12.41, Wednesday 5 Jan 2005

I got the wave messaging active cover for my Nokia 3220 phone. How they market this: Wave messaging is an incredibly fun new way to communicate and make an impression at the same time. Meanwhile, in the illustration, a smiling girl holds her phone in the air and it spells out "FUN". Hm.

It's loads of fun. Everyone I show thinks it's magic. When the cover arrived, ran the application, waved "hello" in the air, and had to show everyone in the office (partly that was my own excitement). In the first photos my arm is really tired.

That night in the pub, I was showing it off--it's a great toy, nobody expects what you're going to do ("What are you doing? Oh, oh, hang on, what does that say? Hey, that's cool! Hey, that's your phone? Give me that."), and so we ended up taking loads of photos. To begin with, just words, like this one of me waving Mind Hacks (which is bound to end up on the book website sooner or later). Then putting arrows on the words to use them as labels. That was entertaining for a good chunk of the evening.

What's weird is that you can't see the waving person's arm move, so the words just hang there in space. What's especially weird - and good - is that this wave messaging works best in pubs. It's dark, so the letters stand out, and you've had a drink, so you aren't tracking the moving phone with your eyes (it doesn't work so well then, you kind of need to look through it, unfocus a little, and beer helps for that). Retrospectively, the people sitting a few tables away would have had the best view. Wave messaging works okay from a metre away, but better from a little more. While we were squinting to make out the messages as my phone got passed around the table, other people in the bar would have been able to see them fine.

Anyway, you can make the words go round corners too which, in a way, makes them look more physical in the photograph. Doing them straight to camera, well, we're used to captions. Having the wave plane as part of the scene is entertaining. Lastly we were just mucking about, not being consistent about the waving. These photos look the best, "Yay" just looks like it's fizzing out, floating off J. like a little cloud: one; two; three. It's DIY Carnivore.

I got the 3220 after coming back from Design Engaged. The active cover came out a few days before christmas (I'd been checking mobile accessory sites addictively for months) and I managed to get one. It was just something I got because I wanted to see how it worked. You take off the default cover from your 3220 (which is just plastic) and put the new one on--that's all. The front of the cover is the same, but the back cover has a row of LEDs down it, and a circuit board on the inside which is connected by a metal strip to four contacts just below the battery (you get a little contacts plug to replace the normal rubber cover that's there). The first time the phone is switched on, it sees it has a new cover and spends a minute downloading (from the chip in the back cover) an application called "Cover Browser." When you run that app, you can see what applications reside on the cover ("Wave Messaging" and a couple of games) and choose which ones to install. They take about 5 minutes each to download and install. Using the application is just like writing a 15 character text message. It's free (some people have asked), and when you hit "Display" the phone starts figuring out how fast it's moving and displays the appropriate line of your message on the LEDs accordingly. You can also save your messages to get to them faster, and make images.

I wasn't expecting to get much more out of this cover than having a gimmick (and to be down with the kids, you know). Actually it's an enormous amount of fun. People want to play with it, write words, "can you see what this says?" There are games that come with the cover (that use the tilt sensor in the cover to pilot sprites around: tilt left to fly anti-clockwise), but the really fun game is the waving itself. People want to pass the phone around, chat about it, take photos.

Some downsides: It just takes too long to open the application and type in a message. It's a long way down in the hierarchy, and the load time is too much for impromptu waving. Also there seems to be a problem with the pre-installed images to wave. I think maybe they scroll slightly every time you wave or something, but they're not as readable as regular text messages. The games could also be a lot better. There's a tilt sensor, so why not having something rolling around on the display? Use the tilt to affect the sprite directly, not as an abstract control mechanism.

Upsides: In terms of fun now and potential later, I buy this completely. Matt Jones refers to this as the mass-market fun of embodied interaction (see also, his Design Engaged presentation), and he's right. Wave messaging is made for social play. But even apart from this, there's an intellectual joy in seeing the world of embodied interaction open up. Using just the sensors in the phone and Bluetooth, you could have a two-player virtual fencing game, using the phones as hilts. Or, with covers like these, put wheels on the back, and have the mobile follow around a radio-reflective ring you wear. Power-ups for my phone. These are toys,

but there's a serious side too. Hanging around in the Trocadero arcade the other day, I was watching kids playing some version of Dance Dance Revolution, and a couple playing a drumming game. My little cousin got some new iToy games for Christmas (he already has some, another cousin had a cheap dance mat last year).

When I wave my phone around and it spells letters in the air, that means it has all kinds of sensors inside it to tell where my hands are and how fast they're moving--it's not that far from a literal point-and-click interface to my TV.

The contention:

Whereas a mouse is a narrowband interface that isn't going to get any more fine-grained (short of yet more buttons) and doesn't conceptually acknowledge the constraints of its use (flat surface, isomorphic with the on-screen cursor), a device that you work with by pointing, or tapping, or glancing has a long way to go: in the future, we'll be making better cameras, smarter computers, better gesture recognition systems and so on. It can become high-bandwidth, and - if you're using your body - go anywhere with you. The important part of the mouse is really the flat surface which pretends to be the screen, afterall, not the puck you hold in your hand. Seeing that potential is exciting.

Now, we have a young generation becoming used to using themselves and the environment as part of the interface (when light-projected keyboards are released, that's another step). We have a middle-aged population that, sooner or later, will have been using a keyboard and mouse for two or three decades and will be seizing up in the fingers and joints.

In 2 or 3 decades, it's not just going to seem absurd and obtusely limited to funnel your whole interaction with a TV (or whatever) through a matrix of keys on a remote control, it's going to be literally painful for many people.

So why not: Use a Dasher-like interface to interact with your TV, waving your whole arm left, right, up or down to navigate through a tunnel of interface decisions? Why should I scroll my iPod with my thumb when I could scroll it on anything, the wall, my chest, etc? When I make a purchase, why type a number when I could drum my signature rhythm? (and Tom C tells me that Halo 2 already has this kind of sign-in procedure; you press your personal special move on the game controller to be recognised.) Even now, why should I have to press Select on my 3220-with-wave-superpower when I could rap it sharply (a nod), and why press Cancel when I could shake it?

We've all been having this realisation for a few years, and that's now long enough for the cheap and low power accelerometers, computer vision systems, and so on (all the assorted technology) to make its way through colleges and labs. It's all hitting the mass market, and there's all this territory out there to explore. Awesome. Tasty.

(I also posted about wave messaging, embodied interaction, affordances, design and the iPod scrollwheel on the Mind Hacks weblog: Waving, not designing.)

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