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Digging ourselves out of the box.

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Above is a series of photographs of "Frames" an art installation by Andrew Kim - who also happens to be the man behind minimally minimal, a fantastically on-point blog and concept portfolio I would highly recommend checking out if you are looking for a bit of insight and inspiration.  Kim's "frames" reveal to us the power the frame can have by contextualizing and organizing content.  Frames isolate and deliver at the same time.  

...it seems only right that cars should begin driving themselves and we can go back to watching the television of coastlines and highways that exist between our homes and our workplaces.

Starting with Kim's "Frames" is a great way to begin today's blog...the sum of four sides:  digging ourselves out of the box.  It is a blog about the omnipresence of the frame in our lives.  Andrew Kim has done us the favor of being very literal about it - simplifying the message in a way only artistic expression can and should.   But there are many other examples of a growing discussions around the role of frames in how we experience our modern lives.  There is a great quote from Robert Pirsig, author of "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance" about why he travels on a motorcycle (and also why he doesn't wear a helmet):

"You see things vacationing on a motorcycle in a way that is completely different from any other.
In a car you're always in a compartment, and because you're used to it, you don't realize that through that car window everything you see is just more TV.  You're a passive observer and it is all moving by you boringly in a frame."

What a brilliant observation - the act of driving truly is so close to a passive activity...it seems only right that cars should begin driving themselves and we can go back to watching the television of coastlines and highways that exist between our homes and our workplaces.  Whether we are gazing through windows, walking through rectangular doorways, watching our televisions or recognizing our reflections in framed mirrors - it seems that life begins and ends at the end of a tunnel but repeatedly until death we pass from one frame into the next.   It isn't architecture or automobiles I wanted to talk about today, though.  It is technology and the content of our digital lives.    

 

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A couple of this year's hottest digital frames.  Add these to human beings and you get....this:

 

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It is unfortunate that "checking in" to your facebook requires a certain degree of "checking out"

 

Above is a series from the Microsoft Windows Phone ad campaign "Be Here Now."  It aptly refers the way digital devices pull us away from "real world' experiences and deeper into the tiny rectangular universe of Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.  I love the truth in the campaign, but I think it is a bit inauthentic of Microsoft to make the claim that somehow a windows phone will free you from the frame-centric, somnambulant, zombie-state which comes along with the territory of channeling all of that digital goodness through a 4 inch display.  They have made some improvements to how quickly you can get in and out of certain features like photo-taking, status checking and internet searching, but in the end these tiny rectangular objects are still standing between us and the full attention those around us (who aren't checking their own smartphones) deserve.  I think this is an increasingly sore spot for a society deep in the process of the digital revolution...the idea that technology is somehow forcing us to "tune in and check out."

It is hard to feel a sore spot without dreaming of relief.  It is unfortunate that "checking in" to your facebook requires a certain degree of "checking out" - or at the very least, holding a screen between you and the faces of those around you...touching a screen and not a fork, or a hand, or the steering wheel of your car.  I believe that technology and design will soon relieve us of this problem, and it is one prediction one cannot help but expect to come true because it stems from a need so deep and so essential in all of us:  the need to connect.  While our digital interactions do offer a means of connection, it is an imperfect and deeply flawed way to interact with the world.  There are already many signs that the separation between digital experiences and "real" ones will eventually disappear.  The first, most essential step in this process will be the dissolution of the screen.

The dissolution of the Screen:  Transparency.

I have been interested in transparent display technology for a while now.  Nearly every time I bring it up, I get asked the question: "yeah, but what is it good for?"  I get asked this question by everyone, especially those who are currently manufacturing transparent display technology (LG, Samsung, AUO to name a few).  They are right to ask this, especially because right now there are very few usage models which are at all developed enough to take advantage of a transparent screen (augmented reality is a common answer).  My answer is simply this:  Connection.  The ability to connect with something or someone on the other side of a display could be exceptionally powerful.  

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Let's start with this most basic application.  Above is the Loewe "Invisio" transparent TV concept by designer Michael Friebe.  There is nothing more disruptive in my home than the somber presence of my 42" flatscreen TV.  When I am not using it (most of the time), it just sits there, absorbing light, sucking the air out of the room.   All of the furniture faces it, nothing surrounds it - the room feels unused when the TV is off - and in this way, it is as if the TV is insisting to be used, to be turned on and no longer be the inactive center of attention.  Invisio is an obvious improvement to that problem.  The TV retreats from focus when it is turned off, and becomes a window into the environment of the home, not a monolith to the act of watching television.  

