September 2006 Archives

Another in the periodic intersections of furniture and casemods, here is a Canadian furniture designer's interpretation of high-end wooden PC cases:

The woodworking is beautiful, but these pieces still suffer from the tension between the replacement cycles of furniture (long) and computers (short). Suissa Computer, the company that makes these, claims " Solid, strong and beautiful, able to grow and change with future generations, Suissa Computers are designed to be upgradeable and expandable."

My feeling is that most people buying computers today have seen how quickly technology changes, so the idea of having a piece of hardware "for future generations" may seem like a pretty extraordinary claim, with little to back it up on the site. Saying that it'll "grow" is actually the opposite of what people have seen computers become. Expandability may be something that can justify the purchase of a particularly high-end system, but it's rarely borne out in practice, and I suspect that people may not purchase computers with that as a key differentiating factor more than once.

That said, the idea of making computers for the high-end market is interesting, and the recent purchase of Alienware by Dell and of Voodoo by H-P seems to show that major manufacturers agree, but high-end computer purchases seem to include a very different set of evaluation criteria than high-end furniture purchases. Other expensive furniture that includes technology, such as Ingo Maurer's lighting, are first and foremost furniture, with the technology integrated in support of the role of the object as furniture.

(I originally saw this on Born Rich).

Recently, Liz and I were watching Masters Of Russian Animation - Volume 1 when had one of these cultural "?!?" moments when an unexpected piece of culture neatly fits into another. Well, kind of. Specifically, several pieces of my cultural knowledge neatly came together: my childhood memories of Moscow, Russia, my parents' description of living in Moscow in the early 1960s, Jacque Tati's "Playtime" and Tetris.

The first animation on the DVD is Fyodor Khitruk's 1962 "Story of One Crime". This a film that, like Tati's Playtime, attempts to humorously interpret the anxiety of living in a rapidly modernizing world. The plot is fairly straightforward: a series of gags that show how modern life in 1960s Moscow drives an otherwise boring Everyman to go crazy and try to kill a neighbor (call it "Crime and Punishment Lite"). The animation is an excellent Modernist style where nearly everything is flat against the screen. One of the gags features a building being noisily being built in a matter of minutes as the Everyman goes about his business. The building is in what was then a standard style for the Khrushchev era. These buildings were constructed of prefabricated concrete chunks that were made off-site, trucked to the building site and assembled, block-style. Because buildings are square, but all the parts in them are not identical, this required some amount of choosing the right block and putting in the right place. I spent several formative early years living in one of these in Moscow with my parents and most of my few memories of that era take place in the yard of one. They were called Plattenbau in East Germany and make up a good chunk of most major cities in the Eastern Bloc.

You see where this is going. That frames the context for my ?!? moment. In one gag in the cartoon, as the building behind our antihero is being built, it looks a lot like Tetris. A lot. A whole like. Like, "Holy crap, that's Tetris twenty years before Tetris was invented" a lot. I grabbed some frames to show what I mean:

I know that Alexey Pazhitnov, the inventor of Tetris, claimed pentominoes as his inspiration, but I can't believe that living in the Soviet Union at the time he could not have been thinking about this building style (and maybe this very cartoon). If not, it's an eerie similarity, and I'm really amused.

It looks like National (aka Matsushita/Panasonic) is launching a smart bed. It's a combination of a bed with a pressure-sensitive pad (roughly serving a similar duty to the sensors in Stanford's Sleepsmart project [120K PDF]) and an ambient environment that's designed for optimal sleep:

The Kaimin System offers an integrated control of lighting fixtures, reclining bed, air mattress, air conditioning and audio-visual equipment through a ‘pleasant sleep environment controller’ which is built in with programs to adjust the room environment for a quality sleep.

