Looking beyond 2011


Here’s a cool little clip of an old radio that can sneeze to blow the dust out of its front grills.

And here’s one of a floppy drive that jumps up if you have a coffee accident on your desk. Once the coast is clear it sits down again.

The way the floppy drive sits back down slowly and carefully  just like my grandma is kind of endearing, and I wouldn’t think of these two everyday household objects as Scary or Evil.

These concept videos, created by James Chambers, explore how we can become quite attached to household products if they show emotional or lifelike characteristics, particularly in the way they move. The items he uses are quite retro too, adding a nostalgic element. The idea being that attachment might sway us away from ditching them as soon as new models are released, and maybe even help the world cut down on the waste it produces each year.

What if rather than displaying emotions, products could read our emotions?

The next video, created by Bernhard Hopfengartner, introduces a few interesting concepts, including at the end (5:45) a scene where a vending machine automatically makes a selection for you by first flashing all its products on a screen before you and measuring your initial emotional response to each product. Based on this it gives you the product it thinks gave you the best reaction.

Watch it here.

Is this now starting to get a little bit more scary and a little bit more evil? Bernhard’s video raises the question of control. Are the bad machines helping us or controlling us?

So what about this video, which is designed to make us think about how we make use of animals today and in the future.

Is integrating animals into our life support machines in order to help keep ourselves alive OK from a moral or ethical point of view? We use them for their meat, dairy produce, skin etc, so is this that big a deal?

And this next video explores how we might soon be creating our own materials from living matter.

Creating synthetic materials from living matter means we’d be able to give them all sorts of magical lifelike properties. Playing God, if you like. Synthetic biology is going to be huge and you don’t have to be a futurologist to see that soon we’ll be embedding the human body with computer chips.

That was quite a random selection of videos, but one thing that all those videos have in common is that they were created by students of the Design Interactions course at the Royal College of Art in London in the last few years.

I went along to an open day at the RCA a couple of weeks ago not really sure what to expect, and the whole afternoon was eye-opening. Rather than running a traditional course in Interaction Design, the department is instead focussed on conceptual design and exploring how people and technology will perhaps interact in the future.

There was an interesting discussion of what ‘future’ means, which Department Head, Professor Anthony Dunne discusses here:

… Last year, the futurologist Stuart Candy visited the department and showed us a wonderful diagram he used to clarify how we think about futures. Rather than one amorphous space of futureness it was divided into Probable, Preferable, Plausible and Possible futures. One of the most interesting zones was Preferable. Of course the very definition of preferable is problematic – who decides? But, although designers shouldn’t decide for everyone else, we can play a significant role in discovering what is and what isn’t desirable.

To do this, we need to move beyond designing for the way things are now and begin to design for how things could be, imagining alternative possibilities and different ways of being, and giving tangible form to new values and priorities.

The course is very much about conceptual design, which is different to traditional design, as described by Paola Antonelli, Senior Curator at the MoMA.

By its most commonplace descriptions, design should solve problems, match form with function, produce artifacts, and make people secure and comfortable.

Conceptual design does not share the same immediate goals. Like good classic design, it cuts to the core of the issue at hand, wipes away excess hype, zeroes in on claims of innovation, provides a healthy dose of reality check, and uses vision to marry new ideas and old behaviours. However, it is not always warm and fuzzy or ergonomically reassuring, it is pointed and critical, sometimes even dark, awkward and pessimistic. It does not always come under the form of a traditional object, but because conceptual designers need to communicate concepts — and being designers, they want to make sure that these concepts are approachable and understandable — their work often makes for outstanding, visually arresting art.

Although students at the RCA work on projects and have deliverables, the deliverables can be developed in any media from fine art pieces to 3D models to computer programs to videos. The focus is on being creative and having ideas. But it was made clear that ideas must be backed by rigour. Students quickly get used to having their ideas and design decisions critiqued and validated – because projects, as well as being creative, require a real, tangible and relevant output.

After the talk I had a look around the studio where the current crop of about 40 students were working and it was like being back in art class at school. The students were cramped together around rough worn desks covered in all kinds of arts and crafts bits and pieces – although almost everyone had a Macbook too.

What a way to spend two years of your life, immersed in hyper-creativity with talented and like-minded individuals, producing nothing but ideas and thought-stuff. From what I gathered it was an intense two years for the students, but the course is so highly regarded around the world that the likes of Don Norman and Bill Moggridge are guest lecturers and even industry heavyweights like Intel and Yahoo! run projects at the RCA.

Being a technophobe and proud, I’m one of those people who need to be dragged from the past kicking and screaming into the present. Rather than looking to the future with any imagination or insight, we technophobes prefer to reminisce about the good old days when things were so much better (it doesn’t matter that I was born in the 80’s when most things were actually quite shit).

But after this visit to the RCA, I could see value in looking into the future and seeing more than what I usually see which is just me sitting on a sofa with everything the same except I’m old and holding a mug of tea.

Professor Anthony Dunne finished by describing the ideal candidate for the course – someone who’s passionate about technology, people and culture. Someone who’s interested in exploring ideas through design as well as their technological implications. Someone who’s interested in shaping our future. And last but not least, someone who despite having a passion for technology, can hold a certain degree of scepticism towards it too.

Now if only we hadn’t screwed our economy and caused tuition fees to treble.


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