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November 13, 2015
By Thomas Campbell
Early this month saw the inaugural Location & Context World take place in Palo Alto. Over the course of the two-day event, it became increasingly apparent that, as technology becomes more and more seamlessly woven into the fabric of our lives (sometimes quite literally, as in the case of wearables), context and location will play a primary role in keeping that technology relevant and useful.
Take, for instance, notifications. At the one extreme, good old spam continues to be a by-word for the crudest, least welcome form of technology: brutally automated, a kind of profiteering by numbers.
However, as Location & Context keynotes and Fjord designers David Hindman and Peter Burnham explained by phone after the conference, greater sensitivity to location and context could revolutionise notifications, resulting in a kind of anti-spam – relevant and hyper accute.
“If we’re acknowledging the user’s context,” says Burnham, “then we may know when I can be found and that I’m more receptive at certain times. We don’t have great ways of knowing yet whether I’m in the middle of a conversation, but if we start using data we may be able to know that I’m at work, and (if we can consult my office calendar) that I’m in a meeting and therefore we should wait till I’m on my way to the train –maybe that’s a better time to find me, give me a message or try and sell me something.”
Location, Burnham adds, is really an aspect of context. For instance, when we use an app such as Uber, they not only know where your location, but your mindset (you want a cab), your destination, your customer history etc. Indeed, the ability to cater with such specificity is key to their success. “The definition of context is a combination of location and activity,” says Burnham.
The main challenges location and context currently present concern matters of accuracy and transparency.
“We need to be accurate because if we get that wrong and interpret context incorrectly, we can’t really tailor experiences,” says Hindman. “We try to design things that are less obtrusive. We’re at a point right now where I don’t think context is 100% accurate. We’re making lots of inferences based on what we think… it’s not super-smart yet.”
Meanwhile, transparency is important because, as technology seeps into ever more areas of our lives, any subsequent exploitation of the resulting data trail had better be open and honest or the future consumer is going to be at best creeped-out and at worst entirely alienated. “There are presently a lot of services that try to take advantage of location and context but do it in a way that’s hidden to the customer and starts to create a system that isn’t very trustworthy” says Burnham. “We’ve seen that a lot lately. The Internet of Things aspect is crucial for us to be able to understand how we take the data exhaust from all of these different devices, because we’re all creating a huge amount of data nowadays, especially once we start to have all these sensors attached to us that show our location and our context and our heartbeat and potentially our brainwaves. The question is, how do we take this type of information and create a meaningful service behind that that can really effect change in somebody’s life?”
Both designers argue that there is a natural tie in there between wearables, context and location. “It made a lot of sense for us to present on our thinking on wearables at this conference,” says Burnham. “And if you think about wearables it’s really the IoT which is closest to you, because the devices you have in your pockets and actually wear physically are getting closer to being embeddables.”
It feels like a good time to what they see this phase of technological evolution is ultimately building towards…
“What I want the future to be like as far as technology goes is not dissimilar to how the relationship works in Star Wars,” says Hindman. “They have extremely high technology, but they live in and amongst nature. And the technology allows them to have a more organic existence. I think we’ll essentially reach a point where we can start going back to nature and live more natural lives.”
Hindman concedes that this sounds a little science fiction, and some way off realisation, however he also sees the seeds of such a future in the present, as designers imbue technology with an increasingly human face, with the growing prevalence of voice controls (for example) suggesting that the screen will sooner or later cease to be our main point of technological interface. Wearables would be another example of this, the dispersion of technology from its traditional centres (PC, laptop, phone) – until it will be hard that there is any ‘centre’ at all. Once all of these separate components are brought into unison, the results should be extremely significant.
For this to come to pass, however, it will require a more sensitive, discerning and transparent utilisation of location and context.
“These new technologies will make it so we don’t actually have to manage all the minutiae that we do now. If I have some smart light bulbs in my house it takes me a decent amount of time to open up the app and turn them on when I get home, much more time than turning on a light switch. But eventually we’ll get to a point where my phone knows what time it is based on the environment outside. It will take the things we do manually and automate them.”
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