February 2007 Archives

Tod, my partner in ThingM has written a great analysis on his blog of how ubicomp will permeate everyday technology in the near term, and how adding technology changes how we relate to, and how we buy, everyday objects.

As technology suffuses more into everyday objects, those objects will exhibit the same price elasticity of gadgets. Many domestic objects already do because of luxury and designer brands. The difference in comfort between a no-name leather easy chair from Target and an Eames lounger from Design Within Reach does not track the 10x difference in cost. The cost of adding intelligence to the DWR chair is the same as the sales tax on it.

I think he's right on, and he concludes with the most succinct statement of ThingM's philosophy to date:

Exploring what will be possible in a decade’s time is a useful and inspiring task. But until we have nanoassemblers, if we want to impact the lives of people today, we must discover and utilize the technologies available today that are on the verge of having high economies of scale.

I recommend his whole post.

I don't advocate the implicit weirdness of such a device, since I can't think of any case where using it doesn't imply some seriously screwed-up priorities, but this lamp that hides a secret GSM camera is an interesting example of fusion between technology and furniture. It uses a mobile phone and camera embedded, and concealed, in a lamp.

Room monitoring has gone to a new level. Simply dial into this unit and the sensitive microphone will secretly be activated so that you can hear everything that is going on within 15 to 20 metres of the lamp. Unlimited range.

As an example of technology integrated into everyday life, it's an interesting data point (if only for the surprisingly high price). At least for me, however, the ethical considerations greatly outweigh its utility.

(Originally seen on BornRich)

Although the event at which the technology is described appears to be have happened some months ago, I just saw this video on YouTube about a Philips project called "Drag & Draw." It appears to be a projector and a motion-tracking camera that's tuned to specific colors in an RGB LED pointer. The colors are selected using a "paint bucket" of glowing LEDs. It seems to be a small-scale version of the Graffiti Research Lab's LASER Tag project (though predating it, the GRL project got more media coverage recently), and not unlike Golan Levin's many projects.

Philips describes that with Drag & Draw, "the entire home becomes a virtual canvas for expression and play for young children, thanks to a magic brush, a magic eraser, a magic wand, and a laser projection bucket." That's a lot of magic.

In the YouTube video they go further, "You can cast magic onto the drawing and it will come to life." Their video scenario is fanciful with how this animation works, but as Levin shows, there are many precedents for this kind of static-to-dynamic drawing.

Of course I find it interesting that they're using magic as a metaphor to describe functionality, but I suspect that this is primarily to explain it to themselves and to other adults. If their audience is genuinely small children (and why not people who need a white board replacement?), the kids probably don't need the explanation that it's magic. It just is, it works the way it works. How does glue work? Does it matter when you're making a collage? Same here.

Also, speaking of wands, in the same show Philips showed the "uWand" that they describe as:

a Philips vision of a revolutionary way of accessing and managing content, enabling the user to interact with their digital environment in a natural and self-expressive way. A simple stroke of the uWand allows users to intuitively point at a device and to scroll, select, play and move elements.

This is the first pairing of the "u" prefix (which typically implies "ubiquitous" in the same way that "i" originally implied "Internet" and now implies something like "interactive" or "me") and "Wand." Magic and ubiquitous computing. From Philips, no less.

Continuing my project of observing how terminology shifts to describe the process of researching and designing the user experience of ubiquitous computing, I noticed a blurb in the latest issue of the IDSA's "design perspectives" newsletter. In it, they note a new service launched by RAHN, Inc., which RAHN calls "Quantitative Ethnographics (QE)." They claim this "integrates performance metrics into the analysis and illustrates innovation's positive impact on a prospective client's customer."

Apart from the error of assuming a "positive impact" before starting research, it's interesting to me how RAHN seems to be using the current vogue for the use of "ethnographics" as a term to describe user research, but modifying it by using the language of measurement (presumably because numbers and figures look better in client reports). Measurement--and the "finding of an average" that it implies--is kind of the opposite of the goal of traditional ethnography, which aims to describe culture in its complexity. That doesn't actually seem to be the point anymore. "Ethnographics" has come to mean "we go onsite and look at people." It has ceased to have the meaning it once had as an anthropological practice, and has been repurposed by the design community.

Is this is a good thing? I don't know, but it's a thing.

Last week, in honor of Valentine's Day, Tod and I put together another ThingM Technology Sketch, LoveM. It was a result of a process we regularly use: we look at a technology and apply "what if" metrics to it. "What if this technology cost 1/10 as much?" "What if it was 10 times more powerful?" "What if we could make one of these in 1/10 the time?" That sort of thing.

One of these discussions--"what if LCD screens continued to drop in price?"--led to LoveM. It's a chocolate box with an LCD display. When we came up with the idea, it started as kind of a joke, but then we went to a grocery store display to look at chocolate boxes and there was a $4 box of Valentine's Day candy with an LED blinker on the front. Sure, one LED does not make an LCD video display, but LED technology has existed for a long time and at current prices a chocolate box with an LED could have been done five years ago. It wasn't. I suspect because people weren't ready to have that level of technology in their food. That box and the relationship it implied made it clear to us that it was a lot more acceptable to introduce technology to food, and led us to pursue the idea and make a concept video (and give the box a cameo in it).

