Posts tagged “future”

An interview about The State of UX Research

I was interviewed by Jen Ignacz of Topp. We spoke about the history of user research (at least how I experienced) and some of my thoughts about the present – and future. Check out the audio and/or read the transcript here.

I remember that we did this project with IBM that was very much like the future of the home PC, so for us that was really, really new and exciting. Maybe a lot of people might be rolling their eyes like yes, we’ve seen that we’ve done that, so that was this watershed moment where we were able to do a sort of an industrial design type of project, but it led with ethnography – it led with rethinking the whole purpose of this thing they were making. And right after that we got approached by a packaged goods companies that wanted to rethink breakfast, and that was the exciting part because their innovation part of the business was getting clients that didn’t look like industrial design clients. It was someone else coming through the door, and that was the moment where I think we thought “this is a real thing” – you know, companies – business is looking into this and we can work on all kinds of stuff. I think that was a huge moment. Fortune, BusinessWeek and other magazines were writing cover stories about ethnography or anthropology, and showing pictures of people in pith helmets or scientists or similar. The conversation turned a lot more serious and specific about how this kind of work was going to help business. I think the work we were getting and we were doing, and this kind of popular press shift, we started to feel like oh, this really is a viable thing for business, a viable service to be offering. We will see products made this way from here on out, so that was kind of the transition.

The Future of the Book, you say? [2013 edition]

Reading ahead
In 2010, we conducted a public-facing study about the future of books and reading, called Reading Ahead. We raised many fascinating questions including the design implications for the digital book experience: which elements of the traditional experience should move forward and which should be left behind.

Looking at the issue a few years later is the New York Times, with Out of Print, Maybe, but Not Out of Mind

Some functions of physical books that seem to have no digital place are nevertheless being retained. An author’s autograph on a cherished title looked as if it would become a relic. But Apple just applied for a patent to embed autographs in electronic titles. Publishers still commission covers for e-books even though their function — to catch the roving eye in a crowded store — no longer exists.

What makes all this activity particularly striking is what is not happening. Some features may be getting a second life online, but efforts to reimagine the core experience of the book have stumbled. Dozens of publishing start-ups tried harnessing social reading apps or multimedia, but few caught on.

Much of the design innovation at the moment, Mr. Brantley believes, is not coming from publishers, who must still wrestle with delivering both digital and physical books. Instead it is being developed by a tech community that “doesn’t think about stories as the end product. Instead, they think about storytelling platforms that will enable new forms of both authoring and reading.”

Omni Quickies

Not Quite Smart Enough [NYT] – Smart appliances are back, yet again! Engineers are crammed atop happily dumb products because, well, because they can. The classic of course is the Smart Fridge, the result of jetpack-denied technologists channeling their rage. We’ve heard the use cases over and over again, we aren’t that interested (are we?) but comically, that doesn’t seem to stop them. From past work, I believe there some wonderful opportunities for technology to have a meaningful impact in domestic chores, but this repetition of an undesirable product just isn’t it. Bonus funny/sad: Mike Kuniavsky’s 2008 blog post looks at the history of these ridiculous things. /SP

Still, there are differences in what is offered this time around – especially in the role of smartphones, which were not widely on the market a decade ago. In addition, even if the idea of a connected home, controlled by a smart electrical grid, is years off, it is more than just a pipe dream. For now, though, manufacturers are promoting the high-tech gizmos on their smart appliances, rather than focusing on the potential for being a cog in a smart grid. Samsung offers a French-door refrigerator with an LCD screen and its own apps, allowing consumers to check the weather, browse the Web for recipes, listen to music and keep tabs on what is in the refrigerator. The 28-cubic feet, four-door refrigerator costs about $3,500. LG is introducing a refrigerator that allows consumers to scan a grocery receipt with their smartphone so that the refrigerator can track what is inside. So if you buy some chicken, for instance, the refrigerator will keep tabs on when you bought it and tell you when it is about to expire. If you have chicken, broccoli and lemons in your refrigerator, it will offer recipes that include those three ingredients, even narrowing recipes based on specific dietary needs and goals. Several manufacturers are introducing washers and dryers equipped with Wi-Fi that alert consumers on their television or smartphone when a load is done, and gives them the option of fluffing towels for another 10 minutes or adding a rinse cycle. LG’s robotic smart vacuum can be told, again, through a smartphone, to clean up the living room. And since it’s equipped with a built-in camera, its owner can secretly watch what the nanny is doing, too.

