Posts filed under ‘Communication’

Comic Chat

I remember using Comic Chat when I was in elementary school, trying it out with my new Internet Explorer install. It was the first chat program I had used, and thought it was both exciting and scary to be able to talk to complete strangers. Comic Chat is an application which generates comics from online chat, and uses the IRC protocol.

I was surprised to find this paper on Comic Chat written by the authors in 1996. Interestingly, it was published in SIGGRAPH, the top computer graphics conference in academia. From reading this paper, I find that Comic Chat is a lot more complicated than I initially thought.

Comic Chat creates realistic comics, which mainly consist of characters, speech balloons, and panels.


Generating a comic requires placing characters in a panel. Comic Chat used cues present in the text to generate the character’s gesture and expression. Things such as smileys :-), use of “I” or “you”, and punctuation would change the appearance of the character. In addition, the position and orientation of the characters is determined by a greedy algorithm. The following strip has examples of position and orientation issues: the first panel is missing a speaker, the characters in the second panel are not facing each other, and the outer two characters in the third panel are talking over the two middle characters. The fourth panel shows a correctly drawn panel.



Comics generally use four different types of balloons,

  1. Speech balloons for regular text, drawn with a solid outline and tail
  2. Thought balloons for what a character is thinking, with a solid online but a tail of ovals
  3. Whisper balloons for private conversation, with a dotted outline and tail
  4. Shout balloons for shouting text, with a jagged outline (not shown in figure)


Determining a balloon’s dimensions and placement is determined by a complex algorithm, which you can find in the paper. There are many things to take into consideration when placing balloons, such as placing them so they are read in the correct order, so they don’t overlap, so they are located somewhat over the speaker’s head, and to leave room for the tails.


Panel breaks are calculated to accommodate text properly, and to make the comic appear more natural. Breaks can be made when there are too many characters in a panel, or there is not enough room for the text. A break is also introduced when a character speaks twice to ensure a character does not have more than one balloon per panel. Panels are usually close-ups of characters to get a good view of the active character. However, a zoomed out shot is sometimes done to show the surroundings and characters in the scene.

While Comic Chat has become antiquated and few users now use it to chat online, it still has some value today. I realized when reading this paper that the web comic, Jerkcity is constructed from Comic Chat.

You can download a copy of Comic Chat if you want to give it a spin.

Kurlander, D., Skelly, T., & Salesin, D. (1996). Comic Chat. Proceedings from SIGGRAPH ’96: International Conference on Computer Graphics and Interactive Techniques, 225-236. [PDF]

December 4, 2006 at 1:09 pm 11 comments

People Take on the Traits They Describe in Others

Spontaneous trait transference is a phenomenon where people are perceived as possessing a trait that they describe in others. Telling others that your math professor is lazy will cause them to infer that you are lazy. This works the other way too — describing positive attributes about your friend may ascribe you those attributes as well.

Several experiments showed that people will associate personality traits to communicators mindlessly without logical rational. They also have a poor recollection of whether the communicator was describing themselves or someone else in a conversation.

So be careful when gossiping about a co-worker, lest you be seen as what you describe. And if you want to appear more charming, perhaps you could add that word to your vocabulary when talking about others.

As the old saying goes, “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all”.

Skowronski, J. J., Carlston, D. E., Mae, L., & Crawford, M. T. (1998). Spontaneous Trait Transference: Communicators Take on the Qualities They Describe in Others. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 74(4), 837-848. [PDF]

October 12, 2006 at 1:48 pm 27 comments

Massive Multiplayer Online Games as “Third Places”

A major concern of home media such as television and the Internet is that they are replacing essential social institutions and community. While a previous post has indicated that this might not be true, this research paper looks at massive multiplayer online games such as World of Warcraft to determine if they are indeed “third places”.

What is a third place? The first place is your home, where you can relax and be comfortable. The second place is where you usually are when not at home — work; work provides social interaction and sense of community. Howard Schultz, founder of Starbucks introduced third places as somewhere besides home or work where people can socialize and feel comfortable. Think Cheers.

Online games are thus third places as defined by the eight characteristics of third places.

Neutral Ground: Individuals are free to come and go as they please. In online games, players are not obligated to play; joins and quits are not significant events.

Leveler: An individual’s rank and status in society are not significant. As in the culture of early video game arcades, “It didn’t matter what you drove to the arcade. If you sucked at Asteroids, you just sucked.” Players on online games use a separate avatar unrelated to their real life person, and social status is rarely invoked.