There's a more elaborate description on the ThingM site, but here's the video:

Here's an idea I'm not going to implement, but liked enough to write down in my notebook 3 months ago: DRM-free music on demand using the modem port on your computer (that you're not using and will never use again). The idea is simple: control iTunes with a web browser and dial your mobile phone with your unused modem port, then--rather than connecting as a modem--you just play music over the line. In other words, use your mobile phone to play music, but rather than trying to do it as a data feed, you use the phone's audio capabilities.

Here are the elements:

  1. A computer with audio out and a modem port, running a Web server; say, a Mac running OSX
  2. iTunes
  3. A script to control iTunes over the Web
  4. The Mac2Tel circuit
  5. A script to dial using the modem

The idea, if I was going to implement it, would be to build the circuit, then combine the last script with the first script to dial my mobile phone number from a home machine and start playing whatever music I've selected over the phone line. The Internet serves as the control channel, while the POTS is the primary audio service.

And, yeah, it's a total hack, but--hey--the elements are all there and I'm leaving it up the reader to put them together. (see "the devil is in the details" for more info on how to do that ;-)

I started keeping track of interesting developments in furniture design recently. I'm primarily focused on the integration of furniture and technology (call it "smart furniture" ;-). Most of these have been collected from the gadget blogs over the last couple of months, so you may see familiar things if you follow those.

Massage Chairs

I had just noticed that massage chairs are domestic robots when Matsushita had to recall 68K of them. Now what this means is that there were at 68K massage chairs in the world. That's fewer than the number of Roombas or iPods, but that's a lot of chair-shaped domestic robots, and Panasonic is only one of dozens of brands producing the things.

EL Couch

Designer Danielle Sobik has made a prototype reactive electroluminescent couch. I think that her narrative that it's designed to bring couples apart by providing glowing color feedback that they're sitting too far apart is a bit simplistic (OK, so it works once, what's the daily utility) and, frankly, unnecessary: why not just have a couch that glows when people sit on it, and the glow changes depending on the orientation. I think it's also interesting that her goal seems to make the modernist design esthetic of the couch form she's using "more personal." This is a theme that seems to be reappearing recently, and it makes sense to me (but, then again, I'm no fan of Modernist minimalism).

Herman Miller includes charging into desktops

Induction based battery charging (most frequently seen in cordless electric toothbrushes these days) has been one of those technologies that has been possible for a long time, but practical maybe only recently (and maybe not now). Herman Miller's licensing of the technology, and including it into their portfolio of products makes it distinctly more possible. It also creates an interesting technology lock-in problem. This may be the first technology H-M has installed that's tuned to a specific set of devices that the company doesn't make. As those devices evolve, how will H-M update this technology? More importantly, how will they reassure office managers that the desks they're buying today--the very, very expensive Herman Miller desks--won't be "obsolete" 2 years from? This may be the thin edge of the smart furniture wedge, since the drastically different lifecycles of furniture and technology are what have prevented deep inclusion of tech into furniture.

Whirlpool Centralpark

A similar idea is Whirlpool's new fridge/accessory charger. They're being explicit about the pieces being swappable, so therefore trying to make it "futureproof." I'd be interested to see if that'll work, or if the whole assumption that things need to be recharged is going to disappear in a couple of years with new battery technology and induction charging. But that's of course not how Whirlpool's customers purchase: they have iPods today and when comparing Whirlpool's fridge against the Subzero, any slight advantage helps. It'll be interesting to see how well this sells. It's also interesting, because it provides electronics-level power input into the face of a refrigerator, which not only opens up all kinds of hacking possibilities, but also expansion possibilities. The classic "stick an LCD display into the front of your fridge" idea can't be far behind (though probably no one will buy it, as they didn't before).

Finally, a couple of design-oriented technology notes. Exploring the integration of technology into everyday life is the leitmotif of this blog, and the other side of installing technology into everyday objects is making technological objects that already exist better integrated. To that note, here are two fascinating recent examples:

Suck UK's fabric clock

An excellent melding of DIY, ironic anti-Modern design, historical reference (think 1960s tabletop radios) and technological camouflage, a simple idea for a 30-year-old technology and a great use of LEDs. Go Suck UK, go.

Samsung's blinged-out washer

Again, I'm no fan of cold Modernist minimalism. My reasons are many, but--among other things--it no longer make sense to treat the products of technology as if they were from a scientific lab, even when a lot of science goes into making them. That level of communication is no longer necessary, and we've grown used to tech. So much so, that casemodders, the hotrodders of our age, are the vanguard of technology personalization and expression. They show us that bling is a core part of our lives, or it should be. In our hearts, we all bling. Rimless architect glasses and Eames furniture are still bling, they just come from a different social background than gilt and Baroque curlicues. I think it's about time that appliance makers recognized and embraced the latter as a legitimate design style, which is why I'm so happy to see this washing machine. More bling!




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

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This page is an archive of entries from February 2007 listed from newest to oldest.

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