Really the Fake: Derived, Diacritic'd, Differenced Things

Thursday February 04, 07.00.26

A Wii Mote and a Wii ‘KLIK-on’ Candy Dispenser which uses the ‘B’ trigger control to dispense little candy pills.

Wednesday February 03 13:42

Something Tom Clancy — the guy who writes worlds he wishes he inhabited, which is always a good motivation for a riveting tale — and something written by someone who can write like Tom Clancy, but doesn’t have the surname value share but can participate in the *Branded story world owned/possessed by Tom Clancy…all signaled by the diacritic there — the apostrophe.

Thursday February 04, 06.57.14

The enormously popular video game Call of Duty 4…and a DVD about the *real-world sticky situations the kinds of people — Delta, SEALS, mercenaries, Blackwater/Xe, Rangers, Special Ops guys — Call of Duty 4 simulates, all done up in a DVD case that clearly signals in its visual design the simulation game.

A trio of things found over time that came together in their pattern of derived associations. I’m sure these were done in a pragmatic fit of trying to get some uptake by resonating with existing things/objects/markets and so on. Pretty standard stuff, with the Wii and the Call of Duty thing being the more dodgy instances. The apostrophe’d Tom Clancy business was certainly a planned business franchising effort, along with all the other *Tom Clancy Presents sort of derivatives, like video games and bomber pilot jackets and aviator style sunglasses, all designed to inhabit the personas and worlds authored by Tom Clancy’s genre of mil-intel-tech fiction. (And probably inhabited by those least likely to actually have the extra bit of *umph to *actually participate in such worlds.)

Why do I blog this? These patterns of reproduction, derivation and so on are intriguing. Perhaps less so from the pragmatic, business perspective — like, the cringe I sometimes feel when one thing is clearly done so as to participate in the swirl of interest that a canonical, market-making product/idea/service/new-interaction-ritual. Which comes first, what does this kind of priority really matter or even mean? When does *doing it right trump *doing it first? And, anyway — what are the measures of *doing it right? Most sales? Most uptake? Beautiful to use? I’m thinking of things other than candy dispensers, story franchises and FPS’s, of course.

You know, like — *touch quite clearly forced everyone to talk/make/market *touch devices in such a knee-jerk way it was embarrassing to watch (and participate in, I suppose) quite frankly. The same thing is happening with *Moleskine-sized pad/slate/tablet things. There will be lots of things that signal a new kind of computing (*casual, *livingroom, *sofa) and we’ll call them (with a rueful, dubious look in the direction of the naming guys) *Pad’s, which will be like calling a box of generic brand tissues you buy from your corner drugstore — Kleenex.

The point here but the ways in which variants, originals, mix-matched and mismatched continuations of *something circulate, imbricate, overlap and so on — this I find intriguing. I guess it’s less about what is real, original, fake or a morph — more about these physical, material metaphor of continuity and perpetuation and derivation.

At the end of the end of the day, does it matter *who put the wheels on luggage? Or does it matter, in a make-the-world-a-more-habitable-place kind of way — that someone mustered the resources/people/alliances to put the damn wheels on there and save us all from having crooked backs and Popeye-big forearms? Mixed opinions here at the Laboratory on how and in what way the *original matters.
Continue reading Really the Fake: Derived, Diacritic'd, Differenced Things

Design for Failure


With regrets to Aaron for the blurry, noisy photo of himself..Taken in Montreal Canada at Design Engaged 2008.

For no particular reason — perhaps a salute to Nicolas who will be presenting his work on design for failure at IxDA this week — I bring you this image taken during DE2008 in which Aaron Straup Cope discusses designing engineering systems with failure contingency as the critical path.

