May 28, 2007

There is such a thing as a free lunch! Doors of Perception Report readership survey

For the first time in four years, we are conducting an online reader survey about Doors of Perception Report (our monthly email newsletter) whose archives - if you need to refresh your memory - are here. I will treat the winning survey respondent (name to be selected by lottery) - plus a guest/chaperone - to lunch at a time and location that suits both parties. I'm looking for practical feedback on the number and length of stories, subject areas covered, services you'd like us to add, and so on. The main "Call to Click Buttons" goes out at the end of the week, just after the June newsletter is despatched - but feel free to have fun now.

Posted by John Thackara at 12:16 PM | Comments (0)

April 21, 2007

Is this really normal?

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I was perplexed by the centrepiece cultural exhibition at this year's Milan Furniture Fair. Super Normal celebrates "how much better most normal things are than most design things". One could argue that most of these objects were designed by someone, even if not by a sleb designer. But the bigger curiosity for me was that many of the objects presented in the pristine gallery space of Milan's Triennale (a fascistic guard was on hand to stop you touching the exhibits) are available to buy, online, from the German company Manufactum. Manufactum's founder, Thomas Hoof, has a genius touch for sourcing hard-to-find, daily life design classics - and he's been doing so since 1988. His company now turns over 100 million euros ($135m) a year. Beware: the Manufactum catalogue is addictive.

Posted by John Thackara at 12:00 PM | Comments (0)

October 26, 2006


I've had a couple of requests for help from design schools who have entered the competition to design a stuff-o-meter. (Designs of the time (Dott07) has teamed up with Design and Art Direction (D&AD) in a challenge to design students to come up with a stuff-o-meter that would lift the veil on the hidden history of the everyday products we take for granted). One unifying way to look at the issue is through the concept of embodied energy (EE). There are userful bar charts on EE at the website of CSIRO and a clearly written piece here. Check out this somewhat scolding story in Treehugger and this school syllabus on EE

Posted by John Thackara at 10:04 AM | Comments (0)

October 05, 2006

Designing Interactions

When we first did a Doors conference in 1993, the concept of interaction design was still in its infancy. Today, designers of digital technology products shape not just what the world looks like, but what it's like to use. In his eagerly awaited book Designing Interactions Bill Moggridge, designer of the first laptop computer (the GRiD Compass, 1981) and a founder of the design firm IDEO, tells us stories from an industry insider’s viewpoint. The book is based on interviews (there is also a DVD) with forty of the influential designers who shaped - and shape - our interactions with technology. Gillian Crampton Smith answers the question, “What is Interaction Design?" The original designers of The Mouse tell us why and how they did it. There are fascinating encounters with Brenda (Computers as Theatere) Laurel and Will (The Sims) Wright. Larry Page and Sergey Brin describe how they made the ultimate less-is-more interface for Google. Service designers Live|Work, Fran Samalionis, and Takeshi Natsuno describe how they derive useful purposes for all this tech. Hiroshi Ishii, Durrell Bishop, Joy Mountford and Bill Gaver describe their ongoing efforts to design multi-sensorial computing. Moggridge concludes by discussing "Alternative Nows" with Dunne and Raby, John Maeda and Jun Rekimoto. I count ten Doors alumni in the list, so don't expect this notice to be unbiased. Besides, Don Norman puts it best as usual: "This will be the book".

Posted by John Thackara at 09:19 AM | Comments (0)

October 04, 2006

So now you know run by Mads Haahr, offers true random numbers to anyone on the internet. Their most important use is the generation of cryptographic keys. For example, one Danish TV station runs an online backgammon server which generates more than 300,000 dice rolls per day. A dice roll is a random number between 1 and 6, so a Java program accesses's web interface. Another user is Ian Pitcher, from the American band Technician. He uses numbers from to generate unique covers for the band’s CDs. Ian says the numbers' origin as atmospheric noise is particularly appropriate because their music is "loosely inspired by the work of Konstantin Raudive ... [who] ... believed he had discovered a way to communicate with the dead by recording white noise on magnetic tape." Aaah: So now I know why my teenage daughter used the word “random” so often last year. (Thanks to John Chris Jones for alerting me to yet another sublime morcel).

Posted by John Thackara at 07:52 AM | Comments (0)

June 29, 2006

Product frenzy

The winners of this year's Industrial Design Excellence Awards have been published by Business Week. As a jury member, I am 100% complicit in this flagrant whipping up of product frenzy - which I must say, having seen the results today, is extremely well-done. My favourite entry, the medical equivalent of a Big Dipper ride, is slide number 93 on the slideshow. I wanted to caption it, "The Doctor won't see you now".

Posted by John Thackara at 09:53 AM | Comments (0)

November 07, 2005

Ethics, Inc

Only in America: ethics has become a business. In the wake of Sarbanes-Oxley legislation, passed in 2002 in the wake of financial scandals such as Enron and Tyco, a lot of companies are struggling to cope with the complexities of compliance. As James Hyatt writes in "corporations are rushing to learn ethics virtually overnight and, as they do so, a vast new industry of consultants and suppliers has emerged. The ethics industry has been born.” Hyatt reports that at Goldman Sachs, CEO Hank Paulson will moderate 20 forums this year on ethics; the bank’s entire staff of managing directors is required to attend. Citigroup is adding annual ethics training for all 300,000 employees. And The New York Times has signed a multi-year agreement with LRN, a Los Angeles-based firm, to provide a legal and ethics education program. LRN's CEO, Dov Seidman, says his business has at least doubled in the last two years. Growth is also rapid at EthicsPoint which provides ethics online: the firm builds integrated web and telephony systems "seen by stakeholders as a safe reporting mechanism...(that also provides) automated and accurate distribution". At Lubrizol, a specialty chemicals company, two people work on ethics part-time; they help with such tasks as posting ethics guidelines in seven languages, and overseeing 27 regional ethics leaders around the world whom employees can contact with questions. It looks to me as a niche market for mobile-enabled, location-specific, friction-free ethics is opening up: Who will join me in launching 0800_Be_Good?

Posted by John Thackara at 11:33 AM | Comments (0)

August 05, 2005

Insects of the new economy

An eminent insects expert is to study aspects of biological and religious diversity in order to find ways of conserving the natural environment. Until recently Head of Entomology (the study of insects) at London’s Natural History Museum, Dr Dick Vane-Wright is the recipient of a NESTA Fellowship. 'I suspect that taking a more sustaining role, acting as nature’s steward, is something which most belief systems support' says Vane-Wright, who has studied the relationship between biodiversity and value systems over several years. It's sounds like a fascinating project, but I'm not sure Dr Vane-Wright has been much exposed to the belief systems of the new economy. Biological metaphors were frequently used by its boosters to justify ruthless behaviour that paid scant attention to the interests of the environment. That story is well-told in Metaphors of Life and Death in Silicon Valley.

Posted by John Thackara at 08:52 AM | Comments (0)

August 04, 2005

Life-or-death design issue in healthcare

In the UK's National Health Service, billions of euros (the published figure is two, the likely total is 15) are being spent in a new attempt to digitise and integrate patient medical records. Insiders tell me the latest project is doomed to fail, as did previous attempts, because turf-wars between professionals and managers in different parts of the country remain unresolved. A forthcoming Healthcare Communications Forum in the US steers well clear of treatment issues to concentrate on essentials: invoices for payment. 'Healthcare providers are spending fortunes producing bills and statements that baffle and frustrate most consumers' says the blurb for the seminar. The motto of the Forum's Platinum Sponsor, Art Plus Technology is: 'Financial Documents Are Fun. Financial Documents Are Exciting'. I have to agree with the second part. My daughter once spent 17 days in intensive care in St Vincent's Hospital, in New York City. When the time came to leave, the print-out of the invoice - single spaced, ten point type - was about 60 pages long. But I have to say that the total - being huge - was clearly visible, and no amount of information design would have rendered it more palatable or easy to pay. But the hospital took Amex, I was insured, and they saved my daughter's life. Who needs Good Design at a time like that?

