Will technology ever fully capture context and does this matter?

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This insight piece was penned by our co-founder Dylan McKee, and first written for Newcastle University’s Open Lab.

No, I don’t think technology will ever fully capture context – and nor do I think this matters.

I don’t think technology will ever fully capture context because of the nature of human computer interaction. I found a prime example of this in this paper from Mahmudul Hasan and Amit K. Roy-Chowdhury at the University of California, which discusses the real-world issues of implementing context aware motion/activity tracking.

The main problem that I see is that technology can only capture context when it is obvious and statistically/numerically greatly different to other contexts – a specific example being activity tracking on mobile phones as discussed in the aforementioned paper; whilst it is technically possible to attempt to track activity using sensors, it will never be accurate enough in human terms, because whilst technology is aware statistically of exactly what is occurring in the context (i.e. location coordinates, temperature stats, speed and direction figures), human nature is simply too blurred for technology to be able to ‘translate’ this into accurate enough contextual information without any kind of human input – for example, skateboarding and biking are very different activities to humans, but will always appear very similar to context aware technology.

However, context aware technology will always be ‘good enough’ to be useful – technology does not require context to be fully captured to be able to be helpful and beneficial to the user.

For example, as discussed in this article, iPhones running iOS 8 and later are able to use location context to infer and suggest context aware apps to users on their lock screen – so they can access potentially contextually aware apps instantly. This is a great example of ubicomp research allowing for a great implementation of calm technology – the icon is never ‘bouncing at’ or demanding attention from the user, it is merely ‘quietly’ sitting there ready to be used. I can also, from personal experience, vouch that this feature, despite only using one very simple aspect of context awareness to a limited level of accuracy, is genuinely very useful to the user.

As this real-life example shows, technology does not need to capture context fully to be provide significant usability gains to users – it simply doesn’t matter; limited context is enough for huge user experience improvement.

Dylan McKee
Dylan McKee
Dylan McKee is the co-founder & CEO of Nebula Labs. He's a passionate technologist, excited app developer, and enthusiastic tea drinker. Dylan has a vast experience of mobile app development, developing his first iOS app - myAltitude - at the age of 13, which went on to achieve over 1 million downloads worldwide. Since then, Dylan has worked on countless apps over multiple mobile and web platforms for a variety of clients ranging from solo entrepreneurs and venture-backed startups to established SMEs and local government organisations. Dylan studied Computer Science BSc at Newcastle University, and is also an alumni of the Ignite Accelerator Programme, completing their Summer 2014 programme and working with many of their portfolio companies on mobile apps.

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