I gave this presentation at Reboot 8. I’ve also presented parts of it on a couple of other occasions, including a session with Nokia’s CTO and at Aula 2006. A video from Aula is available on Blip.tv.

Hi, my name is Jyri Engeström. I work as an entrepreneur, I’m trained as a sociologist, and I blog at zengestrom.com. I’m going to talk about the social importance of peripheral vision. This talk is part of the trio of talks on Mobile 2.0, the other two being by Marko Ahtisaari yesterday and Chris Heatchote later this afternoon.

So what about baseball? Well, the first thing that comes to my mind when I hear someone say ‘baseball’ is the headwear. Next I think about hotdogs. And where there’s baseball, there’s usually also beer – picture the ocean of Budweiser that gets guzzled on the bleachers during an American Major League season. But although a Major League game would be unthinkable in the absence of the caps, the dogs, and the kegs, they’re not the aspect of baseball I want to discuss with you today.

The aspect of baseball that I want to focus on is peripheral vision. Imagine the pitcher eyeing the game from his mound at the center of the diamond. He makes eye contact with the batter, twitches his eybrow, maybe signaling something about the spin he’s about to cast. But at the same time, from the corner of his eye, he’s watching the infielder on second base, ready to spin around and take him out with a lightning pass to the second base man.

My first point is that peripheral vision is about seeing the surrounding space, in real time. Baseball legend Babe Ruth was exceptional at this. He could tell what ball ‘looked good’ faster than I can blink my eyes.

In baseball, like in real life, a staggering number of things are happening all at the same time. Great players like Babe Ruth develop an ability to see the whole at once. They can notice the important cues and ignore the details that don’t matter.

Seeing the game as a whole means they can wait for the right time to act. And when that time comes, they can perform quickly, precisely, and decisively.

What would happen if one completely lacked peripheral vision? To illustrate this, recall the story about the blind men and the elephant. The blind men got into an argument about what sort of creature the elephant is. So they decided to feel an elephant to determine what it was like.

The first blind man approached the elephant from the front. He felt the squirming trunk of the animal and declared ‘an elephant is like a snake!’

The second blind man approached the elephant from the side. He walked into the animal’s broad flank and declared ‘no, an elephant is like a wall!’

The third blind man approached the elephant from behind. He grabbed the animal’s wiry tail and declared ‘you are both wrong – an elephant is like a rope!’

Now imagine the blind men got bored of arguing about the elephant, and decided to get some exercise. What if they decided to resolve their quarrel by playing a game of baseball? Lacking vision, the only way they could communicate to their teammates would be by shouting.

Without peripheral vision, like the blind men of the story, we are left navigating in the dark without a way to see the whole situation.

Now consider telephones. From the beginning, phones were designed with the assumption that when a person picks up the receiver to dial a number, they already know who they want to call.

In the hundred years that phones have been around, this assumption hasn’t changed. The latest mobile phone models are still designed the same way. The assumption is: just pick up the phone and call.

Except it’s not always a good idea to just ring someone up. Before dialing, you need to decide if now is a good time to call the person or not.

How do we know if it’s a good time to ring someone? By using our social peripheral vision. Like the baseball players, we too are constantly processing signals from the periphery of our social network.

The questions we must answer are the same as in baseball: where are the people who matter to us right now? And what are they up to?

Yet, right now, our phones don’t offer much in the way of an answer.

So we just have to try our luck, and make lots of blind calls. I do this all the time. Some my friends travel alot, so I have no idea what time zone they are in – which doesn’t exactly improve the situation.

So if a researcher asked everyone in this room to write down the two phrases with which we most often begin our phone conversations, what would be yours? I can tell you what mine would be. First, ‘Where are you now?’ And second, ‘Can you talk?’

But does it really need to be like that?

Instant messaging can clue us to solving the problem. IM developers had to figure out a way to communicate availability from the start because when person A wanted to chat with person B, the likelyhood was pretty high that person B was away from their computer or didn’t want to be disturbed.

The inventors of IM came up with a neat solution. They copied the idea of traffic lights from the real world, and pasted the lights into the IM buddy list: green for available, red for away, and yellow for idle. For cases when traffic lights couldn’t say enough, they added a freeform away line.

The contacts list on phones is remarkably similar to an IM buddy list. All we need to do is copy the traffic light and the away line from the buddy list…

… and paste them into the phone’s address book. Voila! We have peripheral vision.

Living a social life is like driving in traffic on the freeway. We have to constantly adjust our speed and driving style to keep in harmony with the people around us. Clear visibility to our periphery can save us from a lot of minor dents and even serious accidents.

