A Smartphone Reality Check

A Smartphone Reality Check

Use Your Phone
Use Your Phone

The lack of interest surprised me. The Public Market was clogged with people obsessively checking their phones, taking selfies, posting Instagram pictures. 

But no one, apparently, wanted to engage with an interactive display that challenged them to push their smartphone capabilities -- even a little bit.

Facebook and Instagram, yes. Interacting with a display for fabulous prizes -- not worth the trouble. 

One visitor, perhaps a symbolic harbinger, cut out the technology middleware altogether. He simply grabbed the paper granite wheel and gave it a twist, screwing it right off the display, alarming the Taza counterperson.

The next day Christine sent me an email asking me to create a "Use Your Phone" sign (above), which I hastily attached to the display.   

Desperate for insights, I set up my venerable Detour Flag Guy display at the Cambridge Hackspace on the following Tuesday night, when I could count on visitors attracted by the "Open Project Night" designation. In front of the display I placed a console with a QR code, an NFC chip, a Bluetooth LE radio, and a SnapChat Snapcode.

One of the first people to stop by was a woman whom I knew from previous Open Project Nights only as Renata.

She took out her Android phone and faced the console and the display.

Right away, she had trouble finding the "location" setting on her Android phone. Her bluetooth signal was disabled. 

After watching her struggle for a few minutes, I asked where she worked. 

"Google," she replied, "On the Android project."

She noticed my surprise.

"I'm just not interested," she said.  "To be honest, I hate all this kind of stuff," she added. 

"I hate the cloud," she added. 

What Renata is interested in: recreational vehicles and mobile homes. We spent the next few minutes chatting about both, as a static Detour Flag Guy watched forlornly. 

Blair, a database programmer at Kurzweil Technologies, who had introduced me to Harbor Freight a few weeks earlier, approached. When he saw the QR code on the console he said, "Can I just use that?" 

I asked him whether he was familiar with Bluetooth LE or NFC.

"I know about them, but I don’t want to bother setting them up," he replied. "Can I just go with the QR code?" 

Ed, a hardware engineer,  told me Bluetooth was disabled on his phone, on purpose. "I use my phone for phone calls," he said. "And to check the weather."

Does he have any apps on his Android?

"Some," he said, "but I hate every single one of them. If I can’t use them on my desktop, I’m not interested."

"Location" was also disabled on Ed's phone. No surprise there. 

“I have no interest in the things I can do with my phone,” Ed said finally.  

So another surprise (#2 surprise this post): I had assumed that tech-savvy people enjoyed exploring the frontiers of their phones. Clumsy technology-naifs were the ones who were lost to this kind of adventure.

But I was hatching a new theory: many tech cognoscenti are using their skills to customize their phones not to connect -- any more than necessary. 

Turns out I was half right. As the night wore on, the tide started to turn. 

When Will, a marketer in his 20s, approached, he immediately mocked the QR patch on the console.

"It's technically solid, but QR is a brutal fail," he said. "No one uses it, ever. Even though they should." 

Will was, however, impressed with the Snapchat snapcode.

“Because I’m under 30!” he said enthusiastically. 

"You should make a giant one of these displays, and capture the email addresses of the people who make it move. That would be incredible!"

Finally, someone who was excited about the idea. 

"I could see a giant one of these in front of a movie theater," he said. "If you can move the Jedi’s sword, you a get free bag of popcorn.” 

A Harvard student was immediately engaged, but he wanted to know what he would get for his trouble. I told him at Taza he would get a free topping for his drink. I didn't mention the Fun Pak. Too quirky. 

He focused on his phone, tapping a few apps, and quickly got the Detour Guy's flag to move. 

"Very cool," he said. "But I think it's worth an entire free cup of coffee, not just a topping." 

Could that be one of the problems: the reward wasn't big enough? Something to think about. 

The last person to take a turn was Tim, a visiting roboticist from Munich. Intrigued, he took his phone out of his pocket; it was a Blackberry.

“Yes they still make them,” he said. “I just can’t justify buying an Apple iPhone. I break them too often.” 

He didn’t have a QR code reader on his phone, but he quickly downloaded one, and moved the flag.

“A lot of work, but interesting," he said. 

"This is more than a project," he said finally, "it’s almost a product." 

By the end of the evening, the response was about half and half: half the participants thought it was too much trouble, even annoying. The other half were on the positive side: from "interesting" to "you may be onto something." 

That was encouraging. 

What was not encouraging: when I stopped by the Taza Chocolate Bar the next day.

Not Working

Competing with, and Losing to, Horchatas and Churros