“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 see who 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.

Apple’s real innovation: a gesture made with two fingers

Douglas Rushkoff nails my unease at the patenting of gestures, a critical front in the commercial war being waged through intellectual property. At stake is how far governments should grant monopoly rights over something that belongs to all of us: our shared language of words and gestures.

US Patent #7,812,826, though limited and not at stake in the latest Samsung judgement, grants Apple rights over pinch-to-zoom.

What if they had Patented the Alphabet? Rushkoff demands to know. I’d take it further. Patents on gestures take us into the same territory as those on human genes, and on flora and fauna. These are our shared commons; natural attributes that may be discovered and used, but never invented nor enclosed. Opposable thumbs! They’re part of what it means to be human.

And yet, I can’t help thinking that all the focus on Apple’s patents obscures the true reasons for the company’s runaway success in mobile. The mythology around Steve Jobs paints him as heir to Edison, a wizard presiding over a school of invention and creativity. True innovation is not like that and never has been; it’s about much more that just building a better mousetrap.

My favourite definition of innovation is not the usual pat phrase about “making new stuff”, or even “making new stuff useful”. Those focus too much on the outcome at the expense of the process. Instead consider this throwaway line in Bruno Latour’s Aramis:

“a project is considered innovative if the number of actors is not known from the outset.”

That is to say, innovation is the act of cajoling diverse, contradictory and competing interests – eternal human needs, new technologies and entrenched commercial structures. And that is where, in the congealed mobile value chain of the mid-Noughties, Apple deserves some credit.

Mobile had – and still has today – a complex web of interdependent business models. Crouched at the centre were network operators which had risked billions of other people’s money on radio spectrum and infrastructure. They aimed to recoup this investment by distributing heavily-subsidised devices tied to lengthy airtime contracts.

In such a situation, end users could easily become peripheral. Device manufacturers came to see operators, not consumers, as their customers. They became adept at pandering to the operators’ many and varied whims:

  • Multimedia messaging which few people used
  • Front-facing cameras in the hope of a video-calling bonanza
  • Operator-specified applications designed to wring a little more revenue out of their users.

Consumers were baffled by the terminology, sceptical of the benefits and fearful of unpredictable extra charges. And yet the manufacturers and operators remained locked in an arms race to give people more of the wrong things.

Apple, fresh from playing a similar game with the music industry, used its muscle in the market to bulldoze past all that, to appeal over the heads of entrenched interests to end users themselves.

With a high-end device as under-specified as that first iPhone, any other brand would have struggled to get onto operators’ ranges at all. But for Apple? No 3G? No multimedia messaging? No apps (they only came later, remember)? No problem, and throw in a special unlimited data bundle for good measure.

The best thing about the first iPhone was not the satisfying gravitational bounce when you scrolled to the bottom of a screen – there must surely be prior art for that somewhere. What was amazing was the product development process that prioritised that bounce over implementing MMS.

By sticking to its guns, Apple transformed mobile for ever. But that kind of innovation is impossible to patent because it’s about what you have the guts to leave out, much more than what you’re able to squeeze in.

A message from your mobile

From Ignite Leeds, five minutes of speculation about what our phones are really thinking. Thanks to Imran Ali and Craig Smith for making it happen. Transcript here.

Week 790: Leaving Orange

On Valentine’s Day 1997, I left my job as a newspaper journalist to work with the small, smart team who were building a pioneering news service for the web in a squat, Leeds-look, edge-of-centre office block. “You can always come back,” said my editor, “if this Internet thing doesn’t work out.”

For a long time I was genuinely grateful to know that. It was not that newspapers had got any less interesting, just that the world outside seemed to hold such potential.

The news service morphed from PA NewsCentre to Ananova. We were bought, as a team, by Hans Snook’s Orange. The very next week we moved a little further out of town and up in the world to the top floor of Marshall’s Mill where we surfed the amazing surge of mobile, from the “Matrix slider” to the ubiquitous smartphones. (By chance this also planted the historian in me among the ruins of the Industrial Revolution, the time when our city was part of  true northern renaissance.)

It has been a brilliant ride – several times up, over and round the hype cycle with text-to-speech, the mobile web, mobile apps and most recently near-field communication and mobile payments.

At every turn, Orange has granted me and my colleagues a privileged vantage point as millions of people have their first encounters with the amazing worlds of web and mobile media. Thank you to everyone who has given me those opportunities.

If you clicked this link looking for a bitter expose of life inside big telco, this is not that post. Please make a back gesture on your device now, or try Paul Ford’s brilliant “Why I Am Leaving the People of the Red Valley“.

It is not that operators have got any less interesting, just that the world outside seems to hold such potential.

Simon Wardley draws a business lifecycle from innovation to custom built to productisation, and finally to commoditisation. From his chart I draw two highly relevant conclusions:

  1. Lots of the stuff with which I have been privileged to play over the last decade and a half is approaching, or has already reached, the point of commoditisation.
  2. This is exciting, because it’s in the transition from product to commodity that services are born.

Together those two conclusions point to a Cambrian explosion of useful and engaging new services and business models.

Since handing in my notice at Orange I’ve had conversations with a wide range of people about what those services and business models might be. (Thank you, all of you. You know who you are :) I’ve also become even more convinced that human-centred service design and innovation techniques are the right tools for the job.

Next week I start my first freelance engagement with an amazing agency that is doing great stuff in this space. Longer term I’ll be looking for other clients and partners who are as excited as I am by all these opportunities. Want to know more? I’m at http://mattedgar.com

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.

