Revisiting Contextual Awareness

Posted on 03/27/2011


Contextual awareness, making the smartphone even smarter by adding a rudimentary level of intuition, is for me the most exciting direction that mobile is taking. Loaded in smartphones are all sorts of of bit’s of technology that act as sensors to the outside world, and an increasing. Something like the age old GSM radio and seemingly ubiquitous GPS chips are location aware and the camera, in an augmented reality framework can act as a window into the world. Add to that the fact that with faster processors, more RAM and cloud intergration, the software suite of mobile phones is at a pretty advanced level. What is exciting is how the modern day smartphone can collate all of this data and make it useful. From a Nokia/Symbian perspective I had a look at two applications that can do this, but in the meantime I’ve have explored the subject further.

Context awareness in itself is not a new concept. Google has been serving up search results based on a broad location descriptor, with their ‘Pages From country’ filter, and many online services make use of IP addresses to provide end users with relevant information based on location. But just for the sheer scope of bits and bobs contained within the diminutive mobile phone, contextual awareness has so much potentioal, and I have started to incorporate it into my daily usage.

The two levels that I have encountered based on the controlling apps that I have used can be broadly described as active or passive contextual awareness, as determined by the level of interaction the user has to make with the relevant app. The former, and this will appeal more to the tinkerer, is characterised by a deep level of interaction. In this instance, one will usual have specific contexts, that are generally out of sync with the average individual and hence will require more complex situations, as Nokia calls them, that need to be set. In the latter, one has a very consistent routine, but one that can be more easily managed. In both instances, once the relevant contexts have been identified, the behaviour of the mobile phone becomes automated, meaning that you never have to remember to do things like put your phone on silent when in a meeting.

I’ll deal with the passive case first, exemplified by an exciting app called Nokia Bots, a collection of utilities or Bots, that take care of increasing your phones contextual awareness with basically very little effor from you, other than to install the Bots and continue using the phone as you normally do. There are five Bots available Alarms, Battery, Contacts, Profiles and Shortcuts, controlled by a widget that serves as the data mining center. As you use your phone, the widget learns your habits, and in time can offer suggestions to you. A lot of the time of course you will preempt what the Bot will tell you to do, but it comes in handy when your mind is elsewhere.

The Contact Bot for example, which has a standalone widget is an intelligent little utility that offers up favourite contacts, limited currently to phone calls but is also sensitive to locations. It initially will just pick up who you call the most and show you your four most popular contacts. The trick up it’s sleeve is that the Bot will also learn when you are at work at home using the GPS and network towers to locate you. It does assume you work regular hours Monday to Friday. Thus you can get up to three sets of favourite contacts, for work, home and other. The Shortcuts Bot, also with a standalone widget, give you a snapshot of your most used applications are. I found this to be a little bit more flawed, tending to a have a bias towards built in applications over third party ones. For example, even qualitatively, I know I use Opera Mini more than any other app, but this has never ever showed up, and the built in browser appeared for a couple of days, an application I know is one of my least used. System settings seemed to be a fixed feature in my ‘favourite’ shortcuts list, even after explicitly making a point of not changing anything. I had expected the four apps that showed up to be Opera Mini, Mail, Gravity with the fourth slot cycling between apps like Music Player and Mobbler.  Clearly this Bot still needs a bit of tweaking.

The Profiles Bot is linked to your calendar events and it monitors if your profiles changes are linked to calendar entries, like switching to meeting mode. It’s a simple enough Bot that generally does what it says on the tin and worked as expected. Alarm Bot is made a bit redundant since most phones can set repeat alarms and multiple sets at that as well. I found it quite nifty though. For example I’m up a 5 AM every weekday and usually at 7 AM on weekends. I can of course set two sets of alarms and let the phone do it’s business but if there’s a public holiday on a weekday and I want to sleep in a bit, I have to turn that set of alarms off and crucially remember to turn it back on so I don’t oversleep the following day. With the Alarm Bot however, it just suggests a time to you, you say yes or no and it makes the necessary system changes. It cleverly takes into account once off events like that described above, but will still crucially suggest the correct alarm for you in the evening. It’s also smart enough to offer a different time on the weekends or no time at all. The Battery Bot is the simplest utility, tied in with the battery meter monitoring system, and just offers gentle reminders when the battery is low.

I generally enjoyed using Nokia Bots, but found it to be generally too limited for my needs, and found myself leaning towards a more immersive experience and returned to using Best Profiles. A new version of Nokia’s other context awareness app Situations was released last week and I gave it another, having rejected it previously, but I’m drawn to it mostly because of the great price, Free! So to recap, this app (and all the similar ones) use the phones traditional Profiles setup (Situations), and you can set conditions for when it is appropriate for a situation to be invoked. This is active contextual awareness. Nokia Situations does need a bit more work though, still without a filtering system for calendar events, such that all calendar events are treated equally, when clearly they are not. What I do like is that this offers far greater control than with a mostly AI controlled system like Bots. I’ll illustrate this with a few examples. I don’t have a TV and don’t listen to radio so I miss out on the news and the all important weather forecast, but thankfully like with most things these days, there’s an app for that. So every morning when my alarm goes off, a tailored morning situation is invoked, with the task of opening my weather app, AccuWeather. It also launches my email app. I use Google Calendar and have it set to email me my daily agenda first thing in the morning. So my alarm goes off, I silence it and at the same time can quickly see what I need to do and what the weather. On weekends the Situation is invoked later, at 7 AM as opposed to 5 AM. When I get to work, Situations uses the GPS to locate me, and since I’m mostly going to be using the phone for messages and calls and very little data, the 3G radio is turned off and switches to GSM only. This is valid within a 1 KM radius of my place of work. When I head to a meeting, the phone switches profiles to meeting and two things happen. First, the Calendar app is launched so that I can quickly input the next meeting (which will then be synced back to my Google calendar). Second, if I get a call in my meeting, an automated message is sent to the caller with a simple message, ‘Sorry in meeting’. That for me is the power of active contextual awareness. yes it requires a lot more user interaction but there are so many more options and situations that can be tailored and once done, the whole process is automated and out of your hands.

Active or Passive? It all depends on your needs really. I need more options so like to have the options to edit and catalogue my own set of situations with requisite conditions and actions, but the passive option can also be useful. In fact the ability of the passive system to adapt as you change your habits might make that system a lot more inviting for a lot of people. Either way it’s exciting to see the capabilities of smartphones being extended by using and integrating the hardware and software, that make them already very smart to begin with.