Wednesday, February 09, 2005

02/07/05: Mobile Mondays

Attended my first Mobile Monday meeting Monday night. Really appreciated going to a techno-geeky-networking meeting that was actually in Silicon Valley, rather than San Francisco or the East Bay!

There was quite a crowd...this shot was taken before it started, and probably at least 20 more people showed up and hovered against the walls around the room:

There were 4 speakers. you can read their bios at the Mobile Monday site; I'm just going to briefly talk about what they talked about.

Speaker #1: Marc Davis from UC Berkeley

Marc leads a program that wants to explore how to help the average media consumer become a media producer. What does that mean exactly? Finding ways to simplify the annotation, usability and sharing of personalized media, such as photos. Once you take a can it be nearly automated to identify that picture and share it? The ultimate vision of UCB's Mobile Media Metadata project is that there is a remote server correlating your picture taking with other picture taking that has been conducted in the same place at the same time and correlating where and how you usually take pictures with who you usually send them to. Someone in the audience did bring up privacy and anonymity, which I also thought was a thorny issue. Hey, maybe I don't want some server tracking where and when I take pictures and who I share it with! But then again, as with all of the services discussed, it's an opt-in program, right? The danger is only that people don't understand exactly what the ramifications of their opting in are.

Speaker #2: Anita Wilhelm from Caterpillar Mobile

Anita, AKA MobileGirl, is a former student of Marc's. She and another alum formed Caterpillar, a company that developing community games for mobile platforms.

I must say she identified to a 't' the current problems I have with my cameraphone, including:
-Can't get the images out
-Networks (and picture transmittals) fail without any feedback

She described games, like photo challenges, that you can play with your cameraphone, along with your network of friends with cameraphones. She said their focus group surveys indicated it was "addictive" and that it "altered their perception" of the world around them. It did sound kind of fun, but it also raised a lot of questions in my mind, like:

-She mentioned maintaining a repository of the photos taken and annotated during the games played. To whose benefit is that? She mentioned using it for databases for other games, and for search enhancement, but don't you own a photo if you take it? Why should this company have some huge database of annotated photos at its disposal. You might think "no biggie" and sign away your rights to photos taken and cached using their s/w, but how would you feel if your photo started showing up on billboards all over town in some advertisement?

-Addictive, eh? LIke we all need more things to keep us obsessed with our devices and what they can do. I don't know about you, but I already am constantly on the edge of information and technology overload.

-As for the "altered perception": I really wonder if such cross network group interaction will take people away from the actual world around them and keep them in a smaller, more insular world that is only populated by those they already know. But here's an example. After 9/11, being alone in NYC and unable to call any of my friends who actually lived there, I ended up interacting with strangers. For example I stood in line to get cancelled seats for "The Producers" for five hours one day. By the end of that five hours I ended up going to dinner with 9 other people I met in line. People from all over the world...each a fellow stranded traveler. If I had been busily communicating with a bunch of people I already knew, I would have missed out on that interaction. And it wouldn't have been tragic, but it would have been a shame.

I asked Anita a question along those limiting our spare minutes of life to only dealing with virtual people we already know, are we missing out on living the life that is right there in front of us? And Anita...mobilegirl that she is...looked at me like she had no idea what I was talking about! She didn't think any of their focus group felt like they weren't living life. No, says I (to myself) but they might not be living the most fulfilling life!

Speaker #3: Alan Moskowitz from MobiTV

MobiTV acquires and distributes content to mobile devices by partnering with both content providers and cellular service providers. And part of their special sauce is transcoding the streams to be appropriate for mobile device viewing, and adding metadata.

Their service is theoretically an easy sell because people simply "get" TV. It's just like watching the 20 most popular channels at home. The huge bonus for the service providers is that it requires the subscriber to purchase the data service offering of the cell provider. Those services have not enjoyed the kind of take-rates that, I think, everyone assumed they would. So, it's a huge benny to the SPs to sell those services, data services, just so folks can watch video.