Why do I blog this? I find this perspective intriguing — it assumes system meltdown, anticipates it and delivers appropriate data to indicate when it might happen. If I remember correctly, there is no specific interest in being exact about failure, just that it will happen and you might be told roughly how long until it happens. So the effort is to help stave it off by various means — adding more servers to spread activity loads around, optimize queries, increase caching, whatever you need to do. This makes me think of the intractability of designing for deletion. If someone wants to extricate themselves from the databases of a service or system, there is almost certainly no quick and easy way — in fact, I doubt there is anyway at all, and most services are not obligated to handle these situations. If I told Google that I wanted to check out fully and completely, even if they wanted to do this, it is doubtful they could. Would someone have to run through all the backup *whatever — tapes? — wherever they may be? It’s not just the live systems, and its not just purging caches and so on. All of our data is on its own, like orphaned snapshots of moments in our lives, somewhere. I don’t necessarily find this chilling or anything like that. I’m just curious about this notion — designing for intractable, ugly, messy circumstances, like failure or deletion. Things that run counter to the intuition — we usually design for the beautiful, full, glorious 32-bit conditions.
Continue reading Design for Failure

Fake for Real

Saturday September 19, 13.24.47

Found in a small toy/novelty store in Jeju, South Korea.

Two forms of fakery. On the left, a faux Lego set using all the cues and clues of the real, Danish deal for a Lego build set of the Space Shuttle complete with astronaut. On the right, a *toy* Glock pistol. Both kids toys (n’aach on the gun), but each with its own degree of imitation. The Lego bit is a fake of a toy. The gun — well, to the best of my knowledge that’s a real imitation of a Glock, making it a legitimate toy.

Saturday September 19, 13.08.58

Why do I blog this? A curious mish-mash of really fake stuff that outlines the boundaries amongst imitation, flattering imitation, and arguably nasty real fake toys taht don’t seem particularly playful. Is it even worth fussing over the clear delineations between real/fake; virtual/digital; really me/avatar me? What are the stakes that make these lines of distinction things to fuss and argue over?

But wait..there’s more!

Saturday September 19, 13.19.40

More in the category of the *trinket*, as opposed to the refined, detailed and thoughtfully sculpted imitation of a real really dangerous thing that might fool someone who is handling the real, real thing — a gumball machine with a miniature arsenal, for those who just can’t do without the seductive power of things that go boom and blam.
Continue reading Fake for Real

A Curious Crosswalk Clarification

Friday January 08, 14.46.08

Friday January 08, 14.46.21

A curious inscription left by someone to clarify which button expedites which crosswalk signal. Someone has written with an indelible marker “B” and “W” on each button (for Broad Street and Watchung Avenue respectively), as well as writing an abbreviation on the pole (“WAT”, for example.) What is interesting here is that an official sign also indicates which direction is controlled by the button (“Push button to cross *arrow* Watchung”) making me wonder if this was an addition made after some complaints about the confusing buttons. What made this confusing initially was probably the fact that there are two crossings in roughly a straight line. You cross a small bit of one-lane street that subsequently does an easy turn onto Broad Street from Watchung, and then stand on this island with the buttons. Then you cross a larger street — Watchung Avenue proper — with several lanes. Approaching the island after a nervous crossing and then looking out into a daunting sea of fast-moving traffic on your way to a quick sugar fix at Holsten’s, you might think the first button you see is the one to hit, which would be wrong.

Why do I blog this? I find these sorts of thoughtful, improvised inscriptions fascinating. A different kind of “read-write” city or read-write urbanism, where people in their everyday moments take it upon themselves to make additions, hacks, DIY improvements and adjustments to make the city more livable and agreeable to their sensibilities. The points where urban design from the top-down meets urban living from the bottom-up.
Continue reading A Curious Crosswalk Clarification

Minor Urban Disaster

Montreal, Canada.

Curious minor urban disaster. The brace meant to prevent the signal light from being struck by a large truck or something was struck by a large truck or something and, thence, struck the object it was meant to protect.

Why do I blog this? I enjoy finding these disturbances in perfection and cleanliness. Typical, everyday moments in which a bit of history — however minor — is etched into solid metal and concrete to remind us of the below-the-radar bits of function of the city. We might call this a minor chink in the city’s urban armor battle suit thing.

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Beyond Public Toilet Maps — Prehistoric Augmented Reality Devices

Saturday November 28 12:35

Saturday November 28 12:55

Saturday November 28 12:52

Saturday November 28 12:55

A small collection of historic augmented reality devices, found during a rake through a flea market in Paris with fellow Urban Scout Nicolas Nova last Saturday. Mostly bashed up, broken things — but evocative devices that, when run up against all the excitement surrounding “Augmented Reality”, suggest more to me than the more typical, canonical — hold-my-flat-screen-mobile-device-up-in-front-of-me mode of operation.

