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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Performative Objects Series 1 – ’80’s style’ plastic skateboard

This my first blog post in my Performative Object Series. Although performativity in public space is always triggered by a combination of several actors/actants (both human and non-human), I thought it would be an interesting exercise to depart from a singular object and think of how it is inserted into public space, triggering disjunctions, generating new awareness, re-purposing space and suggesting new social connections.

Object Description: very compact mass-produced (plastic mould) skateboard (fits into any standard gym lockers) with soft, wide, rubbery wheels and a plastic deck. Can do tight turns and is a fun way of getting from A to B as long as the sidewalk is in a reasonable condition. Can support a rider of up to 80 kg. Very sturdy and usually comes in screaming neon colours. Looks like a kids toy, but can propel bigger, unashamed adults to bone-breaking speeds if used indiscriminately. If used in moderation, provides great fun and might even keep you relatively fit.

Cost: about 100 euro in shops, cheaper online.

Wow factor: 7 out of 10, higher if ridden by an adult of above average and long feet, as it looks like said adult might have stolen it from their kid/nephew. Even higher if you opt for screaming neon colours.

So, the first object in this series is an ’80’s style’ plastic skateboard. For those unfamiliar with the whole skateboard scene, these are mass produced skateboards that were quite common during the 80’s. If you were a kid in those days, you would have come across one of these amongst Rubrik cubes, Atari consoles, chopper bikes, etc. (OK, I’ll leave the nostalgia aside now). A form of zombie object/toy (to borrow from the concept of zombie media), it has been resurrected and is slowly making itself known across pavements in cities worldwide.

I saw one of them on a YouTube video about a year ago, and, as a semi-retired (and unskillful) skateboarder, I wanted to buy one for a while. A year later, I saw a kid whizzing around one of them in the streets of New York during a holiday break. I finally got hold of one in a Downtown skate shop. The owner of the shop shouted out to me as I left the shop: “If you are getting it for your kid, make sure you have a go yourself!”. I refrained out of embarrassment to reply: “No, it is actually for myself!”

I’ve been using it for a few months now. It comes in very handy to go to the local supermarket, and sometimes to my office or into town. It usually halves the time it would take me to get anywhere, and it is not too bulky or heavy, so I can carry it in one hand or store it in my gym locker or under my office desk. I get some odd looks when I’m out, partly because there aren’t yet many of them going around, partly because people would rather expect to see a teenager riding one.

How does it re-purpose public space? First of all, it raises my awareness of the quality and maintenance of Dublin’s sidewalks. There are some great surfaces around town, and my favourite is one that has a very discrete texture, making a very low pitch whizzing sound and seems to be even faster than perfectly smooth surfaces (or maybe it’s just my imagination). I notice any cracks in the sidewalk and keep an eye out for small stones that might stop the skateboard in its tracks. Nearer the city centre, it becomes unpleasant to ride due to the crowds, so I just carry it. I also look out for slight degrees of steepness, so I can practice going downhill without going too fast and doing snappy carving turns that remind me of surfing. During the few moments when you are not looking down for obstacles, your eyes act like a camera on a tripod filming the fast moving vehicles, building and people whizzing past you.

But what is most interesting is the fact that skateboards don’t have a designated place in the pecking order of transportation systems. The streets are too fast (unless you are a kamikaze rider), and even the bike lanes are too fast (unless they are empty). And on the sidewalks, you are the one going too fast. However, this is exactly what makes it more interesting and fun: you have to choose the right path at the right time. In my own experience, I end up mixing all of the above, with a preference for smooth and empty sidewalks and bike lanes. So far, perhaps because skateboarding is not as prominent in Dublin as, say, New York, there are no strict bye-laws governing where you can ride. And why would there need to be any fixed rules, as long as skateboard riders respect the space of pedestrians and other modes of transport?

Summing up, the ’80’s style’ plastic skateboard is a fun, toy/transport device that creates its own performative space through the city and fits in neatly with the push to cut down on motorised transport. It is certainly not for everyone, and there are basic skills that need to be learned to ‘operate’ one (easy when you’ve done it as a kid, but you’re never too old!). But gliding through the city on one of them is an enjoyable and relatively easygoing  way of getting around while having fun.

 

 

 

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?