3 (approx) interesting projects, new or old, found (approx) this week.
1. (author)rise (2018)
Start writing on a whiteboard. A text recognition system recognises what you are writing and using a neural network system completes the sentence for you and, using a magnet under the whiteboard, actually moves the pen to continue the sentence as you keep holding the pen.
2. Cowly Owl relaunch as a company for collaborative games (2018)
Whilst you could sit next to your child when they were playing with my apps, they were designed as single player experiences, so often it would be difficult to join in. Recently my own children have reached the video game playing age. I have been rediscovering the fun from my childhood, of playing and exploring these worlds together.
I love this and I think it’s important. I wish more tech had the same attitude, so that in 10 years we won’t find ourselves in flashy bubbles of AR and VR, alone.
3. Evolving Floorplans (2018)
Evolving Floor Plans is an experimental research project exploring speculative, optimized floor plan layouts. The rooms and expected flow of people are given to a genetic algorithm which attempts to optimize the layout to minimize walking time, the use of hallways, etc.
I’m very much into genetic algorithms at the moment.
3 (approx) interesting projects, new or old, found (approx) this week.
1. Itty bitty
A website in a url. No server, no hosting. The map is the territory. The medium is the message. The address is the house. Neat.
2. Painted Earth
Studio Moniker’s last project. Use your phone and geolocation to draw as you walk. Nice thing, as in all of their projects, it’s a website, not an app.
3. Living with Bots (2015)
Very nice interaction design concept. A smart home device made of a number of single-task bots, interacting with the people at home and with each other.
The group dynamics that arises from the bots placed in the main unit changes the relationship we have with might have with technology to something alike having a group of pets: never entirely predictable but always succeeding or failing with the best of intents.
At Uniform we have recently started working on some ideas about the Connected Home. I took the opportunity to going through old Mark Wieser’s Ubicomp papers. For those who don’t know him, Wieser’s research while at PARC from late 80s - late 90s, has been pivotal in setting the scene to what more recently has been called the Internet of Things.
In one of his paper in particular, The World Is Not A Desktop from 1993, Mark reviews a number of metaphors of technological visions popular at the time, with the aim to demonstrate why his idea of invisible technology was superior to other research directions.
What’s surprising is that almost all of the metaphors mentioned by Mark are still actual now, in a way or another. So, as an exercise in perspective, here’s my then-and-now state of technological metaphors, 1993-2018.
The first to be mentioned in Mark’s paper and the only one that means nothing to us anymore. The term has disappeared into normality and actually remembering about it makes me feel old. Nonetheless Mark’s issue with multimedia - “should computer interfaces be attractive at all” - hits the nail of a problem that got more, not less, actual. With “engagement” they key metric through which we measure the success of digital products today, attractiveness in spite of usefulness is still a mayor pain point in 2018.
On one hand the concept of Intelligent Agents in 1993, especially as exemplified by Microsoft Office’s Clippy, had since fallen into disgrace (apart from some jokey nostalgic reinterpretations). On the other hand it made a glorious comeback as chatbots in messaging platforms, in smartphone as virtual assistants (Google Assistant, Samsungs’s Bixby and Apple’s Siri) and in smart speakers. And with it, Wieser’s issues with such technologies has also resurfaced.
“Are human interactions so free of trouble, misunderstanding, and ambiguity that they represent a desirable computer interface goal?”. But to his rhetorical question, I’d also add that conversely, the human qualities of resourcefulness and improvisation are the kind of things we look for when we want to “speak with an operator”.
So an “intelligent agent” that is neither resourceful nor unambiguous, such is still the case with the chatbots we have right now, can just be at best a curious nicety rather than a useful interface when we want to get stuff done with a computer. For the rest, GUIs will still be my choice.
“magic is about psychology and salesmanship, and I believe a dangerous model for good design and productive technology. “
Fast forward to our days, and “magic” is still a common resource that companies use when promoting and popularising their technologies. Supernatural is obviously the oldest way to talk about complex thing and also its use in technology was nothing new even in 1993.
