Location Aware Mobile Design

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Nick de la Mare, Creative Director, frog design San Francisco.
Nick de la Mare, Creative Director, frog design San Francisco.
On Sunday, I rolled out of bed and called my mom. It was Mother's Day, and since my parents were visiting family in the U.K., the 8-hour time difference between London and San Francisco made this obligatory phone call an early morning priority. I knew I'd be able to reach her via cell phone—she had made a point of emailing me and my siblings earlier in the week to let us know that she'd switched to the international calling plan on her iPhone. So when I dialed the Connecticut number she has had for years, it was surprising to hear the distinctive U.K. ringback (the sound we hear while waiting for the other person to answer) tone on the other end of the line.

As I sat through those repetitive, slightly garbled double-bleeps waiting for her to pick up, two thoughts played through my mind: first, that our networks have become increasingly and remarkably seamless, and second, that the ringback itself could have great potential to act as a marker of location or context for the user.

Recently, I've spent a lot of time designing for mobile platforms. Mobile is an interesting category to play in right now because it's evolving so fast; every week there's something new to integrate, imagine, or study. As with any emerging platform, there are touchstones that designers and engineers will build on for future offerings and location awareness is one such innovation.

Mobile companionship separates phones from the vast majority of other "smart" technologies. Phones travel with us nearly everywhere we go, connect us to the world through text or voice, and satisfy our increasing need for an on-demand, all-in-one map, organizer, Rolodex, personal assistant and confidante. With the advancement of GPS technology it has also become a tool for broadcasting our location. As our world gets smaller and our technologies overlap across borders and continents, our phones can become a beacon of context, signaling our place in the world.

While we've already seen the boom of customizable phone ringbacks that are used as identity tags, expressing the musical tastes of users, we haven't yet seen any ringbacks marketed as location-aware or context-dependent. Imagine mapping hot spots like movie theaters or classrooms as do-not-interrupt locations, or tying specific ring tones to places, like hearing the sound of Mickey Mouse when you call someone visiting Disneyland. By tying together GPS with the flexibility of customized ringbacks, one could introduce new conversation paradigms around physical location and context.

After a half-dozen rings or so, my thoughts were cut off by the familiar chirp of my mom's voicemail kicking in. The recording was the same as always, and as her cheery directive to leave a message bounced through wireless networks crossing the Atlantic and the country to the Pacific coast, our geographic coordinates became irrelevant. I left her a nice message, wished her a happy day, and promised to catch up soon.

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Nick de la Mare, a Creative Director at frog design San Francisco, has spent his career designing digital, physical and experiential systems.
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