I was lucky enough to be invited to be a panellist at “The Internet of Why”, an evening “salon” organized by Smart Design in London. The event started off with a viewing of Connecting: Makers, a mini-documentary on the creative community sponsored by Microsoft. Using this as fodder for our conversation, we spent the next hour and a half responding to a diverse set of questions put to us by Gordon Hui from Smart Design, covering everything from concepts of the Internet of Things, issued of privacy, the potential of wearables and more.
I’m just travelling home from Belgrade in Serbia, where I’ve spent the last few days at Resonate. Resonate is a conference, or more like a festival, primarily attended by people doing visualization work. It’s full of great talks from a community that is very tightly networked, brought together by the equally highly networked Filip Visnjik, who also founded the website Creative Applications. Many of the talks at the event act almost like portfolio presentations that give an overview of some compelling computer graphics or interactive installations created through the development of complex systems of code and electronics. Many of the biographies of speakers at the event start with a similar sentence: “[Person A] is a programmer and artist working at the intersection of [X] and [Y]”. This emphasis on “art” as a discipline is an interesting one, since it releases many of the attendees from the obligation that we often have in our lab of having to justify their work on pragmatic grounds. Presenters can instead focus on aesthetics and abstraction. Many of the presentations cover visualization and interaction work done with other artistic disciplines such as dance or music.
The digital version is available for free, or you can buy a printed version if you want (they’re really nicely printed, but done print-on-demand so are a little pricey – we don’t make any money from them).
This issue is a summary of the SDS “Beyond Search” theme, focussing on Sian’s “5 Web Modes”, and showcasing various projects that have come out of the work, including Seeds, Cards and our work with Aalto University on “Domesticating Search”. I’m pretty proud of this magazine series, and this is another great issue for us to give out both internally and externally, to showcase what we do.
As a reminder, there are now three issues of the magazine, on Communication, Memory and Search. All of them are available from the here.
On Thursday 12th of July 2012 I spoke at Getty’s “CurveLive” event on social photography. Here are some notes I wrote up soon after that I’ve been a little lax in posting. Hopefully they’re still interesting.
For reference, here’s a video of the event. My bit starts at 12:50 minutes in.
Here are my notes:
“The brief for Friday’s #CurveLive event at the Hospital Club was a tough and compelling one. It asked “How is social photography changing the way brands tell stories?” There are a lot of ways into that question since implicit in it are overtones of the changing nature of sociality, photography, the meaning, construction and reinforcement of person’s relationship with a brand, and new ways to tell and even participate in stories, all brought about by new technologies and a novel sense of interconnectedness between products and people.
I’m not really a brand person at all. Although I’m a designer by trade, and I suspect should be brand savvy because of that, I work in a world at Microsoft Research that has one foot in a large corporation and one foot in academia. I work with social scientists and developers, studying everyday life. My interests are in people’s relationships with things, with a particular focus on how the objects in their lives connect people with their past.
Images play an important part in this connection, as objects of legacy, since they allow us to see and recall the people, places and events that we might otherwise have forgotten. They also play more symbolic roles, allowing us, for example, to fulfil our obligations as family members. We’ll often walk into homes, as part of our research, and find mantelpieces stuffed with family portraits, in which an important aspect of the arrangement of the pictures is that every family member is represented. No one should be left out and forgotten. When family members visit and they see a display like this, they often can’t stop themselves from checking that they are represented. They want to see that they are being remembered.
From this personal perspective, then, it’s important to recognize that photos already play a very social role, and that the purpose of much social photography may be driven by the same old motivations –recording and remembering; fulfilling obligations; telling stories.
I’m not at all saying “same old same old”. The transition from physical photos to digital ones is certainly a monumental one, bringing new forms of old thing into people’s lives. Like all changes, it is double-edged. We lose some properties and gain some new ones. I have old photos of my Grandfather, taken during WWII, that have an aesthetic in their physicality, for example, from the visual – the white border and slight sepia tone that was typical of photos of the day – to the transitional – the way the picture has faded and curled slightly. They are beautiful objects that have aged gracefully, in a way that we suspect that digital things are not capable of. Perhaps that is motive for our search for authenticity in digital images, or our current obsession with deliberately distressing our photos through services like Instagram.
I have about 200 old photos of my Grandfather. I now take about 5,000 photos a year digitally. I realised that when my daughter, who is six and a half now, comes to inherit my “photo archive” she’ll be the lucky recipient of about 200,000 images. That seems like quite a burden.
