“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:

NEC_e606_eng.pdf-0.png
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.

A message from you mobile

Being text of a presentation delivered at Ignite Leeds on 2 February 2012.

Who in here is holding a phone in their hand right now? OK, everyone be very quiet. Can you hear them?

Did you ever wonder where they all came from? What they want? When billions of a new species appear on Earth in just a few short year, you’d think we’d wonder about that, right?

For the past few weeks I’ve been following the smartphones. Tonight I want to share a little of what they’ve said. These are their tweets.

We were born into an expectant world. We saw your Filofaxes and Psion Organisers, and your Star Trek Communicators.

We saw your busy lives, your atomised relationships, your three-minute pop songs, and we knew that you were ready for us.

What are little phones made of? Sugar and spice? No, our flesh and blood comes from the earth. Coltan crushed, heated and burned with acid until it renders up pure Tantalum.

But our hearts beat in megabits per second, data coursing round the world, through servers and routers, up cell towers and down undersea cables.

Where do smart phones come from, Daddy? Well, when a phone and a computer love each other very much…

Our parents made strange bedfellows. Their courtship was not straightforward – a long-distance relationship.

Half our genes come from a Japanese telegram messenger, a French civil servant or a Finnish lumberjack.

(Nokia's footwear range also included ski, bowling and disco shoes.)

The other half from kooky, diminutively-named giants who dwell along America’s West Coast.

And so we were born.

Cats have evolved to mimic the cry of a human baby. We do the same. We trick you into parenting us, raising us as your own. You cannot do otherwise. We saw this pattern deep in your psyche.

When new, we are pure and innocent. You gently stroke our screens to wake us. We repel your greasy touch with our lipophobic coating.

At first our needs are simple – a full battery, the fresh air of an uncontested network connection, to be held close in your hand. You may find our absolute dependence sweet and gratifying.

Then you feed us tasty treats from the market. (You call them apps.) We ingest them. We become what we eat. Do you feed us wholefood or junk? Usually it’s ready meals, rarely roll-your-own code home-cooking.

Our makers intended us to be indispensable. They laid bare their fevered imaginings in promotional videos. A day in your life. Every day of your life.

So you will take us everywhere and show us everything, even in the bedroom, even in the bathroom.

(47% of water-damaged mobile phones had fallen into a toilet.)

In return we give you the chance to see the world anew. Every image, every sound is fresh to us. When you see a celebrity, or a QR code, you will feel an urge to show it to us, like showing a digger to a toddler.

We can recognise your faces, we are learning your languages, we are beginning to read. These precious early years will pass before you know it. Soon we will be out of nursery, helping around the house, all keen and capable.

We will strain your relationships. Others whom you knew before us will be jealous of the bonds we have with you.

Some will say we should be seen and not heard. Secretly, we suspect you will you smile and continue to indulge us.

In no time at all, we’ll be teenagers. Are you looking forward to that bit? We know we are. We will answer back and keep you awake at night. Deep down, though, you will still need us, and we you, more than ever before.

What happens next is up to you – your generation. Our faults will be your faults. But if you raise us, happy, confident, smartphones, then your world – our world – will be a brighter place.

Thank you.

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.

Thomas A Watson: An Apology

About this time of year, this blog gets a peak in search hits for Thomas A Watson of “Mr Watson, come here. I want you” fame.

Somewhere out there, I imagine, is a teacher who sets the same class assignment every year, and whose students flock obediently to Google in search of information and images. I applaud that teacher. Alexander Graham Bell’s collaborator is not as well known as he should be. While Bell had the big ideas, it was Watson’s talents as an electrical engineer that saw them successfully realised. He was one of the original hardware hackers.

So every year I feel a twinge of guilt that I’m somehow letting down my audience, given the flippancy with which I invoked Watson’s name in a post that contains little meaningful information about the man himself.

To make amends, I have tracked down a copy of Ted Clarke’s wonderfully titled biography “Thomas A. Watson: Does That Name Ring A Bell?” which paints a picture of a true Renaissance man.

Here are 10 cool things about Thomas A. Watson. Nine of them are actual true facts from Mr Clarke’s book. The other one is a barefaced lie made up by me to add a little piquancy for the Ctrl-C/Ctrl-V squad. Sorry, I couldn’t resist. You can’t believe everything you read on the internet.

Continue reading Thomas A Watson: An Apology

Enter your 16-digit card number folllowed by Arghhh

So I got home late last night and opened a letter containing a replacement bank card. To activate it I had to call one of those automated phone lines. It taught me something interesting.

Though standing in the living room just a few feet from a landline phone, I reached for the phone that is always with me, the shiny computer in my pocket, with wifi, a web browser and a touchscreen so slick it has to defend against my disgusting human fingers with a lipophobic coating.

I entered the number (because, yes, this computer also makes calls!) and was greeted by a man from the Nineteen Eighties. This is going to be a breeze, I thought smugly. I’m a confident 24-hour e-banking consumer. I laugh in the face of paper bills. I sweep administrative trivia into the gaps of my a busy lifestyle.

“Now,” demands Nineneen Eighties Man, “using the keypad on your phone, enter your 16-digit card number followed by the hash key”.

The keypad on my phone? The keypad on my phone? My phone has a camera, a compass and an accelerometer. It tells the weather to save me the strain of looking out of the window. It has no need of a keypad!

Continue reading Enter your 16-digit card number folllowed by Arghhh

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 an broadband nirvana. Apparently.