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.

15 responses to “Providence in the FAIL of a Sparrow”

  1. Andrew says :

    “The pillow you hug, causing its remote twin owned by your lover 3000 miles away, to light up or vibrate? No. 1”

    And the clever name of that product? “No-one.” Har har.

  2. rena says :

    this retailer is not enthused about Sparrow. i can see this working at a showroom-style joint like an IKEA but it’s rather cold and lonely for other, smaller kinds of shops.

  3. Michal Migurski says :

    I’ve always thought of your Experience Design Cliché #1 as more of a first-year interaction design student cliché – I’ve been seeing reams of these things from programs all over the world since I first visited Ivrea in 2004. They’re silly, but they’re also a natural outgrowth of first exposure to physical computing and cheap components. I’m going through a bit of this myself, thanks to the Arduino platform. It’s interesting and normal that so many people have identical responses to the technology, but it’s also a tiny bit ironic. Even as I plug jumper wires into my breadboard, I’m aware of how much more powerful and easy it is to do things in software, and how much more reach you get through a web browser. Olinda has physical slots for six “friends” on its hardware social unit – revolutionary for a radio, but a meh replacement for an iChat buddy list that *scrolls*.

  4. AG says :

    Well, you’re correct in locating the d’ohfulness within interaction design, where it properly belongs & where I almost certainly would have situated it if I hadn’t written this entire post in a headlong pre-going-out-to-dinner rush.

    I also think you’re spot-on in thinking of this as a first-pass response to the affordances of various soft and hard pieces of the contemporary design toolkit. But I think you’re mistaken in thinking of it as merely a student cliché – good god, I’ve seen this trope a bazillion times, even occasionally as something actually intended to be produced at scale.

    Oh, and: I couldn’t agree more, rena. I worry and wonder about the pressures that might come to bear on the owners and operators of boutiques in a Sparrow or Sparrowlike world.

  5. Christopher Fahey says :

    I’m surprised you didn’t delve more deeply into how neatly Sparrow-like shopping meshes with the big-box store construct — the conversion of the retail (or even dining) experience into something more like being a stockboy in an explicit warehouse or manufacturing plant environment (e.g., the Men’s Warehouse or the Cheesecake Factory).

    Welcome to CostCo. I love you.

  6. AG says :

    I guess that’s pretty much exactly what I meant by a matter of just-in-time warehousing, Chris.

  7. Michal Migurski says :

    …which puts the Sparrow concept squarely into the fashion/prestige realm of the bluetooth headset.

  8. Greg Borenstein says :

    Interestingly, the closest something like this is to being in actual use already is at the Apple Store. They have employees standing all around the store (and especially any points that would naturally become the start of lines) with hand-held devices that can scan products and process your credit card. Especially at very busy times (most notably, the “blockbuster” events they produce like the iPhone launch), employees armed with these devices act to increase flow through the store and reduce wait times. But the rest of the time they just act as extremely personalized shopping assistance: extending individualized help that can answer a question or find a product to actually being able to check you out.

    In the context of the Apple Store’s first class retail experience, the presence of employees armed with these things feels like an advanced luxury.

    Obviously, the move to DIY with one of these devices inflects its use in a very different way. As opposed to the Apple Store’s highly luxurious service-oriented usage, the effect of offering these to customers themselves could be to further virtualize the process of in-store shopping: making it more like the online retailing experience (with it’s assumption of high levels of individual information and choice) that people have come to drastically prefer to the bricks-and-mortar-and-pushy-salesperson model. The Apple Store devices even offer to email you your receipt rather than printing it out, just like purchasing through the website would.

    If the stores do become “just in time warehousing” operations, then the only avenue they’ll have left for differentiation and value addition will be through the informational resources they provide. And the only way they can compete with online information resource would be through personalized high-caliber assistance.

  9. Michal Migurski says :

    The way the Apple Store does it is *awesome*, though I have been confused before – the Emeryville location entirely replaced their checkout counter with these staff-carried units, and put the Genius Bar in its place. Last time I was there I actually didn’t know what to do … sort of flailed around trying to figure out where they sold the computers until one of the helpful staff straightened me out.

  10. AG says :

    I think the Apple experience demonstrates that the semantics of “staff equipped with one of these units” and “you equipped with one of these units” are diametrically opposed: the one feels like a bespoke experience, at least in a large and busy environment, and the other like we-know-not-what-yet, but unlikely to be anything fun.

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