“Evolution. What’s it like?” The three lives of the front-facing camera

“Evolution. What’s it like? So one day you’re a single-celled amoeba and then, whoosh! A fish, a frog, a lizard, a monkey, and, before you know it, an actress.
[On-screen caption: “Service limitations apply. See three.co.uk”]
I mean, look at phones. One, you had your wires. Two, mobile phones. And three, Three video mobile.
Now I can see who I’m talking to. I can now be where I want, when I want, even when I’m not. I can laugh, I can cry, I can look at life in a completely different way.
I don’t want to be a frog again. Do you?”

— Anna Friel, 3 UK launch advert, 2003

Today, in 2016, that ad feels so right, and yet so wrong. Of course phones have changed massively in the intervening decade-and-a-bit — just not how the telecoms marketeers of the early Noughties fantasised. In this post I want to trace what evolution of technology might really be like. I’ll do it by following the unstable twists and turns around one small element of the construct we now call a smartphone.

Something was missing from the Anna Friel commercial. All the way through, the director was at pains to avoid even the tiniest glimpse of something the audience was eager to see. You know, a phone. At the time I worked for Three’s competitor Orange whose brand rules also forbade the appearance of devices in marketing. The coyness was partly aesthetic: mobiles in those days were pig-ugly. Moreover, the operators had just paid £4 billion each for the right to run 3G networks in the UK. They wanted consumers to think of the phone as a means to an end, a mere conduit for telecommunications service, delivered over licensed spectrum.

To see a device in all its glory, we must turn to the manufacturer’s literature. Observe the product manual of the NEC e606, one of three models offered by Three at its launch on 3 March 2003:

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NEC e606 product manual

Notice where a little starburst has been Photoshopped onto the otherwise strictly functional product shot? That’s the only tangible hint of the phone’s central feature, the thing that makes it worth buying despite being pricier and weightier than all the other matte grey clamshells on the market. By this point, loads of phones have digital cameras built in, but they are always on the back, facing away so the holder can use the tiny colour screen as a viewfinder. This is something different: a front-facing camera. It exists so that Anna Friel can be seen by the person she is talking to.

Let’s map* this network.

maps3.001.png

Loosely, the vertical axis answers the question “how much do users care about this thing?” The nearer the top, the more salient the concept. The horizontal concerns stability of the concept – the further to the right, the less controversial. But at this point the choice of nodes and the connections between them matters more to me than their precise placement. This forms an actor-network – a set of concepts that belong together, in at least one contested interpretation.

  • Phone calls are over on the top right, a very stable concept. Users understand what phone calls are for, know how to access them, and accept that they cost money.
  • If the operators can persuade users to add pictures, to see who they’re talking to, they have a reason to sell not just plain old telephony service but 3G, that thing they’ve just committed billions of pounds to building. Cue the front-facing camera.
  • Video calling and 3G cellular networks rely on each other, but both are challenged. Do users really need them? Will they work reliably enough to be a main selling point for the device? Whisper it softly, “service limitations apply”.
  • Because of this weakness, the assemblage is bolstered by a less glamorous but more stable concept – asynchronous video messaging. This at least can be delivered by the more reliable and widespread 2.5G cellular. Users don’t care much about this, but it’s an important distinction to our network.

What then remains for the telco executive of 2003 to do? Maybe just wait for the technology to “evolve”?

  • More 3G base stations will be built and the bandwidth will increase
  • Cameras and screens will improve in resolution
  • People will take to the idea of seeing who they’re talking to, if not on every call, then at least on ones that really matter.

All these things have come to pass. But could I draw the same network 10 years later with everything just a bit further over to the right? No, because networks come apart.

Nokia’s first 3G phone, the 6630 had no front-facing camera. Operators used their market muscle and subsidies to push phones capable of video calling. Yet many of the hit devices of the next few years didn’t bother with them. The first two versions of the Apple iPhone likewise. Even the iPhone 3G was missing a front facing camera. Finally in 2010, the operators had to swallow their pride and market an iPhone 4 with Apple’s exclusive Facetime video calling service that ran only over unlicensed spectrum wifi.

This is the social construction of technology in action. Maybe evolution is a helpful metaphor, maybe not. Whatever we call it, this is the story of how, over the course of a decade, by their choices what to buy and what to do, users taught the technology sector what phones were for. Hint: it wasn’t video calling.

Just when we think the front-facing camera is out of the frame, it makes a surprising comeback. This time it’s not shackled to either video calls or mobile messaging. Instead it emerges as a tool of self-presentation in social media.

