In part one of my interview with Hampus Jakobbson, TAT Co-Founder and now Strategic Alliances EMEA at Research in Motion, we talked about user experiences designed for Digital Natives and Digital Immigrants.
As we continued to chat, we went into some fascinating territory that is literally right out of science fiction. TAT (short for The Astonishing Tribe) designed user experiences for new interactive screen technologies.
One of the many fascinating topics we discussed was this idea of personal and public screens and how they may interact together. Jakobbson talked about how our notion of “personal” technology has changed in the last decade:
Jakobbson: I think there’s a big, big trend moving in one direction, which is the personal screen, the one I am holding in my hand. I think you’re seeing interesting consumer patterns there, for example, with mobile phones actually pushing away what other devices used to be and the way we use them.
We used to call our laptop personal computers but nowadays laptops and other computers are more like workstations in most people’s minds than they are personal computers. It might be mine, legally, but if you want to lend it, sure no problem, that’s not an issue. But if you want to borrow my mobile phone, that suddenly makes me very tense because I have a lot of private stuff on my phone and what if you break it?
So we are creating a new definition of “personal” technology, that’s much more intimate. But, at the same time, there is a new type of interface to the Internet, the public one. Increasingly, we are seeing interactive displays and kiosks that allow us to access tailored experiences, usually commercial in nature.
Jakobbson: And we’re seeing this coming up, thanks to gesture interaction and also face recognition technologies. The face recognition then would make it easy way to log in, just stand in front of the object and it will recognize your face.
This is Emily (using the example of the interactive mirror from the TAT video), she doesn’t have to log in or anything complicated. It’s a zero click user interface and it comes up with her personal ID. Of course, in a lot of these scenarios, you can’t touch the objects, like the mirror, because you smudge it. And, in a lot of cases, the screen might actually be distant physically or be behind a window.
For example, in a couple of years…you actually can do it now in Korea and some places…you can go to a store which is closed and stand in the front of a window, where you can navigate the different things they have in the store with gestures and buy them at 4:00 AM, thanks to a large monitor that’s facing the window and a camera that recognized gestures.
They have actually put an iris ID scanner or something similar, which allows you to log in and purchase. These things are really happening right now and there are a lot of interesting technologies that are being used and put into play, which have been around for forever.
This is where the worlds of science fiction and fact start to collide. For Steven Spielberg’s 2002 movie Minority Report, he gathered a bunch of futurists in a hotel room and asked them to brainstorm what the world might look like in 2054. One of the outcomes was the famous advertising holographic scene, where disembodied ads recognize Tom Cruise’s character John Anderton and start accosting him as he walks down the street.
The technology Jakobbson is talking about is actually more sophisticated than that, and it’s here 40 plus years ahead of schedule.
Of course, it’s not just in department stores where we find ourselves surrounded by this new “ambient” technology. Even your drive home after work is increasingly becoming a “wired” experience.
Jakobbson: We work with a lot of car companies right now and one of the interesting things there is that you’re seeing people use a very, very old technology that has been around for at least 50 years, which is eye tracking. A big problem when you’re sitting in a car, of course, is that you don’t want to be distracted. You can’t have information everywhere.
What’s happening now though is people putting in a small camera that looks where your eyes are looking. With that, it can tell you everything from people falling asleep, (I think that’s already installed on some Volvo cars) to people actually using it also to present information. You see where the driver is looking and you can customize what’s being presented. Each context requires its own user interface and experience.
I think that there are very vulgar adaptations, where people have taken a game experience, a heavily immersive experience and put that in a car and said that it’s going to be the car of the future, where you drive and Tweet while driving and check your Facebook and read your email. That is, of course, extremely improbable, because then it have to be a world where we’re not actually responsible for driving anymore.
Plugging Into The Grid
This becomes an interesting world, where we have increasing intimate forms of personal technology and more powerful forms of ambient technology. What becomes fascinating to consider is where these two worlds might merge. If we have this grid of functionality and information, and a heavily personalized “key” to it, how might that impact our future experiences?
Jakobbson: I see the Internet evolving as a database. It’s a repository of information and you become the unique identifier. We’re seeing an interesting grid – seeing this single identity, you, which is another repository for a lot of different information.
In the coming years, the number of nodes between you and the Internet, between the “public” to the right and the “individual” to the left, you’re going to see more and more nodes interacting. That node might be your mobile phone or your laptop or your car or your ambient screen.
