Quiet But Not Quiescent

Judge not the less yammer-y state of the studio blog to indicate that there is nothing worth yammering about. It’s just that the clang of steel caressing code has been going on and that in great measure, too. Some of you may have glimpsed and grinned at the fantastic electronified edition of the paper Drift Deck that we developed a couple of years ago. That’s right. We’ve added *batteries to the Drift Deck and it’s fallen into the *app well..it’s an app which is fantastic because it means the last remaining physical card editions can become properly *artisinal and the electronic battery editions can spread the sensibility of the Drift Deck concept to the rest of the world.

Release is imminent. Prepare ye iPhones. Hop expectantly from foot-to-foot. More news in a short while, including linkages to downloadables. In the meantime, check out the new Drift Deck webified “page” and the fantastic roster of hammererers that batteryified the ‘deck.

..And then — onto the next thing here. It’ll be quiet a little, but good things are baking in the kiln, rest assured.

*Willow next. The superlative friendregator for the discerning social being.
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A Few Things The Laboratory Did In 2010

Friday December 10 15:28

Again, mostly in the notes-to-self column, I’d just like to capture a few things that we here at the Near Future Laboratory did in the year 2010.

It was a year chock full of Design Fiction actions and activities, an exhibition of some work, talks and discussions about projects and ideas. The usual, except there was a dearth of making-of-things, something which will be remidied one way or t’other in 2011. ((I shouldn’t discount the zealous skate photography, though.))

So, just a fool’s list:

Saturday March 13 12:27

There was the panel at South by Southwest with Stuart Candy, Sascha Pohflepp, Jake Dunagan, Jennifer Leonard and Bruce Sterling. I think that was a highlight as it led to some great conversations from the dais and Bruce’s interjections and interceptions were quite inspiring. I think the best part of the panel was what we talked about getting the whole thing organized. There were some really intriguing Skype conference calls, just talking and learning from each other. That was good stuff.
(Audio Podcast of the SXSW Design Fiction Panel)

Friday September 17 17:06

Art Center’s “Made Up: Design Fiction” theme was (and continues to be) an opportunity to further stretch and elaborate the Design Fiction theme — finding new ways to actually *do design, and then sponsor a number of works exploring the idea of making things up as a way to do advanced design. I love what the Media Design Program folks are doing over there. Participating in the “As If: Alternate Realities” panel discussion and other activities over there has been good, great fun. ((I was also super excited to go to the MDP MFA Thesis Reviews and see student work first-hand, give feedback and all those other good things..))

Tuesday October 26 15:22

The original design fiction essay was rejiggered and reprinted in Volume Quarterly for their Issue No. 25 with the theme: The Moon. That was an interesting re-writing project because I had wanted to say a bit about how I understood architecture as perhaps the canonical design fiction enterprise — it is so imminently focused on what could be, and perhaps so finely tuned to tell a story — to *pitch what the future landscapes might look and feel like, and suggest how humanity might live and embody space. Architecture has this remarkable conundrum in that it likely spends most of its time constructing facsimiles of what could be as concrete gets poured based on most designs so infrequently. Sure — the big corporate architecture firms make their malls and condos and so on. But the speculative, richly imaginative contingent of architects — well..they enter competitions with models and renderings. In fact, I would guess that most of architecture does precisely this — it spends its time (not fruitlessly, I would say) telling stories through materialized forms: models, renderings, films, stories essentially. Designed fictions, I might say. In any case, the reviewers for this particular re-write didn’t find it substantive or something — it’s fine. It’s a theme I’d like to work on in some fashion for 2011, though. Even though I have a grumbling relationship to architecture.

Monday December 13 14:19

Which might seem like it contradicts the fact that I participated in two reviews for USC Architecture, one in Neil Leach’s wonderful “Interactive Architecture” studio, and the other for Geoff Manaugh’s equally provocative Cinema City studio. Both were thoughtful and fun and engaging. I often felt that the students got a bit too ruffed up by the jurors/critics, but I have *no idea what the culture of that design practice is, so maybe that’s entirely normal. I always thought it was soft gloves before you went bare-knuckles in crits. Maybe its just all tough-love all the time.

My chum John Marshall and I had our essay appear in the Digital Blur: Creative Practice at the Boundaries of Architecture, Design and Art book. It’s an essay on Undisciplinarity — doing things without predefined boundaries, or without constraints and often without discipline. I think it’s a useful way of doing things differently and perhaps making new things. Just looking at the world and its possibilities from a sideways glance and without curmudgeonly bureaucracies to say you’re doing things the wrong way round. Pick up a copy, not for the essay but for the other great documentation by artists and designers.

