Smartphones and spheres of influence

Tyler Bell on how smartphones expand our influence to people and places.

This is part of an ongoing series suggesting ways to spark mobile disruption. We’ll be featuring additional material in the weeks ahead.

Though the mobile space is rapidly expanding, some may argue that the space just isn’t disruptive enough. In the spirit of disruption, I’ve reached out to several people across the tech and publishing industries to answer one question:

If you were going to build an app that fully harnessed mobile’s capabilities, what would it do and how would it work?

I recently posed this question to Tyler Bell (@twbell), director of product at Factual. His answer follows.

Tyler Bell: I’m keenly interested in the idea of the phone as a universal telefactor-cum-sensor platform. To effect something you must know its status, so I would note that this would entail its being a universal monitor also. I’m not certain I could choose a single app to develop, but I would be most interested in accelerating the phone’s development in several ways:

  • As a universal interface — Moving us away from proprietary devices and a multiplicity of interfaces. I would first include obvious next-steps like house and car security and automation. Generally these devices will go hand-in-hand with monitoring tasks — energy consumption, charge levels, and security status are all base-level statuses that can be monitored and effected from a single device.
  • As a sensor suite — Phones now are packed with devices that can create data from the world around us. It gets most interesting when their use deviates from their original intention. For example, the camera has migrated from a novelty to become an input device, the microphone and accelerometer — my favorite sensor; everyone has one, surely — are used to determine proximity, and the Wi-Fi chip is used to aid in location determination. I’d like to see the phone continue on a similar trajectory, especially with regard to personal health monitoring.
  • As a swarm — Phones are still built around one-to-one thinking. Sensors and collective inputs are more valuable when part of a massive collective. I would expect that this hypothetical app would ensure that my phone worked together with millions of others, reporting data on civic infrastructure, the weather, traffic, and other aspects of our shared existence.
  • As an agent — The phone remains a synchronous device, though push-based mechanisms have begun to move us away from this as the norm. I would expect my preferred app to become more autonomous, “spinning up” agents to satisfy my requests and reporting back when complete.

Phones allow us to expand our influence to other things, people, and
places. Any app that facilitates and enriches such interaction can
only be a good thing.

This interview was edited and condensed.


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