Digital Futures – the issue of latency

A few weeks ago I attended the Tech Connect Live Expo in the RDS, an event that showcased business and technology small and medium enterprises in the multiple fields of digital media (virtual reality, blockchain, mobile technology, smart city, automation, search engine optimisation, etc.) Some of the talks during the event discussed well established areas of interest (such as search engine optimisation). Others focussed on trending topics that are due to group exponentially in the next few years, including virtual and augmented reality interfaces, the introduction of 5G mobile broadband services and the use of blockchain technologies for digital transactions.

During the talks that I attended the issue of latency—described by the Oxford Dictionary as ‘the delay before a transfer of data begins following an instruction for its transfer’—was mentioned several times. Why is latency so important? It is not a new issue in relation to digital technologies. Roughly 20 years ago, when the transition between dial-up Internet access (through modems and their shrieky connecting sound) and broadband was in full force,  latency was responsible for some serious damage to major players in the digital industries at the time, such as in the demise of a UK-based internet company called Boo.com in the early 2000s. Backed up by $135 million dollars in venture capital, they launched a website to sell clothes online to late teens and early 20s demographic in the Autumn of 1999. Less than a year later, the company was liquidated.  It relied heavily on Flash technology and Javascript for enhanced interactivity and ‘flashier’ design, which meant that their webpages were bigger and took longer to download than the average website.

This created an unacceptable latency, which had a heavy impact on the user experience of their customers, as usability guru Jakob Nielsen pointed out at the time in a review of the website. However, as Nielsen points out, the size of the website wasn’t the only issue. Customers had to deal with complex hierarchical menus, multiple window displays, and the minuscule space dedicated to display the products being sold alongside their text description. The bad user experience represented a form of usability latency, which I define as the unintentional delay to the user’s ability to execute tasks efficiently while interacting with digital interfaces due to poor usability design.

Nowadays, you would have to be very unlucky to come across the same type of user experience provided by Boo.com. The majority of content managements systems (CMS), web templates, mobile app design standards and web design software packages are heavily influenced by established user experience guidelines, which in turn have become as acceptable as the original blue underlined link of the 1990s. It is still possible to design a very bad user experience. However, it is more likely that this would be done as a form of alternative promotional marketing strategy, such as the insane looking (and legit car leasing business) LingsCars.com, where the functional content of the website is surrounded by a barrage of viral videos, memes, old school animated gifs, psychedelic backgrounds and embossed buttons.

Which brings us back to the main issue of latency in digital futures. Take for example the growing market of  blockchain-based electronic money systems. One of the main issues,  highlighted in a talk by an AIB Bank representative, is the delay involved in processing and checking each electronic transaction, which could take up to several minutes. One of the sponsors of the Tech Connect Live Expo—a digital coin exchange service provider called Coinex—boasted that it had a much quicker turnaround than the well-known Bitcoin, and therefor it would be more suitable for a broader range of transactions (such as face-to-face retail sales) than its rival Bitcoin.

Latency is also a major factor in mobile phone Internet transmission. Vodafone, the major sponsor of the Tech Connect Live Expo, was keen to promote the advent of 5G mobile data. The technical standards for 5G mobile specific that the latency shouldn’t be higher than 4 milliseconds, which is 5 times less than the 4G LTE standard. Low latency is crucial for real-time technologies to operate efficiently, such as teleconferencing and remote medical procedures.

Low latency is also crucial for the growing market of augmented and virtual reality. I stopped by a stand where a virtual reality company was promoting a virtual reality promotional experience designed for the United Nations. It aimed to immerse the user in an area of conflict in Africa. Such experiences depend on the suspension of disbelief, and even small degrees of latency can interfere with this experience.

In the near future, as digital experiences that depend on the transmission of large amounts of data—such as 4K video, visual reality and multiple player online gaming—become more widespread, and as networks become increasingly oversubscribed, the ability to control and minimise latency will be crucial. Like wise, the need to address usability latency will always be a necessary requisite by conforming to established design standards and most importantly, by focussing on the user experience.

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