Posts tagged “design fiction”

Out and About: Tamara in Phoenix

I spent some hot days in the 106 degree heat of Phoenix last week facilitating for social good at the Phoenix Design Summit. Even though we were crazy busy, I still found some time to capture the local flavor and ponder my surroundings.

The side of this truck reads “Tree Frog Treks” and has a phone number to call. I never would have thought of hiring someone to take me out on a tree frog trek, especially in Phoenix (which, admittedly does not have a climate or environment that I associate with trees or frogs). I like the BooWoop! on the door. Is this what tree frogs sound like? Or what we tourists would exclaim upon seeing them?

We had lunch at the Food Truck Fridays court held in the Phoenix Downtown Market on Friday afternoon. I appreciated the clever humor from Hey Joe’s Filipino food truck but most of all I loved their specialty drink: a whole young coconut that they served with the top cracked off and oversized straw.

We visited an exhibit at the ASU Art Museum titled Miracle Report. The gallery was filled with many screens of various sizes. Each piece included audio of interviews with people about a miracle they had experienced while the video showed only their hands. Hauntingly beautiful and startlingly expressive. I’d like to try this approach for capturing video during research interviews.

Also had the chance to visit Emerge: Redesigning the Future, an exhibit that followed the recent crossdisciplinary summit dedicated to design fiction and playing with the future. In this exhibit, you enter your name and a word on an iPad and then a phrase from the future appears on the screen in the bubble.

I have no idea why this onion was sitting on a mailbox. But it got me curious about how many stamps it would take to send an onion. It would probably depend upon weight, right? Would the USPS deliver an onion if it had the correct postage and an address on it?

This guy must really love hamburgers because this is not a uniform (as I initially presumed when I saw it). There were no logos or other elements on the front of the shirt. This made me wonder if there is any food item I love so much that I would wear a shirt of it like this one. Maybe kale. Or fresh young coconuts with a straw.

Julian Bleecker: Creating Wily Subversions

This interview has been edited, condensed, etc.

Julian Bleecker is a designer, technologist and researcher in the Advanced Projects studio at Nokia Design in Los Angeles and the Near Future Laboratory where he investigates emerging social practices around new networked interaction rituals. His focus is on hands-on design and prototyping as a way to raise questions about commonly held assumptions about digital media and digital devices so as to explore possibilities for innovation. He lectures and leads workshops on the intersections of art, design, technology and the near-future possibilities for new social-technical interaction rituals.

the Omni Project: What is is the Near Future Laboratory?

Julian Bleecker: It’s a place where I can look at what “could be” without the usual encumbrance of academia or industry – I can make, explore and postulate about things that might seem as bizarre as wheels on luggage or starting a revolution in the Middle East with 140 character messages. Anything that people would immediately dismiss as unpatentable or unmarketable or silly or impractical is very interesting to me, because the near future is full of many unexpected things.

We make these sorts of peculiar things, speculate about them and the worlds in which they might be just ordinary, quotidian objects or little UX moments.

We are a design collective that comes together in an adhoc fashion around common interests. We’re not a company in the traditional sense.

tOP: Can you expand on “near future” versus “future?”

JB: Near future is in the realm of imminently possible. It’s more relevant these days, insofar as our expectations about what unexpected new behaviors, devices, language, means of connecting and communicating and sharing and materializing ideas seems to be trotting along at a fairly good clip. I don’t want to say that change seemed less fast at an earlier point in history, but the nearness of a different, markedly changed future means we can correct things quicker, which is important. We don’t have long to deal with population crises, systemic ecological failures, bad socio-political-philosophical-religious polarizations, an inability for many human brains to accept difference and different points of view. All that is problematic and we need to change those things in the near future. Not the future. The near future as in 18-60 months.

tOP: What is design fiction? How does it differ from “science fiction”?

JB: It’s a name for doing design that speculates in the way that science fiction speculates. It’s another way for design to step outside of the constraints of, say – *product* design, where things must be desirable, profitable and buildable. Design Fiction looks at things sideways, or inverts things. It makes fundamentally challenging assumptions. It’s the Twilight Zone of design practice.

It draws from science fiction because I think science fiction may be the exemplary story telling idiom or form of expression for speculating about what could be. It does that quite seriously, and is often a form of critique or commentary on contemporary conditions – macro and micro conditions; a critique of world-scale circumstances or the misguided interaction idioms built into things like center consoles on cars. It also has this wonderful ability to allow one to suspend disbelief on very weird things, all for the enjoyment of a good story.

What I hope for design fiction is that it could do the same thing and its outcomes or products would be accepted as, at worse – things around which conversations can be had that may lead to new near future worlds that are hopefully more habitable. At best, that same suspension of disbelief makes it possible to have a design fiction speculation accepted as imminently possible. That means that the guy in the room who has the check book and the decision making power can say about some curious idea or a disruptive thing that isn’t just another uninspired, middling “innovative” device – yes..that’s what we should do.

