenarios stimulated by non-actor and with-actor photos.
By capturing multiple scenarios from 29 online participants, we found that non-actor photos could be a potential
stimulus to encourage people to project their imagined actors to the scenario and generate diverse stories in a exible
way. This insight suggest a design opportunity of using non-actor everyday photos as a material to facilitate people to
generate diverse scenarios for supporting designers to explore possible futures.
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CSCW ’21 Companion, October 23–27, 2021, Virtual Event, USA Cheng and Huang
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