Conversation is Main Activity: In third places, conversation is the main activity that the individuals participate in. While debatable as the main activity in online games, players would not disagree that conversation plays a crucial role. Often, conversation drifts to real world discussion such as personal life, politics, culture, etc.

Accessibility & Accommodation: Third places are easy to access and accommodating to individuals. Online games allow players to log on and off at will and there are always players online. Activity occurs throughout all hours of the day.

The Regulars: Regulars are those who give the place its character, and attract new individuals. Guild members, who form a clan to play the online game together, and squatters, who stay within an area of the game, are the regulars of the online world.

A Low Profile: Third places are characteristically homely and without pretension. The population of online games follow a parabolic curve; after the onset of players following the release, the regulars remain while many move on to higher profile games.

The Mood is Playful: The general mood of a third place is playful and witty. Players in online games crack jokes during heated battles, perform goofy actions with their avatars, and mock each others’ appearances. Rarely are players overly serious about game matters.

A Home Away from Home: Rootedness, feelings of possession, spiritual regeneration, feelings of being at ease, and warmth. Online games possess a homely atmosphere where players notice others’ absenses and makes the overall feel of the game “warm”.

Social capital is analogous to financial capital in that it can be acquired and spent, but for social gains instead of financial gains — for example, to be comforted or receive advice. Bridging is when individuals connect with those from different backgrounds. The advantage if bridging social capital include gaining access to new information and resources. Bonding is when individuals that are already close provide support for each other, making the relationship stronger. In a sense, bridging provides breadth while bonding provides depth.

In online games, players come from a diverse background so they are usually bridging social capital. However, it’s not uncommon for a bond to grow during an online game if individuals player together for a long period of time.

Online games fit the definition of a third place, but as players become more hardcore and focus more on gaming, their function as a third place wanes.

I read this paper after attending a related talk by one of the authors, and you might find his other publications just as interesting.

Steinkuehler, C. & Williams, D. (2006). Where Everybody Knows Your (Screen) Name: Online Games as “Third Places”. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 11(4), article 1. [HTML]

September 19, 2006 at 10:32 pm 46 comments

The Impact of Communication Technology on Lying Behavior

Lying is a frequent, and sometimes necessary part of our lives. A study finds that 26% a person’s of overall daily interactions involved some sort of deception (1.6 lies/day on average).

But how does technology impact the number of lies we tell? Researchers asked 30 volunteers to record their daily interactions and lies told during the interactions.

Four modes of communication were investigated:

Phone: 37% of phone calls involved deception.

Face-to-Face: 27% of face-to-face conversations involved deception.

Instant Messaging: 21% of IM conversations involved deception.

Email: 14% of emails involved deception.

Two existing theories fail to explain the difference in lying frequency among technologies.

The Media Richness Theory says that people will lie more if the medium of communication is richer. However, the data contradicts this because lies during phone conversations occur more often than lies in face-to-face communication.

The Social Distance Hypothesis claims the opposite — people prefer to lie when the medium of communication is less rich. This is because it’s more difficult to detect, and because lying makes them nervous. However, this is also contradicted by the results since face-to-face lies occur more so than lies over email.

The paper presents an alternative theory — the amount of lying is affected by whether the medium of communication is asynchronous, recorded, or if the persons are in the same physical location. Phone conversations feature none of the above, so lying is most likely to occur. On the other hand, email is only distributed, so lies happen least frequently over email.

However, aren’t the functions of each medium somewhat different? Email is more likely to be used to make announcements or detailed plans. It would seem that this type of communication is unlikely to contain a lie. Instant messaging is often used for quick exchange of information and so there is also not a lot of room for lying there. The study also mentioned but didn’t take into account the difference in length of communication between mediums, which would likely skew the results. Hence, it would seem that the likelihood of lying is less discrete than suggested by the paper and instead influenced by a wide range of factors.

One other finding from the study is that lies were more likely to be premeditated when over email; this may be somewhat obvious since email is the only asynchronous form of communication investigated, giving the liar more time to perfect the lie.

Hancock, J. T., Thom-Santelli, J., & Ritchie, T. (2004). Deception and Design: The Impact of Communication Technology on Lying Behavior. Proceedings from CHI ’04: Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, 129-134. [PDF]

September 16, 2006 at 2:11 am 9 comments

What is the sound of thousands of people chatting on the Internet?