Tenured Professor Departs Stanford U., Hoping to Teach 500,000 Students at Online Start-Up [The Chronicle of Higher Education] – Last week we explored the innovative physical learning environment at the Swedish Vittra school. This week we learn that the future of educational institutions may involve abandoning the halls of the academy entirely in favor of virtual pedagogy and entrepreneurial ventures. Is the university destined for obsolescence? Freelance online classes challenge the value proposition (and often prohibitive cost) of a university degree by offering affordable alternatives that connect teachers who are motivated to share knowledge with students who are eager to learn and apply it, regardless of location. This reminds me of a recent Kickstarter project I funded called Don’t Go Back to School: A handbook for learning anything. For $25 I am getting a whole course and textbook on independent learning. Bargain! /TC

During his talk, Mr. Thrun explored the origins of his popular online course at Stanford, which initially featured videos produced with nothing more than “a camera, a pen and a napkin.” Despite the low production quality, many of the 200 Stanford students taking the course in the classroom flocked to the videos because they could absorb the lectures at their own pace. Eventually, the 200 students taking the course in person dwindled to a group of 30. Meanwhile, the course’s popularity exploded online, drawing students from around the world. The experience taught the professor that he could craft a course with the interactive tools of the Web that recreated the intimacy of one-on-one tutoring, he said.

Interactive film, Bear 71, blurs lines between wild and wired [Montreal Gazette] – News articles on this work, currently showing at Sundance, have difficulty classifying it. Is it a film? A documentary? An interactive experience? Multi-media project? All-encompassing digital experience? An interactive film? Akin to Steve’s comments on smart-appliances above, the interactive multi-media experience has also been around for awhile – remember ye olde CD-ROM? This project, however, is doing more than just using technology to give viewers some ownership and direction in the story-telling. The film-makers seem very tuned in to the philosophical implications of inserting all this technology into a very natural environment, and conscious of the irony of their ambition to use technology to bring us closer to our animal state, despite their claims that technology is the very thing drawing us away from that state. Bear 71 official site. /JN

Enter Jeremy Mendes, a Vancouver-based artist and three-time Webby Award winner with a special talent for interactive work. “I drove out to Alberta and met Leanne [Allison], and when I saw these images, I knew right away that it was bizarre: It was surveillance equipment, essentially. These are the same cameras we use on ourselves. They’re the same cameras in Times Square and 7-11,” says Mendes. “I thought, ‘This is a technology story about us and this bear.'” “We prepared an outline and did all the research, and realized this was a story about communication. It’s about the communication humans use, and the communication animals use,” says Mendes… Call it the natural bulletin board, or deciduous Internet, but the scents tell each animal’s story to other animals – very much the same way we use Facebook of Twitter to keep tabs on other humans. “Humans probably had the same ability to understand that information before technology removed us from the natural world,” says Allison…It’s such a different approach to filmmaking and art, that it may take a while for the average Joe or Jane to take it all in, but that’s kind of the point: We’re only half-awake to our animal nature, and all our ambient technology only serves to shove us deeper and deeper into a state of instinct denial.

Announcing the winners of the IxD12 Student Design Challenge!