Posted by John Thackara at 09:43 AM | Comments (0)

July 19, 2005

War of the words

A couple of weeks ago I reacted harshly when Philips, purveyor of high-end goggleboxes and hairdryers, blamed 'poor consumer sentiment' for the company's disappointing results. Now, British economists are expressing 'fears for consumer confidence' following the July 7 bombings in London. 'Some people may feel that conspicuous consumption is not appropriate at a time of national tragedy said one economist in today's Guardian. An upbeat colleague anticipated that "the reaction of the UK consumer will, after an initial nervous reaction, be to carry on as normal'. Confident? Normal? It's a hot day, so I won't labour the point: Conspicuous consumption is not 'normal', it's a form of cultural madness. It's good news, not bad, if consumer sentiment is moving away from the mindless purchase of stuff we don't need.

Posted by John Thackara at 08:30 AM | Comments (0)

July 18, 2005

Self-serving, moi?

I know it's the silly season for news, but a tech story on BBC News today wins my prize for the year's most witless tech waffle. Headlined "UK 'could become hi-tech titan'", the story refers to a report (unnamed and unreferenced) by consulting firm Deloitte that urges "swift action" (by who it does not say) "because overseas competition was threatening to eclipse the UK's advantages". And who is behind this blood- curdling warning of imminent danger? Fifty of the "UK's top technology opinion-formers", that's who. Utterly unswayed by the vast government subsidies that keeps many of them in work, this fearless 50 say disaster can only be averted if there is "co-operation and communication between all those involved in the UK's hi-tech sector - government, researchers, businesses and financiers".

Posted by John Thackara at 07:27 PM | Comments (1)

June 20, 2005

Wide-screen but narrow-minded

Philips boss Gerard Kleisterlee has a keen supporter in Tony Blair. Blair wants to channel far more of Europe's budget to high-tech companies like Philips, and is campaigning against the "anomaly" that the EU spends 40% of its budget on farmers, who make up just 4% of the European workforce, at a time when China and India are presenting such a high-tech challenge in science and research. But as today's Guardian points out, a lot farmers and some of their green supporters want more subsidy and protection, not less. And, besides, 70% of French farmers voted no in the referendum. What's going on? The Guardian reckons that "rural life is of social, psychological and aesthetic importance to a vastly larger proportion of the continent's population" than just the farmers. I reckon that's just half the story. Many progressive, iPod-toting, globally-inclined people voted "no" to the European constitution because they judged a "yes" to be an endorsement of monopolistic technology and science. The hunger for subsidy of high-tech Europe (which includes agribusiness, by the way) is as boundless as its cultural vision is bleak. The high-tech Europe toted by Blair and Peter Mandelson is one which equates Europe's future with the size of its technology effort.Their vision, like Philips', is wide-screen but narrow-minded.

Posted by John Thackara at 07:36 AM | Comments (0)

June 18, 2005

A sentimental education for Philips

Philips has blamed “poor consumer sentiment” for limiting its plans for growth. Gerard Kleisterlee, Philips' CEO, told the Financial Times (16 June page 21) that “Europe is suffering from a weakened consumer retail environment”. Wrong, Mr K. Europe is not suffering, it is recovering from the false consciousness peddled by your company. You have been trying to foist the consumer electronic equivalent of SUVs onto us - but we don't need them, and will not buy them.

Posted by John Thackara at 06:34 PM | Comments (2)

June 17, 2005

Now listen good

My parents have been plagued by a rising volume of junk telephone calls from telemarketing outfits. Imagine my incredulity when I saw on the BBC this morning that one of the leading firms calls itself The Listening Company. One of the people we have to thank for the plague of telemarketing is Martin Williams who, the firm's website explains, "helps define the customer Buying Experience, map the Customer Journey, and apply intelligence to the use of data in sales and prospect management". His colleague, David Murray, has had a "distinguished career... in high volume outbound programmes". The two of them report to Neville Upton, chief executive of The Listening Company, who is "the inspiration for the business". In the UK, there are two ways for people to fight back against the harassment and invasion of privacy perpetrated by these kinds of people. One is for sufferers to register with the Telephone Preference Service. The second is for concerned citizens to use the industry's own telemarketing techniques and engage its practitoners in discussion of the matter. The Listening Company: +44 20 8484 1000 | |

Posted by John Thackara at 11:29 AM | Comments (2)

May 19, 2005

Why do we work?

A half-page ad in today's San Francisco Chronice features the words "Why do we work?" displayed over the photo of an assembly line worker's hands, shifting a box.The text below begins with the strapline: "to keep the future growing". A bank called probably paid good money for this fatuous claptrap. Meanwhile, Seattle Airport fired all its baggage handlers on Friday. This further depopulates airports here in the US of human staff. The only exception is security control gates where hordes of guards make elderly passengers take of their sandals. Sticky rubber mats with pictures of feet on them are provided for you to stand on whilst re-shoeing.

Posted by John Thackara at 07:08 PM | Comments (0)

April 20, 2005

Happy in your work?

According to the City & Guilds Happiness Index hairdressers are the happiest workers in Britain: 40 percent say they are very content in their job (giving their careers a score of ten out of ten). Next in the happiness stakes are the clergy (24 percent ), chefs/cooks (23 percent ), beauticians (22 percent ), and plumbers, mechanics and builders (all 20 percent ). In contrast, only five percent of lawyers, IT specialists and secretaries/PAs, four percent of estate agents, three percent of civil servants and two percent of architects say they are extremely happy at work. Even that score seems doomed to plummet once architects learn how the C+G advises them to be happy in the workplace: "Enrich your working environment with photos and flowers". Thanks to Archined for that one.

Posted by John Thackara at 09:55 AM | Comments (0)

January 07, 2005

Business, virtue and self-interest

There is still time for your company to sponsor Doors 8. We will use new resources from sponsors to improve the conference, and to enhance the Social Innovation Salon. We also want to provide travel scholarships to grassroots innovators with stories we want to hear.
A decision to sponsor Doors should not be considered philanthropy. We believe sponsors should support the event with the intention of gaining tangible benefit. Here are six reasons why the investment would be a wise one for an international company:
1. The industrial revolution was launched in part by knowledge about textile production brought from India to Europe. The same can happen with knowledge about daily-life services brought from India, today.
2. Doors 8 is about next-generation service and product concepts, and how to design them.
3. India is a world-class incubator of new business models. The 'Public Call Office' concept enabled hundreds of millions of people to gain telephone access, within a few years. What’s coming next?
4. India’s software companies are determined to move up the value chain, globally. They need partners to do that. Who is going to be those partners?
5. Grassroots innovators in India combine pre-industrial lifestyles with cutting edge technology. Innovating companies need to understand how they do that.
6. Doors East led to "brilliant insights into the internet and sustainability" (Economic Times of India).
Note: Doors of Perception is a not-for-profit foundation.

Posted by John Thackara at 03:59 PM | Comments (0)

December 18, 2004

Humiliation or disgrace

I was flattered to receive a seasonal message today from Professor Dr. Nikolay V. Kirianakithe - the President, no less, of the International Sensors and Traducers Association. I've always fancied myself as an amateur traducer, but had not realised my efforts had been recognised at such a high level. And then, disillusion: I went to fill in the survey and realised...... well, I'm too upset: you'll have to fill it out for me.

