March 2005 Archives

In thinking about personal geographies, I decided to see what it felt like to make one, so I did. This is a map of the town of Airportainia, one of the several towns I've spent the last couple of years (I'll hopefully be making maps of the other ones, too). It consists of the maps of 20-some of the 30-some airports I spent time in over the last 12 months and represents a particular experience of travel that I've had. Frequent fliers: see how many you can identify!

(btw, it's a big image, though not a big file, so you may need to click on it again in your browser to zoom in for the full view)

I've been thinking about personal geographies for a while, especially lately. It came up a bunch in the last year in various forms, though I didn't know the term until a couple of days ago. Mappr is one, Jack Schulze's map of a massive London apartment complex (shown at Design Engaged), which changes perspective from 3D to flat as you move around the space is another. Timo Arnall's Time that land forgot project is a third. The idea of finding your place in the world is now both possible and, seemingly, important and people are moving on to try to make meaning of it. Or at least it's one of the memes du jour because GPS, mobile phones and discount airlines have enabled it. In addition, my personal sense of the importance of geography has been heightened since I've been traveling so much.

I think that these ideas tie closely into ubiquitous computing--tools that are here with me--and experience design. Often as not, experiences are special locations with special things in them. As Disney and video game designers know, the theater of experience design has a stage, props and actors. Locations are the stage, users are actors and the objects are traditionally props. However, if augmented with information processing, maybe they become extras (unless they misbehave, in which case they get promoted to villain)? Especially if people start to relate to the objects in their lives in an animist way, I can see this being less a farfetched conceptual model and more an actual framework for design.

Understanding how people perceive location is important in designing the products that they're going to be using in that location. Physical context matters. Now that we've been able to package objective location data into handheld GPS devices and, how are people processing it? At Design Engaged, there was tacit agreement that having people create their own paths in the world is a good idea. Brian Boyer's Indy Junior is an interesting first cut at a simple tool for an available set of data, but to understand how to design for products that are going to be used in locations, I think we need something that's at a finer grain, but more evocative than simple GPS traces. I'm not sure what it is, but clearly there's something culturally going on with location and the meaning of location that is already affecting how people are using products (more than it has in the past, where contexts were a lot more stable than they are today) and design is grasping at ways to manage it.

In my life, I've seen several places outside of Disney and video games where context plays a big role in the experience. Growing up in Detroit, Greektown was a safe area for suburbanites to go and have "urban experiences" (there's a book about this). Venice, Italy is a simulation of itself these days, down to companies that specialize in chipping plaster so it looks old. >Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas simulates how people in the rest of country thought California looked like around the time of the 1992 LA riots. In these cases "Disneyfication" means using design to express a culturally shared vision of a place, and I think there's an important lesson to be learned there about creating objects.

To be honest, I'm not sure I know what that lesson is--I just started muddling through this--but there's something important about designing products with a deep understanding of how people perceive location--not just how the location is actually laid out, but what the mental model of the layout looks like. Katherine Harmon's book, You are here is a terrific picture book of such maps, and the first place I heard the term. You can see this in pre-Renaissance painting, such as this Scenes from the life of St. Nicholas by Ambrogio Lorenzetti. The buildings represent real buildings, but the proportions are scaled not to be realistic, but to be representative of what's important.

The same thing happens when we think about spaces: different things are prominent than are prominent in the actual landscape.

There are glimmers for developing tools personal geography tools that are parallels to the tools for folksonomies, but they're still in their infancy and even the basic differentiations (for example, tools for helping me understand geography aren't the same for helping me communicate geographic ideas).

Also see: Matthew Ward's blog post on cartographies.

Designed by Trans|alpin, Wood.e is essentially electrified wood, pressed with two integrated conducting layers which allow to add electrical conduct. 12V power is fed to the metal layers via one connector, and elements (lamps, spotlights, fans etc.) can be connected via another. NO cable needed.

(from We Make Money Not Art )

I'm glad to see people developing technologies like this which have very little to do with advancing electronic functionality and everything about making it easier for furniture designers to include technology into their furniture. I would like to see them go beyond including a single circuit--currently just power--in the laminate and to include data lines that terminate in standard connectors (maybe elegant small ones).

In a seemingly forgotten corner of the Berlin Alexanderplatz pedestrian tunnel there is a nice set of tiles giving the history of the square. They end in 1968, since that was clearly the peak of progress (and presumably when the tunnel was built). It's interesting to see them now, as they present an implicit historical narrative that culminates with the technological triumph of Communism (and, I would say, Enlightenment Rationalism, since that's roughly the period covered by the tiles), and then to look back at what's happened to the plaza in the 37 years since the tiles were installed.

