Stationary Mobility

by Jakob Nielsen and Marie Tahir on March 18, 2001

Summary: Mobile Internet access will free us from having to connect appliances to telephone jacks and will make smart devices much easier to install. In fact, they may not need a user interface at all, as exemplified by the Japanese i-pot.


One of the mobile Internet's greatest benefits may well come from devices that rarely move at all. Once cellular Internet connectivity becomes ubiquitous and cheap, many devices will connect to the net without wires. Take it out of the box and feed it power, and it is connected.

Not only will wireless connectivity eliminate a nest-like tangle of wires, it will also reduce the complexity of installing smart devices. An example? WebTV has great usability. It is the easiest way to access the Web, except for one dreary task: connecting it to both the TV and the telephone. Hooking it up to existing devices is very difficult, especially if you have a VCR and cable or don't happen to have telephone jack near your TV.

As long as we need wires, net-connecting most consumer devices will require too much overhead. Also, many people have only one phone line and don't want it randomly commandeered by devices that feel the urge to call home.

With built-in mobile connectivity, a device can send and receive as much or as little data as necessary without any explicit action on the owner's part. Often, the number of bits a device needs to send will be so small as to require only the tiniest sliver of bandwidth. Hopefully, such connections will truly be too cheap to meter and will be covered instead by a one-time payment from the device vendor to the cellular operator. Given this scenario, there is no need for users to register or configure anything, which greatly improves usability and creates a much broader set of feasible applications.

i-pot : A Non-Command Internet Appliance

The mobile Internet may well creep, practically undetected, into people's homes disguised as familiar, immobile appliances. Installation? What installation? Just turn something on and it's online.

For example: Japan's Zojirushi Corp. recently released the i-pot, an Internet-enabled hot pot that dispenses boiling water for tea. Hot pots are common, everyday items in Japanese homes. This hot pot, however, does more. In addition to boiling and dispensing water, i-pots send usage statistics to a website that tracks users' tea-drinking patterns. Caregivers can monitor a user's well-being by watching for breaks in their tea-drinking routine, which are indicated in twice-daily email reports or by checking a website. The target market for the i-pot is elderly people whose children or grandchildren might live too far away to monitor them directly.

The beauty of the i-pot is that Grandma needn't learn new tricks to use it. As the figure shows, i-pot looks like a regular hotpot. The design protects Grandma from the technology, because she isn't forced to learn a new interface for a familiar object.

Photo of the i-pot

If Grandma wants tea, she simply makes it. When she fills the i-pot with water, it sends a signal (using NTT DoCoMo's DoPa data packet communication service) to Fujitsu servers, where a report is created and posted to a website. In the report shown here, blue marks indicate when the user turned on the machine, green marks show when the user added water, and red marks show the period in which the machine remained on, keeping the water warm.

Sample screen shot of the monitoring interface

The i-pot reveals nothing more about users, giving them a sense of control over their personal information. Basically, users' entire lifestyle need not be an open book; only a small element of their day is revealed to caregivers. (Whether this is actually enough information to sufficiently monitor a person's well-being is another issue.)

In addition to offering stationary use of mobile Internet connectivity, the i-pot is also an example of non-command user interfaces, a trend we predicted in 1993 (warning: the previous link is to a long paper on interaction theory). Because mobile Internet use is more contextual than that of traditional computers, it may be more amenable to non-command designs. In such designs, users give no explicit instruction to the computer itself, but instead operate the interface simply by focusing completely on the task at hand.

Acknowledgment

We thank Mitch Tsunoda, from Microsoft Tokyo, who first told us about the i-pot during the User Experience World Tour.


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