Weekending 12062012

Nicolas: last week was quiet because of May 1st but I spent few days on different things. First, I worked on preparing a wall of game controllers with Laurent Bolli for a summer exhibit at mudac in Lausanne. Since the collection of official gamepads are already in Yverdon, we’re going to show the ones that reveal various aspect of interface evolution: personification (a pad with the shape of a game character), miniaturization (small pads), hybridization (the merging of a pad and a keyboard, etc.).

I also prepared the summer project at Art Center in Pasadena, discussing with potential interns there over Skype. The idea is to work on gestures and rituals in the 21st Century:

Teaching design ethnography and conducting various projects in this area, I am interested in how people use artifacts (digital or not). Especially given that it helps framing the design space, find some inspiration and understand people’s needs. But I am also fascinated by how exploring human practices can be a way to speculate about the future, in order to create design fictions.

This project is about gestures and digital rituals that typically emerged in the 21st Century : gestures such as recalibrating your smartphone doing an horizontal 8 sign with your hand, the swiping of wallet with RFID cards in public transports, etc. These practices can be seen as the results of a co-construction between technical/physical constraints, contextual variables, designers intents and people’s understanding. I see them as a very intriguing focus of interest to envision the future of material culture.

The aim of the project will be to envision the future of gestures and rituals based on:
1. A documentation of existing “new” gestures
2. The making of design fictions that speculate about their evolution

(“The Boat Of Love: Playing Disaster”, Franco Brambilla)

Finally, I went to Paris for a design jury at ENSCI and visited an interesting exhibit about steampunk and “yesterday’s tomorrows”.

Me? In Los Angeles? *shrug. Well – a bit of organizing of things for the Detroit Design Summit this fall. I’ve slowed down on the Ear Freshener for the time being as the Marshall Stack project’s first most refined prototype (of three different types of prototype) is completed and sent off to some folks. I wish I could say more about it — but, I will sometime later. There’s lots of good insights and experiences learned from that project.

But, on the other hand — I’ve been getting back into programming stuff, which has been torturous and fun, but mostly fun.

Also, some planning for a couple of talks and workshops coming up over the next couple of months. I want to try some workshopping techniques that Nick and I had planned for a team here — but that workshop got postponed. They are some fun but I think highly evocative approaches to designing new, disruptive things.

Here in Barcelona, we celebrated the release of Quadrigram, “The visual programming environment to gather, shape, and share living data” created in collaboration with our friends at Bestiario. The 8-months journey from shaping a software product to shipping it has been particularly gratifying. Aters years in academia and then consulting, it is a territory I wanted to discover, learning and applying new methodologies to create both from technological and user experience stand points. I will probably need to write a post-mortem to properly debrief the adventure. Expect to hear more on the subject in the upcoming weeks.

Moon Graffiti

Of course, because we’re doing audio design and audio projects around here, I’m excited about most any audio thing that’s a new thing. I mean..I bought a whole iPod Shuffle just so I could try out (and try to make) Music for Shuffle sorts of things. That seems to be a wonderful design brief. (I’m not at all sure what “music for shuffle” means, but that’s the fun bits..to figure that out.)

Anyway — I just found out this wonderful new contemporary radio drama that is just way more thoughtful and way better than fucking stoopid Prairie Home Companion. GOD i hate that radio show. I can’t turn the radio off quickly enough when that stoopid theme song starts playing.

The new *good thing? It’s called “The Truth”, and it’s not — it’s fiction. Slightly swerved, curved moments. Their lovely tagline is “Movies for your Ear” which is brilliant. Cause it’s theatrical, brief little moments. Very contemporary moments. I just listened to my first bit of Design Fiction Radio Drama in that sense. It’s called “Moon Graffiti” and it’s the other lunar landing story — the one where the astronauts — Buzz and Neil — are stranded. And that generally known William Safire letter In Event of Moon Disaster has to be read by President Nixon.

It’s a project by Jonathan Mitchell and his posse of actors, producers, engineers, etc.

