Invisible technology: rock speakers

rockspeakers

I've always been fascinated by "rock speakers", i.e. audio speakers hidden in faux-rocks. Quite a weird object category, very ironic actually. There are some available on Amazon (see this one) and it's quite intriguing to read the technical features as well as the reviews by buyers. I can see that as an example of Invisible technology, perhaps in a different way than Mark Weiser's definition of Ubiquitous Computing.

What does it mean? What's the need to hide technology in a crappy plastic stone?

Invisible technology: rock speakers

rockspeakers

I've always been fascinated by "rock speakers", i.e. audio speakers hidden in faux-rocks. Quite a weird object category, very ironic actually. There are some available on Amazon (see this one) and it's quite intriguing to read the technical features as well as the reviews by buyers. I can see that as an example of Invisible technology, perhaps in a different way than Mark Weiser's definition of Ubiquitous Computing.

What does it mean? What's the need to hide technology in a crappy plastic stone?

Some Critical Thoughts to Inspire People Active in the Internet of Things

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It has never been so easy to build things and throw them into people’s pockets, bags, phones, homes, cars. Almost inevitably — with this abundance of ‘solutions’ — it has never been so easy to get caught in the hyperbolic discourses of perpetual technological disruptions with their visions of flawless connectivity and seamless experiences. When translated literally, theses visions often take the form of a questionable world of Internet of Things (IoT).

At Near Future Laboratory, we get the chance to meet amazing people active in the IoT who request critique and feedback on their products. We help them abstract from the hype of the dominant vision and gain fringe insights that can refresh their strategies. To do so, I often dig into the rich literature produced in the early days of ubiquitous computing. Some of the texts were published more than 10 years old, but — trust me — they all carry inspiring thoughts to improve the contemporary and near future connected worlds.

I hope this accessible academic literature is useful for people active in IoT curious to enrich their ethical, human, geographic and social perspectives on technologies. En route and beware of shortcuts!

The shift from the showcase of the potential of technologies to the showcase of active engagement of people

Written in 1995, Questioning Ubiquitous Computing critiqued that research in ubiquitous computing is conceived as being primarily as the best possibility for “achieving the real potential of information technology” and had little to do with human needs and much more with the unfolding of technology per se.

Ten years after, based on similar observations, but with more constructive arguments, Adam Greenfield wrote Everyware to question the implications of the scale up of ubiquitous computing and genuinely how to improve the connected world he coined as “everyware” [my notes].

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In the same period voices raised to rephrase the approach of ubiquitous computing. For instance, in Moving on from Weiser’s vision of calm computing: engaging ubicomp experiences Yvonne Rodgers promotes connected technologies designed not to do things for people but to engage them more actively in what they currently do [my notes].

The shift from the design of a perfect future to the design for the messiness of everyday life

Similarly, in Yesterday’s Tomorrows: Notes on Ubiquitous Computing’s Dominant Vision Genevieve Bell and Paul Dourish highlight that the problems of ubiquitous computing are framed as implementation issues that are, essentially, someone else’s problem, to be cleaned up as part of the broad march of technology. In other words, the dominant vision of ubiquitous computing promotes an indefinitely postponed future in which someone else will take care of solving any technological (e.g. interoperability, fluctuant connectivity, or limited battery life) or social issues. Consequently, the text argues for a “ubicomp of the present” which takes the messiness of everyday life as a central theme [my notes].

That notion of messiness of technological settings provoked the interests of researchers to regard technological imperfections as an opportunity for the design of everyday life technologies. William Gaver pioneered work in that domain with his proposals of Ambiguity as a Resource for Design that requires people to participate in making meaning of a system [my notes] and Technology Affordances that promotes interfaces disclosing the direct link between perception and action. Practically, as advocated by Matthew Chalmers in Seamful interweaving: heterogeneity in the theory and design of interactive systems, this means that people accommodate and take advantage of technological imperfections or seams, in and through the process of interaction. In No to NoUI, Timo Arnall gives excellent additional arguments that question the tempting approach of “invisible design”.

