May 2006 Archives

It's not surprising that The Grand Rapids Press is covering an inventor's creation of embedded a/v furniture. After all, Grand Rapids is the home of the steel furniture industry in the US (both Steelcase and Herman Miller are in the area and have been for 100 years). What's interesting is that they're covering a local inventor/designer's technology furniture. Now, it's not that surprising that someone near the heart of the steel furniture business mates it with technology, but it's still surprising because Allendale is so far from the other centers of technology and design.

A hidden projector plays video on a recessed, ceiling-mounted projection screen.


Sit down next to a stylish end table. Then open the top drawer and flip up the flat monitor tucked neatly inside.


Kick back and watch TV on your large plasma screen. Also use it to browse the Web, edit documents and play video games, because the entertainment center has an integrated computer.

Pete Freeman, the designer, is experiencing problems marketing his designs (there are photographs in an extended interview with him). In some ways, I'm not surprised. Freeman's designs are a kind of a wooden casemod, but he wants to sell the computer and the furniture together as a unit: that makes for either a very expensive piece of furniture or a computer that feels like it's going to be difficult to upgrade. The vastly different replacement cycles of furniture and computers thus becomes a big stumbling block, and an interesting one from the perspective of the potential customers of ubicomp: how do you sell something that's simultantously "built in" and replaceable? To some extent, I think that he's doing the thing that early radio cabinet designers did, and then again television cabinet designers: they made the designs look like furniture, in the hope that it would be more acceptable in the living room; eventually (and probably quickly), as people became comfortable with the new devices, their designs stopped trying to hide their functionality. The issue is that living room computers jumped to the "looking different" phase (by not being designed for the living room at all, or being designed to look like stereo equipment) and perhaps there's no clear need to disguise the functionality, to just to focus it better. Then, if it's clear that a computer is not just a general purpose computer, but a task-specific device, it no longer has to be hidden; or if it is, that hiding doesn't have to bring the baggage of having to hide a full-fledged PC (with cooling vents, power, CD tray, keyboard, monitor and mouse). If the function is focused, it'll be clearer where it should go and how it should go there.

But, you know, that's all theory. Freeman's actually made furniture that has computers hidden in it. It's not calm computing and it's not ambient display, but it's on the continuum. Having recently seen most of the Milan Furniture Fair, I know there's a market for everything, but I hope he doesn't have his hopes set on protecting his intellectual property rights: the furniture design industry is all about idea appropriation and recombination (that's what's called "fashion") and the best you can do is to get to market first and hope that you can get a season ahead of the copies, or use techniques that no one can easily duplicate.

Analysts are an influential lot. Their predictions of ecommerce riches led to the 1998-2000 stock bubble, and companies often take their advice with a lot of faith. Gartner recently release a report examining non-graphical user interfaces entitled "The Evolving User Interface From Graphical UI to
Environmental UI ." I haven't read the actual report, but there's a new a summary on Gartner's site. What's interesting is that they avoid all of the terminology of ubiquitous or pervasive computing, maybe knowing that their audience needs to have the results in familiar words. Maybe they're also right in de-emphasizing the most buzzy tech.

Here are some parts I found interesting, as much for what they're chosing to concentrate on as their date predictions:

The GUI will remain the main UI model through 2010. However, several factors are increasing the pressure to extend the interaction model — especially for targeted niche markets


Organizations must also look beyond functional issues to psychological ones to identify all potential economic consequences.


Mobile and workflow applications are more-promising candidates for gaining value from speech recognition, however. These applications use speech recognition for application control and will feed speech recognition to the desktop over time as users become comfortable with the voice interface paradigm.


Through 2007, fewer than 20 percent of organizations will adopt desktop videoconferencing (0.8 probability). Through 2010, the use of video in corporate environments will split into low-end and high-end markets. Meanwhile, improved display technologies and sound will make multipoint videoconferencing more palatable for most environments. [...] Eventually (2010 to 2015), high-end video systems will allow the remote experience to approach that of being in the same room with a remote speaker (0.8 probability).


