The Mind & Consciousness User Interface: SXSW Proposal?

A visit to the Psyleron facility in Princeton New Jersey

A couple of years ago — 2009, I believe — my brother and I went to visit the facilities of Psyleron, a very curious research and engineering company in Princeton, a few miles from Princeton University. He piqued my curiosity about the operation, which was extending the research of the PEAR lab at Princeton — Princeton Engineering Anomalies Research. The PEAR lab has been in operation for decades and Psyleron is a kind of way of commercializing the insights and theories and all that.

They developed a random event generator and software to allow the at-home enthusiast practice their brain control skillz. It’s called the REG. You can buy one. Adam Curry at Psyleron was kind enough to loan me one. The object needs some industrial design help, which would be fun to work on.

Why is this interesting?

* It’s atemporal, I think. There’s a twist of the Cold War paranoia about mind-controlling Russkies arranged in a phalanx on the ground, specially trained to shoot brain waves to make enemy fighter pilots shove their sticks forward and crater their jets. It’s 50’s era thinking infused into something that is still futuristic. I like the history. The story of the Princeton Engineering Anaomolies (PEAR) laboratory start comes from that history — a chance encounter at a weird proto-DoD sponsored workshop on the role of consciousness in hot-shot right-stuff-y fighter jocks in the 50s who were better able to tame the barely stable faster-than-sound aircraft than other pilots. Were they more synergistically coupled to the planes, all other things being equal? It was a real question, and a contingent of the defense apparatus wanted to know and thus funded the PEAR studies.

* People are going to tire of their fascination with “gestural” interfaces. That term already sounds antique. Even thinking about it makes my mind groan and roll its eyeballs. What’s next? I’m not saying that brain control *is next — it is a logical, automatic extension to go from contact to contactless interaction, sort of like ranges of massage and body work — from the brutalist Swedish deep tissue stuff to the hands-off, chimes-and-insense Reki flavor.

* This guy Dr. Jahn who co-founded the PEAR lab lived nearby when I was growing up. That’s kinda cool to have this weird return to early days. He was squirreling away on this research in the basement of a building I used to sneak into during those easy, trouble-free adolescent years in breezy, leafy Princeton.

Cabinet Magazine has an good short article on Dr. Jahn and the background of his research.

There’s all sorts of curious artefacts and media and materials in and around the proto-Psyleron PEAR laboratory research experiments. The PEAR Proposition DVD is an epic, 3 DVD collection of lab tours, lectures, lecture notes about the project. Margins of Reality is the reading equivalent. Good “research” materials.

Psyleron also has a number of devices to activate the principles and propositions of mind-control/consciousness control and influence. An assortment of stand-alone probes and dongles — keychains, glowing lamps and that sort of thing. A robot is forthcoming!

The most curious to me — because it produces information that can be studied, allowing one to conduct experiments and because it could probably be DIY-ified — is their REG or random event generator. The REG in general stands at the center of the research as I understand it. Having a “pure” REG that is not influenced by shaking, bumping or jostling of any sort allows one to have a sort of “white noise” norm for measuring any external effects. The best way I can understand this is one needs to remove any bias on the system except for the influence of consciousness/es. A great REG is purely random data — white noise. Supposedly the white-noise randomness of this device is superlative. Who knows? It may be, or may have been before some innovation or whatever. I think there’s some quantum tunneling mojo going on in there beneath that bit of metallic shielding.

Why do I blog this? I’m *way behind on any project related to the work at Pear and my own personal affiliation with the research itself — Dr. Jahn lived in the neighborhood when I was growing up and the kids in the neighborhood all played together in the streets and yards of the neighborhood, including his daughter. I’m also thinking about writing a talk or panel proposal for SxSW 2012 on the topic, perhaps with Mike, who’s interested in looking into brain control interfaces.

I think there’s a nice continuity between the *macro interface of many minds/bodies of the Psyleron work and the more local, *micro interface of one mind with the likes of this stuff from this operation called emotiv. I like the continuity from consciousness and action-at-a-distance to the more directly coupled, sitting-on-the-head-stuff. Making a continuum from levers, knobs, switches, lights; punchcards keypads, teletype rigs; typewriter keyboards and CRTs; mice and keyboards and CRTs; 3D mice and all that up to “gestural” interfaces and touch and then into the mind could be quite and interesting graphic. A more complex graphic or an additional vector within that one could also look at the particular semantics and syntax of thought that is required to operate the devices — the ordering of knowledge necessary to frame a task or problem and then explicate it for the specific set of interface elements one is afforded by the device. Command-line interfaces, as we well-know, allow/disallow specific tasks; menuing systems are beards for what happens on the command-line — making the framing of the task more amenable to more people (?) and certainly less terse. It’s a translation effectively of what might normally go on the command line.

One possible approach to understanding this stuff is, of course — to start using it.
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Who Will Make The Bricks?