Observing the dynamic relationship of technology, space and humans to demystify the perfect technology

In her PhD dissertation A Brief History of the Future of Urban Computing and Locative Media Anne Galloway shows that ubiquitous technologies reshape people experiences of spatiality, temporality and embodiment in the networked city. Her contribution augments an extensive literature that investigates how technologies are not the sole drivers of urban change and how they co-evolve with the urban fabric as they become woven into the social, economic and political life of cities. Code/Space is a seminal book by Rob Kitchin and Martin Dodge that precisely discuss software from a spatial perspective, analyzing the dynamic relationship of software and space. The production of space, they argue, is increasingly dependent on code, and code is written to produce space [my notes]. In that machine readable space bugs, glitches and crashes are widely accepted imperfections as the routine part of the convenience of computers [my notes]. Also, ubiquitous computing helps remake urban spaces through new formed strategies of security. For instance some chapters of the book Cybercities Reader talk about the emerging militarized control society encouraged by the dream of the perfect technology and the myth of the perfect power [my notes].

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Precisely with the objective of moving beyond these dreams that foster indefinitely postponed futures, Nicolas Nova wrote Futurs? La panne des imaginaires technologiques that explores alternative ways to imagine and design future objects and experiences including Design Fiction.

I took many shortcuts to put together these heterogeneous publications but I hope that some of them can help you better question the dominant visions of the IoT and enrich your approach to improve any of the technologies that are constantly getting closer to people, their homes, streets and clothes (e.g. AI, Big Data, etc).

Star Wars: “the super-technologies already beginning to rust around the edges”

Quite enjoyed this excerpt from J.G. Ballard's critique of Star Wars episode IV:

"The visual ideas in Star Wars are ingenious and entertaining.Ironically it's only now that the technology of the cinema is sufficiently advanced to represent an advanced technology in decline. I liked the super-technologies already beginning to rust around the edges, the pirate starship like an old tramp steamer, the dented robots with IQs higher than Einstein's which resembled beat-up De Sotos in Athens or Havana with half a million miles on the clock. I liked the way large sections of the action were seen through computerized head-up displays which provided information about closing speeds and impact velocities that makes everyone in the audience feel like a Phantom Pilot on a Hanoi bombing run."

Star Wars: “the super-technologies already beginning to rust around the edges”

Quite enjoyed this excerpt from J.G. Ballard's critique of Star Wars episode IV:

"The visual ideas in Star Wars are ingenious and entertaining.Ironically it's only now that the technology of the cinema is sufficiently advanced to represent an advanced technology in decline. I liked the super-technologies already beginning to rust around the edges, the pirate starship like an old tramp steamer, the dented robots with IQs higher than Einstein's which resembled beat-up De Sotos in Athens or Havana with half a million miles on the clock. I liked the way large sections of the action were seen through computerized head-up displays which provided information about closing speeds and impact velocities that makes everyone in the audience feel like a Phantom Pilot on a Hanoi bombing run."

Algorithmic class structures

I’ve been dipping my toe into the murky waters of artificial intelligences recently. For some background reading over the Christmas period, I urge you to read this fantastic two part explanation of the field by Tim Urban.

Anyhow, last night over dinner a thought emerged. We currently live in a world of Artificial Narrow Intelligence (ANI), which is to say we have intelligent algorithms, but they’re very focussed. We can build a computer to play chess very well, but it can’t play tennis, or the piano. Over time we will begin to join these together to approach the kind of complex cross-functional computing that humans perform, called Artificial General Intelligence (AGI). This is where things get interesting. Where it get’s really interesting is the day after AGI, when computing ability steps beyond that of a human. This is known as superintelligence or ASI, and has a large portion of the scientific community excited and terrified, because we’re not exactly sure how things will go when we create something smarter than ourselves. Whichever way things go, I am interested in the ways in which this transition will happen. As fans of the future mundane will know, the world is an accretive space. These AGI’s will not appear all at once, but in an uneven Gibsonian manner. This leads to an interesting construct: In order to progress from an AGI to an ASI, it’s likely that a system will enroll the abilities of other algorithms, perhaps other ANI’s. In so doing it becomes increasingly able, and progresses towards superintelligence.

Here’s the rub: if the target goal of any AI is to become better at something, then the apogee of better is ‘best’. In aiming to be the best, it’s not inconceivable that it may be in the interests of a system to suppress or even exploit other algorithms, creating something akin to a class structure: working class algorithms being exploited for the gain of a privileged elite superintelligence. Slave systems tricked into performing menial tasks to further the capitalist goals of a few overlords… and onwards.

I’ll be writing more about this field and the impact it will have on the design of objects soon.


The Global Village and its Discomforts

Or why designers and data scientists should learn from the anxieties, obsessions, phobias, stress and other mental burdens of the connected humans.