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Some rights reserved – Ashraf Siddiqui

“Are you sick of reading about selfies?” asks an article in The Atlantic, announcing that selfies are now boring and thus finally interesting. “Are you tired of hearing about how those pictures you took of yourself on vacation last month are evidence of narcissism, but also maybe of empowerment, but also probably of the click-by-click erosion of Culture at Large?” Indeed, for all its usage, the term — and more so the practice(s) — remain fundamentally ambiguous, fraught, and caught in a stubborn and morally loaded hype cycle.”

‘What Does the Selfie Say? Investigating a Global Phenomenon’, Theresa M. Selft and Nancy K. Baym

Time for another map.

maps3.002.png

  • By 2013, 3G (now also 4G) cellular mobile is no longer in doubt, but its salience to users is diminished. It is a bearer of last resort when wifi is not an option for accessing the Internet.
  • The lynchpin at the top right is not the phone call but social media, with its appetite for videos and photos. In their service, we find the front-facing camera, now though rarely used for calling.
  • Only a fraction of selfies even leave the phone. Many of them are shared in person, in the moment, on the bright, HD screen. They are accumulated and enhanced with storage and processing powers that barely figured on the phones of 2003.

Call it evolution if you like, this total dissolution and reassembly of concepts.

We’re not done yet. Here’s another commercial for your consideration. One for the Samsung Galaxy S4 mapped above. Can you spot the third incarnation of the front-facing camera?

Man 1: “Hey, sorry I was just checking out your phone. That’s the Galaxy S4, right?”
Man 2: “Yeah, I just got it.”
Woman: “Did your video just pause on its own?”
Man 2: “Yeah it does it every time you look away from the screen.”
Man 1: “And that’s a big screen too.”
Man 2: “Yeah, HD.”
Man 3: “Is that the phone you answer by waving your hand over it?”
Man 2: “Yeah.”
Man 1: [waves hand over Man 2’s phone] “Am I doing it right?”
Man 2: “Someone has to call you first…”

Samsung Galaxy S4 TV advert, 2013

See how far a once-secure concept has fallen? The guy needs reminding (in jest at least) how phone calls work! Compared to the 3G launch video, this scene is more quotidian; the phone itself is present as an actor.

And what is the front-facing camera up to now? Playing stooge in the S4’s new party trick: the one where the processor decides for itself when to pause videos and answer calls. If the user never makes another video call or takes another selfie, it’ll still be there as the enabler of gesture control. Better add that to my map:

maps3.003.png

We used to think the phone had a front-facing camera so we could see each other. Then it became a mirror in which we could see ourselves. Now, it turns out, our phones will use it so they can observe us.

Maybe that’s what evolution is like.


* These maps are not Wardley value chain maps though I see much value in that technique. More on that in a later post.

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Digger!

As a parent of a toddler you see the world differently. Everything that’s become everyday on the long slog into grown-up-dom is suddenly fresh again when seen for the first time through a new pair of eyes.

With a small child at your side everything exists to be classified and clarified. Cat, dog, big, red, dangerous, dirty, fragile.

Digger! Look, a digger!

It’s matters not that before becoming a parent, you paid no attention to diggers. The act of pointing-out signals to the child that you are interested in their interests, and that they may be interested in the pointed-out thing. This becomes a cycle of positive reinforcement.

At times in my children’s upbringing this work as life’s tour guide has become so all-consuming that I’ve caught myself pointing things out when unaccompanied by an actual child. To work colleagues and complete strangers: “Look! A digg… err, nothing…”

And then, as quickly as it arrived, that phase of a child’s life is gone. Language assimilated, stabilisers off, the child is equipped to drink in a fill of the world and filter the risks and opportunities for herself, at least in a moment-to-moment way. The work of parenting shifts up a level, to instilling higher-order knowledge and shared values.

Right now, owning a smartphone feels a bit like parenting through those precious first years. Small and bright eyed, it has all these amazing, pure senses and capabilities, and so much world still to discover.

When I see a QR code I feel a parental urge to show it to my phone, like pointing out a digger to a toddler.

It’s not so much that the content at the end of the codeblock will interest me,  just that I have a chance to see something mundane through the device’s eyes. Together we are experiencing the world anew.

I’m fascinated by work on computer vision like Greg Borenstein‘s forthcoming O’Reilly book about Microsoft Kinect, and Berg’s inquiry into the robot readable world. It feels so much like the start of something.

Of course mobile is already climbing out of the basic, high-contrast cot-toy stage. Google Goggles seems to have a reading age roughly equivalent to that of my youngest, five-year-old, son.

That’s also the age at which we begin to think more critically about the values we’re instilling for the future. Perhaps our task now is to raise a generation of well-balanced smartphones that can make sense of the world in all its wonder, not grumpy, materialistic tweens only interested in mass media and shopping.

Breathless from the fumes of the data exhaust

Can one person be in three places at once? The most requested superpower among Foo Campers seems to be time travel.