I want to be a part of it. I want to help produce these things and make them and craft them and work on them. Can anyone help me do that?

In this sense it falls in line with my other, other favorite bit of Apollo Era Design Fiction, Tom Sachs’ “Space Program”.

It’s Design Fiction..and it’s radio drama. Brilliant.

Weekending 15042012

For me in Los Angeles, I spent the week debugging the Ear Freshener project and designing a new circuit board. More about that in a subsequent post. There was general following-alongs on the #NewAesthetic developments — mostly to say that it’d be nice to not over-theorize a thing that is basically a result of living the Algorithmic Life. But, it’s good therapy to say it so, to have some awareness and set of observational tools to document and capture these things, like this weird rabbit I saw in the Sacramento Airport on my way back from the Gaming the Game conference.

And that was the other thing I did last week. Thursday and Friday I was at UC Davis at this conference. It was quite good fun. Unfortunately, I missed Tim Lenoir’s keynote, but I did get to catch Mackenzie Wark talking about the cultural and political implications of the strategic elements of Debord’s Game of War (and Alex Galloway’s controversial digital edition of Game of War). Also, Tad Hirsch was there and mentioned his Trip Wire project, which I first saw at the Zero One conference in 2006. It’s one of my favorite, favorite “art technology” projects. I still think it’s a weak signal for a future of meaningful Objects that Blog (which was consistent with 2006 sensibilities — now, maybe it’s Objects that Tweet or something, such as Superball by Stamen.) It’s also, I was reminded, an audio project in that the coconuts phoned a hotline for noise complaints and then spoke. Embarrassingly, I had never heard the actual audio that was delivered in these phone messages — Tad played them and I now see that they are plainly on the project’s web site.

On the European front, I (Nicolas) spent the last week actually not in Geneva but in South of France for a mix of vacation and heavy writing. It’s good to have finally some time to focus 100% on the game controller book project. More specifically, I spent most the week researching and writing about the early instances of video game controllers that paved the way for the arrival of joypads. Our point is of course not to tell the whole history of video game but since we want to show how looking at the joypad is a good way to understand this culture, it’s important to spend some time on it. And naturally, it lead me to write about switches, knobs, dials, old-school joysticks from the beginning of the 20th Century and oscilloscope. The point is to show the different lineages, how they disappear or recombine over time. This chapter’s almost done. The difficult thing is to be accurate and try not to focus only on facts and observations since we think it’s important to discuss the implications.

Back to Geneva, I spent last Friday teaching in a design school in Annecy (France). A mix of lectures and workshop activities, the idea was to show various foresight-related approaches.

Here in Barcelona, we are approaching the release of version 1.0 of Quadrigram. I completed the list of approx. 350 modules that made the final cut and have started to plan the road map for the release cycle of the application. Arrange all the elements of a programming language is daunting task at times, but I hope people will enjoy the coherence of this first set of modules. They are categorized into five distinct Libraries. Each Library groups modules according to their purpose in developing a solution (e.g. load, manipulate, analyze, convert, filter and visualize your data). We setup a javadoc-style Language Reference web site that documents the structures of all the modules.

Quadrigram Language Reference

Incongruous Connector // Audio Electronics

Upstairs in the electronics bay, where I’ve been happily spending more and more time, I decided that the thing to do to make it more studio-like, rather than submerged rabbit warren-like, was to put fun things in there, like music and a hidden bag of reward chips. Make it easy to plop down in a chair without fussing with — oh, forgot my power cable, or..oh..no network cables, or..oh..IT hasn’t put any network up here at all..that won’t do. How will I listen to my Rdio or check a specification sheet, or order some parts right as you realize you’ve run out.

Anyway — so..we went to the local crapshoot Fry’s shop down the road and I got a big box that looked like it had speakers in it, which it did. Happy to report that there is now music up here. And, shocked to find this enormously ridiculous cable/connector that tethers one of the left/right channel speakers to the woob-woob bass box speaker. It’s properly a VGA style connector, I’m pretty sure. And it’s big, heavy, reticent, snaky, uncharming and — even if all those signals are doing something — ridiculously much and ridiculously overengineered. I’m sure someone got a good deal on them in a bulk quantity of 150,000 for the run of yet *another quite mediocre PC/gaming audio speaker set. And it works fine.

