September 24, 2009 TED Salon London 2009: Designing (for) Awareness.
On September 21, 2009 I was lucky enough to speak at a TED Salon, held in London at the wonderful Unicorn Theatre for Children. Tim Leberecht, Till Gruche, Sam Martin and the rest of the frog Marketing team have my respect and deep appreciation for creating (and giving me) this great opportunity, and for flawlessly organizing such a great event. It was thrilling to breathe a TED-like atmosphere for an evening, and even though I tend to be relatively relaxed when talking in public the red 3-letter acronym glowing behind me on stage kept me on the edge more than I expected. Always interesting to learn something about yourself.
If you're curious you can read how the evening went overall on the TED blog, or you can take a look at some of the photos on Flickr. Below you'll also find an extended transcript of my talk. TED's infallible Bruno Giussani told me several times that "TED talks last 18 minutes, better plan for 16", so what I actually said was a much-distilled version of the text below. And yes, I managed to stay on time and was not pulled off stage. Phew. And no, unfortunately I do not think it was my best performance ever. Sigh.
Designing (for) awareness
Can Design really help change the world? Of course I think that the answer to this question is a loud "yes", but I also think that the question still stands, and the reason is simple. If you asked designers for a definition of Design, you'd get back as many definitions as there are designers, but if you asked the same designers what they think they do best they would consistently tell you they see themselves as catalysts of change. I share the same point of view: in the recent past Design has shed a perceived fixation on esthetics to become a credible future-shaping, world-changing discipline. In this process designers have had to stop just relying on sheer intuition and creativity to meet their challenges, and developed a profound understanding of people's needs, hopes, desires and dreams, in addition to an ability to detect, trace and shape the boundaries of liquid socio-economic and technological scenarios. One thing has not changed though: it is still all about love and passion, loving not just what we design, but who and where and when we design for. Future-proof design requires a genuine interest in human beings, and care for the spinning sphere they live on.
The downside of such love and passion for humanity coupled with an appetite for change is - at times - frustration. I've become particularly intrigued lately by our apparent inability to modify our habits. Why do most of us stick for example to behavioral patterns that we well know will hurt us individually in the short term, and collectively - as a species - in the long term? I believe, like others, that the problem is a problem of awareness. Without disturbing Buddhism I mean awareness as a profound, always-present consciousness that our accumulated decisions and actions, our behaviors and habits can have a huge impact. The problem is that we don't notice what needs changing simply because we don't even know it's taking place, or we have a misguided sense of what we do and how we do it and how often. But here are the good news. There is something brewing at the intersection of design, technology and digitally-mediated social interactions that promises to reveal and make manifest the invisible cause-and-effect loops that tie our perceptions to our decisions and to our actions. The result of giving visible and actionable substance to our otherwise invisible behavioral patterns will be a raised level of awareness about those very patterns, and thus an ability to reflect upon and ultimately change them, changing the world in return.
Let's make a concrete example: how fast is your heart beating right now? I am sure that just by thinking about it some of you are breathing differently already, and as a result your pulse slowed down, or maybe it accelerated instead. You've become all of a sudden aware of something we probably take for granted 99.9% of our time, that our heart is indeed beating... and beating just as fast as it needs to support us in whatever we're doing. Bear with me as I take this one step further. Some of you are probably involved in some form of physical exercise: jogging, running, cycling, whatever. Some of you might use a heart rate monitor while training. Those that do will usually report that being aware of one's heart rate while exercising deeply changes the way you train and even think about training, in the same way that people who meditate will tell you that becoming aware of one's breathing is the first step to actually change one's mental state. Becoming aware of the physiological state of your own organism changes the way you consciously behave ultimately, which has an impact on the state of the organism in return. This cause-effect loop is nothing new of course, and there's a term that defines it when that organism is the human body: biofeedback.
Here are a few questions that I'd like you to think about going forward. What happens to our sense of self and to our behaviors when technology can extend and enhance our ability to sense and make sense of what's around us? What happens when our nervous system ceases to be limited by the boundaries of our body, and extends into an artificial neural network of sorts we currently call the Internet? What happens when our fallible memory is supported by tools that never forget our actions and decisions, tracked over extended periods of time? This is what we'll be toying with in the next few minutes, pointing to a few paths worth exploring in the process, not necessarily to destinations. For the rest of this talk I will superficially touch upon the four essential components of a potential product/service ecosystem focused on making our behavioral patterns - our habits - manifest, to enable us to reflect upon them, and possibly to decide to change them in return. These components are: sensors and processing power everywhere, data streams, digital storage, information visualization and digitally-mediated social networks.
A short story first. I've always been a fan of comics, and Iron Man has always been one of my favorites. Iron Man is the super-alter-ego of pre-internet technologist and billionaire Tony Stark, but what is often forgotten is that the armor that gives him super-powers was originally conceived to help him cope with a heart condition derived from having been kidnapped. The armor was first and foremost a life support system: Iron Man was originally a man with disabilities overcome through technology. More about this later. In one of the recent evolutions of the Iron Man character, Tony Stark interfaces with his all-powerful exoskeleton through a sort of membrane on his bones. The integration between the man and the technology he has invented has become absolute. In a page from the comic he is seen talking to one of his assistants, who's warning him about potential dangers as he's ready to head out for another life-threatening mission. He shrugs her words off: "I can see through satellites now" is his answer. He is already well aware of the information she brings to him. He can see it with his own eyes. Literally. Which is to say that his nervous system now extends well beyond the boundaries of his body, that his behavior and decisions are now not just based on the information conveyed through his natural and limited senses. We might not see through satellites - yet - but we are undergoing a silent shift that sees our behaviors and decisions influenced profoundly by a raised awareness of their impact on ourselves, on others and and on the environment surrounding us.
