Tuesday, July 08, 2003

Navigating Heterogeneous Wireless

Whenever people talk about wireless, it seems that they talk about it as if it was going to be homogenous. WiFi people talk about WiFi everywhere; 3G talks about 3G everywhere; Bluetooth talks about the subset of the world in which Bluetooth is everywhere. But the reality must be that the world will be extremely uneven; broadband wireless somewhere, no network somewhere else. Some of this unevenness will be predictable; here a hotspot, there a hotspot; some of it will be unpredictable as new signals come on line. We need to start thinking about wireless spaces, in the ways that architects think about physical space.

Architects, and I'm specifically thinking about architects of public space like museums, have a well-developed set of skills and vocabulary for designing space. Some spaces are for collecting traffic flow, others are dispersive; some are gateways that offer choices to visitors, some are places with content. And among all these different kinds of spaces are wayfinding tools to help visitors find what they want. Some of these wayfinding tools are explicit, like signs ("Rest rooms ->"); others are implicit and perhaps not even consciously noticed by visitors (like having a larger, more open space to one side).

But in the wireless world, we as network and interface designers, aren't anywhere near this skill. We don't speak of different kinds of wireless spaces, much less have a vocabulary to communicate with users about spaces and wayfinding. Now this doesn't mean -- it can't mean -- overwhelming the user with dialog boxes or information about the physical network status, but it does mean we need to arm users with information, even if implict or even subconscious, to adequately navigate the wireless spaces.