Whew! Our wonderful judges have sifted through the 56 entries! We heard from a number of judges how impressed they were overall with the quality of the entries and the creativity and passion that the group overall had to offer. Of course, this makes the selection process a difficult one. We’ve thought to ourselves “Well, what if we could take them ALL!!!” but of course, we can’t.
We managed to find four wonderful and inspiring entries among all the bounty of goodness we received from around the world. Our winners are (in no particular order)

  • Diksha Grover – National Institute of Design, India
  • Siri Johansson – Umeå Institute of Design, Sweden
  • Jaime Krakowiak – Austin Center for Design, USA
  • Priscilla Mok – Carnegie Mellon University, USA

Here are each of their videos

Diksha


Siri


Jaime


Priscilla
Thanks to our judges for their wonderful work and for all the entrants who contributed such a great set of videos. Our winners will now be working between now and Dublin where we’ll have a two-day masterclass and design activity before the conference. We are now exceptionally enthusiastic about the upcoming experience in Dublin.

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.

ChittahChattah Quickies

Art.sy’s ‘Genome’ Predicts What Paintings You Will Like [Wired] – Although the article deals more with the carefully controlled art market, I’m mostly intrigued by this quantitative translation of the ineffable. Pandora is a successful proof of concept (though I suppose we might debate it’s ability to deliver on it’s promise); I am waiting for the donut genome project and its recommendation engine. [Hah. Mere seconds after posting, I come upon this. Pretty close!]

On its screen, the Warhol painting-that is, the phone’s rendering of the laptop’s picture of the painting-was now surrounded by tiny thumbnails of other artwork, painted or made by diverse artists and dating from multiple eras, including the present day. According to Art.sy, these works all share the same DNA, so to speak. Cleveland and a team of art historians have spent the past year studying thousands of works and compiling a list of their distinct and measurable elements. The result is the Art Genome, composed at present of more than 550 “genes”: attributes of fine art that range from the simply factual (the medium, the color palette) to the undeniably subjective (the “movement” a work falls into, or its “subject matter”). Using these attributes, Art.sy’s recommendation engine can evaluate a piece on the fly and suggest relationships with other works, presenting those results on any device-even, eventually, a phone.

Saving Humanity from Homo Sapiens [SHfHS.com] – Just from a cultural collision perspective, I like the conflation of techno-nihilism and not-for-profit advocacy. Two great tastes!

The greatest threats to humanity lie in technologies humans have invented. From the danger of nuclear war or catastrophic global warming to the looming threat of future technologies such as self-replicating nanobots and powerful artificial intelligence, SHfHS is dedicated to finding ways to ensure that humanity continues to progress without snuffing ourselves out along the way. There are people trying to do the good work of saving humanity from potentially destroying itself, but they need our help. That’s what Saving Humanity from Homo Sapiens is all about: finding the people doing the best work to prevent man-made X-Risk and supporting them. You can help.

The Lester Dent Pulp Paper Master Fiction Plot [Dirty 30s!] – Once again, art reduced to a formula. Here, there’s no pretense that doing so remains within the realm of art. In general, I find these deconstructions fascinating as artifacts, whether or not they produce quality output.

This is a formula, a master plot, for any 6000 word pulp story. It has worked on adventure, detective, western and war-air. It tells exactly where to put everything. It shows definitely just what must happen in each successive thousand words. No yarn of mine written to the formula has yet failed to sell. The business of building stories seems not much different from the business of building anything else.

Here’s how it starts:

1. A DIFFERENT MURDER METHOD FOR VILLAIN TO USE
2. A DIFFERENT THING FOR VILLAIN TO BE SEEKING
3. A DIFFERENT LOCALE
4. A MENACE WHICH IS TO HANG LIKE A CLOUD OVER HERO

One of these DIFFERENT things would be nice, two better, three swell. It may help if they are fully in mind before tackling the rest.

A different murder method could be–different. Thinking of shooting, knifing, hydrocyanic, garroting, poison needles, scorpions, a few others, and writing them on paper gets them where they may suggest something. Scorpions and their poison bite? Maybe mosquitos or flies treated with deadly germs?

To thwart porn, colleges are buying up .xxx sites [AP] – The introduction of new domain suffixes means new flavors of pre-emptive domains. It was amusing more than a decade ago when companies like (say) Starbucks bought (or battled over) domains like (say) starbucksucks.com. The likely misappropriations of a college brand are slightly different, a this story reveals.