The key enabler for this shift comes in the form of access to our own data streams, and I'll use a personal anecdote to illustrate what I mean. If you - like me - commute to work you might at one point have asked yourself a question similar to this one: how many times have I been on this bike/car/bus/train/airplane/spaceship? If you - like me - have had to use a car to commute to work this question might be spurred by a desire to measure the sheer economic implications of such a decision, or maybe you wanted to gauge its impact on your carbon emissions. Well, when it comes to me I can easily tell you that there are at least 3 independent systems that could provide a numerically exact answer to that question, but interestingly I have no access whatsoever to any of them. In other words, I do not own or control the bit-crumbs that I leave behind me during all my various digitally-traceable activities. This is ludicrous, and simply unacceptable. We want access to our own data streams, we need to have access to our own data streams, and the reason is simple: we want to be able to mine them to extract meaningful information about ourselves. Needless to say do so it is not enough to track what we do for short periods of time. Patterns, meaningful patterns, sometimes emerge over months, years, even decades, especially if you consider a collective dimension. Luckily ubiquitous wired and wireless broadband connectivity has led to the rise of so-called "Cloud Services", and if you couple this with digital storage following the equivalent of Moore's law you have all that's needed to store our data streams for good, for us to decide later on what best use for them we might think of.
Having access to one's own data streams, and service schemas to store them forever establishes the right foundation for the next layer. Paraphrasing an old Italian Pirelli commercial: data is nothing without control (over it). Raw data needs to be shaped into information first, then it needs to be communicated in a form that allows human beings to make sense of it, to turn information into knowledge. In other words data needs to be made intelligible to become meaningful. Time to move on to information visualization. Time for another quick anecdote.
When you'll have to take a taxi in the future make the effort to wait until you can hop on a Toyota Prius. Wait a few seconds, then casually ask what that colorful display in the middle of the dashboard is showing. What usually follows - and I've done this quite a few times now - is a long and passionate introduction to how that display has changed not only the way the taxi driver drives, but the way he thinks about driving. Seeing in real time the effect of one's driving style on the energy efficiency of the vehicle quickly reverts the act of driving from a sequence of mostly automated tasks back to a conscious effort. After a while things go back to low cognitive involvement of course, but by then driving habits have changed. "I can see inside my car's engine now", Iron Man would probably say. This is the power of revealing and giving substance to things not seen. Information used to be power, now information visualization is.
Information visualization is a multidisciplinary design domain that's been quickly rising in importance and impact: a critical mass of users whose mental model for digital assets is that of "un-curated accrual" has motivated a new generation of talented visual and interaction designers to try and help people to make sense of the overflowing complex data-sets they generate and have access to. People like Carlo Ratti and his team at the MIT's SENSEable City Lab have created software solutions that detect unforeseen events, like traffic jams or natural catastrophes, by monitoring spikes in mobile traffic , while other companies like Stamen Design have seen projects like Cab Spotting, which shows San Francisco mapped through the traces left by the GPSs of taxis driving around the city, displayed at the MOMA. Moodstats is another interesting prescient example dating back to the beginning of the new millennium, an application created by a group of talented designers called Cuban Council intended to track and even share people's mood over time. More recently companies like Nike, Polar, Suunto or Nokia for example, have created opportunities for runners of all levels to see their performances mapped and tracked on the pages of a website.
There's a risk in all of this renewed fixation on the visual dimension though, actually two possible risks. The first one is that we as designers see these graphics purely as an opportunity to draw beautiful, compelling images. The second risk is that we underestimate the importance for people to be able to change the way the data is visualized. That is to say that shaping information out of complex data-sets by giving it a visual representation can only be achieved by adding information to it: the graphic layer itself. In other words still the point of view of the designer ends up standing between the data and the user. Designers need to enable people to manipulate the data, and they especially need to make it possible for them to establish their own point of view on it, by modifying parameters and visualizations. This is the difference between an artistic representation based on data, and software that enables people to reflect on behavioral patterns revealed by the same data. We don't just want to look at cool-looking graphs, we want to be able to extract meaning from them, our own meaning. We want tools, we want tools of self-reflection.
We now have lined up access to our own bitcrumbs, endless space to store them and ways to give them an actionable form. Where will all these data streams come from? An easy answer would be to just check in your pocket or bag, and pull out your mobile phone of choice, but it's actually time to go back to Iron Man and to how disabilities overcome through technology can teach us a thing or two. We are going through a revolution when it comes to the role that cheap, ubiquitous processing power and sensors are playing. I already mentioned Nike and the Nike+ partnership with Apple as a mass-market example of the role sensors will play in helping us track what we do, but they are not alone. For example Fitbit makes a wearable clip that tracks your movement 24/7, calculating calories burned and even sleeping patterns, while Yamaha has been making an MP3 player called Bodibeat that matches the beat of the music you're listening to to the rhythm of your heartbeat. Along the same lines also gaming platforms have been - ahem - toying with similar ideas, the latest being the Wii and its Wii Vitality Sensor, which promises to make one's biostats the invisible joypad controlling your on-screen avatar.