Tobias Revell does some great work on the topic. He gives an historical perspective on how every mayor technological advancement inevitably overflow into supernatural, and he also evocatively reminds us of the risks involved in dealing with “forces” we cannot control: “when magic goes wrong, the narrative of magic can quickly turn to horror”, in other words: be honest to your users, or they’ll run away with fear from your product.
It was the new big thing then. Wired’s Kevin Kelly, went to Jaron Lanier’s lab to get his mind blown at Jaron’s virtual realities; the Lawnmower Man film made the concept popular for the general public; and tons of tech companies were jumping on the VR bandwagon. After that we had a brief winter, and again a popularity boost, peaked in 2014 with the acquisition of Oculus Rift by Facebook for $2bn. According to the usual Gartner, Virtual Reality is now just surfing up the wave of disillusionment. The technology is there, the lag problems that hindered its development in the past have been solved and the overall quality is incrementally improving. There are some specific fields where it is gradually finding applications - such as entertainment and 3D visualisation for architecture and product design - and my humble guess is that Virtual Reality has reached a plateau, and from now on interest and funds will migrate more and more towards its younger sibling: Augmented Reality.
About this technology Wieser argues: “when I can send email to my computer and have it DWIM the answer, then I’ll start to believe in voice computers for limited applications.”, where DWIM is an acronym for “Do What I Mean”. Here’s is the only case among the other metaphors reported by Wieser where our current perception of the technology has significantly changed since 1993.
Because in 2018 we are able to speak commands to a computer using natural language. And in fact millions of Echo, Google Home or HomePod are in people’s houses around the world are doing it all the time.
And also when he adds that “most of my life I am with other people, and I want to talk (or listen) to them, not to my computer”, he has in mind the Star Trek scenario of a “work” environment in which people are continuously executing tasks with computers using voice commands.
On the other hand, I think, the way we are using connected speaker at the moment - as hands-free controller for music, lights or other appliances, and as a search engine for weather and other kind of generic information - is not too far from the idea of calm tech that Wieser had envisioned. A tool that don’t ask for our constant attention but is available to help us with small, humble home tasks.
PS - Image is Mark Wieser playing drums with his band Severe Tire Damage and it’s taken from the band page here.
During a trip in Florence we passed by the great independent bookshop Todo Modo, and as I was paying for a illustrated children book by Iela Mari, and telling the owner about how I liked the work of her husband Enzo (Mari, one of the best and most known Italian designer), she recommended me the last book by yet another Mari, their son Michele: “Leggenda Privata” (Private Legend). “It’s his best novel”, she said, and then added: Enzo “è una carogna” - roughly translated, “is a bastard”.
So some time later I did get the book, and I loved it. Michele is an terrific writer, with a unique style and a powerful ability in creating images with words. But as the librarian warned, Enzo’s figure is not a positive one. The man depicted in the book is an arrogant one, unable to see the world in any other way than his own; an husband that brought his wife Iela to the edge of depression and an extremely demanding, unloving father to his children.
So now every time I think of Mari designer, that with his Autoprogettazione reimagined his discipline in ways that could empower people beyond the rules of market and industry, I also think about Mari father, telling Michele not to cry when he was slapping him, “your grandfather was using the belt with me”. And I think of the Mari Marxist-Leninist rational man that later disapproves of his son’s literary ambitions classing them as “fri-fri” (some mild derogatory expression for “gay”).
I’m not entirely sure on how this new perspective has changed my view on Enzo Mari’s work. And this is not an unusual situation, many times we are asked to negotiate our opinions between the artist and the man behind it. And in the past I’ve dealt with it in different ways. I still indulge in Burzum’s music from times to times, although I absolutely despise everything he did in his lifetime. While I stopped listening to Swans, whose music I love, after the allegations about Michael Gira (maybe because I’ve seen Gira close enough in a live concert, and even on the stage he looked like an arrogant asshole).
Now, I cannot say that I’ve changed my opinion on the importance of Enzo Mari’s work. But my always postponed plan of making my own Autoprogettazione table, well, maybe that will never happen anymore.
Just after I finished writing this, I thought it made sense to translate it in Italian. It’s here.
A while ago, machine learning artist Mario Klingemann, soon after Google Pixel Buds were announced, tweeted about time translation technology can turn into a tool to tweak reality to please its users.