IMGP3229 IMGP3228 IMGP3227 IMGP3226 IMGP3225 IMGP3224 IMGP3223 IMGP3222

And here's the tunnel they're mounted in:


(my apologies about the bad image quality, it's dark in the tunnel and using a flash wiped out much of the detail)

One of the perennial criticisms leveled at the home automation world has been that it's obsessed with technology for technology's sake. I think that, for the most part, thats justified. Like audiophilia, it's long been a hobby for whose practitioners the pleasure is as much in the process as it is in the end result. So you end up with houses that are the technological equivalents of ships in bottles: fascinating experiments in what's possible, but not great examples of what's useful or usable to most people. Lately, the Wired Home blog has been tackling this, which I see as a good sign.

Although gimmicky (the solenoid key fob car starter, especially) and still more about the technology than the end results, there are glimmers of interesting ideas. I, for one, would like to have everything in the house that makes noise grow quiet when the phone rings.

Jeju Province plans to build a world model of telematics city and ubiquitous computing technology-based free economic town by next year. The municipal government began last year installing infrastructure for telematics city, injecting 10 billion won (approximately 10 million dollars) for two years.


In the first half of this year, Daejeon City government will craft a roadmap for fostering 'ubiquitous computing technology-based industry'. The city authority will make its concerted efforts to attract the World Radiocommunication Conference of the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) slated for 2007, while taking initiative in developing ubiquitous computing technology and its market. It also plans to install smart home systems in new apartment complexes that can receive communication-broadcasting-game convergence service.

(from an Electronic Times article only available in the Google cache right now)

I'm not quite sure what to make of this, except it's a top-down technology investment model that assumes the need for large infrastructural investment (although $10M is not really a large investment by any infrastructural standard, really). I think most new technological innovation is going to be bottom-up, since the smaller physical size and wireless network connectivity implies less reliance on large infrastructures. It sounds like they're approaching ubicomp like it was steel production or electrification, but it's not. That said, I wish them luck.

At the 2005 IA Summit in Montreal last week, I presented a talk on ubiquitous computing. Here's the abstract:

Ubiquitous computing, ubicomp, is the introduction of information-processing devices into the background of people's lives. Unprecedented networking and computational power and miniaturization define a ubicomp future that presents challenges which go beyond the expertise of traditional design disciplines. These devices will be more flexible than those created by traditional industrial designers, yet more narrowly task-oriented than general-purpose computers and software. Thus, just as the definition of experience design starts to stabilize, ubicomp poses new questions about information presentation and organization.

What do "navigation" and "search" mean in environments where your personal information cloud includes not just your laptop and phone, but your running shoes, your pacemaker and the sidewalk you're jogging on?
How do we share knowledge where there are no screens or keyboards?
How do we maintain our users' ethical prerogatives of privacy and choice?

This presentation will cover issues specifically addressing the ways that information architecture is a critical component of ubicomp user experience.

The talk is available as a 700K PDF of my PowerPoint, (drop me a note and let me know if you want the actual PPT). It's mostly pictures and is missing the closing Betty Boop cartoon, but the ideas are there, if skeletal.

[Andrew reminds me: Adam's original essay, which served as impetus and original title for this talk but which is a much deeper examination of the ethical in issues ubicomp, is available on Boxes and Arrows.]

I think this is great: a book-shaped network storage device. What's great about it is not that it's book-shaped, but that it's designed to act like a book. That shows an understanding of how to incorporate technology appliances into people's environments and a valuable way of humanizing this technology through analogy. Plus, the engineers probably conceded optimal functionality (neighboring books will probably block some of the radio waves, and heat dissipation is certainly worse than in a standalone device) in favor of a better user experience, which is a tradeoff that should happen more often.

Here's a picture of an earlier one from the same company that has a more book-like design, but doesn't sit upright like a book:

Found this article in an old IDSA newsletter. It talks about how furniture is changing to accommodate new usage patterns. Some excerpts:

Many of the furniture designs introduced here last week at the International Home Furnishings Market and that will be in stores in the fall are likewise intended for a harried, hassled nation -- in this case, people who eat on the run, hypertask, work all the time, relocate often, and are too busy to pick out furniture or to give much thought to their design style.


One solution touted at High Point was the "lift top rectangular cocktail table" by Lane Home Furnishings. It looks like a regular table, but the top pulls up and toward you "so it's just about table height,"


Ottomans are getting higher -- some are at least 4 inches higher than they used to be -- the better to balance your laptop on your lap while you're sitting on the sofa. Likewise, reclining chairs are being reinvented for people who can't spare the time to simply recline.


"Now, you see your back and your foot rest operate separately," he said, making it possible to sit up straight while your legs are up and your computer's on your lap.