If these examples show applications that put entertainment at the center, there's an industry sector in which we are seeing a sudden acceleration facilitated by cheap ubiquitous sensors and portable processing power, and that sector is Healthcare. Spurred by an aging population, technological innovations and new service schemas that replace hospitalization with always-on at-home monitoring to reduce costs this industry is buzzing with innovative products that constantly monitor patients' biostats to help them cope with their ailments while improving their quality of life.
In diabetes management the new standard is called Continuous Glucose Monitoring, and Dexcom for example produces a solution that's comprised of a user-implanted sensor wirelessly feeding real-time blood glucose levels to a glucose meter. Similar competing systems also include an insulin pump, finally freeing patients from a life-disrupting routine that has them currently pierce their fingers for testing to then inject themselves with insulin when needed. Proteus Biomed claims it will soon be making swallowable connected pills that will constantly send various biostats to a device worn on the body. Finally frog design Milano is currently running with a few local partners a research program called E-monitors that also looks at this opportunity area, and will soon result in an open hardware-software platform for integrating a network of biosensors sending real-time data to a health-monitoring service via a last generation mobile phone.
All of these examples are indicative of an emerging product/service architecture that will likely be the reference for the near future when it comes to the body as an active node on The Network. An implanted sensor transmitting wirelessly to a larger wearable device, which also exchanges data with other nearby devices and aggregates it, making it take the long jump straight to a remote server for long-term storage and further mining.?Mass-market enablers for this product/service architecture are already in place.?Devices like Apple's iPhone are now powerful enough to process massive amounts of data, and can easily act as bridges between “sensors” of all sorts and The Network itself.
This quickly consolidating model has prompted commentators like Lee Maguire to ask a very interesting question: "So what happens when the device that records your medical status is also the device that you use to update your social connections?" I personally think that the answer is fairly straightforward: "your heartbeat becomes a conversation", but the question this answer raises in return is even more interesting that the original question, at least in my opinion. What will be the nature of this conversation? I'll try to use a couple of other examples to point at a possible answer, and in doing so I'll touch upon the last component: the role that digitally mediated-social networks will play in this scenario.
Vitality's Glowcap is a product that can be described as an intelligent and connected pill bottle cap, and it does at least a couple of interesting things. First it reminds users to take their medications, second it tracks if they are following their regimen, making a report accessible in various ways both to users themselves and to other people they select, including of course their doctor. A few months ago I had a chance to speak with David Rose, the company's founder and CEO, and he mentioned that they are currently evaluating to create a way for the cap to publish real-time stats to a Facebook widget, so that people in your social network could see if you are indeed taking your medications. "Why would anyone want to do that?" you are probably thinking. Well, to create self-imposed peer pressure to induce and reinforce virtuous behaviors. If you know that other people know, you'll become in turn more aware of what you are doing... and even more importantly so will the others as well. Individual behavior takes on a social and collective dimension: it becomes a conversation spurred and sustained over time by machines.
If the previous example was a bit unsettling here's another and even more controversial one, hinting again at the nature of the conversations that our data streams will be likely to spark in the future. Bayer's Didget glucose meter is targeted to younger diabetes patients. As you can easily imagine convincing children and youngsters to stick to a socially disrupting but life-saving routine that includes regular testing is difficult. The Didget encourages them to take good care of themselves by integrating with the Nintendo gaming ecosystem, and turning regular testing into points that can be redeemed in that playful environment. There's also a community of users where the social dimension is introduced to exchange personal experiences, and again points can be used to unlock features and the like.
Of course quite a few questions raise to the surface immediately in this case, and as a father of two young children I am sure you are asking yourself what I've been asking myself as well. Is this even right? Is it ethical? Well, as I said we're looking at paths, not destinations, so please contemplate your discomfort for a few seconds, if you can. Because what this is ultimately all about is turning virtuous behavior into social currency. Nothing more. Framed in this context, and with an element of "freedom of choice" associated with it I think this is an amazingly rich opportunity to turn our contemporary digital tools for managing social ties into support systems that will keep us adhering to behaviors that we agree are virtuous in nature. It's taking tools of individual self-reflection and adding a collective dimension to them: I can see what others in my situation are doing, and can use this reference to motivate myself or others to do more, to do better, to do what we collectively agree is right.
And this is where I'll stop because at this point we're ready to wrap up this brief exploration, as we've touched upon all the intersecting opportunity areas I listed at the beginning. Here are all the pieces once again, loosely joined: - Access to our own data streams, and services to accrue and store our bitcrumbs forever - Sensors and cheap ubiquitous processing power to generate those data streams and provide instant access to correlated real-time information - Well-designed interactive tools of self-reflection to visualize, manipulate and shape raw data into meaningful information by revealing hidden behavioral patterns - Social networks that encourage and sustain virtuous behavior by treating it as social currency and accumulated social capital/reputation.
Of course this field is ripe with new challenges and wicked problems. How to design (for) awareness and self-reflection? How to design platforms that people can use to encourage and challenge each other in following what they consider to be virtuous behaviors? I strongly believe that it will be all about passion and love for humankind, again.