Tactically, the evolution of mobile practices like this might learn from the everyday pre-historic rituals, such as gazing through a telescope which, in its infancy, was probably quite close to a kind of augmented reality. It allowed merchants to gaze to the horizon while sitting at port to see what ships were coming in, with what loads. The more speculating merchants could foresee shifts in the local markets because cotton was coming in and eek out their profits with the foresight brought to them courtesy of their expensive, privileged optical devices. A kind of future-seeing device used to their advantage.

Today’s augmented reality has none of that sparkle and magic. The visions of the AR future as best as I can tell is overturned by the fetish of the technology. This truly is a bad approach to making new kinds of worlds. The instrument comes first — a display, compact electronics, embedded compass and network connectivity — are what guide the vision and the “scenarios” (if you can call them that) entail something that basically is an expensive way to ask someone standing right next to you, who probably speaks a language you speak anyway — where the nearest public toilet is. Or where the metro stop is. Or in what direction the museum is. All of these things are problems that have been well-solved and need no tax imposed upon them like data roaming fees, or the inconvenience of a [[bad network/crap GPS signal/annoyance of dropping your $500 toy//&c]].

Augmented Reality in this mode of “design” is a bit like finding a nice door knob…and then looking for the house that looks good around it. Starting with the door knob — the instrumental technical stuff — is a really bad way to design a house, I think.

Why do I blog this? Poking and prodding at a more satisfying set of metaphors, language, histories for what a looking glass / viewmaster / binocular of the near future might be and what lessons it might learn from its prehistoric kin. I’m curious about the possibility of learning from the evolution and development and cultural valance of these earlier devices — considering them in the mode of a magical, exciting bit of technical kit from their time. But what did they do and how were they used? How much of the device and technical characteristics guided what they became, like today? Was someone walking around with some carefully, expensively constructed optics, not entirely sure what to do with them? Or not sure how to sell them to people? How were they to be assembled, technically speaking? What was the level of knowledge of combined optics — was it similar in its sophistication and arcane incantations like programming embedded devices and mobile phones today? What did it take for someone to use the telescope as something other than a device for starring at the moon or constellations? And other questions like this…what can be learned from shifting contexts, moving to historic moments, fictionalizing alternative possibilities for those histories, or fictionalizing the near future of these weird “augmented reality” speculations.

What might “augmented reality” augment besides directions to a public toilet?
Continue reading Beyond Public Toilet Maps — Prehistoric Augmented Reality Devices

Construction of Things


What was sticking in my mind, and has been recently, and especially after dinner conversation and the lecture which was on Design Fiction with an emphasis on the relationship between props, prototypes, and the normalization/everyday-making of provocative ideas.

A few notes on this point, as reading notes from Latour’s *Reassembling the Social*

Making normal and everyday serves a purpose, I am thinking, in design and in the communication of design ideas.

1. As to the point that it serves the purpose of design, I mean that it brings it into the realm of the familiar, putting something or an experience or a moment into the world and making the engagement *exist* as if it needs no explanation — it is here, and perhaps even it is the case that it is near-obsolete so we can tell a story about its entire life. We defetishize newness and glamour, retreating to the mode of familiar, reliable blandness, as most things go that have lived a full life in the world. If something has not become everyday, chinked on a corner, or experiencing a glitch, or booting a little slowly this time, or making an aged complaint, it has not had a good, long life in the world ((discounting a normative assessment as to what is *good*, or the point that perhaps “it” is new and just crappy and poorly made.)) Which basically suggests it was here for one failed Christmas push and then dropped off the edge of the Earth. Or has just become a cherished relic, or is simply old and worn, but still precious and useful.

