March 2008 Archives

Over the years there have been many projects that use mobile phones to associate physical objects with their information shadows (YellowArrow, QR Code, ScanLife, etc.). There have also been many projects that use phones in social setting as a way for people to find out about the people around them (Nokia Sensor, Dodgeball, etc.), usually with the promise of dating. None have been particularly successful, in either category (though I gather that QR Coded stuff is pretty common in Japan).

Now comes a company that's trying to combine the two unsuccessful ideas to make one successful one. Wickd is betting that there will be enough people who want to snap shotcode barcodes on t-shirts to find out about someone, and that there will be enough people who wants to wear those (kinda expensive, kinda plain) t-shirts to create a critical mass of urban singles willing to pay for the privilege to make their business model work. I'm pretty dubious of the underlying interaction model (it's more related to first person shooters--where you run up to a target, fire your weapon while they're not looking, and run away--than dating, where you get close, interact face-to-face and ideally stay close), but for me it's another example that people are the most popular object to unify with its information shadow. Having information about the people with you at brunch or at a conference (which is where an adult version of Disney Clickables could be very valuable), and having your intersection in physical space mapped to social networking space opens up huge possibilities for maintaining your social network.

All of these projects point to the inevitability of that unification, it's just that no one has found the right vehicle to move the penetration of the technology to the appropriate place on the Metcalfe's Law curve.

Oh, and two final words of advice to the Wickd people: Hanky Code. Think about it. ;-)

[UPDATE: Several people suggested I should be more clear about why I think that this is a questionable idea. OK, here it is: I think that no woman in her right mind wants to wear a shirt that gives random people behind her back personal information. It's not the quality of the information or the content, it's the coupling of that with anonymity and immediate physical presence.]

When I was kid growing up in suburban Detroit, I always knew that there was a salt mine in the center of downtown. There aren't many mines in the middle of urban areas, but one of the many strange things about Detroit is that it had one, or has one, since it's probably still down there, even though it's been closed for 20 years. I think I was sick and missed the 6th grade field trip that would have been the one chance I ever had to see it, but I saw all the big salt crystals that the other kids brought back from it and knew that the trip to the salt mine (like snowmobile safety classes) was one of the key moments of many Michigan children's childhoods.

What I didn't realize was how the salt mine's operations are actually an interesting example of the kind of negotiation that happen between industry, landowners and city governments when trying to provide a city service based on a low-cost commodity resource. When telling the story to Molly the other day (based on this article), I realized that there are similarities between negotiating the mineral rites for salt and negotiating technology access for municipal Wifi, or any other kind of pervasive technological service. See, radio waves are kind of like minerals in that they don't care about property lines. The pattern of extracting salt in Detroit looks a lot like the pattern of Wifi access nodes. Compare the map above to the one for Spokane, WA:

I don't know if the similarity stops at the look of the maps, or goes deeper into how services that don't stop at property lines work in general, but I think it's an interesting analogy.

There are two projects I've become aware of recently that represent the explicit linking of physical objects to their information shadows, both in children's products. This kind of thing has existed before, but its prevalence seems to be on the rise.

The first (found by Liz) is WebKinz which are plush toys that each have a unique code on their tag that brings up a unique play space that's just for that specific toy (randomly generated of course). The idea is "Beanie Babies meets NeoPets meets Cabbage Patch Kids" and although I think the execution of the concept leaves much to be desired (why buy furniture for your toy basset's online "room"?), it's an interesting example of how toy companies are merging offline and online conceptual play spaces in a very direct way.

The second is Disney's Clickables, which I learned about from CNET's Matter/Antimatter blog.

Clickables that we are launching in connection to our new Disney Fairies virtual world. It's a way for kids to take their online world experience into the real world. The core of it is a magical bracelet. By simply clicking their bracelets together, girls become friends in the online environment.

From the press release:

“The future of toys is about connecting online and offline play,” said Chris Heatherly, vice president of technology and innovation, Disney Consumer Products. “Kids and tweens are quickly embracing virtual worlds and, while there are several Internet-related toys in the market today, the play ends when the computer gets shut down. With our new line of Disney Fairies toys featuring Clickables technology, we're bringing the fun of social networking, collecting, and trading into the real world so that girls can extend the fun of the enchanting online world of Pixie Hollow to school, the park, or wherever they may be.”

This system of course owes a lot to Ruth Kikin-Gil's Buddy Beads project in terms of its use of jewelry to communicate social relationship between BFFs, but it also explicitly links the online world to the physical world using magic as a metaphor. It's not surprising that it's coming from Disney thematically, but what's interesting to me is how much Disney is investing in it. This is a sizable product rollout, which typically means that they have done enough research to believe that it'll be successful on their terms, which typically means hundreds of thousands, if not millions of customers. It's a project, and a genre, to watch.