Many things work fine without any attention to the details of the way they convey themselves in the world. This is like the wobbly-squeaky wheel on the hotel valets cart. The cart does it’s job without complaint and does a fine job, it does. But that squeaky-wobbly wheel sure is a distraction. Makes you wonder when someone will sort it out.

Why do I blog this? Seeing such an over-engineered bit makes me wonder how it even got approved. Or is it one of those things where the engineering (this looks like engineering in the instrumental sense) met the requirements of the specification with minimal cost, minimal finesse and the least amount of hassle. Looks like vendor work rather than someone committed to doing the best they can.
Continue reading Incongruous Connector // Audio Electronics

Weekending 03112012

All Nicolas has time to say is, “A quick trip to Montpellier for a workshop about locative media.” Well..maybe he’ll add more when he lands in Geneva, immediately goes to teach a class and then (tries) to get on our monthly Design Fiction teleco.

So, in the meantime, Julian will fill in:

From Austin Texas, Nicolas and Julian put together a panel for SxSW called “Mind and Consciousness as User Interface” for the interactive component of the event. What we wanted to do was show the cultural and technical trajectory and pre-history of this idea that we can control aspects of the world with our mind. But we wanted to share more than just contemporary ideas around this and definitely more than just the technology. Rather, there was an emphasis on the agelessness of this diea that one can exert one’s will to effect the world through thought. From the spiritual, to things like Reiki and Jedi Mind Tricks and global consciousness movements and human potential movements and the emphasis on the hubris of this — that *my thoughts and will can make the world change — this is a very human and somewhat desperate aspiration that we have. We did not want to under emphasize this important cultural and historial element of all the weird monkey-controls-robot-arm experiments. These are subsets of a rather troubling desire to control things. So — there’s that. And besides, Nicolas showed some fantastic imagery of brains with wires, while Julian recounted the cultural record of these things through some important science fiction films such as Brainstorm, Star Wars (“..these are not the droids you are looking for..” & “release him Vader!”), Surrogates and Black Mirror.

Scientific American had a nice little write up about the brain control panel.

Julian was in Los Angeles for a few days last week after the fun Design Fiction event in Tempe. But, while in Los Angeles, there was continuing work — ranging from slight panic, to great triumph — for the Project Audio design effort I’m calling Marshall Stack. Hardware is meant to be done by the end of *this week, which is fantastic considering its a six week project and the hardware guys started basically two weeks ago. Once we get the hardware in hand in the model shop — that’ll be a tiny little ARM-based board with a number of wires dangling off of it leading to switches and antenna — there’ll be much hand work to CNC the compliment to that hardware as proper industrial design. That’ll take another two weeks, I reckon. Handwork and all..

That photo? That’s the Slavinator/Slavinbot/Slavin Head used by the New Aesthetic panel to represent Slavin..who was not in attendane but meant to be. It was weird. And so was the panel, in a weird, super-awesome, lovely-to-see-and-think-about-things-this-way sort of way. It was an *awesome anecdote to the otherwise rough, only-partially-inspiring, over-whelming, too-many-people-trying-to-give-me-free-beer-to-pitch-their-wares kind of experience. This’ll be the last time for quite some time, I suspect. I may focus on smaller, lightly curated gatherings rather than the #everyone-come-and-do-stoopid-stuff-they-think-is-creative-like-have-homeless-people-wifi-hotspots-as-if-that-could-ever-be-a-good-idea.


Continue reading Weekending 03112012

Weekending 03032012

In Switzerland, after an hectic week with Lift12, Nicolas went back to design workshops with students. Last Monday and Tuesday, he gave a course in interaction design at the Geneva University of Arts and Design and supervised the last details of the Urban Games project with Etienne Mineur and Daniel Sciboz. The workshop, which started last fall, is now completed with eight videos that are going to be shown at the Playtime exhibit. They describe different scenarios for location-based games using the city as a game board, we’ll try to show them on this blog as soon as it can be made public. Overall, this workshop was meant to explore different game mechanics at the city level and how to go beyond existing archetypes in this domain.

