Supporting remote synchronous communication between parents and young children
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Parents and children increasingly spend time living apart due to marital separation and work travel. I investigated parent--child separation in both of these contexts to find that current technologies frequently do not meet the needs of families. The telephone is easy-to-use and ubiquitous but does not provide an engaging way of communicating with children. Videochat is more emotionally expressive and has a greater potential for engagement but is difficult to set up and cannot be used by a child without the help of an adult. Both telephone and videochat fail to meet the needs of remote parenting because they focus on conversation rather than care and play activities, which are the mechanism by which parents and children build closeness. I also saw that in both types of separation the motivation to connect at times conflicted with desire to reduce disruption of the remote household. To address some of these issues, I designed a system called the ShareTable, which provides easy-to-initiate videochat with a shared tabletop activity space. After an initial lab-based evaluation confirmed the promise of this approach, I deployed the ShareTable to four households (two sets of divorced families). I collected data about the families' remote interactions before and during the deployment. Remote communication more than doubled for each of these families while using the ShareTable and I saw a marked increase in the number of communication sessions initiated by the child. The ShareTable provided benefits over previous communication systems and supported activities that are impossible with other currently available technologies. One of the biggest successes of the system was in providing an overlapped video space that families appropriated to communicate metaphorical touch and a sense of closeness. However, the ShareTable also introduced a new source of conflict for parents and challenged the families as they tried to develop practices of using the system that would be acceptable to all involved. The families' approach to these challenges as well as explicit feedback about the system informs future directions for synchronous communication systems for separated families.