These are indeed good news, but it does not stop here, and here's why. We have already factored the social and collective variable into the equation, but mostly in terms of possible benefits for individual participants. It is not difficult to imagine what would happen if we reversed the point of view from that of a single node in the (social) network to that of the network itself as the organism. In other words if you don't consider what I just described so far as a solution but as a platform you'll immediately realize that it scales beautifully. Let's go back to the Toyota Prius anecdote for a second. What if all Toyota Priuses were networked, and their displays also showed how much fuel other drivers were saving? What if drivers could subtly or playfully challenge each other to do so, collectively? What if all cars had such a system onboard? What if a similar system allowed residents to set local speed limits, or limit access to the streets where they live based on local pollution levels, detected by a network of sensors they own, mantain and control? What if homes had displays, that showed real-time individual resource consumption levels in relationship to those of somebody's close friends, of their local neighborhood, of their urban area, of their country, of their continent, of the world? How would their decisions, and actions, and habits change in such a scenario? I believe they would. I believe they will. Posted by fabio sergio | 4:46 PM | permalink
"Our meeting closes with a personal demonstration of Iwata’s latest new thing: the Wii Vitality Sensor. Wii Vitality, which is expected to ship next year, is a small electronic thimble that sits on the end of a forefinger. It uses light sensors to measure the flow of blood, extrapolating information about the internal workings of their bodies. It is a natural complement to Nintendo’s existing health-oriented products such as Wii Fit and Brain Training.
'This is me in the office last Friday,' Iwata says, pointing at the video. 'I’m checking my relaxation levels. This can also sense whether you’re breathing in or out by the blood flow.' A visual representation of a human silhouette fills slowly with blue water to chest level to show that Iwata is slightly stressed. The sound of a metronome appears on screen, with breathing exercises. 'Now look how my relaxation level has changed.' The human silhouette is now slightly more full, of greener water.
This is what I find interesting, Iwata says. 'The idea of making something that is invisible, visible is fascinating.'" Posted by fabio sergio | 1:54 PM | permalink
June 10, 2009 Singing the body electric.
I recently had the pleasure of speaking at Frontiers of Interaction V, the 5th instance of the conference conceived and lovingly produced by Matteo Penzo and Leandro Agrò, held in Rome this year in a spectacular setting. As in the past it was a precious opportunity to share ideas about fascinating topics with interesting people, and to do so in Italy - where such occurrences are rare - was an added bonus.
This year the theme of the conference was "Social Networks, Internet of Things and Smart Cities", and as expected my personal highlights of the day were Adam Greenfield's "Elements of a networked urbanism" keynote, Matt Jones' "The new Negroponte switch", and Andrea Vaccari's presentation of the work he's done at the MIT's Senseable City Lab. It was a pleasure to finally hear in person Adam articulate with his trademark clarity the (in-progress) key concepts underlying his upcoming new book, while Matt riffed on his recent joining of experimental design wunderstudio Schulze & Webb to talk about the current shift that sees products become less and less tangible as services actually follow the opposite path. A few random words that will surely find their way back in my conversations in the upcoming weeks: the Gershenfeld-Negroponte switch, physical snap-on APIs, Thingfrastructure. All in all it was a long and rewarding day, filled with stimulating conversations that will keep me creatively fueled up for a while. What more can you ask for?
Given the themes of the conference and who was speaking after me I decided to steer clear of potential irrelevance, and had fun superficially exploring an area actually at the frontier of the day's very themes. When the smart city of interconnected things will come to be – if it has not already – what will be the implications for its human inhabitants? Even more vertically: what will living in such a techno-cultural milieu do to people's first-life avatar - to their body - and to their very perception of it? I briefly touched upon "the body as a terminal" and "the body as a node", and left "the body as a conduit" for a longer timeframe.
What you'll read below (other than the ice-breaker intro, which I removed) is what I had originally set out to say. Of course what I did say in the end was different. I think. I always like to have a fairly solid narrative structure to follow for such events, but then I never rely on notes while I speak, to keep things open for the unexpected and leave enough tension to keep me on the edge a bit. Yes, I know, who cares. In any case: you can use the words below to try and make sense of the slideshow just above them. If you really like getting bored you can also watch the video of my talk.
Singing the body electric
I’ve been asked to be the first “in-person” speaker today, and tasked to somewhat open up the conference, so let’s start with a question: where is Ubicomp, metaphorically and physically? We’re all familiar by now I think with Mark Weiser’s vision for it, and we all somewhat agree that we live today in one possible – and possibly embryonic – expression of that vision. Thanks to our mobile phones, and laptops and wirelessly ubicomputing whatnots we live surrounded by things connected to The Network with a capital “n”. This “subset” of Ubicomp is what I refer to as Ubi-conn, and it’s nicely summed up by a quote I’ve used many times.
"We are now in an era of pervasive networks and are thus more properly “in”, not “on” the network. Careful choice of prepositions helps to think more clearly about not only the stakes of cohabiting with things within the networked world, but also for thinking about how to design experiences for this very different mode of occupancy." Julian Bleeker, 2006
To paraphrase a famous European Vodafone campaign, Ubiconn is “all around us”. Invisible, but present. Recently Timo Arnall created a video that beautifully visualizes this constant immersion in an all-pervading, invisible flow of bits.
Arguably the most tangible result of Ubiconn today is Ubi-comm, where things connected to The Network have us in turn communicate with one another, and now also increasingly with things themselves. We live immersed in always-on conversations across channels and media, and if you have been a first-day Jaiku or Twitter user, or now run a Facebook app on your mobile phone of choice and use it often you’ll know what I mean. In 2002 I had called this techno-cultural context “Connectedland”, and I had imagined that this constant connection to The Network would eventually become addictive, and that being detached from it would generate anxiety. More recently Kevin Kelly gave a fascinating talk at TED 2008 titled “The next 5000 days of the web”, in which he spoke about the Internet evolving into the "One Machine", and pointed to the fact that we will be fully co-dependent upon it (and thus upon the tools that will sustain that very connection). Yes.