I'm really pleased to see this coming to pass, and I'm glad they're actually testing it with people before launching it to the world at large, though I wonder how much testing went into the effectiveness of the environment. Their description of the testing says it was "used to improve the system and key devices in various manners to make them more practical" which implies usability testing of the interfaces, but doesn't get at whether it actually helps people sleep. The outline of their "Standard Course" sleep program has a pretty rigid definition of sleep, and implies that behavior that deviates from any of their "Standard Course" will need to be hand selected or programmed, which relies on people to know more about their own sleep patterns and to do more work than I think most people are going to be willing to do. Still, it's an interesting development in the world world of smart furniture and I wish 'em luck (and I'd like to know what their 60 applied-for patents are and how they differ from Stanford's work).

Tod's latest hack allows you to control a Roomba using the Bluetooth radio in your mobile phone. The key is Mobile Processing:

Trying to develop J2ME (aka “JavaME”) applications for cell phones has been a mess, especially for non-Windows users. Thankfully, Mobile Processing wraps up the ugly details, like Processing does for normal Java. It makes writing little programs for your phone pretty easy, and makes whipping up a program to control a Roomba possible.

Processing continues to be a great project. Thank you Processing team and go Tod.

Also, Tod's definitive Roomba hacking book is now available for pre-order on Amazon:

It lands on November 20.

Ubicomp got a publicity boost this week courtesy of Vernor Vinge's commen ts on ubicomp, which have been linked widely since they were posted a couple of days. Much of what he says is right on (RFIDs, wireless networks, etc.) and has been discussed in the ubicomp world for a while, but he makes several interesting points and identifies (and names, in that race to name concepts) a couple of things I find new and interesting:

  • Localizers are "a feature that is on networked embedded processors, whereby the processor knows where it is in 3D space." He then couples this idea with wireless networks, "If you know exactly where things are, not only can you make use of the ultra-wideband that we already are moving into, but you could even imagine using very good localizer technology to set up extremely high bit-rate lengths that were highly directional." This is in order to keep all data from moving over all networks, a kind of spatially-informed multicasting. I think his vision of things knowing their position in 3D is insightful, but I wonder if his idea of the elimination of whole industries coming because people no longer have to arrange stuff only scratches the surface. I also wonder whether the bandwidth requirements necessary for whole environments of objects to communicate and coordinate will overwhelm the system. It becomes the kind of problem that's likely to be solved only if there's a compelling commercial reason, and self-locating objects don't exactly have one yet. That said, the accelerometers in MacBooks and the mini gyroscopes in Wii mice represent a start toward object orientation as an efficient interaction technique, which definitely has a business case. Whether objects end up using that when talking to each other remains to be seen. I've noticed that the possibilities of object-to-object communication don't get nearly as exploited as object-to-human in personal technologies. Which is probably as it should be.
  • Node guano. "If you have lot of ad hoc nodes, in a situation where nodes don’t last forever, ultimately we could be hip deep in dead nodes." I'm not sure I agree with this. There's certainly a lot of link rot on the Web, but ubicomp devices will probably require a lot more energy to maintain dead links (and on that note let me mix a couple terms from different discplines: what is the carbon footprint of all of those dead links on the Web?).
  • High-resolution heads-up displays. Continual data overlays have been the stuff of science and science fiction even before the Terminator figured out to say "Fuck you, asshole" in 1984, but it's been really hard for that technology to take hold socially. Vinge's assertion that a high resolution heads-up display "destroys all other display technology" understates the value of shared viewing. TV glasses have existed for a good decade, but the display technology that's really taken off in the home is the giant TV. In pair programming, even the space where people have traditionally been most likely to have one (or more) monitor per person becomes a shared display experience That objection notwithstanding, I think that his idea of consensual imaging among belief circles is interesting. I consider it a kind of physical manifestation of software skinning, mixed with ideas shared among members of a social-network (as a blogroll is, for example). The implications of this both excite and scare me: it would be totally cool to overlay a trusted source's view of a given scene on mine, but I feel people already ignore the complexity of reality too much and tend to live on parallel planes that exclude ideas that challenge theirs. I don't want Orrin Hatch's world skin (though I'd try it on to see what it looks like), and I don't think he wants mine.
  • Vinge starts to touch on my current favorite topic, magic as metaphor in interaction design for ubiquitous computing. "[...] Virtually every aspect of purpose, faith and fantasy could have a constituency in such a world, and that really raises a lot of possiblities for products, and the products actually go beyond games. [...] It’s not so much a question of the place of games in the future world, but a question of whether there’s anything going on besides games." He's talking about games, and I feel the kinds of games he's talking about are augmented reality fantasy games. Fantasy is explicitly not an explanatory framework for understanding the world, as genuine animism or belief in magic are, but it's a close neighbor. It's a way of trying to see how things could be if some fundamental rules were different.
  • His conclusions on how these technologies shape his version of his technological singularity I find particularly interesting. His implication is that when there's all of the bandwidth available and all of these instrumented objects, it will change society so that people will join groups (he calls them lifestyle cults) that will allow for mass leverage of their ideas economically and socially. This implies a kind of mass-mind that one either joins or is helpless to defend against as a single person. Not to reduce his argument but: 1. hasn't that already happened on the level of media consumption, which in turn drives mass behavior? People no longer have to get bad news if they don't want to (well, not exactly). and 2. Doesn't that overestimate the homogeneity of people's desires? As a social researcher, I am continuously surprised at both the similarity of people on certain levels (demographically-determined audiences are sometimes frighteningly similar) while being perenially surprisingly at others (people always surprise me, even when I think I know "their group" very well). In other words, I think his conclusions have already come to pass and we're all OK: the Singularity happened and we feel fine. Maybe I'm too optimistic.

