Wednesday, July 12, 2006

The Art of the Phone.

Day Two of our expedition to the East began with a great buffet in the hotel restaurant, where we sampled everything from dumplings to lychee muffins while seated at this big round table with oversized, super-tall plush red chairs. I wouldn't have been surprised if Lancelot had shown up with a tray loaded down with dumplings and donuts-on-a-stick. (Yes, donuts-on-a-stick. One of my great regrets from this trip so far was that I didn't take my camera to breakfast this morning.)

After that, we broke into two teams. One team headed off to conduct interviews with Chinese consumers, and the other dove right into contemporary Chinese culture. As a member of the second team, I found myself in a taxi rocketing across the city into the Shangzou Creek Art District, where the taxi dropped us off in a wide industrial courtyard. Back home developers are building all kinds of new pseudo-industrial lofts for some lucky people to call home, but here was The Real Deal - gritty concrete buildings with enormous steel fire doors and huge towering ceilings, all of which had been converted into galleries, shops and artists' offices.

Shanghai: The Next Great City of Art?

As Shanghai rises again, there's been a huge influx of artists attracted by the (relatively) low cost of living and the opportunity to participate in a new hot art scene. We spent the next couple of hours wandering through galleries like the ShanghART Gallery and the Art Scene Warehouse. At one point in the afternoon I found myself wondering whether it was an insult or a compliment to think, "I don't care if this was made in Shanghai or New York - this is great work!" There was some art loaded with political imagery - several works in one of the galleries made oblique criticisms of the new East-Meets-West type of lifestyle - but there were also many works that were simply stunning uses of color and composition. One piece showed a tree beside an overpass in the middle of winter, rendered in cool whites and browns, and the result was just captivating. I found myself hoping that this artist would someday exhibit their work in a larger gallery home, like the Met or the Guggenheim, where they're more likely to sell prints or postcards in the gift shops to us poor grad students.

Based on what little I've seen, I imagine that Shanghai is a huge, largely untapped gold mine for Western art collectors. Currently American art museums tend to lump most of this stuff under the generic label "Contemporary Asian Art", but many of these artists could easily carry solo exhibitions. Within the next five to ten years (if that), I think China is going to set our American art world on fire.

Well-Traveled Tea and Coffee, Indeed

After that our group grabbed coffee and tea at this beautiful little coffee shop called Traveled Tea and Coffee, which my Designer Mind found absolutely mindblowing. I took a bunch of pictures there, which I'll post to our Photos page as soon as I can get them off the camera and uploaded to Flickr. Everywhere I looked in this place there was some inspiring new design element - from the patterns in the floor to the lightning to the colors they used on the walls. Imagine a sort of contemporary fusion between Asian styles and, well, Starbucks/Cosi/insert-high-design-restaurant-here, and you start to get an idea of the place - but it definitely had a style all its own. Wait until I post the pictures - I could easily blow several thousand words on that cafe alone.

Adventures on the Cell Phone Floor

Moving swiftly on, we walked across town down to a shopping district, where we entered into a massive department store. We walked through the men's floor, up across the women's floor, and then to the cell phone floor.

Yes, the cell phone floor.

Were I a millionaire, I would go back to the States, go into my local Sprint store, cackle at their meager offerings and then grab the guy at the counter by the ear like some 18th-century school marm. I would haul him out of the mall, onto the T, down to the airport and straight back here, still dragging him along by his ear, right back to this floor of this store, where I would finally let him go. I would dump him unceremoniously on the floor and yell, "See? SEE? THIS is how it should be done!"

In the States, any given cell phone store only carries a paltry few models of phones. This is because so much of the market back home is totally segmented - the carriers try and convince people to switch by only offering particular models. As a consumer, this bites because it absolutely shatters the amount of choices we have, especially when every time we buy a phone we're basically committing ourselves to a new contract. Ugh. Here, though, you buy a phone and then you insert a SIM chip into it, which contains all of your user information. No matter which phone you buy, most of them will take any SIM chip. This means you can choose from any phone currently being manufactured, and allows for much, much greater choice - including opening up the market to a bunch of cell phone makers that you've never heard of. When you walk into this floor of the department store, you are faced with booths from the different manufacturers. Each one of these booths, from Nokia or Motorola or Sony-Ericsson or Anycall or a dozen others, offers more selection than any cell phone store back home. The phones aren't cheap, but many of the offerings offer seriously tantalizing options.

I'll admit I was a little disappointed by the lack of anything truly revolutionary - they didn't have the Nokia videocam-phone that I'd been eyeballing for a while, but they did have several others offering similar functionality. Videoblogging services are going to explode when people can create their own little moblog entries from anywhere, recorded at DV-level quality and then uploaded wirelessly to the web, which their friends can then download from anywhere. Imagine an RSS feed on your phone where you're sent a text message anytime a friend uploads a new videoblog entry from their phone, and with a click or two you can download that entry straight to your own phone to watch wherever. This is where I think mobile media is headed, and it seems like several manufacturers are leading the charge. Nokia is right out front - as they are with the design market as well. Motorola has a couple of contenders flitting about the ring as well, but Nokia's L'Amour Collection is a set of leather-trimmed phones with laser-etched (I think) floral patterns right in the metal. On the store floor these models were being displayed on pedastals with items like a Victorian mirror, a mock Tiffany lamp, and a little Asian treasure box, and they fit right in. These phones may be designed for women, but I want one - it's refreshing to see a phone design take a new direction than simply painting the sucker pink. As the RAZR proved for Motorola, the market is teeming with demand for great phone design - according to a BusinessWeek article, Motorola sold more RAZR phones last year than Apple sold iPods. Whether or not American cell dealers are being boneheaded and stingy or not, with markets like China opening up the worldwide mobile media landscape is going to become extremely interesting, extremely fast.

The End of the Day, and Your Homework

After that, we came back to the hotel where I, uh, passed out. Ah, yes - there's the jet lag I know and love. It's now about 10:45 PM here, and by some great miracle I've managed to stay up to a respectable bedtime to try and keep that jet lag at bay. I'll let you know how that works out tomorrow. ;)

So, enough of my yammering - now we have some questions for you.

Where in the world are you?

What phone do you use?

What do you want in your phone?

If you had the technology to do so quickly and cheaply, would you use a phone to make videoblog entries from interesting places in your world?

Please use the "post a comment" link below for your answers!


Blogger Parmesh said...

What wonderful blog entries.... I really feel like I am there with you all! Would love to see more pics whenever possible. Now to answer your questions:

Where in the world are you?
Cambridge, MA, but shifting to India soon.

What phone do you use?
An old Nokia 3650 - will upgrade it in India.

What do you want in your phone?
1. Good phone book.
2. Good camera - photo and video.
3. Email and web capability.
4. Ability to open attachments easily.
5. Neat additional facilities like dictaphone, voice activated calling, etc.
6. Value added services from my provider - but only when I want. Thus, if I am in a particular part of Bombay, and want to know the best pizza place available, I want to be able to access the info quickly and easily and I am more than willing to pay a reasonable fee. But I certainly don't want to be bombarded with the information, unsolicited.

If you had the technology to do so quickly and cheaply, would you use a phone to make videoblog entries from interesting places in your world?
Yes. Totally. It's already happening in India actually and can be very useful - for example, a lot of the TV footage on the Indian version of CNN was from what they call citizen reporters - ordinary folks who captured the events on their cellphone and then mailed it in to CNN-IBN.

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