Now within this context here’s the space I’d like to superficially explore today: how is this techno-cultural evolution changing our body and our perception of it?
The body as a terminal
You could say that this whole train of thought started a few years ago, in November 2005, while reading a Wired article written by Michael Chorost - “My Bionic Quest for Bolero” - which later became a book. The author describes his own descent into a world of silence, and how he decides to undergo the most invasive treatment currently available to regain his hearing and experience again Ravel’s famous Bolero as he remembers it.
“A cochlear implant, as it is known, would trigger my auditory nerves with 16 electrodes that snaked inside my inner ear.” Michael Chorost, 2005
What I found extremely fascinating about the unfortunate experience described in the article is that it basically talked about software augmenting the senses (a diminished sense in this case, but still). As the author loaded different software releases into his high-tech hearing aid he could hear various sound ranges differently, until he found one combination that enabled him to experience his favorite music again the way he remembered hearing it naturally. In other words, the article talked about mediating and enhancing our (auditory) perception of the world, through software. Think about that for a second. Many people would say that all our perceptions of the world are mediated though software, but I am talking about human-coded software in this case.
Weirdly enough though the question that came to mind there and then was: “When will we start to consider having a face to face conversation over the phone?” See, I think we’ve all been there, overhearing somebody else’s conversation because other people were simply talking too loudly, because of the context. Maybe they had no choice, they had to have that conversation right there and then, maybe they did not care, who knows. But still. Now enter the Jawbone. This is not just a beautiful (Yves Behar-designed) Bluetooth headset, it also comes loaded with what they claim to be state-of-the-art noise-suppression technology. This is software that basically eliminates all ambient noise and leaves your voice to be the signal. Now. Would you consider using this tool to talk to somebody face to face, if it allowed you to hear them better or if you just wanted more privacy? Think about this for a minute. I actually think I would. I actually think I will, one of these days.
This is not an isolated example of course, as many hearing aids come with similar features. For example Phonak – a swiss hearing-aid manufacturer (full disclosure: Phonak is one of frog design's current clients) - has a feature in their high-end products to fine-tune sound settings for specific contexts (even more interestingly hearing aids for kids need to leave “noise” in to get them to learn how to hear, but that’s completely off-topic). Now bearing all of the above in mind consider Lyric Hearing. This is a revolutionary (read: invisible) in-ear hearing aid, intended to be worn 24/7, for 30 days or more at a time. Did anybody think “implant”? Did anybody think “what if this was Bluetooth-enabled and it could connect to my mobile phone”? Did anybody think "what about a version with noise-suppression for people without hearing disabilities"? So did I. Talk about “I am hearing voices”: such a combination might up the ante when it comes to making it difficult to tell global village fools from people that are just talking on their mobile phone. We might soon all be hearing voices: our own conversations, relayed by the One Machine.
Contemplating your own discomfort
Time to switch sense and move to sight. Visions of smart cities and spaces have shaped our collective imagination around augmented reality, an invisible digital layer overlaid on top of a visible physical one. Common scenarios to reveal the hidden data layer usually involve “glasses of true seeing” of some sort. Take for example the interesting work of Japanese designer Mac Fuminazu. On his website - Petit Invention - he has created a series of concepts along these lines. The idea is fairly simple: an invisible physical layer that makes the invisible digital layer visible. Got it? Physically invisible makes visible the digitally invisible on top of the physically visible. Anyway, these concepts are, well, nice, cute even, and their early commercial applications are already available. For example Wikitude, an Adroid-based application, uses GPS and the camera of a mobile device to show Wikipedia entries overlayed on top of the physical landmarks they refer to.
Now. Let’s look at another execution of the same idea. Not so cute. Quite the contrary even. I will thus ask you for the first time today to do something I had to do myself when I first saw this concept, and others that will follow as well. Play Buddhist and try to "contemplate your own discomfort": suspend judgment for a few minutes and ask yourself why that discomfort comes to be, and if it is just cultural – and thus could change – or if it goes deeper. The reason why you should think about it is that I believe something like this mask will come, whether we like it or not, and it’s essential to consider implications sooner, rather than later.
This mask is a “mixed reality visor” designed by Ralph Bremenkamp, a talented colleague of mine at frog design. The whole idea here is of course immersion, immersion in an alternative digital reality, but also of course disconnection, disconnection from the physical world surrounding the wearer. It is basically a product to live full time in the "invisible digital layer" rather than in the "visible physical one". It is also something that looks like it’s been grafted onto the face of the wearer. Obviously it’s esthetically meant to appeal to current “extreme” communities and to a specific age range, but still.
Disabled enablement (more along the lines of the Wired article)
Of course at this point any Science Fiction fan will have zeroed-in onto where I am heading. It’s been described in movies, comics, novels, you name the medium. One reference to rule them all, following up on the mask you just saw: William Gibson’s Molly Millions and her vision-enhancing implanted mirror lenses. Disturbing but cool, right? Well... I’d like to avoid that tangent and follow another one. When it comes to augmentations and cyborgs more realistic images like this one come to mind. These are mid-90's self-proclaimed "borgs" (read: geeks) at the MIT, overloaded with PC paraphernalia and looking – quite honestly – pretty ridiculous. Of course these visions have evolved in the meantime, and just last year the tech world was abuzz with videos of Pranav Mistry’s 6th Sense, showing that cyborgs have gotten themselves better tools now. Too bad that they are still wear(abl)ing things that bounce around their necks and hide in their backpacks.