Also, the very same exhibit will feature the game controller collection and Nicolas and Laurent Bolli had to check the final arrangements for the pads to be shown. The piece will consist in a big cabinet with 42 joypads (41 actually since the Kinect doesn’t have anything) to describe the iterative evolution of game pads over time. This portion of the collection will be part of a section called “Bodies and Minds”:

“game pads have been the traditional interface between the player and the avatar, the thread that entangles both bodies. In recent years, though, both the video game industry and independent artists and researchers have presented new innovative ways to strengthen the role of the body in game interaction. From Nintendo’s Wii and Microsoft’s Kinect to more experimental corporal interfaces that play with notions of control and even pain, the future of game interaction will, no doubt, involve our flesh and skin in unexpected ways.”

At the end of the week, he went to Lugano (the swiss-italian part of Switzerland) for a talk about user research in design and to discuss potential workshops in this interaction design program.

Last week Julian spent a bit of time running the Marshall Stack project, which meant lots of semi-hands-on/semi-hands-off tasks. In the studio a very lovely little film was made to help communicate the project. As these things go, it wound help helping the core DRI’s for the project as well as those who are outside of it or just coming in from the outside and have no clue as to what we were doing. This is one direct area where Design Fiction film serves an extraordinarily useful role — it helps communicate in a way that words and discussions often cannot, or can once someone has seen the experience in a little film. It’s been very useful and well-worth spending about three-quarters of a day to produce. I’m excited about the development pace of Marshall Stack. The distance between the decision to do it, actually starting it formally, and our deadline has been aggressive — especially starting and the goal line. There’s something about the project and the way it is framed and the constraints put upon it to get to the core part of the UX — to focus ruthlessly on that core — that has some lessons to be shared post-launch. As well as some general observations about the nature of working on a rapid development project with a small team, where people sit, and how the collaboration unfolds that I’m looking forward to sharing when we’ve finished this up. I’m deliberately being mindful of the activities within the project and taking lots of notes so as to better produce a story about how you do this sort of advanced designing. I think that the core of the story will be about advancing design and not only the material design things we did along the way. Marshall Stack is one of those projects that has lessons both within and outside of it. By that I mean that it is attempting to advance what an organization does, but do so by doing the advanced, unexpected, weird things — but those things are actually viable things, not just exercises or substitutes for an unknown future-disruptive thing like a Lego brick or the generic stand-in, “the widget.”


Later in the week, I went on a one-day trip to San Diego to scope out some heavy equipment for the model shop — specifically for the electronics bay. We’re looking at Pick-n-Place machines so we can rev-up the rapid in rapid prototyping. (Now, it’s a daunting task to populate boards with SMT components that like to fly away and requires hours and hours of uninterrupted time to accomplish. The hours-and-hours is the operative term and right now I’m the only electronics guy.) A pick-n-place machine could be just the thing to make that job take on the order of tens of minutes rather than many hours/entire days — even for small numbers of multiple boards. (And we got a weird book — doesn’t matter but it’s called “Shatner Rules” — signed by Mr. Shatner himself..a perk of the APEX 2012 Electronics Manufacturing Trade Show!) Now if we can just figure out where this new robot will go in the already crowded shop..

At the end of the week, Julian and Nick (not Nicolas) met in Tempe Arizona outside of Phoenix. We were there to run a workshop on Design Fiction where we aspired to make a few little vignette-y films about the near future of the corner convenience store. This of course was based on the observation that many great innovations over the course of human history find their way into your corner convenience store — fire, aspirin, for example. Our question for the Emerge event was to project that observation into the future when all great things no matter how fancy or expensive originally, wind up with the net present value of 99¢ or 3 for $1.

