Skinning in Seoul
By Justin Hall, Wed Nov 19 06:45:00 GMT 2003

By the time I left Seoul my devices were blissfully wrapped in layers of pop-culture plastic.

I'm obsessed with participation. I want to experience technology trends, not watch them happen. Here, let me have your phone. How do I send a picture with this thing?

I wrote about my failed attempt to get my own mobile phone in Seoul last month. I was stymied by a society adverse to credit cards and hung-up on past misdeeds by foreigners. But I was not deterred. I was was determined - to participate somehow in the excitement of mobile culture here.

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Seoul Mobile, Fall 2003
Friend Jay Kim has a 3G handset in Seoul, he was showing me, smiling, how he can watch TV on his mobile phone (the SCH X-820). We watched parliamentary hearings in a restaurant. I think I'd rather have the Simpsons remotely cued to start whenever I had free time and extra battery life. Either way, watching TV on a device that small seems inappropriate - Rushkoff describes mobile phones as "inch devices", not exactly the best screen for sustained squinting. But maybe a decent way to share a viral video with a friend?

Seoul Mobile, Fall 2003
Jay Kim holds up his mobile phone to display a neat feature totally obscured in this photo. Each time there's a charge on his credit card, he gets an SMS notification to his phone, telling him the vendor and the amount. Good for tracking against fraud, and maybe good for accounting. Good for distraction, if you buy nearly everything in your life with plastic.

Seoul Mobile, Fall 2003
But soon his phone and his credit card should be the same device. This is already possible in Seoul - here Brian Sharp stands at the cash dispenser. Below where his card belongs there is a port for a Moneta hookup: a chip implanted in mobile phones that allows them to function as credit cards.


In the United States this month, Nextel is promoting their phones as anti-fashion, business friendly. These dunderheaded dinosaurs pound my sense of aesthetic technology each time I pass one of their billboards. Memories of Seoul were the perfect remedy.

From the busy Samseong station, you can walk through a few long corridors to emerge in the busy Coex mall. Between the Koolhaas clothing store and the Kentucky Fried Chicken, there are multiple mobile phone customization businesses. Unlike the street-side mobile phone skinning stalls I saw in Harajuku, in Tokyo, these operations had real estate and signage.

There were two fabulous options - phone skinning and phone painting! Seoul Mobile, Fall 2003
Actually the phone painting was less than fabulous - you had a choice between having a lens-flared rose painted on your phone, or a lens-flared scorpion. With little glittering pieces of plastic stuck on for accents. Friend Brian Sharp asked if they could paint flames on his handset - no dice.

I discovered a nearly identical booth across town, at the TechnoMart. There, another young lady was willing to paint mobile phones, but only with roses and scorpions. Is there some kind of a business teaching young women to paint roses and scorpions on mobile phones in Korea? What a niche education.

Fortunately, nearby in the basement of the COEX mall, there was a "TuningOK" store where two young men sat with a hairdryer and plastic sheets to skin your phone with a photograph. Unlike the similar booth I'd seen in the streets of Harajuku on a recent trip to Tokyo, these young men had a printer ready - they would print out any digital image and screen it on to your phone. Their image of Eminem sharing a profane gesture from the outside of a Nokia phone caught my eye, impossibly flashy phone buttons drew me close.

I had come armed with photos of Walter Matthau, Bill Murray, Doug Church (by Brian) and fried chicken - I was looking forward to an entire afternoon spend wrapping all my consumer electronics in pop culture. Sadly, they could only screen images onto devices with light-colored plastic - only my old J-Phone and my Game Boy Advance SP. Fortunately, I'd planned an image for each.

Seoul Mobile, Fall 2003For my J-Phone it was obvious - I found a fine headshot of Bill Murray, with his sardonic puppydog expression; a visual link to Lost in Translation. For my GameBoy, I realized an opportunity to accessorize further - adding chicken skin to my existing Colonel Sanders good luck charm, for a Finger Lickin' Gameboy.

Seoul Mobile, Fall 2003
TuningOK appeared to be a kit business, a franchise - these guys had bought a printer, found some retail space, and set up some sample units. I realized with a flash - I could open up a TuningOK business in the states! Goodbye freelance writing, hello hairdrying plastic sheets onto mobile phones! I could set up shop outside of high-tech and video game conferences - people could bring me images on USB-keys and I could remake their devices into something funny or awkward. Quickly that idea threatened to overtake my life - I decided that if I was going to set up shop, I'd just do it for friends.

Either way, this ability to make my desktop pattern the actual surface of my device was immediately attractive to me, and, I figured, to my friends. Painting Palm devices was slow work - but shrink wrapping a laptop or an iPod with my friends or my designs is immediate media gratification. My devices took on great power for me, once I had co-opted their surfaces for my own messages. Shallow graven images! Portable pop culture totemry!

It's an ephemeral pleasure - the plastic scratches easy. Heavy users would have to replace their plastic often. A nearby clerk said the service wasn't popular because it was too expensive - it cost me about about US$ 12 to skin each of my devices. Price be damned - I wanted to get the technology into the hands of my freaky friends to see what their mobile devices might look like.

More Photos of Seoul Mobile Below

Seoul Mobile, Fall 2003
"Sticker photo in new paradigm photoclick internet photo service"
Like a similar machine I saw in Tokyo, this PhotoClick kiosk allows you to plug in your mobile phone to download and print stickers based on pictures you have taken with your mobile phone camera.

Seoul Mobile, Fall 2003
The UPrint machine seems to one-up the PhotoClick - the UPrint machine is simply a remote printer. You can print to it from the web, or from your mobile device. Each printer has a unique identifier (this machine is number 3426) - you send your document to that printer over the internet and you are charged accordingly. I wish there had been one of these printers in the lobby of my hotel! I would have printed out maps and directions aplenty.

Seoul Mobile, Fall 2003
An advertisement in the Seoul subway features a tribesman regarding a handset. I asked Abbie Yamamoto for a translation: ...the faithful-to-word-order translation is: Smart phone's beginning! My cube"... which I think translates better into "The beginning of Smartphone: My Cube" or something of that sort; Mycube, apparently is the product name. Here's my take on why the tribal African guy: he's signifying the uncivilized being (but one pregnant with the possibility of advancement), or he's signifying the beginning/roots of civilization. Either way, unfortunately, the symbolism does not appear that flattering to the guy.

Seoul Mobile, Fall 2003
Digital Exciting! Rhinestones! Studs and Chains! Anycall!

I have been trying to figure out how to incorporate more "Digital Exciting" into my life since I saw this ad on my first day in Seoul.

Justin Hall travels and writes about human-technology integration, coordinated through his web node at Based in Northern California, Hall is currently recovering from illnesses resulting from prolonged exposure to hot plastic.