Mobile interfaces in a tethered world

What is the spatial and locative experience of a person in the digital age? Can we fully appreciate a place, thing, or experience for what it is, or by making it possible to network in real-time and thereby augment our reality, do we embody it as part of our full sensory experience that makes us present? Jason Farman looks at this complicated reality in Mobile Interface Theory, presenting us with a relatively novel way of engaging with our mediated realities. Embodiment, Farman points out, is the sum total of personal and cultural experiences of one’s body (p. 31). Thus, a mobile interface is increasingly a mediation that creates a new meaning of the immediate. How, then, does this work in practice? Farman offers ideas, the first of these is the ideas that create the interface.

Conceptually, an interface is a personally-directed tool or manner of information transfer that is specific to that object in its current manifestation in space and time. In practice, however, Farman notes that the reality is far more complex, especially in the context of embodiment. For Farman, the interface is where the senses and culture collapse into a coherent and understandable social space (p. 64). As an example of this, Farman points to the SixthSense system. In this system a projection of relevant details is placed on the person to whom the wearer is talking—in this case, a word cloud of what the other participant may characterize themselves with (p. 57). This example shows how a person’s senses, visual, primarily, can augment their current space and place, and indeed their embodiment of data, but it also demonstrates how one’s sense of identity can be transformed by mere engagement with this interface. By drawing in the other person to be a physical part of the interface the SixthSense system is creating embodiment. It’s an even more poignant realization when the viewer notices that the system is by extension creating a physical change in the participant’s self-image and thus creating a mediated experience of embodiment that flows through the interface of two people and a social data system. Furthermore, as Farman later explains, this interface mimics a present reality, that most meetings are mediated through what people already have gathered from, say, social media or otherwise about the person (p. 98).

Farman dissects other types of media as a method of creating embodiment and other cultural experiences. Locative social media, media that uses location as its core interface, is one form that has blown up lately. Systems that track and thus physically situate a person against an existing network are now pervasive: geotagging one’s location when writing a social media status is common, and it thereby extends the capacity of others to interface with you on various metrics, be it existing proximity, former hometowns, and the like. Notably, it can also create embarrassing situations, such as the harassment of a homeless woman through the game Momentum (p. 77-78). Training people through these interfaces can become problematic when social cues and reality are blurred—something also doubly recognized in the motion-based Wii interface that at times can include miming the action of stabbing a person, which, without the correct social context and understanding, can be a training of children or others who might not necessarily be equipped to handle such training. What happens when a child finds a knife? Without proper understanding it’s possible that the worst possible outcome, a child utilizing the knife, can be prompted without the correct social cues and context in place (p. 80).

Applying Farman’s work practically, we can look at what it means in real-world applications. Sherry Turkle reminds us that we exist as a “tethered self,” and is further quoted by Farman as saying “[t]he self, attached to its devices, occupies a liminal space between the physical real and its digital lives on multiple screens” (p. 108). The digital, then, is a relevant factor in what constitutes the physical for many people. Making a digital experience integrative of the physical is no longer a matter of theory, it is the basis by which most digital applications are created. To that end we can easily draw this into a maxim, that all digital media should be cognizant of the general physical reality of a user. Digital media evolves on the macro, and therefore, it should be fluid and capable of the micro relations with users as well: more tools for more needs exist, and more capacity for innovation arrive daily, so having a broader understanding of the “who” behind the user is important. How do you make sure that the media is geared toward the user, and not simply a training of these now digitally-dependent people? This question is why equity and accommodation are vital in digital spaces: not everyone can use your app, whether it’s because they lack the technology or physical ability. Asking yourself beforehand who will be able to use your mobile technology is key, especially now that your app exists in a world that is all but completely enmeshed in the digital.

Applying the theoretical underpinnings of Farman’s work, Public historians are a group that should ask this question and more regarding one topic in particular: access. Contributing new knowledge and interpretation to society creates a conundrum of gatekeeping: whether recognized or not, the selection of audience is deliberate and can exclude many. In most cases this selection of audience is key, for example ensuring your geotagged tour of a city is not incorrectly interpreted as any other kind of guide by tourists or is marketed in such a way that someone in another city downloads it without understanding its geographic focus. Furthermore, as a primarily visual medium, digital applications present a high bar for accessibility by the disabled. As such, asking whether your application will be capable of interfacing with disabled users is vital: it already presents a fundamental barrier. Do you open the gate, or do you continue on with your underlying mission?