Quantity, then, is one of the bigger shifts brought about by digitization. I wonder how my daughter will consume this vast amount of “stuff”. Maybe this is not unlike the transition of music from physical to digital. I’m one of those people who lament the passing of the LP record, a physical, tangible object that had a real sense of presence in my home, that reminded me of my tastes, and invited me into a little ritual of interaction as I put the needle in the groove. Even as I love physical things, though, I can’t help wondering at my iPod – 60 gigabytes of music, representing my history of taste, all of which I can put on random with one click. The randomness and unexpectedness of listening to songs this way is compelling, as songs that take you back in time pop up spontaneously. Serendipity can be a delightful thing. So, then, can many digital experiences, but in a way that is different from their physical equivalents.
The #CurveLive event was about sociality, not sentimentality, though and I have three observations that I think are interesting from the perspective of the image and its social role. The first is that the act of taking a shot has become performative, about participation, for many people. Hordes of individuals at gigs taking shots of a band with their mobile phones are doing that in part to show that they are involved, that they are celebrating the event in which they are taking part. The images they take may not even matter to them. Taking shots becomes not unlike waving a zippo around in the air as some ballad plays. It is participatory, and the act of taking photos this way is inherently a social one, in a way that diminishes the image.
Secondly, a photo posted online becomes a part of a web of relationships and data, one node in many. A photo might get commented on, and through a comment linked to another person. It may get geo-tagged, and through that tag tied to a place. It is part of a world of data and people, and the image itself may need to be thought of modestly. It may not be the most important thing in that web of data, and the properties tied to that image may be more interesting than it from a social perspective as a resource for creating connections with others, or with a brand.
Thirdly I wanted to comment on the idea of possession. Our sense with SOME (only a subset) of the people we talk to is that their sense of ownership of an image is diminishing. From the second they press the shutter release on their camera they think of the image that they are taking in social terms, as something that by default is shared with their friends. It belongs to their friends as much as it belongs to them. In some senses you can think of this as a tacit contract that they make with their friends through which they agree that their photo is shared, and that they will not take it out of that that shared experience, leaving their friends to trust that they can see it, comment on it, and make it part of their world without risk.
This leads me to wonder whether the idea of possession, from a personal rather than commercial perspective, might be diminishing. If photos become social by default, what else can there be but social photography?”
Microsoft holds an annual design competition for students from around the world who are usually studying either interaction or product design. It’s called the Design Expo. Students work in groups at their school, usually over the spring semester, to a brief that we set and they then select their best team, who travel to Redmond, Microsoft’s home, to present what they’ve done to an audience of employees.
I had a preview of the RCA student work earlier in the year, then we picked the two projects to send to Redmond, which were shown at the colleges degree show in early July, before heading to the US. Rather than taking place at the RCA’s “head office” near the Albert Hall, this year the Design Interactions students showed their work over the river at Battersea in a very cool creative space called Testbed 1.
The first of the two student projects we picked for Design Expo was The Superstitious Fund by Shing Tat Chung. Shing has developed a fully working investment fund, but one who’s algorithms for buying and selling are based on superstition. It primarily uses numerology, looking for example for lucky and unlucky numbers, as well as phases of the moon, to decide when to buy and sell. The amazing thing abut this project is that it is fully working. It is trading live on the stock market, has £4000 pounds worth of investment put it in by people from around the world, and includes a contract, stock certificate and every other legal requirement.
This is a classic example of the schools critical approach to design. It both forces us to think about the random nature of the stock market, for example, or the illogical sense that people have of numbers and data, while at the same time being very real.
Shing had a trade board mounted at the degree show, showing live data for the fund. He also presented some of his other projects which all look at superstition and illogicality.
The second student project which went to Redmond was Neil Usher’s beautiful Pareidolic Robot. Related to Shing’s project, Neil’s interests are in human’s capacity to look for shapes, meaning and data in our surroundings where there often isn’t any. According to Wikipedia “Pareidolia is a psychological phenomenon involving a vague and random stimulus (often an image or sound) being perceived as significant.”
Neil built a fully working robotic system, which uses face recognition to look at clouds. He’s got a lovely selection of images that the robot has found, many of which are face like. The robot is beautifully engineered, with two cameras that look like eyes, and can reorient themselves on the end of stalks.
Again, this is a fully realised object, but one that asks questions about our past times, and what it means to do idle activities. Do we feel so much pressure to use all of our time “efficiently” that we might have to give over the pleasures in our lives, like cloud spotting, to some piece of technology?
