Saturday, January 31, 2009

Sensor Citizens and Participatory Sensing

Until recently sensors had been used primarily by governments and businesses to monitor and report on the physical world. For the most part, sensors were fixed devices, often referred to as nodes, under centralized control and requiring special hardware that was both inflexible and expensive.

Steep declines in the cost of mobile devices such as cell phones, and sensor technologies have enabled the emergence of a phenomenon called “participatory sensing’. Coined by UCLA professor Jeff Burke, this term refers to the “ability of individuals to act as sensor nodes and come together with other people in order to form sensor networks.” This approach to urban sensing is decentralized and grassroots in nature and opens up new possibilities for people to participate in both art and science.

As with the advent of any new technology, the rise of the sensor citizen has negative as well as positive aspects. Here is quote from an article written by Anne Galloway and titled The Rise of the Sensor Citizen published in the Vodafone Receiver managazine: “given public concerns around environmental risks and their connections to technological progress, I believe that this kind of active citizenship should promote more critical reflection on the values and goals of the very projects that expect to create such profound changes in these domains, and carefully consider the limits of its own power.” Though this quote specifically refers to environmental uses of these technologies, I find this advice holds true more broadly in relation to the uses of this technology.

A recent publication from Nokia highlights many possibilities created by the addition of sensors to mobile phones. It enables humans to become creators, custodians, actuators, and publishers of the data they and others collect. “A people-centric sensing network would behave much like a self-organizing organic system, with personal data interplaying in fluid and unpredictable ways with environmental, community, and global data.”

Nokia strongly supports the notion that mobile phones are the most sensible devices for making sensor technologies widely available. Current technology already enables these devices to support various types of sensors, including location, barometric, temperature, vibration, sound and light. [via Putting People First blog]

Many of the researchers and projects exploring the emergence of “sensor citizens” and “participatory sensing” focus on how these phenomena create opportunities for community action and science. Here is a short list of projects that share this focus:

Proboscis is a UK-based creative studio that partners with universities to explore how sensors can be used to support public action around environmental issues. Their best-known project, called Social Tapestries, uses remote controlled cars tricked out with sensors and GPS to capture data regarding air quality. The data is then visualized with annotations on a map.

The Common Sense Project is a California-based team that is focused on creating a platforms, including both hardware and software, that provide sensing capabilities to support community action and citizen science. Here is an excerpt from their paper titled Mobile Environmental Sensing Platforms to Support Community Action and Citizen Science:

“To make environmental sensing useful for practical action, one must… produce information artifacts that are “credible enough” to engage with bureaucracy; appealing enough to be useful in community mobilization; and personally relevant enough to maintain interest and motivation. We therefore seek to enable community members to engage in collaborative “citizen science” or “street science” that will be useful in interactions with government agencies and non-government organizations (NGOs). In doing so, we posit that one can go beyond the groundbreaking and inspirational work of electronic artists in using environmental sensor data for awareness-raising and social provocation. “

From a hardware perspective, last year Nokia released a concept phone that can support a number of sensors including environment, wheather, and health. It is so portable that it can be worn as a watch. Pretty cool stuff though I think we are still quite a few years away from this product becoming a reality. [via Wired]. As open source hardware technologies continue to evolve portable sensors are likely to be coupled with other mobile devices such as GPS modules, cameras, MP3 players, laptops (and even cars).

“While there is a lot of talk about using these technologies for socially, politically and environmentally positive ends, they also implicitly support existing consumption practices in the developed world, and hide the role that technological progress has played in creating the very problems they seek to improve… [also] when active citizenship requires access to particular technologies, people without access are effectively excluded from the democratic process.” [quote from Anne Galloway].

Artists have also been exploring the use of portable sensor technology to capture more data regarding more subjective aspects of reality – for example monitoring, visualizing and reporting on people’s emotional states. Currently map-based visualizations are most common; I am certain this will evolve as citizen sensing becomes a more widespread phenomena. The most ambitious project of this type that I’ve been able to locate is the Bio Mapping project. “Since 2004, over 1500 people around the world have participated in the Bio Mapping project to create “emotion maps” of their cities and neighbourhoods.”

The power of emergent sensor networks, created by commonly available mobile devices, is having an impact beyond activists and artists. People have begun to embrace these types of technologies as they are becoming increasingly available for personal uses. This is an important area to consider because this is the first time that sensors have become available to support such personal endeavors. Previously they have been used for environmental monitoring and to support other institutional or business concerns.

Here are some examples of how this technology is being used by individuals:

Storytelling: People love to tell stories about their lives, adventures, trips, parties, triumphs and failures. So it’s only natural that this would be one the main uses for which people have begun to adopt mobile sensing technologies. The most common example is the way in which people are using GPS enabled cameras to capture pictures that can be added to online maps, via popular web services such as Flickr and Google Maps, or to personal picture books, using desktop software such as iPhoto. Sony is about to launch a GPS-enabled camcorder.

