Category Archives: mobile

Space and Audio

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I feel like this is a bit of a tangent, but I keep noticing these things, and I keep thinking they’re interesting. It’s my research leave, right? So I should investigate the things that strike me as worthy of observation, shouldn’t I?

The thing I keep noticing, and keep being intrigued by, is how various services and spaces make use of audio to provide  critical information.

As I’ve expressed before, I’m very impressed by the signage on the London Underground. I will have to delve into this again more thoroughly, because I still find it very inspiring. The thing I immediately liked best about it was that it delivers small pieces of information to patrons exactly when they need it, and not a second before. It also works to provide “confirmation” signage, the sole purpose of which is to reassure the patron that they’re in the right place. I’m generally excited to see any acknowledgment of the emotions associated with an experience built right into the placement and content of signage; fear is always a key factor, in public transit as in library services. With the pressure to keep people moving along platforms, through long tunnels and up stairs in crowded and busy tube stations, it makes sense that the London Underground would place so much emphasis on answering patron questions exactly in the places where those questions get asked so that no one has to stop, block traffic, and figure out whether to turn right or left.

That’s not the end of the information-giving. Once on the train itself, there are maps on the walls of the entire line, so you can watch your  progress. There are digital signs telling you where you are and where you’re going. This is surely enough, but on top of all this, there’s a voice that tells you where you are, which stop is next, where the train terminates, and, famously, to mind the gap.

It’s overkill, surely. I can see the map, I can see the station names on the walls of the stations as they appear, I can see it on the digital sign. Is it there purely for those with visual impairments? Possibly. But it also infuses the space with very reassuring information that’s frankly easy to ignore if you don’t need it, and easy to cling on to otherwise. Even if I know where I’m going, it marks my progress and punctuates a relatively dark journey with no real views (most of the time). It supports the written information and pins it not in space, but in time.

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I’m a fan of Westminster chimes. I grew up with them; my parents had (and still have) a mantel clock that chimes every fifteen minutes, day and night. Lots of people find that horrifying, but I don’t. It’s reassuring to me. I don’t especially trust my internal clock; sometimes three minutes feels like ten, and an hour feels like five minutes. When you wake up in the night you feel like you’ve been lying there awake for hours. But the Westminster chime grounds you in reality: I’ve only heard it go off once since I’ve been awake, so I’ve only been awake for fifteen minutes, tops. I like how the chime infuses space with the knowledge of how time is passing. The sound changes from chime to chime; you can tell from the chime which part of the hour you’re in. It’s an audio version of a physical object. It’s an ancient means of providing ambient information.

I think the voice on the tube is similar. It’s providing me with ambient knowledge that I can half ignore.

There was a documentary, or news piece some time ago, about the unlock sound on an iPhone. The sound is gone from OS7, but until recently, there was a very specific, very metallic sound always accompanied the action. You can’t feel it unlocking, since an iPhone uses only software keys. But there had to be a sound so we could understand what was happening, and to be assured the action was successful. In place of a sensation, a sound for reassurance. A sound to make a digital action feel real.

Libraries are generally aiming to be silent spaces. Having things announced is a nuisance to most people. I think it’s possible that audio cues have a place in the good functioning of a library; it’s just a matter of being supremely thoughtful about it and determining what kinds of ambient information is valuable to patrons, and what kinds of audio cues would be comforting rather than annoying. There’s also the question of placement; there are no voices telling me things when I’m walking through tunnels and following signs, but there are when I’m heading up an escalator, or sitting inside a train waiting for the right moment to head for the door.

My parents have been visiting me for the last few days, so we went on a few city tours on open-topped double-decker buses. I seem to recall seeing these kinds of buses drive past me, with a tour guide shouting into a microphone. Those days are gone. Now they give you cheap earphones, and you plug into the bus to hear a pre-recorded tour in the language of your choice.

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This struck me as kind of genius. The pre-recorded tour told me stories and history about the places I was looking at; it wasn’t ambient information, it was a packaged lecture based on my choice of language and volume, and the location of the vehicle I was sitting in. Initially I assumed it was hooked up with GPS so that it would play based very specifically on location, but I discovered when we got cold and came inside the bus that the driver was pressing a button to advance the script. I found that oddly disappointing. I liked the idea of a system tracking traffic and our location and giving me stories based on it. It’s a shared experience, but it’s personal. It’s utterly silent to the people around you, but immensely informative for the people listening. It’s carefully planned and thought out, and no piece of the story is forgotten. The recorded tour goes on all day, and you can jump on and off the bus where you like. That means you can listen to the tour over and over again and pick up the things you missed without asking a human tour guide to be at your disposal. That got me thinking too. How can we help pace information to keep it in line with the place a patron finds herself?

