The evolving design of the digital devices that are starting to fill our stores and schools will change the way we think, behave, and buy
There are certain cities around the world where it's possible to learn about tomorrow's technology as it's being developed today. Tokyo -- still -- offers the most tightly integrated infrastructure, where smooth, technology-driven experiences take place when engaging in everyday actions, such as verifying personal identity, paying for goods, and buying tickets. Nairobi is an excellent destination for mobile banking. San Francisco is the center for startup thinking (and doing). And Seoul is the destination for the newest electronic displays, a place where you can immediately get immersed in daring new screen technologies. As we rely more on our smart phones, laptops, and tablet computers to acquire and share information, as we develop sharper and more interactive large-scale electronic signs in stores, on streets, and on billboards, it's worthwhile to look to a city that offers glimpses into the future of global screen culture.
Why turn to Seoul? South Korea is home to LG and Samsung, local manufacturers that are also the top international leaders in screen technology and sales. In Seoul, there is also a rich willingness to experiment with new devices. Even in the most mundane of corner convenience stores today, you can find numerous, significantly-sized electronic displays at each cash register instead of cardboard advertisements for gum or candy, or small, credit- or debit-card swiping devices with tiny, text-only screens. And by 2015, the South Korean government ambitiously plans to substitute all books in schools with screens; tablet computers will replace paper within four years.
Even back in 2005, Seoul's forward-thinking screen culture was evident. I remember traveling to a research interview on the subway. At one moment, I thought I was looking at a print poster -- it had the same crisp images and colors, and it wasn't moving, but suddenly the imagery changed. It was a wonderful example of something you take for granted (posters don't move) being wrong (it moves, so you wonder, what else does it do?). I was fascinated by this advanced, instant, and seamless re-calibration of surfaces. It made me wonder, "How will our perceptions of the world shift as every sign we look at moves, when we reach a day where no billboards or street signs are static, when every display we see is dynamic?" I have been going to Seoul every year since to observe high-resolution displays and how they are finding their way into more and more places, offering more and more surprising interactions.
The future sometimes lies in the past, too: in South Korea, there is the centuries-old tradition of Asian screen culture. Think of the beautifully painted analog, yet highly narrative, screens that have adorned homes in that region of the world for generations. Today, screens are being reinvented for the digital age. South Korean companies are developing a new generation of screens that hark back to years and years of paper imagery. The American company e-Ink, for instance, has been working with South Korea's Neolux, to take the technology used in e-readers such as Amazon's Kindle to huge screens for advertisements used in stores in Asia. The e-Ink tech allows images and text that matches the clarity of printed paper pages to morph nearly instantly. Used on display screens in shopping environments, the tech will not only grab consumers' eyes, but also provide them with more relevant information as they buy. When such moving, shifting signage takes the place of static text and images throughout the world, it will likely alter the way we navigate through our cities and towns, stores and schools. How will this affect the way we think, how we process information? We will have to look, see, and think more quickly as we react to visual cacophony of street signs and ads that is much more dynamic and competitive for our attention than what we typically encounter today.
If you're wary of the idea that new types of screens can change our behavior, think again. Have you noticed your children pressing shapes on static posters, thinking they can move them as they do on a tablet computer? Have you ever tried to swipe your finger across a TV or another, non-touch-screen gadget's display not long after using a smart phone's tactile commands? The answer is likely yes. These are two good examples of how quickly our perception of what things can do shifts. As touch-screens have become more popular, they have retrained how we interact with images we see on many surfaces.
It's not just public signage that's worth looking at in Seoul if you want a flavor of screen innovations of the future. Seoul is also a place where smart phones are in wide usage, and in inventive new ways. Statistics suggest that South Koreans are using their mobile-phone screens for information and entertainment more than anyone else in the world today. The International Telecommunications Union published data in July of this year declaring that South Korea leads the world in wireless broadband subscriptions, with 89.8 per 100 inhabitants. Internationally, its an average of 41.6 per 100. A 2009 study by Morgan Stanley showed that 3G mobile handset penetration in South Korea is 75 percent (the second-highest in the world, after Japan at 90 percent). Comparatively, in the United States, 3G handset penetration is 41 percent.
The ubiquity of the mobile phone in South Korea is prompting innovation that bridges display screens and hand-held screens. Consider the recent installation of a completely virtual store by Korean supermarket Home Plus, a division of Tesco, in a Seoul subway station. At this store, life-sized images of food, milk cartons, and other groceries appear on a screen, as if placed on shelves. Busy commuters use their mobile phones to snap QR codes on the ersatz sundries to quickly order the real products online. The groceries are delivered by the time they reach home. Home Plus has reported that during a recent trial run of the virtual store, the company saw a 130 percent increase in online sales.
Of course, this display was more than just a cool example of screen culture. Every purchase made is recorded, and offers retailers and marketers data on what consumers are interested in, what their purchasing choices are. In the future, as screen culture proliferates around the world, this will be more of a common occurrence. Screens will read us; we will not only read them. This brings up the question of how our literacy of not only screens, but also our environments, will be altered forever. We will have to decide whether messages we see on signs that react to us, which change to our needs in real time based on how they acquire and process our demographic data is a deep violation of privacy or helpful, tailored information.
It will be interesting to see if Seoul's urban vocabulary of numerous, ever-present interactive screens will translate to other cities such as Beijing, London, and New York. It will also be intriguing to see if smaller cities and towns adopt aspects of Seoul's screen culture throughout Asia, Europe, and North America. Even more fascinating will be to watch how screen culture will evolve in the developing world, where mobile phones in particular are allowing communities to leap frog past outdated infrastructure and the advertising traditions of the developed world; A McKinsey study on the African consumer market recently found, for instance, that 85 percent of Africans surveyed "wouldn't mind" looking at ads on their mobile phone screens. After all, norms and opportunities shift and adapt. Just as language evolves and spreads around the world, our interaction models and behaviors do, too. In this context, Seoul is the poetry slam of screen displays -- where an entire urban community is experimenting, discarding, reinventing the language of the next.
Images: Jan Chipchase.