This “plugging in” creates a slightly frightening scenario that again smacks of science fiction (i.e. The Matrix – supposedly set in about 2199). It completely upends our idea of “personal” information. And this is not some far-off problem to consider. The technology exists today, as Jakobbson was quick to point out, using a company called FitBit as an example:
Jakobbson: FitBit is a glorified motion sensor. You clip it to your pants and it measures how you move. It contains the same technology as the Nintendo Wii. The interesting thing is it also does it while you sleep. You can clip it onto yourself when you sleep and you get a perfect pattern – you actually know exactly what happens 24/7.
The data is stored on a web page – you can view it, it can be private or it can be public. But the interesting thing is you’re actually digitizing information which is you. It’s your movement pattern and that might be extraordinary beneficial if we look five years ahead for health information. Let’s say that in five years you get a liver issue and you go to your doctor. What if the doctor could get your movement patterns for the last five years, measured every second? It’s data that’s going to be crucial for health in the coming years.
FitBit is just one example of a new form of very personal technology. More and more, aspects of our lives are being digitized and stored in the cloud. With biometric monitoring, there’s a huge potential win for healthcare. And for this reason, we may put aside any privacy concerns. But what about other privacy concerns?
As more aspects of our lives begin publicly available, a converging picture that strips our private lives bare and reveals all becomes likely. And then, I wonder, what will this information be used for? What new business models, under the thin disguise of personal usefulness, will emerge? And, when they do emerge, will it open a Pandora’s box of social impact that will be difficult, or impossible, to close again?
Even if we just consider what this vast database of personal information might mean in terms of advertising targeting, the implications can be frightening.
Jakobbson: There are immense problems that comes with this and I think one of them is that we’re going to create a lot of services, which running on business models and ideas, which might be completely un-thought through in terms of whether it’s a good idea or not. For example, recommendation algorithms – where does the recommendation end and advertisement start?
When I give up all my data to you, that’s extraordinarily scary because you can present me with information and change my behavior on the one hand. This has always been the case with my Visa card and my Amex. They know everything I buy, they know when I’m getting a divorce…they can actually see when people are getting divorced. They can predict that six months ahead of the divorce, they see that on a purchase pattern.
Visa and MasterCard and Amex didn’t use to ask me, “Hey, do you want to go to the Caribbean?” They didn’t do that. Now, they do (through targeting and retargeting). They can see patterns and can suggest things, which are going to be subconscious to me. They can see it in my patterns.
The Illusion Of Free Will
There is a debate in the worlds of neurology and psychiatry about whether or not there is such a thing as free will. Do we really control our destiny, or are we simply responding to cues in our environment? There is neurological evidence that our brains send the commands to act much faster than could be possible if we were actually willing our movements.
This theoretical debate becomes more controversial if, in the world imagined by Hampus Jakobbson, our environment is literally being molded on a moment-by-moment basis for us through interpretation of our data patterns and presentation of suggested directions and opportunities.
Does consumerism reach new Pavlovian heights then? Are we leading our lives, or simply being pulled through them? Is the lure of technology too beguiling, and will we be opening the door to an evil that it may take us decades to recognize?
Jakobbson: Are we in control of our destiny? Is there such a thing as willpower? What is in a world where people can suggest possible directions, where we can’t control it anymore. Of course we can control it, but it requires a lot of stubbornness and thinking about what you really want all the time.
When we put in asbestos in our homes, everybody thought it would be great idea. Now we know that asbestos is a really stupid thing, just like DD. Now it’s obvious that it’s really stupid.
I think our children and our children’s children would laugh at the way we gave away information and exposed ourselves to recommendation algorithms and other things, persuading us to do things that we didn’t want to do. That’s going to be the asbestos of the 21st century. We’re not really realizing this now, just like we didn’t do with asbestos. We will endlessly jump into these mistakes.
It’s a lot to think about. But we may not have as much time as we imagine. A recurring theme of my conversation with Jakobbson was the accelerating timelines of technology. Things we can imagine and place in the far-off future seem to become reality much faster than we anticipate.
The challenge with this is that the pace of technological possibilities is far greater than society’s ability to determine the impact. As Jakobbson warns us, the things that look wonderful today may carry a far greater price than we’re willing to pay, but we won’t realize it until it’s too late.
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