Posted by John Thackara at 07:36 PM | Comments (1)

October 06, 2004

Zeroing Out

When an IVR/Speech (Interactive Voice Recognition) system does not meet a customer's expectations, they become frustrated and hang up or "zero out" to a live agent. According to Forrester Research, customer satisfaction levels with IVR systems fall in the 10 percent range, compared with a satisfaction rate of approximately 80 percent for face-to-face interactions. What a surprise. Companies continue to foist their rubbish services on us because of the numbers. If you or I talk to a human being, it costs the company $10 per call handled. Companies such as NS International look at those numbers and think, get rid of the human agents.
Tal Cohen. "Optimizing IVR/Speech Using Customer Behavior Intelligence". In Technology Media and Communications Net (TMCnet). 21 June 2004.

Posted by John Thackara at 02:19 PM | Comments (0)

October 22, 2002

Real-time design in the "world as spread-sheet"

An interview for the October 2002 edition of Domus Magazine with Ben van Berkel and Caroline Bos of UN Studio

For thousands of years, most buildings and products were designed for a single purpose - but our task is becoming more complicated. We are confronted by the need to design hybrid environments that encompass space, place, time, and interaction. We have filled the world with complex systems and technologies - on top of the natural ones that were already here, and social-cultural systems that have evolved over thousands of years. These systems are, by their nature, invisible - so we lack the clear mental models that we might otherwise use to make sense of the bigger picture.

A new change is now under way: pervasive computing. Pervasive computing has many names: ubiquitous computing; ambient intelligence; the disappearing computer; things that think; things that link; smartifacts. The buzzwords describe the ways we are suffusing the world with not just with sensors, but also with responsive and smart materials and actuators. There are already hundreds of microchips for every man; woman and child on the planet, and most of these chips will soon talk to each other, in languages such as 'Bluetooth'. Nobody knows what the consequences are going to be, except that these chips will find their way into most of the objects that surround us - buildings, airplanes, doors, door handles, clothing - even our bodies.

The US army is a big spender on wearable computing, for example. The military is also driving developments in the use of sensors, tags, and remote monitoring in the physical world. John Gage of Sun Microsystems anticipates that we will soon sprinkle "smart dust" over battlefields - clouds of tiny wireless sensors, thermometers, miniature microphones, electronic noses, location detectors that will provide information about the physical world, and the people crossing it, to battlefield commanders. Military-funded researchers are developing an operating system for smart dust‚s self-organizing sensors and effectors; these tiny devices, that can manipulate matter, will be able to form wireless networks without human intervention.

Meanwhile, in business, companies are wiring up digital nervous systems that connect together everything involved in their operations: IT systems, factories and employees, as well as suppliers, customers, and products. Their aim is to be able to monitor everything important in real-time. Companies are developing 'dashboards' that will measure key indicators and compare their performance against goals - and alert managers if a deviation becomes large enough to warrant action. Control-obsessed firms, among them GE, the world’s largest - aspire to convert their information flows into a vast spread-sheet creating, as Ludwig Siegele put it in The Economist, not a new economy but a "now economy".

This new wave of technology push confronts us with a design dilemma. The design of Large Technical Systems, pervasive software, and the inaptly named 'ambient intelligence', is an almost unimaginably complex process. To be effective in such a context, design needs to be renewed, and transformed. But in what ways? And how? During the 1990s, we were told that complexity was 'out of control' - too complex to understand, let alone to shape, or re-direct. But out-of-control is an ideology, not a fact. Flows can be designed.

The design agenda for flow has two parts: designing ways to perceive flows; and re-designing the design process itself. Firstly, in order to do things differently, we need to see things differently. We know, for example, that buildings consume a lot of energy - but we don’t see‚ heat flying out of the windows. If we did, our behaviour would probably change. We therefore need ‘dashboards’ for cities and buildings, not just for big companies. We need to experience the systems and processes on which we depend, in order to look after them.

Designing these experiences will not be easy. Systems and flows are, by their nature, invisible, and we lack evocative metaphors or mental models to help us make sense of the bigger picture. But many affective representations of complex phenomena have been developed in recent times: physicists have illustrated quarks; biologists have mapped the genome; doctors have described immune systems in the body; network designers have mapped communication flows in buildings. And as Malcolm McCullough points out, geodata industries are exploding.

The purpose of systems literacy in design is not to watch from outside - it is to enable action. The second challenge for design in the space of flows, therefore, is the transition from designing things, to designing systems - and from a project-based, to a continuous, model of the design process. Systems and processes never stop changing, so neither can design. A continuous model of design is increasingly the norm in information technology, and in management consulting. Architecture as a service, rather than an art? Now there’s a thought.

UN Studio

Many of these trends are evident in the work if UN Studio. Its principals, Ben van Berkel and Caroline Bos, have particular expertise in the design of transport interchanges in projects that can last years. These have become epicentres of extraordinarily complex spatial and building design processes. Increasingly, in the design of these complex places, high-tech simulations and physical structure influence each other. The design of multi-modal, multi-functional, multi-temporal transport intersections is particularly advanced in the Netherlands, where van Berkel and Bos have been ‘designing inside diagrammes’ since the mid 1990s.

“The diagramme functions for us as a sort of mediator” van Berkel explains; “we see it as an external element, in between the object and the subject, which we use to introduce other themes and organizations into a project with the aim of escaping from pre-existing typologies”. Right now UN Studio use diagrams two ways. First, for what they call the “the proportioning” of information – representing visually, and where possible in real-time, variable phenomena for a specific location such as climate, budget, construction processes, orientation, and activities. “The aim is to have a generative, proliferating, unfolding effect on the project…not only during its development in the studio, but also afterward, in its public use”, explains Caroline Bos.

A project like Arnhem Central exemplifies this convoluted type of public construction. The high-density project concentrates 160,000 m2 of mixed programme (transfer hall, underground car park for 1,000 cars and 5,000 bicycles, tunnel, shops, offices) on a 40,000-m2 site. Six different transport systems converge on the station area. Every weekday 55,000 travellers move through the location as they transfer from one system to another. Movement studies [PICS] are the cornerstone of UN Studio’ design proposals: the analysis of the types or movement on location includes the directions of the various trajectories, their prominence in relation to other forms of transportation on the site, duration, links to different programmes, and interconnections. The “Klein Bottle” diagramme [PIC] served as a reference for the spatial transformation of a surface into a whole.

Van Berkel and Bos describe as “deep planning” the process by which they scan a site for its flow structure. “These scans reveal its real problems and potentials,” says van Berkel; “the flows of the physical movements of people and goods reveal the relations between duration and territorial use”. The typical product of deep planning is a situation-specific, dynamic, organizational structural plan, using scenarios, diagrams, parameters, formulas and themes, that encompasses the mapping of political, managerial, planning, community and private relations.

Recently, van Berkel and Bos have looked outside architecture for inspirational images and diagrams. “Francis Bacon called his paintings diagrammes”, recalls van Berkel, adding that Gilles Deleuze was fascinated by the ways Bacon transformed the human figure into abstract forms. “Diagrams are instrumental”, he emphasizes; “they refer to something. They are kind of map. Maps may look abstract, but they always point at something. Diagrams are maps that point at organization - which can be the organization of space, or time, or movement, or any abstract but no less real phenomena”.