The University of Kansas is buying up website names such as http://www.KUgirls.xxx and http://www.KUnurses.xxx. But not because it’s planning a Hot Babes of Kansas site or an X-rated gallery of the Nude Girls of the Land of Aaahs. Instead, the university and countless other schools and businesses are rushing to prevent their good names from falling into the hands of the pornography industry. Over the past two months, they have snapped up tens of thousands of “.xxx” website names that could be exploited by the adult entertainment business. “Down the road there’s no way we can predict what some unscrupulous entrepreneur might come up with,” said Paul Vander Tuig, trademark licensing director at the Lawrence, Kan., school.

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.

Nicolas Nova: Scanning for signals

We’ll be interviewing experts and thought-leaders to uncover a range of perspectives on technology and its impact on society. If you or someone you know would be a good interview, let us know!

This interview has been edited, condensed, etc.

Nicolas Nova is a consultant and researcher who undertakes field studies to inform and evaluate the creation of innovative products and services. His work is about exploring and understanding people’s needs, motivations and contexts to map new design opportunities and help designers and engineers. In addition to design ethnography, he is interested in foresight about scanning/analysis of signals about the future of various technologies. He applies his methodologies in the domains of urban informatics, mobile and location-based media as well as video games and networked objects/robots.

He also teaches interaction design and ethnography in design schools (HEAD-Geneva, ENSCI Les Ateliers in Paris) and is curator at the Lift conferences.

the Omni project: How do you define “technology?”

Nicolas Nova: It seems that technology nowadays refers to the design and usage of specific devices (tool, instrument, machine, etc.) to perform a specific function. Given my interest in a people-centered perspective, I use this definition. I don’t make any specific distinction between the digital and the non-digital. I see a vacuum cleaner or a dishwasher as a piece of technology. Perhaps this is because I work in fields related to ubiquitous computing, in which any artifact can be augmented by information and communication technology..

Finally, a technology is not inert like a stone or a meteorite falling from the sky. As Howard Becker stated “It makes more sense to see those artifacts as the frozen remains of collective action, brought to life whenever someone uses them.” This is important as it means that a technology has been designed and made by people, and thus embeds certain preconceptions that have implications when “users” employ those technologies.

tOp: Thinking about the many things I’ve seen you curate/aggregate/ observe such as technology failures embodied as dreams (jet packs, smart fridges, smart kitchens, discarded PCs, video phones), what do these stories (and they way they are told) reflect about our culture and our relationship with technology? Are there positives or negatives? Anxieties? Hopes or expectations? Is there humor?

NN: This is related to the Becker quote. As any piece of technology is the result of a process carried out by humans, some cultural traits are embedded into it, such as: preconceptions about how the technology should be used, the context in which the technology can be deployed, etc. The example of the smart fridge is pretty interesting if you think about all the assumptions designers and engineers made about people’s relationship to food, such as the idea that we don’t want to go shopping and that consumption is just a matter of ordering stuff automatically.

So, if you take any piece of technology, you can uncover (decipher!?) these sorts of assumptions. They generally reveal the kinds of cultural inclination the people in charge of innovation bring to the table: values about what is important and what is not, hopes about a potential future, the need to go faster, the illusion of being more efficient, etc. It’s hard to say if they are “positive” or “negative” because these are very relative. Even if I dislike the very notion of a smart fridge, I can certainly understand that a bunch of guys with lab coats in an aseptic R&D center really though that their project would be super positive and would change the world. What I mean here is simply that technologies embed some values and that these values are shaped by society at a given point in time and by the companies. It’s clear that the Zeitgeist influences the design of products and services. If you consider that the 50-60s were all about the space race, speed and nuclear stuff or that the early 90s were all about cyber-whatever then you can see that this is necessarily reflected in the way technologies are created.

The technological failures that I am especially interested in are the one that are repeated over time such as the videophone or the smart fridge. They clearly reflect this recurring tension between technological possibilities (e.g. automation) and a flawed vision of human aspirations.

It’s interesting you mention the notion of humor, as generally all these projects definitely suffer from a clear lack of this dimension!

tOp: Are dreams of possible technologies ever realized?

