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?

Experiencing Ciudades Paralelas – Cork Midsummer Festival, June 2012 (part 1 of 3)

Experiencing Ciudades Paralelas – overview
The following is a series of three post blogs describing my observations of Ciudades Paralelas, a project curated by Lola Arias and Stefan Kaegi (from Rimini Protokoll) that was performed during the Cork Midsummer Festival in June 2012. Previously, it has been performed across several cities worldwide, including Berlin, Buenos Aires, Warsaw, Zurich, Utrecht and Singapore. Lola and Stefan invited eight artists to create interventions that reinterpret the topology of eight ordinary/functional spaces – factory, court, shopping centre, house, library, hotel, train station and the rooftop of a building – transforming them into performative spaces and changing our perception of these spaces. In Rimini Protokoll’s website, the artists state that Ciudades Paralelas’ aim is to “make theatre out of public spaces used every day, and seduce the viewers into staying long enough for their perception to change” (http://www.rimini-protokoll.de/website/en/project_4677.html). Ciudades Paralelas unleashes powerful narratives onto these taken-for-granted spaces of our everyday lives, raising our awareness of these spaces and their users/inhabitants while in some occasions suggesting alternative realities and possibilities through performative acts.

During my short visit to the Cork Midsummer Festival, I took part in four of the eight events of Ciudades Paralelas – Hotel, Station, House and Shopping Mall. The events invited the audience to engage in manifold ways: talking to hotel staff, engaging with a public information display, observing and listening to residents and taking part in a public performance. In the Hotel event, by Lola Arias, the public took part by taking an individual tour of five rooms in the hotel that were transformed for the performance. In the Station event, by Mariano Pensotti, passers-by unaware of the event were incidentally drawn into the performance, as three screens displayed in the train station hall attempt to establish a dialogue with them. In the House event, by Dominic Huber and Blendwerk the audience were situated in the middle of the street and the facades of two opposite buildings become the stage. And in the Shopping Mall event, by Ligna, participants actively engaged in a slightly transgressive manifesto-driven act inside the mall.

Ciudades Paralelas: Hotel: Chamber Maids

I arrived in the Maldron hotel and was given five key cards for five different rooms. I was told to enter them in a specific order and to exit them as soon as I heard the phone ringing. A festival volunteer guided me to the first room and said that I would thoroughly enjoy it. I was then left on my own.

I apprehensively entered the first room, and was directed to some notes left on the desk and some photos inside a pillowcase. They told the story of one of the chamber maids that worked in the hotel. I spent some time looking for other clues. The phone rang. I made my way to the second room. On entering, I was surprised to see a massive pile of sheets and towels on top of the bed that nearly reached the ceiling. It was rock solid. I sat on the bed, leaning against the pile. On the TV set in front of me, the static image of another chamber maid suddenly started talking to me, knocking on the TV screen to get my attention. while it was a recording, it was quite engaging. She was quite confident, and eager to tell me about the hard work she undertakes on a daily basis, making me slightly guilty of all those hotel rooms where I stayed before (“I clean 20 rooms per day, that’s 600 rooms per month”). Her image freezes, the phone rings, and I am off to the third room.

The third room seemed to have been customised by a chamber maid from Ghana, including photos of her daily routine from her home to the hotel, and several references to her home country: colourful bed sheets, sculptures from Africa, a Ghana flag hanging over the window. In one of the photos, she is portrayed praying. The legend says that she attends the Adventist church. There was an MP3 player hanging over the door. I picked it up, and as I walked around the bedroom looking at the photos and reading the legends, I was also listening to the chamber maid’s voice describing her daily routines. She was studying hospitality at a university in Cork and working part-time. So far, the three different stories, despite pointing to different origins and countries, all depicted stories of humble origins, hard work, and determination to persevere.

The fourth room was the most amazing! On opening the door I couldn’t believe my own eyes when I encountered a real forest! This was quite a surreal and unexpected experience. Pine trees, an overpowering smell from the earth covering the carpet, loudspeakers playing forest sounds, carps swimming in the bath tub, and a soundtrack with a voice-over of a male chamber maid from Poland. Also, a meter-high sculpture of Jesus on the window sill and a bible over the sink. The Polish cleaner’s voice spoke of his strong opinions: he thinks the recent death of the Polish president in a plane accident was a conspiracy, and he said he had proof of that. He also said he wrote edited content for a Polish radio programme that attempted to provide an alternative political discourse. He also spoke of his religious beliefs.

After the intense experience of the forest, on entering the fifth bedroom, I was invited to lie down on a bed and watch a detailed video projected onto the ceiling. The images was reflected from a small projector located under the bed through the use of a mirror. It portrayed and Irish cleaner that worked sometimes as supervisor. She said she hated the hoovering, but didn’t mind cleaning the toilet. Her skill making the beds and pillows showed her experience working as a cleaner, she worked really fast and with perfection. She said that every time she entered a room she feared the worst, such as rooms that were destroyed by hen parties. But the worst was when she encountered a dead lady in one of the rooms, after being asked to check out because a lady had the do not disturb sign up for days. Apparently the lady had overdosed on drugs. Worst of all, the cleaner had to keep working on that day.

The five stories together provided an amazing journey through the lives of these ‘invisible workers’, with a crescendo of emotions and experiences that brought you right into their lives. But that wasn’t the end.

After hearing the customary phone call to exit the room, I was surprised to open the door and encounter the chamber maid from Ghana! This was a slightly distorted experience: meeting a stranger after her daily life was described in reasonable detail in room three. It felt like meeting a character from a book in person. She introduced herself and took me on a quick tour of the hotel, showing the room where her boss worked, where they kept the cleaning equipment and sheets and towels and asking if I had any questions. I nearly felt I should offer the same question, wondering if she would be curious about her guests. But instead I was just happy to listen to her. Strangely, it felt like she was performing yet another daily chore, but she seemed to be interested enough as I asked her about her studies.

All of the stories were very engaging, and the blurring of the functional space of the hotel room, the narratives of the hotel workers and the physical objects inserted into the room triggered in me awareness, curiosity and surprise. Rather than simply trying to make you feel guilty listening to the hardship of the hotel workers (“hen parties are the worse, the stains from fake tan are hard to clean”), the narrative brought you quite close to their personal worlds, interpreted through the room furniture and decoration, and the addition of audio and video in different ways. I said goodbye to the chamber maid, and as I walked through the hotel lobby, I felt like I was crossing a line back into the mundane, the banal and the unconscious everyday life of being a hotel guest. If only every hotel provided such experiences…