A Smartphone Reality Check

A Smartphone Reality Check

Use Your Phone
Use Your Phone

The lack of interest surprised you. 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 -- okay, worthless ephemera -- not worth the trouble. 

As mentioned a few posts ago, 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 asked you to create a "Use Your Phone" sign (above), which you hastily attached to the display.   

Desperate for insights, you set up the Detour Flag Guy display at the Cambridge Hackspace on the next Tuesday night, when you can count on visitors attracted by the "Open Project Night" designation. In front of the display you place 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 you 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, you ask where she works. 

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

She notices your surprise.

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

"I hate the cloud," she says later. 

What Renata is interested in: recreational vehicles and mobile homes. So you spend 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 you to Harbor Freight a few weeks earlier, approached. When he saw the QR code on the console he said, "Can I just use that?" 

You ask him whether he's familiar with Bluetooth LE or NFC.

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

Ed, a hardware engineer,  tells you 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 says, "but I hate every single one of them. If I can’t use them on my desktop, I’m not interested."

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

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

So another surprise (#2 surprise this post): you 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 you are now hatching a new theory: many tech cognoscenti are using their skills to customize their phones not to connect -- any more than necessary. 

Turns out you are half right. As the night wore on, the tide starts to turn. 

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

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

Will is, however, impressed with the Snapchat snapcode.

“Because I’m under 30!” he says 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 is excited about the idea. 

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

A Harvard student is immediately engaged, but he wants to know what he will get for his trouble. You tell him at Taza he would get a free topping for his drink. You don't mention the Fun Pak. Too quirky. 

He focuses on his phone, taps a few apps, and quickly gets the Detour Guy's flag to move. 

"Very cool," he says. "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 isn't big enough? Something to think about. 

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

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

Tim doesn't have a QR code reader on his phone, but he quickly downloads one, and moves the flag.

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

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

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

That is encouraging. 

What is not encouraging: when you stop by the Taza Chocolate Bar the next day.