Enter the maze

I’m on the clock

a stylised old-style watch face

Since Arthur Weasley is such a fan of muggle technology, we like to think he’d be charmed to recognise one of Microsoft’s recent inventions. Designers at Microsoft Research in Cambridge have made what they call a ‘Whereabouts Clock’, which does the same job as the one the Weasley family has in the Harry Potter books.

Like the clock in the books, Microsoft’s Whereabouts Clock shows where each member of a group of people is at a given moment. Its round face is divided into areas for work, home, school and ‘out’. (Unlike the Weasleys’ clock, there’s no zone labelled ‘mortal peril’. Probably a good thing.) When someone’s location changes, an icon of their face moves from area to area on the clock, so when someone leaves school to go home, for example, their icon moves from ‘school’ to ‘out’, and finally to ‘home’ as they arrive.

Calling the tower

The inner workings of the Weasleys’ clock are simple: it’s magic! So how did Microsoft get theirs to work, given that they have to rely on more everyday human technology? Their version relies on the fact that your mobile phone can tell the Whereabouts Clock where it is just by being plugged into your network. When users are initially setting up their clocks, they tell their phones when they’re in the ‘school’ zone, say, and the phone looks to see what the closest network tower is to that location.

Anytime it finds itself getting the strongest signal from that tower, the phone assumes it must be at school. Whenever the phone doesn’t recognise the tower it’s connecting to, it just shows the general ‘out’ zone on the clock.

On the face of it

Why make it look like a clock though? Well, it turns out the Weasleys were on to something, design-wise. A clock is actually a pretty good model to show people’s whereabouts. For one thing, using a clock is simple. It’s always on, you just look at it when you need it, and when you do you get the information you want at a glance.

Also, clocks give information away to the right people – everyone who’s allowed into a particular room can see it, so family and friends are allowed to see people’s whereabouts. The fact that you have to be physically in the same room to see it means that if you’re not trusted enough to get into the house, you won’t get the information.

Added extras

Just knowing where someone is doesn’t necessarily tell you what people are doing. To add a little bit more detail to their first design, Microsoft allowed users to choose specific activities from a pre-determined list, so you could say “leaving now” if you were at work but would soon be on your way. The users found, though, that sometimes they wanted to say more about what they’d be doing later, like “will be in this afternoon”. Other times, they wanted to let people know how to get in touch with them: “my email isn’t working so call me”.

It’s important to give your designs a testing phase like this, so you can find out what works best. Sometimes your users will come up with ideas you didn’t even think of, and sometimes features you thought would be great don’t end up getting used very much.

Overall, though, the testers of the Whereabouts Clock liked it. Some people said the clock made them feel like they always had a virtual presence even when they were out. Plus it doesn’t take any effort at all – if you just want to show your basic location, you only need to keep your phone turned on. As for trying to find people by checking the clock, the users thought it worked really well, and many especially liked watching people’s icons change location. There was a particular wonder about seeing a person’s icon drift over the clock face to show that they’d arrived, and then moments later seeing the person walk into the room.

So we might soon be able to get a real Whereabouts Clock just like the Weasleys have. As long as we’re producing stuff out of the Harry Potter books, can we get working on flying broomsticks soon please?