Robert Scoble (a technology pundit that I admire) has been coining the term, “the age of context.” Although I don’t necessarily agree with the term (too many ages, too often; we are in the Post-Industrial Age in which “digital” or “information” is a subset of which “context” is a further subset), Robert is spot on. It’s all about awareness. Applications, gadgets, services. All of them aware of each other and making their data available for consumption. You ready for this wild ride?
What is Context?
First, let’s define context (well, at least as it relates to content and/or data). In broad, academic-lingo-like-speak, context is the relation of location-specific, behavior-specific, or event-specific information to one or more people. That means that the content or data presented to you directly relates to what you are doing, where you are, or what you have done (over time). The content is “in context.”
Digital Supercharges Context
Context is not new. Traditional marketers and advertisers have long tried to connect their messaging with the vehicle in which it travels. Of course, that doesn’t always work but savvy marketers make the effort. Digital, though, makes context so much better. Technologies like web cookies and databases can gather and store information that can be acted upon later. So not only do advertisements get smarter, but the very services themselves get smarter. Think about Amazon’s recommendation engine. That is all driven by context.
The digital world, though, not only provides a much better environment for context, it also enables something we’ve never really had: synchronous contextualism.
Types of Contextualism
Contextualism can be broken down into two types: asynchronous and synchronous. We commonly face ”contextualism” asynchronously. That means we generally come to locations or events that already have contextual messaging (i.e., posters at a rock concert pitching CDs of the band, television advertisements based on the show and the region). But the digital provides us something much more interesting: synchronous contextualism.
The digital world is about the representation of information in binary form (I could have said “the digital world is about digitized information” but that seemed like too much of a tautology). This means that information not seemingly related can be brought together in the name of contextualism. Any application developer or gadget manufacturer can develop an experience that connects information together that may not have seemed logically related (but is so within the context of the experience). And because the data is constantly transforming, evolving, and growing, the application or device can tap into it continuously.
Of course, this kind of contextualism is related closely to other trends (i.e., the Internet of Things, ubiquitous computing, always-on computing, etc.) that enable the synchronous connection between device/software and data. So just how do those things all stay connected?
The Context of Things
As contextualism comes of age it’s not because any one company or one person is bringing a new technology to the market. It’s because things are getting connected. Gadgets are talking to one another via WiFi and Bluetooth. Services are talking to each other via APIs. And gadgets are talking to services via the Web and HTTP. It’s a fabric of “togetherness” that is enabling context to foster. Look at devices like Nest. The intelligent thermostat can connect to other thermostats and to the Web via WiFi. It’s now connected to a host of other data (i.e., weather) that can be brought to bear on its objective: better management of temperature. ToyTalk is another great example. Their initial product, a teddy bear, combines local computing and sensors, links to mobile apps, and web services to drive a remarkable, contextual experience.
What Might a Contextual World Look Like?
You may have already seen it, or read about it because science fiction, like Philip K. Dick’s Minority Report, has been imaging a world like this for a long time. Even academic pontificators like David Gelertner in Mirror Worlds have been imaging a world in which data shapes itself to us, to our needs, to our location, to our behavior and our history. A future world of context, though, is about relativity. The systems with which we interact will understand what data is important to us as part of an interactive experience. For example, just because Google Glass can show us a data overlay, it would know I don’t like coffee and so Starbucks and others would be conveniently missing from my request for places that sell pastries.
Google Glass is an excellent example of how context might look in the future. Not because of anything it uniquely does but how it’s packaged. The movie version of Minority Report showed a world where context is simply built into our everyday experience. What is more everyday than putting on a pair of glasses? Just as connectivity is permeating every part of our lives through cheap WiFi radios that electronics manufacturers are embedding into their devices. Context will reach a point where we don’t notice it. It’s just the way we interact with things. They are relevant to who we are, what we are doing, and what we have done before. The right packaging, whether like Google Glass or little broaches produced by Misfit Wearables, will make context the norm, not the exception.
And why is packaging so important for contextualism? Because it proposes interfaces with which we are familiar. Wearing glasses. Or, in the case of Siri, speaking into a phone (heck, wearing a BlueTooth earpiece is accepted now; in the future of contextualism, talking into it to engage a contextual experience will be the norm as well; this is captured brilliantly on the CounterNotions blog by Kontra).
After that? Perhaps the very interface is integrated into us. Perhaps the strangely dystopian world of H+ Digital becomes a reality. Hopefully not the crazy virus part but an integration of the very interface with which we interact with contextual experiences will become biological.
Okay, What Does it Look Like NOW?
