Context-aware mobile devices

RIM, the maker of the fancy Blackberry devices, has filed a patent application for a technique that allows devices to ‘guess’ in what kind of environment they are:

The new Blackberrys would occasionally and very briefly vibrate. This should be too short to be mistaken for a message alert but just long enough for an accelerometer inside the device to measure how much it moves. This tells the Blackberry whether it is on top of a flat table, in a person’s hand or stuffed inside a pocket.

On a table, the Blackberry rings loudly to announce a call. Inside a pocket, it shuts off the screen to save power. And while in the palm of a hand, it leaves the screen lit but switches to vibrate when it has a message to deliver.

But that is only one way to guess the situation it’s in. If we call the above vibrate-and-sense method a kind of ‘feeling’, what if we took a look at all five senses?

  • feeling: the Blackberry already senses that last time it was used (for the screensaver function). It could also sense the last time it moved. If no movement, it is not carried by an active user, and e.g. should not use the vibration alert. The device could also monitor temperature and humidity to detect presence of a person.
  • seeing: a basic light sensor could detect day and night, or out/in a pocket or bag. In the dark, the screen lighting up when a call/message arrives has a totally different impact.
  • hearing: just monitoring background noise could tell a lot about the environment: is the user e.g. sleeping, and if so, does he snore. If background noise is > 100dB don’t use sound, only vibrate. If > 120dB, don’t even bother vibrating.
    Another way to measure might be like a radar-sensor: emit a sound of inaudible frequency and see how strong/fast it comes back.
  • smelling: biometric authentication! If the user holding the device does not smell like the owner, lock the screensaver.
  • tasting: let’s not go there. Oh wait, a tongue sensor that detects alcohol level: if too high, don’t let user send messages to his exes.

Watch out, at some point we all will give names to our mobile devices, and have actual conversations with them.

Estimating real-time traffic speed

I was reading a magazine on affordable GPS systems and one of the features they stressed a lot was the support for TMC (Traffic Message Channel). This is the reception of real-time traffic info that is digitally transmitted alongside an FM channel. So I wondered where that data came from: how sophisticated the traffic detection schemes were.
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Convergence of the iPod

Using an iPod to see how fast one is running:

With the Nike+ footwear connected to iPod nano through the Nike+iPod Sport Kit, information on time, distance, calories burned and pace is stored on iPod and displayed on the screen; real-time audible feedback also is provided through headphones. The kit includes an in-shoe sensor and a receiver that attaches to iPod. A new Nike Sport Music section on the iTunesĀ® Music Store and a new personal service site help maximize the Nike+iPod experience.

Interesting move! If one needed to guess a while back the type of device Nike shoes would be connected to, the choice would have been between a PDA or a mobile phone. Just add Bluetooth to the shoe, connect both and off you go. The phone had the clear advantage, since it is something people take along all the time, even when running. A runner takes his MP3 player too, of course, but until recently that was more like a single purpose device. Now Apple is positioning it as a convenient storage and visualisation device you happen to carry on you all the time. Key advantage: ubiquitous!

It also shows why it’s going to be hard to displace the iPod from its dominant market position. Apple is capitalizing on the device’s ubiquity to link it to other products and services. And because it’s a proprietary system, every link-up is another lock-in. As your shoes and your car and your stereo and your clothes become iPod-enabled, it becomes ever more difficult to abandon the little sucker.

So now there’s an attack from a less obvious contender to that Holy Grail of Ultimate Mobile Device. Let’s take a look at that crowded space:
Convergence: overview
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Nokia N91 – first impressions

SIM CardBack in the old days, switching your mobile phone was easier: you just popped your SIM card out of the old one and threw it into the new one. That only works if your telephone numbers are actually stored on the SIM card. Since these cards still have ridiculously little storage space (250 numbers of max 16 characters) , you’re tempted to just use the phone instead for storing your data. My Samsung phone had a function ‘copy SIM to phone’ so that’s what I did. Unfortunately it did not have a ‘copy phone memory to SIM’. It took me a couple of hours, spread over 2-3 days, to figure out a way to get the numbers on the SIM so they turn up on my Nokia N91. The Bluetooth connectivity on the Samsung never worked great for synchronisation, but eventually I figured out a way to export and re-import my numbers.The Nokia, on the other hand, does not have a ‘copy the whole SIM to memory’ function so I have to do it one by one. Oh well…
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Nokia N91: return of the Fin

I complained back in 2004 that Nokia didn’t have any model that pleased me. I had used 5 Nokia mobile phones at that point, wanted to buy a new one and did’t find anything suitable. Some months later I bought me a Samsung 720: a small clamshell phone with a nice design, lots of features and unfortunately one main flaw: voice quality. The number of people that have asked me: “are you in a tunnel or something? I can hardly hear you“. Those days may be over.

Beause Nokia now has the opportunity to return with a vengeance. I have been asked by the kind people of TheseDays to take the new Nokia N91 phone for an elaborate test drive. A phone with a 4GB hard drive and Wifi (802.11g) built-in, I wasn’t too difficult to convince.
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Oh Nokia, won’t you make me a nice mobile phone

Nokia 5510I’ve never had a mobile phone that was not a Nokia. I started out with a 5110 back in ’98 and two 3210’s and a 6210 later, I now own a 5510, the Qwerty monster you see at the left here. Why stick with Nokia: habit (and reusing my power supplies).

Some lessons I learned in the past: WAP at 9600 baud sucks, never buy an expensive phone (my + €400 Nokia 6210 broke down on me after 6 months) and don’t expect a phone to last more than 2 years.

Now, my 5510 is getting rusty and I would just like the following: a nice Nokia phone between €200 and €300, polyphonic ring tones, colour screen, Bluetooth (for the handsfree set), GPRS and if possible, an MP3 player and a camera. There is a SonyEriccson T630, so it’s not impossible.

So what can Nokia offer me:

Nokia 3650
3650: not really easy on the eyes
Nokia 7650
7650: no Bluetooth
6600: no Bluetooth
Nokia 6820
6820: no GPRS, original keyboard but robust?
Nokia N-Gage
N-Gage: ain’t I a bit too old for that?

And all of them, expect for the N-Gage are more like €400. You see me running around with a N-Gage? Where do I speak?

Nokia, I represent a €3000 customer over the next 10 years, and there must be a pack of people like me. Is it that hard to make an affordable nice phone with the features above? Bluetooth is mainstream now, and GPRS is not exotic. Your competitors are doing it! Even Russell Beattie, who’s a notorious Nokia fan, is waiting for you to get your design and marketing right. I’ll give it another month and see what new stuff comes out and how your 25% price drop is doing.

[Listening to: “Another ballad” – Sioen – HUMO’s TOP 2003 (Cd 1)]