Photo courtesy of Nicolas Nova
Photo courtesy of Nicolas Nova

We live in the ‘Global Village’ and our behaviors as connected humans have been evolving since Marshall McLuhan popularized the term in the 60s. Today, we form a society that captures the ‘moment’, refashions it to ‘share’ across a network of endpoints containing algorithms and humans, perpetually. Simultaneously, we live in a society that prizes speed. Amazing technologies are delivering real-time notification of those moments to our wrists, pockets and handbags. Through the virtue of feedback loops, real-time predictive algorithms and collaborative filtering, things are recommended to us for instant actions. That optimized movement of information promise to help us gain now the time that we can then put back in our life.

That evolution came with a price. In the Global Village, it is common to hear a co-worker complain over lunch about ‘social media overload’, to have a friend share their ‘chronic infobesity’ issue with a simple look on their Tweetdeck, to overhear in the metro a person who cannot keep up with their multiple profiles on Tinder or to observe a ‘validation junky’ defying Dunbar’s number and obsessively seeking new forms to obtain ‘likes’ from ‘friends’.

In this essay, I argue that most connected people are subject to anxieties, obsessions, phobias, stress and other mental burdens resulting from living in the Global Village. In an era where some behaviors and habits are measurable, there is an opportunity to learn from the negative effects of technologies that extend our social practices. Particularly, designers and data scientists — besides from being held accountable for many of these discomforts — could get inspirations from the descriptions of these social media related pathologies to improve their design of user experiences and algorithms.

Pathologies of the Global Village

As of 2014, according to the Nielsen US Digital Consumer Report almost half (47%) of smartphone owners visited social networks every day. On top of that, it is not uncommon for a Facebook user to have 1,500 posts waiting in the queue when logging in.

Since the presence of social network is relatively new, the real gains and losses of their use can be found in the mood, behavior, rituals, manners and feelings of connected people. Only recently, the popular media started to consider the psychological effects of ‘social overload’, its impact on mental, social and even physical well-being. We are starting to hear about compulsive behaviors or any other kind of pathologies with acronyms such as FoMO (Fear of Missing Out) or FoBO (Fear of Better Options) provoked by the exposure to social media. That evolution can also easily be traced in recent academic literature. For instance, social psychologist Andrew Przybylski and his colleagues defined FoMO as:

“A pervasive apprehension that others might be having rewarding experiences from which one is absent, FoMO is characterized by the desire to stay continually connected with what others are doing.”

Building on that definition, Michael Hogan proposed a number of categories of FoMO consequences including: Pressure, Paranoia, Separation, Self-identity problems, Dissatisfaction, Loneliness, Negative Self-Image, Personal Inadequacy, Disconnection, Jealousy, and Judgement.

The consequences of FoMO. Source: Facebook and the ‘Fear of Missing Out’ (FoMO)
The consequences of FoMO. Source: Facebook and the ‘Fear of Missing Out’ (FoMO)

As a consequence, some people who first embraced constant connectivity are now looking for ways to resist the constant call to be permanently connected. These reactions manifests a need to establish boundaries, resist information overload, and strike a greater emotional balance. Some opt to follow media ‘diets’ or ‘detox’ programs as attempts to move away from being constantly ‘on top of things’ and to give up on fears of missing out or being out of the loop.

Every Technological Extension is Also an Amputation

Social network platforms act as an extension of our social practices. Like with any technological extension we are right to be fascinated by its power and scale. However, we too frequently choose to ignore or minimize the ‘amputations’ and implications they produce. Or as French cultural theorist Paul Virilio would argue:

“The invention of the ship was also the invention of the shipwreck”

For instance, our capacity to record every moment of our lives comes with the high vulnerability of digital data. In fact, no machine can today read a 15 years old hard drive. It is ironic that we have the technological means to record and share our social lives, yet we all might suffer one day from ‘digital amnesia’. Similarly, the capacity to record our lives might reduce our ability to forget inconsequential factoids which is the way for our brains to optimize the recollection of important things. Indeed, our memory uses abstraction and generalization to forget and better remember.

The understanding of these ‘amputations’ represent a source of inspiration and discussion to improve the design and algorithms of social media or any technology that touches humans and extend their social practices.

Gathering Material from Fictional Near Future

With the objective of producing an inventory of ‘amputations’, designer Etienne Ndiaye and myself projected into the near future the current discomforts in using social media. With an approach called Design Fiction, we employed that inventory as a totem for discussion and evaluation of alternative ways to experience social media.