Since we're on our cell phones all the time anyway, why not literally be on our cell phone? This seems to be the message of the new Cell Phone Stash Chair by Lumisource, a plush chair stylized with a keypad. Fittingly, it multitasks by opening up for storage in the seat.


Where at one time consumers purchased furniture with the expectation that they would spend years, even decades, at the same address, today's manufacturers are designing for a population on the move.


As a result, a new sub-genre of home furnishings seems to have emerged, meant to suggest a kind of faux togetherness. Stanley Furniture's "Provincia Trilogy Partners Desk" would fit into this category: It's a desk for three people with two laptop stations.

On the one hand, it sounds like there's a somewhat cynical sneer to some of the pieces (or maybe just to the writer's coverage of them), but--critical design aside (what does it communicate to the user that their relaxation and work spaces have been explicitly merged?)--it's interesting to see furniture manufacturers shift their focus to design based on an understanding of the changing role of furniture. It's still pretty haphazard--the bemused tone of the article clearly shows that this is all new and wacky--but it's nice to see the industry more explicitly approaching design based on an analysis of user needs.

Looking through my Dad's bookshelf, I started flipping through a book called Henry's Attic. It's a fun book describing stuff that's been donated to Greenfield Village and the Henry Ford Museum, in Dearborn. The museum is a tremendous collection of the history and culture of technology. You should go there if you're anywhere near Detroit.

One of the entries caught my eye. It was for the 1957 Liberty Mutual Insurance Company's "Survival Car I":

Among the innovations that the project spawned were the concept of "packaging" passengers for safety, simulating accidents to analyze how injuries occurred, and using dummies in auto-crash testing.


The tanklike vehicle--basically a 1961 [sic] Chevrolet Bel Aire--incorporates some sixty-five safety features for preventing accidents or reducing injuries when accidents occur.

That's not surprising, but here's the kicker that relates this as a parallel to today's open source/closed source debates:

Although auto manufacturers thought the safety features on the survival cars would not sell, more than fifty of them are standard equipment on today's automobiles. Liberty Mutual [...] sought no patents on the research or designs developed for the survival cars. [emphasis mine--mk]

Further, the DOT's site has an interesting quote about these cars from one Ralph Nader:

"That an insurance company," Nader said, "had to produce the first prototype safety car itself constituted a stinging rebuke to the automobile makers." The auto industry was hostile to Survival Cars; Nader reported that the experimental Mustang (1963) included eight of the safety features, but all were dropped by the time the car went into production.

For me the primary lesson is that eventually investment in good user experiences pay off, and resisting things that make products easier, safer and with better functionality, then sharing the most valuable insights with everyone, will pay off for everyone. Liberty Mutual invested $250K, in 1960 dollars, into their program. I'm sure that their innovations have saved many times in excess of that for insurance industries (who don't have to pay out claims) and consumers. I bet even car companies made money off of making safer cars.

Another lesson is that it probably took car companies a couple of tries, an impetus from consumers and regulators, to figure out how to incorporate these features into their cars. So iterative development, patience and perseverance are also necessary to understand exactly how to incorporate these ideas. For example, I don't see many modern cars with six windshield wipers or accordion doors (some pictures of the thing).

About a year and a half ago, I did a sketch of an idea I had about how a dynamically created travelogue could look like. It was nothing earth-shattering, but it was an interesting exercise.

John Udell has now taken this to the next level, using Google Maps and various video/photo clips to illustrate a walk he takes around his neighborhood (Flash). It's really nice and it shows what may be possible if this kind of personal data can get mushed together automatically. This said, I still don't get why there aren't more consumer-grade GPS-savvy cameras. Even if the battery life is bad, it still seems like there would be a significant-enough market for 'em.

This ad from the 1918 Sears catalog is often cited by ubicomp people (including me, in my upcoming talk to the IA Summit) as an example of how electric motors stopped being special things and disappeared into our tools, with the point being that computation is likely to do the same. They refer to the sewing machine attachment when it's discussed. But one thing that I don't see many citations for is for the other interesting attachment in this ad. The one that's second from the bottom, the one right above the grinder. Yes, that's the one, the one for the vibrator. Sears was right, it really is an ad for "Aids that every woman appreciates."

(click through for the big ad--and, yes, I know there was probably some other justification for vibrators, but, really, I'm sure everyone knew what was up)




A device studio that lives at the intersections of ubiquitous computing, ambient intelligence, industrial design and materials science.

The Smart Furniture Manifesto

Giant poster, suitable for framing! (300K PDF)
Full text and explanation

Recent Photos (from Flickr)

Smart Things: Ubiquitous Computing User Experience Design

By me!
ISBN: 0123748992
Published in September 2010
Available from Amazon

Observing the User Experience: a practitioner's guide to user research

By me!
ISBN: 1558609237
Published April 2003
Available from Amazon

Recent Comments

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