The Cloud is about distributing, accessing and publishing everywhere and sharing with everyone – a principle embodied by many a creative project or social media tool or site. So far so Web 2.0. Where it differs is that the audience for accessing, publishing and sharing everything includes you yourself, on any and all your devices – especially mobile ones.
It is this proliferation of places and devices that is in turn contributing to the increased importance and influence of the information itself over the older organising technologies and access methods. We will have control rather than the applications, technologies and devices.
Cloud computing means your machine does very little except contact the internet and display information in the most appropriate fashion to the device and purpose at hand – everything is taken from applications and storage in cyberspace2. This new world of the Cloud is the world enabled by WiFi rather than the old cumbersome, expensive copper wires and fibre-optics. It is not a fiction or a future, it is now – but it has happened quite quickly. In 2006 William Gibson was still using WiFi as a “science fiction trope” in his novel Spook Country. It was exotic. Now it is commonplace. In the last 18 months, through competition between the companies like Orange or the Carphone Warehouse, we’ve already seen that access everywhere is real – indeed I can detect 14 wireless networks, not all secure, when I’m sitting on my sofa at home.
So interactive has finally broken out and is in the real world, not just in the window that sits on your desk tied down by wires. But as we begin to interact in different places, we start interacting in different ways. Now interactive in reality is about the new ways of manipulating – with the emphasis on manipulate – information, services and entertainment.
Eliot: He’s a man from outer space and we’re taking him to his spaceship.
Greg: Can’t he just beam up?
Eliot: This is reality, Greg.
“This is reality, Greg”, implies that reality is about limits, that the fantastic doesn’t happen, that the real world is dull. Interaction design and digital technology frequently confront this issue. In fact Digital in the real world is both fantastic and dull, sometimes at the same time. At the very least it starts as fantastic, but soon becomes the norm – it alters the way we see things and relate to each other.
One click sharing is an accepted norm but the places we can share with and our identities within them are multiplying. The Cloud aims to make the experience seamless and manageable.
Digital in the world away from the desktop is not an overnight jump to flights of fantasy – to Minority Report, Tricorders and jetpacks – but equally it is not totally mundane. Designers have been exploring it from the beginning of Interaction design, with greater and lesser degrees of success.
From emotional tables that respond to the force with which you throw your keys down at the end of the day and recommend the appropriate drink, to Ars Electronica 2003’s Teleklettergarten, a building sized “keyboard” that enabled an anonymous collective of programmers and climbers to transform the “largely cerebral act of programming into a physical experience”, the move from Graphical User Interface to Tangible User Interface offers advantages for marketers beyond entertainment and being a replacement for a mouse – it changes the way people relate to their data and introduces a new playfulness.
We already have well-integrated touch technology on consumer electronics, from Apple’s multitouch devices (iTouch, MacBook Pro, the new Mac operating system), games consoles (Nintendo DS and Wii) and now even PCs and notebooks. HP has now released the TouchSmart, a desktop system with a touch interface, and in July 2008 Dell released a module to turn its Latitude XT Tablet computer into a full-blown touch-operated system. All these devices have been designed for use on the move and in the Cloud.
When you are not sitting at a desk, when you are moving in the Cloud, then the keyboard, large screen and mouse are not appropriate. Interacting with the Cloud in the real world these days means using devices like the iPhone or Samsung’s Omnia. It is not a hologram in the palm of your hand, or the CG silver surfer of the BT Cellnet’s brave new world of WAP. It is Blackberry in Orange Shops and Argos selling Laptops for the first time because they see them as a volume product; even Acer has released its Aspire One “netbook”. The Cloud is Google’s open-source web-based software and Apple’s MobileMe service – a service that is “not up to Apple’s usual standard” but still manages to achieve a 700% increase in traffic and users.
People have been proclaiming the year of mobile since the afore-mentioned ads of the early 21st century but the real uptake has happened quietly in the background. When ICM Research finds that 45% of UK mobile phone owners browse the web daily this shows that people are already interacting with the Cloud, and their number will only increase now that network operators have finally enabled ‘all you can eat’ data plans. Indeed, network operators are currently investing heavily in Cloud based services/applications and even mobile TV as future revenue streams.3
By 2013 Jupiter Research estimates that 2.1 billion mobile users will be using handsets to pay for goods downloaded directly to their phones – from ringtones, music, and games to gig tickets and TV shows. So the real future of mobile content lies in useful applications or assets that can embody social “bragging rights”.
As the semantic web evolves and becomes a digital reality then it will cross over into the real world via people’s need to interact with the Cloud. Geolocation services such as Yahoo’s FireEagle, a service that bridges the gap between traditional and mobile computing, or The Geode project for Firefox already aim to meet this need, and as they cross over into social networks to become “social compasses” they will only get more useful and more widely adopted. Only then will the potential for real world contextual creative opportunities combined with the newly accepted manipulative technologies come together to make reality more like fantasy. Then creative can start to challenge the limits of “reality, Greg”.
2. It is even a possible future for Nicholas Negroponte’s XO laptop – the OLPC project – that aims to bridge the digital divide and enable the real Crowd. The whole OLPC project could effectively live in the Cloud.
3. It will take until analogue switch off in 2012 to leave room for the UHF frequency needed, but in the States the average subscription length is 2.5 months – people leaving as soon as they join – so this passive Cloud model may need deeper examining.