Government // Mobile & Wireless
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3/12/2012
05:39 PM
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SXSW: New Mobile Ideas Meet Old Battery Gripes

Using the right interface to solve certain problems dramatically speeds up the way that we interface with machines. Think geolocation--if your mobile battery doesn't go dead.

Cybernetic anthropologist Amber Case spoke to a full house at SXSW this week, in one of the more thought-provoking sessions that I attended. She started off by declaring, "Every time you use that mobile phone of yours, you have a symbiotic relationship with it: you are a cyborg." Perhaps one of the most interesting points that she made was that current mobility interfaces take way too much of our time.

Here's what she means. I experienced one example of the wrong interface during SXSW, when I was navigating through the many disconnected venues in downtown Austin. Instead of using a speech-based navigator, I used the built-in iOS navigation system, where my eyes were focused on the stinkin' screen instead of where I was supposed to be walking, so of course, I had the option of either getting killed by not looking where I was going, or stopping and getting to my destination slower.

"I find that I miss half my life if I'm looking at my screen all the time," she said. "There's got to be a better way to do it." And indeed, there could be. Case pointed out how attractive it would be if, when you were taking public transportation, your phone could wake you up when you were two stops away.

This is an example of what Case means by "calm technology," that is, technology that has "invisible interfaces, actions as buttons, and trigger based interactions."

She pointed that Steve Mann's "wearcam" allows him to augment the reality that he sees, replacing billboards and so on, with content that he actually wants to read and do something with, using chorded keyboard input to do things like edit Wikipedia entries while waiting to cross the street.

Another example that she gave was a haptic device that acts as a simple human-computer interface: a belt that buzzes when you face north.

These examples seem a bit goofy, at least today, but this is where the puck is going. As I've written before about Siri, new interfaces have immense promise for technologists serving customers. That promise is not limited just to voice interactivity. When application providers figure out how to make business and life better between these new interfaces and hyper-localization, watch out.

I mean, especially at these types of shows, wouldn't it be awesome for your wearcam to do facial recognition on the person you're looking at and remind you of her name? Yes!

Batteries Not Included

Of course, there's one important stumbling block to all of this: battery life. Case asked the audience of at least 1500 "How many of you have used a location based app, then turned it off because of battery drain?" Just about everybody raised their hands. It's a huge issue.

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The "startup village" portion of the conference hosts many mobile startups, and it's an issue with them, too. One of the most talked about new type of apps flags people near you who have mutual friends in common. These apps, including Highlight and Sonar, have a mixed bag of reviews on the App store, partially because of the creepiness of it all, but also because of battery life issues. Sonar warns specifically on its App Store page, "Continued use of GPS running in the background can dramatically decrease battery life." Hooray! Just what I want when I'm running around all day without an opportunity to charge my phone, during a time that I really need for it not to die on me! Sign me up!

I sat down with Andrew Yu, CEO of Modo Labs, one of the mobility startups at the Startup Village, and asked him what he thought about the battery life problem. He smiled at pointed to his phone, encased in an external battery case. Is the problem with the battery life itself, or is the problem with the way that the apps are using the batteries, or both? It's hard to say, but Yu says that new operating system interfaces have a concept of "macro" location that doesn't require the phone to do a GPS query as often when the app wants to know things like, "what city am I in?"

That's cool, and will probably help, but it won't do anything for my battery-hogging "let-me-know-when-my-stop-is-coming" app.

Case's company, Geoloqi, offers an SDK that helps app developers add what Case calls "ambient location" in a battery-life safe way.

I'm betting that a third party SDK is going to be the way to go, because it's a tough problem. One developer I spoke to said that it's possible that a good SDK will use things like the phone's accelerometer to determine if a new lookup is needed, based on whether motion has been detected. There are probably other need-a-PhD-to-comprehend types of techniques to optimize battery life as well. Point is, it's not a problem that every app developer is going to want to solve on his or her own.

Organizations and their app suppliers are going to be able to help customers reclaim their lives and stop wasting time on old, stupid interfaces. But they won't be able to do it without solving the battery problem.

Jonathan Feldman is a contributing editor for InformationWeek and director of IT services for a rapidly growing city in North Carolina. Write to him at jf@feldman.org or at @_jfeldman.

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