Let’s now sit again on our discomfort for a second, and ask ourselves a question that’s just plain weird: “Would you give away an eye, to have it replaced with a camera?” Anybody in their right of mind would (or should) answer a loud “no”. But what If you were missing an eye in the first place? As you might have read Rob Spence, who lost his right eye in a childhood accident, has been developing with a friend of his a prototype camera that will replace his artificial eye, and wirelessly beam video to a nearby screen or hard disk. I think we’re all familiar by now with the concept of Lifelogging – capturing multimedia information about every single moment of one’s life – but this is something entirely different. This is invisible technology built into the body that requires no effort on behalf of the wearer, following his every gaze and recording everything he sees unbeknownst to others around him. What will this do our perception of one another? What will this do to our memory-shaping practices?
Time to move on: here’s another video, which will have us focus away from our senses and onto our outer boundary, our skin. This is what Philips Design calls a “design probe”, and it shows how some sort of nano sub-dermal e-ink will react to touch and pressure, enhancing our body and making it a dynamic surface for self-expression. Somewhat sensual, and somewhat disturbing. If you think this is science fiction you are of course right, but here’s a quasi-realistic implementation of what you just saw (it is a concept again, so I am cheating a bit). This is a Bluetooth-enabled sub-dermal black & white screen. Imagine using your phone, or any other Bluetooth-capable device, to beam images to it, so that they will show from under your skin. Cool? Creepy? Yes, Indeed.
The body as a node
We've been briefly exploring the body as a terminal, as a destination for digital information if you will. Then there's the body as a pulsating active node on The Network. Of course there's the banal: the body's location in time and space turned into an always-on stream of bits. Google Latitude comes to mind. Still in the same realm there are companies that build their service models on tracking data produced by the body as it's exercising, companies like Suunto, Polar or Nike. Heart-rate monitors and pedometers and GPS watches of all kinds, now ready to stream biostats to a portable networked device. Lately also Nintendo jumped into the melee with its Wii Vitality Sensor, which promises to use the gamer's heart rate to change playing conditions. Maybe.
I don’t need to tell you that healthcare is the field were most of these visions come with real business models and tangible economic incentives. I am of course talking about constant monitoring of one's heart rate, blood pressure, oxygen and glucose levels etc. Frog Milano is currently running with a few partners a research program called E-monitors that precisely looks at this opportunity area, and will result in the working prototype of an open platform for integrating a network of biosensors.
Here's another example along these lines, one where again we might all feel somewhat uncomfortable, but also an example of something that can make the difference for people suffering from diabetes, promising to greatly improve their quality of life: the Dexcom diabetes management system includes a self-implantable sensor, a small data-emitting pod that attaches to it and a glucose meter that can make sense of the data or drive an insulin pump directly. The overall apparatus is still quite clunky to be honest, but you can easily see it as a promising first step towards nimbler executions. In addition the whole idea of performing what is for all purposes self-micro-surgery is mind-boggling to say the least, but again just a glimpse of what lies ahead.
What all of the examples above point to it's clearly a basic product/service architecture that will likely be the reference for the near future when it comes to the body as a node. Something sensing and implanted transmitting wirelessly to a larger wearable hub, which distributes data to other nearby devices and aggregates it, making it take the long jump straight to the One Machine for long-term storage and mining. Mass-market enablers for this product/service infrastructure are already in place. Devices like Apple's iPhone are now powerful enough to process massive amounts of data, and come with Bluetooth enhancements that enable them to act as bridges between “sensors” of all sorts and The Network itself.
The most interesting aspect here is that all of these scenarios see the body becoming for all purposes an always-on, always-connected, always-communicating source of biodata, pulsating bits with its every heartbeat.
Infamous last words
One last consideration, one last reference and one last (weird) question.
Here’s the last consideration. Remember Timo Arnall’s video at the beginning? In the future that thing absorbing and beaming invisible bits won’t be a device you’ll be wearing. It will be you.
Here's the last reference. In one of the latest evolutions of the Iron-Man character Tony Stark controls his all-empowering metal suit by interfacing with it directly through a membrane on his bones, no interface strings attached. At one point he reveals: "I can see through satellites now." We know how that feels by now, right?
Here’s the last question. “How quickly is a digitally augmented, mixed reality leading us to feel the need for an augmented body to fully take advantage of it?” In other words: would you give an eye to see through satellites? Posted by fabio sergio | 1:53 PM | permalink
April 21, 2009 Davide.
Our baby boy Davide was born today, at 10:12 AM. Welcome to the world little one, our hearts instantly expanded to house double the love. Posted by fabio sergio | 10:12 AM | permalink
March 11, 2009 LIFT 09, future-proof design.
I recently had the luck of spending a few stimulating days at LIFT 09. As in the past the pre-conference workshops and two full days of interesting conversations flooded my slow brain with ideas that have started sedimenting, hopefully to then resurface in my thinking patterns in the upcoming months.
