Smarter, Better Cyborgs

This is my third Interaction column for Print Magazine. …or, as I originally titled it, “Designing the Unseen.” But, this title plus Tim Lahan’s awesome illustration make me very happy. Cyborg’s? Holodeck? You’ve made this nerd’s day.

In the future, you will design the unseen. You will design with sounds, textures, vibrations, smells, and temperature, along with the media you already know so well—text, color, and light. You will design environments and interactions that are immersive. You will once again create things that do more than match eyeballs with ads. I promise.

We’ve already begun stumbling in this direction. In fact, today we have the technology needed to cohere this vision—technology that enhances device awareness by sensing, analyzing, and predicting—yet our old ways of seeing and doing remain a barrier to using it at its full potential.

Take augmented reality. AR is essentially a data-enhanced view of the world around us made visible through applications like Layar, a mobile browser that uses your phone’s compass, GPS, and accelerometer to project data relevant to your location over your camera’s view. If you’ve never used an AR application, imagine what walking a city block might look like to a cyborg. The cyborg is you; the view, yours also, as long as you’re willing to reduce it to a palm-size rectangle. While an initial AR experience can be thrilling, it quickly becomes clear, especially to visual thinkers, that AR is a misapplication of the technology currently at our disposal. AR is disappointing precisely because it is so visual.

Kevin Slavin, in a recent presentation he called “Reality Is Plenty, Thanks,” pointed out that limiting our field of view—not to mention flooding our newly downsized vista with visual-data displays—can actually be dangerous. Citing an automotive study, which found that AR displays placed drivers in greater danger than those who did not use them, Slavin homed in on the counterintuitive relationship between information and our apprehension of reality: More can sometimes be less. By projecting a synthetic data stream—the kind we’re used to receiving at our desks—over our real-time view of the world, we create a quasi reality and disable ourselves in the process. We cut ourselves off from the real world and its own expansive data stream—the kind we’re accustomed to sensing through sound, touch, and our peripheral vision. AR, though it may trick the eye into believing otherwise, is one-dimensional. It will fail for the same reason its predecessor, virtual reality, failed: The mind can only suspend so much disbelief, especially when it’s trying to be productive.

I’m with Slavin. We already know that information is everywhere; seeing it on-screen only creates more work for us. But if a machine can collect information and deliver it to our eyes, it should also be able to save us the trouble of analyzing and interpreting that data. “Awareness technology” should be doing much more for us than making advertising more ubiquitous. It should be helping us to do more work, more efficiently and more effectively. Rather than trying to enhance how we see reality, we should instead consider augmenting reality for machines. A more aware machine is far more valuable to us than a more crowded visual field.

Rapid progress is being made in developing awareness technology right now (and not the dystopian-robot-overlord stuff of science fiction). Though significant, the practical developments in this field are, for the most part, unseen and unnoticed. Radio-frequency identification, or RFID, is just one example of an open and broadly adaptable awareness tool already in use for a wide variety of purposes. Because they don’t need to be seen to be read, RFIDs can be miniaturized and embedded in just about anything in order to build networks of information among objects. Right now, cars, roads, toll booths, tickets, library books, passports, product packaging, machine parts, casino chips, and cattle are being enhanced by RFIDs for such a diversity of purposes that only your imagination could impose a limit. But what’s the benefit of building an internet of things?

Consider this scenario: Each wastebasket in your city is fit with a sensor that measures its capacity and sends data back to a central repository. As the database grows, algorithms are run to analyze capacity data, identify patterns, and predict when and where wastebaskets will be full. New pickup routes can now be plotted on the fly, likely saving a lot of wasted time and fuel. I recently watched a garbage truck go through the motions of emptying several already empty Dumpsters as I walked to work. A networked system would have prevented that. They may not sound glamorous, but smart sanitation systems are the type of practical, efficient, energy-saving application of awareness technology that will be in extraordinary demand over the next decade. If you can envision and implement a scenario like this one, you’ll also be granted latitude to dream up applications that are far more creative and inspiring to you. Although what could be more inspiring than designing a city that works?

Design students are already experimenting in this field. Projects like SoundAffects, created by undergraduates at Parsons the New School for Design, explore how everyday data gathered in cities—weather, traffic patterns, and the like—can be translated into sound and mined for new understanding. Outside of the academy, innovative firms such as San Francisco’s Stamen, New York’s Rockwell Group, and the London-based studios Berg and Dentsu are producing work as well as investing in research projects that look much like the sensing-city scenario I sketched above—work that Dentsu artfully describes as “making future magic.” All these designers strategically bolster their design approach with a deeper working knowledge of new sensor, sound, and programming technologies.

Design has always been about possibilities, not hard-and-fast definitions. That’s important to remember as technology pushes the boundaries of professional identities and challenges the distinctions among designer, engineer, and technologist. But technology is more than just a tool; it’s an expression of intent. It is how we shape the world around us and conform it to a vision of how we want to live. In considering our futures, we must question how technology will define who we are and what we do. Should technology determine what it means to be a designer, or should the progress of technology be designed? I believe that we’ll find the answers to these questions, but not without participating today in the project of imagining the world we will inhabit tomorrow.

Written by Christopher Butler on September 16, 2011,   In Essays

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