Diagrams are also a way to involve clients in the design process, and to modify the way a building is used through time. “When designing for people are in these perpetual motion environments”, says Bos, “ it’s a matter of combining circulation, with experiences they may have along the way. It’s not enough to design for pure movement: you have to build-in spaces, activities and intersections where people will leave the flow”. Pure movement is indeed bad for business. I recall an anecdote by Jan Benthem, master architect of Schiphol Airport, in which the commercial guys insisted he remove an area of seating to make way for another corridor of shops. The result was the opposite of that intended: revenues per square metre in the new shops, and in existing ones next to them, actually decreased. It transpired that the re-design had created a kind of canyon through which passengers rushed like white water in the Rocky Mountains - too fast to stop and shop. The seats were put back.

UN Studio pay attention to what they call “kaleidoscope moments” - the turns in flows where movement is tighter or more compact, or where you cross over other flows. “We are beginning to realise that obstacles to flow can be functional and add value, too” says van Berkel.”We work closely with infrastructure and traffic managers” adds Bos; “who usually have deep expertise about the possibilities, but also limits, in reconfiguring the flows of large numbers of people” Bos recalls a typically arcane piece of advice, that the heat generated by 20,000 people in an art gallery can damage paintings.

For their project to develop a pier in Genoa, Italy, UN Studio have transformed a 23,000 m2 harbour pier into a three-dimensional piazza. Four main clusters each address a different theme: entertainment, well-being, technology, and commercial experience. The design uses time-based planning represented diagrammatically as a circle of experience. Programmes in the piazza are organised around clockwise activities clustered on the basis of views, time of day, and time of year. Coffee can be taken in the morning sun with a view towards the sea; midday shopping offers shadow; evenings are spent watching the sunset. [PIC 24-hour distribution of active programs].

Ben van Berkel and Caroline Bos, principals of UN Studio in Amsterdam, are among the speakers at Doors of Perception 7 on the theme of Flow. The conference takes place in In Amsterdam on 14,15,16 November 2002.

Posted by John Thackara at 05:50 PM | Comments (0)

October 03, 2002

Flow: from the new economy to the "now economy"

A preview of the Doors 7 conference written for Form magazine in Germany.

Chris Pacione did not set out to be the designer of a wireless service. On the contrary: the co-founder of BodyMedia took a communication design course at an engineering school - Carnegie Mellon University - and fully expected to become a product designer "But as soon as we started BodyMedia” says Pacione, " it became clear that our object was only one part of a bigger picture. We had to become service designers - and after that, business model designers - in order to survive".

BodyMedia's product is a hybrid of hard and soft features. What you see on Pacione's arm is a wearable computer, with wireless capability. But that object is just one part of the story. The company develops and sells wearable body monitors and software that collects, stores, analyses and displays continuous and accurate physiological and lifestyle data, such as energy expenditure (calories burned), level of activity, sleep states, and other important physiological data – anytime, anywhere. A website shows you charts that compare your body's performance to average or ideal charts, thus enabling you to see at a glance if you are taking enough exercise, sleeping too much, or eating too many calories. As well as object design - the industrial design of the object on your arm, its shape, weight, materials, engineering and so on - Pacione and his colleagues had to design the appearance and organization of information on the website. They also had to design the ways people would buy the product, and pay for it; they have had to adjust the company's business model continuously. At first they thought consumers might obtain the product free-of-charge, and pay for a “wellness monitoring service” - in much the way that we sometimes get a satellite dish, or TV set-top box, for free, and pay for programmes by a monthly subscription. But the marketing costs of that business model were too high, so BodyMedia switched to selling the product to sportsmen and women as a high-tech training aid. This did not work - the unit price was too high - so, now, BodyMedia sells its hybrid product-and-service to insurance companies and health-care providers in a business-to-business model. Says Pacione, "we never stop designing the object, the way it’s used, the way the information is presented, and the way people pay for it".

Service and flow

BodyMedia’s story is paradigmatic of the way traditional ‘thing’ design is evolving into a complex hybrid called service and flow design. We are in a transition from an economy of transactions – selling and buying things - to what Paul Hawken in Natural Capitalism calls “an ecology of relationships and contexts”. Advanced companies such as Bodymedia are focusing on the innovation of new services, and new business models, rather than on new technology by itself. As Hawken explains it, a service and flow economy is based on a shift from the acquisition of goods as a measure of affluence to “the continuous receipt of quality, utility, and performance that promotes well-being”.

The context and infrastructure for the emerging service and flow economy are provided by a new technological paradigm, pervasive computing. Pervasive computing (it is also known as ubiquitous computing; embedded computing; the disappearing computer, things that think, things that link, connected appliances, smartifacts, or ambient intelligence) describes the ways we are suffusing the world with not just with sensors, but also with responsive smart materials and actuators. There are already hundreds of microchips for every man, woman and child on the planet, and most of these chips will soon talk to each other. These chips will find their way into most of the objects that surround us - buildings, airplanes, doors, door handles, clothing - even our bodies. And they will speak in languages such as Bluetooth. (Bluetooth was the nickname of a Danish king called Harald who, through his impressive communication skills, united Norway and Denmark in the 10th century; an industry consortium named its wireless standard Bluetooth because it allows users to unite through communication).

The military is driving many developments in the use of sensors, tags, and remote monitoring in the physical world. John Gage of Sun Microsystems anticipates that we will soon sprinkle "smart dust" over battlefields - clouds of tiny wireless sensors, thermometers, miniature microphones, electronic noses, location detectors that will provide information about the physical world, and the people crossing it, to battlefield commanders. One company, Graviton, builds ever-cheaper sensors using MEMS (microelectromechanical systems) - tiny sensors that convert analogue data about anything physical - pressure, light, gas - into bits and bytes, which they communicate wirelessly to a network. Another company, WhereNet, has developed a system of matchbox-sized wireless tags and readers that allow objects to be located within about 3m making it much easier to keep track of them. (It is reported in The Economist that American Airlines has installed the system in its huge cargo facility at Dallas Fort Worth).

Soon, radio frequency identification tags (RF Tags) will replace today's ubiquitous barcodes; groceries, for example, will no longer have to be scanned in individually. With 60,000 product lines in an average US supermarket, one quickly sees why the global market for such sensors is predicted to reach $50 billion in 2008 (according to Intechno Consulting in Basle, Switzerland).

These sensors will generate a phenomenal amount of data, “raising the spectre”, as The Economist, said recently,” of a new level of information overload”. Researchers are therefore developing novel information architectures, such as an operating system for smart dust that lets sensors and actuators form wireless networks without human intervention. Jakub Wejchert, who manages the EU’s Disappearing Computer programme, says that such self-organizing technology might make another dream come true: sensors will combine their skills with effectors, tiny devices that can manipulate matter, making it possible to create 'smartifacts' - smart materials and intelligent artefacts.

Unfrozen music

Inspired by Goethe’s comment that “architecture is frozen music”, the writer Malcom McCullough has describes then ten steps by which pervasive or ubiquitous computing begins to “melt” traditional buildings and products: “1 sites and devices are embedded with microprocessors; 2 sensors pick up what is going on; 3 communication links form ad hoc networks of devices; 4 tags identify actors; 5 actuators close the loop; 6 controls make it interactive; 7 display spreads out; 8 spatial information becomes available, useful, and necessary; 9 agents act; 10 tuning overcomes rigidity”. Pervasive computing thereby confronts us with a design dilemma. We are filling our world with complex technical systems - on top of the natural systems that were already here, and social/cultural ones that evolved over thousands of years - without thinking much, if at all, about the consequences.