Which millennial wouldn't buy a gadget that filters out any critique and replaces it with "you are very special and deserve an award"?— Mario Klingemann (@quasimondo) October 5, 2017
The new Google product is not the first to offer real-time in ear translation, but if the quality they promise is to be believed, we can expect it will be the first to see major adoption. And if so, that would be the beginning of a not so distant future in which technologies will directly mediate our perception of reality.
Smartphone apps are already capable to do so to an extent, for instance with Google Map, whose maps are different depending on our previous activities. But if smartphone-based personal reality is offered to us in a somewhat laggy real-time (as dictated by those: pick from the pocket, unlock swipe, tap app icon moments, etc.) new AR devices will adapt our perception of the world to our personal setting in instantaneous speed.
And so we’ll start by augmenting our ears, but fast forward 5-10 years and it will be our eyes. Mobile devices as AR platforms are for Google, Apple and Facebook just a gateway for the device that all of them are already working on: AR glasses. And after that our digital tools will be refactored for the always-on, real time capabilities of augmented reality.
It’s at that stage that things might get problematic. Because those same companies with the resources to actually deliver immersive AR technologies are the ones that recently had issues with the of content that they algorithmically, deliver to their users. Without getting into the detail of what those issues are (Alexis Madrigal wrote extensively about it in relation to recent events, for instance here), the core of the problem is to me in that critical balance between assuring reasonably “good quality” information versus maximising our “engagement” with the information we are proposed to “consume”. And as advertisers, the main source of income for those platforms, pay per clicks, news feed algorithms have been created to favour the latter.
So, if we are concerned about social bubbles and echo chambers now, how will it be when the same principles of “maximising engagement” will be applied in transforming in real-time the world we perceive? I bet that Millenials turning critiques into “you are very special and deserve an award”, will happen but it will also be the least of our problems.
Design as participation by Kevin Slavin is one of those rare readings whose ideas are so powerful that you know it will hang around in your head for quite some time. I cannot actually imagine to find myself thinking about the theory and practice of design in the future, without confronting with this short essay; and in fact, in some sort of backward domino effect, I’m already questioning and revising old ideas, through this new perspective.
I didn’t remember the name of Kevin Slavin whet I first saw his publication listed in the first issue of MIT Media Lab Journal of Design and Science, but as I googled his name I realized that he was the speaker in one of my the most cherished TED talk, How algorithms shape our world. If my snobby attitude towards the whole TED enterprise that stopped me to explore Slavin’s work after that then, I’m all in catching up mode now.
Going back to the essay in question, Design as Participation discusses about fundamental principles of modern practice of the discipline: user-centered design.
There was a time in which designers were allowed (and allowed themselves) to favour the system-level result of their practice even if that meant to go against their users (and this is where I drolled at Slavin’s example of van der Rohe, which in his stark modernist stubborness avoided to put window sills in its Seagram Building, as people would start putting ornamental things on them, therefore mess with the appearence of the tower). Since then, is now wildly agreed that a clear and deep understanding of the user’s needs and desires is what makes a difference between a product which succeed and one which doesn’t, and over the years human-centered design have been adopted by businesses of any kind and field. But, and this is the core point of Slavin’s article, a user first perspective doesn’t come without drawbacks.
When designers center around the user, where do the needs and desires of the other actors in the system go? The lens of the user obscures the view of the ecosystems it affects.
Before reading Design as participation I’ve been thinking on and off about how interactions in society increasingly happen though a software-based medium, with a particular interest on one of the consequences of this phenomenon. The nature of a software layer requires a number of rules, of options to be set in place. For its nature it constraints the the quality of the interactions to a particularly designed interface or experience. This encapsulation (to borrow a term from computer programming - wikipedia) is in place to serve our needs in the best way possible. But if this has no consequences when interactions are limited between us and the machine, things take a whole other meaning when behind the interface there are other people.