2. In the communication, making something everyday is meant to suggest that it has become part of life — perhaps not everywhere, which is not always the goal, nor is ubiquity. But, ‘part of life’ suggests that it’s a good idea and the effect is to communicate as much as this — that it could have been here, around and with us. The communication normalizes the thing to the point of routine blandness. Whether this happens by association or more directly is significant. In the communication, don’t have people smiling with glee when operating/experiencing/discussing the thing, and don’t explain what is going on as if the communication is a features-and-functions list. Didactic and apologetic explanations are a poor substitute for a well-designed thing that expresses itself through a story or fits into everyday life without a list of “whys” or “whats.” Cinematically speaking — *show it, don’t tell it.* Let the communication describe if it needs to — but don’t explain. If you still need to explain something, you need to *explain* in the material — go back and iterate the design. The explanation should be the product of the design, not a way of substituting for an opaque object — the materialization of your ideas in the object/thing/service/widget should effervesce from the communication.

Dump of Crap

Once cool stuff

3. Rather than the design tactic of spectacle-making, what about making things normal so that designs move into their place in the world, perhaps even moved off to the utility drawer of the world to become either quaint or so routine and everyday that they are taken for granted. Like a AA battery. No one every made much of a spectacle of those things, except maybe Madison Avenue, once, together with a phalanx of Rabbit troubadours.

4. I am wondering about implementations and ideas that are two-way props/prototypes. A design tactic that is encouraged to go into the future by materializing new ‘near future worlds’ and then come back into the past, as in an archeological unearthing and investigation and un-constructing of what is around us today. On the one hand, forward-into-the-future design creating new worlds that are hopefully better than the ones we have today. On the other hand, taking what we have today and describing it in the way of sociology-of-associations, anthropology, science studies, &c. Dig something up that once existed and tell its story — or mis-tell it for the purpose of showing how a thing can be re-inscribed with unexpected contexts so as to remind us how significant the interaction and the experience is in making the object meaningful.

So..what? Why this strategy for design and communicating a speculation, or an idea, or something future-fictional?

**To help imagine what things will become and to defetishize the things that are normally elevated beyond themselves — like when new gadgets are oogled and ahhhhgle’d and beyond what they deserve because, ultimately, at some point, it all becomes crap that’s thrown out anyway. (The Near Future Laboratory Defetishization Bureau recently issued a Fatwah on all ‘unpacking’ blog posts and descriptions.)**

In plain English, to say something is constructed means it’s not a mystery that has popped out of nowhere, or that it has a more humble but also more visible and more interesting origin. Usually the great advantage of visiting construction sites is that they offer an ideal vantage point to witness the connections between humans and non-humans. Once visitors have their feet deep in the mud, they are easily struck by the spectacle of all the participants working hard at the time of their most radical metamorphosis. This is not only true of science but of all the other construction sites, the most obvious being those that are at the source of the metaphor, namely houses and buildings fabricated by architects, masons, city planners, real estate agents, and homeowners. The same is true of artistic practice. The ‘making of’ any enterprise — films, skyscrapers, facts, political meetings, initiation rituals, haute couture, cooking — offers a view that is sufficiently different from the official one. Not only does it lead you backstage and introduce you to the skills and knacks of practitioners, it also provides a rare glimpse of what it is for a thing to emerge out of inexistence by adding to any existing entity its time dimension. Even more important, when you are guided to any construction site you are experiencing the troubling and exhilarating feeling that things could be different, or at least that they could still fail — a feeling never so deep when faced with the final product, no matter how beautiful or impressive it may be.

Latour, Reassembling the Social [p88-89]

Also, consider failure and its opportunities. Cf. Nicolas Nova on failures. Failures are situations that reflect on the assembly of things — err – their disassembly or their accidental destruction in a perhaps inglorious fashion.

But still — why do we want to see the made-ness of things this way? Is there more to be seen below the surface that reveals..what? The possibility of reconnecting things in other ways? That reveals the contingency of the construction — who was involved? What they did? Where the principles and sensibilities and politics of the thing are? Why was this fastener chosen over another possible one? To make it more secure and stable? Or to make the BOM cheaper and more likely to fly apart when dropped? Can you point to a part and say something about the principles of the design?

One insight from Latour that reflects on the importance of revealing the in-progress, in-construction aspect of things — things disassembled, or in exploded-view. These sorts of indicators of construction, constitution, assembly suggest a made-thing — which we always know if pressed that everything must be. Showing the components in-assembly or in-explosion suggests to us that this could have been done differently.