Up North, Fabien went to San Francisco for a talk at Strata, the O’Reilly conference about big data and “building a data-driven”. He presented several projects conducted by the Laboratory and then took off for Maui for a well-deserved break.

Weekending 26022012

Over here in Geneva, the Laboratory was involved in the Lift 12 conference with various activities. Fabien attended the event and Nicolas is part of the editorial team and, as such, he took care of one third of the keynotes presentations with sessions about games, stories, mobile and near futures. He also organized three workshops, one about networked data (with Interactive Things), one about location-based games (with Mathieu Castelli) and another one about foresight methodologies (with Justin Pickard and Anab Jain from Superflux). The week was therefore very active and it was a great event overall. Lots of encounters with good people, new ideas and existing memes (it’s now time to digest all of those).

Saturday was then devoted to a sort of pilgrimage at CERN with Lift12 speakers.

Well, here in Los Angeles we mostly were working on, oh — let’s call it Marshall Stack. It’s a Project. It’s another project along with Ear Freshener that belongs to the Project Audio Suite. It was some very pragmatic, tactical bits of work that we were doing which meant corralling the team, especially the instrumental implementors — the engineers. It also meant writing up a UX specification but doing it in a non-tedious but very clear way. No boxes and arrows. It’s narrative. It’s more a story than flow chart, which I like. My hope is that it engages people in a way that a story does, rather than making people’s eyeballs glaze over and close as a flow chart or wireframe potentially can do. There was some good, very promising engagement with the technology team who come across as confident and certainly capable. But there’s always that nagging concern that comes from a twinge of engineers’ over-confidence. When idioms like “we can just smash this”, “correct me if i’m wrong — but this smells like just a weekend project” — a little bell goes off in my head that is a mix of “great! this’ll go smooth” and “hold on..but *how and which weekend are we going to smash it?”

Part of the job of creative lead in this case is, I think, to run ahead of that end of things as, at this point — it’s the known unknown. Meaning — there isn’t certainty as to how to implement this although it is definitely possible — we’re not trying to get to Mars or make a cold fusion reactor in a mayonnaise jar. This is entirely doable. It’s now time (4 weeks), enthusiasm and motivation and quite a bit of good, engaging story telling that will put a lovely frame around the experience.

I’m doing some detailed logging of the evolution of Marshall Stack because I think there are some good procedural lessons in the project. The bump and shove of a project and where things get lost and where new things get found. The evolution of things from initial aspiration to a sudden simplification; how different aspects of a project get culled in the interests of expediency. Ways of communicating and sharing and discovering new facets of a concept. Etc. We’ll see. It’ll make for a good postmortem narrative, or whatever you’d call it.
Continue reading Weekending 26022012

Weekending 12022012

This week in Barcelona started with the pleasure of having Quadrigram making the cut of the finalist of the Strata 2012 Startup Showcase. The tool is a couple of weeks away from seeing the light and the teaser video is now online. At Strata, I will present the tool with my friends at Bestiario right after my session on Sketching with Data.

On the invitation of Claro Partners to present the lab, I took the opportunity to present my experience working with network data, particularly focusing on the methods we employ to help innovate in the domain of ‘big’ data. Have a look at the slide deck: it starts with a reference to Napoléon Bonaparte ‘Un bon croquis vaut mieux qu’un long discours’, goes through the uses of sketches as part of any creative work exemplified by Le Corbusier, and concludes with Picasso and the art of sketching.

Okay. What else? In Los Angeles, we used a solder paste stencil for the first time. Impressed. Good stuff. Definitely worth $25-$50. You can tell in this video I haven’t used solder paste in awhile..I forgot to put the proper hot, hot air on so I’m basically just blowing balmy air on the board. More practice, again. I have to say, the stencil is definitely a time saver. Although, I’m still going to get a big-ass pick ‘n place machine cause that’d make it even faster to get boards done. ((That’s EarFreshener up in that video, by the way.))

