Just came across this project by Kristin Grafe, Gene Lu, Russ Maschmeyer and Evinn Quinn at the School of Visual Arts in NY. It’s a beautifully executed example of interaction design looking at the idea of technological heirlooms. Something close to my heart. Project page is here.
Bill is one of the original interaction design guys, like Bill Moggridge and Gillian Crampton Smith, who did a lot of foundational work, particularly in eduction, in establishing the discipline. He worked at Xerox, at IDEO and at Paul Allen’s Interval Research group.
The thing I most enjoyed about this talk was how much it was basically just a chat, an unstructured discourse about the history of interaction design, the importance of artefacts and craft. It stumbled a little towards the end (he never really covered everything he hoped – I wish he’d got into schools a little) but that casualness was compelling.
Rather than use slides Bill sat at an overhead camera, sketching with a conte crayon, creating little charts, arrows, triangular figures.
A few things stuck with me in terms of actual content. The emphasis on building and discovering – working with materials. I loved his phrase “designers put things between people and the world”. He described every interaction as being either a map or a path. He talked about the evolution of interaction design in terms of cognitive “mentalities” (from Piaget) three of which are enactive (given kinaesthetics – “doing” – which we’re born with), iconic (representations – “seeing” – which we learn first) and symbolic (Ax=y – “knowing” – which we aspire to as a tool for thinking). This last he equated with command line interfaces. He tied graphical user interfaces with iconic representations. Lastly, he lamented that we’re missing an opportunity to build truly kinaesthetic experiences.
Lisa Strausfeld spoke in the afternoon. She’s now a partner at Pentagram, but I think of her as one of many talented graduates of Muriel Cooper’s Visible Languages Workshop at MIT. I don’t have any shots of this talk because, after a battle of wills with the facilities people, most of it was in semi darkness to show her work in best effect. She showed a combination of examples of her amazing portfolio, tied to examples of driving philosophies.
Briefly, these were:
- Design one solution.
- LATCH – 5 ways of organizing information – Location, Alphabetical, Time, Category and Hierarchy (Lisa added “Network” as a 6th). From Richard Saul Wurman.
- Find, don’t invent (in the context of solutions she talked about how ideas emerged from finding meaning in data).
- Engagement, Context, Reference (“ECR” from Curtis Wong). A way of thinking about drawing in people with content.
- Immersion – people should be IN your designs.
- Information is the interface.
- The interface can make the information more engaging.
- Design a continuous experience.
- Do one thing perfectly. Repeat.
- Be the audience.
Here work has an amazing amount of integrity and continuity to it. You can see the lineage all the way from her work at MIT in 1994 (see Information Landscapes) to the recent Pentagram website redesign.
As promised a while ago, when I posted the videos of the Backup Box and Digital Slide Viewer, I’ve finally put together something that shows the Timecard device (see video below). This is a timeline viewer, meant to represent someone’s life, that we imagine might be the digital equivalent of a photo album or baby book. We’d like to think that it might become a precious object for a family, forming a new class of digital heirloom.
Thanks to presenter Claudia Hammond and producer Fiona Hill from BBC Radio 4’s All In The Mind show for a really great edit of a conversation we had in Cambridge last Wednesday about our Technology Heirlooms work. It was broadcast last night on Radio 4, is repeated again today at 4:30pm, and thanks to the speed of the Internets is already available to stream and as a podcast.
It’s a 10 minute segment about 9 minutes into the show in which Abi and I talk about the objects we’ve designed, as well as some of the issues of overload and longevity for digital artefacts that might be inherited from us when we pass away.
If you’re interested in the topic here are some bits to read:
- An Introduction to Technology Heirlooms – A high level description of some of the issues around the topic of keeping and bequeathing digital things.
- Some Technology Heirlooms – Descriptions and images of the three technology heirlooms we’ve built so far, including the Timecard device discussed in the show.
- Technology Heirlooms videos – This blog post doesn’t yet have a video of the Timecard device discussed in the show, but does have content I’ve created for two other objects, the Backup Box and the Digital Slide Viewer.