That’s why the concept of service and flow is so timely: it provides us with the context and infrastructure for a service and flow economy. Service and flow among a crop of new business metaphors that all describe a shift from fixity to fluidity – in business processes, as in products. As Ludwig Siegele explained in The Economist, “companies are wiring up digital nervous systems that connect together everything involved in their operations - IT systems, factories and employees, as well as suppliers, customers, and products”. In processes described dryly as Customer Relationship Management (CRM), Enterprise Resource Management (ERM) or Supply Chain Integration (SCI), companies aspire to monitor everything important in “real-time”. Companies are trying, says Siegele, “to collect data from any point In space or time where a customer 'touches' a company - such as a store, a call centre or a website – and develop “dashboards”, that will measure key indicators, compare their performance against goals, and alert managers if a deviation becomes large enough to warrant action”. Some of the world’s biggest companies want to convert their worldwide information flows into a vast spread-sheet creating, not a new economy but a "now economy".

Design agendas for flow

Two design issues are common both to a small start-up like BodyMedia, and to a giant multinational like GE: first, the necessity to design ways to perceive flows; and secondly, the need to move from a product-based, to a continuous model of innovation.

Firstly, in order to do things differently, we need to see things differently. We need to re-connect with the systems and processes on which we depend. We need to understand them, in order to look after them.

Many affective representations of complex phenomena have been developed in recent times. Physicists have illustrated quarks. Biologists have mapped the genome. Doctors have described immune systems in the body, and among communities. Network designers have mapped communication flows between continents, and in buildings. Managers have charted the locations of expertise in their organizations. So far, these representations have been used, by specialists, as objects of research ˆ not as the basis for real-time design. That is now changing. Real-time representations are becoming viable design tools.

Representations of energy flows, for example, are now achievable. And a priority. All our design processes should aspire to reduce the ecological footprint of a city. Man and nature share the same resources for building and living. An ecological approach will drastically reduce construction energy and materials costs, and allow most buildings in use to export energy rather than consume it. Natural ecosystems have complex biological structures: they recycle their materials, permit change and adaptation, and make efficient use of ambient energy. Real-time representations of energy performance can help us move closer to that model in the artificial world.

I emphasize that I am not talking about simulations, here, but about real-time representations. We should also visualize connectivity. Many of us here, I am sure, enjoy charts that map the number of people connected to the internet, or the flows of bits from one continent to another. They make really sexy infographics. But I am not just talking about information as spectacle, or as porn. An active intervention in the architecture of connectivity means mapping communication flows in order to optimise them. We need to understand overlapping webs of suppliers, customers, competitors, adults, and children ˆ to identify communication blockages and then to fix the 'plumbing' where flows don't work.

We need dashboards for cities and buildings, not just for big companies. We need to re-connect with the systems and processes on which we depend. We need to understand them, in order to look after them. Many affective representations of complex phenomena have been developed in recent times. Physicists have illustrated quarks. Biologists have mapped the genome. Doctors have described immune systems in the body, and among communities. Network designers have mapped communication flows between continents, and in buildings. Managers have charted the locations of expertise in their organizations. So far, these representations have been used, by specialists, as objects of research not as the basis for real-time design. That is now changing. Real-time representations are becoming viable design tools.

We know, for example, that buildings consume a lot of energy - but we don’t ‘see’ heat flying out of the windows. If we did, our behaviour would probably change. Designing these experiences will not be easy. Systems are, by their nature, invisible, and we lack evocative metaphors or mental models to help us make sense of the bigger picture. But many affective representations of complex phenomena have been developed in recent times: physicists have illustrated quarks; biologists have mapped the genome; doctors have described immune systems in the body; network designers have mapped communication flows in buildings. Representations of energy flows, for example, are now achievable. And a priority. All our design processes should aspire to reduce the ecological footprint of a city. Man and nature share the same resources for building and living. An ecological approach will drastically reduce construction energy and materials costs, and allow most buildings in use to export energy rather than consume it. Real-time representations of energy performance can help us use buildings and places in new and more sustainable (and cheaper) ways.

These process representations need where possible to be visceral. The philosopher Maurice Merleau Ponty, an early critic of blueprint thinking in design, said that we need to move “beyond high altitude thinking... towards a closer engagement with the world made flesh". And Luis Fernandez-Galiano, in his remarkable book Fire and memory, argues that we need “to shift our perceptions from the eye to the skin - to develop not just an understanding but a feeling of how complex urban flows and processes work”. Architects are not famous for being in touch with their feelings, so I do not anticipate fast progress on this particular front. “The role of design in these places becomes making visible that which is invisible. - creating seismographs, ways of reading the flowing surface realities of both digital and analogue data. Ways of reading them, as they will surely read us”, says the writer Rob van Kranenburg.

Sense and respond

The purpose of systems literacy in design is not to watch from outside – it is to enable action. The second challenge for design in the space of flows, therefore, is the transition from a project-based, to a continuous, model of the design process. We need to shift from a concern with objects and appearances, towards a focus on enhanced perceptions of complex processes - and their continuous optimisation.

We need to think of the world as a verb, not as a noun. Natural, human and industrial systems are all around us. They are not below, outside, or above us. “As computational processes disappear into the background, into everyday objects, both the real and the subject become contested", says the writer Rob van Brandenburg; "the environment becomes the interface”. Products of a company like Netscape evolve continuously as thousands of users interact with its designers on a daily basis. We can learn a lot in this context from the most advanced software designers, who call themselves 'extreme programmers'. Extreme programmers have come to value individuals, and interactions among them, over abstract processes and tools. These principles are the basis of a new movement in software called The Agile Alliance. The Agile Alliance is not anti-methodology but, as their website explains, they want to restore credibility to the word methodology. “We want to restore a balance. We embrace modelling, but not in order to file some diagram in a dusty corporate repository. We embrace documentation, but not hundreds of pages of never-maintained and rarely used tomes. We plan, but recognize the limits of planning in a turbulent environment”.

As designers, too, our role needs to evolve from shaping, to steering - from being the ‘authors’ of a finished work, into facilitators who help people act more intelligently, in a more design-minded way, in the systems they live in. This transition from designing for people, to designing with people, will not be easy. Systems and processes, services and flows, never stop changing - so neither can design. Anyone using a system - responding to it, interacting with it, feeding back into it - changes it. Complex technical systems - be they physical, or virtual, or both - are shaped, continuously, by all the people who use them. In “the world as a verb”, it won't work to treat people as users, or consumers or viewers. We need to think of people - of ourselves - as actors.

Peter Bogh Andersen, an interaction design researcher at the University of Aalborg, compares interacting with dynamic environments to navigating a ship, and gives maritime instrumentation as an example.” When I started teaching human-computer interaction in the 1980s,” he recalls, “the ideal was that the user should be in control of the system. The system should not act unless the user asked it to do so. On process control, however, the situation is quite different. Here, physical processes are running independently of the user whose task is partially to control them. The art of navigation is similar: it is to pit the controllable forces - rudder, propeller - against the uncontrollable ones to achieve ones purpose”. Andersen describes as “an adversary”, the sea and the wind, that thwarts your intentions, and says you have to be skilful and smart to win the battle. “In such areas, design guidelines that assume an essentially passive system are no longer valid, and new ones must be formulated”. This raises three design issues: First, how can we support the changing information needs that occur during a voyage? Second, how to present the basic conflict, between the controllable and uncontrollable, in a clear way? And third, how can we make the ship system understandable so that the proud old maritime tradition of self-reliance can live on in the electronic world?” As designers, our role in society is evolving from shaping, to steering; from being the authors‚ of a finished work, into facilitators who help people act more intelligently, in a more design-minded way, in the systems they live in.