It’s really just starting to show itself in the Multi-Screen World that Google revealed in their research. As we begin to utilize more than one device simultaneously, software will manifest that connects the experience. Look at Shazaam and IntoNow. These two tablet applications listen to what you are watching on TV and connect you to discussions and content related to that. But what if there was an application on your SmartTV as well? What if it knew what you were running Shazaam and communicated that back to some service that could influence the content shown to you on the actual TV? There are companies already building SmartTV apps to provide this kind of contextual data back to content owners and broadcasters. But, again, Shazaam and IntoNow aren’t doing anything revolutionary. They are simply building upon the groundwork already laid through more and more application APIs and the interoperability of the data exchange between them. Dynamic, web-personalization technologies have been doing this for a while (Amazon is a great example).
Marketing: The Contextual Battleground
Where will we see contextualism really play out? Marketing. What is the best way for me to capture your attention? Why, make it personal. Of course, it can get a little creepy when billboards change to speak to you directly but as I mentioned before, this is not an overnight development. When context becomes ubiquitous (as the way software and device experiences are built), you won’t think it’s creepy. Your kids won’t think so either. They will embrace it. They will say to marketers, “if you don’t know me, why should I buy from you?” And so marketers will embrace the technologies behind this, especially as it relates to the evolution of marketing from advertising into storytelling and the evolution of storytelling to Transmedia Storytelling. The leads and customers generated from contextual experiences will be so much richer and yield much greater engagement and conversations. Marketers will battle it out by delivering stories that create an emotional connection with customers not just because of the narrative but because the narrative is personalized. This will make for much more complicated marketing (having to create more content and more stories) but the pay-off will be immense.
CRE (for lack of a good acronym)
What I’ve described, again, is not new. Is context coming of age? Yes. That much is certain. But what will it become? Context in and of itself is not compelling. But by creating context that is relevant (yes, the content is important to me but it’s also relevant to what I am doing right now and what I’ve done in the past and to what I like/dislike), it’s an experience. And that’s why the acronym. CRE. Contextually Relevant Experiences. This is what those companies like ToyTalk will really enable. Imagine sitting next to a teddy bear that, through connections with apps on phones and the TV, through connectivity via WiFi, through interoperability with APIs to a variety of services, could engage a child almost like a person? The bear could talk about the show using massive, cloud-based data crunching. And the result? Responses from the child shape future responses. It’s not artificial intelligence. It’s a CRE.
Yo, startup peeps. Get on this. There’s a huge market for developing a Contextual Relevance ENGINE (another use of CRE). Just give me some stock when you do…
A Personal Anecdote
In the mid 2000′s, I started a product development company with Will Stewart (then chairman of Sand Hill Capital and a well respected Silicon Valley VC). This company, Q2 Labs, was charged with one thing: develop IP around the convergence of mobile, broadband, and content. Although we came up and built some cool stuff, what ultimately came out of this was GoWare, a mobile-focused startup that enabled people to create a “personal mobile portal” of content. The software we built (a combination of PC and web services) utilized a unique API/proxy framework to pull in relevant content. So a user could say “I want content from that website (I will provide you my login so you can get the content that’s important to me) and from desktop applications like Outlook and Quicken.” The software enabled people to share and socialize their portal (with appropriate access rights to different content within the portal) and even kept everything updated (even providing you notification, via SMS, when the content was changed). Yeah, we were way ahead of our time. But what we were ultimately building was a contextual content cloud. It was content important to the user when they needed it. The diagram below does a great job of explaining it.
We didn’t get into location (because we hadn’t built a mobile client yet) but we enabled people to adjust the location themselves. So with a text message or in their portal, they could say, “I’m in Chicago right now” and the content would adjust appropriately (i.e., weather, news, events, etc.).
Contextually Relevant Experiences are not new. That’s the point of this anecdote. But we did a significant amount of heavy lifting that is not really necessary today. In fact, services like If This Then That (IFTTT.com) demonstrate the maturity of the underlying framework connecting everything together.
There is none. Not to this story because it’s still evolving. In fact, it’s only just sprouted legs and gotten rid of the tail. But it will truly shape our lives, especially as our lives become intermingled with the digital world, going forward.
What do you think? Are we at a tipping point? Is this 50 years away?
Unearthed patents from Microsoft on augmented reality glasses:
Filed in May of 2011, the patent focuses on the application of the gadget at “live events” and how their model would allow users to keep their eyes on the action — a baseball game, for instance — while the glasses displayed helpful statistics and background on the players.
The kicker? I had fleshed out this concept, dubbed LENS, for some very secret, high-level conversations with prominent VCs back in early 2011 (before MSFT’s filing). Sigh. Guess I should have acted on it then.
Originally posted 2012-11-16 16:11:09.