Lifestreaming is an interesting storytelling phenomenon that is being impacted by the proliferation of sensing capabilities on mobile devices. This technological progress enables humans to collect, curate and publish new types and volumes of data about their life experience and context. As sensors continue to improve it will be interesting to discover the new possibilities that will be created for storytelling (imagine being able to add scents to your picture slideshow).

Transportation: Transportation and traffic coordination is another area where distributed sensor is in the process of being quickly adopted by consumers. An interesting application available on Android is Ecorio. It estimates your environmental impact by using GPS to determine the type of transportation that you use. Another more powerful use of distributed GPS sensors is mentioned in the Nokia Insights study. A project from UC Berkley explored the use of GPS-enabled mobile phones as sensors for traffic reporting and management. Researchers claim that type of system can provide a cost-effective, and just plain effective, alternative to fixed sensors; best of all it can work when as little as 5% of the drivers on a road have a sensor.

Here is one application that I would personally appreciate: a service that enables bus riders (such as the ones who take the M15 bus in Manhattan) to check real-time location of the bus enabled by GPS of bus riders.

Convenience: In today’s fast paced world we are always looking for opportunities to simplify our lives. That is why people are always looking for products that offer convenience. Locale is a cool android app that definitely fits the bill. It enables you to set-up your phone to perform pre-defined actions based on your location. Now you can set your ringer to vibrate anytime you go to the movie theater near your house (or the office). This application can even communicate with other phones to enable people to keep track of each other (e.g. parents keeping track of their kids).

Public safety: coupling location awareness with messaging, audio and imaging capabilities can also be used to support public safety. The proliferation of messaging and networking tools coupled with the increasing capability of devices to search and contextualize information by location has made it possible for local individuals and communities to better respond to crisis. Ushahidi is an example of a service that was developed with public safety in mind. It “allows anyone to gather distributed data via SMS, email or web and visualize it on a map or timeline. Our [Ushahidi’s] goal is to create the simplest way of aggregating information from the public for use in crisis response.”

While there are many opportunities for using these technologies for personal benefit, there are also a lot of valid issues and concerns that need to be openly discussed and addressed to ensure the proliferation of these technologies is a liberating rather than suffocating phenomena. First and foremost is the issue of privacy. Next is the need for mobile sensor technologies need to be designed to respect and support human social, cultural and emotional (as well as physical) needs with dignity. There is also the issue of ensuring that the spoils of technology are widely distributed so that the benefits can be accrued by as many people as possible.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Existing Apps for the AppleTV

Following my earlier post regarding applications for the AppleTV, this past weekend I spent most of my free time installing Boxee and other plug-ins (also referred to as appliances) so that I can experience for myself what they can do. After many hours of research and hit or miss attempts at creating patchsticks and installing applications I was able to jailbreak my AppleTV. Now it can run applications other than Apple’s media center. The most robust ones available are Boxee, XBMC, NitoTV.

Here I will evaluate the benefits and drawbacks provided by a jailbroken AppleTV, the effort required to implement these changes, and the impact on user interaction and interface. My perspective will be utterly personal and totally biased. At the end of it all I will also provide short how-to instructions for anyone attempting the same feat – just don’t blame me if anything goes wrong.

The Benefits

I like AppleTV a lot. Out of the box it offers a cool and easy-to-use interface that enables people to access media, including video, audio and images, via a TV. That said, in its “original” state the AppleTV has a lot of limitations as a media hub.

Its biggest shortcoming is that it cannot tap into the wealth of digital content that is available for streaming online. The only web services available natively are YouTube, Flickr and iTunes. As a consequence, users can only access TV shows and films if they are willing to purchase and/or rent them via iTunes; user generated materials is the only content that can be accessed for free vai AppleTV, using YouTube and Flickr.

The ability to expand the amount of content accessible from the internet is the number one benefit of adding applications to AppleTV. Now I can access Hulu, LastFM, NetFlix and numerous other sources for TV shows, movies and long and short-form web videos (note: that I have not been able to get NetFlix to work properly yet).

The Drawbacks
There are drawbacks to jailbreaking your AppleTV. I’ve noticed that the system occasionally becomes unresponsive and needs rebooting. The AppleTV has also had problems synching with iTunes though the movie rental features continues to work fine. I also continue to be able to stream my collection from my desktop through iTunes. One last consideration is that you cannot update the AppleTV OS because newer versions without running the risk of loosing your applications and data that is not backed up.