Our business models in design also have to change. The idea of a self-contained design project, or of 'signing off', when a design is finished, makes no sense in a world whose systems don’t stop changing. The project-based model found throughout the design world today is like water company that delivers a bucket of water to your door and pronounces its mission accomplished. Or think of your own website: it needs attention constantly, like a child, or a garden. We need to evolve new business models for design as we transition from a project-based, to a continuous, model of the design process. Not as manufacturing process that delivers finished products. One scenario is service contracts, such as those used by big management consultancy firms.

Posted by John Thackara at 05:52 PM | Comments (0)

February 12, 2002

Smart matters

The European Commission made ‘ambient intelligence’ a focus of its research programmes for 2001 to 2005. In official documents, the commission sometimes replaces the words ambient intelligence with the acronym AmI – to which I, as a philosophical joke, started adding a question mark – as in,
Am I?

We shall soon find out: several hundred million euros have been earmarked for the design of systems composed of autonomous entities whose participation in computation is dynamic and where activity is not centrally coordinated. Another action line is about integrated perception systems inspired by living systems – where ‘perception’ is meant to include sensorial, cognitive and control aspects. All of which reminds me of Bruce Sterling’s question at Doors 6: "What happens when you go to look at the flowers in the garden - and the flowers look at you?" Anyway, the following text is a first attempt to derive some design issues from this story. Comments welcome, as usual. (Note: this text draws heavily on the smart materials seminars we ran at the Netherlands Design Institute in 1998 and 1999: thanks to the colleagues concerned).

We tend to think of products as lumps of dead matter: inert; passive; dumb. But products are becoming lively, active, and intelligent. Objects that are sensitive to their environment, act with some intelligence, and talk to each other, are changing the basic phenomenology of products - the way they exist in the world. The result is to undermine long-standing design principles. "Form follows function" made sense when products were designed for a specific task - but not when responsive materials, that modify a product’s behaviour, are available. Another nostrum, ‘truth to materials’, was a moral imperative of the modern movement in design; it made sense when products were made of ‘found’ or natural materials whose properties were pre-determined. But ‘truth’ is less helpful as a design principle when the performance and behaviour of materials can be specified in advance.

‘Smart matter’ is a loosely defined category of physical materials which are combined with digital systems to create programmable matter that can change in shape, stiffness, colour, reflectivity and even sound. Also known as responsive technologies, smart matter comes in a variety of forms - ranging from wires and gels to inks and computers. Smartness is manifesting itself in a range of environmentally responsive technologies. According to scientists at Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center (PARC),for example, such materials could be used in the future to build skyscrapers with ‘smart’ structural columns that can change their physical properties.These columns could stiffen the building to resist high wind loads, but could also soften it, to help it ride out shockwaves from an earthquake.

The science of smart matter is in its infancy, but early experiments at PARC have been encouraging. For example, a series of strain sensors and piezo-ceramic actuators have been incorporated into a simple column. When this column is loaded, the actuators apply tiny pressures that effectively squeeze the column back into shape in the exact position where the strain gauges are showing imminent buckling failures. PARC has shown that the buckling load of such a ‘smart’ column can be improved by a factor of two without adding any extra material. However such ‘active systems’ require very fast real-time computer power, and scaling them up to the deployment of millions of sensors poses great problems for any exisitng software control architecture.

Of penguins, polar bears and the feet of ducks

Nature, too, offers us countless examples of how to revolutionise the products, systems and structures that surround us.Biomimicry studies nature's models, and then imitates or takes inspiration from these designs to solve human problems - for example, a solar cell inspired by a leaf. A pioneer in the field, the biologist Julien Vincent (Director of the Centre for Biomimetics at Reading University), looks at organisms as bags of answers and tries to figure out: what were the questions? What are the problems that nature was trying to solve? "That is really what biology is all about. Not just deciding what the problems were, but the way in which they have been solved and how these optimisations occur. Unless you understand the optimisations, you do not really understand the nature of the solutions."

In Vincent’s view, the same goes for engineering. The similarities between between biology and engineering are immense. With any biological organism, you have a limited amount of energy. The energy comes from sunlight - or it is stored energy from previous aeons of sunlight - but all biological organisms are in competition with each other for the use of this energy. The most successful organisms take the minimum amount of energy and optimise the distribution of the energy between all its different functions. If it uses more energy than its neighbour, it finds it cannot reproduce so well, and does not leave so many offspring. It eventually dies out. "There are good reasons, based on evolutionary selection pressure, for reckoning that nearly all biological organisms represent minimum-energy solutions to particular problems," says Vincent. That in itself is useful.

A novel form of technology and knowledge transfer, biomomicry is transforming how we invent, compute, heal ourselves, harness energy, do business, feed the world. But a conscious effort is needed - a design effort - to connect the properties of natural things to the needs we have as humans. When this happens, the results can be startling, profound and almost instant. But such connections do not make themselves.

It was in this context that the Netherlands Design Institute organised its first
workshop on smart materials. The idea was to bring together minds from very diverse areas, and participants were invited from aerospace; architecture; civil engineering; cognitive science; fashion; medicine; nanotechnology; product design and robotics. It was hoped that broadening the field of interaction of those involved might deliver the first steps towards a coherent agenda for designers working with these new technologies. The workshop was led by materials specialist Marie O’Mahony, a pioneer in the search for applications of ‘smart’ materials who was already actively looking at ways textiles would merge in clothing, human bodies, and buildings.

Current building technology is crude, and lacks functional integration. But new solutions may be found for insulation and heat storage by studying polar bears, penguins, cuttlefish, and even the feet of ducks.
Take the foundations that houses, factories and other structures rest on. The earth itself is easily strong enough to support houses, towers and offices. But builders have become accustomed to the tradition of hammering or pushing heavy concrete piles, weighing thousands of tons, deep in to the ground. A possible alternative is to build the structure on a light ‘floating’ raft made out of polystyrene foam. This can only be part of the solution since the density of the ground and the mud under a building tend to vary through time. Therefore the raft needs to be put on some kind of smart stabilising base that would be able to compensate for these changes. A structure that could do this could be composed according to the principle of a cuttlefish skeleton. This is extremely rigid although its volume is only seven per cent solid. Inside are channels that alternate with layers of plates. Inside these narrow channels is a gas which can make the fish go up anbd down by changing the pressure inside. If the pressure is low, the skeleton’s density will become relatively high, and vice versa. A cuttefish-style trim layer under a building could work in a similar way.

Or take insulation. Even though half the energy in the world is consumed in and by buildings, architects and building designers have hardly even begun to tackle this profligate and unsustainable performance; on the contrary, many architects in their search for transparency and the appearance of lightness in buildings have greatly increased the heaviness of their environmental footprint. Traditional buildings perform little better: in the classic sealed skin solution, a layer of bricks or cladding on the outside is backed by a layer of insulating foam: the system excludes the cold to a degree - but not nearly as well as the skin of a polar bear, which can maintain its body heat in the extreme cold.

The bear’s skin itself is black. It is covered in a thick layer of translucent white hairs; these combine with trapped air to form an insulating layer. It absorbs every little bit of heat brilliantly. The hairs themselves guide infrared light towards the skin. Each individual hair is able to convey any external heat back to the skin, which absorbs it. Transferring this kind of functionality to a building would mean a black façade: panels would consist of two transparent layers with transparent capillary-like tubes mimicking the hairs between them.

