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It’s Looking Up If You’re Looking Down

Far too many people are walking around with their heads immersed in their tiny mobile devices, or communicating affectionately with their tiny smart phones while out in public with perfectly acceptable human companions. The only problem, of course, is that humans are not evolutionarily equipped to act like this – and that inevitably leads to awkward scenes like people running into things on a city street or couples awkwardly texting with other people while having dinner “together.” Tiny screens, while useful for monitoring the electronic minutiae of our daily lives, are not so useful for keeping our heads up and making eye contact with other humans. Fortunately, a number of tech companies are thinking of ways to make Looking Up the new Looking Down.

Mobile device makers, encouraged by the rapid adoption of tablet technologies and people’s embrace of post-PC screens, are busy developing new ways of interacting with these smaller screens that are not “inappropriately immersive.” Finland’s mobile phone giant Nokia, bowed and bruised after failing to keep up with Apple in the development of sleek new mobile devices and other objects of consumer lust, is exploring a new strategy to take on Apple: developing cleverly-designed phones that enable you to make eye contact and become aware of the environment around you. As Nokia’s head designer Marko Ahtisaari explained to the Wall Street Journal, “When you look around at a restaurant in Helsinki, you’ll see couples having their heads down instead of having eye contact and being aware of the environment they’re in… Designing for true mobility… is an example of what people would not explicitly ask for but love when they get it.”

Nokia is still being mysterious about what it has in store for future mobile users, but most likely, a “Look Up mobile device” (for lack of a better word) would be designed to combine the viewing potential of big screens with thr easy-to-operate interface of a smaller device. This is actually harder than it sounds. According to usability expert Jakob Nielsen, there are five different screen experiences – what he refers to as TV, mobile, desktop, “very small” (i.e. screens no larger than an RFID chip) and “very big” (i.e. screens as large as buildings). It’s not enough, though, simply to translate a “very large” screen experience to a “very small” screen — the usability considerations change, according to the different screen experiences. That’s why it’s always been so frustrating to browse the Web on a mobile phone – there are very different usability characteristics once you shrink a screen.

Tesco So what would a Look Up phone experience feel like? The answer might be a hybrid form of experience that uses mobile screens for mobility and geo-location, but takes advantage of larger viewing surfaces. Take U.K. retail shopping giant Tesco, for example, which has been experimenting with “virtual shopping walls” that users can interact with while using their mobile devices. While these shopping walls are completely mobile-enabled, all the activity takes place with shoppers tilting their heads up. Think of bounding out of a subway car and ordering groceries for dinner as you exit the station, all via a mobile device — and all while keeping your ahead aloft.

The transmedia experience – formerly the exclusive domain of entertainment brands and Hollywood – is starting to blend over into every aspect of our lives. Transmedia – which refers to seamless storytelling across different online and offline platforms – has been re-interpreted by mobile designers to include surfaces and screens. When done right, this cross-surface storytelling leads to entirely new types of interactions and experiences. BERG London, in collaboration with Dentsu London, for example, has been experimenting with “incidental media” that transform everyday objects into interactive surfaces. One thing is certain — the future is sure to turn a few heads – or at least, tilt them upward for awhile.


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