Consumer behaviour in the matrix

I went to MiniBar the other Friday with my old Yahoo! buddy Chieu and started discussing the whys and wherefores of augmented technology. We met up with Zack who was a former engineer at Yahoo! and carried on the discussion at Sichuan restaurant Barshu in Soho. The food was great.

Mobile matrix ideas

Firstly, on the surface the technology is already there in a lot of respects: the computational power of the latest smartphones are capable of tremendous things. Sensor technology has moved on a lot and GPS chips are proving to be ubiquitous in mobile devices including phones and sat nav devices, but also getting into other consumer electronics including cameras for geo-tagging photos.

Location is part of the challenge. We have data formats and standards coming out of our ears. APIs from location databases based on wi-fi nodes, train and airline data, cellphone towers, GPS data, hCard addresses, maps and geo-codes on photos. Then there is the unstructured data like your location field on Twitter. Interpreting unstructured location data is a major challenge mainly because there isn’t adequate intuitive APIs and data formats for consumers.

All that computational power which finds your location and provides a slick interface whilst keeping up to date with your emails sucks power with a unique capacity. The problem is that battery technology has not moved at any where near the pace of computing technology, which is the reason why electric cars a still a disappointment and a heavily used iPhone battery can last as little as an afternoon.

This means that at the moment devices rely on active consumer-managed power management. Using applications carefully and only for just enough time: working out when to downgrade from using the 3G mobile network to a slower but more power efficient 2 – 2.5G connection, altering settings to dim the backlight and closing applications that you are not using.

We have large screens on smartphones that give a nice big picture but they also make it obvious that you have a smartphone and are using it: dork factor of a form factor. Science fiction writers get this which is the reason you tend to see glasses-type viewers turning up in their work as displays a la Minority Report or Neuromancer.

But the important question in all this is not what you can do, but how would you use it?

Earlier in the evening I had my ear talked off by a former accountant who was convinced that a Second Life-type metaverse was the future of local news media and advertising. Local media is partly about being part of a community, metaverse tend to be about escaping real-life. Obviously, he had thought about what could be done, but had given no serious thought to how consumers would use the service and fit into their lives.

Its a trap that the best of us can fall into: Zack, Chieu and I were talking about augmented reality and dating. Rather than just Googling a date: Kroll-ing a date; pulling up all the relevant information you could want (education, profession, income bracket, current marital status etc) using real-time facial recognition. That’s a bit of a double-edged sword so we started thinking about a real-time social messaging platform in a club, but you can do that via a dongle, a laptop and a big-ass display.

And then someone pipes up what if you want to communicate directly with someone. Well technology will only get you so far, sometimes you just have to man up and do it in the real-world. But for a moment we’d made the classic mistake of assuming that indirect machine-mediated communications is best.

So what, evidence in terms of consumer trends do we have to go on:

  • Instant gratification: said to be a trait of generation-Y, but in reality it is an evolution of consumption: fast-food, drive-thrus, ATM machines and direct dialling through to the high-speed video editing style pioneered by MTV in the 1980s which then seemed to permeate youth culture programming
  • Always-on: having shared a meal with Israelis and Italians who always seem to be on the phone, to the Crackberry addicts of the knowledge economy – always on seems to be a universal trait
  • Cacooning: The isolated bliss that technology provides us with could be considered to be similar in some respects to the use of soma in Aldus Huxley’s Brave New World. From the commuter reading a book or playing sudoku, listening to a personal stereo or using a GPS-enabled device to get around unfamiliar places. My recent trip to Shenzhen was people rather than TomTom or Google Maps-powered and I found that I saw a lot more and interacted with people in a different way. However, cacooning is a trend that’s here to stay