In this exercise we postulated the future increase of cases of ‘validation junkies’ (i.e. individuals who obsessively like, favorite, share and retweet) and ‘input junkie’ (i.e. individuals obsessed with social network feeds). After a vast study on social habits and individual addictions to social media, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the European Medicines Agency (EMA) decided to set up a large technology initiative that placed limits on design, algorithms and access to social media. For instance, they imposed limits to Facebook photo clicking. In consequence NGOs and the media started to portray pathologies like FoMO as the nicotine of social network platforms forcing the Facebooks, Googles and Amazons to react.

Based on that premise, our Design Fiction took the form of a fictional start-up called 6andMe active in the sector of wellness for connected humans.

The landing page of 6andMe.
The landing page of 6andMe.

That Design Fiction helped us think on how popular media might describe conditions like FoMO in the future. We debated on the tools and behaviors that could prevent or mitigate the discomforts augmented by social media; the mechanisms that 6andMe could use to detect feelings like ‘lone envy’, ‘social exclusion’, ‘missing out’ and ‘being left out’. For instance we listed the indicators that could give signs of unfilled need of ‘belongingness’ and ‘connectedness’ of a person.

Relative Production, Relative Participation, Reciprocal Endorsement, Relative Social Dispersal, etc. The 6andMe diagnosis rely on a battery of basic tests gathered from an individual behavior on social media services to rate concerns for social media related pathologies.
Relative Production, Relative Participation, Reciprocal Endorsement, Relative Social Dispersal, etc. The 6andMe diagnosis rely on a battery of basic tests gathered from an individual behavior on social media services to rate concerns for social media related pathologies.

Further into the exploration, we looked at the evolution of language and how some mental conditions might be linked to popular figures. For instance, 6andMe can detect levels of Systrom’s Anxiety. This fictional pathology originates from Instagram’s CEO Kevin Systrom who once said:

“We humans are forever on a quest to take a moment and record it forever in time. Because however long life is, or however short life is, we know we may never get that moment back.”

that we translated into the following symptoms:

Systrom’s Anxiety (SA)

Systrom’s Anxiety is a feel of having to capture and share a moment from the fear of not being able to get to live it again. It happens in situations when one has to decide whether a moment is best enjoyed in the present tense or preserved for posterity online.

We also investigated the emergence of technologies and research that measure social media behaviors. For instance, Michal Kosinsk at Stanford and companies like Apply Magic Sauce API are currently optimizing ways to transform digital footprints into psychological profiles. Our fiction stands 2 or 3 iterations away from that reality. As a result, data scientists at 6andMe use similar algorithms to produce a diagnosis for social media related pathologies. For instance:

The results: 2 weeks after sharing the access to your social media activity, 6andMe sends you by mail a complete diagnosis with levels of concerns on social media related pathologies (e.g. Cloud Syllogomania, Online Tachylalia, Fear of Missing Out, …)
The results: 2 weeks after sharing the access to your social media activity, 6andMe sends you by mail a complete diagnosis with levels of concerns on social media related pathologies (e.g. Cloud Syllogomania, Online Tachylalia, Fear of Missing Out, …)

Cloud Syllogomania (CS)

Like many people, you have a tendency to compulsively hoard documents in the cloud such as photos, music, videos, discussions, emails, or any other data formats. However, when reaching storage limit you fail to organize and discard large numbers data even to the point of causing significant clutter and impairment to basic operation of a software, computer or mobile device. This hoarding behavior is often unwanted, automated by online services and can become distressing.

Online Tachylalia (OT)

You have a tendency to share social content fast, frenetically and very frequently, so frequently that it becomes impossible for your relatives, friends, colleagues and contacts to follow you online. It may be exhibited as frequent streams of rapid posting without prosody leading to online social rejection and disdain.

Profile Schizophrenia (PS)

You suffer from a personality disorder that emerges when losing control of multiple accounts and profiles on social networks. Profile Schizophrenia (PS) becomes latent when you start to notice gaps and inconsistencies between the information that you share online. For instance you might develop different personalities from your life biography on LinkedIn and what you share on Facebook, your World of Warcraft characters and your Twitch videos.

Online Monophobia (OM)

You feel alone in online social networks. You might have relatively too few online contacts and receive low amounts of contact requests, likes, comments, reblogs or retweets. Many people with this fear feel awkward and uncomfortable on social networks. It is related to Online Athazagoraphobia that is fear of forgetting or being forgotten on social networks.

