Viz Gizmodo via Metafilter via (someplace else) come pictures of Bill Gaver's Drift Table, clearly a product of the RCA's interaction design program. I heard about this some months ago, but I wasn't able to find a picture of it, so it's funny to have it show up on a gizmos site.
Where should I start? It's nifty, it's smart and it's furniture. I like it. Why don't I think it's Smart Furniture (as per my definition)?
First of all, I don't think it's using the information around it in a way that's actually useful to its user. It's description does little in the way of defining a need that it's solving:
The Drift Table allows people to float slowly over the British landscape from the comfort of their own home. The distribution of weight on
the table controls the slow scroll of aerial photographs displayed on a central viewport. Progress is slow, but the Drift Table can be used to visit favorite places, look at geographical features, or simply watch
the world go by.
[...] The Drift Table is designed to allow exploration and daydreaming, rather than to fulfil any particular task.
Though I don't think that all objects need to be absolutely utilitarian, this seems to be a pretty tepid explanation for why all the work went into making the thing. Which brings me to a rant, and you'll have to excuse me (especially if you're one of the people I mention in my rant), but I've been meaning to get this off my chest for a while.
Like many of the RCA things, this object seems to cross the design-installation art line in a way that I'm uncomfortable with. In November I asked Noam Toran, an RCA grad who did a project at Ivrea called "Objects for Lonely Men," a question about how he defined design. I loved his project, but I disagreed with his definition of design. He said that design to him is a medium. I think it's a process.
And that's to core of my problem with "critical design," the process that Dunne and Raby practice/teach at RCA. Maybe because I was a design school dropout I have a primitive view of what design is. It seems to me, however, that design is a practice that is neither particularly an efficient or an effective process through which to explore ideas about society and the practice of design, which is what critical design is an attempt to do. It seems like a shoehorning of critical theory into a design program in order to not be left behind by the revolution that happened in other university departments in the 80s. I get it, but it's confusing the messenger with the message (maybe intentionally).
Design, to me, is the process of projecting the explorations of science, art and industrial production onto everyday life in a way that uses those discoveries to enhance people's lives in an immediate and tangible way. That covers a lot of ground, but it kinda requires that there be some immediate real utility, which critical design seemingly intentionally avoids. Despite all of the frustrated artists who enter the field (I among them), design is an applied art. Sometimes it can transcend its utilitarian nature to become art in itself, but the objects must first be applied, then art, not the other way around.
That said, I believe that design can learn a whole lot from art, specifically from tech art and installation art, and it should. But redefining design to be the medium of industrial production--i.e. everything that's produced or looks like it was produced using industrial processes--is a disservice to both design and art.
Which is a very long-winded way of saying I still like the Drift Table and I'm willing to be convinced otherwise, but I think it shouldn't be confused with a product that belongs on a gizmo site.
Oh, and it's part of a larger series of objects, that are all interesting and all kinda suffer from the same set of problems.