[UPDATE: BBC Online did a write up of this chat here: Life Goes Online After Death with ‘Memory Boxes’]
I mentioned in my post on Technology Heirlooms from a long time ago that at some point I was going to start drilling down on specific topics in the project in order to describe them in more detail. Like many ideas promised online, this is another one that hasn’t quite come to pass as intended.
So I thought what I’d do to fill the awkward silence is post some of the more inspirational work that other people have done that is tied to different aspects of this project. These are things that’ I’ve netted as part of the trawling I do looking for things to post to the trends blog that I maintain.
I thought I’d start with some beautiful projects that relate to the repurposing of digital objects. One issue with a technology heirloom is that it’s lifetime as a useful technological entity is a limited one, even if it’s a compelling artefact. Often it is superseded by something better or cooler, like the newest phone that comes along, or a change in format such as the move from VHS to DVD. With a loss in purpose it can become something we feel compelled to discard, even if it has sentiment to us.
One way to extend the life of the artefact, to continue to allow a sentimental item to have a function in our lives, is to subvert it, and make it do something that IS contemporary. If it can continue to have use it gives us a reason to not throw away something we’d rather keep. It allows us to “fix” something in a way that keeps it as part of our lives.
Here are some great projects that subvert or reconfigure artefacts in a way that gives them new purpose and extends their lifetime.
Bootleg Objects from Droog
The creations of Markus Bader (www.markusbader.net) and designer Max Wolf, presented as part of the Droog Design collective, these are beautiful reworkings of classic stereo equipment produced by Braun and Bang & Ollufson in the 60s and 70s. They are very sensitive to the original design spirit of the objects, while subtly and sometimes humorously, bringing them up to date technologically.
"the cassette slot now houses a smart card reader. Further, a DVD-drive is hidden behind a previously unused groove in the front panel, and a 16:9 TFT display has joined the object on the sly. The legendary slider control formerly used to control the radio tuning now becomes both a display and controller for a whole slew of functions. Consequently, instead of “tuning” the label now reads “anything”."
Objects by Dennis De Bel
Dennis juxtaposes multiple objects within one another to create new hybrids. Again, you can imagine these changes extending the life of both objects, while breathing new purpose into them.
"Associations made between everyday objects and media result in hybrid forms and ‘new media’."
Combination between a recordplayer and sewingmachine.
Form meets function, a vacuum cleaner with built in harmonium (air organ).
Hulger produces classic phones that plug into modern technology. They remind you of their Bakelite ancestors, but plug into modern mobile phones. That juxtaposition of the classic with the contemporary is compelling somehow. I think originally they repurposed real phones, giving them new life by freeing them from their legacy technology. Now they make their phones from scratch, but they are still beautifully crafted, with longevity in mind.
The Arduino Project Box by Steve Cooley
I like the general-purpose feel of this device, designed to accept all kinds of inputs and outputs, combined with its very retro feel. It feels like a mysterious black box. I can imagine that it might be a device used throughout the years by a family for a broad number of purposes (although I don’t know what those purposes are), each new generation hacking it for unexpected, contemporary needs.
LifeWriter by Christa Sommerer and Laurent Mignonneau
Again, an old object given new life, this time using a typewriter as a user interface to drive a Game of Life. I have an old L.C.Smith No. 5 typewriter at home that I keep for purely aesthetic reasons. The idea that it could have a second life as a game device, as a competitor to my XBox, is compelling.
100 Chairs, 100 Days by Martino Gamper
A magnificent effort of repurposing. Starting with a warehouse of discarded chairs, Martino combined elements of different models to create something new. Each chair keeps aspects of its old personality, combined in a new and schizophrenic way, creating unexpected new visual and physical experiences.
E-Mail Machine by Tom Igoe
Here’s Tom’s repurposing of an old meter, coupled with a clock face, that tells him how many kilobytes of e-mail he’s received. I don’t detect any sentimentality from Tom towards the artefact here, but I like the idea that it might have passed down through his family, and this new use has kept it alive.