Overshadower Syndrome (OS)

In this form of a judgment disorder your mind blurs the social etiquette of knowing too much about somebody else from the information available on the Web. That behavior often leads to uncomfortable social and cultural situations when too much knowledge on a person is gathered from the extensive use of search engines and social networks.

Storage Claustrophobia (SC)

In moments of bandwidth restrictions, abusive data plans, or limited cloud space you notice an extreme fear and feeling of being confined to the limits of a specific data plan or storage system.

Six Degrees Jealousy (SDJ)

You feel or show envy of an online contact for receiving more attention in the form of “likes”, “comments”, number of contacts or the klout score. Inspired by network theories on six degrees of separation, Six Degrees Jealousy is often a reaction of teenagers to a strong social pressure and fear of not belonging to a community or tribe leading to Online Monophobia (OM).

Find more informal descriptions on 6andMe of: Timeline Myopia (TM), Impulsive Posting Disorder (IPD), Social Media Dependence (SMD), Social Media Overwhelm (SoMO), Sense and Attention Overload (S&AO), Abrupt Online Dropout (AOD), Pocket Check Obsession (PCO), Screen Addiction (SA), Compulsive Screen Absorption (CSA), Stressful Attention Battles (SAB), Online Attention Disorder (OAD), Tagophobia, Compulsive Data Cleaning Disorder (CDCD), Data Loss Meltdown (DLM), Digital Amnesia (DA), Online Athazagoraphobia (OA), Visiobibliophobia, Social Escapism (SE), Online Perseveration (OP), Avataragnosia, etc.

Our Design Fiction and the description of these fictional pathologies do not claim to be medical but are provocations on how connected humans might express their anxieties, obsessions, phobias, stress and other mental burdens in the future.

Takeaways for the present

While working on wonderful technological extensions of human body and mind, designers and data scientists need also to consider the amputations provoked by the experiences and algorithms they introduce into the Global Village. In the the book The Shallows, Nicholas Carr worries that the flood of digital information is changing not only our habits, but even our mental capacities:

Forced to scan and skim to keep up, we are losing our abilities to pay sustained attention, reflect deeply, or remember what we’ve learned.

The inventory of social media related pathologies listed in 6andMe highlights these types of technological implications. The descriptions of FoMO, Systrom’s Anxiety, Six Degrees Jealousy, etc. provide a new source of inspiration and discussion to improve the design and algorithms of any technology that touches humans and extends their social relations.

To build better data products and services, I would argue that most designers and data scientists should be aware of notions such as graphopticon introduced by the like economy and question if the technology they build establish an insatiable ‘desire for more’ or any other type of discomfort. Moreover, they should get inspirations from the techniques social media user develop to strike a greater emotional balance.

Many companies have the data and skills to consider the wanted, unwanted and toxic changes in behaviors their services or products create and amplify. For instance, Facebook introduced the roles of social engineers and a group of trust engineers to make the online world a ‘kinder, gentler place’. In their first approximations they introduced mechanisms for their users to tune the feeling of status update overload.

Currently, only a few apps and platforms promote social media experiences that mitigate the types of discomforts listed in 6andMe. Meshfire is a recent attempt to ‘make social media human again’ or as its CEO puts it in abstract terms:

“If we were to start again with social media — a completely clean slate — we’d like to see real human interaction rather than all the automatic output we witness today.”

Screenshots of Little Voices by Charles Gower
Screenshots of Little Voices by Charles Gower

Another example is the app Little Voices that removes the Tweets that contain images, links and replies from Twitter feeds. As its developer Charles Gower describes it:

“Little Voices is complementary to Twitter, not a replacement. It’s ideal for those who like their feeds slightly quieter.”

Finally, at Near Future Laboratory we have been building Humans as a platform to ‘experience social media at human pace’. Humans offers a way to rationally manage too many contacts and slows down the consumption of status updates, tweets, selfies, photos of all kinds. Its aim is to:

  • Reduce the compulsion to perpetually check for status updates.
  • Keep away from the distractions in social media feeds.
  • Mitigate feelings and symptoms of remorse whilst taking short or long offline breaks.

The Humans landing page.

More on Humans soon!

