Archive for the mobile technology Category

Personalization and Mobile Phones

Custom wood case for iPhone by Miniot

Custom wood case for iPhone by Miniot

Mobile phones and most personal electronics devices have been made for durability. My Samsung phone is finished in stainless steel, plastic and glass. It is black and shiny. My iPod Nano is aluminum.

My wallet is made of leather. When I first bought by wallet, it was stiff, and uncomfortable. But at some point in time, it yielded and started to conform to the curve of my posterior. Same thing happened to my watch strap, also made of leather. It is has morphed to the size of my wrist. Shoes, jackets, baseball caps.. I can name numerous examples.

In the flood of hyper-niched marketing world, I am still surprised that very little effort is made in the personal electronics space to take advantage of this property of personal artifacts: that it registers the physical interaction between the artifact and user. Guitar frets have show well-worn usage by its owner. Yet phones resist this natural aging process.

Most aspects of our environment can be better personalized than our electronics. We can choose wallpaper or paint color for our apartments, adorn it with our personality over time. Personalization to mobile users usually means changing the background or ringtone or those little dangley phone accessories that you see all over Korea and Japan. Nothing that registers gradually over time. Why not a mobile phone made with leather or wood. Why not a iPod where a friend can scratch their message into the surface instead of having it laser engraved.

Bamboo, the degradable phone (via core77)

Bamboo, the degradable phone (via core77)

The Chute Smartphone (via Yanko Design)

“The Chute Smartphone (via Yanko Design)

It was refreshing to see a couple of example recently. Here are two concept phone examples, The Chute Smartphone and Bamboo phone, and iWood handcrafted iPhone case by Miniot made from high quality wood (commercially available).

Yet another argument for the use of natural materials in personal electronics is environmental. Massive amounts of mobile phones are consumed each year. The rates of mobile phone penetration is close to saturation in the US, Korea and in most developed countries. It’s rare that we find any recycling of mobile phones. Most people just throw away their phones when it is broken or when they switch carriers. Here’s where the mobile telecom industry can learn from the automotive industry. There is a whole secondary industry build around reclaiming, reusing, and recycling used car parts on one front, on another front there are movements to make more efficient cars. Why are there so few examples of environmental friendliness in the mobile phone industry? I think this is a marketing opportunity that begs to be tapped for both the consumer’s and industry’s benefit.

Geospatial Info + 3D Space + Web 2.0 + Mobile = ?

Geoblogging: The Gombe Chimpanzee Blog

Geoblogging: The Gombe Chimpanzee Blog

We all remember ooh’ed and aah’ed at Google Earth when it was first available in 2005. For the first time history, services such as Google Earth offer us a readily available, zoomable, navigable visualization of our physical world, the detail of which are ever increasing with new technologies being developed as showcased by Microsoft’s Virtual Earth and Photosynth projects.

But it’s not just a static representation of information, as maps have classically been. The convergence of the internet, mobile technology and geospatial representation of our physical world, presents an interesting intersection of technologies.

The internet contains an ever-expanding universe of knowledge and information, and with web 2.0 technologies, users are even more empowered to directly participate in that growth, and to share, aggregate, and find creative ways to seeks value in this information.

When information available on the web is combined with geospatial data what emerges is Geoweb. Geoweb presents yet another layer that information can be mapped or grounded to. It gives people an opportunity of assigning information, be it historical, commercial, social or existential to a given location.

Mobile technology has the two-fold function of being able to retrieve that information in real time at the location to which the information was associated to, as well as being able to record yet more information through text, photographic or motion input about the location.

The pressing issue now is not the availability of information but how to filter it to be meaningful?

Map have always been a filtered reprentation of selective information. A road map only maps roads for the purpose of guiding a user from point A to point B. So the challenge facing Geoweb is no longer one of technology, but one of selectivity and value. What does information presented in this way allow us to do?

It allows us to associate information on a scale and perspective that we were unable to do before. Classical maps show border, terrain, economic, or conflict information. Now we can map, aggregate, slice-and-dice all the atomized miscellaneous pieces of information geospatially. It allows us to associate information that was not possible or hard to do before. Oh joy.