I spoke last night at Berkeley's School of Information Future of Interaction Design lecture series, presenting the "Sketching Smart Things" talk I gave at BayCHI last month and at CHIFOO the month before. I'm evolving this talk, rather than doing every talk from scratch. There's about 80% overlap with the previous talks, though this time around I've added several slides to explain the origin of the Information Shadow idea by citing Tom Coates' and Ulla-Maaria Mutanen's work, and I've referenced Bag, Borrow or Steal when talking about how digital technology is shifting the nature of everyday objects into subscription services.

You can download the presentation with all the text as a 900K PDF.

(image by MGChan, found on Flickr)

That last reference shows my current interest in the way that digital networked technologies allow for objects to shift from "buy and store" model to a "rent and share" subscription model. Bag, Borrow or Steal, City Carshare and timeshared condos (thanks to Nicholas Nova for reminding me of this) are all occasional use/high price products that technology has changed the ownership model for. What's a high price niche functionality today becomes commodity functionality eventually. Netflix has done it for DVDs. In one of Bruce Sterling's original Viridian speeches from 1999, he brings it all the way don to the most commodified of tools, the hammer:

If all your possessions are network peripherals, then you have a possible LINUX model for objects in the real world. In this world, I don't buy a hammer. What I really want to own is the hammering functionality. I might as well share the hammer with my neighbor == he can't steal it, and if he breaks it, I'll know immediately. A modern hammer in this world comes built around a chip, with a set of strain gauges that determine if it is worn or broke or abused. Let's network that hammer.

Berkeley's famous Tool Lending Library did a low-tech version (the subscription price for it is the cost of owning a house in Berkeley), and Ford, DeWalt and ThingMagic are tantalizingly close with their Tool Link product:

The innovative Ford Work Solutions Tool Link from DeWalt uses RFID technology to track what's in your cargo box and what isn't. Checking Tool Link before heading out to a job site ensures all tools you need are on hand. At the end of the workday, Tool Link guarantees all the gear used at a job site is back onboard.

The Ford version is a kind of personal inventory control system, but once every tool has an embedded RFID tag in it, you can start doing all kinds of things, including the kind of subscription-based resource sharing that Sterling alluded to. Soon, though, more occasional-use products will become dotted outlines that get filled in as we need them.

[Update: Treehugger has an article that says that services like Bag Borrow or Steal are Product Service Systems by the EU. Their definition is "in essence they are a means, by which we get what we want, without needing to own the product that provides that service." I think that the term, and its PSS acronym, sounds too abstract and generic and that the idea would spread if it was called something more informative and evocative--I dunno, "library" for nonprofit ones and maybe something like "thingshare" (riffing off of "carshare" and "timeshare") for the for-profit general class.]

[Update: Phil points to Jeremy Rifkin's Age of Access as a book-length discussion of some of these ideas with the core thesis being "Property [in the age of networked information] continues to exist, but is far less likely to be exchanged in markets. Instead, suppliers hold onto property in the new economy and lease, rent, charge an admission fee, subscription, or membership dues for its short-term use." I haven't read it--it's on order now--but like much of Rifkin's work, it seems like there's an essence of truth to the idea even though the presentation is hyped.]

This is what I get for writing a blog, but not reading any. I've been talking about merging the physical and digital worlds and I knew I wasn't the only one doing it, but it's kind of embarrassing when I find out that someone so close to me in my social network had the same idea three years ago. Tom Coates' The Age of Point-At-Things totally beat me to it by three years. He was talking about his work with TV programs, but he knew that the implications went far beyond that.

But once you have decided what constitutes a programme episode then something really significant happens - you can give it a name, make it addressable, you can - for the first time point at it. Better still, you can move from pointing at something to glueing handles onto it. And once you have such a handle, then you can pick up the programme and throw it around and stick labels on it and join it together with other programmes with bits of semantic string. You've moved your engagement with the programme from only being able to look at it to being to manipulate it and do things with it. And there is almost no end to the things you can do once you've uniquely identified a television or radio programme. It's foundational. It's like there are two views of the world - the solid one around us and the Matrix-style flowing green lines one. In this second world, until you give a thing a name - until you can point at it in greenspace - it simply doesn't exist.


Now I know that the creation of universal and world-unique identifiers for things must seem one of the most tedious concepts or projects known to man. But I believe that it's fundamental to our technological development - and particularly our ability to take our ever-increasing computing power and increasingly interconnected appliances and merge them seemlessly with the environment around us. The greenspace of the Matrix needs to merge with the physical - they need to become indistinguishable. Until we can point at, until we can pick up, until we can handle, we will never be able to use these concepts around us effectively.


In this future world, all of our discrete objects (physical or conceptual) will be annotatable, or linkable to, referencable. Each 'thing' will be built upon in non-physical dimensions of data. And that final process of merging must start with addressability. It must start with identifiers.

Ulla-Maaria Mutanen of course went on to embody this idea in her ThingLink project soon after Tom's piece, but I'm happy I found Tom's clear and powerful articulation of the idea so that I don't have to recreate it. ;-) Thank you Tom and Ulla-Maaria!




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