In any situation where temperatures change a lot, the example of a penguin might be more effective. In extreme cold, this amazing bird can stand on ice for weeks on end, and sustain a temperature differential between its own body and the outside environment of 80 degrees celsius. Even better: it can swim in icy water and then clamber onto a sunny beach without over-heating. One of the penguin’s secrets lies in its dense feathers. At one moment, these reduce airflow and behave like treacle, at another they open like valves, moving freely for ventilation purposes. Another secret is the way its feet are used to get rid of excess heat when it lands: blood vessels in its feet act like radiators, heating up the ground. A penguin-inspired building could do more.

I have a hammer, but I need a nail
Smartness, it is true, remains more of a promise than a reality in most industries. Many of the more exotic smart materials are still at experimental stage, and have yet to find widepsread applications. The tendency is for scientists and engineers to develop exotic performances in new materials - but to leave the development of useful applications to others. "We have the hammer, but we’re still looking for the nail," say researchers. And thousands of products are still produced that contain no microchips and are dumb as dumb can be. According to Julien Vincent, there are three problems in translating ideas from biology into technology: "interpretation, implementation, and scale."

But the connectivity part of the equation is growing exponentially. Microchips are ubiquitous: 200 billion are in use today, installed in everything from 747s to greetings cards. That’s 35 chips for every man, woman and child on the planet. Each of those chips has the potential, using existing technology, to be connected to the others. What happens then is that products become services. In these new, responsive, connected environments, the basic business logic - the source of added value - is the control of information. As more and more devices connect with each other in the factory and the home, and with telecommunication networks, value tends to be created by the supply and operation of networked devices - not in the hardware per se.

Everyone will be pushed remorcelessly into the information business. Builders, who once built ‘houses’, must now contend with issues of connectivity. Building suppliers, who once produced taps and doors and thermostats, must now turn them into smart devices. Consumer electronics companies, happy to sell you a dumb stereo in a box, must now teach it to talk to your television. Kitchen suppliers, accustomed to a world of chipbaord cabinets and counter tops, must contend with exotic materials and digital devices that change when heated or spoken to. Smartness is impinging on gas, electricity and water utilities, even health and welfare services.

Put another way: the pressure on businesses to consume less matter, and manage more information, is inexorable. These changes are already happening, but in a subtle way. Companies that already use smartness in commercially-available products - their products range from artificial legs, to fish-counting devices, and digital ticket systems – didn’t set out to make their products ‘smart’. But in solving real-world challenges, they realised that the availability of microprocessors, or new materials, made their task easier. As is often the case in the real world, innovation is a natural byproduct of running a business, not an end in itself.

The Blatchford company, for example, uses new materials and chips in its products - not for their own sake, but to help people walk. The British company, the first to develop an intelligent prosthetic limb, needed to make its products light, strong and easily formed into complex shapes - so it sought out and applied advanced carbon fibre composite materials to the task. It also needed to control, automatically, the flexion and extension of the limb to make walking easier, so it incorporated sensors and microchips.

The materials of invention
In exploiting the new opportunities presented by chips and new materials, companies are spoilt for choice. For the first million years or so after our appearance, we humans used five basic materials to make tools and objects: wood, rock, bone, horn and leather. For 9,000 years following the Neolithic revolution, there was a significant enrichment: clay, wool, plant fibres and, in relatively recent times, metals. But it still took at least a generation for information about smelting to cross a single continent in the Iron Age.

Today, in contrast, novel substances are being cooked up in academic and corporate laboratories faster than industry can find uses for them. An important book by Ezio Manzini, The Material of Invention, puts into perspective the revolutionary implications of new materials for product development and design. Designers and manufacturers are faced with an enormous and expanding field of possibilities - in the selection of materials, and of industrial processes to transform them. Known and trusted physical limits, that are deeply embedded in the skills and cultures of artisans and production engineers, are suddenly disappearing.

As well as choosing from numerous alternative ways to meet existing needs, designers also confront the problem: what should a product look like? What form should it take? New materials have no absolute form. Neither do they have ‘natural properties’, to determine a product’s shape. As Professor Manzini puts it, "a material of invention is no longer a found material; rather, one is calculated and engineered to achieve a specific, desired performance."

The problem for companies and designers is that inventors categorise their materials according to what they are - rather than what they do, or what they are for. Grouping materials by type makes sense in an archive, but it does not help the product designer confronted by databases and directories bulging with thousands of plastics, ceramics, fibres, composites, rubber and foam, glass, wood, and metals. What’s needed are information systems that direct designers first to properties , and thence to the different materials that possess them.

Ironically, the most interesting property of new materials is their capacity to promote the dematerialisation of products - that is, the use of less matter to accomplish a given task. SRI, an American think-tank, evaluates new materials and processes against this benchmark. Researchers at Domus Academy, a design think-tank in Milan, agree: there is serious demand for smart materials from manufacturers striving to impart lightness, simplicity, and connectivity to their products. They give the following examples:

Lightness: a range of composites, laminates and so-called ‘structurally gradient’ materials are being used to replace heavier materials such as steel or concrete. Some new materials are so light and ethereal that we have not yet worked out how to exploit them: slicia aerogel, for example, is an ultralight material, comprising 99.9 per cent air, developed at the Livermore National Laboratories in California. One reviewer, Julie Wosk, said the substance ‘had the translucency of clouds and the eerie, phantasmagoric look of a hologram’. Aerogel is used as an insulating material, and as a filter, but has not yet been exploited by product design.

Simplicity: delivers quality - a consumer need which dominated the business agenda of the 1980s. There is a trend in all kinds of products to minimise complex and therefore failure-prone assemblies of sub-components. New materials that behave as if they were devices, but are not, enable the substitution of mechanical with membrane keyboards, or of lightbulbs with electro-luminscent surfaces.

Hardness: modern ceramics and advanced composites can be nearly as hard as diamonds and are equally resistant to heat and corrosion - but are cheaper. They are being made into turbines, dental braces, prosthetic body implants, even bullet-proof face masks.

Transparency: dematerialisation does not just mean less matter in a product - it also means less physical presence. Architects, who are leading the way in a search for ‘de-massified’ buildings, have stimulated the development of new stong but lightweight glazing systems, translucent panels, and light-reflective finishes that make objects disappear.

Environmental sensitivity: fibre optic sensors, which have been used for many years to deliver information, are now being combined with sensing technologies such as piezo-electric materials - shape memory alloys which change their shape according to temperature, so that distant environments may be monitored remotely. Applications range from security to medicine.

Nice to meet you
We are accustomed to conversing with a computer, interacting with an ATM. But if they have chips, and most of them do, our microwaves, fax machines, CD players, washing machines, light switches, thermostats, burglar alarms and door locks, also have the capacity to communicate with each other. The growing use of mechatronics - the intelligent electronic control and connection to each other of all manner of devices ranging from cars to pop-up toasters that now exist alone on our homes and workplaces - does not mean that dumb toasters will suddenly become philosophers. But it does mean that the borders between ‘products’ and ‘information’ are starting to dissolve. This is clear enough in the case of the Austrian company SkiData. Ostensibly in the business of dispensing millions of electronic tickets to people attending trade fairs, joining toll-roads, parking in garages, or heading for ski slopes, the Austrian company is in fact in the business of information network services; its hardware, and in particular its wrist-worn devices developed with Swatch - are what you notice, but in value terms they are simply interfaces to the system.

Most of us probably assume that microchips are small things that sit inside desktop computers - but 90 per cent of all microprocessors in use worldwide are in automobiles and ordinary domestic appliances. (Or in the case of an Icelandic company, Vaki, in boxes underwater counting fish). It famously takes more computing power to run a BMW today than it took to send early astronauts round the moon. The average value of electronic components in cars today is already $920; according to the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU), that will soar to over $1,700 per car within a decade. "The world market for automotive electronics will be a staggering $83 billion by 2005," says the EIU. "Electronics will become the driving force behind vehicle design."

