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Monday, 3 December, 2001, 09:06 GMT
Bus ride to the future
Genevieve Bell and Nina Wakeford, BBC
Researchers looking at how people use technology
By BBC News Online's Alfred Hermida

Riding a red double-decker bus through the streets of London, UK, may seem an odd way to look into the future of technology. But this is what researchers at Intel are doing.

The aim of the project is to give the world's largest chipmaker an insight into how people interact with technology and help them design products that meet the needs of everyday life.

"One of the things that makes a successful technology is a technology that supports experiences that people want to have," explained Dr Genevieve Bell, senior researcher and design ethnographer at Intel.

"Our job is to find new uses for technology by spending time with people in their daily lives," she said. "Being on a bus is a part of people's daily life; it's part of what it means to be urban in London."

Studying people

Dr Bell is part of a group of psychologists, anthropologists and social scientists working for Intel on a new form of industry research called ethnography.

Passengers on a London bus, BBC
Bell: Buses are fascinating places
This involves studying people to find out the difference between what they say they do and what they really do in their daily lives.

"Buses are fascinating places," said Dr Bell. "One of the things about living in a large urban centre is that large parts of one's life are spent away from home and away from the office and trying to get from point A to point B."

"So, things like buses let you know what people carry with them, what kind of devices they have, what they are carrying them around in, what kinds of things they are trying to do - are they texting their friends, calling their girlfriends?"

Ticket to ride

Together with Nina Wakeford, a sociology lecturer at the University of Surrey, she has been riding the number 73 bus through London, watching people as they use their mobile phones or handheld computers.

"We chose the bus route to think about how different places in London link up," said Dr Wakeford.

"So, we start off from Victoria Station, which is one of the major places where people, tourists, shoppers and people from abroad come into the city," she explained.

"We go through the shopping centres of the city and we go out to the suburbs, both rich and poor, where diverse communities live and use mobile phones and devices."

Some communities are formed around particular kinds of uses of technology

Dr Nina Wakeford, University of Surrey
By watching people, they can see how different people use different technologies. One thing they observed was how people tended to use their mobiles for what is called micro-coordination.

This is when friends phone or text each other, coordinating between a group, to make sure they all end up in the same place at the same time.

They are also looking at how the application of technology affects its use.

"Some communities are formed around particular kinds of uses of technology," said Dr Wakeford.

"You can have free calls to some people on your network. You also have people who use different technology but all contribute to the same webspace."

Connecting people

One of the things they have noticed is that people are constantly holding their mobile phones, checking if they have missed a call or if they are receiving a message.

While some might say this is a sign of the tyranny of the mobile, for Dr Bell, it is a liberating device.

"They allow me to stay in touch with my family, with my friends," said Dr Bell.

"They've created all those new types of conversations I can have. And people say the same thing about e-mail and the internet - this allows me to stay in touch with my family in other parts of the world."

"They create new opportunities for the same really important sorts of social relationships," she said.

See also:

16 Oct 01 | Business
Intel profits tumble
17 Oct 01 | Business
How gadgets got cheaper
06 Sep 01 | Business
Intel stands by sales forecasts
09 Mar 01 | Business
Shares battered by Intel
11 Dec 00 | Sci/Tech
The chips go marching on
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