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Mobile Community Design
Research and design information for mobile community developers.

Monday, June 26, 2006

Japan Mobile Photos

A few photos to add a bit of clarity to my previous posts.

A capsule hotel: A safe place to relax and sleep inbetween other activites.

A friend of mine standing in front the multitude of different phones designs available.

My friends pulling out their phones to find a restaurant.

No talking on your phone on the train! be polite! (texting is ok)

Saturday, June 24, 2006

A society on the move

One of my remaining ponderings for Japan is the mobility of the society. In most aspects of traveling japan, from taking the Shinkansen bullet trains to watching the Shinjuku subway station a few minutes before the last train at midnight - Japan moves very quickly. In the following paragraphs I'll briefly address a few examples I've noticed, and then discuss the higher level topic of mobile cultures and communities.

Mobile devices arent just used by teenagers here. Train conductors on most trains are using specially designed mini-tablet computers to check seats reservations and note who they've already validated. I'm presuming these are wirelessly linked to a central train computer and probably the remote office. From a design perspective these are interesting in that they need to provide accurate information quickly because of social constraints, and are constantly used while walking by the train conductor who is also using his hands for other things (e.g. holding tickets).

I've also seen pdas and other mobile devices used by waiters to take orders in some places. Japan likes its automation. Many of the typical Japanese diners (for working people, cheap food, curries and the like) have a vending machine where you choose your meal, pay and get a ticket, which you present to the chef. It minimizes the need for extra staff to do what the customer can do themselves.

I hate busses, I really do. They are confusing, swerve around, take indirect routes, don't tell you where you are, are smelly, noisy, etc. However, the buses in Kyoto weren't bad. They have digital displays in the front which tell you what the next stop is going to be in alternating Japanese Kana and English. For primary stops that tourists are likely to take, they usually announce it audibly (recorded voice) in English as well. But you can't always hear it because of the noise. So they are presumably tracking GPS location and automatically updating this, unless the bus driver is tapping a button each time he/she leaves a stop. Trains do the same thing, warning you audibly and visually of upcoming stations in enough time to use the bathroom and get your bags down before you need to step out of the train. The subways arent quite as good in Tokyo, in that only some of them show a digital display showing current location, direction of travel and next stop - so you still have to look at the windows at station signs sometimes.

Pretty much everyone uses phones here, from young to old. Older people here aren't any more tech savvy here than in other countries. A japanese tourist I met was still using a bulky automatic film camera. When I was in an izekia (japanese bar) a semi-drunk older japanese man had his phone ring loudly about 4 times. I don't think you're really supposed to be talking on phones in the pubs, or having it off silent mode. Worse yet, he couldn't figure out how to answer it (voice call) and they kept ringing back after he hung up on them. One time he tried to answer it without open the phone (clamshell). So the Japanese still make complex gadgets that their users find difficult to use while drunk! (I think all technologies should be usable while drunk on Sake).

Another aspect of the mobility of japanese society is the capsule hotel. The capsule hotel is several floors of perhaps several hundred capsules on each floor. A capsule is like a bunk bed, but more enclosed, with a curtain at one end. Inside is a TV, radio, alarm clock, mattress, mirror. Typically they are used by japanese 'salarymen' who stay out drinking late and don't want to spend time taking the train home to the wife and kids. You walk in, stick your stuff in a locker and put on a Yukata (robe). Then there is a communal bath and shower, restaurant, tv chill spots, massage chairs, etc. I presume you can probably get your suit laundered for the next day of work as well. So this is the home away from home, where you can relax, drop in without advance notice, get all your shaving and toiletries supplied by the hotel and be off to work the next morning. This all costs about $40 US a night. For cheaper you can sometimes just rent one of the lounge chairs to sleep in in the common room, or even crash on the floor. Its designed for people without a home, or with a frequently changing locations.

Last night I went out with some Japanese friends to dinner. They didn't know where the restaurant was, so they pulled out three different phones and checked the location. Later when we wanted to get to different parts of town they had the phones out checking timetables and locations of subway stations. When we had to meet up we used the usual combination of mobile email and voice calls for the final synchronous approach.

Japan, and particularly Tokyo is on the move. They have put in an excellent public transportation infrastructure. Traffic can be bad, but the majority of people arent driving cars and probably dont need to. When workers need to give parking tickets, check train seats and take orders, they can often do them on mobile devices (that seem to be designed well enough to not really attract attention by the customer). When the Japanese are out with friends, or drinking with the boss, or commuting to work, they are in touch with the wife or boyfriend or whatever on the mobile. When they enter communal areas with more social restrictions they switch to quiet modes of communication (email). Whever they are, they can be reached, and where they are is constantly changing. Getting around in-person is obviously still important, and very much supported by the transportation network. So the virtual existence doesn't show much of a sign of winning out over the physical one just yet. More likely is a fusion of the two, where virtual support physical interaction - just like in the case of the ticket machine (albeit mechanical) assisting the chefs in the diner.