Design Fiction differs from science fiction insofar as it makes the things that go along with those future, fictional worlds. I think of it sometimes as making props for those fictional worlds. That is part of the wide world of science fiction because science fiction makes props for itself and its stories as well. For example, science fiction film has an entire professional practice of making the things that will help tell the story. Design Fiction is a material making practice, just as design is in most regards. It creates the things and experiences and moments that are meant to be evocative – they are meant to evoke elements of larger stories about life in these other worlds. I think Design Fiction is particularly effective when those props are just quotidian, no matter how fantastic they may seem. Think of it this way – all the things sitting on your desk right now that would’ve made someone’s head explode 5 years ago, or 10 years ago? They’re quite ordinary today. There’s something about making the extraordinary ordinary that makes it seem all the more possible. Rather than fetishizing the things that may exist in the future and making them gleaming and central to existence, why not make them humble, or even annoyingly stubborn components of the everyday? That’s something that science fiction does and I think it goes a long way towards that crucial element of suspending disbelief because the ordinary is quite believable and therefore possible. And once something seems possible, it becomes easier to seriously consider it rather than laugh and dismiss it.

[Also see Design Fiction: A Short Essay on Design, Science, Fact and Fiction]

tOP: What’s the connection between exploring the future, especially the future of technology, and storytelling?

JB: The future is that which could be. So, you need a story, some kind of narrative that enrolls people in that vision of what could be and then does so in a way that gets them hopped up enough to start materializing that vision. That’s all the future is. It’s really not complicated – but it’s hard to tell the compelling story. Storytelling is really hard. And there are lots of people trying to create those futures, so you have lots of these stories because everyone is trying to get people to do some hammering to materialize their idea of what they think should become.

Those stories can be ways of exploring possible futures as long as we understand that the future is wrapped in a story that is compelling enough for people to get to gather and materialize it.

tOP: The project we have embarked on is about exploring people’s relationship with technology. How do you define technology?

JB: That’s a good question. Technology is an exemplar of culture in an especially reified material that cleverly cloaks itself. That material is stuff we call a bunch of different names – hardware, software, firmware, ethernet, T-3, MP3, MySQL, Oracle, iPad, mobile phone, MakerBot, Lithium Ion batteries, OLED display. Whatever. All those things are very articulate means of remaking us, which is also remaking cultures. That’s why it’s more interesting to make these forms of culture that are quite deliberate about remaking culture – things that do it conscientiously, without wasting time, energy, materials.

Technology should be about more than good/fast/cheap or desirable/profitable/buildable. Technologies, if they are ways of making culture, shouldn’t just be last year’s object, only in different colors or with better battery life.

tOP: Does your work influence the expectations people have from real technology? Or the ideas product developers and technologists have for making real technology?

JB: I can only hope. At the Laboratory, we deliberately create strange, provocative devices that are designed to be wily subversions of what one might expect from technology. They typically amplify, invert or subdue the usual things that least-common denominator technology might do.

They become action-oriented thought-provokers. They can get away with doing something strange that then leads to moments where people get new ideas triggered in their heads and say – huh..there might be a kernel of something in that the Ear Freshener device. We’re not going to make Ear Fresheners, but I learned something by making it that can then doing something new and wonderful in this other, more pragmatic mass-manufactured thing that never would have come about had we not started by making devices that freshen the earball. Not many design projects would start with the brief saying – make things that are like Binaca Blast for people’s ears..something that can get rid of the filmy residue of a day of bad listening. That doesn’t even make sense, unless you frame it by doing a bit of science fiction and say – oh..this is for an evolved human or some weird earball-y transspecies for whom hearing is orders of magnitude more significant than seeing. But – not many design laboratories are going to make that kind of assumption because there is no such “market” or “audience.”

tOP: To what end? What’s the outcome you hope for?

JB: I was trained as an electrical engineer. So, I’m a real technologist – I got a degree and everything. I’m not just a pantomimic artist wielding a soldering iron. I’m just trying to tell slightly different stories than the ones many electrical engineers or computer science people would tell. They’re different from the old-fashioned technologist’s story of “We’ll make it faster next year” or, “We’re going to make peoples’ heads explode” with a “disruption” that’s really just a mass-produced incantation of a middling idea, like voice control for your car stereo system.

So, without the normative measure of “real” versus, what..? “fake” technologists – I think there are loads of possible futures. The futures that “real” product-oriented technologists prefer just aren’t that interesting to me. They track too closely to a predetermined notion of what comes next – their future is up-and-to-the-right. The real future is boring.

tOP: The real future is boring? Do you mean the real future as a creative construct for problem solving and solution envisioning is boring when it’s same-old-same-old, or do you see the future that you are stepping into second by microsecond as boring?

