In conversation with Wendy March (Intel ethnographer and advisor to Intel Labs)
Social networking is set to undergo a radical change. We’re moving away from ‘static’ social networking tools into an era in which applications will be live, data will be intelligent and real-time access to activities will be the norm. So whether you’re haggling with a street vendor, patting a baby’s head or showing off your waterskiing skills, if you want to you can relay all of this live and direct to your friends and family.
Q: Why is social networking so popular and is it here to stay?
A: Today’s social networking websites are massively popular – from Twitter to Facebook. Facebook gets two billion hits a day. And it only launched six years ago. The pervasiveness of the Internet and the widespread availability of responsive PCs offer people the opportunity of being part of virtual communities – where affiliation is not dictated by geographic location but by interest. The success of social networking sites reflects a very fundamental human need to communicate and to feel part of a wider community. In order to feel part of a bigger community we need to constantly check its status to keep our ‘finger on the pulse’. It’s a window into other people’s lives and an opportunity to share some aspect of our own life. People love it.
Q: Will tomorrow’s social networking be different?
A: Tomorrow’s social networking is likely to benefit from enhanced technology – with the result of offering a more immediate and exciting experience to the user. You will be able to share your activity live, at any time of your day, with your chosen circle of friends through an avatar of your choice. Sensor-equipped devices will detect your environment and your activity – offering an intelligent reading of your situation that you can broadcast to your circle of friends. You will also be able to embed relevant information in your videos and images – to add to the experience.
Q: So how will this work – can you give us an example?
A: Whether you are zipping down an alpine ski slope or taking a gentle ride in a hot air balloon you will be able to beam your activities live to your social networking site. A friend might be checking your page and seeing an avatar image of you, swooshing through the snow, in real-time and possibly hearing you screaming too. Or it could be that you’re just kicking back on some sugar soft white sand beach and you’d like to let your friends hear the sound of softly lapping waves and your purrs of happiness. Given that they may be hunched under cold grey skies, whether you remain friends is a moot question, but the point is you will be able to broadcast almost anything from almost anywhere to your socially networked buddies.
Q: What do you base your views on?
A: It is all based on our ongoing research, to understand how people use technology – and to help us keep in touch with people’s preferences. We have been conducting study groups on an ongoing basis, to discover just how people use their mobile devices and what they use them for. Our findings help us advise our labs on developing future tools that reflect people’s needs.
Q: How are people using their mobile devices?
A: Well, we discovered that people’s use of mobile devices reflects the notion of ‘plastic time’ or ‘elastic time,’ that is people use mobile technology to fit into time intervals of varying duration throughout their day. No matter how short the time interval, today’s mobile technology allows us to use it to our advantage, to accomplish tasks – from checking our finances online to exchanging our latest holiday snaps with a friend.
Q: Can you give us more examples of ‘plastic time’ or ‘elastic time’?
A: The notion of elastic time is consistent with that of dynamic tasking – i.e. the constant switching between tasks that we increasingly practice on a daily basis, in tune with our dynamic lifestyle. So, we might interrupt our online research on a certain topic as we come across useful information for another project – feeling free to temporarily switch tasks following our interest. Or we might be using a lunchtime break to catch up with a friend through a social network. This switching testifies to our flexibility and ability to follow our creative urge as well as the changing demands on our time.
Q: Any other interesting behaviours emerging from your research?
A: We observed something we dubbed ‘pathological checking’. This refers to people’s habits of checking their mobile devices at very short intervals. This can be anything from two to ten minutes depending on the time of day. What this reveals is a universal desire for constant connection to the wider world. That is no surprise – indeed it confirms the reason why social networking has been so successful, coupled with the spread of the Internet.
Q: So everybody always wants to be connected?
A: Yes. And alongside this desire it is obvious that people chiefly use their mobile devices to engage in social activities. In fact, 70 per cent of device usage is to access social networking content. Taking these two clear dynamics – device usage patterns and social networking – Intel is developing the technology that will inspire the mobile devices of the future, driving a whole new level of intelligent social networking.
Q: What will these devices look like?
A: This will vary but the technology will enable devices that can pick up sound and vision through sensors and transfer it live to your social networking pages and extendable screens to suit the type of content you view. They will be as powerful as a desktop PC and will hook up with other devices that you regularly use such as TVs and laptop computers. So the content you view, use and download on your mobile device will be displayed on all the mediums you use. And each application icon will show information in real-time, giving you a snapshot of what is occurring at any given moment in your area of interest – whether you require the latest news bulletin, a live feed from a music event or the latest from your relatives on the other side of the globe.
Q: So social networking applications will also evolve?
A: Yes, hardware and software are bound in a relationship of mutual influence. Visually compelling information delivered in real time with context relevant data will form the basis for ‘socially enabled services’. To start with, the new devices could display a wall of 3D live images for example, that allow a user to monitor in real-time people and activities they are engaged with and interested in. But this will only be the presentation layer. The applications themselves will be context aware, or in other words, a user’s activity and location can be sent in real-time to their social networking pages. Think ski slope, hot air balloon or heavenly beach as mentioned earlier.
Q: Can we expect changes in the way our social network information is displayed?
A: Well, it could take many forms but one of the most likely avenues will be through avatars, that is, a graphical representation of yourself through a symbol or a character. When someone goes to your social networking site they will see a real-time avatar representing you and acting out whatever you happen to be doing at any given moment in time. The avatar can be switched on or off at the user’s discretion. The avatar’s activity could also be filtered according to a user’s privacy preferences. SO your co-workers or your best friends might see different levels of details, or very different styles of animation. The point is that this new wave of social networking provides the ability to hook into real-time activities and display these activities live and direct to networked friends and family. This signals an evolution in social networking.
Q: What about application functionality how will this change?
A: Users will be able to do much more than they can today. For instance they will be able to creatively mash up media with friends, embed media into an image they are viewing through their mobile devices and unlock media that is embedded into images of a scene shared by their friends, and more.
Q: Can you provide an example?
A: To give you an example, Jane and John may be on holiday and cycling along the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco when they decide to get a panoramic picture of the stunning view. They flip out their mobile device, click a few pictures, embed images of themselves into the image and post it to their social networking site. The site picks up pictures of the same location that have also been posted by their friends – Davie and Shandy. But these images also feature embedded links which show that just on the other side of the bridge is a bakery that sells the hottest bagels in town and a coffee shop that sells their favourite hand-ground Costa Rican beans. They’re on their bikes and heading in that direction quicker than you can say ‘Costa Rica.’
Q: How popular is this form of social networking likely to be?
A: If there is one piece of overwhelming evidence that has emerged from our ethnographic research it is that we want to be aware of people and things we care about in real-time. That is, we want ubiquitous anytime access to information. Real-time socially enabled services provide exactly that, giving us real-time access and real-time reflection of what our friends are engaged in and what we are doing too. So we expect this new usage model will be popular.
Q What is Intel’s role in all of this?
A. Intel is about innovation and anticipating users’ future requirements. Because the new applications will feature embedded intelligent data, our interactions will be more valuable and exciting. The devices to enable this need to have the processing power to support these advanced usage models. This is what Intel is actively working on providing – through low power, high performance processors like the Intel® Atom™ processor. Live social networking on the go is an exciting prospect and it’s just around the corner.