Friday, 26 November 2010

where New York leads...

...does London follow?

After a brief visit to New York recently, there were a few things that struck me about the fast pace of life over there. It's historically been the case that, at least with new technology, where New York leads, we tend to follow a few years later – but is this still the case? And if it is, what might be headed our way?


Even more than in London, it's clear to see that the 'smart phone' has really taken off over there, plenty of iPhone users, but lots of people using Android, Blackberry and Palm phones there too. Whilst the UK is still in the grip of iPhone fever, the US is starting to see much more competition within the smart phone market - with Android phones really starting to eat into Apple's early lead. Meanwhile, Blackberry seems to have left the confines of it's 'business only' reputation – mainly due to it's great instant messaging ('BBM') and it's physical keyboard.

And this proliferation of mobile internet users is having a knock on effect. I was very interested to see that QR codes (you know, those strange bar-code squares you've seen occasionally and always wondered what they were) have caught on in a big way over there, whilst they're still largely underused gimmicks over here. So, for instance, in the New York 'Time Out', many articles ended with a QR barcode – just point your phone at it, click and you're taken to the website containing further relevant information. I'm not entirely sure whether this is genuinely useful for users or just a symptom of the print industry feeling itself being left behind. But it was clear to see that on many large format posters, magazine articles and ads, prominent QR codes effectively work like 'read more buttons' leading to additional, up-to-date content online. I suspect we'll be seeing much more of these over here too as smart phone use becomes more commonplace.

Right place, right time

Another by-product of having more people with smart phones and 'always on' internet (apart from the constant barrage of emails, messages, tweets and Facebook updates, of course) is that these phones are 'location aware' – with built in GPS, our phones know exactly where we are.

This is obviously useful when browsing Google Maps, but it's spawned a new kind of social media too – location based. Handy if you want to tell people you're at a conference, or down the pub – just incase your friends or work colleagues are there too. But while we in the UK seem to be a little more reluctant to share such private information with the masses, location based services such as Foursquare, Gowalla and, to a lesser extent, the newer Facebook Places seem to have really taken off over there. Foursquare seems to be the current leader, being much more integrated into mainstream use, with brands such as Starbucks, Domino's, Time Out, New York Magazine, MTV and a host of other media companies, newspapers, bars, hotels and museums all using it as a new marketing channel, offering special offers to regular visitors.

The really interesting shift here is that, until now, the internet hasn't really concerned itself in any meaningful way with where we or our customers/visitors physically are. In a way, the power of internet marketing has been it's world-wide reach and it's ability to ignore specific location. Location based marketing brings things back to the importance of 'nearby' and, as long as our audience is willing to share their current location, gives us another, very important and relevant communication channel. As consumers, we're currently able to search for businesses near to us (either physically or online), but location based marketing offers businesses the opportunity to search for potential customers near to them. It's early days for this as a concept but, in New York at least, brands are getting excited about exploring it's possibilities.

It's interesting to see that while 'location' is being heralded as the 'next big thing' out in New York, hopping onto Foursquare over here is still a fairly empty experience for now (or maybe I just don't have enough cool friends in the know?). And while Facebook is as busy as ever, I'm not seeing many 'Places' check-ins yet – perhaps this is because there just aren't many advantages for those who do 'check-in' over here. For instance, after two check-ins at my local Domino's, I've been awarded 'Mayor' status on Foursquare – and the benefit of being Mayor is a free pizza every Wednesday! This would be great, if it wasn't for the fact that the local staff have never heard of this offer, or even of Foursquare itself – so I guess we have some catching up to do! The other reason it's still not made much of an impact is perhaps that culturally we're much more reticent to share such personal information. The denizens of New York seem much less worried about letting everyone know exactly where they are – whilst this provides marketers even more targeted data, it may of course result in unintended consequences - as the site '' set out to highlight last year.

A Minority Report
Although not specific to New York, while I was out there, the new Microsoft 'Kinect' device launched to much fanfare and marketing hype (and was released not long after, over here). In short, it's a gaming device that allows you to interact without a controller – a little like the Nintendo Wii that's been around for years (just without the remote). So, apart from the obligatory dancing and fitness games, what's so special about this and why should it interest anyone not actually into gaming?

Well, in short, the technology is really quite amazing and it's light years beyond the giroscopes and motion sensors used in Nintendo's offering. Based on tech originally developed for the Israeli military, the device features multiple cameras (including infrared) – able to capture a whole room (and anyone in it) in 3D and in realtime. Once it recognises a person (yes, it has facial recognition), it's able to map their exact body movements – creating a 3D virtual skeleton model that can be replicated by an avatar on screen. This is similar to the technique of 'motion capture' used for movies such as Avatar and the character 'Gollum' in Lord of the Rings. And if that's not quite futuristic enough, it even features speech recognition too. All wonderfully techy (for more info on how it works, start here), but what impact will this have other than another variation on virtual ten-pin bowling? The initial games all look quite fun, but it's what the technology itself offers beyond the gaming applications that I find really exciting.

As is the way with new technology and the excitable IT crowd, people are already dissecting it and trying to find out how it works – and what else they can use it for. Remember the famous scene from Minority Report, where Tom Cruise manipulates a rather complicated computer interface just with swift hand movements (requiring special gloves to do so)? We all figured that was a good decade or two away. Well, Kinect has the potential to do all that right now (and no gloves required). Where touch screens have revolutionised the way we interact with our phones, it's really limited to smaller screens and in two dimensions only. So what does the future hold for this 3D motion control technology? Possibly a complete revolution in the way we interact with computers – finally doing away with the age old 'keyboard and mouse' user interface we've used since Xerox invented the idea 37 years ago (yes, it's that old and no, Apple didn't invent the idea). Am I getting carried away by a cheap gaming gadget? Perhaps, after all, there's still a few issues with accuracy and latency, but check out these first step experiments and imagine a future where kids laugh at the ancient idea of clunky and unintuitive keyboards, mice and even the touch screens we're so used to now. Unlike New York, I don't think that future's so far away.

hacking Kinect - experiments in realtime motion control:

(oh, and of course, where geeks experiment, Star Wars surely follows...)

Ben Jackson,
Head of Digital Media,


Anonymous said...

Cool, but do you reckon they'll fix the lag soon?


Ben Jackson said...

As far as I'm aware, there's a tiny bit of hardware lag (about 100ms - ie. 1/10th of a second) - probably can't reduce this without new hardware (they had to keep it under the $150 price point after all). 100ms isn't perfect but I think it's acceptable. The rest of the lag is down to software (and is also influenced by quite how much movement detail it's 'looking' for) - this will definitely be reduced as people figure out the best ways to work with it.

Post a Comment