 

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Another interesting area I think about from time to time is the concept of two-way computing.  This is a bit of a challenging concept, but it is built on the idea that we could benefit from broadcasting digital information into our environment in a way that this information can be interacted with and delivered back to us.   Above is a clip from "The Future of Screen Technology" - a video created by The Astonishing Tribe, a group of UI engineers and designers recently acquired by RIM/Blackberry.  It's interesting to see transparent technology facilitate a new interaction in this way.

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The next application is a bit more complex, but relates to the uses that most often come to mind when thinking about transparent display technology:  the ability to overlay digital information over our environment by using the display as a sort of digital lens.   Shown above is a Microsoft 2019 vision concept which shows a person using a tablet along with an augmented reality program to identify and call up information about the Blue Sage plant.  Check out the opaque hand-grip on the side - not much more footprint than a smartphone, don't you think?  I could see a whole PC architecture going in there 7 years from now, no prob.

 

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Google's "Project Glass" is another example of the "digital lens" which eliminates the need for touch controls and instead strives to integrate computing very deeply into our personas and daily interactions.  The topic of wearable computing tends to spark deep conversations between my colleagues with words like "cyborg" and "cybergeek" popping up here and there.  It isn't surprising, because a product like this starts to come very close to digital augmentation - to the grafting of our digital life onto our real-world lives and identities.

Going transparent turns our displays into a two-way street, rather than the attention sucking "black holes" they are today...and this is a strong step toward pulling us back out of the swamp of digital life and back into the world we actually live in.  It is a strong step toward relieving the strain digital devices currently place on our relationships.  It's not the only way to do it, though. 

The dissolution of the Screen:  Projection and Overlay.

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Above is a still from Frog Design's "Future 2020" concept video.  It is filled with examples of how digital information can overlay and inform our environment.  The key here is that the role of "devices" is greatly diminished, and it is the information itself which takes center stage in the interactions. 

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Here is another clip from Pranav Mistry's "Sixth Sense" device which overlays digital interactions over analog objects and landmarks...essentially linking them to the digital world through the application of both projection (output) and gesture sensing (input).  Below is an example of how a device like this can turn any object into...any other object...simply by overlaying a new digital function.

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All of this is interesting when it comes to taking digital information and applying it to the world we live in....a sort of insertion or overlay of the digital world.  But a third, most interesting possibility is the act of integration of the digital world into the physical one.  I'm talking about digital objects, not devices.

Dissolution of the screen:  Object love.

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Zero N is a computer controlled environment in which objects sense and interact with whatever exists inside of it - digitally operated or not.   It is a digitally aware world, with certain laws (in this case a magnetic field which creates the levitation and locomotion of this metal ball), and certain conditions (such as lighting, temperature, etc).  Imagine a world where physical objects responded by gesture, by command or even by thought.  In this case, the digital realm is a way of communicating intent to the physical one, and the act of interacting with it feels more like living in a world without boundaries than it feels like sitting in front of a TV screen.

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Above is the "Radio Ball" a digital object created by a friend of mine, Benoit Collette.  It takes the fairly complex interaction of programming and selecting a radio station and turns it into a simple and delightful physical interaction through the combination of a radio tuner and an accelerometer sensor.  Each facet or "cell" contains the coordinates for a radio channel.  Explore the available channels by twisting and turning the ball, once you find one you like (the top cell is the selector) simply write the station on the cell facing up and set the ball down for some easy listening.

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Sometimes I look around me and I am struck with a sense of...I don't know...a sense of living in the past.   When I look at an old photograph and see horses and carriages in the streets, or pocketwatches in pockets, or really any other sort of obsolete technology, I am struck by the contrast between that era and mine.   Sometimes, though, I feel like I am struck by the contrast between my era and one that has yet to exist.  I often feel this way when I look at a skyline bisected by powerlines, or when I see miles of backed up traffic...I often feel this way when I see people absorbed in their smartphone and tablet screens at restaurants and bus stations.  We ARE living in the past, but so has everyone who has ever existed.  We are lucky to observe progress in our lifetimes, and with the aid of technology, we are set to observe the greatest leaps of progress we have ever experienced.  So far we have spent the last 60 or 70 years climbing deeper and deeper into our TV sets and computer screens, I believe the coming decade will watch us as we climb out of these boxes and look around for the first time in a very long time.   I am extremely enthusiastic of what the contrast between those two eras will look like.

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The end of the world: Or "how I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Facebook"

“As man advances in civilization, and small tribes are united into larger communities, the simplest reason would tell each individual that he ought to extend his social instincts and sympathies to all members of the same nation, though personally unknown to him. This point being once reached, there is only an artificial barrier to prevent his sympathies extending to the men of all nations and races.” 
― Charles DarwinThe Descent of Man

I love that quote.