The Applications
The three most notable applications that have been installed on my device are Boxee, NitoTV and XBMC. All three enable playback of previously unsupported file formats on the AppleTV and support streaming of content from various online sources. These appliances also provide distinct interfaces for file management and audio/video playback. Essentially, they enable users to customize the interface of their AppleTV. Some people prefer to leverage one of these alternative appliances as their primary AppleTV interface. Here is a brief overview regarding each of these appliances (based on my limited experience playing around with them for week’s worth of nights).

This is my favorite of all three applications. Boxee is a multiplatform media center (available for the Mac and PC). The first benefit is that it is easy to install. A simple application is available online that enables people to easily create a USB patchsticks – no need to use the terminal interface on your Mac. Before you install this application you should visit to sign up for a user account, which is required. (note: the screenshots were taken from a post on the AppleTV Hacks blog).

Boxee features a nice interface that is even more streamlined than Apple’s Frontrow. I was able to quickly find and play the content I was looking for with little difficulty. The main navigation is always easily accessible on the left-hand edge of the screen. To access the menu a user simply has to move the selection past the left-hand column of items on the screen (rather then press the menu button). The exception is when the user is watching videos since they are always displayed in fullscreen.

One really interesting feature that Boxee offers (I would call this their killer app) is the social networking capabilities. This feature enables users to share information about the shows that they are watching, and have watched, with their friends. This functionality enables users to easily find relevant video content in a world where the sources for video content will continue to become more fragmented. A good way to think about this functionality is that it turns each one of your friends into a channel. These channels feature content that your friend has viewed, and/or recommended. All of this from the comfort of your couch. No wonder the networks are scared of this application (as evidenced by the fact that the networks pulled Hulu service from Boxee).

For the most part, the main section of the interface leverages two basic layouts for organizing content: (1) a grid layout featuring thumbnails organizes content categories and video content, including channels, playlists, TV shows, or albums; (2) A list-based interfaces is used for file-level content (e.g. songs or specific TV show episodes) and content sorted by attributes such as artist name. This layout will differ between channels, since each channel is customized. Also worth mentioning are some nice subtle touches they’ve added to the interface. The main navigation menu features local time and weather.

Coupled with the well-designed interface, Boxee is set-up to provide access several good “channels”, including Hulu, YouTube and many others. I was expecting to be able to access movies from NetFlix via Boxee. Unfortunately, I have not been successful in this endeavor yet. (Since NetFlix streams to the Xbox 360 they may soon release an update to the XBMC application that can solve this issue).

From a responsiveness perspective, this interface works pretty well. The videos usually take only a minute or so to start, though I did encounter a few videos that took two to three attempts to launch properly. These problems did not have a strong negative impact on my experience considering that I face similar issues with Apple’s Frontrow.

The video quality varies depending on the channel and piece of content you are watching. Some channels featured YouTube quality videos, while others offered TV resolution (I did not find any HD content). When I first launched Boxee I had a screen alignment problem. I’m happy to report that it was very easy to calibrate the screen.

The XBMC media center is my least favorite of the three applications. This appliance is also a multiplatform media center, similar to Boxee. The installation process was equally easy (they are actually installed together using a USB patchstick).

The standard interface is based on that of the original Xbox. This appliance even includes a skin that is similar to the Xbox 360 interface. It seems to have been designed with fans of the Xbox in mind. Though the interface is well designed I did not like it as much as Boxee, but I can imagine that Xbox fans will appreciate the familiar surroundings.

Before I go any further in my critique of this interface, it is important to note that XBMC allows users to redesign the interface by creating their own skin. I am not sure to what extend designers are able to change the interaction design of the system.

The main menu on this application is located on a home screen. In this regard it is similar to the Frontrow menu; the difference is that the XBMC menu is only one level deep. Once users select a path from the main menu they reach the secondary pages, have a simple two-column layout. A local menu is available on the thin left-hand column. On the right, content is organized in either a list or a matrix layout. Further layout variations are available to display results when users select an artist, album or TV show.

This was the most powerful but hardest to use of all of these appliances. To begin with the installation process was considerably more complex than the other two applications. You need to be willing to use the terminal application to install this appliance on your AppleTV. I don’t mean to scare anyone – it is not a hard but it does require basic knowledge of shell commands.

NitoTV leverages the AppleTV’s standard interface. Therefore, it is a great solution to be for anyone who is used to the native interface available on this device and wants to extend its capabilities. I won’t go into details about Apple’s Frontrow interface since it is so pervasive.

Some elements of the interface are not as clean as Boxee and XBMC. That said, the power of NitoTV is related to the wide range of stuff that it lets you do such as playing classic Nintendo and Sega games, view RSS feeds, and launch other applications. (In the interest of full disclosure, I have not set-up the games or launched any new applications from NitoTV yet).

