Christan Svanes video of objects and their history is a simple piece of work that reminds me of Berg’s visualizations or the great experiments and ideas from the Oslo School of Architecture and Designs “Touch” project (particularly this one). This idea that objects can hold their history, and through that keep us in touch with out past, is one that I find really compelling, and is obviously related to my interest in digital heirlooms. It’s also being explored through projects like “Tales of Things”, using RFID tags to connect objects to their data.
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.
We entered the work in the “Design Research” category for the IDEA 2011 competition, run by the Industrial Design Society of America, and came away with a silver award, which I’m very happy and proud about.
You can see our submission details on the IDEA 2011 site.
For those who are interested, here’s my original PDF submission.
And for good measure, here’s the follow up poster.
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.
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.
Quick shout out to PSFK, who’ve “reprinted” two recent Technology Heirlooms posts of mine on their site (1 & 2). I had a blast with them last year at their very excellent Good Ideas Salon in London. Follow them on Twitter if you get a chance. They consistently find articles and trends that I see nowhere else and steal for my trends blog.