So that’s the two pieces of work that went to the design expo. You can see the other participants work here. Neil and Shing did a great job compressing their joint presentation down to 10 minutes. Hopefully the video will be up soon.
A few other pieces of work stood out for me from the RCA Degree Show. Here’s some shots:
I’m really delighted to be able to announce that I’ve written a book, entitled The future of looking back and published by Microsoft Press, which deals with the topic of digital legacy, technology heirlooms and other themes close to my heart. It covers a lot of the work that we’ve been doing in Cambridge around memory, reminiscing and so on, as well as including a lot of references to research and design work that I’ve come across that points to new and interesting directions.
The book was announced on the 27th of September as part of Microsoft Research’s 20th Anniversary celebration, and is available for pre-order on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and O’Reilly. I’m expecting it to be physically released in just a week (Amazon says the 4th of October).
The book is broken down into three broad parts (there’s a pretty extensive preview of the content on Amazon). First, in “Stuff and Sentimentality” I talk about the difference in nature of physical things versus digital things, and the impact that our transition from the world of real to the world of the virtual might have on the way we preserve and pass on our content. In “A Digital Life” I talk generally about lifespans, and key life events (including bereavement), focusing on the role that technology is starting to play in each, particularly with regard to the creation of personal and sentimental digital artefacts. Finally, in “New Sentimental Things” I speculate more on the future and trends in technology and the impact that new directions may have in the way we record, remember and reflect on our past.
My book is the launch title for “ The Microsoft Research Series”, newly announced by Microsoft Press, which kicks off a regular release cycle of books that will focus on making the work of the Microsoft Research Division more accessible. You can read more about the series, as well as a Q&A with me on some of the topics in my book, up on the announcement page for Microsoft Press.
A massive thanks to Devon Musgrave at Microsoft Press for pushing me to write this title, as well as to colleagues and family for their support and encouragement.
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).
"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 lot of the written material that we produce in the research team that I’m a part of is directed very much at an academic audience. Through conferences like CHI and CSCW we build on the research work of others and find out about new efforts going on in our domain of human-computer interaction. That’s as it should be for research.
We’ve been trying to think of some ways to make our work more accessible, though. Partially this is because the busy people who work for Microsoft in the US, building products that we want to help influence, don’t have a great deal of time to read a 10 page academic treatise. They need something a little more…succinct, and to the point. In addition to a focus on Microsoft, we think the subject of our research work is generally and genuinely interesting to a broad audience. We deal with the way people live their lives, and try and gain some understanding of the appropriate way in which technology should play a part. We look for the “human values” that motivate people, particularly in their personal relationships and in the places in which they spend time, then we ask how technology can enhance, rather than undermine, them.
So as part of this effort to make our work more approachable we’ve started a magazine called “Things we’ve learnt about…”, which will focus on succinctly summarizing what we’ve learnt around a particular theme, to provide simple insights into how we think people tick. You can download read about, and download the magazine from our site at:
Feel free to print it any way you want, if you want a hard copy. We’ve also made the magazine available through MagCloud, which is another alternative for getting a printed version. They can do a great, glossy print on demand version for you at cost.
The first issue deals with human-to-human communication. We’ve tried to wrap up over 5 years of research and design work in this area to talk about why people communicate. A lot of the focus on communication technologies is on the substance of the message – getting some “data” if you like, from person A to person B. A lot of this issue of the magazine deals with the reasons and methods through which people communicate that have little to do with the message. Sometimes people send message to remind other people that they care about them, for example. The content of the message matters less than the fact that the sender thought about sending it. The magazine is full of little insights like that, that are about the subtle underpinnings that make communication important.
Anyway, hope you like it. Let us know what you think in the comments below. And look for future issues on different themes.
It’s not common for a team at Microsoft Research, a division involved in the academic exploration of all things computer science-like, to have much of a connection to the discipline of design. There are quite a few teams in addition to mine that have designers in them, though, and who take design practice seriously as part of the process of developing and exploring ideas.
So it’s great to get a little recognition from the design community, rather than from the academic one. I’m pleased to say that the Technology Heirlooms work that we’re doing in Cambridge, and which I’ve talked about a lot on this site, just got itself a prestigious design award.
My very talented ex-intern Camille Moussette was at the Tangible, Embedded and Embedded Interactions (TEI) conference in Madeira last week, and presented and demoed the work he did with us last year in Cambridge. He’s written up his experiences. He did some very cool thinking, and built some great examples, of how to allow product designers to sketch haptic experiences (so things that buzz, shake, rattle etc). See the paper he wrote here.
The personal blog of Richard Banks. Combines both home and work life.