NN: Yes, but they are never really used as we expected. Something is realized and over time the ideas find their way by being hybridized with others because of contextual or behavioral adjustments by users.

There’s a perpetual gap between the intents of designers/engineers/marketers and the real use of the product. This is the beauty of human life: we always repurpose artifacts into something different. Fortunately, this is what I am passionate about! Understanding how products are repurposed is a good way to find more user-centered avenues and iterate to create new versions.

I am really curious to see what the smart fridge will become and how upcoming versions will necessarily include other notion of “smartness” based on more human needs and aspirations. Sadly, I don’t think many companies in this business understood they should adopt this humble stance.

tOp: When you think about mainstream consumers, how do you think digital technology is changing their everyday lives?

NN: The biggest change is possibly the use a digital media for a growing set of activities: listening to music, communicating, controlling the heating system of your house, etc. This does not simply mean that any artifact at home gets digital capabilities, but that everything becomes mediated through different channels (generally your computer and your cell phone).

What technology also does is reveal things that are implicit or invisible. It makes things apparent because there are digital traces: SMS stored in your phone, an email message in your email program, your presence on Facebook, etc. And more and more people are being held accountable for this content.

Among all the changes brought by technologies, the most conspicuous is what I call the decision trade-off. Technologies are supposed to help people, or at least to be convenient, and possibly prevent you from doing things you did not want to do any more. Interestingly, most of the time, technologies lead to new decisions that we never really had to take. For instance, choosing a TV channel among 350 possibilities is generally painful and somewhat new (it’s curious to think that other industries found solutions for this, e.g. shuffle mode on MP3 players). More and more micro-decisions like this have to be made everyday, and it can be tiresome.

tOp:
When you look at your personal life, what kind of impact is technology having? What specific changes are you experiencing?

NN:
I don’t have a car (I rent one when I need one), I have no dishwasher, I use a collective laundry (in Switzerland we have one in each building) and I don’t subscribe to any network TV system (mostly because I find them useless and overlapping with what I find on the Interwebs). I have to admit I am very cautious in the way I use digital technologies. That said, I use digital technologies a lot and it forces me to be extra careful about:

  • Work/life balance: I try to shy away from the computer/smartphone in the evening, during weekends and vacations. It doesn’t necessarily mean that I won’t use one of these at those times, but I try to avoid spending a long time browsing the web/reading email/documents, etc. and prefer going for a walk, reading a book, hiking or visiting friends. The more I use digital technologies, the more I need to find moments during which I escape from them.
  • Attention: more and more multitasking, which is bad (for me and the task at hand).
  • Privacy: as I mentioned, digital technologies reveal things that used to be implicit or invisible. This means that I sometimes need to be careful about the traces I leave.


tOp:
With the changes that technology brings, what do you believe society is gaining, or losing?

NN:The population is not equal. People who grew up with these technologies will be less stressed out by the vague micro-decisions we have to consider, simply because they have lived with this new norm. This is a big difference compared to our grandparents, for instance. Also see Steven Johnson’s book Everything Bad is Good for You. Overall, I see a set of tradeoffs:

  • A huge and diverse quantity of material that can be useful or interesting for anyone curious. I grew up in the countryside and it was a pain in the ass to get access to “long-tail” music/books/fanzines/etc. The web is a formidable source of difference for people intrigued by others’ cultures and who want to learn.
  • However, this huge quantity of material makes us run like headless chickens, taking a quick bite from lots of sources of information but we may lose our ability to sit still and think deeply about a certain topic.
  • At the psychological level, the capacity to cope with large amount of information, integrate multiple factors and make decisions. Yet we also suffer from decision fatigue (e.g., bombarded by requests, information and data).
  • Privacy is shifting and we are more and more obliged to share personal information with others.
  • An urge to be reachable (and aware of current trends) 24/7 which is tiresome too.

tOp: Anything else to share with us?