I’ve seen similar things on a different and more self-driven scale. The Murmur project in Toronto placed ear-shaped signs all over to Toronto with phone numbers on them which played stories about that spot to the caller. We can do better than that now with QR codes or just URLs, since smart phones have become so ubiquitous.

One of the very best examples of audio in libraries I’ve seen is the pre-recorded audio push-cubes in the Rama public library. You know those teddy bears with audio buttons in their hands? Or cards with audio that plays when you open them? You can buy those devices empty now, with 20 to 200 seconds of space for audio. They’re cheap, and they’re even reusable. In an effort to expose children to the Ojibwe language in order to preserve it, the brilliant Sherry Lawson of the Rama Nation uses the cubes to record words and phrases, and places them in relevant areas in her library. A patron can approach an object, see it’s written Ojibwe name, then press the cube to hear it spoken. She is providing ambient exposure to the children of the reservation by inserting her voice and her language in places where they can easily interact with it.

Perhaps it’s Mike Ridley’s fault for introducing me to the concept of a post-literate world, but there’s something about getting audio information in situ that really appeals to me.  Where it provides new information, I think it’s fascinating, letting people lift up the dog ear on a place and see a whole new world underneath. Where it focuses on reassurance, I think it provides a critical service in allowing people to feel found and safe. This is technology that isn’t infrastructure; it’s a bolt on, an ambient addition, and a simple and cheap one at that. Letting audio form a feeling: that’s the kicker, for me.

Of Horseless Carriages

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Tablets are interesting. I suspect they are an invention of a culture that thinks of itself as mobile but actually isn’t; North America is more of a walk-and-sit culture, which wants portable more than it wants truly mobile. But what’s especially interesting about tablets is how hard it is for us to shift away from thinking about them as computers (where  “computer” means a screen that sits in front of a keyboard on a table).

I’ve been experimenting with hooking up a bluetooth keyboard to my ipad. I’ve resisted doing that for the longest time, because I don’t like to fall into the horseless carriage chasm. I don’t want to think about a tablet as a computer; it’s a different beast. It’s not a mini workstation, and I don’t want to turn it into one. But because I’m leaving on holiday next week, and because I’m currently working on a writing-intensive project, I started thinking about how I could use my ipad as a real writing tool.

I think a software keyboard is fine most of the time. When I’m not doing serious writing (upwards of 2k in a sitting), I have no problem using a software keyboard exclusively. But a writing project is a writing project, and for that many words, I’m fastest and most comfortable with a keyboard. So I broke down and worked out how to connect a keyboard to the thing. I took it out for a spin one day, keyboard and ipad packed up in a purse, and set it up in a pub, in a coffee shop, and even on a bus. I absolutely loved it. I loved it more than I expected to. It was great. I’ve got the right apps to make it work, they all sync back up with my computer. It’s like a remote port of my computer; the whole project resides on my laptop, but I can take a comfortable keyboard and just the pieces I’m working on out with me into the world and work on them wherever I happen to be. Scene by scene, nothing else. It’s nice.

As I get closer to turning my ipad into a mini computer, I’m getting more sensitive about the differences between those two, conceptually. I don’t have a keyboard that’s part of an ipad case. My keyboard is a second thing I carry with me. That might seem awkward or odd, or at least less than ideal, I realize. But writing is a singular activity for me, and not one I’m always planning to do when I stick my ipad in my purse. I don’t want my ipad to always be connected to a keyboard; sometimes I just want to read on it. So I’d rather have a separate keyboard and keep the slim ipad case I’ve had since I first bought it. I noticed, when looking up reviews of ipad keyboards, that a separate keyboard is considered a disadvantage. Too much to carry, I guess, and it’s considered a problem that the keyboard doesn’t contain some kind of stand to make the ipad sit up like a proper screen.

That it’s not turning an ipad into a mini laptop.

Horseless carriage: there it is, isn’t it. If you’re going to have a keyboard, your ipad is automatically turning into a workstation. Why do we want an ipad to be a mini laptop? It’s not one. It doesn’t need to be one. A keyboard doesn’t need to turn it into one, either.