JB: There was a great all-day thing in London I went to a month or so ago called Thrilling Wonder Stories. I couldn’t be there the whole day, but I caught most of the last few hours. I noticed something – people were showing videos of stuff and apologizing that it wasn’t “real.” Like – it was a “concept video” to demonstrate an idea. I got a little annoyed by the apologies because there’s this implication that a good idea needs to be apologized for if it isn’t powered by a real battery or if the admittedly hard work of materializing that idea – making it “run” in “real” code – has not yet been done. Starting a conversation that sustains and gets people hopped up enough to think about it and try it and work through what they imagine in a variety of forms – there’s nothing to apologize for about that sort of work. It’s as real – or maybe a different kind of real – than having a thing with a bunch of wires and batteries that articulates the idea in other forms like code, or servos twitching or something that breaks when it falls.

tOP: How do you think technology is changing people’s everyday lives? How is it changing your life?

JB: That’s an impossible question. It makes the assumption that it is technology that is doing the changing, or that there is even change occurring. If I were flat-footed about it, I’d say technology is changing consumers lives by helping them continue to be consumers.

For myself, I take a very instrumental view of the things I have around me. They help me do the things I may have done anyway, or have done earlier without the same level of fidelity or refinement. Creative activities, mostly – making things like photography, film, new little weird electronic devices. Those are things that I can do and experiment with – and I have in the past. The material is more readily malleable and available it seems. Or it may be that the conversations are more readily available – you can find the people that can help you do what you imagine.

Adrian Hon: Illustrate a better future

This interview has been edited, condensed, etc.

Adrian Hon is co-founder and CEO at Six to Start, specializing in game-like stories and story-like games. Clients have included Disney Imagineering, the BBC, Channel 4, and Penguin, and Six to Start has won multiple awards including Best of Show at SXSW.

He also writes about technology for The Telegraph, is writing a Kickstarter-funded book A History of the Future in 100 Objects, and is the co-founder of Transmedia London. Adrian studied neuroscience at Cambridge, Oxford, and UCSD, and has spoken at TED in California about Mars exploration.

the Omni project: What was the impetus for A History of the Future in 100 Objects?

Adrian Hon: The direct impetus was the British Museum and Radio 4’s brilliant series, A History of the World in 100 Objects. While listening to the series, I almost immediately started thinking that this could be a great way to think about the future in a way that would more concrete and accessible to the public.

However, my broader drive is to illustrate a better future for humanity. Not a dystopia or an unthinking utopia, but a world in which we slowly, gradually become happier, healthier, and more kind to each other – and of course technology has a role in that, as it has over the past millennia, but so do changing social norms and greater tolerance.

You only need to open a (western) newspaper to see both the right wing and left wing talking about the imminent collapse of society, financial ruin, global ruin, the notion that our children will have a worse life than us, to see that a very strong and current vision of the future is very negative. Ditto for popular culture. Those are absolutely things we should think about, but it’s not all going to be bad.

tOp: What’s the connection between exploring the future, especially the future of technology, and storytelling?

AH: I am especially interested in the impact that technology has on people and their experiences and relationships. Stories are one of the best ways of imagining different viewpoints, whether that’s putting yourself in the shoes of someone with a very different upbringing, or someone in a different time. They have their limitations, to be sure – they can offer a seductively simplistic picture and they often imply that life has beginnings, middles, and ends – but they are far more effective than simply rattling off a list of how fast planes will be able to travel in the future.

That’s why Apple has been so successful, because both its products and its marketing have focused on what you can do with new technology, rather than the specifications of the technology itself.

From an engineering standpoint it is certainly interesting to know that a phone might have a dual core processor and 1GB of RAM or whatever, but this isn’t what really matters. It could have a quantum computer inside and if it couldn’t check mail quickly, most people couldn’t care less.

It’s harder to extrapolate those experiences. You can’t take Moore’s Law and say that in 18 months, people will start falling in love with the Siri ‘personal assistant’ on the iPhone 4S, and than 18 months after that, the number of people will double. People use technology in unusual ways.

I saw a guy at TEDxSheffield say that we should make humanities degrees cost ¬£90k and engineering degrees cost nothing. What a ridiculous thing to say! Technology without a purpose is just an expensive box. That’s not to say that engineers don’t have ideas, but rather to say that the humanities help us understand what we want to do and why.

tOp: Does your work influence product developers and technologists in making real technology?

AH: We’ll have to see – the book isn’t out yet! I hope it does, and I know that I’ve been greatly influenced by authors such as Vernor Vinge and Neal Stephenson when it comes to designing games and technology. Ideas don’t just appear out of thin air, they’re formed out of what we read and see and interact with, and stories help give ideas a more substantial form.

tOp: Conversely, does the work of real technologists impact the way you conceive of technology in order to tell stories?

