For a long time now, electronic devices have been designed for users to focus all their attention exclusively on the device while using it. Without any regard for the context, mobile phones blare off sound and vibrations, demanding user action immediately or else the call may be lost forever. If you know a person behaving like this he is either a psychopath or less than two years old.
So how can we make devices that are more polite? In a paper from UIST’05, Connor Dickie et. al. writes about mimmicking human group behaviour. In human conversation, attention is a limited resource. Only one person can speak at a time and turn taking is facilitated by eye contact. You could use the camera in the phone to determine if the user is looking at the screen, and modifying the phone’s behaviour appropriately. One suitable application that they propose is an eye controlled speed reader called seeTXT. An ordinary speed reader flashes one or two words at a time on the screen, letting you read very fast. This is great on small displays where you cannot fit much text without making the text very small. Check out the free ZapReader to see for yourself how a speed reader works.
The problem with an ordinary speed reader is that if you need to briefly look away, it keeps going and you get lost. Say that you speed read on your commute and you need to look away while showing your ticket, or if someone bumps in to you. With seeTXT, the device notices that you are not looking at it and politely stops at exactly that moment. You need not miss a word. It could automatically resume again next time you look at it. This is a much more appropriate behaviour than babbling away when you are obviously not paying attention.
I believe the time when we could just look at devices in isolation is gone. For any device to become confortably integrated in human life you have to design it to work smoothly in the contexts it will be used in. Increasingly, people are selecting songs on their iPods while driving in cars; a context it is NOT designed for. Failure to understand what contexts the device will be used in will result in designs that puts users in awkward and potentially dangerous situations.