[link to Nito blog]

How to Free Your AppleTV
Though it took me a long time to figure out how to do this, you should be able to do it in about 30 minutes. Before you get excited about trying this out I must caution you that there are risks involved in this procedure – do it at your own (or your AppleTV’s) risk. I strongly recommend that you back up all of your data. Another important consideration is that you should remove all USB drives from your computer while running to flash creator (I’ll tell you more below). Lastly, make sure you read ALL of the instructions below and the updated instructions on the developer’s website.

So if you are still interested, here is what you will need:
  • A USB thumb drive. Note that not all USB can boot an AppleTV so here is list of USB drives that are known to work.
  • AppleTV software version 2.3 or earlier. If you have a newer version of AppleTV than this probably won’t work. As of today version 2.3 is the latest one.
  • Broadband internet connection to a network that serves your computer and the AppleTV.
Note that I have only learned how to create a patchstick on a Mac. However, if you run windows I suggest you check out the USB flash drive creator website download the Windows version and follow the instructions.

Step 1: download the USB flash drive creator for the Apple TV from this website. This application is by far the best solution that I found - download it here. Other patchstick solutions do exist. You can create your own patchstick using scripts from the awkwardTV website and some basic shell commands. Or you can choose to purchase an easy to follow patchstick solution from a website called I tried both of these approaches and neither one worked for me – not even the paid approach. If you know of other solution please leave a comment (I’m sure there are other ones out there).

Step 2: Install software on your Mac

Step 3: Plug USB flash drive into your Mac

Step 4: Launch application.

Step 5: Set installation and options
The first steps are easy: just select ATV-Patchstick from the installation list; then from the installation options menu select AppleTV version 2.x, and all tools and applications.

Step 6: Set USB target device This step requires great care. If you choose the wrong USB Target Device you can end up erasing all the contents from one of your USB disk drives. If you don’t know the drive number of your USB flash drive then you should use the Disc Utility application to confirm. Another tactic is to remove all other USB drives during installation.

Step 7: Plug USB flash drive into your AppleTV

Step 8: Install the software on your Apple TV
To install the software you need to reboot the apple TV by simultaneously pressing the menu and ‘-‘ buttons. When the AppleTV reboots a linux penguin will appear on the screen. Then notes delivered in terminal-style text will begin to appear. The text informs you when the installation is completed. At this point you need to remove the power chord from your AppleTV, leave it unplugged for 5 seconds, then connect it back up.

Step 9: Install Boxee and XBMC Once the AppleTV reboots and you arrive back at the main menu you will notice that there are a few new options available: “Launcher” and “Software Menu”. Select “Launcher” then “Downloads”. Before you are able to open Boxee or XBMC you need to download the applications via this page, even though they already seem to be available via the menu.

Step 10: Install NitoTV The process for installing NitoTV is a bit more complex because you need to use the terminal on your Mac. You can download the application from this page, then just follow the instructions on the read me file.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Linking Physical and Digital Worlds with Microsoft Tag

The recently launched Microsoft Tag provides similar functionality to QRcodes and other 2D barcode technologies. Though this tag does not offer new functionality, it has been optimize for use by cellphones: it is works well with fixed-focus cameras, standard issue on most mobile phones; and it can be read more effectively when the image is blurry, or the tag damaged. The image on the left is a Microsoft Tag that links to this blog.

To use the service the process is akin to that used for QRcodes. First users need to install a reader application on their mobile device. This application is available on many platforms including iPhone, Windows, Java, etc. Once installed, users run the application and "simply snap a picture of a tag using the camera on their internet-enabled phone and they are taken to a page that shares additional information on the associated product or service without the extra step of entering complicated web addresses or texting special codes."

For the moment anyone can generate a tag for free via the Microsoft Tag website - all you need is the URL to which the tag will be linked. However, this product is still beta and Microsoft has not announced whether it will at some point start charging for the service. Now that mobile applications have become mainstream I hope to see more widespread adoption of reader technology by mobile phone users and the increase in application of this type of technology for all types of communication.

[sourced from PSFK article]

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Vodafone: Mobile Devices for Emerging Markets

Over the weekend I discovered an online magazine called Vodafone Receiver. This publication recently released an issue focused on emerging markets that features several interesting perspectives about design and innovation.

Similar to Nokia, Vodafone positions emerging markets as places that offer business opportunities for local and global companies; that have large numbers of people with an entrepreneurial spirit; and where companies can make a positive impact on the development of local communities. The article Poor Markets Make Good Cents lays out this perspective with some interesting supporting evidence.