In that case those humans are flattened down to what the interface represent of them. And especially in the case of software managing the so called gig economy jobs, humans might as well be replaced by more efficient modules. Here’s just some examples of how this “refactoring” is already in place:
- Uber is investing in self-driving cars link
- Fembots are used to lure men into spending money in “live” chats for hookup systems link
- Amazon “fulfillment” centers are increasingly automated link
If this is not necessarily bad by itself, what worries me is the growing disconnection between ourselves and anything else, to the extent that we are not able to tell what or who is beyond the interface we are interacting with. And that’s when Slavin’s essay come into play. Could we instead design technological systems in which we “take part” together with both other people and technological tools? I don’t even know what that would mean, but I’d sure there is something in there. I’ll think about it more.
I’ve just finished a small project for friends at Bloody Sound Fucktory label. It’s 40 minutes, 10Hz, sound-reactive flashing visualisation to be watched with eyes closed while listening to psych-noise tour the force of Atto Terzo, by one-man drone psych noise act Lucifer Big Band.
It’s actually the third time I collaborate with them, always working on a design and packaging for a Lucifer Big Band release (this goes back to the time when I was making and releasing homemade noise CR-R with my tiny personal music http://orgonomy-records.tumblr.com/). This time I wanted to do something more, that would be somehow more related with technology.
My initial proposal was to have the packaging turning into some kind of VR-like cardboard headset (like the one by McDonald’s or by Coca Cola) to be used with a specific website. Just that the website was not featuring a VR experience, but a sound reactive version of Brion Gysin and Ian Sommerville’s Dream Machine device. There’s some nice and short story of the Dream Machine here, but basically Ian Sommerville (an early computer programmer and William Burroughs’s “systems adviser”) built this light flickering device in order to replicate some kind of psychedelic experience Gysin had while staring eyes closed at the sun shining though an avenue of trees he was riding along in a bus. So the idea was to repurpose a device of (low-resolution) simulation like the cardboard VR headset into one of (high-resolution?!?) hallucination.
At the end we discarded the idea of the packaging insert - we found it really hard to try make it without looking too much like a gimmicky (see the above references), but everybody was still excited by the web app, so here it is: attoterzo.bloodysoundfucktory.com
I’ve stumbled on some great technologies lately, I thought they were worth to mention here, for posterity.
Lightform will release this summer a consumer product for interactive projection mapping https://www.fastcodesign.com/90107499/a-2-4-million-bet-to-turn-your-home-into-a-giant-screen
Ikea’s announced a smart home kit they developed with frog, featuring a slick gyroscope based wireless knob https://www.fastcodesign.com/90107451/ikeas-next-big-frontier
Adobe and Cornell University researcher published paper “Deep Photo Style Transfer” showing deep-learning based technology to automatically apply photo-realistic style to images https://github.com/luanfujun/deep-photo-styletransfer
Simon Sadler’s Archigram book defined the british group’s vision a “sublime world of pure servicing”. Amazon’s the company that is making the radical idea of buildingless architecture a concrete reality. Though its One click shopping, physical lockers where to pick up deliveries, next day and free shipping with Prime, grocery with Amazon Fresh and possibly even drones’ delivery with Prime Air, Amazon is slowly superseding not just mom and pop stores, but any kind of physical shop. I’ve been nurturing this idea of a connection between an avant-garde architecture group and one of the biggest technological company since the Utopia Dweller proposal with AM-FL. So seeking to what extent David Green’s poem “I have the desire for the built-environment to allow me to do my own thing” paired with Amazon’s outspoken obsession to satisfy their customers, I’ve just finished reading Brad Stone’s “The Everything Store”.
Here’s some stuff I found of interest from the book, highly unrelated to any of the above.
- Bezos was at Montessori school.
- Amazon’s first name was Cadabra - it was changed since it sounded too much like Cadaver.
- Shel Kaphan, the first amazon engineer, was one Steward Brand friend and Bezos is partnering with Brand with the project of Clock of the Long Now.
- Jeff Bezos requires his senior executives to read “Black Swan” by Nassim Taleb and actually mentions to the Author his concerns over the book, in particular regarding what Taleb calls Narrative Fallacy.
- Brad Stone might in fact have fallen into that narrative fallacy trap, according to what Jeff’s wife Mackenzie Bezos writes on her review of the book here.