Friday July 23 12:01

For the third time I was able to attend ThingM’s Sketching In Hardware event, this time held in Los Angeles at that crazy Encounter Restaurant. I’d share the presentation, but its 1GB because in 2010 I sort of went a bit crazy including film clips in my presentations. I wish there was a better way to share these enormous things.

The Laboratory had a spot presenting at Kicker Studio’s Device Design Day last August. Again, more elaborations and thinking about the Design Fiction stuff — “Design Fiction Goes From Props to Prototypes” — thinking about prototypes as ways to test ideas (not just their material forms): “Prototypes are ways to test ideas—but where do those ideas come from? It may be that the path to better device design is best followed by creating props that help tell stories before prototypes designed to test technical feasibility. What I want to suggest in this talk is the way that design can use fiction—and fiction can use design—to help imagine how things can be designed just a little bit better.”
(Kicker Device Design Day on Vimeo)


The Apparatus for Capturing Other Points of View was exhibited at the HABITAR Exhibition in Madrid. The concept of the exhibition is something that is quite close to the hearts of the Laboratory, so I will put it here: (you can download the exhibition catalog as well)

“Utopian and radical architects in the 1960s predicted that cities in the future would not only be made of brick and mortar, but also defined by bits and flows of information. The urban dweller would become a nomad who inhabits a space in constant flux, mutating in real time. Their vision has taken on new meaning in an age when information networks rule over many of the city’s functions, and define our experiences as much as the physical infrastructures, while mobile technologies transform our sense of time and of space.

This new urban landscape is no longer predicated solely on architecture and urbanism. These disciplines now embrace emerging methodologies that bend the physical with new measures, representations and maps of urban dynamics such as traffic or mobile phone flows. Representations of usage patterns and mapping the life of the city amplify our collective awareness of the urban environment as a living organism. These soft and invisible architectures fashion sentient and reactive environments.

Habitar is a walk through new emerging scenarios in the city. It is a catalogue of ideas and images from artists, design and architecture studios, and hybrid research centres. Together they come up with a series of potential tools, solutions and languages to negotiate everyday life in the new urban situation.


I participated in the University of Michigan’s Taubman College’s Future of Technology Conference, which was an interesting two days of sort-of lighting 15 minute presentations from a whole string of folks, mostly from in and around architecture (again!) to hold forth on the future and what it was. ((There are some good talks in there — Bruce Sterling, Usman Haque, Hernan Diaz Alonso. Note bene how mine is nearly spot-on 15 minutes. Architects love to speak, even if they go over their allotted time. I could’ve carried on. But I didn’t, out of courtesy. *shrug.) Most of them basically shared their work, which I guess is hopeful insofar as they imagine the future full of their work, I guess. I basically showed my “graphs of the future” thing — it was 8 graphs at the time. These are a few “graphs” that are sort of canonical ways of presenting what the future looks like, usually according to quantitative metrics.

Friday October 29 05:50

Then there was a nice close to the year with the Swiss Design Network Conference whose theme was Design Fiction (yesss…) It was a nice time in Basel, with a chance to meet some new friends and then people who I had only heard of or only talked to by email or phone. I gave one of the keynotes and helped Nicolas facilitate the workshop on Using Failures in Design Fictions.

I’d say in 2010 Design Fiction learned about itself as a practice of doing design, provoking and entertaining and suggesting new ways of seeing and understanding. It has been well-articulated and played with and used as a lever for all kinds of amazing work all over the place. I think the best go-to place is by @bruces wonderful Design Fiction category list — much more consistent and thorough than the Near Future Laboratory’s Design Fiction Chronicles and less-hampered by the ninnies at Vimeo who clearly don’t understand the way I was using film clips to discuss, in a scholarly sense, the role of science fiction film. *sigh. Anyway — @bruces is the real scout-about for what’s going on at the many fringes of thinking/making/doing.

Well..those are the highlights I can think of right now.

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Weekending 11212010

Friday November 12 12:22

Well, I haven’t done a weekending in awhile, partially because I was away in Switzerland (for the Swiss Design Network Conference) and then Italy and Spain on vacation and I almost didn’t take any kind of computer, but I did take an iPad partially as an experiment. In any case, I mostly read and photographed and walked and didn’t do any real blogging.