Michael Shorter, an intern with me in Cambridge, designed something similar during his time with us, this time repurposing an old voltmeter to tell us something about the use of electricity in our lab. Again, that connection between longevity and ecology seems like a positive one.
iPod Horn by Matt Richmond
This project is the simple combination of a block of walnut and a old horn found at an antique store. Again, I like the implication of the reuse of an old family object, but I also like the idea that there’s nothing digital about this set up. The sound travels from the iPhone to the speaker through a simple channel carved in the wood. It’s a way of carrying sound that seems unbreakable because of it’s technological simplicity.
I’ve posted a couple of videos of the Digital Slide Viewer and the Backup Box prototypes that are described in my earlier entry entitled Some Technology Heirlooms.
I hope to make one for Timecard as soon as we get them back from out “volunteers”.
[UPDATE 9th Dec. 2010 – Just added the Timecard video]
Videos have just been posted for the six student presentations from this year’s Microsoft Design Expo. This is an international competition we’ve run for a decade, inviting various design colleges to do projects to a brief that we set. They pick their best student team and send them to Redmond to present their work at the Faculty Summit.
This is the third year that I’ve been a coordinator for a school in the UK. The first two were with Dundee University, and because we try and mix up the schools regularly, this year I picked Central Saint Martins to participate. Slightly radically, we’ve been working with the Textile Futures course. This is an amazing department, combining technology with the craft of surfaces. Their work was really challenging and conceptual, and quite unlike anything that Microsoft employees tend to get exposed to. Well done to Natsai Chieza and Amy Congdon (from the team Social Pica) for inspiring the audience, and presenting so well. And well done to all the students on the course for some beautifully compelling work.
Here are the shots from our two crits (in March and May). They’re very random and anonymous, as was my photography, but compelling.
On the 10th of April I helped host a workshop session at this years Computer Human Interaction conference (known by the shorthand “CHI”) in Atlanta, Georgia, with Mike Massimi (who really did the bulk of the work), Dave Kirk and Will Odom. I’m a little late getting this out, but I thought I’d write up some thoughts about the experience, as well as use this blog post as a place to write up the notes from my breakout session during the day, which was on “artefacts”.
Workshops are run before the conference proper begins, and are a chance for groups of like minded people to get together to discuss and learn more about a topic area. Our topic was “Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) at the End of Life”.
Lunch at Max Lager’s
The term HCI is getting a little outdated in this context, really. It’s a term used in our industry as shorthand for “people using technology”, although it sounds way more geeky than that. What the 11 of us who met were primarily interested in was how technology is being used, or might be used, during the difficult period towards the end of a persons life and after.
Mike Massimi’s original call for participation gives you a good sense of the themes in more detail, and the position papers we received from participants show the variety of work going on in this area. These are all downloadable from the site and worth a closer look. For example, some of the participants had studied activity on social networking sites such as Facebook after someone in a community had passed away. Others looked at how technology might make decision making easier for those approaching the end of their lives. A few papers dealt with the use of digital media in this space, from creating personal chronicles of a life, to photographing people after they had passed away. My own interest was through the work I’ve been doing on Technology Heirlooms, looking at the process of passing digital things on at the end of life.
It all sounds very morbid, but actually wasn’t. I think we had a very thoughtful, thought-provoking and insightful day, with some great discussion and some practical next steps. We spent quite a bit of time doing introductions, and giving each participant time to explain their work. It’s always great to hear first hand accounts of motivations and outcomes.
Then after lunch we did a classic post-it note exercise, developing a grouping the different themes we had picked up during the day. We found 4 themes that emerged:
- The Temporal – about the process before, during and after bereavement. Something we called the “Narrative of Dying”.
- Identity, Ethics and Social Networks – around issues of online identity. How control of someone’s online identity comes about after their death and the ethics of then managing someone else’s online presences.
- The Ethics of Research Practice – dealing specifically with how researchers should do their work sensitively in this domain.
- Artefacts – around issues of dealing with “stuff” before and after bereavement.