Beyond criticism about the man’s temper, long-term employer Rick Dalzell’s description about Jeff Bezos are possibly my favorite throughout the whole book:
“Jeff does a couple of things better than anyone I’ve ever worked for. He embraces the truth. A lot of people talk about the truth, but they don’t engage their decision-making around the best truth at the time. The second is that he is not tethered by conventional thinking. What is amazing to me is that he is only bound by the laws of physics. He can’t change those. Everything else he views as open for discussion.”
Quite untimely on this, but Saturday February 11th has concluded the 68th edition of the Sanremo Festival. An old and still hugely popular Italian song contest that, even in the internet age, was followed on TV by over 11 millions people in the country.
But this somewhat old-fashioned competition marked an unprecedented event in social network advertising in Italy. Tim, the exclusive sponsor of Sanremo, obtained to get its logo automatically added at the end of the hashtag of the event. So that any time somebody was writing #Sanremo2017 in a tweet, that would automatically become . Like in the the image below.
Although a minimum disturbance which didn’t prevent Twitter users commenting about the show, such operation seems to me quite beyond what social media should be allowed to do with their users. For one thing is to put targeted ads on my private wall/timeline (which I concede you in exchange of using your platform, that I do for free), but another thing is to intervene on my own words, making changes to my own content. And it’s even less acceptable that this happen for the benefit of an external entity (Tim, in this case) which is not directly involved in what I’m writing about (the song contest Sanremo).
Here’s a related (fictional) scenario from David Foster Wallace’s Infitine Jest. Branded years.
- Year of the Whopper
- Year of the Tucks Medicated Pad
- Year of the Trial-Size Dove Bar
- Year of the Perdue Wonderchicken
- Year of the Whisper-Quiet Maytag Dishmaster
- Year of the Yushityu 2007 Mimetic-Resolution-Cartridge-View-Motherboard-Easy-To-Install-Upgrade For Infernatron/InterLace TP Systems For Home, Office Or Mobile (sic)
- Year of Dairy Products from the American Heartland
- Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment
- Year of Glad
EDIT Feb 22, 2017
I’ve corrected the text as I initially wrongly stated that branded hashtags were implemented for the first time for the Sanremo event. This is actually feature called branded emoji that Twitter offers to select marketers (see here).
In the month Oxford Dictionaries declared post-truth as the word of the year, my news feeds were storming with readings related to social media, fake news and the American elections. These were my favorites:
1) A New Yorker article featuring interviews with Barack Obama.
Before the elections Obama was showing concerns about how information moves and spread in social media, especially in relation with the (at the time still) future American Elections.
A particular matter that the article’s author David Remnick report Obama “talked almost obsessively” was about a group of people in Macedonia publishing a number of pro-Trump websites, often reporting fake news, yet with hundreds of thousands followers on social media (Facebook). And he doesn’t hide his concern about it.
The new media ecosystem “means everything is true and nothing is true,” Obama told me later. “An explanation of climate change from a Nobel Prize-winning physicist looks exactly the same on your Facebook page as the denial of climate change by somebody on the Koch brothers’ payroll.
And somehow it all came together after the election, when he finally taps into a key matter. Social media relies on engagement, and this is a currency measured in emotions, not factual rigor…
“What I’m suggesting is that the lens through which people understand politics and politicians is extraordinarily powerful. And Trump understands the new ecosystem, in which facts and truth don’t matter. You attract attention, rouse emotions, and then move on.””
2) Benjamin Bratton’s note on Facebook and (what he calls) algorithmic populism (on Facebook)…
One point of his long (and complex) text, was about the fact that software design choices can acquire political significance. And Facebook’s algorithms which caused (or at least didn’t prevent) the spread of fake news about the American elections, is not the only solution for controlling what posts appear in people’s news walls.
Google’s PageRank (and other Search and Display algorithms) were designed to surface the most credible source on topics, based originally on peer-review citation mechanisms, and in theory FB can explore and implement something similar. Doubtless FB has and is re-debating that turn now.
And shedding light on this matter reveals a problematic ambiguity which lies at the core of Facebook (and social platforms with business obligations in general).
Zuckerberg is now in the awkward position of having to convince people that FB does influence purchasing decisions but does not influence voting decisions. How so?
3) …and Mark Zuckerberg’s thoughts on Facebook and the election (on Facebook)
Whose bottom line is
we take misinformation seriously
problems here are complex, both technically and philosophically.