Real Live Tech Teachers Benefit Both Consumer and Marketer

Gizmo Makers Now Realize not Everyone Knows How to IM and Use GPS

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Help, I'm stuck in 1998!

Technologically speaking, that is. I live on my cell, but have yet to download a ring tone. I e-mail like mad, but don't know how to instant message. I snap digital pics like there's no tomorrow -- and as far as the pictures go, there isn't, since they're trapped forever in my Olympus.
In Verizon's Experience Stores, customers and prospective customers can get hands-on demonstrations and assistance with cell phones.
In Verizon's Experience Stores, customers and prospective customers can get hands-on demonstrations and assistance with cell phones.

I hate my remote and my remote hates me.

Pathetic? You betcha. But I am not alone -- a fact that suddenly seems to be dawning on the world's great gizmo makers.

In just the past few months, many of the biggest have paused in their relentless rush to add yet another button, and proffered some help to those of us left behind.

"From what I've been told, cellphones now have more processing power than NASA used to send a man to the moon," says David Samberg, a spokesman for Verizon Wireless. "So they really are powerful little computers you can make do a lot."

Realizing that some of us only make these powerful computers act like princess phones, Verizon recently opened two prototype "Experience Stores" (one in Virginia and one in Texas).

Walk in and you will find a field of touch screens explaining all the features of all the phones. But for those of us for whom touch screens are part of the problem, there is a "guru zone," where actual humans show actual customers how to use their actual phones to, say, download a movie or activate the GPS (and even use it!).

Hands-on demos are key. Without them, people like me who shrivel at the sight of a manual and dump the instructional DVD (because how can I possibly get my DVD player to work using that stupid remote?) are sunk.

That's why Cingular started offering classes for parents in how to text-message their kids. Why Apple offers classes on pretty much every aspect of Apple-dom. And why, at noon every Sunday in every CVS with a photo center, real, live employees run a free class in how to make photo collages, calendars and mugs. Oh -- they also teach people how to use their digital cameras.

This past April, Kodak decided it should be doing something similar, and by June the Kodak Inspiration Tour was traveling to state fairs and such across the country. Visitors to the giant tent take digital photos upon entering and then wind their way from station to station, learning how to print, frame and send the photos. "The great majority of people I talk to say, 'I've got all these pictures on my memory card and I don't know how to take them out!'" says Kodak PR manager Lori Page. "It's all about education and motivation."

Clearly the motivation is there -- more than 40,000 people have gone through the tent, and not all of them were techno-geezers like me: 15% were preteens.

Even as these kids learn about grown-up gadgets, mothers are desperate to learn about their kids' electronic games. So when AOL Games and the magazine All You offered to teach a video-games basics course in New York, "Moms all over the country were saying, 'Are you going to come here?'" says Kurt Patat, an AOL Games spokesman. While the 10-mom "gaming boot camp" garnered great publicity, it also made the sponsors aware of how many mothers -- and others -- have no idea how to play the games littering their living rooms. Properly instructed, they might even become customers!

That's why it's not just pity -- it's good business, to make sure most people catch up with the technology you're trying to sell.

Sure, there will always be brave souls ready to leap into the technological breech. But plenty of us are not going to buy your fabulous upgrade until you give us a hand.

A human one.
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