The emergence of rich Internet applications combined with user demands to reduce interface latency illustrates how the emergence of a UI technology can drive new business opportunities. The application service provider (ASP) market failed because users were unwilling to step back from the user experience with the client/server and locally hosted applications or to experience poor latency and extended data entry times.


Today, multiple symmetric displays are used primarily in specialized applications to stretch the desktop but will become mainstream by 2009. Asymmetric displays will become prevalent, especially task-focused, at-a-glance displays for calendar or status information.


By 2010, e-paper capabilities will be addressed, providing wall-size, low-resolution monochromatic displays, which will dip into the price range of a cubicle wall or high-end wallpaper by 2015. Interaction with wall-size displays will finally bring gesture recognition into the mainstream, illustrating how the emergence of one UI element can influence the value and adoption of another technology.


Through 2008, new interfaces for established functions will dominate, with sociable devices growing through 2012. In the long term (2010 and beyond), devices will integrate information from many sources to deliver an integrated and sociable user experience.


Looking to 2015, there is potential for more dramatic shift in the UI. The so-called desktop will flow off of the desk and into office appliances and the walls around the user. Meanwhile, the expansion of personal/mobile devices and evolving embedded systems (for example, radio frequency identification [RFID], telematics and consumer electronics) will further fragment the desktop model of computing.

In this world of ambient intelligence, any nontrivial device will contain some degree of embedded processing and communications capability.


By 2015, the focus will shift from designing individual interfaces for particular devices to creating a proactive UI framework for the environment (0.6 probability).

I think that their numbers are interesting, and probaby accurate for the mass adoption range, but the unevenly distributed future will show that there is a layer of technology development and adoption that will make the more ubicomp-ey stuff much more prevalent than 2015. I'd argue that by 2010 there will already be a bunch...and then, because the ideas of the cutting edge hit the mass market a ways before mass adoption, there will be a big shift in people's relationship to technology. On the coasts, the early-adopter parts of the lifestyles that will go along with these technological shifts will appear much sooner.

Nike and Apple have announced the Nike Plus line of shoes that integrate with an iPod Nano through an antenna that attaches to the iPod. As far as I can tell, the shoes broadcast telemetry and the Nano collects it and then downloads the data to software running on your computer as it syncs the music (which is grouped into playlist-based workouts). This may be the biggest commercial wearable computing project since the Adidas 1 robotic adaptive shoe (and, tangentially, an interesting departure from Nike's previous technology venture with Philips, which produced some MP3 players in the 90s--Nike + Apple clearly makes more sense brand-wise in today's market), and there are many more models than that product--which went from running shoe to basketball shoe in its latest incarnation.

The possibilities are, again, pretty interesting: because they broadcast (even if near-field) and probably broadcast with a unique ID (so that two people running together don't get each others' telemetry) these shoes could be used to track people in the panoptic scenario, but they could also produce a much more sophisticated pedometer. For example, why just sports shoes? Why not make a deal with Campers and give urban hipster iPod users an idea of whether they should have just walked home instead of taking the subway 10 blocks? Or Bruno Magli? Or why not do a version of Dance Dance Revolution without the pad? (well, OK, maybe just a simple two-leg hokey pokey version) I'm waiting for someone to hack it.

An AlwaysOn discussion between venture capitalists turned to the notion of moving away from dicussions of core technologies to what those technologies enable:

Roger McNamee: [Mr. McNamee is a venture capitalist with Elevation Partners.] I believe that electronic technology—semiconductors, enterprise software, personal computers—is changing from the growth engine of our economy to a fuel that, very simply put, is following the same course that steel, cement, and other input materials took in the 1950s. It's transforming from a growth industry (where it was really interesting in its own right) to one that's entirely dependent on other industries to add value to it and make it more compelling.