Mobile experience in use and ornament

Thanks to @MrAlanCooper for highlighting Rahul Sen’s beautifully-written piece on the relevance of the Bauhaus movement to modern-day interaction design. The world would be a better place if more designers could cultivate such a deep appreciation of the history. I tried to  comment on the Johnny Holland blog but was foiled by the pernicious Recaptcha, so this post is by way of a response. Please read Rahul first.

He writes…

The Bauhaus Movement (1918-1933) was based on a German revival of a purer, honest design representation in architecture, art, typography and product design. Its philosophy celebrated an austere functionalism with little or no ornamentation. It advocated a use of industrial materials and inter-disciplinary methods and techniques. The  Bauhaus aesthetic and beliefs were influenced by and derived from techniques and materials employed especially in industrial fabrication and manufacture. Artists included Paul Klee, Wassilli Kandinsky, and Feininger. Architects and designers included Mies Van der Rohe, Phillip Johnson, Walter Gropius, Lazlso Moholy-Nagy and several others.

Rahul detects the emergence of a new Bauhaus trend in interaction design, typified by the innovative new Windows Phone 7 user interface. But in concluding he asks exactly the right question by pointing to the failings as well as the early promise of the Bauhaus brand of reductionism.

If the Bauhaus movement in the early part of last century failed to resonate with users… can we as designers prepare ourselves to meet the challenges ahead?

If you can bear the profuse ornamentation, I think it’s worth looking a couple of generations further back, to the roots of the movement against which Bauhaus was reacting.

John Ruskin hated classical strictures and mass production. He loved the changefulness that comes when anonymous workers are set free to express themselves through their craft. I think his Nature of Gothic makes a good model for the amazing variety of mobile, web-enabled media, savageness, redundance and all. You can have your IxD Bauhaus, but I’ll keep my Mobile Gothic.

“The bit where the screen went black and you said ‘look up'”: on the irresistible pull of a story in the place where it happened

This is my youngest son, Pascal, when he was two years old. He’s looking sheepish because he’s just picked an apple. It’s an apple from the orchard at Woolsthorpe Manor, Lincolnshire, the orchard where Isaac Newton first conceived of gravity.

We were drawn to this beautiful, remote farmhouse for a tea break on a long journey, and ended up learning some science. A master storyteller can make the laws of gravity come alive anywhere, even in a lift, but to experience them at Woolsthorpe adds an extra weight. The National Trust which now owns the house has turned a barn into a small discovery centre where you too can see the forces of nature anew, right where Newton did more than 300 years ago.

In his famous Proposition 75 Theorem 35, Newton wrote:

“If to the several points of a given sphere there tend equal centripetal forces decreasing in a duplicate ratio of the distances from the points; I say, that another similar sphere will be attracted by it with a force reciprocally proportional to the square of the distance of the centres.”

That “reciprocally proportional square of the distance” bit means the attraction gets stronger, much stronger, as things get closer together.

So it is with stories.

Sheffield and Leeds are 34 miles apart. When I told the story of Leeds steam engine pioneer Matthew Murray in the Cutlers’ Hall, Sheffield, the Interesting North audience gave me polite applause. (Granted, it was 10:30am on a Saturday when many had got up early to be there.) When I told the same story in Temple Works, Leeds, just across the road from the site of Murray’s Round Foundry the audience gave much more. I could have raised a mob there and then to tear down James Watt’s statue in City Square.

  • A story in the same county is quite interesting.
  • A story in the same city is more compelling.
  • A story in the place where it happened is extra powerful.

It’s more than just playing to a home crowd. Actually being there increases exponentially the return on just a small leap of imagination. We can picture the protagonists standing beside us, under the same sun, breathing the same air. It’s why the microcontent of blue plaques is so powerful.

It’s why it was so much fun to talk last week about the Corn Exchange in the Corn Exchange. Several people have remarked on the same moment in the talk, something that brought this thing home to me.

Bettakultcha follows a lightning talk format of 20 slides in five minutes. When I reached the part about the amazing domed roof, there seemed little point showing people a Powerpoint slide of the inside of the Corn Exchange in the Corn Exchange. Cuthbert Brodrick’s masterpiece speaks for itself. So I blanked the screen and asked people to look up.

They looked up at the Spartan, modern-before-its-time structure above our heads. It turns out this was the point of maximum attraction, the moment people were as one with place, the point most remarked on in my conversations ever since.

Similar connections to place cropped up in some other Bettakultcha talks too:

All of which must not be taken to mean that local stories are static, parochial stories. As I argued at TEDxLeeds and hinted in my Corn Exchange talk, our city owes its dynamism to outsiders and their connections with other great cities around the world. Without Egypt, we would have no Temple Works; without France, no Louis Le Prince.

These unexpected links with other places, these wormholes, only open up when we open our imaginations to the things that happened in the past, in the places where we now find ourselves.

An oft-remarked characteristic of the internet is that it erases distance and difference, that it allows a script kiddy in Kazakhstan to cripple a business in California. In this account it seems local differences will be erased by the swelling ranks of the Republic of Facebook.

But this emerging medium must surely also power a resurgence in situated storytelling. The location-aware dimension of the mobile internet is uniquely well placed to bring stories to people where they need to know them most. The hyperlinked web dimension makes it possible to leap through wormholes from one situated story to its entangled quantum twin.

I wonder where they will take us next?