But having clear visibility to the immediate surrounding space at a given moment is not enough. To make plans and navigate in the social space, we need to know what’s coming up further along the road.

This is the second point of my talk. That peripheral vision is not just about seeing what’s around you in the present – it’s also about seeing how the situation will be like in the future. Hockey legend Wayne Gretzky was excellent at this. He knew that what differentiated a truly great player in a team where everyone was physically equally good was the ability to see past the spot where the puck was at the moment, and skate to where it would soon be going.

Navigating in social space is a complex calculation where we try to approximate other people’s motion in space and in time. There’s a great example about the importance of the temporal dimension in an episode in Mel Brooks’ Spaceballs. I’d like to play it to you now.

In the episode Lord Helmet, the evil leader of Spaceballs, and his general try to locate Lone Starr and his group using a radar, which is a spatial method. But it’s not effective. So they figure out an innovative way to extend their peripheral vision in the temporal dimension: by watching the home video of their own movie, Spaceballs.

The lesson from Lord Helmet is simple: if we have no visibility into other people’s plans, we aren’t able to plan anything ourselves.

Now consider the phone calendar. It displays your own plans only. There is no way to know what others are planning.

Again, the online world offers a solution. Event-sharing services like Yahoo’s Upcoming provide a handy list of the events your friends are planning to attend. We could copy that interface and paste it into the phone.

To summarize. What I want to suggest is that unlike some handset manufacturers, mobile operators, and software companies want us to believe, Mobile 2.0 is not about streaming video, high-resolution displays, and music players that try to mimic the iPod. Instead, Mobile 2.0 is about enabling social peripheral vision. This is the next frontier for mobile developers, and it is where I believe the real advances in human mobile communication will happen in the next couple of years.

To close, I’d like to probe a bit further into the future of mobile communication.

The best example of peripheral vision-enhancing technology that I know are the built-in widgets and player-created mods in World of Warcraft.

This screenshot is from Joichi Ito, who, as many of you know, plays a level 60 mage gnome in WoW and is the custodian of a guild named We Know. The interface is full of information laid on top of the actual 3D world: The physical condition of Joi’s character; the condition of his teammates; a map; a chat; events; and more.

What might this look like in the mobile device and the real world a decade or two from now? I don’t know, but I know for sure that today’s kids, who are growing up on WoW and other MMORPGs, will start to wonder what really keeps them from using and developing similar technologies in and for real life.

As a final point, I want to turn over the flip side of the coin. I believe the ability to participate in services that provide peripheral vision will become a condition for citizenship in society. Informal social citizenship first, and eventually also actual formal citizenship.

Those who lack the technical skills, the money, or the cultural disposition to participate in these services may well fall out of step with the rest of society. To illustrate how funny, but beneath the comical surface also tragic this can be, I’d like to play the classic baseball skit Who’s on First by Abbot and Costello. When you listen to the routine, observe how Costello falls more and more out of step with Abbot’s made-up language.

When designing these services, please don’t forget to ask yourself, who will be the Abbots and who will be the Costellos of the future you are creating.


Comments elsewhere:

Notes from the talk by Karls Alfrink

Summary by Bruno Giussani

Johnnie Moore connects peripheral vision to games

Jürgen Ahting’s comments on E-Valuation of Information Systems

David Smith connects peripheral vision with being heedful in his Reboot summary

Anne Van Kesteren picks up the punchline in her short post

Summary and comments in Dutch on Frank-ly.nl (I wish I knew what they’re saying :)


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August 3rd, 2006 at 2:27 am (#)

Hi Jyri. Thanks for taking the time to write this up. Much better than those messy notes I took (nice of you to point to them though). Good luck with Jaiku, hope it takes off! (Now to get an S60 phone to give it a spin, and Chris’ Backpack, and Mika’s Meaning, and…)

Stanley Laurel
May 9th, 2008 at 4:12 pm (#)

Flipping screens, moving screen… blah. When do they come up with a screen-only with a virtual keyboard. Just the screen…www.birmarket.com

Baseball Handicappers
January 22nd, 2009 at 9:47 pm (#)

I have heard Who’s On First at least 100 times and I never noticed that before. Pretty interesting.

Treadmill Traci
April 21st, 2011 at 8:15 pm (#)

Thanks for all the info! I don’t know if my computer is having issues, but none of the pictures loaded.. Perhaps try re-loading them onto your website or check the HTML code? :)

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