We already see some examples of innovative use:

  • CARMA (Carbon Emissions Monitoring for Action): this s a project by Center for Global Development I was involved in at my old firm, Forum One Communications. It maps publicly available CO2 emission data of power plants and other polluting agents on to Google Maps, and encourages users to submit more data about polluter in their neighborhood.
  • Geoblogging: Jane Goodall Institute created the first geoblog: The Gombe Chimpanzee blog. It follows the activities and blog posts by Emily Wroblewski, a field researcher who is studying the Gombe Chimpanzees to coordinates on Google Earth.
  • Search for archeological sites: Scott Madry, an archaeologist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, has been pinpointing possible archaeological sites in France with the popular desktop program Google Earth.
  • Cannonball Run: Alex Roy, set a new record for driving across the American continent of under 32 hours, in the fall of 2006. He planned and practiced his run using Google Earth.
  • Metaverse Roadmap also shows us exciting possibilities of how 3D representation and the web may converge.

Other as yet unrealized examples are:

  • An amazing project Jonathan Harris and Sep Kamvar, We Feel Fine aggregates and visualizes th state of people’s emotions around the world. We may be able to map geospatially, in real time, the emotions around how a community reacts to tragedy or jubilation.
  • We could map the impossible path that Ernest Shackleton took to save the lives of the ill-fated crew of the Endurance in 1900. (UPDATE: It has already been done)
  • We can map the path of my UPS package as it travels from Amazon’s warehouse in Kentucky to my doorstep in real time, so we are not held hostage to the UPS man’s schedule.

* * *

Umberto Eco has a nice essay in How to Travel with a Salmon named “On the Impossibility of Drawing a Map of the Empire on a Scale of 1 to 1.” He quotes from Jorge Luis Borges who is in turn quoting Suarex Miranda:

…In that Empire, the craft of Cartography attained such Perfection that the Map of a Single province covered the space of an entire City, and the Map of the Empire itself an entire Province. In the course of Time, these Extensive maps were found somehow wanting, and so the College of Cartographers evolved a Map of the Empire that was of the same Scale as the Empire and that coincided with it point for point. Less attentive to the Study of Cartography, succeeding Generations came to judge a map of such Magnitude cumbersome, and, not without Irreverence, they abandoned it to the Rigours of sun and Rain. In the western Deserts, tattered Fragments of the Map are still to be found, Sheltering an occasional Beast or beggar; in the whole Nation, no other relic is left of the Discipline of Geography.

From Travels of Praiseworthy Men (1658) by J. A. Suarez Miranda

What we see Google Earth and Virtual Earth is the creation of such a map, mapping reality on to a mirrored world. We may actually be seeing something even more profound. A map that contains more information than even the 1-to-1 map.

[Update] Worldprocessor is a pre-Google Earth visualization of data on a globe. Very interesting nonetheless.

Random Thought: Twister for iPhone

iPhone Twister

iPhone Twister

It’s only a matter of time before someone comes up with a twister game for the iPhone.

The Satisfying Touch UI Experience

It’s a little embarrassing, but I get a lot of my insights from watching TED presentations. Blame it on the combination of my 2 hour commute, iPod Nano and TED providing video podcasts.

In a fascinating presentation by neurologist Vilayanur Ramachandran, he talks about how the brain works with sensory input. What stuck with me was towards the end of his talk:

Something very interesting is happening in the angular gyrus, because it is the crossroads between hearing, vision and touch and it became enormous in humans. I think it is the basis of many uniquely human abilities as abstraction, metaphor and creativity.

With interfaces, it is important to get sensory feedback. For example, right now, I am typing on a keyboard. This action creates a tactile feedback (it depresses), an auditory feedback (it clicks), and a visual feedback (letters appear on the screen). Unknowingly we feel satisfaction when these sensory feedback is properly provided. When typing on a keyboard does not produce letters on the screen, or the letters are somehow delayed, we have an emotional response – one of frustration.

