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.
Today is workshop day, and I’ve been lucky enough to sit in a half day session with Stefanie Posavec, who ran a class called “Analog Algorithms”, focussed on developing ideas for data visualizations on paper. Stefanie has history with Microsoft Research Cambridge, having worked a number of years ago on a visualization of changes made by Charles Darwin to the Origin of Species. This is work she did with Greg McInerny, which ended up on display at MOMA in New York, as part of the excellent Talk To Me exhibition.
Today’s workshop took place on the 9th floor of the Walker Art Centre. We sat four to a table, with large sheets of paper in front of us, and many pens and pencils also arrayed. Definitely set up for something hands on.
Stefanie started by going over her background and portfolio. She articulated the purpose of data visualizations as giving “meaning and connection”, “subtle insight” and “truth and honesty”, and argued that by drawing on paper you exploited a “tacit knowledge” and a physicality in representation that you don’t get by jumping straight to data and code.
We’re proud to be hosting the Research Through Design 2015 conference between July the 25th and 27th next year at Microsoft Research Cambridge, UK. RTD2013 was a definite highlight for me last year (see my previousposts). It manages to straddle design and academia very well, with an emphasis on submitting short papers, so not a huge amount of writing, along with an artefact which is both exhibited at the conference and then forms the centrepiece of discussion in each of the breakout sessions. This makes the conference really design friendly, and conversations happen in a round-table style that makes them very open and democratic.
I’d encourage anyone in design, either in or on the edges of academia, in the creative disciplines or in HCI, to consider submitting something to this great conference. The more diverse a mix of designers and practitioners it can get, the more the conversations get interesting.
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.
I’m at the SXSW Interactive festival in Austin Texas for a few days. It’s a huge event made up of talks, workshops, films and lots of other stuff to see. I’m going to a number of the talks, and I thought I’d try and post some of my notes online here.
The first of these is the opening keynote, given Bre Pettis, the founder of MakerBot, which produces a cheap 3D printer, and of Thingverse, an online forum for sharing 3D models that can be printed out with these kinds of printers.
Questions for Bre were posted to Twitter under #AskPettis.
To be honest, other than describing 3D printing as “The Next Industrial Revolution” and saying that “Creativity is now accessible in the world of things”, Bre’s talk was a little shallow and vision-free. He didn’t really paint a big picture of the changes that 3D printing will bring to society, commerce etc, but instead showed lots of little examples of things that people had made, mostly with the MakerBot printer.
FWIW, he was wearing a jacket by Sruli Recht, produced using 3D printing and laser cut wood. It reminded me an awful lot of the wooden textile produced by Elise Strozyk at Central St. Martin’s in 2009. I’m not sure which part of this, if any, was 3D printed.
Here are a bunch of the examples Bre gave of things made with Makerbot:
Markerbots are starting to show up in schools (there’s an interesting thread at SXSW about how kids are embracing digital creativity – drawing, coding, electronics etc., despite the feeling that school curricula fail to keep up with the times).
Other examples include someone who created the part to fix an espresso machine, a guy who created shoe inserts to make his daughter tall enough to go on some fairground rides, and another person who replaced expensive piano parts with 3D printed version.
Bre presented a prototype of the “MakerBot Digitizer” for the first time. This is basically a rotating platform that uses two lasers and webcam to scan 3D parts so that they can be reproduced using the printer. Bre described this process as "…like when Flynne gets scanned into Tron", and a way of “building out a "3D ecosystem". He admitted that the technology has been around for 25 years, but requires a lot of post-processing, the implication being that the secret sauce for the Digitizer is the software, which must make it easier to create closed meshes that can actually be printed.
Bre also mentioned the MakerBot partnership with Autocad. In the “Create” tent at SXSW they are teaching people to use Autocads “123D Creature” iPad app to make monsters, then printing them out on the spot using a row of Makerbots.
The exhibition opened in April, but I only just had a chance to see it in August when I travelled North to Yorkshire for a spot of camping. It’s a great exhibition, with a lot of old bits of technology leading to more contemporary content. A timeline made of glass, embedded in the floor, runs all the way through the gallery, counting off the years next to examples of technology of the time. At the end of the timeline is a glass exhibition case, with our prototypes in them under the banner “Into the Future”. Really nice to see them put to good use.
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?”
Three things crossed my screen in rapid succession, all ruminating on the issue of the shift on our lives from physical to digital, and the changing nature of our sense of artefacts.
First up is this article in the NYT by Carina Chocano on “The Dilemma of Being a Cyborg”, in which she says:
This is the dilemma of being a cyborg: It’s not just that everything we once committed to memory we now store externally on devices that crash or become obsolete or are rendered temporarily inaccessible due to lack of coverage. And it’s not that we spend a lot of time storing, organizing, pruning and maintaining our access to it all. It’s that we’re collectively engaged in a mass conversion of what we used to call, variously, records, accounts, entries, archives, registers, collections, keepsakes, catalogs, testimonies and memories into, simply, data.
It’s accompanied by this lovely cartoon by Tom Gauld which reinforces what we’re constantly saying in Cambridge, that as things change things stay the same.
Next, on Core77, is this little bit of casual fieldwork by John Scalzi in which he shows his daughter an LP (she’s 13 and the object is quite foreign to her). It’s great. And her questions make total sense in retrospect. It IS huge. It DOESN’T hold much. And sticking a needle on it seems DAMAGING. You can never get it if you don’t live it, and that’s the cycle of the generations.
Finally, is this great cartoon I found in these weeks Private Eye, by Russell, entitled “Modern Last Words”.
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.
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.