Category Archives: Interesting or strange

Reflections on possession

I really enjoyed the turn of phrase and subtlety embodied in this article on Technology Review by Simson L. Garfinkel on the gains and loss in the shift of our possessions from physical things to digital. While it has the same luddite sense as my own work – that maybe this is only an issue for people who actually experienced physical possessions like books and LPs and won’t be for forthcoming generations who never did – and I didn’t learn anything particularly new, Garfinkel sure can turn a nice phrase. The article could do with a few paragraph breaks, though!

A little sample…

There will never be a well-worn copy of my favorite digital book.Dissolving physical possessions into the cloud is certainly convenient. It may even make us less covetous and more inclined to share. But this new form of property is also shaping up to have more serious consequences than the loss of a few conversations. One is that those previously inanimate possessions can now talk about you behind your back. Watch a movie on Netflix or Amazon, and the company’s servers know who you are and what you watch, when you watch it, where you’re watching from (more or less), and even when you fast-forward.


Physical landlords can’t have a tenant’s possessions trucked off to the dump without due process; even those who withhold rent are given a chance to fight eviction in court. Cloud providers should similarly be prohibited from deleting your data at will, and there should be a legally mandated process for moving digital possessions to another cloud—or copying it to your home computer.

A Cloud over Ownership  – Technology Review

jenny bv lee: immateriality – the future human

Great to see some publicity on DesignBoom for Jenny Lee’s project “Immateriality – The Future Human”. This was a standout from this year’s Textile Futures degree show at Central Saint Martin’s College of Art and Design. This is the course we worked on a couple of year’s ago for Microsoft’s Design Expo.

Jenny imagines digital skin as a virtual overlay, providing a strange, biological anonymity, a morphing mask. In addition to some great research work she had a live demo at the show that used augmented reality to overlay visitors faces with strange, biological growths (see bottom picture).
jenny bv lee: immateriality – the future human

"I designed a collection of virtual digital skins that was inspired by morphogenesis and mineral crystalisation processes. a series of radical non-human like aesthetics were fashioned, to engage the public to consider if we have the tools to-redesign ourselves, would we still look, feel and be human? I also worked in collaboration with a company called holition who deal with a range of 3d technologies in particular augmented reality. augmented reality technology blurs the boundaries between the real and the virtual worlds; it superimposes graphics, audio and other sense enhancements over a live view of the world. holition and I designed and developed new ways to utilise and implement the AR to enable a more tactile and tangible response to technology, bridging the gap between the immaterial and material worlds. we translated the digital skins into the technology, and developed face-tracking ar to create a virtual experience that would enable the public to interact and visualise the future technological impact on society and the self."




A few of my favourite repurposing projects

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 ( 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 Phones

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.


A backup of Twitter

Really stunning news that the entire Twitter archive since 2006 is going to be handed over, or I guess duplicated, in the Library of Congress. That gives us a sense of how this body of data can be seen as a mass record of the thoughts of a vast population.

I find it a little odd that quite a lot of the commentary seems to be about the scientific importance of this move, like you can’t just analyze Twitter data directly on the site itself. For example, this comment:

I’m no Ph.D., but it boggles my mind to think what we might be able to learn about ourselves and the world around us from this wealth of data.

This is from Matt Raymond, who blogs directly for the Library, so I’m sure I’m missing something. Matt goes on to say the following, though, which I think is really the point. This move is about historical preservation, reminiscence, and a shared heritage:

Just a few examples of important tweets in the past few years include the first-ever tweet from Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey (, President Obama’s tweet about winning the 2008 election (, and a set of two tweets from a photojournalist who was arrested in Egypt and then freed because of a series of events set into motion by his use of Twitter ( and (

It’s not Twitter’s job to look after our data for the long term. I’m glad they’re handing some of it over to a body who really can handle that responsibility.

For related work (on a much smaller scale) see the Backup Box.

Media Vintage

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."



Media Vintage — V2_ Institute for the Unstable Media

Boxes of things

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).




The Rolodex


Part of Gizmodo’s great week of articles on Memory (who would have expected it?) I love this quote from Jane Grossman’s article on the Rolodex.

"Rolodexes were a testament to your relationships and your personal history. In 2008, Stanford University professors found that the average Facebook member aspires to have around three hundred friends, but that would’ve seemed a piddling number to the average Rolodex devotee, who often made it a point to use as many cards as the contraption could allow—and some held up to six-thousand. I remember an officemate who used to leave his Rolodex flipped open to important people. He didn’t realize this made him look like a douche. But I guess people do the same kind of thing on Facebook. Did I mention I’m friends with Wendy the Snapple Lady?"

Nearly everything we do in Cambridge seems to come down to the same basic question: is there anything really new about our needs and behaviours today? What goes around seems to come around.

