Does iPad have the magic to bring people together?

Does iPad have the magic to bring people together?

SAN JOSE — As an app developer, Bess Ho typically cuts a serious figure as she sits writing computer code into the wee hours.

But not today. Right now she looks like a crazed kid at a carnival amped up on cotton candy as she and three other programmers all stab their fingers wildly at the same iPad tablet.

“Get that mouse, but not the cheese!” she yells on stage at a recent gathering of iPad app makers here on the joint campus of eBay and PayPal.

An unofficial variation of the arcade game Whac-A-Mole, Ho and her teammates’ Whack A Mouse — one of dozens of apps created over the course of this two-day conference — appears at a glance to be nothing more than another computer game. In reality, it’s nothing less than a window into the iPad’s most revolutionary feature: its ability to literally bring people together.

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“There’s a potential here that is just starting to be realized,” says Dom Sagolla, who helped create Twitter and is founder of the iPadDevCamp, which drew nearly 350 developers from a range of states and countries to brainstorm and share code. “The question is, what is the iPad’s role in a group, public setting?”

Significant, it seems. Though smartphones and laptops are typically one-on-one devices, Apple‘s 2-month-old baby — which already has sold 2 million units priced at $499 to $829 — has everyone from developers to end users gaga over what they say is a coming cultural shift in the way groups will interact with a high-tech device.

Less a computer and more a digital coffee-table book with infinite content, the iPad has rendered its technology invisible in order to spotlight information that often is meant to be shared.

“By moving the keyboard and mouse into the Stone Age, the iPad has created a new dimension of interaction with a device,” says Peter Friess, president of the Tech Museum of Innovation in San Jose.

“Suddenly, it’s not just about you and a computer. It’s about you and your friends and that screen. That’s different.”

People potential

For technology, so often criticized for turning us into zoned-out, earbud-wearing islands, the significance of any device capable of luring us out of those cocoons looms large.

“We’re in the beginning stages of evaluating the iPad’s impact on education, but already it seems to offer interesting options for group study around a common workspace,” says Tracy Futhey, chief information officer at Duke University, which was among the nation’s first schools to issue iPods to freshmen and make lectures available on the device.

Futhey says many of Duke’s professors already have bought iPads. When the school purchased a handful as loaners for faculty, the wait list grew to six weeks overnight. She sees the most potential for the iPad in science and engineering classes, where group work is the norm.

“Laptops are a very one-to-one experience,” she says. “The sense here is the iPad could offer a new model for learning with others.”

And sharing with others. Colombian artist Claudio Arango recently downloaded his abstract nude artworks onto an iPad, fashioned a cloth sling that would allow it to hang from his neck, and strolled the streets of Bogota with the device in slideshow mode. After passersby got over their initial shock, Arango succeeded in his mission: creating an interactive art exhibit on a mobile device.

“At first, people thought I was selling something and told me to go away,” Arango says with a laugh. “But there was that light. And then a recognition of the art. And suddenly everyone was touching my screen, flicking through the images. So very different from an art gallery where everything is ‘Don’t touch.’ “

He says that what excites him most about the iPad is “the possibility of inter-relationships,” whether with the general public or his granddaughter, who often curls up on a couch with him so the two can create digital paintings. “I really like the way the device has a way of connecting me to people,” he says.

Nowhere is a personal connection more important than in the medical arena. Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles is starting to experiment with the iPad’s ability to better bond doctors with patients.

“It won’t magically solve all our issues, because medical data-entry will still require a computer (and keyboard), but the iPad could be the next evolution in sharing information with patients,” says Darren Dworkin, the hospital’s chief information officer. He says Cedars has a dozen iPads that make the rounds with doctors.

“We’re eager to make the evolutionary step from doctors entering information with their backs to patients to holding a screen that they can then turn around and share,” he says. “It’s early stages yet, but there’s great potential.”

The games begin

That promise has already been realized by an array of game developers, notably powerhouse Electronic Arts, which rolled out a multi-player Scrabble game with the iPad’s debut. The EA version turned the iPad into the Scrabble board, and the players’ iPhones or iPod Touches into individual letter docks.

