When I reach into my gift bag of Christmas media memories, the holiday issue of Playboy and its Eleventh-Hour Santa feature always comes to mind. Hef was the original gadget geek, with his tricked-out mansions and perennial alliance with the James Bond films. This final outpouring of gift ideas (usually more for the guy to receive than give) was filled with next-gen wizardry of the sort that has now become de rigeur online and on TV. In the mobile arena, there is still a kind of gee-whiz innovation, but now it is on a small scale and occurring in the app stores for Apple and Android devices. Here then, rather than another set of mobile predictions and general trends, let's look into 2010 through the lens of some of the most interesting applications that helped round out 2009.
Pocket BLU: You want cool. Here is cool. For most Blu-ray player-owners with an iPhone, this app interacts with the currently playing disc. You can navigate the disc via its built-in remote, but also have new content unlocked on your iPhone related to the title and use the soft keyboard to input interactive elements on the disc. It even can show you extra content related to the video chapter currently playing, including the specific track from the soundtrack.
Talk about a second screen. Consider the possibilities for streaming synchronized director commentary via the handset while you watch the film.
Google Goggles and Layar: While I still think the object-scanning mechanism for Google's visual search was too uneven to be released just yet, the augmented reality piece is evolving nicely. Goggles is pumping up the database of items it can locate and superimpose on its camera-eye view of the world. It even found me and my consulting business.
Layar is more polished and broad in that it literally layers onto your view a series of location-indexed directories from others. AR has moved from curio to borderline-usable in just the last few months. Integrating voice search would be a next interesting step. If I could yell a search term or directory to my outstretched phone as I scan a place, then we have a seamless concierge-like experience.
Dragon Dictation: Speaking of speech, I used to test and reject the various Dragon NaturallySpeaking voice command/dictation apps for years. Voice control on PCs clearly had a narrow market, but its dodgy accuracy and fundamental clumsiness made it a non-starter for the desktop. All we need is an office of cubicles with people barking commands at their respective screens. The convenience of audio search on a phone has made me rethink this, and I wonder if some of the voice-to-text rendering in an app like this can be integrated into other pieces of the mobile interface.
This Dragon app is flaky. Short declarative sentences worked fine, but longer complex constructions ended up producing funny Mad Libs. It needs voice learning and better integration with email (currently just cut and paste), but there is some promise here.
Where's the Action? One trend in mobile content revolves around apps that let us plug into the flow of nearby buzz, trends, etc. Apps like SmartBrief and Zeitgeist are using tag clouds to present news that is prioritized by popularity. This is already happening online of course, but when you open up buzzd or brightkite you are also able to eavesdrop on the mobilized conversations and postings people are making from your immediate vicinity.
This ability to locate and plug into the social flow in a given place and at a given time is bound to develop in interesting ways. Online, Web sites and people produce feeds. On mobile, places emanate information and opinion that are time-sensitive and unique actionable. I have no idea where this singular aspect of mobile leads, but it is a fascinating layer of user-generated outputs that surely will be utilized in new ways.
The Guardian: If smart phones really will be portable PCs, then news and information apps are going to struggle to be complete and usable. I don't think we are there yet. News apps like those for CNN, USA Today and Time are stuffing a lot of news into a small frame and they often use multiple layers of lateral and horizontal scrolling and menu structures that can get disorienting.
The Esquire and GQ magazine apps I mentioned last time are a case in point of news and information lurching towards more usable mobile interfaces. The Guardian app is not perfect, but there are some very good ideas at work here. Every story has a pop-up window with related subjects and keywords that the app will gather for you. This is a very mobile-aware way to let users follow an intriguing story.
The app also maps well against the dual mobile habits of scanning and drilling, where users triage items quickly -- but when they lock into a topic of interest, they love to dig and dig. It also has a lovely carousel of galleries that pops up in certain sections, so you can move smoothly across multimedia. Better news interfaces and smoother integration of video, images and audio are going to be important areas for innovative thinking.
Dragon's Lair: If you are old enough to remember Eleventh-Hour Santa spreads in Playboy, then you will also recognize the original multimedia arcade game. This choose-a-path animated video adventure is on iPhone and Nintendo DS (via DSi-Ware download). Back in the day, animator Don Bluth was a Tim Burton-like figure whose signature style of cartooning was enough to sell some audiences. When it first launched in 1983 we marveled at what a laserdisc could hold to make all of the story branching possible. Now it is a mobile download.
"Dragon's Lair" will make you feel every moment of the last quarter-century you just lived, through. And it will remind you that everything we gush over today as innovative and promising is bound to seem as quaint and rudimentary in 20 years as a VHS or a Sony Watchman does to us.
And to all a good night.