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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The Green Watch Programme in Dublin: Citizen-driven Sustainability Initiatives in the City

Yesterday I attended a workshop in the Science Gallery in Dublin about the Green Watch Programme, a joint initiative from the Dublin City Council, Trinity College and Intel. The main idea of the programme is to tackle waste in the city through a participatory mobile phone app with a focus on four key areas: water waste, air pollution, green initiatives and litter. As a Dublin City Council representative pointed out, the mobile phone penetration in Dublin is approximately 48%, so it makes sense to create an app that engages citizens to adopt waste prevention behaviours (he did point out that the remaining 52% can be reached through other ways).

The idea taps into the concept of smart, sustainable cities and crowdsourcing. While the project researchers have through about deploying wired and wireless sensors to capture data, they have pointed out that these need electricity, maintenance, and can be costly, while using citizen’s smartphones to sense the environment makes…sense.

During the workshop, in which we were expected to contribute ideas after being introduced to the project, questions were raised about how to engage citizens and what would they benefit from contributing information. The workshop organisers were keen on brainstorming issues of waste across the city. There were many suggestions put forward, such as: unblocking drains, identifying location of recycling black spots, identifying community garden projects (and coordinating volunteers for these), and several others. It remains to be seen how citizens might actively engage in such initiatives and what would be there reasons for doing so. Personal interest? The urge to socialise? Guilt?

One after-thought I had was that the targets of combating waste and engaging citizens can be linked in certain ways. I though specifically of time-wasting (an immaterial form of waste) on online social networks. While many forms of material waste are quite obvious, online time-wasting is a grey area (there are certainly many positive things to be said of online social networking). How can you measure online time-wasting ? Does it eventually translate into physical waste eventually (electricity needs, access to remote data from database centres)?

Instead of harvesting little farms on Facebook’s Farmville app, for example, users could spend time harvesting (real) mini-farms across the city. Perhaps the trick is to make the app as ‘fun’ and engaging as Farmville (et al.). Less time online, more exercise, the opportunity to harvest your produce (rather than spend money on virtual goods to harvest a virtual farm in exchange for virtual scores), and the opportunity to meet your elusive neighbours. Or maybe the solution is somewhere in-between , such linking the ability to score online points and build online ‘wealth’ to your physical efforts in the ‘real’ mini-farm.

If we consider the mind-boggling success of Ian Bogost’s Cow Clicker , perhaps the middle ground approach is the only way to go forward. Gamification with a purpose?

Dublin Mini Maker Faire – DIY and Performative Publics

http://sciencegallery.com/makerfaire

Last Saturday I took part in the first ever Dublin Mini Maker Faire, an event hosted by the Science Gallery and Trinity College for crafters, tinkerers and hobbyists and displaying all sorts of DIY stuff. People from all ages and backgrounds were in attendance, and the organisers estimated that 6500 people visited the event, more than twice their predicted outcome. The event had an emphasis on engaging the public to participate, either through demonstrations or by getting people to produce things, from cardboard robots to electronic badges to music.

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I took part with a prototype of an Arduino project I’ve been working on, a Moveable DIY LED lamp, a.k.a. “Dynolamp’. It consisted of a very simple interaction, where motion and tilt combined changed the colour of a LED light on top of an animal-like structure with flexible legs, designed to be hung around different objects and surfaces. I added some TIC TAC boxes to add to the sensorial experience (sound and smell). Despite the simplicity of the project I was surprised by people’s interest, scrutinising my rough sketches and asking me all sorts of questions (what controls the light change, what are the TIC TAC boxes for, where is the power source…).

I put a sign up encouraging people to pick it up and move it around, and was delighted to see many kids having a go at it, bending Dynolamp’s legs, tilting and shaking it and suggesting things (make it walk!). From 10am to 6pm I was flat out explaining Dynolamp to people from 3 to 80 years old. I took a break and got a volunteer to replace me for an hour. When I came back, the table was surrounded by people listening to an explanation given by volunteer Maurice.

In the opposite corner of the room I was in, the NUI Maynooth crew was even busier, and their popular gesture-controlled giant Tetris game was a hit. It created an ad-hoc performative space where people surrounded the player and cheered them on as they played. It was great to see how a re-appropriation of a game considered banal and trivial was generating so much interest, including from kids that are so used to much more sophisticated games. I didn’t see a single person completing one round of the game, as the gesture controlled system was quite difficult. The NUI crew said they had to do some work on the code to make it smoother, but I think that by making it harder to control it actually created a more interesting challenge for people. They also had a DIY old-school arcade cabinet with several games from the 80s and 90s, and kids seem to enjoy playing Pac-Man, Space Invaders and other ‘oldies’.

The Faire extended into the Trinity College Physics lawn, where, among other things, there was a giant drum that could be played by up to twenty people at the same time. It was a nice collaborative device, and I particularly liked the idea of having a dozen people in a circle performing on the same instrument. One guy seemed to be performing the role of percussion leader, and he got people to synchronise (to a certain degree) their drum playing.

In several tents, kids were creating and playing with things. Among these: a giant scalectrix activated by the electricity generated by a participant using a gym walking machine; DIY remote controlled submersibles, and a class on soldering techniques.