Open Doors
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Amsterdam - 14, 15, 16 November 2002

Finally we are no one

Marko Athisaari

Thank you very much, and thank you for being here.
One thing is certain: while the gong has so far been kind this session, I will probably get it . . .

My topic is proximity. By proximity, I mean, quite simply, physical closeness; and many among you will ask, “How close is close?” But I mean the stuff that happens between the one-to-ten centimetres range and room-size interaction, and what people do, what kind of activities they undertake in that kind of space.

I might also add that although mobility and mobile telephony seem very much to do with being apart, in fact the evidence is quite to the contrary: a lot of telecommunications behaviour is aimed at getting together physically in the same place.

I will then discuss quickly a couple of groups of services that we might expect to emerge in proximity, and then close with a few challenges for interaction design in this area.

I’d like to start with a comment about music – but not cheery ringing tones! Over the past few weeks, the soundtrack to my life has been a CD called Finally We Are No One by an Icelandic group called Mum. This would be a good mission statement for any team of designers making technology products and services that really fit into everyday life.

In particularl, there’s track number three. I can’t make out the lyrics, but the song begins, ‘Please don’t flow so fast.’ And I think that’s a feeling that most people have about existing technologies.

I work at Nokia in a group called the Insight and Foresight venturing organisation. I want to make it clear that I’m not going to talk about future phone roadmaps or future products; you can go to Nokia.com for that. I want to talk about the kinds of questions proximity raises for renewing the company.

We’re part of a network within the organisation that’s organisation-wide, in charge of renewing the company. As you may know, 15 years ago, Nokia was not in the mobile phones and wireless infrastructure business, and now it’s looking for new areas of growth. Proximity, or closeness, is one such area. Now I’ll look at four kinds of services and product services value that people might get in physical closeness:
1) People in places
2) My things with me
3) Enhanced Spaces
4) Consumption.

1) People in places emphasizes the fact that while we talk about devices being connected, and everything being connected in a technological sense, social interaction will be a prime driver in the future as well, even in technologically enhanced social interaction. By this, I don’t mean that we’ll supplant very good ways of communicating, like me speaking to you one-to-many now, but that other forms of communication overlay it – if there’s wireless coverage, you could be maybe discussing what I’m saying among yourselves.

So there might be secret or somehow unobtrusive communication of that kind. Then there will be new forms of interaction with people that I didn’t know previously, which can take different forms. Plus there will be different kinds of group production in small groups.

But perhaps the simplest and most important one, which has immediate implications and is quite near in the technological roadmap, is sharing different kinds of digital items, whether they’re personally created or otherwise, in physical closeness.

We know from evidence in Japan where, for example, imaging phones have been around for quite a while, that across the table people won’t send the image across the cellular network, they prefer to show it on the device. And so there are very simple, intuitive ways to spread digital items in these kinds of pockets of sharing that would send messaging traffic elsewhere as well, over the wide area networks.

2) My things with me relates very much to these personal items like images. We know that mobile portable products and appliances are very much linked to personal and intimate items, the kinds of things that one has an emotional relationship with. One can see that the relationship of people with their phone books is far from rational. A name in someone’s phone book may change from Marco to Lover to Loser and then it might be deleted, the final digital death, the way the Romans used to remove the name of the Emperor from every building. And this act of final defiance is right at the core of who we are, that’s taking something and someone out of the social network that is mine.

This includes not only items like a phone book or co-ordinates for other people in our social network, but also our personal and intimate media, like photographs. They need to be stored somewhere close by; we’re not really willing to put them somewhere out there and then find out that they’ve disappeared, we still have a lot of practices relating to having those items close by. Typically, they would be in an intimate environment like the home.

We’re talking about mass market, and everything I’m saying is prefaced by the fact we’re talking about products and services that could be commercially viable for people in a medium time frame. That means producible at a cost that consumers would be willing to pay. There’s increasing evidence that a PC-like device is too difficult for most people. Some people believe that the saturation of digital camera sales has to do with the difficulty of storing the images in a PC environment. And the interaction design problems associated with that.

3) Enhanced spaces means content, digital content that’s local, related to this space, or the shopping environment. Rem Koolhaas’ Harvard Guide to Shopping was mentioned here. This means all sorts of information related to interactivity, but connectivity itself can also enhance spaces, so the ability to jump from where you are, digital fountains, if you like. There are lots of interaction design challenges, like how people will recognise these spots aside from chalk marks on buildings, as has been discussed recently. We need other ways that people can realise that, “Ah, here is where I have connectivity.”

4) Safe consumption refers to the fact that in physical proximity, a lot of issues concerning trust and security are tacitly taken care of . Imagine paying at a sales counter where we can see the person’s face, perhaps the credit card leaving and then coming back, so many things are taken care of so I can be sure that something has been delivered. And this offers opportunities. In particular, with all of these very intangible mobile services besides messaging that are only just starting to take off, linking them to physical environments where they’re actually activated is a very promising area, and it’s a matter of will to make that happen. Most of the technologies are available.

So how will these four areas come about? Only through many people working together through open standards. I’ll give a very quick example. There’s an emerging consensus among analysts within the industry that by the year 2006, there’ll be about one billion Bluetooth-enabled devices, 60 to 70 per cent of which will be mobile.

Then aside from this is another area, Java 2004. Many people think J2ME will be a dominant development platform, and by 2006 all kinds of mobile devices will chip with it and be enabled by it. This combination offers a fruitful platform that you can bet on to innovate and develop future applications.

Now I can see the gong coming. . . So I will say one thing which may be interrupted by it, there are some really profound user interaction design challenges if we take onboard all of the questions that I have raised here. One is this local connectivity proximity interaction, increasing these personal intimate items that can be carried with you and stored in your closed private environments. Then there are the challenges set by social networks. We’ve had one dominant design, which was for the keyboard, windows, icons, pointers, mouse, you know the story. The other dominant design is the menu-driven monobloc on mobile phones (that arguably we played a big part in designing at Nokia).

So now for the punch line! It’s unclear whether, with these current developments, these services, or some hybrid of them, is sufficient to really reach the kinds of solutions that would stop people saying, “Please don’t flow so fast.”

Thank you very much.


John: The thing that I was interested in is this notion of environments that support new forms of messaging. Do you think at all of devices or gadgets, in the hardware of these situations, in your work? Is that part of the interaction story?
Marko: Yes.
John: Well that was a surprise. We’ll talk about this later. I want to keep things moving. Thank you very much.


Harvard Guide to Shopping


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