Nicolas came to town on Saturday and Sunday we went to the crazy flea market at the Pasadena Coliseum, home of the Rose Bowl. We found weird things and Nicolas found a fantastic mint-condition Polaroid in its crushed red velvet case. Lucky old salt. Prior to that, his week was focused on both phone call with Lift12 speakers and the final presentation for the head-mounted display project, which went fairly well. Results from this field study are kind of secrets so far but there will eventually be a publication about that.

Weekending 05022012

In Geneva, where the cold winter is striking back, the week had been, for once!, very quiet with data analysis (head-mounted display project) and book writing (game controllers!). We’re also preparing two workshops for the upcoming Lift12 conference. The first one is about location-based games organized with Mathieu Castelli, who used to be the founder of New Game, a pionneer in this domain (they released Mogi, one of the first commercial LBG). The session will consist in a series of group activity based on Meatspace Invasion, a location-based game recently developed by C4M and Mekensleep. After a quick introduction about these, we will form groups who will test different combinations of game parameters. We will then go on the field in Geneva to test these scenarios and regroup after the game session to debrief the outcomes. The second workshop is organized with the friends from Superflux (Anab Jain and Justin Pickard). It’s called “Foresight suprise” and as the name indicates, I won’t tell much about it except that it’s going to be about futures and futurescaping.

Hi. It’s Julian. In Los Angeles last week we got back the PCBs for Ear Freshener. One thing that was wrong is I mucked up the holes for the little audio card that plops onto the controller card. It won’t go all the way through, but it’s fine for testing. I’ll also be trying out these PCB stencils for the solder paste process The entire week was devoted to audio design and prototyping and team wrangling, I’d say. Nick Foster was in the studio for the last few days of the week so we had time for planning the project, eating tacos, working on the future of the whoopie cushion and the like.

It was actually a bit of an existential week for the audio project insofar as I had to figure out what the fuck was up with a bit of anxiety I felt during the previous weekend’s bike ride. I don’t like anxiety on bike rides. It was best summed up as a consideration as to new team configurations and advanced design team best practices. The conclusion? In this particular Advanced Design team a few things happen. First, we are asked to put eyes on an existing project and help make it better than it would’ve been were it not possible to have an experienced team of thoughtful designers who are comfortable working in an unstructured. We are asked to work on new, emerging things that are being done in a traditional structured way. And we are expected to come up with new things. I’ve come to the conclusion that we treat the “asks” — the things that come from outside — with more urgency than the latter projects — the things where we’re expected to come up with new things. It seems that we respond to the “battle stations” klaxon as if it matters more than the things we believe in first. Those things disappear into the closet and desk drawers. Which felt a bit like self-loathing in a really horrid way. Like — when someone *else says jump, we jump. When we believe in something enough to jump, we sorta *shrug. Or put it to the side when a “client” asks for something from us, *even *when *we *don’t *believe in it.

(Although, have to say — not believing in something someone else is doing is often a great opportunity to collaborate to make it better and believable. Not to be too normative about it, but there are plenty of things that seem like lovely fancy door knobs with awesome new mechanics and latching technologies that someone will bring to us and basically ask — what sorta house do you think this should go on? And the problem is that the door knob was thought of without really thinking about either the house..or the people who might have to use the door knob and, pray — live in the house. That’s the curse of the technologists and accountants/business people and the opportunity for more collaboration with design from the get-go.)

I hope to correct this through the audio project because otherwise — what’s the point?

So, I’m treating this quite as if someone from somewhere else came down and “made” the team get to work. Which effectively they did. The team will consist of folks who can commit the majority of their time to the project — it’ll run short and sharp and be quite deliberate. Sorta no nonsense; no whining. Polite..but ruthless.

This week in Barcelona has been almost exclusively dedicated to Quadrigram performing some interface polishing and documentation tweaking with the help of Tim Stutts and Brava Büro. In the backstage, the pipes and wires are gently coming into place with some mind blowing resulting reaching the frontiers ‘Quine computing‘. All this will make sense in the near future.

