Words in the air

I don’t know about you, but in my case an idea generally stems from a diffuse magma of thoughts or emotions provoked by various experiences (situations, books, encounters, etc.) that suddenly crystallize or click into a concept that I can clearly see, articulate and advocate. It is like a personal a-ha moment that is induced by some catalyst. Okay this starts off in a weird way but let me tell you a quick story and maybe you will see my point. The story involves my wife, staying connected and a book by Rory Sutherland called The Wiki Man.

Act I

In my current position I travel a lot and/or I work late in the office. This is nothing unexpected when your scope covers Europe, Middle East and Africa and when a lot of your colleagues are at least six hours behind, but it makes staying in touch with the family an interesting sport. Basically I try to reach out to my wife and kids when I can, from taxis, hotels, between two planes or when I finally finish my last call of the day and am on my way home as “early” as I can. It does not always work. My wife has a life and things to do. She is not always in front of a computer reading emails, Facebook or Twitter messages. When she is home she usually leaves her smartphone either in its charger or in her purse. And when she puts our 18-month-old little girl to bed for her naps or at night she unplugs the home phone. So more times than not I end up worrying on the road or coming home to a cold pizza or worse to a locked door, under the rain, while my wife is taking a shower. (I do have a key but she leaves hers in the lock so it doesn’t really help.)

I know there is a lot of talk these days about machine-to-machine communication but it seems to me there is still room for improvement on communication between people!

Act II

A little more than a month ago I attended the TEDSalon in London, an event largely sponsored by fellow ng Connect member frog. The theme of the event was a journey through space, time and imagination. Speakers included artists, performers, academics, young startups and even a politician sharing his thoughts about the British Empire – which I am not going to comment on, in respect to the Entente Cordiale. One of the speakers was Rory Sutherland, an executive vice-president at the Ogilvy Group, who was asked to discuss his latest book about behavioral economics, The Wiki Man. He did so in a lively and colorful way. Book copies were available for all attendees, so I picked mine, brought it home and added it to my reading pile.

When I finally read it, I found some really interesting perspectives on consumer behavior, branding and advertising. What made me pause was a short section on SMS and Facebook/Twitter and why they really appeal to users, even without advertising. In short, Rory Sutherland explains that people are inhibited from using certain forms of communication when the effort is high (“a phone call demands five minutes of pleasantries which an SMS does not”) or when it has too great a level of either importance or  intrusion to justify the content. The new experience provided by Facebook and Twitter is that they are semi-addressable forms of communication: “they confine your outpourings to a community of friends – but the message is not addressed to specifically named individuals”. This means people can communicate about trivial things – like waiting in line at an airport – without imposing on others. Imagine if you received an email or a phone call every time one of your relatives gets a coffee at Starbucks!

Reading this book was my catalyst. It occurred to me that users have these great, convenient tools to initiate communication in the way that suits their purpose and messages. But what about people on the receiving end? Aren’t they constrained by the communication medium picked by the person addressing them? You don’t want to talk but your phone rings. You need to carry your cell phone or smartphone with you (and it has to be charged) at all times so you don’t miss this important SMS from your kid. You need time to sit in front of your computer or smartphone to open your email, Facebook or Twitter client. But what if you could choose a better way, a way to get this message in a perfectly convenient and non-intrusive way, even when you’re cooking, watching a movie or taking a shower?

This concept ties into an idea we had at ng Connect –  a unique set-up with the ability to send pictures or SMS to various home screens, such as digital photo frames or TV sets, that would be connected to the 3G network via a USB dongle. Since these devices are there already the reasoning was that they could be used to display messages in different locations in the house and in a non-intrusive way, not requiring any specific action on the receiving end.

The root idea is there, but the actual realization or product needs to make the difference by providing the experience that will trigger mass adoption. Forget about the digital photo frame, even forget about the connected bridge. Forget about 3G and look at 4G, VoLTE and newer. Imagine a simple device that you could carry with you everywhere at home and place at a location of your choice so it would project on any surface or as a hologram and play the communication intended for you how and where you want it.

Imagine an SMS message hanging in the air in front of you while you are cooking or a video playing on the shower door. I already hear those who would point me to the next generation of smartphones. They may have all the technology I am considering, but they will remain rich and high-end devices with too many options. I am looking at reinventing the answering machine with the same type of mass market adoption and price range where the toughest decisions are going to be where to put it and which direction it should face. Maybe it could be something like the connected mirror New York Times R&D Labs recently developed as a concept for receiving information.

Now this would be a perfect product for the digital middle class, people embracing new technology like they embraced cars. You turn the ignition key (or push the start button) and it works; you don’t have to download the windshield wipers for your car to function well in the rain. You’d still pay extra for leather seats though.

Imagine no more worries of cold pizzas, just friendly words hanging in the air. What do you think?

Vincent Weyl

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