Phones, Finance and Innovation

First and foremost, during the past couple of years mobile phone adoption rates have skyrocketed in emerging markets throughout Asia, Africa and Latin America. A large demand for mobile technology exists in emerging markets. In many of these countries the landline infrastructure was never adequate to support poor communities. Therefore, this is the first time that many people have had the opportunity to own a phone of any type. The same goes for the computing functionality. A mobile phone tends to be the first information device that these people have experienced since computers are out of reach due to their much higher price tags.

On the supply side two important trends are driving the financing of information and communication technologies in emerging markets. First, the appearance of new institutions dedicated to linking financial markets to social entrepreneurs and ventures that use market forces to drive social change. Secondly, the fact that traditional venture capitalists, who had previously written off these markets, are taking a fresh look at them. These trends help create opportunities for local and foreign entrepreneurs to promote innovations that make a positive impact on local markets.

This article also features interesting examples of mobile services that are positively impacting communities in emerging markets. These examples highlight successful services that were developed to address the specific needs and context of emerging market residents.
  • In 2007, Reuters launched a service called Market Light that provides weather and market information to farmers in India. This information enables farmers to better tend to their crops and to negotiate the fair prices with middlemen.
  • In Bangladesh, a service called CellBazar provides an SMS-based craigslist of sorts. It includes listings for appliances, cars, apartments and even live animals. This service, a spin-off of MIT's Program in Developmental Entrepreneurship, is helping facilitate commerce for individuals and business, and providing both buyers and sellers with access to a much larger marketplace.

The second article of note from this issue of Receiver Magazine is titled Mobile Communication in the Developing World – A Design Challenge. It focuses on human factor insights to help designers create appropriate mobile devices for emerging markets.

Design of Mobile Communications

Development of mobile devices and services has always been, and continues to be, driven primarily by the needs of customers from advanced countries. “Mobile interface design has been aimed at literate, numerate users who follow text-based menus, sometimes read instruction books and have built mental models for how mobiles work based on previous technologies.”

People in emerging markets have significantly different needs, education background and social-cultural perspectives. Most existing mobile interfaces are not appropriate for these markets because they don’t adequately support users who have problems reading and writing, and many native languages. Mobile phones tend to feature functionality that is not relevant for these markets and lacks applications that support specific local needs. So let’s take a look at some important considerations for designing mobile products for the developing world.

The literacy rate is the an important design consideration that is specific to emerging markets. “There are 799 million illiterate people in the world.” Low literacy users are able to make and receive calls but are not able to read text-based menus or take advantage of text-based communication and organization tools. Features such as phone books and asynchronous messaging need to be redesigned for this population. Recently a carrier in India launched a low-cost mobile phone with a voice-based interface and no screen. Called Spice, this device also features a Braille keypad for blind users.

Gaining a deep understanding of social and cultural dynamics is the next important consideration. It is crucial for designers to be able to envision and create relevant products and services. The two services mentioned earlier, and phone banking services are examples of products that were designed with an understanding of local communities and context. They address relevant needs and leverage technologies and interfaces that that are appropriate.

Support for native languages is another consideration that is important, especially in Asia and Africa. Even literate users are unable to read menus written in a language they don’t know how to speak. Therefore, in order for mobile devices to reach their potential handset makers will need to consider development of devices with design hardware and software design features to support additional native languages.

The last, and most obvious, consideration that needs to be kept top-of-mind throughout the design and development process is affordability.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Nokia: Mobile Products for Emerging Markets

During my exploration of design for emerging markets I came across many articles associated to Nokia. These pieces were either written by researchers who had worked for Nokia, or written about projects supported by Nokia. It is obvious that Nokia is one of the technology companies that is most committed to developing solutions for the emerging market. Of course this is not an altruistic-only strategy as great riches await companies that can design products and services that profitably expand the reach of technology to poor communities.

Here is an overview of several interesting and innovative initiatives from Nokia that are related to the design of products and services for emerging market users, and supporting the spread of mobile technology in developing areas.

Nokia Life Tools

“Life Tools” is the first initiative from Nokia that piqued my interest. I learned about it through a post on PSFK in early November. This suite of tools will provide emerging market phone users with access to agriculture and education-related services, helping to connect and ‘empower’ them. Entertainment services will also be available. Soon, many basic Nokia handsets will come with these capabilities pre-loaded, assuming you live in a market where these services are supported. [view an overview about these services from the Nokia website]

This suite of services was designed on an SMS platform to overcome the technological challenges present in rural areas such as the absence of access to the mobile web. This is crucial considering that data services are not available in many of these areas. This solution also enables users to avoid the complexity and high-costs associated to billing of data based services.

It is interesting to see Nokia entering more fully into the services space with this new offering. This is a direction that we have seen some companies pursue on the high-end of the market. For example Apple with its extensive suite of services has for a long time stood for empowerment and freedom. It is interesting to see Nokia leveraging a similar strategy of empowerment that is appropriate for people from the opposite end of the economic continuum. The center of their digital universe is a cell phone rather than a MacBook, iPhone or Blackberry.