A great portion of this interaction is quite random and unpredictable. You don't know where you're going to be and you will almost certainly be distracted. You don't know how you will be able to communicate (what the social and physical limitations will be) wherever you are when you need to communicate. Both walking around tokyo and managing communications with others is continual state of crisis management, or perhaps being the "eye of the storm" and simply riding it out is a better metaphor. In my thesis I briefly played with using water metaphors to describe group movement. In Tokyo you join streams of traffic, side-step into eddies and small pools on the side to look at a map, drop into a coffee shop or restaurant to rest your feet and respond to an email. Even the Japanese still have trouble finding the right type of location when they need it, particularly in a city so large that there are always unfamiliar areas.

Japan is experimenting with some cutting edge technologies, but they still fall short of perhaps the holy grail of mobile design and a mobile existence. This goal would be to simply have the information you need, available to you almost without a thought, when you needed it, wherever you are. Living the mobile lifestyle you need to find the nearest mellow coffee shop without a hassle. You need to check the train schedules, and read that Kanna subway sign, and find your current location - even if it is on the 11th floor of a block sized department store. Basically you need to be able to find the resources you want, in a multi-lingual format as rapidly as possible, in an interaction style appropriate for wherever you happen to be. I think this is a reasonable design problem. Nothing in our current technology bars us from doing this. It just requires open standards, internationalisation, simple language translation, location sensing, mapping technologies and very very good interface design and requirements analysis for an extremely diverse user group.

PS- I am trying to post photos of some of this stuff. But my phone doesnt't work here, wi-fi isn't common, and this net cafe is so old the USB slots don't work. Next post I'll find a way to get some photos up. But clearly the days of simplistic moblogging are still a ways off unless you have the perfect setup.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

The Light-touch Japanese Experience

Japan has never had SMS, as DoCoMo was intelligent enough to see the similarity between email and shorter text messages early on. However, it does have a seperate type of e-mail it seems, which blurs the line a bit. Most Japanese will have two email addresses. One for their computer (i.e. gmail or hotmail) and one for their phone, and frequently they don't check the computer one often. My pre-paid phone has two options when you send a mail "sky mail" and "long mail". The first is similar to SMS. It has a 128 character limit and can include smileys. I think it is cheap or free to send these short messages to other japan mobile addresses. This is what most friends use to chat, gossip and meet up. This only works for other japanese mobile phones I think. There is also the option of long mail, where you plug in a normal e-mail address and have the full length options. This is more expensive, but not prohibitvely so.

Now, to get on with the topic of light-touch communications: the idea behind it is subtle ways of interacting with the user which convey information to them without distractng them much. Many devices induce high cognitive load and use many of the perceptual facilities of the user when they interact with the user. An example is a mobile phone ringing, which requires you to pull it out, look at who is calling and then engage in conversation - which can be impossible while trying to get on a bus or other complex situations. Light-touch is about supporting multi-tasking, being peripheral, and designing for politeness. The user ideally would be informed without really realising they were paying attention to the interface.

So why is this relevant? Light-touch systems are hard to design, and hard to evaluate without working prototypes. And it just so happens that my mobile email system in Japan is a form of light touch communication. All of my e-mail forwards from my gmail account to my phone. Since it is often required to have a silent phone here, I just leave it in "manner mode". When new mail arrives, it just buzzes in my pocket. But, for some reason about half the emails I receive show only the sender, but not the content (an error is occurring). My guess is that they are html formatted, or too long, and are being rejected by the Vodafone service. This results in me being aware of who wants to communicate with me, and about what topic, but not the content.

What this boils down to in terms of a mobile experience is interesting. I am travelling, and have basically been alone for 3 weeks in a very foreign environment where I don't speak the language. Having a soft buzz in the pocket whenever a friend or discussion list has mailed me is a bit comforting. It gives me an excuse to check my phone and feel connected to my home culture. It also provides a form of mail pre-processing. I can't always read the content of the messages (sometimes it is cut off after a few lines) but I still have an idea of what people have contacted me about. I can tell what is spam, what is critical and if good friends have sent a note. I gain the ability to judge the urgency of making it to an internet cafe. If my advisor has mailed me about a paper we are preparing for a conference, then I know I need to make it to a cafe in the next day. If only spam and discussion lists have arrived, then its not a priority.