Why is this important?

Momentary Visibility Ways of bringing the associations amongst things into view. “Social” is a fluid visible only when new associations are being made..a brief flash which may occur everywhere like a sudden change of phase.

Why make the social visible?

Develop and execute — is this the preferred pattern of constructing things? No? Rather, might a more considered approach that learns lessons all the way down be design as perpetual iteration?

A list of situations where an object’s activity is made easily visible

Fortunately, it is possible to multiply the occasions where this momentary visibility is enhanced enough to generate good accounts. Much of ANT scholars’ fieldwork has been devoted to trigger these occasions..

1. Study innovations in the artisan’s workshop, the engineer’s design department, the scientist’s laboratory, the marketer’s trial panels, the user’s home, and the many socio-technical controversies.

2. Second, even the most routine, traditional, and silent implements stop being taken for granted when they are approached by users rendered ignorant and clumsy by distance — distance in time as in archaeology, distance in space as in ethnology, distance in skills as in learning.

3. The third type of occasion is that offered by accidents, breakdowns, and strikes: all of a sudden, completely silent intermediaries become full-blown mediators, even objects, which a minute before appeared fully automatic, autonomous, and devoid of human agents, are now made of crowds of frantically moving humans with heavy equipment.

4. Fourth, when objects have receded into the background for good, it is always possible — but more difficult — to bring them back to light by using archives, documents, memoirs, museum collections, etc., to artificially produce, through historians’ accounts, *the state of crisis in which machines, devices, and implements were born.*

5. Finally, when everything else has failed, the resource of fiction can bring — the the use of counterfactual history, thought experiments, and ‘scientification’ — the solid objects of today into the fluid states were their connections with humans may make sense. Here again, sociologists have a lot to learn from artists.

Latour, Reassembling the Social [p.80-82]

What is relevant here – possible tactics for design, assuming something has been made, without making it, and back-tracing the ‘controversies’ of its assembly. Assume you have only fragments of ‘what the thing was’ or ‘what the thing will have been’ and unpack it as an investigator/sociologist-of-associations/anthropologist/archeologist-of-associations; track back through the associations and construct what it might have been.

However, we worry that by sticking to descriptions there may be something missing, since we have not ‘added to it’ something else that is often called an ‘explanation’. And yet the opposition between description and explanation is another of these false dichotomies that should be put to rest — especially when it is ‘social explanations’ that are to be wheeled out of their retirement home. Either the networks that make possible a state of affairs are fully deployed — and then adding an explanation will be superfluous — or we ‘add an explanation’ stating that some other actor or factor should be taken into account, so that it is the description that should be extended one step further. *If a description remains in need of an explanation, it means that it is a bad description.*…As soon as a site is placed ‘into a framework’, everything becomes rational much too fast and explanations beging to flow much too freely. The danger is all the greater because this is the moment most often chosen by critical sociology, always lurking in the background, to take over social explanations and replace the objects to be accounted for with irrelevant, all-purpose ‘social forces’ actors that are too dumb to see or can’t stand to be revealed. Much like ‘safe sex’, sticking to descriptions protects against the transmission of explanations.

Latour, Reassembling the Social [p. 137]

So..what? Why do I blog this?
Is there anything about the sociology-of-associations and Actor-Network Theory that can become a part of a design practice that does more than incremental innovation? Or, what does the sociology-of-associations and ANT have to say about design practice? Why might it? Because ANT concerns itself with the making of things — or, also, the un-making to implicate practice in the creation of stabilized systems. Here, at the Laboratory, we are makers of systems that stabilize and cannot see how it would not be beneficial to understand how these systems stabilize — or at least to have an articulate point of view on how an idea hatched in California plops off the end of an assembly line 15 times a minute, 11 months later, and then get buried in the ground 24 months after that. And, if you understand — or have one or two of many possible articulate points-of-view on this — you have a better grasp on how to do this better, or perhaps how to decide in particular situations how not to do this, or how to design differently so that we don’t drown in things coming off of assembly lines 15 times a minute..only to end up filling land 24 months after that.