ARTEFACTS. PROS AND CONS.
I joined the group (consisting of Angela Riechers, Jim Kosem and Daniela Petrelli) that took on the last of these topics, on Artefacts. We really felt like this was an issue of the tension between digital and physical things, that somehow we didn’t understand what we might be losing as heirlooms shift from being ‘real’ to ‘virtual’. We decided to use the time listing out the positives of each.
There was a suspicion in our group that our relationship and sentimentality towards physical things was a generational thing. That new generations, who spent more time with the digital than the physical, wouldn’t feel the same bias as some of us towards the physical.
There was also a sense that physical things were losing their value, as they become transient and temporary holders of digital content. An example of this kind of object is a mobile phone, which is typically replaced every 14 months.
An interesting outcome of these lists are that the positives of one form of artefact are inevitably a negative for the other. And in many cases the reverse of a positive of one artefact type was a positive of the other. So, for example, the ‘uniqueness’ of a physical thing was seen as a positive – the fact that there’s only one of each physical thing makes it somehow more precious. So somehow the fact that digital things are easy to copy and therefore can’t be considered unique cheapens them. At the same time, the fact that a digital thing can be so easily duplicated is also a positive. It makes a digital thing shareable amongst family members, for example, with no arguments over ownership.
So here is the list of positive attributes of physical things:
- Physical things are unique.
- Physical things are precious.
- Physical things have a “smell” – subtle qualities of being physical.
- Physical (particularly old) things have an aesthetic that comes with time.
- Physical things have to be curated because they take up real space. You can’t keep a limitless number. They force decision making.
- Therefore, physical things have been ‘selected’, which makes them more meaningful.
- Physical things have stories associated with them about their physicality.
- Physical things get a patina through their knocks that also tell their story.
- Books exemplify a special example of the physical. They have attributes that it’s hard for the digital to match (such as browsability, portability)
- Physical things can be personalised and changed.
And here’s the positive attributes of digital things:
- Digital things do not take up space – there’s no cost associated with keeping them and they are very portable.
- We can have a serendipitous relationship with digital things that can be delightful. I can put all 60 gigabytes of my music collection on random, for example, and find songs I haven’t listened to in decades.
- Digital things can have rich interactions, motion etc.
- Digital things can be easily duplicated and shared.
- Digital things do not crumble.
- Digital things can be augmented with metadata – objects can carry their stories, for example.
And a few things we found that both shared:
- Both physical and digital things need to be maintained to make sure they persist.
- Both digital and physical things make us guilty if we don’t sort them out.
- We feel delight when we randomly come across lost or forgotten things, whether they are digital or physical.
- Both need curating, but for different reason. For physical things we need to decide what to keep in order to keep our environments sane. For digital things we curate to make special, in order to elevate the “best” for sharing for example.
This feels like a useful list, for me at least, as we continue to think about the digital and physical forms that we reminisce with through the things we keep. Relevant to the Technology Heirlooms work, anyway.
Some lovely objects with history.
"Media Vintage is a series of interactive electronic textiles that contain memories. Alpha is a suitcase in which you can weave temporary secret messages in Morse code. Bravo is a tapestry that sings a song from long ago when your fingers read the embroidered Braille. Charlie is a trench-coat that reads fabric punchcards and tells you stories from an old man’s life."
I seem to have a strange and potentially unhealthy obsession with boxing up technology. I guess this started with Shoebox a number of years ago (see paper) and has continued in the last year as my wood-veneering skills have grown and I’ve been able to wrap a number of displays in European-Oak-veneered MDF (thanks Mark for getting me going with this).
Maybe that’s why I admire this box so much. Partially it’s the woodwork, but also because it’s a non-digital manifestation of the Backup Box, which backs up your Twitter feeds so you can reminisce about them later.
Christopher Weingarten is a music critic who tweets his 140 character reviews at 1000timesYes. Last year he promised to tweet 1000 reviews. That done, he’s now offering them, “backed up” into this beautiful box, each one hand typed onto library cards. Lovely. (Also available here for a bargain price of $115).