Intel have been buying a travel card to find out
Suzi Kerridge reports on some research that is part social anthropology, part technology...
Intel boffins aren't often found on the number 73 bus from London's Victoria station to Tottenham but that's where they have been conducting research into the use of mobile devices.
This is just one of the ways the world's largest chip-maker and the University of Surrey's sociology department have begun to study device usage, to tailor future designs.
The research, called Understanding the Consumption of Ubiquitous Digital Content, is now in its second year and has a year left to run. However, conclusions are already being drawn.
Place matters, according to Dr Nina Wakeford, researcher at the University of Surrey, when using digital devices to get different types of content.
"Spacial configuration of using a laptop is quite different from a PDA or mobile so we see an increasing number of people doing what we call layering - linking information from a mobile to a PDA and then downloading it to a PC or laptop in the office," she said.
The research centred on watching people use mobile devices in their daily lives. In addition to the above example, it involved spending the day on an overland train from Waterloo to Richmond.
The idea, said Wakeford, is to provide Intel with an insight into the social processes in to which technology can be fitted and technology's cultural and economic importance.
"It's very easy to work out how a technology has failed but what we're trying to do is see if there are certain social activities that can influence the design of technology," she said.
The University of Surrey has been granted $50,000 a year to run the study, which Intel claims it has neither the time nor resources to do it itself.
John Sherry, manager at the People and Places research department at Intel, said: "The premise is to get a different perspective and pursue varied interests in a way we as a corporate would never be able to do."
The chip-maker has already learnt about the way people use technology as a way to form social identities, he said.
University of Surrey's Wakeford agreed. "Our research shows people are often defined by what technology they have. We've even seen young girls painting their nails to match their phone interfaces," she said.
Her team are expected to continue to ride buses and trains in the name of research until next year, possibly with the occasional visiting executive riding up top.