Once again I found myself torn between, "gee, that's cool" and "what the hell is humanity doing to itself with all this stuff?"

Seriously, when are people supposed to think?

Or imagine? Or ruminate?

I don't just think this about cell phone apps...I've had the same thoughts about DVD players in mini-van backseats.

I remember when I was a kid we drove down to see my grandparents every Sunday...from Millbrae to Menlo, and later from Sunnyvale to Menlo. Maybe half an hour.

At night when we drove home, with everyone mostly too tired to talk, I would stare out the window at the rolling hills along 280 and daydream. All sorts of things. Or I'd stare at people in the other cars and imagine their lives. Can I give you the quantifiable positive result of such dreaming? Not really, but it still seems kind of important.

When are today's kids doing that?

Speaker #4: Ted Shelton from Orb networks

Orb's value prop is not just that you can watch TV via their service, but all of "your" content.

Again, sounds theoretically way cool.

It raised lots of questions for me about DRM and copyright and programmer requirements. And about exactly how they claim they can use your computer to transcode encrypted video content for appropriate viewing on a mobile device. What do the specs on that computer need to be? Because I doubt my poor overloaded iMac can handle much. HBO, for example...not only is it a premium service, but it has strict requirements about how much compression the operators can apply to the programming. it used to be a lower limit of about 5 MBPS as I recall. You're telling me my computer can transcode it down to acceptable levels for my device? Or are you telling me my computer sends that video to the cloud and Orb's network is transcoding it somewhere in the cloud?

Either way, I have lots of questions about the load. Server load, processor load, pipeline load. That load is somewhere. And is that load scalable?

At least with MobiTV, they are the content distributor, and they are distributing it already transcoded...and have the authorization from the content providers to do so.

Maybe it was Shelton's constant MobiTV bashing that makes me cynical about what he was saying...I think he could have laid off a little bit. There's room in this community to give buzz to both services. Don't hit me over the head with your big club, OK?

Anyway, cool evening. Learned a lot. And it should come in handy for me soon, I hope. (Still can't say why.)

Thanks to Mike and the rest of the Mobile Monday crew.

My other pictures from the event are here:

Thanks for the writeup Elisa, great summaries! I don't agree that new services will isolate people from their surroundings long term however. The applications that we're seeing how are mostly mobile analogs for online apps, and as such not very "situated" in the real world. One of the strengths of mobility is that your phone is a personal device, existing out in the wide wide world with you. We're not seeing that exploited to a large degree yet, but I think we will at some point. I do think that the services we see once more and more people grok mobility will tend to connect you with your surroundings in addition to your existing social network. And not always draw you into the little screen, but to use the little screen to help you navigate and understand the world around you.
Interesting point Mike. Yes, perhaps future apps will be developed that encourage exploration of your real world surroundings and the people moving through it.
My apologies for late on the commenting… but I do agree with Mike. We are not trying to promote isolated experiences through these kinds of apps but instead create non-isolating ones. Think for a moment about the current gaming space: gaming is a form of imagination promotion. Though different from daydreaming out a window, it does promote imagination and creativity though imaginative lands, exploring special skills, problem solving, and searching behaviors. However most current mobile games exist only virtually. They require users to spend time focused directly on their device. This is exactly what we are trying to break free from by allowing players to explore and interact their real worlds more. Players may begin to see the real world in a different light, which may cause them to discuss it more with those involved in a similar experience, but it does not limit them from engaging in it. If anything, we hope that it promotes them to engage in it more!

If I failed to convey that in my talk, I will definitely make sure I highlight these points more next time.

Thanks for the feedback and great write up of the event!
Thanks for the comments Anita.

It's interesting to step back and think about video games today...are they creative or not? The conventional take is to decry the hours spent on video games, but I certainly can appreciate some of what video games offer to their players. I suppose in the same way there are good games and bad games for your console, there will ultimately be good games and bad games for your mobile device.
I enjoy reading through your blog. By the way, if you are interested in talking about a link exchange with me at, please let me know.
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