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Context-Aware Mobile Apps: It’s All in the Little Details

Wed, 08/05/2009 - 8:00pm
Asokan Thiyagarajan

It doesn’t take too much to get yourself identified as “That Guy” in the usual social situations. You know That Guy. He/she’s the one who is conspicuously the center of attention and is clearly not pleased about it.

Walk out of the bathroom with toilet paper stuck to your shoe, you’re That Guy. Show up to a meeting 10 minutes late and out of breath – That Guy. Forget to clean the shaving cream off your ears before a big date. That Guy.

Recently, I found myself being That Guy when my handset rang in full-volume mode during a client meeting. My amusing ring tone that differentiated my handset from the others in the room got everyone’s attention, broke the pace of the meeting and earned me a few raised eyebrows as I fumbled with my handset to silence the caterwaul.

There I was … That Guy.

Asokan Thiyagarajan
Thiyagarajan
Sure, it’s a harmless moment, but what if my handset and its inventory of applications could be aware enough of my context to know better – to shut up while I’m in a meeting? To stop ringing after midnight unless it’s my boss calling? To find me a coffee shop close to my location, just because I appear to be working at 6:30 a.m.?

Is it too much to ask my constant companion of a handset to pitch in every once in a while and help out with the logistics of the day?

Mobile handsets of today are already armed to become a central collection point for user information. Sporting such high-tech features as accelerometers, photo cells, always-on network connections, haptic feedback and fully integrated calendaring systems, why shouldn’t these gadgets work in concert to make my handset, and occasionally me, a little more intelligent, prepared and sharp?

At issue is the need for software to fill the gap between user interaction design and hardware features to bring full context awareness to my handset’s applications, and some futuristic application developers are starting to seize the opportunity.

The problem is that applications that leverage this user data are focused in a siloed fashion – as a standalone feature on a single application function instead of applying analysis to the flood of user input, and changing application behavior to respond. I’m not saying that these features are inadequate or improperly implemented; I’m just saying that today’s context-aware applications are only acting on a fraction of the information available via system hardware and software.

Consider a few actions based on environmental cues that could change an application from being a simple piece of software to an indispensable assistant in the quest to keep the user from becoming “That Guy” at any given moment.

I’d like to have a contextually aware audio enhancement on my phone. Compare my calendar to the time. Am I in a meeting when a call comes in? Just send it to my voicemail, please. Does my handset’s accelerometer detect consistent motion while I’m connected to my headset? Up the volume a bit to account for commuting noise. Does my calendar reflect that I’m working in the office? Ring quietly instead of blasting away when calls come in.

I could really use smart, dynamic themes for my homescreen. During work hours, show me my calendar in a way that gives me quick access, yet allows me a full snapshot of the day. On the weekends, minimize my calendar so that I can still get there to plan for the upcoming work week, but lighten up a little. Give me a break – show me the football scores, the weather and perhaps some movie times for new releases this weekend. Show me how much snow is falling in the mountains, road conditions for the drive and gas prices along the way. As soon as my phone reminds me that I need to be taking a break and relaxing on Saturday and helps with some of the logistics, I’ll call it context-aware.

Let GPS information seep into more of my applications to enhance their utility. Geotagged photos auto uploaded to my photo sharing site without my having to configure this set of tasks on every use would be a nice touch. Being bright enough to refrain from sending photos taken during office hours would be remarkable.

I could go on forever, but I think it’s obvious where this goes. The hardware for creating a complete contextual picture of the user exists, but the software to connect the dots ignores the majority of available information, yielding user-interaction outcomes that range from annoying to disastrous. Leveraging hardware feedback to make applications more responsive to the user’s context is key in helping the busy consumer stay in control of a dynamic environment.

If an application keeps the user from having to be That Guy, even if only occasionally, that’s software that consumers will consider indispensable. That’s what differentiates novelty applications from mobile solutions.

Am I daydreaming? No – forward-thinking, innovative mobile application developers and connected device manufacturers are already starting to create context-aware mobile applications that generate game-changing opportunity. Context awareness brings applications closer to a living state – a state that promises more intuitive usage, more predictive and predictable behavior and more personalized consumer experiences. Developers are more likely to win and be profitable if they can innovate on context-aware technologies, create compelling user experiences and applications for the next generation.

Thiyagarajan serves as the director of Platforms and Technology Strategy at Samsung Telecommunications America.

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