From the brilliant mind of Stan.
On a recent flight back to New York I was lucky enough to pull a middle seat. Next to me were two guys—either of them could have been anything from a banker to pharmaceutical sales rep judging by the suit and shoes they wore. One was reading on a first generation iPad, the other held Barnes & Noble’s Nook. Across the aisle, an elderly woman was reading on a Kindle and another man was doing something interactively intensive on an iPhone. I ended up watching the astounding BBC science-fiction show “Black Mirror” on my MacBook Pro. This is the new “normal” experience. As a default action, people become immersed in their devices whether they are in cafes, restaurants, or on public or private transportation systems.
Imagine the airplane scenario twenty years ago: the guy on my left would have been reading the Wall Street Journal (a very fresh copy, just bought in the airport) and the guy on my right is reading Milan Kundera (not the most obvious choice based on his conservative tie, but I’m the one imagining these people). In fact, he would be at the end of the book and would be reading vigorously. As for the woman across the aisle, let’s give her some kind of slightly esoteric academic magazine with an abstract cover that might be about European educational systems. The guy next to her would be playing on an original GameBoy (which are now twenty-two years old). I would have started a conversation with the guy reading the Kundera book on my own Kundera experience or might have glanced over to see what game the guy was playing when I got up.
Their media consumption would have embedded me in a much stronger social and cultural context through the then-current experience.
Modern devices broadcast torrents of data on our behalf to the cloud and they hold very intimate and personal data. But they are unable to help us mediate our interactions with the people in close proximity.
The monotonous designs of the devices we currently use are based on the very established design paradigms that are dominating their market. When I enter a shared working space or cafe in New York, almost everyone is using an Apple laptop of some sort and most have matching iPhones and/or iPads. Other than the presence of an occasional sticker (I’m sure Steve Jobs would have made the MacBook sticker-proof if he could have) these devices, into which we pour so much of ourselves, communicate next to nothing to anyone else sharing the space. The person next to me could just be reading a silly comic in his browser or he might be crafting a complex series of equations in in Excel. I have no way of knowing. Consequently, it’s harder to know if it’s a good time to interrupt someone. Sometimes it actually feels like the polite thing to do is to take a quick peek at the screen to see if someone is doing something interruptable. Very awkward.
More variation in the industrial design of devices and a way of indicating what people are actually doing (if they want) on a device would improve proximal communication and improve device integration in our daily lives. Why not have a device that you take to your night club for dancing, a super small one for morning runs, a high-end camera device, a foldable large-display one and one that is totally waterproof for the beach trip. This area is full of opportunities. We’ve reached a stage where most of our data is in the cloud, so theoretically it doesn’t matter what device we use, it becomes simply a matter of personal authentication. This can go beyond just functional criteria and enter the realm of personal expression the way we use fashion to position ourselves in society. Devices themselves need to enter the realm of fashion. The rich variety in iPhone cases is already a strong indication that people to like to express themselves with devices. A single device that does all and snap-on cases can only go so far.
Now for devices themselves. They don’t need to be static, they can have dynamic methods of expression. A simple instance of this would be a flag that comes out of the device stating what you’re doing, whether it be email, coding, web surfing, or Photoshopping. But that would be silly. I can see that all devices are coated in a passive e-ink that users can control to display anything they want, be it their last Tumblr picture, a mood-expressing Emoticon, a big do not disturb badge, or their current title in World of Warcraft. Just black would be an option as well, just as it is our only choice today.
Mobile devices are here to stay. Make them true personal objects.