According to Ken Banks this initiative from Nokia is “a move that mirrors the company's "developed world" strategy -- a move from out-and-out hardware supplier to one of a more inclusive services-based outfit. As if (very) successfully designing and building low-cost handsets for emerging markets wasn't enough, Nokia will now start offering emerging-market specific data services through its low-cost phones.” [read the full article here]

Nokia Siemens Networks Village Connection

The Networks Village Connection is another interesting and innovative product from Nokia that is designed for emerging markets. This technology was developed to enable mobile networks to extend into rural areas beyond the reach of conventional networks. It uses modular and compact GSM Access Points that can be owned and managed by a local entrepreneur or by an existing mobile provider. [read more about this technology on the Nokia website]

Expanding Horizons
Nokia even publishes a magazine related to opportunities associated to consumer telecommunications in emerging markets, this magazine is called Expanding Horizons. Here is an overview about this magazine from its own site: "Expanding Horizons is a quarterly publication aimed at ICT decision-makers in the private and public sectors. It explores the socio-economic benefits that mobile technology offers as well as best practices from around the world in order to encourage affordable mobile communications and bring Internet to the next billion consumers. It also shows how to create a favorable environment for market growth." [read it online here]

More than anything this magazine demonstrates that Nokia’s focus on emerging markets is driven by business considerations. This is expected and I don’t think it is a bad thing. Nokia is helping to increase the reach of communication technology to a whole new group of people who were previously ignored due to profitability considerations. If they continue to design services that empower people, like Life Tools, then this relationship should benefit both parties: Nokia and other telecom companies, and more importantly, people from emerging markets.

The February issue from this custom publication features an interesting article about bringing the internet to the next billion users. This article demonstrates that Nokia has a solid understanding of business opportunities, economic challenges and social and cultural nuances that impact the design and adoption of technology in emerging markets. [read full article]

In this article they highlight two important aspects distinctions in the way that the internet will be adopted by the next billion people. These differences focus are related to “how” and “why” technology is adopted; both factors that have a large impact on design of appropriate services:
  • Internet adoption will be driven via the mobile handset, as opposed to the desktop or laptop computer. “The sheer cost-effectiveness and convenience of mobile technologies will prove decisive. Mobile devices are pervasive, with penetration growing at a rapid pace.”
  • The specific needs of people in emerging market will drive creation of new services, not available in advanced markets. “The internet for the next billion consumers will be very different to the services prevalent in advanced markets… The mass of consumers in emerging markets lives in semi-urban and rural areas. Villages are far apart. A trip to the city is a big event in many people’s lives. We need to understand that their context is highly local.”
Closing the Digital Divide
Ken Banks brought up an interesting dilemma related to these prophesies of internet adoption in emerging markets from Nokia and other handset makers. Ken questions the way these companies talk about the mobile phone helping close the digital divide. He points out that mobile phones are relatively cheap devices, provide instant voice communications and SMS functionality, and offer the potential to provide access to the internet. However, many of these functionalities are not available in the handsets available to low-income users in emerging markets. Internet specifically tends to not be accessible on the low-cost phones sold in developing nations.

This issue is caused by the fact that “many people make a huge assumption about the technologies available to users in developing countries.” According to Ken “if we’re serious about using mobile to help close the digital divide, how about diverting international development funding towards providing a subsidised, fully-internet ready handset for developing markets?” Interesting question indeed. [read his full article here]

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Creating Apps for Apple TV

This past weekend a good friend, who is a fellow Apple junkie, told me about how to get Netflix and Hulu on my Apple TV using an application called I was on the fence about installing this application because of the complex installation process that involves a patchstick, and the additional time and expertise required to use and maintain a hacked device. During my research about Boxee I found a wiki called AwkwardTV that is a resource for a community of developers who develop applications to run on the Apple TV.

Here is a brief excerpt from this website:
"Out of the box, it [Apple TV] is enabled to stream digital content from any computer running iTunes. As there is little information provided about what is going on "under the hood" of the Apple TV, this is a place to collect and share information... This website is dedicated to finding additional uses for the Apple TV by (legitimately) enabling its Potential Capabilities, and is a place for the community to share ideas, discoveries and solutions."