In the meantime, coming back I barely got home when I went off again for some friends’ wedding in Seattle, then back and then a drive down to San Diego for a team meeting with the larger international members of the Design Strategic Projects studio, which was good. We’re onto something here and if I could say more, I would. Aside from the substantial work, I’m also intrigued by the design process — mostly the translation of ideas into their material form as specifications for components and all that. I see it as a way of making the ideas legible in a specific way to those who have to make it. I should say that this is as you might think things work, except that they don’t normally when ideas are coming from advanced design, which in the past has been more involved in *vision or *concept work that rarely if ever becomes something much more tangible than a book, or short film or concept sketches. While I have been intrigued by that sort of work in the past, mostly because anything closer to the metal is often clipped in the expanse of its thinking, or is just ruled impractical or beyond scope — or whatever — now I found that it is difficult to translate, or get it closer to the making-of-things for a variety of reasons. In many cases, I think its systemic. By that I mean that it could be the case that parts of an organization are just completely unaware of another — or they don’t have the languages and linkages to communicate, or the mandate. That’s systemic or organizational. But then even when you do create the linkages you need to translate what might make complete sense in one studio into the terms and idioms of another, or into the language of code and software, or machines for making and fabricating. Whatever it might be — it’s a huge bit of work and in the process of doing the work, you refine the idea and iterate upon it, and learn from it when the gaps start showing, or when questions start coming in for clarity and refinement. Things that at one point you could ignore, or you didn’t even know about.

So — that’s what’s going on at this point. Learning about how to do advanced design thats relevant, rather than just sort of ideating or concepting or visioning.

I also went to Calgary Canada basically just for the night. It was cold. There was snow. I had to hunt around for my Patagonia Windstop, which I found just in a nick of time. And I wore sneakers, which was fine but I felt silly not thinking that snow meant more than cold. In any case, my hosts at the Faculty of Environmental Design had me up to do a talk for their “Design Matters” lecture series, which was fun. Another opportunity to refine some thinking, mostly editing together some new examples of science fiction film clips to explicate the conventions of design fiction.

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Weekending 09122010

Saturday August 21 14:29

Last week was mostly spent in a here-and-there state in the studio. Cleaning things up from a busy prior week in which a very exciting, thoughtful bit of work — about three or four months — went out to be shared. It’s got a good story, a good set of principles behind it and I just love it to death.

There was some preparation for two new-ish projects that sit at the core of what people do when they and one design fiction-y project — or a project that’s super techie in principle and name and all that but that I’ve pretty much decided I’ll take more of an art-historical start at it. It’s basically a take on “augmented” reality and I’ve made my initial reading/viewing list as provocations to get things going, which consists of:

* Jonathan Crary’s Techniques of the Observer: On Vision and Modernity in the 19th Century (October Books)

* The entirety of “They Live”
* Scenes from “Terminator 2”
* Scenes from “Robocop”
* Scenes from “Until the End of the World”

Part of that is to push away from the knee-jerk obvious directions that this could go if it was taken as one of those projects where the name basically tells you what to do. And I think we should stretch our imaginations.

Just a process note to remind myself about why I got a little prickly along the way. If I remember I lost focus — there’s an entry in the increasingly relevant book “101 Things I Learned in Architecture School” that I keep forgetting to look up properly — but the entry basically says the thing you learn from good work in a good studio is how to do good work. It’s less about what gets tooled and manufactured; less about what gets built and all that. It’s learning how to do what you do better than before. I don’t know how that gets captured and how it gets turned into something tangible. Maybe it doesn’t in a pragmatic sort of way. But, especially working in a small studio in an enormous battleship that is in some aft-chamber, out of sight, under the bilge — your perspective changes and your expectations shift upwards toward, like — clarifying, simplifying and translating big lofty ideas. Why did I get prickly? Well — it’s just eagerness and earnestness and excitement bumping up against the need to be patient and remembering to be satisfied that, at the least, we’re doing all the right things.

Think that’s it. There’s more, but that’s it for now.
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Not knowing a heck of a lot about solenoids in practice — I know what they do, and, as an example of the sometimes impracticality of higher-ed, am fairly fluent in the E&M principles at work here. But, when it comes to the practical matter of finding one with the necessary “umph” to articulate a simple controller’s buttons, it’s all guess work.

(Parenthetically, this mechanism is a subcomponent of a larger project called “Air Guitar Hero” which uses a remote glove controller to articulate the solenoids here. Yes. It makes no practical sense. It points to “something” as an experiment, if nothing more than to learn a few things about controlling solenoids and such all. But, mostly it is a design provocation. That’d be the easiest way of describing this whole thing, for those who have asked.)