“Games have always been meant to be played alongside other people, and the iPad, with its size, is a natural for that,” says Travis Boatman, vice president of worldwide studios for EA Mobile. “Where the iPhone is a solitary gadget, the iPad is a destination device that is inherently immersive and group-oriented.”

It’s also potentially addictive, especially if the iPhone’s ability to engender rapt devotion in its owners is any indication, says Tanya Luhrmann, an anthropology professor at Stanford University. Her March survey of 200 student iPhone owners revealed that 10% considered themselves addicted to the device. “It was partly the functionality and the phone’s ability to store their lives, but also just the beautiful nature of the product,” Luhrmann says. “Students literally tended to pet their iPhones.”

She says the iPad, which looks much like a giant iPhone, probably stands to cast that same glowing spell over groups who are drawn to it to play games, consult a website or watch videos together.

“You’ll have this new kind of interaction with technology that is both face-to-computer, as well as more traditional face-to-face,” she says. “It’ll be exciting to study where this goes.”

Apple engineers, who are famously secretive about their products, have left no clues as to what iPad design ideas were cast aside before landing on a deceptively simple slate with high expectations (it was dubbed the Jesus Tablet in the blogosphere). But one top executive admits that even he is surprised by how rapidly the device is opening itself up to group use.

“The size of the thing was critical, but once we got that down and played with a prototype, all leaning in over the machine, everyone zooming and tapping and pinching almost at once, we sensed this was something that could bridge gaps between people,” says Phil Schiller, who as senior vice president of worldwide product marketing is tasked to keep Steve Jobs current on the status of his brand. “But already that notion is being surpassed.”

The iPad’s role in his own domestic life is “less about someone sitting in a corner with it, and more about gathering around to look up something about a movie we want to watch, or play a game together or just pass around the day’s news,” he says. “With the iPad, the tech part disappears, so you’re just left with the content.”

And there’s no more squabbling about who’s in control. “With a computer, there’s a mouse, and everyone always wants to ‘drive’ it,” Schiller says. “Here, anyone can touch the screen. We’re all drivers.”

Silicon Valley investor Matt Murphy is keen on the iPad’s possibilities once developers really kick things into gear, a bit like the Ford Model T awaiting the interstate highway system before realizing the possibilities of personal transportation.

“We’re still about six months away before we fully understand its use, but the wave is coming,” says Murphy, manager of Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers’ iFund, which recently announced a second $100 million fund earmarked for app developers. “This is a multigenerational device that is meant to be shared. Whether it’s in business, education or entertainment, there will be a new level of collaborative computing as a result of the iPad.”

Xeni Jardin, an editor at tech blog Boing Boing, says the iPad has allowed her to introduce the power of computing to relatives “who are so much from a different era that they normally feel intimidated by it all. But here I can sit down alongside folks who range from 4 to 80 and present information in a way that’s not so foreign to them, because it just appears on the screen.”

Jardin says she’s trying to cut back on her always-online time for family reasons and initially was concerned the iPad would make that tougher.

“Instead, I found this was the one device that I could get on the couch and gather my family around,” she says. “It’s inclusive.”

No-armed bandits

The developers gathered here at eBay on a quiet Sunday — T-shirt-clad men and women who span a range of ages and ethnicities — radiate the vibe that the iPad represents a new chapter in the human-computer dynamic.

Taking that notion to a whimsical extreme is Tim Burks, a veteran programmer who along with five other iPadDevCamp attendees, including one brainy 14-year-old, dazzles the crowd with something he simply calls Slot Machine.

The presentation goes like this: Three men stomp on stage, each holding an iPad at chest level. A fourth man holds up an iPhone. Then the three iPads light up, each showing a typical slot machine symbol. The man with iPhone in fist mimics the movement of pulling a giant lever.

Instantly, the cherries, lemons and bars on the three unconnected iPads start to spin. The crowd roars as if real silver dollars were spilling forth.

“I wanted to built Slot Machine because it was hard, and because it seemed like magic,” Burks says. (The magic is the iPad’s built-in Bluetooth capability, blended with hours of code writing.)

“But mainly, I wanted to show that the iPad is a device that can truly be shared with others. In a world that’s always been about a one-person, one-computer relationship, that’s revolutionary.”

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