AH: To an extent, yes. I want my book to be grounded in real science rather than some of the completely ridiculous “design fiction” out there (Electrolux is particularly bad at getting designers to make concepts that are totally impractical, not to mention often physically impossible). So I do have to keep current with what real technologists and scientists are doing. But it’s possible to be too current and I have to stop myself from just jumping onto whatever the big idea of the day is.

tOp: Ridiculous “design fiction?”

AH: I don’t think they’re trying to make impractical and impossible concepts on purpose. I think they’re just doing it by accident because they don’t care either way. You could say that that’s an admirable thing, an unfettering of the imagination, and in other circumstances I would agree. The issue is that their concepts (like a fridge made of cold green plastic ‘nano goo’ that you can just squish apples into and other food into) regularly get plastered on newspapers as some plausible vision of the future, on par with driverless cars, when in fact they are actually far more difficult to make. That’s marketing, I guess.

tOp: How do you think technology is changing the everyday lives of mainstream consumers?

AH: It’s changing people’s lives dramatically. A lot of people seem to think that a) We’ve always had mobile phones and b) They’re not that big a deal. The truth is that most people only got mobile phones 20 years ago, the internet 15 years ago, the iPod 10 years ago, and smartphones 5 years ago. I use the word “only” because if you went back to the year 1000 and looked for the technological changes from 980, I suspect you wouldn’t find a huge number. Yet the difference between 2011 and 1991 is, I think, pretty enormous. I can now talk to a billion people around the world for almost nothing.

I suppose you could say that none of these things really matters compared to stuff like the car and the washing machine, particularly if you look at economic impact, but that would frankly be bullshit. You only need to walk into a university or a school and take away everyone’s phones and laptops to realise how important these things are.

And I honestly think it’s only just starting. As we see more and more jobs require fewer and fewer humans – from call centres to cars to supermarkets – we’ll see massive strides forward in the standard of living accompanied by massive and sustained unemployment. That’s a big change.

tOp: When you look at your personal life, what kind of impact is technology having?

AH: I find that I’m able to do much more than I could before. Like everyone else, I roll my eyes when I hear the words “social media” but I’m able to make a blog post or a tweet that can go around the world in seconds; and I can now publish a printed newspaper, write a book, or even design a game (with a team!) that can go in front of millions, without being held up by gatekeepers. That’s doesn’t make it easy, but it makes it easier than before. You still need to write a good book.

The other big change is that I am starting to own less stuff. Perhaps this is because:

a) I have had to move three times in the last three years
b) I don’t have any kids

but I find myself very taken with the idea of owning just a few, very high quality, physical possessions. It used to be a real sacrifice to do that but now I can get all of my entertainment and reading digitally, I don’t feel like I’m giving up much in exchange for the ability to move quickly and worry less about getting stuff stolen. I wouldn’t go so far as to extrapolate my experiences to anyone else, but I definitely feel like I’m at Peak Stuff. From here on out, I only own less.

ChittahChattah Quickies

Locker Decorations Growing in Popularity in Middle Schools [] – Yet another extremely specific product development area opening up. So many that emphasize the customizing (aesthetically, functionally) of environments (or products that represent environments): digital devices, closets, cars, lockers.

At middle schools across the country, metal lockers that were long considered decorated if they had photos of friends or the teen heartthrob of the moment – Shaun Cassidy years ago, Justin Bieber today – have suddenly become the latest frontier in nesting. Peek inside, and find lockers outfitted with miniature furry carpets, motion-sensor-equipped lamps that glow when the door opens, mirrors, decorative flowers, and magnetic wallpaper in floral and leopard-print patterns. It is hard to say whether retailers have merely capitalized on or actually created demand among girls for the accessories.

Related Photo Projects [The Adaption to My Generation] – A photographer who takes a picture of himself every day documents many of the other projects online where people are doing something similar.

Other ‘Passage of Time’ Portrait Projects (Roman Opalka, after every day of painting numbers in his studio, photographs his face. If only we could see documentation of the entire sequence) and Other Obsessive Photo Projects (Adam Seifer documents everything (not really) he eats.

A History of Pizza Hut’s New Product Releases, 2002-2042 [McSweeney’s] – Satirical design fiction, echoing both Idiocracy and Wired’s Postcards from the Future.

2002: Meat Lover’s Pizza
2007: Crust Craver’s Pizza
2012: Fat Person’s Pizza
2017: Overweight Woman’s Pizza
2022: Obese Child’s Pizza
2027: Fat Man’s Surprise
2032: Depressed Couple’s Sad Pizza
2037: Disgusting Pizza, for a Fat Person
2042: Just the Thing for a Sad Fat Guy


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