Human-Computer Interaction Institute
School of Computer Science, Carnegie Mellon University


Critically Exploring the Virtual Possession Design Space
Through Fieldwork and Constructive Design Research

William Odom

August 2014

Ph.D. Thesis


Keywords: Human-Computer Interaction, Interaction Design, Research through Design, Constructive Design Research, Virtual Possessions, Slow Technology, User Enactments

Many disciplines have investigated how people modify and form attachments to their material possessions. Much of this work explores how material possessions play fundamental roles in supporting people's practices to construct a sense of who they were and who they want to become, as well as to give order to the intimate environments in which these experiences unfold. As interactive technologies continue to become woven into the fabric of everyday life, people's practices have expanded and today they are amassing ever-larger and more diverse collections of virtual possessions. Virtual possessions include former material things that are becoming immaterial (e.g., books, music, photos, tickets); things that never had a lasting material form (e.g., electronic message archives, social networking profiles); and also metadata traces that document people's interactions with digital devices and services (e.g., photo location information, music play histories, automatic and manual photo tags). The convergence of social, mobile and cloud computing services has created new opportunities for people to carry, access, create and curate their virtual possessions across environments throughout the world.

Over the past several years, the HCI community has begun to explore the intersection of virtual possessions with people's everyday lives. This nascent body of work has largely focused on understanding and building tools to support people's values and practices surrounding particular virtual things (e.g., photo collections, video, text messages). However, to date virtual possessions remain difficult to characterize, and little is known about what they are, and what they could–or should –be in the future.

This dissertation offers two core contributions to explore virtual possessions as a research topic for the HCI community. First, I propose virtual possessions as a class of artifacts for the HCI community to investigate. To do this, I draw on findings from qualitative field studies I have conducted with populations in several sites around the world that investigated people's perceptions of and relationships with their virtual possessions–how they become mundane parts of everyday life, how they are drawn on as resources for self-reflection and self-presentation, unexpected workarounds people devise to get a better 'grasp' on them, and, in some cases, how they become extraordinary. From this backdrop, In chapter 9 I synthesize and reflect on findings across these studies to take a step toward unpacking how virtual possessions differ from material things, and articulate key factors shaping how virtual possessions are experienced; namely, placelessness, spacelessness, and formlessness. Beyond solely articulating these qualities, this chapter frames and structures an agenda for future research and practice initiatives in the HCI and interaction design communities.

The second contribution of this thesis is knowledge on how virtual possessions can be represented in radically different and potentially more valuable forms. To do this, I draw on several studies I conducted of design artifacts, environments and prototypes that, in different ways, explore new forms and behaviors of virtual possessions, and the potential technological futures they represent. This corpus of research illustrates how the HCI community can move beyond studies of people's current practices toward making radical conceptual leaps that provocatively engage users in dialogues about the largely uncharted and unstructured virtual possession design space. Building on findings from my earlier fieldwork and design-oriented studies, on chapter 8, I describe the design, implementation and long-term field study of the Photobox, a technology probe that in part aims to open up value construction activities with people's Flickr photo archives.

Collectively, these two contributions provide substantial new knowledge into understanding (i) what virtual possessions are as a class of artifacts and factors shaping people's experiences with them and (ii) how the form, presentation and behavior of virtual possessions can be radically transformed to open up new and potentially more meaningful interactions with them in the future.

249 pages

Return to: SCS Technical Report Collection
School of Computer Science homepage

This page maintained by