Commentary

Wherever You Are, That's The Place to Be

"Whenever you say something is 'brilliant,' and I have to see it -- Dad, then I know I am in for it." Oh, the shame of being raised the daughter of a recovering academic -- and a pop culture historian to boot. My daughter, now joined by my wife, have been dragged through some of the weirdest encounters with media imaginable, from grade Z horror of the early '70s to anti-Communist comic books of the '50s, underground zines of the '60s to radio serials of the '40s. When it comes to American pop culture, I am an unrepentant intellectual slut.

"What the hell?" has been my family's customary response to entering the living room and seeing what I have running through the DVD player now. "Next time you are telling your readers about us, let them know they have no idea how weird it is to live with you," my wife says.

Done.

"And that you never put the leftovers away after you wash the dishes."

Done. She gets a freebie for her many cameos in these columns.

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I really thought that the family viewing of the brilliant ("ugh, Dad!") high school comedy "Fast Times at Ridgemont High" would go over better than it did. I was trying to direct them to Sean Penn's transcendent ("watch the adjectives, honey") acting and Mike Damone's rules for dealing with women. All they saw was that Phoebe Cates and Jennifer Jason Leigh got topless. "Is this why you like the movie?" they ask.

As for the greasy, self-styled lothario Mike Damone and his five tips for dating. One of them is a credo for the future of mobile apps. He advises his friend "Rat": "Act like wherever you are, that's the place to be." He turns to the vast emptiness of the local shopping mall, face lit with enthusiasm and says, "Isn't this great?"

It is through embellishing place and time that mobile has the capacity to transcend digital media as we have known it and genuinely dazzle us. On the smallest of scales, GPS directions do this. A well-executed QR code or SMS keyword can do it. Knitting together the physical environment and the decades of digital content we have already created online is the promise of mobility. We need to think like Mike Damone. Wherever you are, how do we make it great?

The other night I had the opportunity to moderate a panel at Mobile Monday in Philadelphia, where I met a number of developer start-ups in the Philly area, all working on fascinating projects, from apps that helped do instant follow-ups on leads you meet at events to pro athlete trading cards in the form of apps. It's energizing to see the ways in which mobility is sparking creativity. We really are seeing an innovation explosion now that mobile technology makes it possible to reimagine the possibilities for experiences in any place and any context.

One company, Invictus, showed me its app for the Philadelphia Zoo. Generally it is a colorful but still modest augmentation play. It offered a GPS-enabled map to the park, info on all of the animals, social media tie-ins etc. It is a great first effort made on a limited budget, the kind of app that makes the imagination fly into the possibilities for how version 2 or 3 could turn a physical location into a theme park through mobile augmentation.

For example, what if you could hold the smartphone or tablet in front of you and let it guide you through touchpoints along the paths? Pop-up prompts would tap through to background on the animals with audio or video. You could use the camera to let your kids collect images of the animals, then upload and share them so subsequent visitors can see galleries of user-made images. Audio tours could be triggered by GPS coordinates.

And by the way, this hunger for augmenting place goes way back. Invictus' Philly Zoo app took me back to childhood in the New York Metro area, where the Bronx Zoo's big come-on for kids was a plastic key that unlocked audio commentary at the various zoo exhibits. In the mid-1960s, this what passed for multimedia magic. It entranced me as a kid and became the main reason I begged to go there. It was essentially the stuff of augmented reality -- embellishing a physical experience with rudimentary media tools.

Media traditionally have been focused on pushing content to a fairly limited range of predictable situations and use cases: drive time, breakfast or commute with a newspaper, prime-time living room TV. The forms these media take generally acknowledge and are shaped by those contexts of reception. In a world where media contexts are fully fluid, then the models for imagining and making new media are flipped. Now we don't just push the same media out into every nook and cranny. The real promise here is not in distribution, but in contextual innovation. We start with the place, the situation and imagine how all kinds of media can make the experience richer. How can any moment and place be turned into a theme park?

The engines of creativity are just ramping up as we start to ponder the difference between "mobile," which we have tended to see as an extension of digital as we have known it, to "mobility," or a richer sense of consumers' place and context -- and how we can address them as they move through the times and spaces of their day.

Or as Mike Damone would say, "Isn't this great?"

Well, unless you get caught in my living room, which according to my family is a pop culture nightmare.

"Dad, what the hell?"

"Felix the Cat silent cartoons from the 1920s. Did you know that Felix the Cat was the most popular cartoon character of that decade?"

"Really good to know Dad. Thanks. This from the guy who says he doesn't understand SpongeBob Squarepants."

"Yeah, there's something not quite right with that guy."

Apparently, in the context of my home, in that place, in that moment, I just said something very funny, because my daughter can't stop laughing.

7 comments about "Wherever You Are, That's The Place to Be".
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  1. Jonathan Hutter from Northern Light Health, October 4, 2011 at 12:36 p.m.

    My Zoo Key was shaped like an elephant. And it was red.

    You had to pay to get the zoo key. So it really was the first paid content that I can remember (although I surely didn't think of it that way). Everyone else just watched the animals and wasn't quite sure of what they might be seeing. But, if you had a Zoo Key!

  2. Steve Smith from Mediapost, October 4, 2011 at 1:10 p.m.

    Jonathan, was that for the Bronx Zoo? My memory is too hazy to recall the shape, but I remember it being red.

  3. John Buckner from The House of Buckner LLC, October 4, 2011 at 1:11 p.m.

    Great connection to 'Fast Times' - everything a blog with takeaways should be: entertaining, thoughtful, useful. Go Steve!

  4. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, October 4, 2011 at 3:31 p.m.

    Thanx for bringing back the zoo key. The Philadelphia Zoo had and elephant key and to the best of my recollection it was red. It was somewhere around 1959, I think.

  5. Melodye Demastus from Melrose Consulting, October 4, 2011 at 6:02 p.m.

    Steve, you've got to be one of the most entertaining writers covering the mobile space...I so enjoy your insightful thoughts along with your tongue in cheek musings! You Rock! (And, I think you've got a wonderfully understanding wife and daughter!)

  6. Jonathan Hutter from Northern Light Health, October 5, 2011 at 11:31 a.m.

    Steve, yes, it was the Bronx Zoo.

    Was there any other?

  7. Steve Smith from Mediapost, October 5, 2011 at 12:46 p.m.

    @Jonathan. I was told that Philly Zoo had an elephant key as well.

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