Background: Lack of Social Learning Opportunities in Libraries

Public libraries and coworking spaces seek for means to facilitate peer collaboration, peer inspiration and cross- pollination of skills and creativity. However, social learning, inspiration and collaboration between coworkers do not come naturally. In particular in (semi-) public spaces, the behavioural norm among unacquainted coworkers is to work in individual silos without taking advantage of social learning or collaboration opportunities. In general, users remain unaware of and uninspired by each other’s domains of interest and expertise.

The underlying user research in described in a previous posts, identifying 5 Personas:


5 Personas represent the core motivations, attitudes, and behavioural patterns of visitors at The Edge


Approach: Participatory Action Design Research

In a follow-up user study, we found that people form, shape and maintain their informal learning activities as learner-specific ecologies of hybrid personal learning environments (HPLEs). Informal learning is embodied in everyday activities and places that involve social interaction, productivity, and fun. The concept idea for libraries was to aggregate and display their users hybrid personal learning environments and networks to each other. Seeing objects or places that are relevant to an individual may attract others with similar interests and lead to a face-to-face interaction based on serendipitous discoveries of new topics and interests. My design approach was to morph such social user information with the ambient physical space of the library building by means of multitouch tables and social public displays. I followed an Participatory Action Design Research approach towards designing, prototyping and evaluating the artefact in ‘the wild’ context surrounded by prospective users as well as library stakeholders and management.

Result: Gelatine – A Social Public Display to Facilitate Shared Encounters

The idea behind ‘Gelatine’ is a system that facilitates shared encounters between coworkers and library users by allowing them to digitally ‘check in’ at a work space. Gelatine displays skills, areas of interest, and needs of currently present coworkers on a public screen. The system provides an online / mobile website for users to create a personal profile with keywords (‘tags’) that describe their skills, areas of interests, as well as areas that they have a problem in or want to learn more about. This profile information is linked to their RFID membership card, which they can swipe at one of the ‘checkin-points’ at the entrance or specific sub locations such as individual desks or coffee kiosk to confirm their presence in the space.


A pilot evaluation study of Gelatine at The Edge, at State Library of Queensland (SLQ) indicates that the system amplifies users’ sense of place and awareness of other coworkers, and serves as an interface for social learning through exploratory, opportunistic and serendipitous inspirations, as well as through helping users identify like-minded peers for follow-up face-to- face encounters.

Gelatine’s form factor as an ambient medium (as opposed to, e.g., a mobile phone application) was significant to attract the attention first-time visitors, most of who would not have stumbled upon it otherwise

Gelatine’s form factor as an ambient medium (as opposed to, e.g., a mobile phone application) was significant to attract the attention first-time visitors, most of who would not have stumbled upon it otherwise

The study also shows that whether a user takes notice, ignores or interacts with the screen highly depended on that user’s individual pre-entry motivations and attitudes towards the surrounding place and other people in the place. Gelatine had a different impact according to a visitor’s pre-entry motivation (see 5 personas above):

80% ignorers:

  • Gelatine was mostly ignored by Doesn’t-care Claires, i.e.
  • visitors with a fixed pre-entry motivation often have a tunnel vision and are simply not interested in any social or serendipitous encounters

16% viewers:

  • Gelatine enhanced What-can-I-do-here Sophias’ sense, purpose and function of The Edge as a collaborative learning space, and
  • inspired Co-working Chrises through a better awareness of other users’ skills and interests

4% direct interactors:

  • Gelatine was utilised by Learning-freak Fridas as a tool to identify and ice-break conversations with likeminded or more knowledgeable users, i.e. I-wanna-share-it Garretts

In general, the screen enhanced first-time users’ sense of purpose and function of the space, inspired coworkers with a better sense of other users’ skills and interests, and was utilised as a tool to identify and ice-break conversations with likeminded users or more knowledgeable users. As such, it extended the social interfaces at The Edge for both, divergent (exploratory, opportunistic, serendipitous) as well as convergent (goal-directed, focused, explicit search) information behaviour. The study illustrates the potential of Gelatine as a hybrid tool for placemaking and designing collaborative interactive spaces; it embodies digital footprints of situated users to augment the physical space with affordances for social learning and peer-collaboration that would not be perceivable otherwise.