I also took some time to step back and order my thoughts for an upcoming talk at Strata that will focus on our approaches and tools to work with network data. This week, I will test and rehearse a first iteration responding to the invitation to our friends at Claro Partners.

I will use our study hyper-congestion at the Louvre as one case study. A work that was actually featured yesterday in the newspaper El Periodico as a consequence of Yuji presenting some results in Sweden last week.

Finally, our measures of mobile phone network activity in Geneva have led to some beautiful visualizations and animations produced by Interactive Things. Keep your eyes wide open if you happen to stroll around the Geneva main train station during Lift12.

The iPod Time Capsule – Notes on Listening + Time + Design of Things That Make Sound

Over the week’s end I was in the back studio tearing down and rebuilding the wall of photos for the Hello, Skater Girl “side” book project. I was tasked with this particular endeavor by the guy I hired to do the book design. I knew I’d have to do it all along which is why I had put up sound board many, many months ago.

It was going to be an all-afternoon-into-the-evening effort, which is fine. Making a book is hard fun work. I needed music but I didn’t want to suffer the tyranny of choosing or even curating a list of things. I just wanted music to come out of the stereo.

And then I remembered — I have my old dear friend’s ancient 2004 iPod. She gave it to me when she upgraded and I’ve never even looked at it. It’s just followed me around from city to city and house to house. There it was.

I plugged it in and it booted up just fine. And then I just pressed play and got to work.

It was a sea of past era music. Not super past — early 2000s. Perfectly fine. Some songs I may not have chosen. Some songs I didn’t know. Whatever. It was somewhat enthralling to realize I was listening to a frozen epoch of sound, incapsulated in this old touch wheel iPod. I sorta wish I had my original iPod. As it is, I still use my 80gb model, although that’s becoming a bit obsolete as a device in this era of having all-the-music-in-the-world-in-the-palm-of-your-cloud-connected-device.

I find it a bit incredible that this thing still works. I mean, it’s a hard drive with a little insect brain — so there aren’t firmware drivers to suffer incompatibilities with a future it was never destined for. Even though it has become obsolete in the consumer electronics meaning of obsolete — it can still work and sound just comes out of it the way an audio device should function.

That’s significant as a principle of audio and sound things, so I’ll say it again sound just comes out of it — and it does. The old trusty 3.5mm jack delivers amplitude modulated signaling in a way that is as dumb as door knobs — and that is as it should be. Not every signal should or needs to be “smart”..just like every refrigerator need not be smart. It’s back to basics for very good reason, I would say. (Parenthetically, I’ve been assaying a fancy new mixed-signal oscilloscope which can take an optional module to specially handle audio signaling — there are audio processing…)

What’s the future of that for the collective of things? How many things will work beyond their time? What are the things that won’t need an epic support system of interfaces, data, connectivity to *just work* after their time in the light? What of the cloud? When it breaks, grows old, has an epic failure that makes us all wonder what the fuck we were thinking to put everything in there — will my music stop coming out of my little boxes?

As I pinned up lots of little photos and every once and again checked the iPod to see what was playing, I thought about some stuff related to the design of audio and design of things that make sound.

iPods and music players generally are great single-purpose devices from the perspective of their being time capsules of what one once listened to. You’ll recall the role the iPod played in the apocalyptic tale “The Book of Eli” — it becomes a retreat to a past life for the the messianic title character. And despite the end of the world (again) the device will still work with a set of headphones the (potentially unfortunate) propriety dock connection and means to charge it through that dock connection. Quite nice for it to show up as a bit of near future design fiction.

What will happen to the list of music, which already seems to be a bit of a throw-back to hit parades and top 100s sorts of thigns. Those are relics from the creaky, anemic, shivering-with-palsy, octogenarian music industry which gave you one way to listen and one thing to listen to — broadcast from the top down through terrestrial radio stations that you could listen to at the cost of suffering through advertisements.

