13 July 2011

And a little child shall lead them: the future of media convergence

“I’d like to paint and draw right on the computer screen
and have it show up.”
  - 8-year-old girl, Ogden, Utah, USA
We often joke that if we want to understand the latest new techno-gadget, we just ask our kids.  Turns out we might want to ask our kids about the next new techno-gadget and quite a bit more. If we listen to the youngest among us we will hopefully understand that "media convergence" isn't simply when TV stations use Twitter or how Craigslist has replaced old-school classified ads.   True convergence will take place when the virtual merges with the physical in almost everything we do.  And it will be here sooner than you think.

 I recently had the opportunity to talk with Kim Gaskins, Director of Content Development at Latitude, an international research consultancy based in Massachusetts. We discussed a new study she helped write called Children's Future Requests for Computers and the Internet. From the release:
Latitude asked kids across the world to draw the answer to this question: “What would you like your computer or the Internet to do that it can’t do right now?” The goal of the study was to catch a glimpse into possible futures for technology as seen by digital natives, and to highlight actionable opportunities for new content, user experience (UX), and technology offerings...
More than 200 kid-innovators, ages 12 and under, from Argentina, Australia, Chile, Colombia, Denmark, India, Mexico, The Netherlands, Panama, South Africa, Spain, the United Kingdom and the United States participated and submitted drawings of their imagined technologies.
Overall, the drawings demonstrated that kids wanted their technology to be more interactive and human, better integrated with their physical lives, and empowering to users by assisting new knowledge or abilities. Several study participants imagined technologies that are just beginning to appear in tech-forward circles, such as Google’s revamped image search, announced on June 14th 2011, which allows users to place images, rather than text, in Google's search box to perform a query.
Kim and her colleagues didn't set out to prove the "social media guru" crowd is no better than a bunch of 8-year-olds.  (That's actually old news.)  They were trying to demonstrate something about the sources of creativity and they were clearly suggesting that the Internet isn't going to be limited to something with a screen for much longer.

Having worked in a pediatrics department and for a brief time on children's policy issues in Washington, the idea that Latitude sought out children for guidance really resonated with me.  To be honest I hadn't thought of them as a focus group for user experience brainstorming before, but it really makes sense. "Kids are important when you're searching for ideas because they're not as concerned with what’s practical or possible," Kim told me. "They have a great freedom of thought and they're great problem solvers."

That was a great point.  Think about it - the people trying to come up with the next big idea on the Internet are largely cut from the same thirty-something technophile cloth.  Our common experiences enrich our lives but they also limit our perspectives if we fail to explore.  (Ethan Zuckerman wrote a great piece on this in 2008.)  I've written about this before in my attempts to find bridge figures for distinct online communities.

So what did the kids teach us?  There were a number of excellent takeaways, but Kim did a good job summarizing the one I found most interesting - "The experience of content shouldn't end at the computer."  Nearly 40 percent of the children talked about the bridging of the physical and virtual spaces.  Like the girl from Utah who wanted to "paint" on a screen and then the painting showed up in her room. Or taking actions in the physical world - exercising, recycling, you name it - that also manifest themselves online.

We're obviously not here yet. Kim says our current attempts to open this door look a bit like bells and whistles (think the QR codes at Central Park idea) right now and "no one has figured out the transmedia thing yet."  But Kim echoed a relevant question she gleaned from the kids' insights - "why can't the Internet surround me?"

We're already developing the ability to look at an object through a smartphone lens and gain information about that object. For example, I can take a picture of a tree and my phone will tell me what species of tree it is.  I'm also immediately able to catalog that tree and work with others to determine how unique it is to its area, and if we need more of them. We can arrive at a specific address and through GPS get certain information about it. (If it's a restaurant, I can get the menu as well as those of its nearby competitors.)  We're almost to the point where it's just a matter of building a big enough database to just look at an object and have every bit of information about it right in front of you.  You know, like the digital readout in the Terminator's eye but probably without the "killing everything in sight" part. The ramifications of this massive expansion of accessible information are amazing.

We discussed other ideas and I may explore them further on this blog. For example, I found it quite interesting that Latitude partnered with the Lego Learning Institute on this project and released the results with Radical Parenting's Vanessa Van Petten.  Meantime, check out the report and learn something.

1 comment:

taama said...

But that naturally raises questions about what kind Best waterfront restaurant of church he picked out for himself 21 years ago.