Sunday, 31 May 2009

New Mobile Device, New Humanity...

For more than two years, I had been waiting for the "perfect" mobile device. The device should be unlocked, have a touch screen, WiFi, GPS, and run a flexible operating system. I became pretty excited when the OpenMoko [1] project started almost a year before the first iPhone came out, because the software on this device is completely free and open source, and even the hardware is documented. [2] Unfortunately, it wasn't available in Taiwan until very recently, which was a little too late because about a month ago, I started eying the HTC Magic [3], the latest phone running Google Android. It's now been a little more than a week since I bought it, and it's given me a lot to think about.

Before I got my first cellphone (in my early twenties), I resisted them for a while. In my mind, cellphones brought the most inconsiderate side in people: cellphones would be ringing loudly in public spaces, people would interrupt real conversations to answer them, and they would talk loudly on the bus like no one else was around... But when it became cheaper to have one than to pay for a land line, I gave up. But I swore that I would leave it on vibrate, never interrupt a real conversation, and not use it in public. The first two rules are still very important to me, but the last one is becoming less significant as more and more people are too busy talking on their own phones to notice me much...

Here's a short talk that captures the essence of this issue:

Renny Gleeson is right when he says that the increased availability that cellphones give us drives the expectation that we be more available, which can easily lead to our obligation to be. There's a strange feeling associated with being available all the time. On one hand, it is slightly addictive to have the knowledge that we can't miss a call, text message, or email from those we care about. On the other, there's a slight uneasiness associated with everyone expecting us to be that available all the time. Nonetheless, for me, the addictive side wins. I've never felt more connected before, and I can't go back now. In addition to the standard phone and text message connectivity, the Android system automatically downloads my emails from my three different accounts (for later offline use) every time it connects to WiFi, lets me use MSN or gchat when I'm online, and connects me to the larger community when it checks and downloads my favorite RSS feeds and tweets automatically. And I'm of course more organized since it syncs with my google callendars, and contact lists.

This sense of being connected, however, is simply a more intense, mature, and ubiquitous version of what the traditional phone and internet had givens us. However, this device also brings something of a different kind. I found a few applications that give me access to the device's sensors and tell me things about my environment that my five senses can't. I can measure acceleration and tilt of my device, the direction of the magnetic field at my location, the strength of the cellphone and WiFi signals around me, find out my GPS coordinates, and match them to various maps to see where I am, or which stars I'm looking at.

The geeky "Tricorder" app gives information about acceleration, magnetic field, GPS coordinates, and cellphone and WiFi signals.

The "GPS Status" app, uses the GPS, accelerometer, and magnetic field sensors to show a compass, with position, speed, and acceleration. The "AndNav2" app puts this information on user generated maps [4], and "SkyMap" uses the GPS and accelerometer to show the stars the device is pointing towards.

This basic "augmented reality" [5] capability is at its infancy at the moment, but it seems natural that development in this area should be the next step. All that's missing at the moment is an easy interface between the device (and its extra sensors), and us. Pattie Maes gives us a glimpse of what might be to come:

In Cory Doctorrow's Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom [6] story, people have brain implants that allow them to communicate wirelessly and access meta information of their surroundings. They can even backup their "minds" and reload themselves in new bodies in case of accidents. If this is really where we're going, before we try to answer Gleeson's request for mobile devices that make us more human and not less, we might have to ponder the meaning of being "human".

  1. OpenMoko, <>
  2. OpenMoko, <>
  3. HTC Magic, <>
  4. OpenStreetMap, <>
  5. Wikipedia: Augmented Reality, <>
  6. Craphound, Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, <>

1 comment:

Céline said...

It lets you know which stars you're looking at?!? On en aurait eu besoin la dernière fois, dans le campus! (almost a year ago, wow)