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Hacking the Future of Chat

Posted 3 years ago by Naomi Francis

Communication enables process and progress. The reason the human race have developed to our current state is because we can communicate with one another. Over time, the way we do this has changed drastically. From hieroglyphics on cave walls to phone calls to messages. The latter has stuck over time but has appeared in different forms as technology has advanced. From letters to text messages. So what is in store for the future of chat?

“2016 saw the arrival of the messenger bot, set to revolutionise not only the way we communicate with each other but the way we interact with the world around us.”

Apps are predicted to become the new web and bots the new app. Which makes perfect sense when you realise it’s now possible to find out a series of information within your favourite messaging app by simply asking for it. From the weather forecast, traffic updates to the best restaurants in your location. It’s faster, more human and it feels sleeker than ever. Bots have arrived, making swiping between apps for data, once a sleek streamlined movement, feel like a clunky and inconvenient.

“Communication enables process and progress.”

So here we are, in the age of the bot. It’s sparked conversation in every corner of the web about the future of chat and rightly so, who knows what is next?!

Digital studio, Simpleweb, based in Bristol have questioned that future and placed it in the hands of a group of hackers. An all-day hackathon was scheduled to house innovative ideation around the topic, open to both tech and non-tech minds, to see what they could bring to the forefront of conversation.

The hackathon was held in their quirky offices kitted out with a pool table, VR room and homemade meals – and probably the first hackathon we’ve attended with DJ decks. All this made for a relaxed environment which encouraged participation and creativity. We brought ourselves and a handful of swag to the Hackathon to join the other co-sponsors Twilio and Pusher in supporting the event.

After some quick introductions the attendees split into groups of three and quickly got their heads down into ideation.

The Ideas

“We don’t want to do anything normal or expected”, explained Ruth from the first hack group we spoke to when asking how they’re approaching ideation. Combining their minds, Ruth, Marcus and Thomas achieved just that and developed Literate Giggle (Joint Winner of Most Innovative Tech), a crowdsourcing app that enabled devices to tell stories. They went on to explain that the premise for this came from a hunch that in the future, devices will do all the talking for us.

“In the future, devices will do all the talking for us.”

There were a few hacks which stemmed from building on the revolutionary messenger, Slack. GitBot, by David Moody, pulled information from GitHub into Slack to share who has been making changes to a repository. Another group’s idea was to build an extension of an existing team address book service, Contactzilla. Led by Tom, they decided to integrate their service within Slack, developing a bot to draw relevant address book information from Contactzilla when typing a colleague’s name within the messenger. Aptly named Slackzilla.

In the same theme, hacks were developed to act within other bot platforms like Facebook Messenger. CoachBot was a bot developed by Jack, David and Peter which enabled users to learn a skill, on request, using messenger format. There were interesting concepts from Kirstie around how messenger bots could help to improve donators’ communication with charities running refugee camps, called Calaisboration (Winner of Most Innovative Concept).

A bold idea stemmed from the hope of connecting people around the world, using a rather old method of communication as its main driver, the payphone. Twiliobox (Joint Winner of Most Innovative Tech) created by Adam called around 7000 phone boxes around the world waiting on an answer. If someone did, they would hear an experiment disclosure message if they agreed, they would be connected with Adam. Of those 7000 calls, two people answered. One by accident. One to inform Adam he was in fact calling a pay phone. Unsuccessful, but brilliant.

What’s Up Bot (Winner of Most Absurd) by Coen was a peek into the future of how devices speak to each other. He created a robot which would respond to orders from his computer – but not just any orders, polite ones. Polite buzzwords of ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ dotted around in the code made us question – could computers ever respond favourably to empathy?

“Could computers ever respond favourably to empathy?”

There were others around entertainment, a hack called Tune Time enabled happy pub goers to play live interactive Pub Quizzes from their smartphone to the TV screen. A hack opposed to emojis called ‘Enoji’ was developed by Phil Nash in the fear that humans are going to revert back to a language of images, like hieroglyphics. ‘Enoji’ acts as a chat service which morphs emoji back into a text description state whenever someone attempted to send one.

The last was a little off theme but fantastic in its own right. Moodlights (Winner of Most Commercially Viable) was programmed by Karl who matched the colour of his device’s screen to a Phillips hue bulb. Awesome potential here to providing immaculate mood lighting when watching TV or a movie.

The Insight

Throughout the day we had a few chats here and there about the challenges people experience at Hackathons. Time management was a prevalent theme, not surprising with the tight time restraints from ideation through to build, test and pitching. Second was the ideation itself, particularly under this theme. From the discussions we had it became clear that chat is generally something people are happy with functionality wise, which made it difficult to see past its current state and think of its future potential.

Talks from Twilio’s Phil Nash and Pusher’s Ben Foxall offered some insight and guidance on building an effective prototype efficiently. Phil identified the three key challenges for individuals building prototypes. ‘Slip’, leaving a wide timeframe which allows the project to fall behind and eventually off the face of the Earth. ‘Bloat’, allowing the prototype to acquire unnecessary features rapidly which leads to a project growing and growing to the point of no return. Finally, a ‘loss of focus’, when the project has expanded so much it loses direction and purpose.

“To save yourself from these three challenges of prototype building. Set yourself a deadline and a tight focus.”

Simpleweb Hackathon Chat Marvel Prototyping Tech

Dan Foxall in the VR room

Ben Foxall from Pusher spoke next and deconstructed the meaning of building ‘Simpler Things’. Pun intended. “A simple thing is an easily described and understandable object that is open to purpose.” This concept of being open to purpose is what Ben believes is a key aspect to successful products – being able to reappropriate a product to suit different individuals needs, means that it can be used again and again. Which is the whole point right, building something that people want to use?

When building prototypes, Ben follows a few pieces of advice. Firstly, “keep it simple stupid”. Often misinterpreted as quite aggressive as ‘stupid’ kind of feels like it’s referring to you the reader. But it should actually be read, keep it simple and stupid. Secondly, “simplicity needs empathy”, in order for a product to be widely accepted and reappropriated you need to think about others needs and wants.

Looking back at the ideas generated at the Hacktahon, there are patterns we can identify as some key theories on where chat might go in the future. First, there will be a flurry of bots which continue to weave their way into our favourite messengers. Changing the way that we use our apps, how we consume information and how we interact with our devices.

“We look at the present through a rear view mirror. We march backwards to the future.” – Marshall McLuhan

Which takes us to our second theory, how will devices communicate with each other in the future. The minds behind Literate Giggle expressed their thoughts that in the future there may not even be communication between humans anymore. It would be between devices. Is it possible that technology could become so advanced that our devices could start to mirror our messaging patterns and personality to respond for us?

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