Now music (in particular, lets just focus ont that) comes from all over the place, which is both enthralling and enervating. Where do you find it? Who gets it to you and how? How do you find what you don’t even know is out there? Are there other discovery mechanisms to be discovered? Is this “Genius” thing an algorithmic means of finding new stuff — and who’s in charge of that algorithm? Some sort of Casey Kasem AI bot? Or the near future version of a record play graft scam? Or do we tune by what we like to listen to?

And despite the prodigious amount of music on this flash-frozen iPod from some years ago — now kids are growing up in a world in which many orders of magnitude *more music is available to them just by thinking about it..almost. It’s all out there. Hype Machine, Spotify, Last.fm, Rdio, Soundcloud..in a way YouTube — new music players and browsers like Tomahawk, Clementine — whatever. These new systems, services, MVC apps or whatever you want to call them — they are working under the assumption that all the music that is out there is available to you, either free if you’re feeling pirate-y or for a 1st world category “small fee” if you want to cover your ass (although probably still mug the musicians.) The licensing guys must be the last one’s over the side on this capsizing industry.

Listening rituals must be evolving as well, I’d guess. Doing a photography book about girl skaterboarders means that you end up hanging out with girl skateboarders and you end up observing what and how they listen to music. What I’ve noticed is that they do lots of flipping-through. They’ll listen to the hook and then maybe back it up and play it again. And then find another song. It’s almost excruciating if it weren’t an observation worth holding onto. I wonder — will a corner of music evolve to nothing but hooks?

Spotify Box project on IxDA awards thing is interesting to consider. I love the way the box becomes the thing that sound just comes out of. And the interaction ritual of having physical playlists in those little discs is cute. The graduate student puppy love affair with Dieter Rams is sweet in an “aaaahhh..I remember when..” sorta way. It’s a fantastic nod to the traditions and principles of music. And the little discs — well, to complete the picture maybe they should be more evocative of those 45 RPM adapters some of you will remember — and certainly plenty of 23 year old boys with tartan lumber jack flannels and full-beards are discovering somewhere in Williamsburg or Shoreditch or Silver Lake. They’ll love the boo-bee-boo sound track that the project video documentation comes with. Great stuff. Lovely appearance model. For interaction design superlativeness — there’s some good work yet to be done.

Okay. So…what?

It is interesting though to think of the evolution of things that make sound. And I suppose there’s no point here other than an observation that lists are dying. I feel a bit of the tyranny of the cloud’s infinity. If I can listen to *anything and after I’ve retreated to my old era favorites — now what? The discovery mechanisms are exciting to consider and there’s quite a bit of work yet to be done to find the ways to find new music. It definitely used to be a less daunting task — you’d basically check out Rolling Stone or listen to the local college radio. Now? *Pfft. If you’re not an over eager audiophile and have lots of other things to do — you can maybe glance around to see what friends are listening to; you could do the “Artist Radio” thing, which is fine; you could listen to “artist that are like” the one you are listening to. Basically — you can click lots of buttons on a screen. To listen to new music, you can click lots of buttons on screen. And occasionally CTRL RIGHT-CLICK.


In an upcoming post on the design of things that make sound, we’ll have a look at the interaction design languages for things that make sound.

Before so, I’d say that clicking on screens and scrolling through linear lists have become physically and mentally exhausting. Just whipping the lovely-and-disruptive-at-the-time track wheel on an old iPod seems positively archaic as names just scrolled by forever. The track wheel changed everything and made the list reasonable as a queue and selection mechanism.

But, can you imagine scrolling through *everything that you can listen to today? What’s the future of the linear list of music? And how do we pick what we play? What are the parametric and algorithmic interaction idioms besides up and down in an alphabetically sorted list of everything?

Good stuff to chew on.

More later.

Why do I blog this? Considerations to ponder on the near future evolution of things that make sound and play music in an era in which the scale of what is available has reached the asymptotic point of “everything.” What are the implications for interface and interaction design? What is the future of the playlist? And how can sound things keep making sound even after the IEEE-4095a standard has become obsolete. (Short answer — the 3.5mm plug.)

Continue reading The iPod Time Capsule – Notes on Listening + Time + Design of Things That Make Sound