The following video demonstrates the use case for Gelatine:

Slides as presented at OZCHI 2013, 25-29 November 2013:

I gave an interview to Australian Science recently, talking in more detail about the research behind Gelatine:

Relevant Publications

  • Bilandzic, M. & Foth, M. (2013) Learning beyond books: strategies for ambient media to improve libraries and collaboration spaces as interfaces for social learning. Multimedia Tools and Applications. (eprints)
  • Bilandzic, M., Schroeter, R., & Foth, M. (2013) Gelatine: Making coworking places gel for better collaboration and social learning. In Proceedings of OZCHI 2013, 25-29 November 2013, Flinders University, Adelaide, SA. (eprints)

Gelatine is Open Source – System Overview

Gelatine is published as open source software. Find a system overview, tutorials and links to the source code further below. Gelatine consists of 4 modules:

1) User Profile Website / Database / Backend

The website and backend system enable users to create, edit and maintain their user account and profile information. This is where they can specify their background/interests, areas of expertise, status information  and questions to others. The database also stores timestamps for when each user has checked in. There are two existing implementations of the Gelatine backend:

Gelatine backend based on WordPress

For prototyping purposes, I used a simple self-hosted WordPress installation with Cozmoslab’s Profile Builder Pro – a WordPress plugin that adds user profile functionality to a WordPress site. Profile Builder Pro integrates the user profile information into the WordPress MySQL database. I added a few columns to the DB that would keep track of individual user’s checkin timestamps, and link their checkins to the respective user information. You can add those columns by running this SQL script onto the WordPress MySQL database.
I wrote a RESTful API in PHP that hooks into the database and provides real-time checkin data in JSON format. The returned JSON file can be parsed and visualised through the public screen application or printed on the thermal printer.

Gelatine backend based on Ruby on Rails

Tucker Bradford did a great job in reverse engineering the Gelatine backend in Ruby on Rails, which provides a more scalable platform and much more flexibility for future functionality than a WordPress installation does. Find his Gelatine backend code on github.

2) Checkin Points

lasercutted box for arduino RFID projects - acrylicA Checkin Point is a physical component that consists of an RFID reader and a microcontroller with network capabilities to read a user’s RFID membership card  and submit a checkin timestamp to the Gelatine database. For this project, I used the SNARC controller with an onboard ATMEGA328 and Ethernet chip, but the source code is fully compatible to an Arduino 1.0+ and Ethernet Shield. Each checkin point has an ID and submits its location with each checkin to the database accordingly.
Find more detailed information on how to build and setup a Gelatine Check-in Point here.

3) Public Screen Application / Visualisation

checkin user information - skills/ needs/ questions - all in oneThe goal of the public screen application was to develop aesthetically pleasing visualisations that provide information about the social space of the location where Gelatine is installed. The visualisations contain interests, backgrounds, projects and status messages of the people who are currently checked in. The prototype visualisations were created in Processing, adopting the WordCram open-source solution for word clouds.
Rather than being limited to textual information, future visualisations can use ambient displays, i.e. displays that provide information in the periphery of users’ attention by producing subtle changes in the environment (change of light, sounds, etc.). The checkin data can be obtained trough the API in JSON format, so any but any programming / InfoViz platform can be used.

In another post, I provide more background information and the source code of the public screen application.

4) Thermal Printer

IMG_8340The Gelatine printer is a Sparkfun thermal printer and has been implemented according to the gofreerange printer solution. As discussed in a previous post, the gofreerange framework provides the most sophisticated and flexible solution for network-enabling a thermal printer. Freerange also provides an exhaustive tutorial on how to assemble, setup and run the printer.

The printer “listens” to the Gelatine RSS feed (part of the Gelatine API) that contains a list of all recent checkins. That RSS feed supports PubSubHubbub, so whenever a new user checks-in, a notification is sent out to the printer. The printer then fetches the updated RSS feed and prints the user profile of the most recent checkin. I described in a previous post how to set up PubSubHubbub for a RSS feed. With PubSubHubbub, the printer does not need to frequently poll the Gelatine server for new checkins, but gets notified almost in real-time once a user checks-in.

To make things prettier I uploaded a laser-cuttable enclosure box for the printer that suits the purpose of Gelatine.

5 thoughts on “Gelatine – Designing for Digital Encounters

  1. Pingback: Gelatine Checkin Point | kavasmlikon

  2. Pingback: Gelatine – Public Screen Application | kavasmlikon

  3. Pingback: Who’s at Eurisko: Project ‘Gelatine’ by QUT Urban Informatics #eurisko13 | eurisko Melbourne

  4. Pingback: Laser Cut Enclosure Box for Internet of Things Printer | kavasmlikon

  5. This is incredibly cool! I would love to experiment with hooking this into a public PC booking system i.e. using patron barcode at the point of logging into PCs rather than requiring a physical check in with an RFID card. This would need to be an “opt in” thing of course… Do you know whether there are plans to support this on a LAMP stack, or is it just a wordpress/Ruby thing for now?

    Love your work


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