One of the most interesting things I discovered on this site was a list of potential capabilities of the AppleTV. This list includes a lot of pretty cool functionality. However, most of this functionality is not yet leveraged by any existing applications. Considering that the Apple TV is a computer, Apple could choose to release an SDK and make an even wider range of capabilities available to developers (the awkwardTV community specifically calls for this to happen). Here are some highlights from the full list of potential capabilities of the Apple TV:
  • Stream and sync additional video and audio formats
  • Increase internal storage and connect external storage
  • Connect a TV tuner for recording and use as a DVR
  • Connect DVD and HD-DVD drive for playback of music and video
  • Play games using arcade and console emulators
  • Convert the Apple TV into a player for Netflix, Hulu, and other video sites
  • Work as an In Car Entertainment(ICE)/Carputer/CarPC unit
  • Run Linux, Webserver Apache, and USB print server
All of this leads me to starting thinking about whether an application store will soon be launched on the Apple TV. The more I think about it more, the more probable it seems. Apple is already selling audio and video content directly via the Apple TV so the infrastructure already exists. Also, the current success of the iPhone app is likely to strengthen the business case for offering users the opportunity to customize the functionality on their own devices. All that said, no SDK has been released for the AppleTV so it will take a while for an App store to be born and Apple is likely concerned about cannibalizing their iTunes revenue stream.

I'm getting off track here. The real point of this post is to consider the interaction design opportunities offered by transforming the Apple TV into a platform. So here is a short list of product and service ideas generated using a 5 minute brainstorm:
  • Enable users to receive updates from their calendar, and notifications from messaging applications via the Apple TV.
  • Create video games and other applications that integrates the iPhone as a control device.
  • Develop applications with social capabilities for people to enjoy content while holding conversations with friends that are viewing the same content remotely via web or another Apple TV.
  • Develop applications to enable users to control relevant digital appliances throughout the house using an on-screen interface (turn on coffee maker, the stereo or get the water going for your bath).
  • Enable wider adoption of video conferencing by creating easier to use software in a more appropriate context. Functionality improvements can include simple on-screen menus that are easy to use and support of using the iPhone to control application. A large screen TV in a living room with a couch can be an ideal context for this device in a family home as the whole family can participate in the conference simultaneously.
  • Support touch-based interfaces using touch screen adapters such as the interactive foil from Visual Planet that I featured in a post a few months back [check it out in action here].
An interesting aspect about this evolution of the Apple TV, is that it is part of a broader trend: the migration of data services to TVs using various types of devices - video game consoles, computers and "task-specific" devices such as the iPhone. This is an area where an interaction paradigm has not been established as firmly as on the desktop, which means that it is an area that is ripe for innovation.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Design and Adoption of Technology for Emerging Markets

For the past few months I have been thinking about the design and adoption of technologies by people in emerging markets and other under-served communities (a.k.a. Base of Pyramid, "BoP", markets). During this period I've come across several interesting ideas related to this topic. It is clear that many challenges and possibilities have been, and are being, created by technology's continued expansion into the lives of people who just a few years ago were "off the radar".

My interest lies in exploring the common features shared by products and services that have been successful in these markets, and understanding how the process of design can evolve to support innovation focused on creating products and services that are appropriate for these communities.

Perspectives from Emerging Markets
People in emerging markets have particular worldviews that are colored by the specific context in which they live. I am implying not only that numerous differences exist between developed and emerging markets, but also that an equal number of differences can be found between emerging markets alone.

Here I will focus primarily on key characteristics that differentiate most emerging markets from developed ones. First and foremost, consumers from emerging markets tend to be less confident when it comes to making purchases due to their tighter economic situation. According recent article from Interactions magazine written by a team from Human Factors International, consumers in these markets "are more cautious than their counterparts in the West; they would rather pay more for quality than risk product failure". Affordability is important to them but they are not willing to accept products that offer low-quality compromises as "every act of discretionary consumption is an act of sacrificing something essential." [read full article]

On Core77, interesting insights are offered by Niti Bhan about the behavior of people from low-income communities in emerging markets. "Buying behavior and decision-making criteria imply that those in the lower income strata—particularly in the developing world—are not 'consumers' but in fact extremely careful 'money managers' for whom an expense is often an investment whose return must be maximized... The BoP customer has not been bombarded by mainstream consumer culture and all the trappings of 'consumerism' that come with it." [read full article]

This is not to say that the choices of these consumers are not influenced by emotion - emotion plays an important part in determining the "return" that will be delivered from a given purchase. However, the role of emotion is somewhat tempered by the fact that most of their spending choices are focused primarily on meeting basic human needs such as clothing, food, shelter.

When approaching emerging markets most companies take the approach that the same basic value proposition can serve across all markets since people have the same basic needs. Pricing and cosmetics are often considered the only elements that truly need to change. This approach demonstrates a lack of understanding regarding the extent to which the needs of these audiences differ from more affluent markets. Santosh Desai sums up the point nicely: "the need is to develop products that are appropriate rather than merely cheap."