Touch experience on the iPhone and LG Prada phone

Touch experience on the iPhone and LG Prada phone

With the iPhone there is no tactile or haptic feedback. (Some phones do have haptic feedback in the form of light vibrations)  In order to compensate for the fact that it is missing the one of three feedback that is necessary for a good interface, it provides strong feedback through the remaining two. When you use the dialer on the iPhone, it provide a strong color change (visual feedback) and the dial tone (auditory feedback) whenever you touch they keys. Same thing happens when you use the on-screen qwerty keyboard. In order to compensate for the fact that is is no tactile key-pressing sensation, iPhone provides visual feedback in the form of the keys popping up, and auditory feedback in the form of a tapping sound.

Compare the iPhone experience to the LG Prada phone experience. LG Prada phone provides haptic feedback (you feel a slight vibrarion at your fingertips) and visual feedback, however the color change in the interface is weak (trying to stay “cool” by using grey tones), and auditory feedback is aways the same no matter what you do (it’s the same bell sound). This results in the Prada phone having a less satisfying touch UI experience over the iPhone.

A large part of the satisfaction when using a touch UI is based on providing appropriate feedback. Another large part is based on what metaphor from everyday life you adopt and present to the users. Watching Ramachandran’s talk made me realize is that there is a deeper neurological basis for what consitiutes to a satisfying touch UI experience: Our brains are wired to take in sensory feedback and develop an emotional response to it (sometimes without us realizing it).

What Do You Want to Be, Touch UI?

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about touch-based user interfaces for mobile phone for a project I’ve been involved in.

Louis Kahn, one of the most influential architects of our time, and subject of an amazing documentary film, once said:

“What do you want Brick?”

He was alluding to the fact that each material has properties and limitations and wants to be used a certain way. Whether it be materials, or systems, or UI’s, each has a certain affordance you can either acknowledge and work with, or work against.

Don Norman also describes a similar attitude towards the design of products in his influential The Design of Everyday Things:

The term affordance refers to the perceived and actual properties of the thing, primarily those fundamental properties that determine just how the thing could possibly be used. A chair affords (“is for”) support and, therefore, affords sitting.

When designing a touch user interface for mobile phones, where do you start? You can start by taking a look at what Apple has wonderfully done with the iPhone. Or you can take a look at how to improve the current mobile UI and make it touch-enabled. Both lead to very restricted designs, since they can’t escape what either Apple or current mobile UI have set up as its affordances.

One needs to ask, “So, what do you want to be, mobile phone touch UI?”

In my mind, some of what it wants to be is the following (these are its affordances):

  • It wants large touch targets: Fingers are less precise than keys, and there are minimun touch area requirements that can’t be too small.
  • It wants simple page layout: touch requires immediate feedback, and quick transitions to subsequent pages. There shouldn’t really be anything to navigate on a page. The interface should be “tap, tap, tap”, i.e. a quick progression of pages to finish the task the user to trying to accomplish.
  • It want to have limited choices: More choices on a pages means more things to touch and this make make things harder to touch with precision. In the web page paradigm, it may be better to present more options on a page, however in a mobile touch interface, with limited screen area, and touch targets, it may make more sense to provide limited choices and more “in-between” pages.

It is also important to select the right everyday metaphor for the touch UI elements. Metaphors allow users to recognize how to use something without learning, since it is something they are familiar with already. On the iPhone you see sliders (unlocking the phone), dials (selecting a date), and buttons.

One great source of metaphors for a touch UI is actually baby toys for many reasons:

  • Interactive elements are brightly colored, allowing the user (the baby) to locate and initiate an action.
  • Interactive elements are easy to touch, pull or twist and have large target areas, taking in to account the users lack of mastery over motor functions and pudgy fingers.
  • Interactive elements provide clear feedback to reward the users and provoke them to repeat the action.
  • The objects are not overly complex and choices for manipulation are simple.

It is no wonder a baby can use an iPhone interface.