Culture Interface: digital interfaces and science-fiction

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Back in December 2014, I've been contacted by Ludovic Noël, director of Cité du Design (Saint Etienne, France). He basically asked me whether I'd be interested in being a curator for an exhibit on "interfaces". I immediately said yes and realized it would be a great opportunity to explore the mutual relationships between design (in the context of digital technologies) and science-fiction, quite an important topic for us at the Near Future Laboratory. Here's a translation of the short text I wrote apropos the exhibit:

Minority Report, Back To The Future 2, Avatar, 2001, Iron man, Star Trek… Numerous science-fiction films and series depict technological objects. The interfaces – the ways to control or communicate with machines – are perhaps the most notable example of such phenomenon. So much so that some producers and directors collaborate with designers to improve the quality or the plausibility of these accessories. However, these fictional representations also influence the work of designers and engineers involved in interface design. To overcome the keyboard/mouse duo, virtual reality headsets, neworked gloves, mobile phones, gestural interfaces, smartwatches, and interactive surfaces, to name but a few have been reinvented in the last thirty years. Such examples highlight the fertile relationships between design and science fiction culture. They point out possible directions pursued by interface designers. Returning to the main archetypes of past and interfaces under development, Culture Interface addresses the reciprocal influences between Science Fiction and the design of digital interfaces. Alongside this historical return, the exhibition shows how designers overcame the stereotypes to offer unique creations, which, in turn, renew these great fictional models.

The exhibit, called "Culture Interface: interfaces numériques et science-fiction" opened last month, and it's going to last till Mid-August.

culture-interface2 culture-interface3 culture-interface4 culture-interface5 culture-interface6

From a curatorial perspective, I selected seven "archetypes" which are constantly encountered in science-fiction culture: VR headsets, gestural interfaces, neuro-headsets, augmented reality, vocal interfaces, smartwatches, interactive surfaces. For each, I chose two science-fiction movies (e.g. "Johnny Mnemonic" and "Lawnmower Man" for the VR Headsets), five diagrams coming from patents and a selection of design projects both historical (e.g. the Famicom 3D System and the Virtual Boy) and recent (e.g. Oculus Rift with an intriguing game, Google Cardboard). My guiding principle here would be that these different elements would highlight the dialogue between fiction and design work. Sometimes of course, there are direct connections between fictional work and reality, as represented for example by a short excerpt of Dragonball Z (the infamous "it's over 9000 meme") and Google Glasses (“>9K” is printed on the PCB).

There's also an additional categories that consists in design projects that propose alternative visions to such archetypes: paper-digital hybrids, wood-digital hybrid, networked objects, soft interfaces, etc. Another important decision for me was to mix the different "flavors" of design, ranging from speculative design to projects conducted in big corporations, commercial products versus unique prototypes, projects made by students versus the ones done by agencies or R&D centers, etc. Mixing this with movie excerpts and patent drawings certainly is an intriguing choice but it definitely highlights the proximity between the design decisions at stake in the interfaces shown there.

A tremendous thanks to all the designers, and artists, who accepted to be part of the exhibit, the production and communication team who turned spreadsheets/emails/text files into an exhibit, as well as Ludovic for trusting me on this! Big up to Julian Bleecker, Fabien Girardin and Nic Foster at the Near Future Laboratory for their support and discussions about this.

Culture Interface: digital interfaces and science-fiction

culture-interface1

Back in December 2014, I've been contacted by Ludovic Noël, director of Cité du Design (Saint Etienne, France). He basically asked me whether I'd be interested in being a curator for an exhibit on "interfaces". I immediately said yes and realized it would be a great opportunity to explore the mutual relationships between design (in the context of digital technologies) and science-fiction, quite an important topic for us at the Near Future Laboratory. Here's a translation of the short text I wrote apropos the exhibit:

Minority Report, Back To The Future 2, Avatar, 2001, Iron man, Star Trek… Numerous science-fiction films and series depict technological objects. The interfaces – the ways to control or communicate with machines – are perhaps the most notable example of such phenomenon. So much so that some producers and directors collaborate with designers to improve the quality or the plausibility of these accessories. However, these fictional representations also influence the work of designers and engineers involved in interface design. To overcome the keyboard/mouse duo, virtual reality headsets, neworked gloves, mobile phones, gestural interfaces, smartwatches, and interactive surfaces, to name but a few have been reinvented in the last thirty years. Such examples highlight the fertile relationships between design and science fiction culture. They point out possible directions pursued by interface designers. Returning to the main archetypes of past and interfaces under development, Culture Interface addresses the reciprocal influences between Science Fiction and the design of digital interfaces. Alongside this historical return, the exhibition shows how designers overcame the stereotypes to offer unique creations, which, in turn, renew these great fictional models.

