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The future in our pockets at Japan’s Mobile Consumer Lab

Japan’s legions of small northwest coastal towns are famed for their patchworks of rice paddies and garlands of snow-capped mountains that offer some of the region’s best skiing, but only one is home to a research lab devoted to understanding how we interact with our mobile phones.

The Mobile Consumer Lab at the International University of Japan (IUJ) in Uonuma, Niigata, was created by director Dr Philip Sugai in 2007 with the very clear purpose of looking not at the technology in modern phones, but at how people use them and the ways in which better, more useful services might be created.

Diversity the key

The 30 graduate students at the IUJ Lab come from everywhere between Mexico and Vietnam, all with a common interest in the mobile platform that unites upwards of three billion people around the globe to varying degrees.

Among their equally diverse research subjects are more usable mobile browsers, providing real-time travel information to phones, understanding the insidious nature of marketing the mobile lifestyle to children and even ways to protect sometimes-vulnerable female tourists to developing nations through phone handsets.

Looking ahead

Mongolian student Mendbayar Ichinkhorloo explains his research on mobile financial services: “With the improvements in mobile technology, mobile stock trading and real-time portfolio checking will be the next killer application by 2010.”

As if to underline the practical nature of the Lab, he goes on to reveal his plans to implement just such a service in Mongolia after graduating from IUJ.
Beside Ichinkhorloo, fellow student Daniel Bukenya from Uganda specializes in the use of phones as electronic cash and related services, but knows that there’s still a way to go.

He notes: “The biggest challenge [for providers of mobile micropayments, as they’re known] is providing the conditions needed for the service to thrive. These include legal requirements, infrastructure and technology and ease of use for the customer.”

Putting his finger on a point many technology providers would do well to remember, Bukenya adds, “They really need to look beyond the hype and look at the value proposition for the customers too.”

Colleague Atri Singgih from Indonesia cautions that the nature of the institution offering mobile e-cash is critical.

Focusing on the all-important issue of consumer trust, he says: “Any company that introduces or pushes mobile payment technology to customers should be a large-base customer institution working together with the mobile operator and a financial institution. That will help merchants accept it and, thus, customers to see the clear value of the new technology.”

Head for business

It’s all undoubtedly fascinating work and a damn site more interesting than the numbers-based boasts we get from the mobile phone companies and networks, but the Lab isn’t all about the warm and fuzzy stuff – there’s a hard core of business driving Sugai’s vision.

A substantial part of his work involves taking the next step, where commercial sponsors will fund students to both work towards their MBA degrees and develop concrete business plans.

Towards the time of graduation, Sugai plans to introduce the incubated ideas to so-called angel investors with a view to making research into reality. Best of all, everyone involved gets a stake in any resulting enterprise.

Aside from sharing their experience, that’s one reason why heavy hitters like Motorola, Sony, DoCoMo, KDDI, Qualcomm, Opera and Google have been beating a path to Niigata in recent months.

Sugai explains: “Having corporate sponsors makes things real for Lab students - one of the problems with business education is that it can be too classroom-based. Training students to actually deliver strategic solutions and not just half-baked ideas is important.”

He expands on that: “Our mission is to create new ideas, businesses and opportunities by focusing not on technology but on consumer interaction with their devices. There are many universities in Japan and around the world that are looking at mobile technology, but we’re a business school.”

Hype filter

Clearly, keeping it real is important to Sugai and his students. Turning to a subject we’ve looked at before – fancy phone gadgets going unused – he gives the example of mobile TV.

“You read the hype about this many mobile television phones being shipped, but the reality is 50 per cent of people who try it never use it again.

“Technology is a tool, but it’s the interaction of that technology with people where the fun really is,” he admits.

Returning to the theme of spawning hardheaded businesspeople who understand what consumers want, Sugai points out the quality of the speakers he has attracted to the Lab.

“Putting people like Sachio Semmoto [the founder of wireless broadband provider Emobile], who just raised three billion US dollars for a new mobile network or Takeshi Natsuno, one of the founders of i-mode, right in front of these guys to learn from is very exciting.”

Exciting’s one word for it – smart and extremely pragmatic are a few more to add to it for sure.

Although it’s still early days for the project, the quality of the students and resources already at the Mobile Consumer Lab make it clear that any business with an interest in mobile phones and what we do with them should make a ticket to northwest Japan a priority – if they haven’t already done so, that is.

(Crossposted to TechRadar)

02:09 AM JMLH • Permalink
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