John-Rhys Newman’s exploration of New Measures of Things in a series of conventional measuring instruments that act as kinds of epistemological wrenches, changing perceptions and confusing the traditions of quantification. Very intriguing objects. I’m curious about the history of measurement and quantification. There’s lots there. I find myself knee deep in the muck of Medieval history. More to come. Want one?

The Near Future Laboratory’s Overseas Bureau of Avuncular Insights and Apropos Turns of Phrase found this clattering off the network’s teletypes — a wonderful short dispatch from Bruce Sterling referring in high-style to the challenges confronting our forward-facing resources for imagining new, near future worlds. Science-fiction has a history; hasn’t always been around. It participates in imagining the future — the title of the essay is this conflation of Design and Fiction, suggestive of this point that fiction can participate in design. But, ultimately, the science-fiction-design trio results in imaginary things. Things that are never hewn beyond the words and the story and the imagination. They are, therefore, fantastic “crap.” Design fiction sits somewhere in between science-fiction and the materialization of the imagination. It is tied more closely to the stuff that appears in the world. You can tell because it resonates closely with either things now, things about to happen, or things that are discussed and activated. Or, the design fiction becomes a reference point — a way of describing something that, oh — some geeks are tooling in the laboratory.

What truly interests me here is the limits of the imaginable.

Design fictions of the best sort are like design & style manuals for making things. They lead to conversations like this — “Yeah, it’s kinda like that thing? The reputation servers in that book, um…Distraction? Oh, you didn’t read it? Well, you should. It’ll help us talk about what we’re trying to do. It’s got some cool things in it.”

What are the constraints to imagining new kinds of future worlds? Writing is constrained by language, which may have been the literati’s excuse for not creating a future imaginary worthy of our time, money and attention to materialize.

Design, by contrast, is less verbal. Design is busily inventing new ways to blow itself apart. Design is taking more risks with itself than literature. That is why contemporary design feels almost up to date, while literature feels archaic and besieged.

Design and literature don’t talk together much, but design has more to offer literature at the moment than literature can offer to design. Design seeks out ways to jump over its own conceptual walls-scenarios, user observation, brainstorming, rapid prototyping, critical design, speculative design. There is even “experience design,” which is surely the most imperial, most gaseous, most spectral form of design yet invented.

Now, talking again? With a more common landscape brought to us via digital networks, digital data, digital communications and sharing? Could that be the effective culture of the Internet? To bring together language and material? Expressive of both in a way. Not just stories, but their material, lived in the world?

Perhaps apropos of the recent Milan Design Week chatter, the way I read this nice compact essay is that the vector cross-product of a failed capitalism with an inability of (design/engineering/science/technoculture-writ-large) to imagine a future-forward equals variously trouble or opportunity. The opportunity being — new kinds of “bricks.” New units of assemblage to create more habitable (broadly — sustainable, creative, articulate, mindful, generous, etc.) future worlds. We need new measures of meaning. New systems of quantification that do not ultimately, in the end, result in an unbalanced equation.

Read the whole thing here. I’ve excerpted my favorite part below. (Well, it’s short enough of an essay that the whole thing can be a favorite part, but this is what this morning’s coffee-sit-down favored.)

We have entered an unimagined culture. In this world of search engines and cross-links, of keywords and networks, the solid smokestacks of yesterday’s disciplines have blown out. Instead of being armored in technique, or sheltered within subculture, design and science fiction have become like two silk balloons, two frail, polymorphic pockets of hot air, floating in a generally tainted cultural atmosphere.

These two inherently forward-looking schools of thought and action do seem blinkered somehow-not unimaginative, but unable to imagine effectively. A bigger picture, the new century’s grander narrative, its synthesis, is eluding them. Could it be because they were both born with blind spots, with unexamined assumptions hardwired in 80 years ago?

There is much thoughtful talk of innovation, of transformation, of the collaborative and the transdisciplinary. These are buzzwords, language that does not last.

What we are really experiencing now is a massive cybernetic hemorrhage in ways of knowing the world.

Even money, the almighty bottom line, the ultimate reality check for American society, has tripped over its own infrastructural blinders, and lost its ability to map value. The visionaries no longer know what to think-and, by no coincidence, the financiers can no longer place their bets.

I scarcely know what to do about this. As Charles Eames said, design is a method of action. Literature is a method of meaning and feeling. Hearteningly, I do know how I feel about this situation. I even have some inkling of what it means.

Rather than thinking outside the box-which was almost always a money box, quite frankly-we surely need a better understanding of boxes. Maybe some new, more general, creative project could map the limits of the imaginable within the contemporary technosocial milieu. Plug that imagination gap.

That effort has no 20th-century description. I rather doubt that it’s ever been tried. It seems to me like a good response to events.

The winds of the Net are full of straws. Who will make the bricks?

Continue reading Who Will Make The Bricks?