The exhibit, called "Culture Interface: interfaces numériques et science-fiction" opened last month, and it's going to last till Mid-August.

culture-interface2 culture-interface3 culture-interface4 culture-interface5 culture-interface6

From a curatorial perspective, I selected seven "archetypes" which are constantly encountered in science-fiction culture: VR headsets, gestural interfaces, neuro-headsets, augmented reality, vocal interfaces, smartwatches, interactive surfaces. For each, I chose two science-fiction movies (e.g. "Johnny Mnemonic" and "Lawnmower Man" for the VR Headsets), five diagrams coming from patents and a selection of design projects both historical (e.g. the Famicom 3D System and the Virtual Boy) and recent (e.g. Oculus Rift with an intriguing game, Google Cardboard). My guiding principle here would be that these different elements would highlight the dialogue between fiction and design work. Sometimes of course, there are direct connections between fictional work and reality, as represented for example by a short excerpt of Dragonball Z (the infamous "it's over 9000 meme") and Google Glasses (“>9K” is printed on the PCB).

There's also an additional categories that consists in design projects that propose alternative visions to such archetypes: paper-digital hybrids, wood-digital hybrid, networked objects, soft interfaces, etc. Another important decision for me was to mix the different "flavors" of design, ranging from speculative design to projects conducted in big corporations, commercial products versus unique prototypes, projects made by students versus the ones done by agencies or R&D centers, etc. Mixing this with movie excerpts and patent drawings certainly is an intriguing choice but it definitely highlights the proximity between the design decisions at stake in the interfaces shown there.

A tremendous thanks to all the designers, and artists, who accepted to be part of the exhibit, the production and communication team who turned spreadsheets/emails/text files into an exhibit, as well as Ludovic for trusting me on this! Big up to Julian Bleecker, Fabien Girardin and Nic Foster at the Near Future Laboratory for their support and discussions about this.

Creating Fictional Data Products and Their Implications

Creating Fictional Data Products and Their Implications

When conceptualizing a service or product based on data, I first transform visions into a tangible visualization or prototype that anyone in a multi-disciplinary team can feel and understand. Additionally, I generally create Design Fictions that explore possible appropriations of the envisioned data product along its life. Taken together, prototypes and fictions present tangible concepts that help anticipate opportunities and challenges for engineering and user experience before a project gets even founded. These concepts give a clearer direction on what you are planning to build. They are a powerful material to explain the new data product to others and they act as a North Star for a whole team has a shared vision on what they might to want build.

Taken together, prototypes and fictions present tangible concepts that help anticipate opportunities and challenges for engineering and user experience before a project gets even founded.

This is the approach I aimed to communicate last week in a 5-days workshop at HEAD design school in Geneva to an heterogeneous group of students coming from graphic design, engineering, business or art backgrounds.

The syllabus of the 5-days workshop
The syllabus of the 5-days workshop

Part 1: Sketching with Data

Sketching with DataThe first part of the workshop was dedicating to become familiar with the theories and practices related to data science, data visualization, and information design. Along with Julian Jamarillo from Bestiario, we introduced different ways of extracting insights from data and convey a message effectively from the simple result of a collaborative filtering algorithm to the proper use of a map or a chart. The main objective for the students was to acquire a hands-on experience visualizing data and transform them into small stories.

The day of a bike sharing systemFor instance, through the manipulation of a real dataset participants apprehended its multiple dimensions: spatial, temporal, quantitative, qualitative, their objectivity, subjectivity, granularity, etc. It only took a full day of sketching with data with Quadrigram, for participants to start write and tell small stories about crime in San Francisco or mobility in Barcelona. Embedded as a data-driven web page, we motivated students to provide a critical eye on the current hype about big data: What are the limitations? Do they tell a story but not THE story? Consequently, we discussed the notions of trust, quality and integrity of the sources, the ownership of personal data, and the subjectivity in many design decisions to convey a message.

Through the manipulation of a real dataset participants apprehended its multiple dimensions: spatial, temporal, quantitative, qualitative, their objectivity, subjectivity, granularity, etc.

Part 2: Creating implications

Creating implicationsIn the second part of the workshop we projected into the future the datasets and their stories. We started to imagine a future service, product, solution that link data to fashion, entertainment, the environment, social relations, etc. Using an approach called Design Fiction, we encouraged participants to build elements of a possible data product without being too precious or detailed about them. The aim was to spark conversations about the near future of data, check the sanity of visions and uncover hidden perspectives.