I found many talks to be particularly relevant - Nicolas Nova's thoughts on how to learn from "failed futures", David Rose's musings on basic human needs and leveraging magic as a metaphor for connected products, Matt Webb's usual mix of genius and madness and Anab Jain's fantastic video reportages from Little Brinkland - but it was Dan Hill's presentation that stood out as my personal highlight from the whole conference. What made Dan's talk great was not just the content - a rich introduction to the upcoming challenges and opportunities posed by Urban Informatics - but also the way in which he supported his argument with almost-real-time storytelling layered over a masterfully orchestrated sequence of images and quotes interspersed with videos. Favorite quote: "No matter how good the hard infrastructure is, it’s the soft infrastructure that defines the experience.".
When first offered this opportunity this is what I had sent in:
"An old project management saying states that "plans are useless, but planning is indispensable". Something along the same lines could be probably said about future-shaping practices. Visions of the Future are often useless, but the act of envisioning them is not. 3D flying virtual assistants, 1984-like nightmares, Asimov-inspired robots, videophones and even flying cars are here, they are just not evenly distributed, and they might never be.
Truth is that many designers dream of spending their professional lives telling stories about the Future, and shaping systems of products and services that populate those stories like props in a movie. Historically Design-at-large has been the discipline arisen to help the industry-at-large give form to artifacts fit for a given cultural milieu, artifacts that in turn usually end up influencing and changing that very cultural milieu, and thus its future. What's interesting is that the sheer amount of these stories today vastly overwhelms their "rate of absorption": the necessary cultural humus for a vision to grow onto is continuously washed away by the next wave of seducing - albeit often utopic or dystopic - hypotheses. In other words the potential culture(s) of use that could take shape around any and all of these visions simply cannot keep up with the ever-accelerating production of competing images depicting the next "perfect" - and often branded - future we will be living in so-very-soon.
Perhaps part of the problem stems from a model of time that's still very Newtonian: an infinite horizontal Cartesian axis pointed right. Within this model the Future appears to be an infinite resource. Recently we have been forced to ask ourselves if that is actually the case. We live on a planet that shows worrying signs of weariness. We live in a world where economies recursively crumble under their own unsustainable weight. We live in a world that has by now realized that technology solves as many problems as those it creates anew.
In addition to this our fixation with pro-jecting ourselves "beyond the beyond" into possible futures also appears to be strangely at odds with technologies that give us superhuman memory accrual capabilities. Our always-on devices and servers never, ever forget. What we might be starting to realize is that to create something new we need to still have an "empty" space for it to take shape, and that space might be reducing. Should we teach our digital tools to forget, so that we can as well? Maybe.
Design with a capital D is changing and reshaping its practices and philosophies to face these new challenges. Form is on a new quest for meaning, rather than just function or emotion. In the meantime the people formerly known as consumers and users have stopped listening to somebody else's tales from the future, and are now actively telling their own. What's emerging is a dynamic dialogue, an ever-evolving conversation among all parties involved, with designers (hopefully) gearing up to act as maieutic catalysts of change."
After all was said and done this is what I presented:
If you've got 20 minutes to waste you can also watch the video:
frog design's Tim Leberecht's LIFT 09 report kindly included also a nice summary of my brief talk, and I will shamelessly re-post it here:
"(Fabio) used the case study of Project Masiluleke (a large-scale initiative that leverages mobile technologies to combat HIV/AIDS in South Africa) to illustrate a model of design that 'is not just about creating compelling visions of perfect futures but rather shaping presents that are betas of a future we want to live in'. Quoting an Italian bus customer ("In the past you had to stamp the ticket, now you simply have to caress the machine."), he spanned the arch from 'form follows function' to 'form follows emotion' to 'form follows meaning' (design that resonates with people's value systems). Empathy, technology as 'a material to sketch with', people-centered user experiences, and social impact – these are the characteristics of 'meaningful design'. Empathy, in particular, is not only the foundation for meaningful social innovation projects (pro-bono or for-profit), it is also the very prerequisite for every act of human cooperation."
Could not have said it better. Also much kudos and lots of respect to Robert Fabricant and the rest of the frog NY team that worked on Project M: I undeservedly basked in the light you guys cast with your good work. Thank you.
Chapeau to Laurent Haug and Nicolas Nova for once again putting together a flawlessly-organized unconference, for the crazy 700+ people fondue and for LIFT's famously relaxed atmosphere that encouraged precious conversations with lots of interesting fellow t(h)inkerers and old pals like Anne Galloway, Fabien Girardin and Stephen Blyth. Posted by fabio sergio | 3:32 PM | permalink
February 15, 2009 Designing for the Segment of One.
In June 2007 I was kindly invited to speak at From Business to Buttons, an interesting design conference that this year will celebrate its third anniversary.
My talk was entitled "Designing for the Segment of One", and looked at networked handheld devices in relation to the specific needs of individuals. I realized I never got around to link to the presentation, which I immodestly believe is in many ways still relevant.
"People increasingly expect products and services not only to fit their specific needs and desires, but also to adapt to how they evolve and change over time. Companies have tried to provide an answer by putting "users" at the center of the development process, and offering customers opportunities to influence at times some - and other times most - of a product's characteristics.
Networked handheld devices, the objects currently known as mobile phones, are quintessentially personal tools, tools that have become essential to many of our daily activities. Strangely enough most of these devices still lack structural ways to fine-tune their specifications to the needs of individuals, and commonly offer only superficial opportunities for customization.