I tried working with my ipad up close to the keyboard, like a monitor, as if they were connected; it wasn’t very comfortable. So I moved it. I moved several inches back, where it’s easier to look at. I shifted it over to the left when my food arrived so I could read what I’d done over dinner. And then, finally, after far too long, I realized I could lay my ipad flat on the table, like a pad of paper, and type on my keyboard even though there was no screen in front of me. Because there doesn’t need to be one. I’m working with a device that’s more like a pad of paper than a laptop, and typing with the screen lying flat next to me actually works quite well.

Though I suspect it looks a bit strange to passersby if I’m sitting in a café typing furiously into a keyboard with no screen in front of me. But it feels great. And it made me realize that a keyboard isn’t the bottom half of a laptop. It’s just an input device I’ve come to feel very comfortable with. That’s all.

iPhone: week one

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For all my tech-geekery, I’ve never had a smartphone. There hasn’t been a really good reason for this, aside from a vague attempt at fiscal responsibility and the reality that I spend my life essentially in one of two wifi zones (home, work). I figured I didn’t really need a truly mobile device that connected to the internet. Couldn’t I have my (short) commute time away from it? It just never seemed that important. I’ve been following the developments, and while never anti-smartphone, I’ve just never been a good phone person. (At least: not since I was 16 and on the phone constantly.) There are so many other interesting ways to communicate: talking on on the phone just seemed like the least imaginative. I don’t have a home phone, and my work voicemail is something I have to remind myself to check.

The internet is, largely, my passion in life: communication, productivity, creative thinking with internet tech, that’s what I do for a living. It’s also something I enjoy in my off-time; I’m genuinely interested in web innovation, and my explorations and thinking don’t stop when I leave the office. I understand the app revolution, and while I’m on the side that believes the apps are probably only temporarily in power and the mobile web will probably take over, I’m intrigued by the apps and the interesting things developers and users are doing with them. So you’d think I’d have been on this smartphone thing ages ago, but no.

In spite of my obvious interest in all things online, it wouldn’t be fair to classify my web experiences as addictive or compulsive. I’m absolutely okay with pulling the plug at pretty much any time. I can take a long road trip without the internet, and I don’t miss it. I love to read, I love to talk to people, I love to sit and think and muse. Contrary to the “information overload” debate (which I think is code for “I procrastinate and the internet makes it too easy”), I don’t find my connection to the internet either overwhelming or demanding. It’s a give and take. If I don’t want to pay attention, I don’t. When I want it to entertain me, or confuse me, or engage me and make me think in new ways, it does. So while I thought the smartphone thing was pretty cool and clearly an intriguing and useful development, I didn’t actually have one of my own.

Until last week, that is. I finally got on the bandwagon. And I’ve been diving in head first. No holds barred, no panic about the 3G useage. Not in the first week, at least. I gave myself permission to be gluttonous with it, to roll around in it and see how it felt.

The only times prior to now that I thought I’d like to have a smartphone is when I’m out to dinner. Not because my dining companions have been sub par, but because I have an ongoing fascination with food history. I like to know how the composition on my plate came to be, and what historical events I can credit for it. This is easy with things like potatoes and tomatoes (“New World”, obviously), but garlic, carrots (did you know medieval Europeans ate not the orange root, but only the green tops of carrots?), bean sprouts, onions, cows, pigs, chickens, saffron, pepper, etc. It’s really the only time I’ve felt the lack of the internet. I want to look up some historical details at very odd times. I figured a smartphone would be helpful for that. (I can’t really carry around a comprehensive food history book everywhere I go, can I.) Filling specific information needs: in spite of my own certainty that search is basically dead, in the back of my head I figured this is how I would use a smartphone. I was not right.

But it’s been different than I expected. First, and most obvious, I suddenly always know when I have email. I bet people hate that. Email is my second least favourite means of communication, so putting it at the front of the line has mixed results. As I said, I’m reasonably good at not feeling pressure to look at anything when I don’t want to, but the thing pings when I get new email, and it makes me curious. But even in the first week, I don’t look every time. I didn’t stop my conversation with my mother when I heard it ping. I did, however, answer a question from an instructor while on the Go train back home on Saturday. If you want to be distracted, access to the internet via smartphone will certainly act as a decent distraction.

My best experience with it so far as been a trip to my home town, Guelph. It’s early October, and suddenly this week autumn appeared in full colour. If you’ve never experienced a southern Ontario fall, you’re missing something great. The cool temperatures at night mixed with the remaining warm days turns out a crazy quilt of colour across the landscape. It’s only when there’s enough cold that you get the firey reds and deep oranges. We’re in a banner year here, and on the bus on the way to Guelph I saw this awe-inspiring riot of colour out the window. Purple brush along the side of the road, a scintillating blue sky, red, orange, yellow and green leaves on the trees; this is the kind of thing that makes me happy to be living. The kind of thing I want to share, just out of the sheer unbelievability of it. It’s incredibly ephemeral, these fall colours, so capturing them and sharing them has additional appeal.

