Providence in the FAIL of a Sparrow
There’s been a decent amount of buzz lately over something called the Motorola Sparrow, a prototype device featured in MoMA’s “Design and the Elastic Mind” show – I notice that the current ID, for example, features a piece on it. (As it was the only interesting-looking piece in the book, and I’m well past the point of buying a paper magazine for a single article, I’m afraid I haven’t read it. Apologies if any of the following substantively duplicates that article’s findings.)
It doesn’t surprise me that Sparrow’s getting this kind of attention: aside from being more than usually pretty, the device is a reasonably clear indication of where a few converging lines of thought and technical possibility are taking us. To quote Motorola’s blurb, Sparrow “combines a scanner, point-of-sale system, communication device and credit-card reader into one mobile handheld object. It allows customers to get information about products of interest, receive instant promotions based on their shopping behavior, and make purchases anywhere in the store, in real time.”
In other words, it blends two extant, off-the-shelf technologies – the product scanners retail floor staff already have access to, and wireless payment systems – and makes of them something entirely new, something akin to a point-and-buy gun. That, in turn, brings us well within range of a prospect that must loom like the Holy Grail for all too many retailers: a store utterly stripped of checkout lines, cash registers, and the revenue-depleting experiential kinks they so often give rise to. Putting aside for a second both my (significant) despair over yet another example of pervasive technology at the service of materialism and meaningless churn, and the fact that Motorola’s designers manage to work
Experience Interaction Design Cliché No. 2* into their very pitch, there’s at first blush a lot that’s attractive about that scenario.
[*Location- or context-aware coupons. The pillow you hug, causing its remote twin owned by your lover 3000 miles away, to light up or vibrate? No. 1.]
But then you start to think about what all that really means, and the reservations blossom. In fact, in Sparrow it’s pretty clear what happens to retail in the near future: it becomes a matter of just-in-time warehousing, in which an ever-greater percentage of the amenities and services we typically think of part of the retail experience is offloaded onto the customer him- or herself, and realtime consumption-cycle data gets coupled to demand forecasts and Global South production in an ever-tighter loop. (You can almost see the quants rubbing their hands, chortling as they contemplate the potential for chain-wide destaffing.)
There are also significant problems with the device itself, most notably the fact that Motorola apparently believes (believed?) that this functionality would reside in a separate, stand-alone object, and not simply be incorporated into the one people already carry – no wonder they’re doing so well. And yes, I know it’s just a mockup, but we’re already in trouble if one of the UI alerts actually says “RFID detected.” I mean, you know I’m all in favor of seamful design, but that’s ridiculous.
Sparrow itself is almost certainly a design exercise, à la Detroit’s classic concept cars: the kind of thing that previews future corporate design directions, but not actually intended to see production. I’m not at all sure, further, that the diminished post-partition Motorola will have the resources to bring something this radical to market. Nevertheless, sooner or later it’s all but inevitable that someone’s going to pull this concept off. I think that someone should be careful what it is that they’re asking for, because they – and we – just might get it.
UPDATE 08 May 10.54 EDT: Bonus link! Chris Woebken on the future of money. Too frazzled now to integrate these thoughts into something coherent, but it’s coming. It’ll wind up in the book, at very least.