Where cars lead, other consumer products invariably follow. A computer company, Novell, estimates that there are about 145 microprocessor-controlled devices in every (presumably American) home. Novell is developing home-based systems, which it calls NEST (NetWare Embedded Systems), that permit any device to communicate with any other. When such systems are in place, a central computer can do everything from turning off lights to turning sprinklers on.

The potential for energy savings alone, when such networks combine smart sensors with an intelligent controller, are immense. Buildings consume some 50 per cent of the world’s energy - and by some estimates, at least half that could be saved if heating (and cooling) systems were more sensitive to the minute-by-minute needs of users. At present, even the most advanced buildings consume vast amounts of energy to sustain average temperatures, even when rooms or buildings are empty. Holmhed, a Swedish company that makes small demolition robots, may be part of the answer: its ‘jackhammers on tracks’ now have programmable remote controls - so presumably they could be instructed to go forth and tear down energy-inefficient buildings.

But microchips will not just enhance the practical aspects of running a house. Affective and aesthetical qualities can also be enriched. Artemide, the Italian lighting company, is legendary in design circles for totemic lighting fixtures such as the Tizio desktop lamp that graces designer desktops in countless films and advertisements and sells several hundred thousand units a year. But even Artemide, once a byword for object fetishism, is going digital with its remarkable Metamorfosi, which affords the householder up to twelve million different lighting combinations. So far, Metamorfosi is microprocessor controlled but stand-alone; but for how long? Potentially, it can now talk to the other lighting systems, so sooner or later it will.

A survey in the Economist estimated that 1,000 manufacturers are developing systems infastructures for the control of a houseful of gadgets - the software, transceivers, routers and other networking equipment that link the microprocessors in discrete products together. This technology takes the decentralisation of computing - which has its roots in the transition from mainframes to PCs - to an extreme, says The Economist. "Each chip has enough intelligence to carry out its basic task and to communicate its status to other chips on the network. To add intelligence to the system you (just) add a PC." Once these smart sensors and microprocessors are joined together you get yet another network - and a context in which hardware and software become the infrastructure for a new kind of service.

Embedded, but not asleep
A world in which products and appliances talk to each other sounds fantastic, but it’s not so long since the advent of electricity was greeted with similar amazement: then, objects which once had to be worked by hand, began to power themelves. Soon, objects which we now have to control ourselves, will tell themselves and each other what to do. If the rapid electrification of everyday life just two or three generations ago life is any guide, embedded computing may not be so hard to get used to for consumers. But the task for product developers and designers is harder. How should a radically new technology (or rather, family of technologies) be introduced to a public that is either ignorant of the benefits, or downright hostile to the whole idea?

When electricity was first introduced into the home, there was a tendency in industry to portray its aims, technological prowess, and its dynamic power, in mythological terms. AEG, for example, used the goddess of light as its trademark. But once electricity’s magical novelty wore off, end everyday products began to be ‘electrified’, designers had to find new ways to make products such as electric irons, kettles, lightbulbs and cookers interesting to consumers. Reasoning that, "even an electric motor must look like a birthday present," artists like AEG’s Peter Behrens turned themselves into industrial designers to accomplish just that. Today, electric motor technology has disappeared from view almost entirely. It’s there, humming away inside a swarm of everyday household products. Today’s network visionaries anticipate a future in which products are transformed from discrete lumps of matter into components of an integrated consumer appliance and office automation ‘medium.’

It’s a bewitching vision of the future - but one that may be further away than we think. James Woudhuysen, a former manager of long-term market research for Philips Sound and Vision, thinks these scenarios are suspect: "The consumer of digital media (and appliances) meets convergence only in the same way that, in a blizzard, the snow seems to ‘converge’ upon you. We all may hope that everything will one day be controlled by a single, submissive black box below the stairs - but in new technology, systems are more prone to being incompatible than to matching up with each other." In contrast to the heady days when electricity arrived, the main task of design in connection with embedded intelligence is systems integration. The creation of new design languages to articulate the wonders of domestic smartness will be less of a priority for the time being.

Nonetheless, the nature of innovation and design will have to change. In 1903, AEG’s Paul Westheim observed of design at the dawn of the electrical age, "in order to make a lucid, logical and clearly articulated entity out of an arc lamp, a complete transformation of our aesthetic notions was necessary." The same could be said of information technology today. A new presence has come into our lives, yet it lacks visible form or expression. As with electricity in 1900, so with embedded information systems now. Design is faced with an aesthetic, as well as practical, challenge: how to represent something essentially abstract in such a way that it can be used and appreciated by us all.
Ezio Manzini observes that we are living in the ‘twilight of mechanics’, an age of boundless possibility in which anything thinkable becomes possible - but when we do not know what ‘needs’ this explosion of material creativity is supposed to meet. As Manzini says, "The uncontrolled increase of performances and forms, made possible by technique, takes place beyond adequate cultural control, thus producing noise and trash."

Posted by John Thackara at 09:09 PM | Comments (0)

January 22, 2000

Design for family communication

This is a story about the European funded project - Maypole - in which we (Doors folk) were part of the team.

Informal communication - sharing jokes, teasing each other, asking what kind of day you’ve had - is an important part of everyday life. Most families also do a lot of communicating to organise and schedule shared resources: car pools and school runs in the morning; ferrying kids to sporting events after school; getting in touch for help with homework in the evening. A big proportion of the 100 billion minutes of telephone calls made each year are short-distance - so the market for any service that adds value to local, intra-community communications is potentially vast. This is why Maypole focuses on new ways to enhance social communications among an extended family in the community.

Early on, two real-world communities were researched by a variety of methods (see picture and caption) at a secondary school in Vienna, Austria, and among a scout troop in Helsinki, Finland. In looking for communication distinctions in this context, the Maypole team realised that some logistical tasks, like car sharing, were too complex - and too riddled with security issues - to be tackled in this kind of project. They decided instead to focus on social communication- the constant chatting, ‘grooming’ and bonding that keep families and communities healthy.

Maypole researchers discovered that communication through pictures fosters unexpected forms of social interaction. Images are already used socially in lots of different ways - and on a huge scale: last year, more than 2,700 photographs a second were taken world-wide. Designers and community members came up with lots of new ways to use images. Early ideas ranged from pure fun (‘Look, this is Daddy with the head of Mr. Bean’) to the need for reassurance (‘Look, our baby is happy in the day-care centre’). Working with children and parents, Maypole partners developed dozens of scenarios before selecting the most promising four pictorial communication concepts - different devices that talk to each other in a local network. These will now be developed, prototyped and tested in field trials.

The final year of the project (through to late 1999) involves the development of these prototypes. These will be working models, developed by Maypole’s technology partner, Nokia, the Finland-based consumer electronics company; or interaction designs made by Ideo, a leading interaction design company. The Center for User Research & Engineering in Vienna, and the Helsinki University of Technology, are leading the project’s user-research; Meru Research of The Netherlands researches process methodology. The project is managed, and its results communicated, by the Netherlands Design Institute.

On the Maypole project chart - nicknamed ‘the courgette plant’ by team members - different strands of work progress on their own for weeks at a time - but come together and interact with each other at three-monthly project meetings - the red bits. The collaboration has worked because different disciplines are only asked to compromise at intervals.
There has of course been tension between mono-disciplinary work and inter-disciplinary synthesis - but so far the tension has produced mainly positive energy, say team members.

Posted by John Thackara at 05:25 PM | Comments (0)