The first solenoids I used were the smallish ones on top, bought at close-out prices from Electronics Goldmine for about $2 a piece. They couldn’t push the button completely, nor with the surety of purpose the design demanded. They would actuate, but not push the button closed. The best they could do was kind of rattling things around a bit.

Not really knowing precisely how to “engineer” a solution (probably something about determining the closing force of the switch and back-stepping to an appropriate solenoid), I just bought a few different sizes. The first one to arrive was enormous and, had I been a bit more careful, I would’ve realized that the centerline to centerline spacing of a row of four of these would’ve been wider than the center to center distance between the Guitar Hero buttons. Poppa Bear is a Guardian Electric TP12X19-I-24D, push style solenoid, runs at 24 volts. Way too big. So..that one is now a paperweight on my desk.

(Here’s a link to Guardian Electric that has specifications on their other tubular push/pull solenoids.)

The other two were closer, and I ended up using the “Momma Bear” solenoid — a Guardian Electric TP6X12-I-24D, also push style, with a load force of 18-0.06/2.5-0.75 Ounce-Inch. The data sheet is here.

I’m running all of these at 12 volts, which makes them less umph-y, but sufficient for what I’m doing. The solenoids have more push force at the low end of teir travel, so I designed the little supporting bridge there to hold the articulating shaft right on top of the controller button so that most of the force would be committed to pushing the button and not traveling through space.

Speaking of scale, on the left there is the breadboard prototype circuit to drive five solenoids. The right is the PCB with the same circuit (minus a bunch of Arduino icing, just a plain vanilla Atmega168 and crystal). Scaled down, the circuit is much easier to manage and cart around than the relatively fragile breadboard edition, especially cause I’m using janky, untrimmed jumpers to make connections and so forth.

For the curious, here’s the circuit’s schematic and the PCB layout pictures.

Post-Optimal Design


John Marshall over at Designed Objects has ben teaching a studio design course he titles “Post-Optimal Objects” with the convenient acronym POO. These are projects that are exploratory and self-critical in a sense. They skirt between what Marshall says is fine art and design so as to address approaches for developing the aesthetic and critical possibilities of objects outside a commercial context.

Some of the projects are fascinating probes that are by mandate critical and playful and skirt away from, as the title of the studio suggests, post-optimal contexts. This is resonant for me because it can be a challenge to steer away from expected rational and conservative forms of design. That is, things that are already commercially viable because they resonate with existing consumer expectations. But, as François has recently described, consumerism is only a small and very intriguing step away from cannibalism.

I often get flustered and frustrated with questions about ideas or project concepts that are not “products” in the sense of the commercial marketplace. People will ask — “well..why do you do this? No one would buy this!”

Of course, this is maybe true, but likely not the case at all. (Strictly speaking, someone would, odds say.) In any case, what Marshall is doing around this notion of post-optimal is teasing what is at the core of my frustration which is that any new, innovative idea is a bad idea because the world is already optimized for itself. The marketplace of ideas and their expression in standard form (as products to be sold, or services to be offered and profit to be found in a margin between price and cost) defines the constraints and requirements of what can play in that ecosystem, and it does so with such effectivity and narrowness that it is perfectly optimized. Things cannot enter into that ecosystem without having met these constraints and requirements. And, moreover, even conversations that skirt outside of the idioms of this self-optimal system are looked at oddly. People ask — why would you do this, as pertains a completely post-optimal idea, and they really mean it. They can find no answer because they search for the answer within the framework of the self-optimal system.

When Nicolas and I discussed the Near Future Laboratory’s motivation and premise a couple of years ago, it was also, among other things, to be a place that explored possibilities that were outside of existing self-optimal frameworks. This is why I sometimes refer to it as a kind of science-fiction authoring practice, but with forms expressed in materialized ideas as well as writing. A different kind of authoring practice. The reason for this was to have a way of justifying “why” such odd things (such as this “(Air) Guitar Hero” device in the image above) are constructed. Science-fiction offers a safe haven for probing other possible ideas that are entirely speculative and imaginative. They are probes into other possible “systems” of social practice. Things beyond convention, beyond conservative, business-centric notions of what ideas are good for.


From John Marshall’s studio course (ArtDes 300.015) Post-Optimal Objects (POO) Beard Guards to prevent messes whilst eating

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