So this phone I had in my hand, it has a camera. This was actually my first experience using it. And I discovered quite by accident that I could snap a picture and then post it to twitter with a matter of a few swipes of a finger. So there I was, first on the bus, then walking down Gordon St. in Guelph, 22 degree weather, the sun warm on my skin, and while I was away from home, away from my computer, I was sharing my delight in the beauty around me, capturing it and sharing it effortlessly. It was one of those days when I felt like I could hardly believe the intensity of what I was seeing, but I was able to share it, record it, all as part of the experience. I’m not a great photographer: mostly I leave the camera alone and just experience my life without documenting it. But sometimes, documenting it is part of the experience, adds to it. So, in my 30 minute walk from the University of Guelph and my sister’s house, I shared the colours around me and saw the responses from my friends and colleagues far and wide. I was no less on the street, no less engaged. But I was also interacting with the world via the internet. I loved it. I was in two places at once. I had voices in my head. I was connected in two places. It reminded me of Snow Crash.

I’m sure this is no revelation for anyone who’s already had a smartphone all this time, so mea culpa. I was aware of the sort of ambient/ubiquitous computing, I just hadn’t had the chance to experiment with it myself yet, to see what it really feels like. I think the interface is still a bit clunky, too limiting, but the touch screen is getting closer to effortless. What’s wonderful about it is its seamlessness; picture to twitter, responses, all so easy to see and engage with. And engaging online isn’t even really drawing me away from my real life experience. It’s just a part of it. I’m not thinking about cables or connections or keyboards. Technology is getting to be close to invisible, just present and available.

As I sat on the train, reading fiction online, leaving comments, checking out links on Twitter, reading educause research, answering work email, I realized that I would never be bored again.

I read someone’s response to the iPad a few months ago where he returned his iPad for this very reason: the threat of never feeling bored again. Boredom as critical experience, necessary experience. I can understand that, but of course it’s all in the decisions that you opt to make. We are invariably drawn to the shininess of instant gratification via the internet, of course. But even that can get boring, eventually. You do reach a point where you’ve read it all for the moment, and you’ll have to wait for more to appear in the little niche of reading that you do. Does that force you to branch out, find more and more interesting things? That’s not necessarily a terrible thing. Does it allow you to avoid reflecting, being with yourself in a place?

One of the very early criticisms directed at the iPad was that it was a device for consumers, on which information is merely consumed, not created. That jarred me, as it felt untrue and frankly a bit elitist. Creation doesn’t just mean writing software or hacks. Creation can be writing, or drawing, or singing, or sharing reactions and thoughts. but I see now with both the iPhone and the iPad, that this criticism is both true and false. It’s true that these devices make it very easy to consume content created by others; it’s easier to browse and read than it is to write, for instance. The keyboard is pretty great, but it’s not as easy to use as the one attached to my laptop. But what I choose to browse/read/consume is still my choice; just because it’s on an iPad doesn’t mean that it’s all commercial content, not while the web is as relatively free and easy to access as it is. Most of my reading on these devices is not sponsored and not created by mainstream media. I’m not just reading the New York Times. I’m reading blogs and archives, primarily. And why are we so anti “consumer”? We need to consume the creations of others as part of a healthy dialogue, after all; there is a level of pop consumption that’s a good thing. Neither of these devices is as simple as a TV or a radio where there is a clear creator and a clear consumer. I am also a creator on these devices, a sharer of experiences, of thoughts and ideas. My experience walking down the street in Guelph on a beautiful day was a case in point; I was clearly a creator, sharing what I saw, engaging with others. That’s not a passive experience. Sitting on the train reading someone’s review of a movie, or a fictional take an on old idea; I’m consuming as well. In places where I couldn’t do so before.

It feels like there are fewer spaces in my life. The level of connection I’m currently experiencing seems to make my days blend together into one long back-and-forth with any number of people. Is this less downtime? Downtime transformed into time spent in this otherworld of communication and information? Am I reflecting less?

I started with a bang, so I guess it remains to be seen how much I keep at it. Will it get old? Will I return to my former habits, with less time testing the limits of my devices? It remains to be seen.