Preposterous Scales of Time and Size


A ridiculously quaint DB9 connector attached on the far end to some peculiar, but not-mini-USB connector. (Best as I can tell, the thing on the other end is a proprietary connector, but I’m prepared to be proved wrong. Every of the variety of old and new *scaled* USB connectors I have lying around would not fit into the connector port on the device that is meant to be connected). The grotesque scale difference reminds me of the queasy feeling I get when I stand close to and look up at tall things like grain silos, especially.

The preposterous DB9 is the thing that make me shake my head ruefully and do that sucking of air between my teeth because it came packaged with a 2010 device, which is to say something quite new, freshly produced. It’s a decidedly geeky, quite expensive software programmable wide-band radio. The fact that it is geeky is almost certainly why it comes with a DB9 connector on the *computer* side, rather than a USB connector. Geeks tend to (a) have a *PC* containing at least one old-fashioned RS232 sputting serial port on it, and (b) know how to program things that talk RS232 over the *serial port*. But, then to put some fancy subminiature connector on the *other* end as if to say —

*we’re connecting your creaky, ancient computational device that needs a fan to keep it from blowing up to your fancy, new fuck-off-and-die software programmable radio, and we’re going to link the ancient past with the new, gleaming future — you just need this this special flux-capacitor cable. And, bonus — you can *buy* another cable with a so-called *Universal Serial Bus* connector instead of the *DB9* plastic cudgel if you’re already living in the 21st century.*


Well, although I am intellectually peeved that I am still finding things in the 21st century that contain DB9 connectors on them, what I am intellectually curious about is how, when, why and what becomes *legacy*? How do things such as this enter into the idiom of *quaint*, or *old fashioned*? How long before such things become *obsolete*? What standards, norms, expectations, specifications, technical requirements compel a *holding onto of the past?* What are the scales of historical pasts — retro, old-fashioned, quaint, legacy, plain-old, ancient — and how do they shape design and engineering possibilities for the near future?

Why do I blog this? Attempting to understand how to make the future into today, possibly by making extraordinary things that might come to be into either ordinary or even normal and everyday and then into quaint and old-fashioned. I am curious as to how to play with scales of time to help place things/experiences/moments that might be quite near futuristic into the quotidian, everyday. That is, making the new crazy stuff ordinary so we can begin to explore the kinds of rituals and practices that these things exercise. At the same time, reflecting on how Everything That’s Happened, Has Happened Already — so how do you create those moments that elevate the experiences that are now happening again rather than over-fetishizing the technical and instrumental aspects of the kit?
Continue reading Preposterous Scales of Time and Size

Props, Prototypes and Design With No Spec: Notes on Heliotropic Smartsurfaces

It was working, and it will again. And even in a mode of very temporary failure, the design happens. Here, some students assembly their assemblage for demonstration of their material-semiotic reflection on heliotropic smartsurfaces.

What did I learn from visit to “M” — University of Michigan — and the School of Art & Design, Taubman College of Architecture + Urban Planning? Two things, mostly.

First, huge universities in tiny midwestern towns, with really big footballers really only need one letter to stand in for themselves.

Second, the importance and relevance of props to communicate an idea – a reinforcement of the significance of objects that always contain ideas and possibilities and thereby play a role in the expression of the future. I am perhaps misguidedly and with reckless-abandon reading and practicing both design and actor-network the same time.

What follows are some scraps and notes, mostly around a combo of two things: design fiction props and the virtues and challenges of design without specification.

After a lecture Thursday night and a bit of a lecture Friday morning, I participated in the Smartsurfaces studio (which also has blog and is run by John Marshall, Karl Daubmann and Max Shtein.

Is there a reluctance to design with partial specifications? Routinely, one can assume that there is development and design first, then there is execution. As if they are distinct “phases” of design work. I understand the tendency — I mean…I’m an engineer. You specify, describe an interface and then just go ahead and build it.

But what about building as specification? Or making to define the specifications and the design principles, and the stories? And doing this over-and-over again, redoing things and refining in the process of making — even making away from the screen?

Normally, one might ask when given a “project”:

What are we going to do?

What are we going to make?

The tenses are all mucked up.

What about instead, when given the chance to project into some near future:

What are we now making?

