Hellphone/Wellphone

by Imran Ali

Last month Wired ran a humourously observed and thought provoking article on the frustrations of user's cellphone experience - Cell Phones? Hell Phones!

Our cellphones carry our schedules, social networks and locations yet make no intelligent assertions or useful analysis of such immensely valuable information. The writer's litany of irritations is actually a great basis to begin speculating about handsets that are much more subtle, intuitive extensions of their owner's context.

How about...

  • Constantly cross-referencing call history with your schedule and contacts to remind you that you haven't been in touch with your family, closest friends or checked in with your boss in the last few days...a little like a textual version of Steven Blyth's Social Fabric...my phone should text me with reminders of people I should talk to.

  • Attentuating your attention by displacing chirupping ringtones and jarring vibrations with tactile, haptic surfaces that subtely alert you to various developments. 'Touchtones', along the lines of Oren Horav's Shapeshifters could playfully tickle you from inside your pocket...a gentle stroke from a potential nearby date and an angry pinch from the wife!

  • Scanning your immediate location for events, people and places that might be of interest. Kinda like Victor Szilagyi's HereScan...but driven by the data on your handset as much as nearby locative data. 'Imran, y'know there's someone on this bus who's also a BSG fan! Wanna text em?'. Now isn't that a great way to introduce yourself? 'Hey, my phone told me I should talk to you!'

  • Moving from modes to moods - simple, subltle and maybe playful indicators of what you need. Rather than Flight, Meeting or Silent, how about Hooking Up, Stealthy , Shopping or In Prayer (for Muslims like myself!). In the same way that people buy customs covers and ringtones, there may be a market for installable moods - essentially groups of phone settings, created by similar users. IM status could be a useful analogy in designing appropriate 'moods' and status settings.

  • Health warnings from my handset - 'hey imran, u knw uv been on da fone 8 hrs this week, time to stop frazzlin dat brain?'. Mobile Clickstop Computing :)

  • Fluid schedules that suit people's continuous partial organisation habits (thanks Rael!). A bunch of friends may have pencilled in next Tuesday evening to meet for a meal...the closer the event gets, our phones should encourage us to organise times, locations and preferences for the evening. I think the Fluidtime project attempted to tackle this kind of usage.


Wired's original article and the ideas above all underline the shift in value for telephony from connectivity to signalling. Our mobiles are increasingly used as social signalling tools, yet they're still primarily designed and marketed for connectivity (talktime, tariffs etc.) forcing the user to adapt their usage to autistic user experiences.

Sadly, the closed ecospheres of mobile carriers and handset manufacturers means that we don't see much experimentation in this area. It may be left to the emerging open source telephony community to open up innovation and experiment with creating the 'Wellphone'.

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Incidentally, Fluidtime, Herescan, Shapeshifters and Social Fabric are all projects of the sublimely wonderful Interaction Design Institute Ivrea in Milan.