First, I’d like to mention that this post is totally biased because I LOVED this project.

The Listening Post was an art exhibit I saw at the San Jose ZeroOne Art and Technology Festival.

Text is taken from online chat rooms, bulletin boards, and public forums, then selected lines centered around a theme are read aloud while the text is simultaneously displayed on a wall of digital tiles in real time.

The Listening Post Exhibit

Having a text-to-speech engine read the text makes it feel very impersonal, and the background music is quite serene. The whole piece made me feel quite cold and lonely.

It’s really more of something to see than describe, so here are some videos: [Video 1], [Video 2].


The only thing that would make this better is to alternate several different voices in the TTS engine, or at least have a female voice as well.

Hansen, M. & Rubin, B. (2002). Listening Post: Giving voice to online communication. Proceedings from ICAD ‘02: International Conference on Auditory Display (Accepted but not published). [PDF]

September 1, 2006 at 2:18 pm Leave a comment

Debunking the Seven-Plus-or-Minus-Two Myth

Why are phone numbers seven digits? Because our short-term memory can only store 7 numbers at once.

I heard that first in grade school, and it seems to be one of those things that sticks in your head. It’s so obvious and sensible!

But is it really? So you never forget a phone number between being told the number, to writing it down?

– Zero is perfection. One is focus.
– Two is a bit. Three is the simplest complexity.
– Four is a square. Five is a handful.
– Six is … just after five.
– Seven is many. What’s seven? It’s not a particularly special small integer.

Doumont takes a closer look at the paper that started this all — Miller’s “The magical number seven, plus or minus two” in The Psychological Review.

What George Miller presented as “some limits on our capacity for processing information” [1, p.81] quickly turned into an acceptable average: Miller’s whole paper is now ignorantly summed up as “seven is OK”.

The truth is, Miller’s paper doesn’t really provide much evidence for 7 to be the magic number of our short-term memory.

First, the number seven plus or minus two is at best an ASYMPTOTICAL LIMIT,

In fact, the calculations in Miller’s paper to come up with 7 as the magic number is unclear. He does not claim this to be the case and the experiments come up with a limit between 4 and 10.

Narratively, Miller seems obsessed with the number 7, which undoubtebly biases his judgment. From his original paper,

What about the seven wonders of the world, the seven seas, the seven deadly sins, the seven daughters of Atlas in Pleiades, the seven ages of man, the seven levels of hell, …

But no where in the paper does he actually say 7 is the number of things we can process.

Doumont, J. (2002). Magical Numbers: The Seven-Plus-or-Minus-Two Myth. IEEE Transactions on Professional Communication, 45(2), 123-127.

Miller, G. A. (1956). The magical number seven, plus or minus two: Some limits on our capacity for processing information. The Psychological Review, 63(2), 81-97. [HTML]

August 30, 2006 at 12:28 am 2 comments

When Can I Expect an Email Response?

No new messages. Why is it taking so long? Did they receive it? Did it get put in the junk mail folder?

How long should you wait before emailing again? You don’t want to seem desperate…

Waiting for an email reply seems to be a common occurance in this day and age of email reliance. We look for contextual clues to why a response may be taking longer than usual, and decide when we should follow up the email.

A paper by Tyler & Tang looks at the the email-replying habits of a group of corporate users in this 2003 paper.

Here’s what they found:

  • Most users check their email “constantly”
  • Users would try to project a responsiveness image. For example, sending a short reply if a complete reply might take longer than usual, intentionally delaying a reply to make themselves seem busy, or planing out timing strategies for email with read receipts.
  • Users would look at shared calendars or other means to estimate how long they should expect a reply
  • If an email was urgent, users often used voicemail as a way to bring attention to their email
  • Emails were written differently, depending on how long of a delay was expected before a reply (especially if their recipients were in a faraway time zone
  • Users would try to reciprocate email behaviors — responding quickly to people who responded quickly to them, and lowering their responsiveness to people who responded slowly to them in the past

Based on past response times, users had a response expection threshold for other users, which was the amount of time in which they expected a response (most said 24 hours). There was also a later breakdown perception threshold — a time when they would follow up on the email by phone or with another, more urgent looking email.

Tyler, J. R. & Tang, J. C. (2003). When Can I Expect an Email Response? A Study of Rhythms in Email Usage. Proceedings from ECSCW ’03: European Conference on Computer-Supported Cooperative Work, 239- 258. [PDF]

August 29, 2006 at 1:11 am 86 comments


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