Adoption of Products and Services in Emerging Markets
There are many factors that influence a product's rate of adoption. According to the article from Interaction magazine, these factors include "infrastructure, culture, language and dialect, purchasing power, literacy, urbanism, and terain." Recently on PSFK Allison Mooney shared her perspective about the three fundamental forces that govern the adoption of new services and products. Though her post focused exclusively on the adoption of a clunky service in South East Asian emerging markets, these hold true for all markets. So here are the three fundamentals [read full article on PSFK]:
  1. "Discovery: Is there an easy and reliable way for people to learn about it?" (Does their community use it? Can their teenager or friend explain it them? Is it something that people will feel comfortable sharing? If a device is required, is such a device common and easy to acquire and use?)
  2. "Utility: Does it enable them to do something they need or want to do?" (Does it fulfill a real need or is it useful? The need can be practical, e.g. banking, entertainment, e.g. games, or something else - but it must offer some utility.)
  3. "Motivation: How badly do they need or want to do this?" (How does the utility offered by this product compare to difficult required to learn how to use it, or the costs associated to its use - monetary, cultural and social costs? For hard to use or expensive products and services a lot of motivation is needed.)
To examine the value of this framework let's do a high-level analysis of successful products and services from emerging markets. First let's examine mobile-enabled financial services that have quickly gained adoption. In many developing markets, mobile phones have emerged as the communication standard because in large part due to the scarcity and expense of land lines. However. the role that these devices play has expanded far beyond calling; in the Phillipines and India they have evolved into important financial instruments and are often referred to as "wallet phones".

In these countries banks and phone companies have begun to support a wide range of phone-based financial transactions in ways not commonly available in the West. Services offered include checking balances, money transfers and even e-cash capabilities. According to the previously mentioned article from Interactions magazine, a "currency-free future is dawning in these 'developing countries... mobile phone providers like the Philippines' Globe Telecom have become a kind of shadow banking system."

In Mumbai, a start-up called Eko partnered with a local bank to offer these same types of services. Users carry out transactions using USSD messages that feature a complicated syntax consisting of long sequences of numbers, *'s and #'s (thanks to Anupam Varghese for pointing out that this service is provided using USSD as opposed to SMS). USSD enables a transaction to be just 'dialed' as if it were just a longish phone number. Here is an example of a transfer request for 100 rupees: "*543*190123456789*100*1133740274#" (I suspect the service from the Philippines has a similar interface). Despite the seeming "clunkiness" of the user interaciton these services have achieved wide adoption.

So how does it line up against the fundamentals we laid out above? To drive discovery of these services, the bank in Mumbai set-up a network of neighborhood service representatives that promote the service, and sign up and assist customers. The telecom company from Philippines is able to drive discovery via marketing and their existing network of representatives. From a utility perspective boths services are obviously useful, enabling mobile phone users to easily access money. Though the interface seems "clunky" it is easy to use because it leverages a known behavior (dialing numbers), a widely used feature (SMS) of a commonly available technology (cell phones). In Mumbai, neighborhood service reps also provide support so that it’s not necessary for people to know how to do everything themselves.

Design of Products and Services in Emerging Markets
I believe that good design delivers some form of usability, coupled with a pleasurable and meaningful experience. This perspective is based on the consumerist cultural and social context in which I live, my privileged economic situation, and my passion for design and aesthetics. In order to create products that are appropriate for emerging markets designers need be aware of cultural and social blind spots. Understanding the specific cultural, economic and social context is key to designing a successful product. Ken Banks of recently wrote about what causes many products to fail: "lack of basic reality-checking and a tendency to make major assumptions are lead culprits, yet they are relatively easy to avoid."

The latest issue of Interaction magazine featured a study into the adoption of a mobile service. This piece highlights the importance of leveraging deep cultural and social understandings when designing services. The focus of this study was a project to leverage mobile phones to enhance education for school-age kids. In order to create a solution that was adopted by students the design and research team had to go through several prototypes. During this process they unearthed important social and cultural behaviors and beliefs that guided updates in the design of the user interactions and the way in which the education was developed and delivered. [read full article]

Niti Bhal outlined a human-centered framework for the creation of successful products and businesses for BoP markets. This framework, called 5-D, is comprised of 5 elements: development, design, distribution, demand, dignity. The first four elements roughly align to phases of a process, whereas the final element refers to the philosophy of the approach. Below is a brief outline of these 5 elements. [read the original post]

Development refers to the identification of opportunities for social or economic development that will serve as the basis for the design. Design refers to the creation of a product or service in response to the opportunity for development. Distribution refers to need for ability to make a product or service readily available for customers. Demand refers to the development of an appropriate value proposition that can communicate the benefits of your product or service. Lastly, Dignity refers to the need to create products and services that respect economic, social and cultural needs and with an intent to create a positive impact.