This interface isn't as peripheral as I would like. The buzz for the incoming mail and the buzz for an incoming call are too similar, and I have missed a few incoming calls this way. More could be done with haptic feedback to indicate what kind of communication, and who has contacted you. Also, something in the way of a watch based display, or a ring, would work well for giving a rough idea of incoming messages, without having to drag the phone out of your pocket. The nice thing about this type of awareness is that it typically happens when you're in dead time such as sitting on a train (or if not then you ignore it until you are.) Thus you haven't wasted any critical time staying informed about your social and professional networks.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Japan as a Mobile Society

I am currently travelling in Japan for a month, and since I am formally still a phd student I thought it would be apt to make some observations about one of the most technologically advanced and mobile-device-focused societies on the planet. This will be a series of posts on various relevant issues.

Despite the hype about super-advanced features, wireless dating systems and mobile blogging, japan remains on the cutting edge, but not extremely far in front of new products in the west. The one main exception is that DoCoMo has managed to provide common sense tools (train time tables, movie times, walking directions) in a basic usable format at a reasonable per-use cost.

Japan uses the i-mode system (WCDMA I believe) which is not compatible with most western phones. Even my brand new i-mate k-jam which is quad-band, wi-fi, bluetooth and a variety of other things) won't connect. I understand that GSM coverage is being rolled out over the next few years here, but for the moment, Japan is fairly isolationist when it comes to supporting foreign mobile users on their soil. I have yet to find out how well Japanese mobile phones work for Japanese travelling overseas. Vodaphone does offer coverage between Japan and Australia, and possibly some other places.

When I arrived I tried to get a phone and ended up having to get a Japanese friend to help me sign up for it. It is pre-paid, and includes $30 US credit for around $100 total price. It has been very useful for trying to arrange hotel reservations, but it takes a bit of getting used to per-city dialing prefixes which constantly change as you move.

On the plus side, it is easy to send and receive e-mail on these phones. I have a seperate e-mail address at vodaphone, which anyone can send an e-mail to, and it automatically arrives (push-email with alert, like the blackberry). I've set up all my e-mail to forward a copy (from gmail) to the phone. However, some message come through OK, and others with an error message. As yet to be determined why.

I haven't seen much in the way of video conferencing, even though 3G has had this for ages over here. A japanese friend says "why would you bother?", which is pretty much my perception of it. She also happens to get a constant barrage of text messages throughout the day and night, but only the occasional phone call. (and she's older than the teen bracket).

The phones here are primarily the clamshell flip-top models. They strike me as pretty big and bulky. My PDA is actually thinner than some models I've seen, but possibly wider. The DoCoMo phones do have big screens, frequently covered with cartoon wall-papers. This makes navigation a little better with more screen real-estate. Some of these are in very pretty colours and are obviously fashion phones paraded by some very fashionable young japanese. Thumbboards are not prevalent - which surprises me. These people constantly text and yet I am finding mobile e-mail on the multi-tap numeric keypads painful. Many japanese are fast on the keyboards, but my bet is they would be even faster if they were using a fold-out alphabetic keyboard such as the new nokias or i-mates.

Japan is an extremely polite society with a great deal of norms regarding correct behavior. My guidebook says they apologise even when they are probably not at fault. i.e. they don't piss people off - unlike westerners. In practice, this translates into very polite mobile device usage. The main part of train cars (with seats) do not allow voice calls (texting is OK). In the train you can go to the joining sections near the bathrooms to talk if you need to. Busses are frequently the same policy (wait till you get off.) Phones are supposed to be on silent mode in many places and lots of signage makes this clear in both Japanese and English. I have heard a phone ring in the wrong place (e.g. in the train carraige) only once in 3 weeks. These people KNOW how to use the silent function on their phones. In fact, on my phone, there is an easy short-cut key with the icon of a phone with a heart around it. When you hold it, it says "manner mode enabled". That pretty much summarises how the most advanced mobile culture has chosen to use (and design) their phones.

Just to wet your appetite for the next few travelling posts, they will be on the topic of:
- "light-touch communications" peripheral awareness of email and communication
- Japan as a mobile society

- Forgot to mention that some of the new ads on TV are advertising mobile payment systems. You have to buy a special new phone, which presumably has an RFID card on it. They were giving the example of waving your phone over a sensor on an ice-cream cart, which then paid for the product. It appears it is rolled out, but havent't seen anyone using it yet.