In the discussion that ensued, it was interesting to note that the ideas danced around the concepts of design--service design, product design, the relationship between the two, notions of ubiquitous computing, etc--but never actually mentioned design, and design as a process of taking technology and applying it in a targeted way. This identifies, at least for me, that there's a conceptual gap in the terminology (yes, here I go with disambiguation again) and that the terms identifying the practices that satisfy the needs that the VCs were talking about are hazy. In other words: better definitions of what design does, as a process of human-centered innovation that bridges the gap between organizational needs and consumers' needs and desires, could help create and ease the transition that Roger McNamee identifies.

[Addendum: in the root page for this discussion, I notice that the last item the VCs talked about is entitled "Design Counts Double." It hasn't been posted yet (AlwaysOn's model is to trickle out the stuff for free), but maybe it covers what I'm talking about. Nevertheless, to discuss hiding technology without talking about design says to me that design, as an idea which has at its core the hiding of technology by shifting emphasis from functionality to effect , hasn't spread in the way I would have expected.]

MIT's Technology Review did a nice short article about Roombas and hacking.

One Bluetooth-enabled Roomba was given a green fabric pelt and was used in a real-life Frogger game at the SXSW Interactive conference in Austin, TX, this year, and ThingM's Tod E. Kurt is collaborating on a live-action Pac-Man re-creation, with reprogrammed Roombas dressed up as Pac-Man and ghosts, navigating a maze and vacuuming up tissue paper dots.

The key part of the article is the popup "Roomba tour" (click on the "click here" link in the article). Thank you, MIT review. Go Tod!

Continuing on the magic thread Sony demoed an augmented reality card game for the PS3 video game console at E3 called "The Eye of Judgement". Cards are, of course, an everyday magical element in myth, up there with wands, and this is the first instance that I'm aware of (though folks will tell me otherwise, I'm sure ;-) of treating them as literally magical interface elements. This iteration, and people still know little about it, but the demo appears to be a combination of some vision processing using the PS3 and the EyeToy camera. Gamespot describes it this way:

In The Eye of Judgement, it appears that you'll buy packs of cards, just like you would for Magic or Pokemon, with the idea of being able to create a deck capable of beating someone else's deck. The difference is that when you put the cards down on a table, the PlayStation 3 is able to recognize the card, via the EyeToy. Each card is associated with a different monster, and on the television screen, a virtual monster erupts out of the card.

Engadget took a photo off the E3 presentation screen:

It'll be interesting to see how this kind of UI moves into the daily world and how vision recognition or embedded RFIDs in otherwise everyday objects make them behave in magically when viewed through the enchanted mirror of technology.

Tod did it again, and based on an idea I had while talking to Chris, he wrote a Roomba to MIDI application, which lets you play a Roomba like a musical instrument (check out the video). Chris is considering composing some music for it. Phil blogged it on MAKE. Congratulations Tod and thank you, Phil!

Also, this weekend marked the 4th not-quite-annual Power Tool Drag Races. My contribution was a vehicle made of a roller skate, a Victrola motor, a piece of electrical tape and a pair of vice grips:


It was an excellent, busy, chaotic, hilarious event. As always, not really a competition, but an extended improv absurdist theater performance that's more about drag (i.e. bringing out the hidden side of tools) than racing. Here's Liz explaining the roller skate (named "Scratch") to John Hell, one of the announcers:


I knew Scratch didn't work well, so I dressed up as an early 20th-century "inventor," brought an actual gramophone with records, and hoped that being the only windup entry in the races would be good enough:

(photo by Scott Beale)

In the end, after 8 hours of waiting, the windup rollerskate went about 6 inches before getting stopped by a wood chip (and a poorly-designed drive belt--electrical tape that stretched in the sun--that didn't provide enough torque to get it over the chip).

We had a great time and you can see lots and lots of photos of the event if you look at the "ptdr" tag on Flickr. Thank you Charlie and QBOX for making it happen and Jim for being the patron saint.




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

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