NN: “One of the diseases of this age is the multiplicity of books; they doth so overcharge the world that it is not able to digest the abundance of idle matter that is every day hatched and brought forth into the world.” Barnaby Rich (1580-1617) wrote that in 1613. This quote inspires me to ask questions about the situation back then and now: if our ancestors felt this overload, how did they cope with it? What happened then? Did this feeling vanish? Was it a continuous feeling or recurring? What about now? Can we draw some inspiration from what happen in the past? Or should we find new ways to move forward?

ChittahChattah Quickies

  • [from julienorvaisas] 5 Reasons Why E-Books Aren’t There Yet [Wired.com] – [Echoes the work we did in our 2010 Reading Ahead project, "The unabridged reading experience includes crucial events that take place before and after the elemental moments of eyes-looking-at-words" http://www.portigal.com/blog/reading-ahead-research-findings/] E-books are still falling short of a promise to make us forget their paper analogs. For now, you still lose something by moving on. I have never owned an e-book reader, because I have an ingrained opposition to single-purpose devices. But since getting an iPad on day one, I haven’t purchased a print edition of anything for myself. I am hooked — completely one with the idea that books are legacy items that may never go away, but have been forever marginalized as a niche medium. With that in mind, however, here are five things about e-books that might give you pause about saying good riddance to the printed page. 1) An unfinished e-book isn’t a constant reminder to finish reading it…5)E-books can’t be used for interior design.

Dwelling on One Day for Design

April 13th was the one day for One Day for Design (1D4D), an event conceived of by AIGA to “bring together a global community of designers and design enthusiasts to exchange ideas, challenge viewpoints and push boundaries in a real-time, online global debate” about the future of design, led by an impressive line-up of moderators.

What a fantastic notion! For our part, we were excited to be part of the conversation, and to see how AIGA pulled it off. When the day arrived we were ready. We dutifully signed onto the website and Twitter and TweetDeck, ready to talk design… and were paralyzed. Random content was scrolling by at a feverish pace, too feverish to manage. Tweets we could grab ahold of felt disjointed and distracted (as did we). The velocity of tweets is a testimony to the power of the idea, certainly, but also made for an unsettling user experience. Other people felt similarly. A series of responses and critiques have since surfaced.

  • One Day for Design – Deep Dive by DoubleThink out of Minnesota is a great analysis of 1D4D Twitter data showing how much work it takes to pull patterns and value out of the “waterfall,” as Phong puts it.
  • MJ Broadbent posted AIGA’s One Day for Design Conversation to the IxDA discussion list, calling the event laudable, but “kind of a mess to follow and participate in.”
  • Frank Chimero focused on the content of the 1D4D conversation (calling his post Designers Poison) but noted first that “Twitter seemed like the wrong place for the discussion, because it presented a conversation on design that required holistic thinking in a fragmented manner.”
  • On GOOD, Dylan Lathrop wrote in Global Twitter Conversation Proves Designers Don’t Get It that “try as hard as they might, moderators couldn’t contain the endless barrage.”
  • Equally pessimistic was Lindsay McComb on TheMetaQ, in Why design can’t be described in 140 characters:”I felt as though my tweets were a drop in a massive ocean of irrelevance.”

We felt similarly. Back here at the ranch, it was only a matter of minutes before the impulse to analyze and think about improving the experience kicked in. How could this be better? What exactly felt so daunting? The event’s energy was exciting but it was unclear what people were trying to accomplish on this day and how this energy would/could be harnessed to do that. So many different types of people were taking part; surely their objectives differed. And underlying it all, how was Twitter faring as the de facto forum for this event?

Based on our brief brainstorming, we identified a few generative ideas and themes (in other words, we’re staying away from the “put the comment box near the newest not the oldest tweet” UI tweaks that others are so much more qualified to address, and sticking with our sweet spot – teeing up the questions that lead to a broad swath of new solutions). After all, what’s possible when you have 3,900 engaged designers (and design enthusiasts) from all fields eager to talk?

Let Moderators Moderate!
Allow a little lag time (think about broadcasting’s 7-second delay) to give moderators a chance to filter, sort, and respond. This could result in something like moderated “channels” to follow.