The Life and Death of the Rolodex

Grandad’s Virtual PC

One of the tongue-in-cheek ideas I’ve presented a few times when talking about Technology Heirlooms is the idea that the way in which virtual things are arranged may carry as much meaning, sentimentally, as the things themselves. This isn’t unlike a place, and the arrangement of things in it (think “Grandad’s shed/workshop”) being a strong source for reminiscing, more so than any individual tool in it.

I’ve shown the following thumbnail sketch to illustrate this. The scenario for this sketch is that you inherit a PC from a relative who has passed away. Rather than simply sorting through, deleting and keeping the content, you start to host their PC on your own desktop as a virtual copy. The icon lives on your machine as a reminder of them, and their PC becomes a place that is kept intact, and that you can “visit” whenever you want. This presupposes that the choices that your relative made in the arrangement of their digital stuff has value in and of itself – that the desktop wallpaper they used or the way they set up their folders tells you something about them and their life.


Although I’ve always thought this idea was a little speculative, and used it primarily to make a point, I came across the Salmon Rushdie Archives at Emory University (vie New York Times), which really describes something similar. This is an academic resource, held at the University’s Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library, that, in addition to storing the more traditional paper based manuscripts and notebooks, virtually hosts 4 of the Apple computers used by Rushdie to author his books. The implication of the following video is that there’s real value in seeing that Rushdie, for example, kept copious notes using the Mac’s Sticky Notes application, or used Eudora for e-mail. I like the way that the narrator describes “peeking into Rushdie’s wastebasket”, which makes it sound as socially unacceptable as dumpster diving.

Impact! @ the RCA

Some quick notes from my visit to the Royal College of Art to see the Impact! exhibition. This presented a series of projects in which RCA-connected designers (linked primarily with the Design Interactions department) were put together with scientists working on projects funded by the EPSRC. The overarching goal, as with much of the work on Design Interactions students, is to draw attention to, and help the public imagine, the potential impact of new forms of science on our futures through the development of artefacts and stories that help us see forward.

In some cases, the projects seemed even more ambitious, namely to help further the actual science. There is a reflective thing going on here, of course, where this isn’t just about communicating outwards to the public. Much of the works looks inward, too, allowing scientists themselves to see the potential impact of their own work, enabling a deeper form of insight onto what it is they’re doing (for better or worst).

First, a gratuitous shot of my daughter enjoying the multi-media experience of Zoe Papadopoulou’s Nuclear Dialogues.



Fabulous Fabbers, from David Benque, really caught my attention. David imagines a radical shifting in the way we acquire our “things” brought on by new fabrication technologies (such as 3D printing), new ecological imperatives, new forms of technological crafting and so on. In his project he imagine nomadic factories that, like the big top circus, travel from town to town producing and replicating a communities needs on demand.



Pathogen Hunter by Susana Soares and Mikael Metthey. A beautiful and fictional set of tools for the budding microbe hunter.



Revital Cohen’s Phantom Recorder. A device for catching the electrical echoes of phantom limbs (the feeling that a limb is still there after it has been lost).



James Auger’s Happylife is exploring the use of thermal imaging technology as a security instrument that, through heat signatures of the body, can assess a person’s physiological state, and therefore potentially the subtle cues that might give away the mental state. Could imagery like this identify the guilty? This is a working system. As you stand in front of the camera (at the bottom-right of the first image) your face appears on the large screen, freezes for a few seconds, then the dials on the device in the second image start to turn. I like how James has left their meaning ambiguous. They’re not labelled. To some extent that speaks to the tension between the confidence we seem to have in technology by default, that it CAN do this sort of prediction accurately, and the reality that in the end we’re assigning deeply meaningful personal traits to the random changes in digits.




The 5th Dimensional Camera from Jon Ardern and Anab Jain. As usual, Anab’s work is beautifully supported by storytelling. This is a fictional camera that “sees” into 50 parallel dimensions at once, through the “power” of quantum mechanics. The work tells the story of 3 test subjects who live with the camera, each of which use it in quite different ways. The subject in the second shot below points the camera at themselves, writing messages daily of what they’re feeling. This doesn’t feel unlike the sort of public naval-gazing that takes place on sights like Flickaday, except the audience in this case is the subject herself. The camera shows her, and a myriad of different messages, across all these parallel dimensions at the same moment. Each life and message is subtly or wholy different from the “original” as it corresponds to a different branch in space-time.




Policing Genes by Thomas Thwaites. Thomas imagines a world that doesn’t seem at all implausible, even as it seems slightly ridiculous. Field trials for plants that are being genetically modified to produce vaccines are already taking place. This is the science that Thomas is focussed on. He assumes perfectly reasonably that, humans being humans, this is simply another technology ripe for hacking, and that suburbs the world over will soon be filled with little patches of English Country Gardens, hiding away narcotics and controlled pharmaceuticals in their greenery. Naturally, the Police will need a team of crack bees to sniff them out.