Blurring Boundaries - Redrawing the Map for Mobile HCI

We have invited a number of people working in the MobileHCI field to share their views on the hot topics of relevance to the community. First out is Cristian Norlin, Senior Researcher at the User Experience Lab at Ericsson Research. Ericsson is one of the sponsors of the MobileHCI 2011 conference in Stockholm.

Though the pace of development within the IT and telecom industries have been rapid for quite a long time, it seems as if things have been accelerating even more since the mid 00's – in a mobile direction. The emergence of smart phones such as the iPhone and Android, new eco systems of hardware, software and business logics have emerged, making people's interaction with information, services, and technology become increasingly mobile. People clearly enjoys the freedom provided by mobile technologies, especially since it allows them to be more effective, affective, and communicative whenever and wherever they want.

At the same time, ICT components and products are diversifying at warp speed. Not long ago there were more or less a handful of ICT device types, such as PC, laptop, mobile phone and PDA – each with its own unique abilities, and rather different from the others. At the time of writing the borders between fixed an mobile are blurring rapidly. Not only do we have laptops but also netbooks, tablets, smart phones – all equipped with sensors, GPS modules and different kinds of input/output capabilities (to list a few examples). This development is accelerated even more by open source and DIY movements within the software and hardware areas, making innovation and development cheaper, more rapid, and closer the actual users than ever before. The trend is clear: ICT is becoming increasingly integrated in all kinds of objects and environments, thus making the long talked about idea of an Internet of Things into a reality in a not too far away future.

The idea of a totally connected world in which people, environments, objects and information are seamlessly interconnected is in many ways dazzling. Imagine a world that becomes increasingly more adaptive to each person's individual needs and desires, and thus making our lives less filled with hassle and unwanted disturbances – to many people in the industrialized parts of the world this is almost like a dream. Everyday life streamlined just for me! Within the IT and telecom industries the excitement is almost tangible, often expressed as visions of the future such as Microsoft Labs's "Vision 2019" concept.

Ericsson is by no means an exception – a networked society is very much in line with many of our ideas within the company. For an outsider, corporate visions often sound like corporate clichés, but I can honestly say that the amount of sheer creativity and almost child like enthusiasm that people within and outside Ericsson show when my colleagues Marcus Gårdman and Joakim Formo present their concept "Social Web of Things" is rather remarkable. The idea of a networked world explained using a social network metaphor seem to be setting off all kinds of thought processes within people.

The current development brings with it many urgent and interesting questions – to me the most central ones are those that focus on the ICT enabled objects and their relation with the people using or living with them. If many of the common objects that we live with today receive ICT enabled capabilities, what would these qualities be, and how would they be communicated? Which objects would we like to interact with, and how? Will we cherish them more, or just find them increasingly annoying? Will we discover new aspects of them, and if so: Which? Should they have personalities? Should they be our friends? Should they know our friends? I'm also thinking about new kinds of objects; objects that derive from ICT but that "borrows" the physical in order to manifest themselves. What would these be, look and behave like? How would they come about in the first place? What kind of object semantics are we talking about? These questions are diverse and should, at this point in time, be approached in exploratory ways – such as in the very interesting work by Anab Jain and Alex Taylor.

This also brings up issues about ourselves as humans. If our environment all of a sudden becomes more "enabled", how will this affect us? Will it force us to be more aware of our surroundings, and if so, what are the pros and cons? Will it make us more prone to engage with the objects around us? Might there be integrity issues? The list is infinite, and once again I strongly feel that we need to address these issues in a variety of ways, ranging from the industry's enthusiasm to more reflective standpoints, such as the "Hertzian Tales" project (just look at the Faraday Chair!) by Dunne & Raby.

Regardless what one might subjectively think of this journey into a networked society in which objects, information, and humans meet and evolve, it is an area that requires research of all kinds. This development might also bring with it new ways of thinking about methodology and processes for research, as well as reflection on current principles and body of knowledge. Altogether I view all of this as a great argument for a continued strong research focus on Mobile HCI.

Cristian Norlin is a Senior Researcher at the User Experience Lab at Ericsson Research. With a Master of Arts degree in Computer Related Design from the Royal College of Art in London, UK, Cristian's role at Ericsson is to provide the organization with an user experience perspective as well as drive user experience focused research initiatives within many areas relating to the business of Ericsson. Prior to his current position Cristian has worked as a program director at Södertörn University, as a freelance interaction designer, and as an art director. He is also the co-author of the book "Wireless Foresight" (Wiley, 2003).