Mobile City Fantasies @ CES

So the yearly circus called Consumer Electronics Show has come to an end again. I didn’t make it to Vegas (and rightly so, if you may believe Gizmodo) but I did do a round up of some blogs and major news outlets today. Was there anything launched or announced that could impact the experience of the mobile city?

Well, not so much if you were waiting for the iPhone-killer, or ground breaking new interfaces. According to most writers, there weren’t any real revolutions to be witnessed. Ok, there were new GPS-devices (including one for dogs), and – be it only a handful – new mobile phones, but that was about it.

However outside the category of gadgetry, some important trends were to be seen or rather confirmed. First the ongoing advance of wireless, or the rise of what some call uber-connectivity. Both inside the house (with tv’s that automatically connect to media center pc’s) and outside. It seems that in the future there will be few devices left without connectivity. And many of these devices will also feature location awareness. For instance Sony announced not only a GPS kit for its Playstation Portable, but also the inclusion of Skype software, so it can be used for calling and messaging.

New devices were promised as well. The problem with wireless devices and services is that the phone’s screen is just too small for a lot of them (gaming, office work, webbrowsing) while a laptop is just too bulky to always carry around. Intel introduced new set of chips for in between devices: Ultra Mobile PCs (UMPC) and Mobile Internet Devices (MID). Others promised us mobile phone with beamers. Sprint announced the rolling out of WiMax so that those new devices could rely on fast connections.

But what will we actually do with these devices? Yahoo announced that it is releasing many new services for its Go-platform. Amongst others, outside parties are allowed to build widgets. Many talked about the advance of context aware personalization services, although some in the industry doubted whether privacy concerns would stall the development of these services.

PC Authority reported on Intel’s CEO Paul Otellini’s vision for the future, based on a lab-experiment they developed for a tourist travelling to Beijing for the Olympics:

The GPS has a camera and a large LCD; the first trick was to point the camera at a street sign written in Chinese, which the GPS then translated into English, and placed a floating, properly rendered English sign over the original. The same trick was done with a restaurant and its posted menu, with the additional trick of providing tagged information, seemingly ‘hanging’ off the poster and sign – customer reviews, price lists, recommendations. The GPS device was also able to correctly translate spoken Chinese, making it an indispensable tool for any traveller.

Of course, these are all industry fantasies that still might take years to mature. And there wasn’t a lot of room at CES to ponder over what all this might mean for urban culture. Although I did find one reporter h taking a different angle: what could this uberconnectivity mean for youth culture?

Parents will be able to know just where their teens are going in the family car, how fast they are driving and when and where they are stopping. It’s going to be a lot harder to lie to your parents about where you were when you missed curfew. These aren’t frills parents are going to find fun to play with, these are things parents are going to demand come standard in new cars within a few years.

Martijn de Waal
Martijn de Waal (1972) is a writer, researcher and strategist, working in the field of digital media and (urban) culture. He has worked with and for various clients and organizations such as The Netherlands Architecture Institute, Open Society Foundation, The Architectural League of New York, Lift@Home, Kitchen Budapest, The Mondriaan Foundation and Dutch Public Broadcasting. He is part of the New Media, Public Sphere and Urban Culture research group at the Faculty of Philosophy at the University of Groningen, and connected to the department of mediastudies at the University of Amsterdam. In 2009 he was a visiting scholar at MIT's Center for Future Civic Media.