Alex Wright


May 20, 2007

Rarely have I felt so technologically inadequate as I did at yesterday's MobileCampNYC, an "unconference" about emerging mobile technologies at Pace University's downtown conference center. Hiding my humble Motorola flip-phone in my jacket pocket, I waded through a roomful of enthusiastic techies showing off their bootleg Nokias, DIY phones with RFID shells, and popping out their SIMM cards as they texted and twittered their way through an afternoon of high-concept alpha geekery. As you might expect, there's been no shortage of blogging about the event, so rather than try to recap the whole thing here I thought I would just share a few notes on the sessions that stuck with me:

  • Semapedia
    qrcode for Event organizer Alexis Rondeau talked about Semapedia, an intriguing experiment with bringing hypertext into the physical world. The system hinges on square little 2D barcode stickers known as QR codes - they look like pixelated little Rorschach charts - each of which contains an encoded link to a Wikipedia page. Semapedia lets you generate the codes and print them out on business card-sized stickers that you can affix to any physical landmark or object. Then, anyone with a camera-equipped cell phone can scan the tag to bring up the associated Web page (using free software that enables the camera phone to recognize the barcode). I was initially skeptical about whether this will ever appeal to anyone beyond the nerd fringe, but Alexis pointed out that QR codes are already pervasive in Japan, where people use them to scan consumer products for additional information; there are even whole buildings with giant QR codes plastered on the walls. Semapedia has had a surprisingly successful run so far (here's a map of current Semapedia tags) and they're currently in talks with Wikipedia to explore integrating their features more tightly. Out of curiosity, I created a QR code for this site (above), courtesy of Kaywa.

  • Timo Arnall
    In a similar vein, interaction design professor Timo Arnall talked about physical hyperlinks and touch-based interactions. He discussed RFID at some length, trying to put the technology in perspective and arguing that many of the more strident privacy concerns are overblown. He also presented serveral good case studies of spatial hypermedia projects, including Andrea Moed's Annotate Space project (an exploration of location-aware journalism), Thinglink (a Finnish project to create the equivalent of UPC codes for small-scale craft products), and UrbanSeeder (a lovely experiment in creating machine-readable codes that are actually pleasant to look at).

  • Mobile Phone Sharing in India
    My friend Molly Steenson presented her research on mobile phone sharing in India, recapping a six-week field study with mobile phone users in Bangalore. She found that phone sharing cuts across class and income lines, exploring how the practice strengthens existing social bonds (e.g. between close circles of friends) and enforces domestic boundaries and rules (e.g., within families). For someone who's spent the last couple of years in the academic trenches at Yale, Molly did an admirable job of keeping her presentation largely devoid of academic-speak, humanizing her research by translating it into a series of stories about real people.

  • .nyc
    Finally, Tom Lawenhaupt presented his group's proposal to create a top-level domain for .nyc. They're on the verge of making their case to ICANN, in tandem with other high-profile city domain initiatives for .paris and .berlin. It's anyone's guess how this will turn out - the only two cities who currently have their own domain names are Hong Kong and Singapore (both of whom qualified by dint of their city-state status). I don't have much of an opinion on this - although it does seem like opening up city domains would set a difficult precedent for ICANN to manage. But Tom pointed out the seeming absurdity of Tuvalu (population: 11,810) having its own domain (.tv), while New York City (population: 8.1 million) has to crowd in with the .com masses. This may or may not be a good idea, but it's not entirely clear what it really has to do with mobile technology.
All in all, it made for a thought-provoking afternoon. And if nothing else, I may just have been shamed into upgrading my phone.

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