Segment the group
Allow people to self-identify as being affiliated with certain disciplines, areas of interest and/or years of experience, enabling participants to establish and dwell in affinities and also to make targeted connections beyond them.

Anticipate and Seed Topics
The topic of design is broad (understatement alert!). AIGA and/or moderators could anticipate or encourage certain topics. Participants and the community at large could benefit by a little time prior to the big day to pull thoughts together and perhaps even engage in dialogue outside of the event.

Better Control Content
There are numerous ways to imagine enabling people to organize the information stream. Self-tagging? Content-bots? Anything that would allow people to create their own “channels” based on individual interests. Essentially Twitter’s existing “Trending topics”, we imagined a dynamic hashtag cloud that would guide people towards what others are talking about and help to get them there.

Twitter-fu?
There are three of us in this office. Our interest in 1D4D, which we all shared, bore no relationship to our interest in (and experience with) Twitter, which varies wildly. Master and neophyte alike should be able to participate in the conversation without a black belt in Twitter. Help people by providing a semi-curated experience.

There are many good reasons not to include some of these ideas into general Twitterings, as they introduce constraints on the free-form and user-generated stream of consciousness experience that defines Twitter. We’ve weighed in elsewhere on the challenges Twitter faces in general and those factors can be exacerbated when large numbers of people convene with a larger purpose for a time-bounded conversation. Perhaps some scaffolding would improve the ability for more meaningful exchanges, enabling serendipity without letting serendipity reign as the organizing principle.

With all the fertile design minds out there as part of this conversation we’re sure that others have ideas. Let’s hear ’em!

ChittahChattah Quickies

  • [from wstarosta] Status displays: I’ve got you labelled [The Economist] – [Evolutionary biology helps to explain why luxury branded objects, even counterfeit ones, are so appealing.] DESIGNERS of fancy apparel would like their customers to believe that wearing their creations lends an air of wealth, sophistication and high status. And it does—but not, perhaps, for the reason those designers might like to believe, namely their inherent creative genius. A new piece of research confirms what many, not least in the marketing departments of fashion houses, will long have suspected: that it is not the design itself that counts, but the label.
  • [from steve_portigal] The Future of Books. [McSweeney’s Internet Tendency] – [As usual, McSweeney's does razor-sharp mockery, but you could read this as straight-ahead prediction and it would sadly almost pass for believable] 2050: Analog Reading Will Be Digitally Simulated. As people spend more and more of time immersed in massively multi-player role-playing games, they will begin to crave some downtime. Virtual simulation worlds will start to include hideaway "libraries" you can lock yourself into. There you'll be able to climb into a virtual bath and lovingly turn the pages of a pixilated representation of one of those dog-eared tomes—reliant on old-school linear narrative— that by this time will have been made illegal in the real world. Perfectly reproduced will be the sensation of turning the pages, the crack of the spine, and even the occasional paper cut.
  • [from steve_portigal] When Did Girls Start Wearing Pink? [Smithsonian Magazine] – [Fascinating cultural history] The march toward gender-specific clothes was neither linear nor rapid. Pink and blue arrived, along with other pastels, as colors for babies in the mid-19th century, yet the two colors were not promoted as gender signifiers until just before WW I—and even then, it took time for popular culture to sort things out. In 1927, Time magazine printed a chart showing sex-appropriate colors for girls and boys according to leading U.S. stores. In Boston, Filene’s told parents to dress boys in pink. Today’s color dictate wasn’t established until the 1940s, as a result of Americans’ preferences as interpreted by manufacturers and retailers. “It could have gone the other way,” Paoletti says..Nowadays people just have to know the sex of a baby or young child at first glance, says Jo B. Paoletti, a historian & author of Pink and Blue: Telling the Girls From the Boys in America. Thus we see a pink headband encircling the bald head of an infant girl. [Via @boingboing]
  • [from steve_portigal] In Sweden’s frigid north, auto testing is hot [SFGate] – [Obvious car companies do a ton of lab and simulation testing, but they are also big advocates of real world testing] Arjeplog, a region in northern Sweden is is important to car makers eager to optimize their vehicles for driving in extreme weather, This winter, temperatures have hovered around -4 F, making ice on the lakes consistently thick enough for driving. About 180 engineers convened at the test center at one point this season to work on making cars more fuel-efficient in cold weather and to optimize their anti-spin function. While Arjeplog is the world's largest winter testing area, rival locations include Ivalo, Finland; West Yellowstone, Mont.; Carson City, Nev.; and Millbrook, England. Francisco Carvalho, an analyst at IHS Automotive, says such tracks provide automakers with "the ultimate test for the little things they can't detect or predict in a lab." Almost 9,000 car industry officials visit Arjeplog each winter, with about 2,800 engineers working on any given day.