This question creates a major point of critique of Farman’s work: his eliding technology and society but glossing over the reality of who uses and how. His theory is fundamentally one of reshaping reality and social fabrics through the impact of new technology on one’s embodiment, but by keeping vague about how his theoretical framework applies writ large to the multitude of society, including the disabled, those outside one’s audience, and so on, Farman corrupts his own message. The physical reality of potential users, be it physical removal from the site of focus for a mobile interface, or physical limitations that prevent usage of such an interface, is a vital fulcrum on which his argument rests, and it is unsatisfactorily addressed. While the bulk of his theory is sound, this weakness is profound and cuts against his usage of broader social philosophy as a basis.

Dude, Where’s My History?: A Look at Historical Mapping Interfaces

The advent of digital technology allowed a greater exchange of knowledge and ideas to enter homes at an astonishing new level. This change brought information and services straight to users that before may have required someone to actually leave their home to seek it. The advancement of mobile computing technology furthered the trend of information coming directly to people but without restricting its access in one physical place. Many cultural heritage institutions have noticed these changes and adapted to become not only places that house information, but resources that increasingly push it directly to their patrons wherever they may be. The affordances of this new media also allow institutions to bring their materials into geographic space, adding another layer of interpretation and context while bringing to the public’s attention that history is all around us.

Histories of the National Mall

One site that takes advantage of mobile application and a spatial understanding of history is Histories of the National Mall created by the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media run using our old pal, Omeka. Taking their own advice from their report Mobile for Museums, the site is device independent, made to run on a web browser allowing for use across desktop, laptop, and mobile and is not a native downloadable app that needs tailoring for each device. As the title indicates, the site is an interface for learning about the histories of the national mall through maps, explorations (short examinations based on questions people might have about the mall), people, and past events. Most of these sections can be filtered into different historical periods. Some of my favorite sections, and much to my chagrin,  are the great explorations of unmade designs of the national monuments. There are also a number of scavenger hunts that send you to a specific part of the mall and have images of places for you to find. Once you find the images, you tap or click them and can read or listen to more about it.

Histories of the National Mall Map

The key feature of this site is the map, which has over 300 points containing historical information, audio, video, images, and documents. The user can filter by each of those categories as well as by place and event. As stated above, the site is web browser based and largely looks the same when using on a desktop/laptop or a mobile device. Using GPS, Histories of the National Mall centers the map on the user’s coordinates and locates them within historical context. What is good about the map is that there are no set way to explore the points, you can wander around and discover new facts and events that shaped the environment all around. This allows the user to set their own narrative in a serendipitous combination of explorations.


Aris Games

While Histories of the National Mall is a ready made site, Aris Games is both an open source application to create geographically based games and a mobile app to play the games. The back end is not the scary coding or programming that some in the cultural heritage sector may fear, but a simple interface so even those without the technical skills can make the games with the infrastructure invisible to them. One downside to the Aris created games not encountered in the mall histories site is that the mobile app is only available on Apple products and has a much more limited audience because of it.


The Aris editor interface to create is simple but it is by no means easy to understand without first reading the manual or viewing the helpful video tutorials on certain topics. It is important to understand the different elements (especially non-obvious ones such as scenes, plaques, and locks) and how they function so you can create a working game. The games are largely tours or explorations of certain areas. Building a game is based on creating “scenes” or different scenarios that the user can encounter as they travel around. You can make conversations for the user to have at each location that can lead them further into the game. All of the features you create can be mapped to a certain location to create an exploratory geographic environment. This feature is unfortunately cumbersome to use as the only way to find your points is through precise GPS coordinates or by dragging the point to where you want with no way to search for your general location so you can get there quicker. Also there is no way to see how your game will look in app without having and opening the app. Since I have an Android device, I needed to borrow an iPhone to do this. Despite these drawbacks, Aris editor is a good way to make games without requiring programming experience.

Aris Editor


Playing the games is fairly simple but, as mentioned above, does require downloading their Apple based app. Inside the app you can play any number of games created with the editor. You can either find  games based on your geographic location, sort by popularity, or search for a specific title. Aris provides a demo that will give you a good overview of what it is like to play these games (avert your eyes if you dislike semi-obsolete media):

Overall, National Histories of the Mall and Aris Games are good examples of the creative ways spatial history and mobile technology can work together to engage the public. By embracing this new trend and the ubiquity of mobile phones, institutions will add layers of meaning, attract a wider audience than before, and bring content out from behind closed doors.