Assailed on all sides by digital/physical bits

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.

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Tom Gauld

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.

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Finally, is this great cartoon I found in these weeks Private Eye, by Russell, entitled “Modern Last Words”.

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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.

and

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

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“The Things We Keep” by Christian Svanes

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.

the things we keep from svanes on Vimeo.

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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).

http://www.jennylee.org.uk
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."

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Our magazine is out

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:

http://research.microsoft.com/thingswevelearnt

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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.

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A little bit of type

By some happy accident, I was lucky enough to have a shot of my Heart Type letterpress effort included in Barbara Brownie’s beautiful new book, Type Image. The volume pulls together hundreds of examples of contemporary uses of type, used to create portraits, objects, to fill the environment and so on. Well worth a look.

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We got ourselves a design award!

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.

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For those who are interested, here’s my original PDF submission.

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And for good measure, here’s the follow up poster.

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The personal blog of Richard Banks. Combines both home and work life.