ChittahChattah Quickies

  • [from julienorvaisas] Your Life Torn Open, Sharing is a trap [Wired UK] – [Academic and a little shrill at times, but provocative. In this essay, Keen shares his harsh, apocalyptic perspective on the nefarious implications of the increasingly social and open lives we live online, complete with case studies.] Today's digital social network is a trap. Today's cult of the social, peddled by an unholy alliance of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and communitarian idealists, is rooted in a misunderstanding of the human condition. The truth is that we aren't naturally social beings. Instead, as Vermeer reminds us in The Woman in Blue, human happiness is really about being left alone. On Liberty, the 1859 essay by Bentham's godson and former acolyte, John Stuart Mill, remains a classic defence of individual rights in the age of the industrial network and its tyranny of the majority. Today, as we struggle to make sense of the impact of the internet revolution, we need an equivalent On Digital Liberty to protect the right to privacy in the social-media age.

ChittahChattah Quickies

  • [from steve_portigal] A History of the Future in 100 Objects by Adrian Hon [Kickstarter] – [I'm in! Who else will throw some cash at this kickstarter project, crowdsourced funding for some exciting research and writing?] Let's imagine it's 2100…What are the 100 objects that future historians will use to sum up our century? 'Smart drugs' that change the way we think? A fragment from suitcase nuke detonated in Shanghai? A wedding ring between a human and an AI? The world's most expensive glass of water, returned from a private mission to an asteroid? I want to write a weblog that will explore all of these ideas, with 100 posts for 100 objects. Along the way I'll produce a newspaper and a podcast, and when it's finished, I'll publish it as a book. But it's not just going to be about technology – I'm going to focus on the deeply human effects of our fascinating future, from religion to advertising to wars. I want to tell the story of individuals, families, countries, and the human race, as we venture from 2011 to 2100.

ChittahChattah Quickies

  • [from steve_portigal] Le Laboratoire des Nouvelles Lectures (LNL) – a community centered around the future of reading – This week Lift is launching a new project: Le Laboratoire des Nouvelles Lectures (LNL) – a community centered around the future of reading. LNL is an open platform designed to inspire and incubate new forms of reading experiences based on all the new technologies now available. The LNL is an initiative of the Salon du Livre et de la Presse de Geneve (the Geneva Book Fair), and is produced by LIFT, Edipresse and Bookapp.com.
  • [from julienorvaisas] Tablets Rekindle Our Love of Reading–Books, Too [Fast Company] – [MFD is used here by the survey companies Brock Associates and iModerate Research Technologies – quite a name, that one! – to signify a Multi-Function Device which includes ebook readers as well as tablets. And possibly smartphones. You know, personal electronic devices. Mobile technology. We don't know what to call things anymore. In any case, here's more research to suggest that though people enjoy reading on and read more on their "MFDs," it's an additive effect, encouraging non-digital reading activity as well. Ereading does not replace non-ereading. Reading begets reading.] Despite the fact that the survey showed MFD users had great "affinity" for their devices, "struggling to to come up with significant shortcomings to reading ebooks on them" they were also inspired to read more old-school books. Perhaps they were reminded of the pleasures of reading, and were reluctant to haul their Kindle into the bath with them for a book-accompanied relaxing soak?

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