Finally, Brenda Laurel is talking about animism at the closing keynote of Ubicomp 2006 next week, bookending Bruce Sterling's opening. I'm glad that animism is finally making it to mainstream thought about people's attitudes toward user experience design for ubicomp. I feel vindicated enough to include a gratuitous reference to the piece I wrote about it three years ago. ;-) AND I'm pretty excited to see what Brenda has to say.

I went to Burning Man again this year, for the 11th time in a row. My overall feeling is that the art this time around wasn't overall as good as last year, though last year was hard to top since it was head and shoulders better than many of the years leading up to it, and this year's work is, too.

If I list more pieces this year than I have in years past, it's only because this is the first year I took notes.

The Waffle

This piece, by a group of Belgian artists, had a different name--Uchronia--but everyone on the playa knew it as The Waffle (much to the lead artist's frustration, as I understand it, but it's a better and less pretentious name, so he should just learn to deal with it). An amazing and conflicting piece: a classic potlatch of waste (hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of brand new wood for dancing in, and then burning to the ground in a matter of minutes), but a stunning installation. This is the kind of pure expression that architects aspire to and rarely get to do (and when they do, and it's for a utilitarian building, they often sacrifice utility for vision; the Waffle had no sacrifices to make, so it was free to be simply amazing). When it burned, it had the look of the Hindenburg disaster or a crashed space ship, and was possibly, as Liz (who watched the World Trade Center crash) said, the largest thing I ever want to see burning.


Serpent Mother

It's great to see artists develop their expression, and impressive when a group of people learn to create consistently compelling visions. The Flaming Lotus Girls have developed over the last 5 years into a great team that produces remarkable, monumental fire art. Their piece this year, the Serpent Mother was great. Huge, fun and excellently executed from a technical standpoint, the piece was a crowd hit. The key to it, I believe, is their movement from working purely with propane and electricity to computer control. Richard Mortimer Humphrey--who I worked with on the Stock Puppets--built MIDI-addressable propane valve controllers for them which allow them to precisely control the piece, ratcheting up the slickness and effectiveness by a big notch.

(image by antagonist, found on Flickr)

Starry Bamboo Mandala

It was hard to beat this piece for pure visual elegance. Beautifully made and looking like an immense 3D arabesque on legs, the mandala was a pleasure to look at, lean on and touch. We visited it in the dark, when it looked like a silent sea urchin-themed sentinel, still guarding the now-dry lake. Great stuff.



