Helping your smartphone “baby” grow up

Amber Case does a great job of describing, with human qualities, those little rectangular devices we carry around. Watch a few seconds of the video (that we forwarded to the good part), and if you have time, it’s definitely worth watching to the end:

So, although smartphones pack an incredible punch of computing power and wireless connectivity, when asked to conform to the human world, they function at an infant or toddler level. For example, when you take a small child to the movies, you remind them that they need to be quiet and well behaved. Same for your “smart” phone! Moreover, the child will eventually learn the desired behaviour after a few trips to the movies, but your “smart” phone won’t!

Our devices live very happily in the digital world where their roles as machines are well defined. But human society is rich and complex. Our devices aren’t equipped to understand how we live. And, being the versatile, adaptable creatures we are, we tend to conform to our devices rather than the other way around. That’s how it is, not how it should be.

So, how do we get our phones to behave nicely and switch automatically to silent mode (as we expect of our children) when we’re in a movie theatre? Well, we need to provide them with the right information. Digital information. Some people are building applications that use your digital calendar as a basis for rules, and this can work if you arrange to have your real life perfectly reflected in your digital calendar. But wait, that’s us conforming again…

What your smart device needs is real-time digital context at a human scale. It needs to know where it is and who/what is around at a level of proximity similar to that discussed in Physical Expression, Digital Expression, and the Penis T-Shirt. Sticking to the movie example, Amber Case’s so-called invisible button to silence the phone would require two triggers:

  1. location: movie theatre
  2. context: movie is currently playing

Today’s smartphones can achieve sufficient location accuracy to determine that they’re at the movies. But typically, indoor location abilities would be insufficient to determine the exact theatre room. Without that, it’s impossible to look up when the given screening is scheduled to start, assuming the schedule is actually respected. This is where the theatre’s Digital T-Shirt becomes invaluable: it is a simple means to provide all of the real-time digital context necessary to activate the invisible button. It enables technology to work seamlessly for us, rather than the other way around.

In other words, our smartphone “babies” can and will grow up when provide them not just with geographical coordinates but with contextual information they can understand: a digital representation of the world around them at a human scale.