Social Networking Services on Public Displays

In collaboration with City of Oulu

In collaboration with City of Oulu

Social networking services (SNSs) have radically changed how we communicate — and not only online, but in general. Think of social media apps like Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Instagam. How much time do you spend using them every day? Both for leisure and for business? Or for leisure that you’re pretending to be business?

One of the ideas we’ve been exploring a lot is leveraging SNSs to make our environments better, or at least more entertaining. To leverage the data and user-generated content in SNSs in a tangible way in our physical surrounding.

Although researchers often like to present public displays as novel and new artifacts in the urban space, they are really nothing more (or indeed less) than just another digital publishing medium. Then, it is merely a matter of time until SNSs extend their reach to displays in our surroundings just as they have conquered the online and mobile domains.

We have developed a generic mechanism allowing for the easy integration of online SNSs with public displays and the apps they run. This work has taken largely place using the display infrastructure built in UBI Oulu initiative and had 2 main tracks: middleware (enabling the actual integration, on a lower layer) and services (using the developed components to create prototypes and funky experiences for the actual end users).



Citizens of Oulu communicating via Ubinion: a public communication channel leveraging online SNSs between the City and its authorities (click to enlarge).

We have enabled SNS integration with public displays by offering a set of middleware components, each solving a different piece of the larger puzzle. In order to access users’ personal SNS profiles and their content on public displays, users must be identified reliably. The anonymity of public display users is an identified problem, and while several solutions work in theory, we think that mobile phones are the only feasible solution for this at the time. They are truly ubiquitous and highly personal devices that can be easily programmed and made to function as “keys to the environment,” or useable as proxies of their owners.

The mobile phone alone, however, is not enough. Their users need an interface to control their surroundings. To control an environment consisting of mobile phones and public displays, it is necessary to develop distributed user interfaces that connect all involved devices.

We created a solution that uses public displays in the environment as public and smart phones as private UIs. The developed solution allows its users to “lease” a public display and to identify themselves reliably.

By leveraging an extant UI component, public displays can offer different types of login services that help to associate users to displays. This enables accessing the correct person’s data in online SNSs directly from a display. After de-anonymizing public display users, we were able to create a generic SNSs APIs that makes the entire process painless for third party software developers.

The middleware components that we have developed for integrating SNSs with public displays are: i) distributed user interface framework, ii) login mechanisms for public displays, and iii) server-side APIs that utilize both of the previous mechanisms to provide access to online SNSs, directly from a public display.


Over time, we have developed many public display services utilizing middleware solutions to interact with online SNSs. Just some examples are different kinds of image and video galleries leveraging user-generated content and other multimedia services.

One of our earliest prototypes leveraging online SNSs on public displays was Social Surroundings. SocS aimed to enhance awareness and sociality in casual settings by utilizing personal, user generated content directly from online SNSs. Users controlled the content by using lightweight mobile clients. The overarching idea was to make people interact more face-to-face by using conversational pieces from SNSs on a co-located public display. Studies with SocS highlight how personal content is highly appealing on public displays in casual settings. However, many people are still very much wary about using their online content in such “offline” settings.

social surroundings by simo hosio

Content flowing from online SNSs to SocS

Ubinion aimed to foster communication between local city officials (the Youth Affairs Department) of Oulu and local youth. It allowed users to create content directly on public displays with an embedded webcam and an on-screen soft keyboard. The content was then relayed to Twitter and Facebook, where officials monitored the feeds and engaged in discussions with participants.

This project demonstrated that public displays can be used to effectively bootstrap a community into online SNSs, and showed public displays are efficient in reaching out to users who would be hard to reach using conventional communication streams.

Opinions and other pieces of content can be generated directly on public displays and then used to fuel discussions online.

Opinions and other pieces of content can be generated directly on public displays and then used to fuel discussions online.


The developed software and services constitute a concrete proof-of-concept on how to utilize online SNSs on general-function public displays. While many of the services that we demonstrated are no longer deployed, they proved that online SNSs can be used effectively as building blocks to drive up user numbers for a rich variety of public display services.

The graph below depicts the three developed middleware components and some of the services that are reported in the literature cited below. These studies all demonstrate how SNSs can be used on public displays.

Developed software for utilizing SNSs on public displays

Developed software for utilizing SNSs on public displays. (Hotspot = public display)

Related publications

Hosio S, Vassilis K, Kukka H, Jurmu M, Riekki J & Ojala T. (2012)
From School Food to Skate Parks in a few Clicks: Using Public Displays to Bootstrap Civic Engagement of the Young
Proc. 10th International Conference on Pervasive Computing (Pervasive), Newcastle, UK 2012

Hosio S, Kukka H & Riekki J. (2010)
Social Surroundings: Bridging the Virtual and Physical Divide
IEEE MultiMedia 17(2), 2010

Hosio S, Kukka H, Jurmu M, Ojala T & Riekki J. (2010)
Enhancing Interactive Public Displays with Social Networking Services
Proc. The Ninth International Conference on Mobile and Ubiquitous Multimedia (MUM), Limassol, Cyprus, 2010

Hosio S, Jurmu M, Kukka H, Riekki J & Ojala T. (2010)
Supporting Distributed Private and Public User Interface in Urban Environments
Proc. The Eleventh International Workshop on Mobile Computing Systems and Applications (HotMobile), Annapolis, Maryland, US, 2010
***Best Paper Presentation award

Hosio S. (2009)
Augmenting Public Spaces with Social Media Elements to Enhance Awareness and Interaction
Master’s thesis, University of Oulu, Department of Electrical and Information Engineering, Oulu, Finland, Dec 2009