What will be required to give networked handheld devices the level of dynamically adaptive flexibility increasingly expected by their users? How to achieve simplicity, and not just simplification, in the process?"
For those that are reading this late at night and have already counted more sheeps than they care to remember there's also a video of yours truly from the conference. Guaranteed to deliver much-needed rest in 5 minutes or less. Posted by fabio sergio | 5:25 PM | permalink
September 19, 2008 A gentle self-reminder.
Good design is innovative
It does not copy existing product forms, nor does it produce any kind of novelty for the sake of it. The essence of innovation must be clearly seen in all functions of a product. The possibilities in this respect are by no means exhausted. Technological development keeps offering new chances for innovative solutions.
Good design makes a product useful
A product is bought in order to be used. It must serve a defined purpose – in both primary and additional functions. The most important task of design is to optimise the utility of a product.
Good design is aesthetic
The aesthetic quality of a product – and the fascination it inspires – is an integral part of the its utility. Without doubt, it is uncomfortable and tiring to have to put up with products that are confusing, that get on your nerves, that you are unable to relate to. However, it has always been a hard task to argue about aesthetic quality, for two reasons. Firstly, it is difficult to talk about anything visual, since words have a different meaning for different people. Secondly, aesthetic quality deals with details, subtle shades, harmony and the equilibrium of a whole variety of visual elements. A good eye is required, schooled by years and years of experience, in order to be able to draw the right conclusion.
Good design helps a product to be understood
It clarifies the structure of the product. Better still, it can make the product talk. At best, it is self-explanatory and saves you the long, tedious perusal of the operating manual.
Good design is unobtrusive
Products that satisfy this criterion are tools. They are neither decorative objects nor works of art. Their design should therefore be both neutral and restrained leaving room for the user’s self-expression.
Good design is honest
An honestly-designed product must not claim features it does not have – being more innovative, more efficient, of higher value. It must not influence or manipulate buyers and users.
Good design is durable
It is nothing trendy that might be out-of-date tomorrow. This is one of the major differences between well-designed products and trivial objects for a waste-producing society. Waste must no longer be tolerated.
Good design is consistent to the last detail
Thoroughness and accuracy of design are synonymous with the product and its functions, as seen through the eyes of the user.
Good design is concerned with the environment
Design must contribute towards a stable environment and a sensible use of raw materials. This means considering not only actual pollution, but also the visual pollution and destruction of our environment.
"From around the age of six, I had the habit of sketching from life. I became an artist, and from fifty on began producing works that won some reputation, but nothing I did before the age of seventy was worthy of attention.
At seventy-three, I began to grasp the structures of birds and beasts, insects and fish, and of the way plants grow. If I go on trying, I will surely understand them still better by the time I am eighty-six, so that by ninety I will have penetrated to their essential nature.
At one hundred, I may well have a positively divine understanding of them, while at one hundred and thirty, forty, or more I will have reached the stage where every dot and every stroke I paint will be alive. May Heaven, that grants long life, give me the chance to prove that this is no lie."
"If only Heaven will give me just another ten years... just another five more years, then I could become a real painter."
He watched the paper cup fall on the dusty sidewalk. Dirty little liquid fingers, forced by the incline to ebb towards the gutter. Hurried feet, tip-tapping across the flood. He looked at the cup in his hands. At his own feet. Posted by fabio sergio | 12:01 PM | permalink
"A number of my projects iterate on the same theme, finding beauty in the everyday and giving new perspectives to the ordinary. I want my participants to reevaluate the exceptional moments in their lives - I want them to feel that their everyday life is in fact exceptional. And if they don't feel that their everyday is exceptional, I want to provide them with tools that will help them change. While we are caught up in the minutia of the everyday, we tend to lose perspective and close ourselves off to other possibilities. My work tries to remedy this condition.
I try to build tools and mobile experiences that are low overhead and low commitment. With the applications I build, you don't have to step out of your life to get an alternative perspective on your everyday. It is either presented to you automatically or is alongside you, available whenever you are interested in something new."
Could easily be my current manifesto. Posted by fabio sergio | 12:01 PM | permalink
January 15, 2008 The beauty of the world.
"He thought that in the beauty of the world were hid a secret. He thought the world's heart beat at some terrible cost and that the world's pain and its beauty moved in a relationship of divergent equity and that in this headlong deficit the blood of multitudes might ultimately be exacted for the vision of a single flower."
Our baby boy Andrea was born today, at 4:00 PM. Welcome to the world little one, we love you. Posted by fabio sergio | 4:00 PM | permalink
February 25, 2007 Selfish sovereign posture artifacts.
Adam Greenfield: "@ = an indicator that Twitter is stretched to its limits as an application"
Matt Webb: "The @ tips twitter from ambient-people-nearby into a constant-thread-to-follow. i like ambient, so i have to unfollow friends who use it :( "
Khoi Vinh: "Twitter — and most any Web site — is something of a sovereign posture application, programs that are best used full-screen, monopolizing the user’s attention for long periods of time. Twitterific, by contrast, takes the exact same functionality, and presents it in an auxiliary posture, where it occupies much less screen real estate and only partial attention."
Jan Chiphase: "The electric toothbrush is a selfish object - it demands to be held the whole time it is used, and the alternative that works with regular tooth brushes - to be clasped in the mouth for those moments when you need both hands - is not an option. How well will two-handed devices fair in what is more many people a one-handed multi-tasking world?" Posted by fabio sergio | 3:33 PM | permalink