This years' entry in the "most likely to maim a hippie" interactive sculpture contest (won last year by Zach Coffin's Colossus). Michael Christian still rules the biomorphic monumental sculpture world, whimsically creating ever-greater pieces out of bent pipe. The BM theme this year was "Hope and Fear, the Future", so this piece is Michael's vision of the monsters from War of the Worlds, but with festival participants taking the role of the alien. An homage to Louise Bourgeois by way of 1890s science fiction.


Hope Flower and Fear Trap

It's kind of amazing how a giant flower made of lace wrapped around a snorkel lift can express pathos, curiosity and profound alienness at the same time, but these did. Liz and I spent a long time pulling and prodding the things and marveling at the great cleverness of the design, but the real magic came from the way that they were operated, like 100-foot-high puppets. These were everything that an art car should be (i.e. not a car).

(image by giantmonster, found on Flickr)

Big Round Cubatron

One of the best LED pieces I've ever seen. Using a modified commercial product and a sequel to one of my favorite pieces of several years ago (the Cubatron), it created a pure visual experience that was one of the most intense things I've seen. The artists also provide an excellent description/log of the technical details.


Burninator II

Another computer-controlled propane piece, but with a much different focus than the Serpent Mother. While the Serpent Mother created a character, the Burninator II was pure technology, and kind of scary technology at that. Propane poofer fires are an old Burning Man technology: a liquid propane tank with a regulator fills an expansion vessel with a valve and a pilot light; when the valve is opened the propane rushes out of the expansion vessel and makes a big whoomp sound and fireball. By themselves, they no longer surprise (though they're still fun to operate). What makes Burninator interesting is the magnitude and the effect created by the computer control. The sequenced fire, which created a whomp-whomp-whomp sound as the poofers were triggered looked like it coming right for you, even though it was shooting straight in the air. The combination of sound with the impression of impossibly fast speed made it much more impressive than just a bunch of propane fire cannons.

(image by SoopahViv, found on Flickr)

Venus Eye Trap

I'm a sucker for good inflatables. This one was particularly whimsical and beautiful.

(image by jesseehull, found on Flickr)

Bikes w/Triklits LEDs

I don't know the name of the people who did these (I suspect the Big Round Cubatron camp) or what they're called, but there was a group that used the same pingpong ball lights that are made by the folks who made the Cubatron, dangling like grapes from umbrella-like trees hanging from the back of bikes. When the whole group rode around, it was great, but very difficult to photograph.


The white kits flying at night during the burns were eerie and moving, like ghosts or (to continue the theme), aliens. Again, it was difficult to photograph them, but you can see them hanging on the right in this photo:


And this particularly ghostly one at the top of this photo:


Neverwas Haul

Possibly the best art car ever. A Victorian house on wheels, staffed by people in period dress riding a Miyazaki-meets-Verne hallucination that's (according to their documentation) a criticism of the cultural blindness that technology enables. Beautiful workmanship and another marker in San Francisco's current love affair with making actual steampunk devices (as a return to the origins of Modernism? As a reference to pre-petroleum energy technology? As nostalgia for an era of technological optimism? All of the above, probably.).


(image by molitov, found on Flickr)

Frostbyte memorial

One of the saddest things on the playa this year was the memorial installation of all of Kevin "frostbyte" McCormick's work. McCormick died last year, very young, and was one of the most promising artists at Burning Man. I had admired his work for a number of years and could see elements of it in many people's work (the Cubatron, SoLA, etc.). Basically, he was the first person to really push LEDs to their technological limits as a visually expressive medium, and every year his pieces evolved further. That development is one of the things I love the most about Burning Man, and every year I look forward to Michael Christian's explorations of bent pipe or the Flaming Lotus Girls' explorations of fire. That's how I felt about McCormick, and every year there will be a moment where I'll think "hey, I wonder what's frostbyte did this year?" and remember.




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

The Smart Furniture Manifesto

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Smart Things: Ubiquitous Computing User Experience Design

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