What are we doing now?

Designing through partial-reflections and partial-knowledge and partial-specifications as a conglomerated design-develop-execute activity — a continuous iterative doing. Brewing and creating controversy in the midst of things — making things not possible, or impossible, or highly speculative, or disagreeable. Or moving with full confidence in the face of overwhelming vagueness and excruciatingly deserted requirements documents.

Perhaps starting from the end — as if the design has been unearthed in the future, by an archeologist who laminates meaning on the thing. Introducing fictional explications with all the seriousness of science-fact making. Creating an object and saying — this is what it is, it is a heliotropic smartsurface and it means these things, and had been used to do such-and-so.

This is the sorts of questions and concerns that make the Smartsurfaces studio so intriguing. I welcomed the opportunity to participate. It is keeping me thinking.

Friday October 16, 12.25.19

The project description.

Let me describe one of the team’s presentations as a way to explicate some of these ideas.

As described in their presentation, Team 3 had started its heliotropic smartsurface project with an offering by one of the team members of a Hoberman Sphere as a prop to accrete ideas and focus the effort. The team created an articulated 2-D sculpture borrowing mechanical idioms from the initial Hoberman Sphere prop. It was a mechanical, moving object consisting of many connected armatures that collectively formed a giant figure-8 lying flat on a smooth surface that was, I would guess, about 1.5 feet x 2.5 feet. The entire assemblage was articulated by a stepper motor with two bobbins that spooled monofilament. The spools turned via the stepper motor. On the spools and running through a simple network of small bobbins, the monofilament line gathered the armatures in such a way that one or the other side of the figure-8 was pinched closed or pulled open. One spool of monofilament ran to around to one side of the It was described that this could lead to a surface that let sunlight in or blocked it off. The control mechanism was a Macbook connected to an Arduino with a light sensor. The Arduino also controlled the stepper motor. An earlier prototype had been constructed using chipboard as the main component of the armatures. This chipboard prototype was not as durable as the demonstrated version which consisted of clear plastic for the armatures. The spooling posed a problem on occasion and had to be tended-to. It was pointed out that this was one of the main problems with the assemblage. The spools were not reliably gathering the monofilament and keeping it neatly coiled on the bobbins that were attached to the stepper motor. The team had ‘burned out’ a couple of Arduinos along the way to this presentation. They had to borrow a larger stepper motor from one of the studio professors a few hours before the project reviews.

Friday October 16, 12.26.22

Demonstration. A flashlight creates the effect of the Sun beams on a sensor connected to an Arduino, connected to a Macbook connected to a stepper motor. Sensor readings are interpreted by firmware in the Arduino’s microcontroller. This then sends control signals to the stepper motor and articulates the armatures via spools attached to the stepper motor which run through bobbins on either side of the box the whole thing sits in.

Team 3’s presentation was a very refined, complete, articulate and functionally robust design. It was seductive to watch the mechanism and listen to the quite articulate description of the process. It was a clear, thoughtful bit of work and the detailed construction was impressive.

My remark — and it was only for the productive discussion, and not a dismissive criticism by any means —  was to focus on this point about the spooling being finicky, requiring tending during the demonstration. In my own interpretation this was the ‘main problem’ the team faced — a remaining point to ‘work through.’ In fact, it was barely seen as a problem in my eyes. It was an excuse for the presentation, or a begging-of-forgiveness for this distraction of a team member stepping to the assemblage and tugging on some monofilament or fussing with the kit.

Friday October 16, 12.26.45

The ‘problem’ as an issue to be addressed is that the spools don’t spool the monofilament consistently. Things get a bit tangled up and the issue is handled with a bit of hand-work to get the assemblage back on its feet.

This is a side-issue in a sense. It’s not even really a problem in the sense that it is something that can be easily figured out. After all, spooling monofilament is a black box at this point — an intermediary of sorts. The ‘problem’ no longer exists — this is something that has been solved, closed off, handled already so it’s just a matter of extracting one of those ‘black boxed’ solutions (e.g. by traveling to the world of sewing machine design, fishing rod reels, ships-anchor-mechanisms, &c.)