Maybe it’s because with a dozen or more amazing things going on at once we’d like to loop round at the end of every day and do it all over again. With only one me at a time, I feel buyer’s remorse wherever I choose to be.

But if I haven’t yet collided with my parallel self moving from session to session then I certainly have bumped repeatedly into the same topics, with a new and fascinating twist every time.

  • The joy of making things – printing 3d heads, cutting high-performance code, playing musically with fire
  • Big data (how big is big? Big enough that robust, unexpected patterns can emerge)
  • Other big stuff perceived to be broken: education, privacy, the economy, cities, the planet.

Can we fix it? In the words of Barack Obama and Bob the Builder, Yes We Can. For America. Just give us a bigger data set and smarter algorithms. Because to a child with a hammer everything looks like a nail, and this hammer is called Hadoop.

The geeks triumphant, but also increasingly self-aware. Here on O’Reilly’s Sebastopol campus are 250 or so smart women and men. They’re self-effacing and self-quantifying in equal measures, alert – if not always with ready solutions – to issues of race, gender, absolute and relative poverty.

I’m typing this in a tent. A tent with excellent wifi. I’m awake so I check Twitter.

It’s 6:14am and the birds are calling me too. They want me to take my mobile phone outside and take pictures, maybe record an Audioboo. Why can’t I just enjoy the stillness? I have this auto-documentation sickness bad.

My need to record, to show off, is antipathetical to the “in the moment” spirit of Foo Camp, yet hyper-typical of our time.

The camera on my Android is one of a bundle of sensors thickening the data smog that surrounds us. With image recognition on the street and 3d sensing on your Kinect, every move you make is data.

Welcome to the Anthropocene, where our massed devices’ seeing rays burn heatmaps directly onto the landscape in a giant eye-tracking study of the world.

I cannot resist revisiting this picture: An Experiment on a Bird in an Air Pump, by Joseph Wright of Derby.

I rehash my Latourian conceit that the mobile phone is the air pump of our age, and ask again, where in this picture are we?

Surely we’re the experimenter? That’s the most obvious place to look.

By 2023, if we project out the sector’s exponential growth, everyone in the world will work as a data scientist. “I can’t understand why people don’t just do what the data says!” I hear one of the vanguard cry.

I’m breathing the same air as coders of mythical power, people who create and fine-tune the world’s spam filters and retail recommendation engines. If they can move the dial by 0.5% their companies will make billions.

Only, sometimes we take on the role of horrified, yet admiring, onlookers.

We move to halt the march of gamification before it turns a generation of engaged learners into Skinner box-conditioned zombies.

Privacy urgently needs new social norms, not red-flag carriers holding back the pace of technology. It strikes me that the politicians are at once the best and worst people to make decisions on this matter. They have the legitimacy that the powers of commerce lack, yet the bubble in which they live divorces their experience from that of private citizens.

No one can observe the activity without changing the outcome, as Jane Jacobs showed with the porches and stoops of her New York neighbourhood. Increasing transparency and visibility in the city could alter its form and its inhabitants, for good or ill, in unforeseen ways.

And let’s not forget the eponymous bird in the air pump.

Under the glass, we are subject to constant surveillance. We get to be the centre of attention, but in return we give the experimenter the power to suck out the air at any moment. What happens the first time the networked city doesn’t work?

And we, the most ardent self-quantifiers, are the canaries in our own coalmine. If data exhaust turns to data exhaustion, some of our number will be the first to fall. They’ll be part of a long history of self-experimentation. Isaac Newton stuck a needle in his own eye.

So maybe we really are crossing our own time-streams to be thrice in the same picture, a trinity of scientist, spectator and subject. What I can’t be sure of is whether this construct is self-limiting.

If the geeks spin too fast does the system shut down like an engine with a centrifugal governor? Or does it free-wheel out of control?


Executive summary: I had a great time at Foo Camp and met some amazing people, every one of whom had interesting stuff to say or show. I’m indebted to Edd Dumbill for my golden ticket, and to Tim O’Reilly, Sara Winge and the rest of the team for making it all happen.  As Quinn Norton put it, “My favorite parts of Foocamp aren’t getting answers, but making the questions harder and more interesting.” You may also want to read Scott Burkun’s ‘What I learned at FOO Camp‘.

A tale of attention and abundance: Why service design matters on the new mobile web

Over the last few days I’ve had a chance to reflect on the relationship between the mobile web and service design. The more I think about it, the more I’m convinced that the two are tied together, in a way that was not the case with either the PC-based web or pre-internet mobile services.

Why? Well it goes like this…

In the beginning, was the Screen, and the Screen was a Television, and we gathered round the Television and gave it our undivided attention. And there were not many channels, so producers devoted their time and money to making good programmes in which we grateful viewers were immersed.