It came to me a month ago while I was listening to "Philosophy Talk" on NPR.  For those of you who don't know, Philosophy Talk is a program hosted by two Stanford philosophy professors who take on a key topic, then discuss various questions asked of them on that topic by callers and members of the audience.   One such question was this:  "Considering all of the scientific proof and indications that global warming is threatening the future of our species, how is it that we are too stupid to change our habits and behaviors?"

The thought came to me that we may not have been lacking the ability to think globally all these millions of years, what we have lacked...right up until the last 15-20 years, were the TOOLS to develop a global awareness.

One of the hosts came back with a wonderful answer which I will paraphrase:  "If you look at it, global warming is a Global Problem due to complex systems and forces happening all over the world...but for the past millions of years, we have evolved to see the guy in front of us, not to see the world in its totality."   He suggested that it might be a bit unnatural for us to internalize and adopt a sense of peril related to something only visible from outer space, from a recently published scientific journal, or from that complicated emotional realm of the "personally unknown."  

I made a point of putting "personally unknown" in there because I think that is the root of what Darwin was going for in the quote at the top of the page.  Big D was often vocal about how ruthless and cruel the natural world was - filled with self-interest and the struggle for survival.  However, Darwin was also vocal about how he clearly believed that humanity possessed a very remarkable ability to love - to empathize and to extend itself beyond the limits of individualism.  You could say that the PT host was just trying to explain that you can't turn around millions of years of evolution overnight, but Darwin believed that we had ALREADY evolved into a species capable of having true connections outside of the physical boundaries of our immediate lives.    

I'll tell you right now, I'm on Darwin's side on this one.  I don't think we are lacking in our capacity to process and solve this global problem, the lack is elsewhere.  As an industrial designer, I am constantly trying to understand the various effects products have on our lives.  The thought came to me that we may not have been lacking the ability to think globally all these millions of years, what we have lacked...right up until the last 15-20 years, were the TOOLS to develop a global awareness.   And that is this relationship between our evolved ability to "think global" and the rapidly increasing set of tools  in our toolbox I wanted to talk about today.

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Distance ain't what it used to be.

Above is a heavily stylized visual representation of the Facebook network.  As you can see some continents are very bright (highly facebook-ified) and some are very dark with only a few facebookified areas.  When I look at this map, I am reminded of a study called "The Geography of Twitter" from the University of Toronto which tracked the tweets and twittered relationships of 50,000 subjects.  From there they identified 2,000 "dyadic tweeters" or pairs of tweeters who frequently interact.  What they found was that these relationships weren't occurring independently of geography, but rather very much in sync with the dominant domestic airline routes in the country.  It seems the extent of an individual's ability to conveniently travel seems to have a correlation to how far their primary digital social network extends.   I find this a wonderful correlation between two powerful, awareness-growing tools:  Jet Planes (convenient travel) and Digital Social Networking (the ability to connect and both actively and passively monitor the activities of friends and acquaintances).   By the way, if you look closely at the map above, you can see (ghosted in the white glow of high-volume facebook traffic) the outline of the I-5 corridor which runs down most of the US west coast.

Our minds are elsewhere, but that's not a disaster.

 

 

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We put a meaningful percentage of our consciousness into this place where identity is more of an idea than it is a fact...

The shot above is from the movie "Until the End of the World."   This is a scene in which a machine is introduced which can record and play back your dreams.   As the protagonists await the cataclysmic arrival of a nuclear satellite somewhere deep in the Australian bush, one of them becomes addicted to this machine.  She begins spending nearly all of her time resting in the darkness, living and re-living her dreams.   She is finally rescued from this addiction by a character in the film who pulls her back to reality by reciting from a novel...he saves her with words.  This, in my mind, symbolizes a deep emotional battle people are fighting every day regarding the role of technology in their lives...and I'll get deeper into where that battle may be headed in the short term in another post. For now, though, people of my generation and younger (especially younger) also spend a lot of time now moving in an out of an abstract digital world - often at the cost of some engagement with our "real world" lives and relationships.   Why do we do it?  Well, clearly we are getting something vaguely equivalent to the sort of social interaction we crave as human beings from this digital media.  Many attribute this as a new form of escapism brought on by technology, and others would say it is evidence of a new "fractured self."  But the idea of a fractured self is not a new one. 

If you talk to an astrologer, they will tell you that your existence on Earth is subject to three primary influences:  The Sun, which is the most powerful influence, is connected to your greater nature.  The Moon, second most powerful, is the influence of your inner self, or the person you feel yourself to be.   And the Ascendent, or rising sign, is the influence of your external self, or how you are perceived by others.  I believe that the realm of digital media and social networks is the realm where our internal and external selves are set loose to play.  It is here that we unload how we wish to be perceived, and here where we receive feedback from others on a daily basis.  We put a meaningful percentage of our consciousness into this place where identity is more of an idea than it is a fact...every day and with each generation that percentage grows.  This, to me, is the proof that we do not just merely see "what is in front of us" - in fact, as internet use grows, and the devices we use to access it become more ubiquitous, it seems we see less and less of what is in front of us. 