A Design Fiction approach to bring a technology to the world starts by anticipating how people could co-evolve with it. Instead of designing for Time 0 (T) when people start using a data product or service, I believe it is important to consider the evolution of the user experience with its frictions, rituals, and behaviors at T+ 1 minute, T+ 1 hour, T+1 day, T+1 week, T+1 month, etc. until the actual end of life of the product (e.g. what happens to my data when I retire my Fitbit into my box of old devises).

The evolution of the user experience
The evolution of the user experience with its frictions, rituals, and behaviors at T+ 1 minute, T+ 1 hour, T+1 day, T+1 week, T+1 month, etc. until the actual end of life of the product. Inspired by Matt Jones’ Jumping to the End talk .

Hence, in our workshop, similar to Amazon’s Working Backward process of service design, we asked students to write first a press release that describes in a simple way what a potential data product does and why it exists. The format of the press release is practical because it is not escapist. It forces to use precise words to describe a thing and its ecosystem (e.g. who built it, who uses it, what does it complement, what is it built with?).

Writing a fictional press release forces to use precise words to describe a thing and its ecosystem. Quite naturally it leads to listing Frequently Asked Questions with the banal yet key elements that define what the data product is good for.

With the press release in hands, the next exercise consisted in “cross-pitching” their concepts for 2 minutes to each other. Quite naturally, from the questions that came up during the exchange some participants started to list the Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ). The FAQ includes the banal yet key elements that define what the data product is good for. That exercise forced participants to consider the different situations and frictions users could have along the life of a product.

As the concepts clarified, we sketched storyboards of use cases and mocked up interfaces that described in more details the user experience with the product. Finally, each embryonic concepts of data product became alive with the production of a piece of design fiction.

Creating implicationsIn Design Fiction, we use cheap and quick content production material (e.g. video, data visualization, print, interface mockups, …) to make things (e.g. diegetic prototypes) as if they were real. For instance, one student project took the form of the user manual of a smart jacket that shows how a customer should use it, what personal data are exploited, how the information is revealed.

This type of exploration serves to design-develop prototypes and shape in order to discard them, make them better, or reconsider what we may take for granted today. It served at considering the data product and its implications. The Design Fictions act as a totem for discussion and evaluation of changes that could bend visions and trajectories. They are some sort of “boundary objects” that allow heterogeneous groups of participants to understand with a common language the exploitation of data and their instantiation into a product or service.

Some of the created and discussed implications include the Fashion Skin jacket that explore through a user manual the affordance of smart clothes and how people might interact with contextual information. The press release says:

The Fashion’Skin, with its unique sensing and adaptive fabric, is a revolution in the fashion and the smart clothing landscapes. It is always accorded to the people’s feelings, the weather, or the situation, without compromise. The fabric can change its color, its texture and its form.

Others looked at the data intake rituals of the near future and the hegemony of mean-well technologies with Noledge a data patch that transfer knowledge on languages directly into your brain. Here is its unboxing video.

Almost all groups looked at the virtues and pitfall of feedback loops. For instance Real Tennis Evo for the Wiii that models data generated with Wilson-Sony rackets into simulations of one-self. The game cover advertises that “you can improve your skills by playing against your real self at home”.

Real Tennis Evo
The next generation mixed reality tennis experience: Real Tennis Evo.

Data visualizations help extract insights, and prototypes force to consider the practical uses of those insights. Design fictions put prototypes and visualization in the context of the everyday life.

Take aways

Data visualizations, prototypes and design fiction are ‘tools’ to experiment with data and project concepts into potential futures. They help uncover the unknown unknowns, the hidden opportunities and unexpected challenges.

Data visualizations help extract insights, and prototypes force to consider the practical uses of those insights. Design fictions put prototypes and visualization in the context of the everyday life. They help form a concept and evaluate its implications. The approach works well for abstract concepts because it forces you to work backward and explore the artifacts or the byproducts linked to your vision (e.g. a user manual, an advertisement, a press release, a negative customer review …). Eventually the approach encourages considering the ecosystem affected by the presence of a data product: What do people do with it over time? Where are the technical, social, legal boundaries?

Thanks to Daniel Sciboz and Nicolas Nova for the invitation, Julian Jamarillo and Bestiario to share their practice and Quadrigram and the students of HEAD and HEG for their creativity, energy and capacity to leave their comfort zone in design, engineering, business and art.