The use of a stage prop to frame their design/discussion work of what is being done, or what could be done seemed to move this team from a broad range of possible design-expressions of a ‘heliotropic smartsurface’ into a specific thing whose materialization had a form that could be pointed to — the Hoberman Sphere prop. The prop provided a seed that could crystalize a material goal.

Setting a goal in terms that allows iteration and rethinking and, perhaps most importantly — failing — in the design process open up the possibility of unexpected possibilities. Which is to say the possibility of making things different from what might be expected, or pre-supposed. The tactic comes with maturity and the no-fear sense that, no matter what, things will happen and get ‘done.’

What I might say here is that there could have been more intense failure in the midst of all this. Either failure or iteration. The design ended up as a 2D Hoberman Sphere, just as specified from the beginning.

It is a useful design strategy to not expect/specify a particular, instrumentally functioning, pre-specified thing as the ‘final conclusion’ in the process of designing. When introducing the Hoberman Sphere, I believe this very talented group defined their conclusion with the evidence of this presupposed vision of the designed future being, in my Latour-infested mind, this point that the remaining issues are few, or perhaps even just one point of fixing the spooling issue.

As a tactic for designing new things, my own preference is to allow for the possibility that the thing in the end will become something different along the way, so that where you end up may not be where you thought you would conclude. Each moment in the process evolves into its own refresh and re-invigoration of possibilities. The design is never done. There is no hard distinction between ‘research’, ‘exploration’, ‘design’, ‘development’, ‘execution’ — &c. The Gantt Chart attempts to organize and marshall phases that tick into other phases ultimately reaching a conclusion. It won’t help create new things — there are no gaps, no bumps, the future is determined with no opportunities for explicit failure or remaking or starting-over-again.

Why do I blog this? Some notes to reflect on the challenges of design without stepping through a ladder of design-development-execution. Flattening these hierarchies and combining the action of making/destroying/failing/refining as design itself.

[[Thanks to my hosts, John, Cezanne Charles, Karl, Malcolm McCollough, Amy Catania Kulper, &c. and all the wonderful students in Smartsurfaces.]]

Continue reading Props, Prototypes and Design With No Spec: Notes on Heliotropic Smartsurfaces

Design Fiction Chronicles: Urgency and Emergency, Notification and Warning

Saturday January 31 11:07

Tsunami Evacuation Route on Washington Boulevard at the border — basically 60 degrees North-North-East, directly opposite the coastline in the other direction, but essentially only a few meters above sea-level for a good couple of miles.

Last week, when there was that earthquake in Samoa, we happened to be talking about Tsunamis in the studio — thinking about the ways that the California coast could be gobbled up in an unfortunate, epic disaster. It’s a distinct possibility, and with the Pacific Ocean popping off earthquakes with increasing frequency (or so it seems..), it makes one think about what sort of early warning system could be put in place — and one that would not rely too much on quite fallible technology-based networks. These are the things that typically fail even without a disaster at hand. (For instance, at the Venice Beach Music Festival a few weeks ago, with a relatively smallish contingent of people occupying Abbot-Kinney Boulevard, me and those I was with were hard-pressed to get a cell signal. If you have all of Venice Beach panicking because of an approaching Tsunami, what are the chances AT&T will be able to handle the load? I’d rather not count on them, to be perfectly honest, to help me communicate with family in a disaster.) Perhaps mesh-y networks that do not rely on too much pre-built systems like cellular base stations.

Or, are there more esoteric warning systems, like these rattling cups? Hairs on the back of your neck? A forest of yammering, naddering wild life suddenly falling dead still and quiet? The color of the sky in the morning? Scattering insects all going in the same direction? A sudden feeling that comes from another array of sensors — ones not invented by scientists or technologists or relying on a functioning grid of power, communication and all that?

What are the other “weak signals” of impending disaster, besides the news?

These fictional moments in movie scenes popped into my head while thinking about early warning of impending disaster.

Why do I blog this? Place marks for ideas related to early warning systems and the stories around them. Signals that are not explicit, but suggestive, providing some clues and cues that force one to be more attentive and resilient and resourceful.
Continue reading Design Fiction Chronicles: Urgency and Emergency, Notification and Warning