So, we are not just capable, but apt to lose ourselves in an abstract world once we are given the tools to do so.  You would think that would bother me, but it doesn't.  I think this is just the sort of attribute a species requires in order to develop a healthy global awareness. 

We simply have more available data about ourselves than ever before.

 

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Above is a photograph of a whale taken by Chris Jordan.  Well, actually it is a photograph of 50,000 plastic trash bags which have been gathered and composed into the shape of a whale. 

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As the pace of our consumption has grown, our grip on our own individual part has been missing.

Much of Chris Jordan's work is centered on the idea of taking massive numbers of individual objects and gathering them together in such a way that they take on a greater, more significant form.  It is no surprise that his subject matter is consistently centered on environmental issues

That's pretty much what Darwin was talking about, wasn't it?  And the guy on Philosophy Talk?  The latter says we have evolved to see the bags, but we have yet to see the whale...and Darwin suggests that we, out of all of the species on Earth are the only ones who can see the whale for what it is - see the forest from the trees to borrow from another metaphor.  Darwin believed the universe was a dark and savage place and yet he also believed in humanity (though he was a bit late to include ALL humans in this class).  As I mentioned before, he believed humans were the only species on Earth capable of broad empathy, capable of a love of all creatures, and the only species which possesses an inherent ability to rationally extend our sympathies beyond the borders of our communities, Nations and Continents.  He believed that, like physicality, social instincts could also evolve according to adaptation to environmental conditions.

As the pace of our consumption has grown, our grip on our own individual part has been missing.   How many coffee cups have you used this year?  Toilet paper rolls?  How many gallons of water?  How much money have you spent on cigarettes, or clothes, or songs in your library?  Modern-day consumption is very much an "in the now" sort of thing and it is easy for these items to slip away into a wash of anonymous moment lost.

All of these items, moments and facts can become blurry to remember for most, but not all.   There is a new trend, enabled by our digital devices, which is greatly intriguing some of my Intel colleagues.  It is called the "Quantified Self" - or the act of using technology to track oneself over long periods of time.

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Here is an infographic created by Nicholas Felton, co-creator of a self tracking application daytum.  For several years he has been tracking everyday interactions and gathering them into reports which he then posts online for everyone to see.  These reports have detailed information in them ranging from the number of times he took a taxi (and the average distance of all taxi trips next to the longest and shortest trip), to how many milligrams of caffeine he ingested throughout the year, each month, each day.   This may seem a bit extreme, but wait a minute....how many of YOU use self tracking software every day?  Check out this list for some tips on where to find top-notch quantified self software - I'll bet you will recognize a few of them (I'm a huge fan of Mint.com, BTW).

If you are looking for something slightly less digital, check out the image below:

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This is a project which comes from Fernd Van Engelen, a friend and former boss of mine who now heads up the ID team at Artefact.  Called 999 bottles, this is a re-usable steel water bottle, that helps you keep track of your steadily shrinking eco footprint as you defer water consumption from wasteful, non-biodegradable plastic containers to one simple but beautiful container.  The object becomes more interesting over time as the process of counting and keeping track begins delivering it's own value...Artefact's specialty lies in combining the digital and the physical, so the project wouldn't have been complete without an accompanying online resource which can take your tallies and put them in a broader context:  "Saved 226 bottles?  That's equivalent to 10 gallons of oil, which is enough to drive 500 miles."  The lesson here is that a series of small decisions can scale to have greater consequences - an ideal message for developing global awareness.

The right tools for the right job...in the nick of time?

 

I believe the tools and behaviors associated with the quantified self are another example of new tools we are using to develop a broader awareness than what our run-of-the mill everyday existence allows us.  They, like the Jet Plane, like Digital Social Networking, like our ever present digital butler buddies (Smartphones), like so many new tools we have allow us to extend our awareness beyond ourselves.   It used to be that our eyes and ears and hands were sufficient to change our world.  Now, entire nations are vehicles of change, and it is only a collective effort that can make a difference.  The tools which link individual action to collective needs have been developing and evolving since the beginning of the industrial age - take the telegraph, the locomotive, the radio, the television...all of this technology to break down the barriers of time and distance.   Here we are, for the first time in history, facing a massive global crisis of our own creation...and here we are, for the first time in history, creating the tools we need to adapt and evolve to address the threat.  The future is worrisome at this point, and the next generation will face even more danger than we do...but I feel it is also a pioneering time for our species.    An exciting time.

 

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