Then came the Web, and unlike the TV, it offered near limitless choice of sites and services. So the producers of Inter-Net Web Sites had to worry about stuff like findability, and usability, and (yuck) “stickiness”. They had competition, and we were easily bored, so they strove to give us novelty in content and agility in development. They invented SEO and pay-per-click and the Million Dollar Homepage.

Yet still all the striving happened within the bounds of the Screen. By and large the world outside the browser window was of little concern to the web designers.

Meanwhile, there were Telephones, and unlike TV and the PC-web, they existed in a world of divided attention. We made short calls in busy places, and sent hurried text messages in the gaps between other important stuff in our lives. The context of use was filled with constant distractions. As I’ve advocated here before, try using your service in broad daylight on a busy street corner, preferably in a slightly dodgy area of town, and you’ll see what I mean.

The life of a mobile service provider was a hard one, focused on finding the right customer needs and meeting them with usable solutions. Technology was fragmented and its vagaries absorbed much time and effort, but at least this meant that the few who conquered the technology could enjoy substantial rewards. The world outside the Screen was complex and confused but, compared to the wild, wild web, services were scarce and contention for “real estate” was limited.

Now, joyfully and at long last, those technical barriers to entry in mobile are melting away. Anyone can make content or services, offer them to consumers anywhere in the world, and monetise them through payments and advertising. We can experience those services on bright, light, sleek, enjoyable devices.

Continue reading A tale of attention and abundance: Why service design matters on the new mobile web

One & Other in a roundabout way

This is a photo of the screen of a computer, displaying a webcam that’s trained on a plinth. Not just any plinth, The Plinth.

On the webcam is a whiteboard that carries a message, a message that’s saying hello to my sons. They were very impressed.

Lorinda (who I’ve never met) wrote the message. Lorinda wrote messages she got on her phone, via a service called Thumbprint. Thumbprint is a dead simple way to say stuff about places and topics by text.

I texted the Plinth after seeing a tweet from Andrew at Blink who made Thumbprint with my friends at Common.

It was all over in a few totally unexpected minutes of a Saturday afternoon, so let’s play that again, in slow motion…

  • Tweet…
  • Text…
  • Thumbprint…
  • Text…
  • Plinth…
  • Pen…
  • Whiteboard…
  • Webcam…
  • Amazement.

Well done to all involved.

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Adventures with a pocket projector

A couple of months ago I got myself a pocket projector to attach to my mobile phone and laptop. Partly, I wanted to know what happens to the mobile user interface when you blow it up to a metre across. Partly, it seemed like a fun thing to have, just to have it.

I discovered that a pocket projector has many uses…

1. Buy groceries on the fridge

2. Turn your ceiling into a planetarium

3. Customise your t-shirt

4. Twitter-enable a teapot

5. Make a newspaper like in Harry Potter

It was fun making these. I think little projectors are going to be huge.

Thomas A. Watson Ate My Internet

“But daddy, if people didn’t have computers, how did they buy things from the internet?”

It’s amazing how something we’ve come to take for granted hangs from such a fragile thread.

As part of a new product trial for my employer, we recently had a visit from two very helpful telecoms engineers who checked out our broadband connection.

Living where we do within spitting distance of our local phone exchange, our broadband should have been blazing, but it turned out all those bits and bytes were struggling to be heard over the noise on the line. The engineers (who’d already proved they were a class act by taking off their boots at the door, without being asked) ran some checks, showed me some impressive looking waveforms and diagnosed a collision between the 19th and 21st centuries.

Thomas A. Watson

Back in the days when Crazy Frog was nothing but a proud native American Chief defending the plains of the Wild West (probably), Thomas Augustus Watson – of “Mr Watson, come here! I need you!” fame – had the bright idea of a bell to alert recipients to incoming calls. A bell. An actual bell. Not a Truetone, not even a Polyphonic. Just an actual, real, ringing bell. To make the bell ring, a pair of wires ran in parallel along the cable that carried the talking. When a call was coming in, power would surge down the lines and make the bell ring. Ingenious!

Fast forward about 120 years and even our cordless DECT phone has a choice of ten tinny tunes. If we could be bothered we could set the phone to play a different tinny tune depending on the caller. The bell wires in my home are pretty much redundant, but they’re still there, just in case I decide to plug in a phone with an actual, real, ringing bell.

And therein lay the problem, according to the engineer standing in my living room in his socks. Our phone had an old extension cable running upstairs. The two ringing wires from that extension were funnelling radio noise back into our phone system and drowning out the internet. Two minutes and a small screwdriver later the old extension cable had been disconnected and we were two megabits per second better off. Sorted.

Now attenuation is all that stands between me and broadband nirvana. Apparently.