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May 28, 2006
 

IDII, Limited Edition.

Time has flown by, as it often does, and graduation at Interaction Design Institute Ivrea is nearing fast.
It's been a great ride, so sorry to feel the cart slowing down.

The final graduating class of IDII will be holding its traditional end-of-year thesis exhibition in Milano, at beautiful Galvanotecnica Bugatti, on June 8/9/10th 2006.


Interaction Design Institute Ivrea, 2006 End of Year Exhibition, Limited Edition.


Hop on a (low-cost) plane and come to see great work, congratulate everyone, have lots of fun.


Posted by fabio sergio | 4:00 PM | permalink

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May 19, 2006
 

Design dissolves in interface.

A few years ago Naoto Fukasawa, then on the brink of becoming one of today's design icons, coined an expression that left a long-lasting impression in those in the field: "design dissolves in behavior".
With the potential to side in the future other famous mantras like "less is more" and "form follows function" Fukasawa's statement meant to indicate a path for design to invisibly support people 's behaviors, disappearing seamlessly into their very actions.
Today I find myself wondering if design itself is also not disappearing in the software interfaces that are increasingly used to make modern-day blobjects come to life.

I am referring to the rise to fame of rapid manufacturing technologies such as those already exploited in the past years by designers like Patrick Jouin.
His stunningly beautiful Solid Stereolitography furniture mocked the limited possibilities offered by traditional molding processes by taking full advantage of 3D printing's layer-over-layer modus operandi.
This year at the Salone del Mobile it was the turn of companies like MGX to exhibit delicately intricate objects that appeared to have been carved out of plastic by CNC nanomachines.


MGX's concepts.

MGX's product concepts.


Not happy with just printing solids others are now looking at what opportunities for innovation lie in the use of these technologies, with mass-customization being an obvious one.

Take for example what the Fluidform guys exhibited at the Salone Satellite.
They rigged up a punching bag full of (pressure) sensors, then asked bystanders to don a boxing glove and pound the bag like they meant it.
A nearby computer transformed every hit into a distinct depression on a 3D cylindrical model of the "bag", until the final shape pleased the tired boxer... er... sculptor.
The output was in fact ready to become a unique lamp, shaped by the blows of the combatant designer.
Where would you like your light-emitting trophy shipped?


Fluidform's Cassius lamp(s).

Fluidform's Cassius lamp(s).


An even more extreme exploration now comes from Front Design's Sketch Furniture.
Using motion-capture gear normally used to animate hollywood monsters, the four swedish rising design divas are creating things by hand-sketching them in the air, then using rapid prototyping to turn their movements into objects.
Taking this one step further still they are also letting flies draw circles (literally) around a light bulb, then turning the fly's trace into a lampshade.


Front Design's Sketch Furniture.

Front Design's Sketch Furniture lamp(s).


Now, Front is well known for using animals as inspiration, but this feels like a different beast (sorry, could not resist) altogether.
Other than the "oooh" that such an idea elicits I am somewhat left wondering: who's designing what?
Or even more to the point: what's designing what?

Are these first steps towards things created by things, with human beings simply programming the pre-conditions to then sit back and see what happens?
While generative art has been the mindtoy of people like Joshua Davis for quite a while now, it seems that fablab-inspired production processes are ready to turn these explorations solid and have them go mass-market.
As Bruce Sterling says in Shaping Things:

"In an age of SPIMES, the object is no longer an object, but an instantiation."

Precisely.
What did Fluidform and Front really design?
Innovative lamps or platforms for lamp instantiation?


Posted by fabio sergio | 1:58 PM | permalink

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May 17, 2006
 

Nice surprises, aching dendrites.

Getting overly excited over another blog is quite difficult these days.
My long list of active feeds has enough bold items to cause my level of information anxiety to skyrocket every time I launch NetNewsWire.
This week I have to happily make two exceptions.

One is Adaptive Path's new blog.
Given the office stellar line-up I can only expect excellence and valuable insights.

The other welcome surprise is PingMag (via Coudal Partners).
There's hardly an entry in the last months that does not deserve reading.
I particularly enjoyed New levels of Experience Design, an interview with Liisa Puolakka, Head of Brand Visual and Sensorial Experiences at Nokia, and 10 Pictures of Tokyo Gotham, on the increasing popularity of High Dynamic Range photography.

Puffin' brain cells, please be patient.


Posted by fabio sergio | 8:19 PM | permalink

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May 15, 2006
 

Self archeology (and the mobile value chain).

Spurred by the recent launch of Mobile Virtual Network Operator Helio, Many to Many's Danah Boyd has written "Innovating Mobile Social Technologies (Damn You Helio)", a caustic piece on how in the mobile value-chain innovation is apparently hindered in the name of control.

"First, carriers want to control everything. They control what goes on a handset, how much you pay for it and who else you can communicate with.
Next, you have diverse handsets. Even if you can put an application on a phone, thereís no standard. Developers have to make a bazillion different versions of an app.
To make matters worse, installing on a phone sucks and most users donít want to do it. Plus, to make their lives easier, developers often go for Java apps and web apps which are atrociously slow and painful.
All around, itís a terrible experience for innovators, designers and users.
Oh carriers, handset makers, innovators, venture capitalists, legal peopleÖ is the goal to innovate or to control?
"

Well... welcome to the complex, complex, complex world of mobile user experience!
To avoid hyperventilating it might be useful to regularly go trough the hilariously thoughtful meditation John Poisson presented at Design Engaged 2005, where Buddhism's Four Noble Truths where applied to the difficult art of working in the mobile ecosystem .

Actually Boyd's article reminded me of an email conversation I had a couple of years ago with Anders "Nome" Norman, one of the dear friends at the helm of Swedish mobile-focused consultancy Ocean Observations.
Nome had asked my 2-cents-worth answer to the following question:

"Who will "own" the customer in the emerging world of wireless fat pipes, wirelessly-delivered content, hardware and software for connected mobile devices?"

With a few edits here's what I had replied:

"Well, first of all the concept of "owning" customers is hideous in itself, and I'd rather rephrase it in User Experience terms as: "who will establish a privileged relationship with the customer?", which sounds much better, doesn't it?

That said I'll start from a "road trip analogy": a highway, vehicles that run on it, scenery along the way and (hopefully) destinations.
Who "owns" the traveling experience?
The organization that maintains the blacktop?
Or the company that owns the gas stations and places where you can stop for rest and drinks?
Or the car manufacturer that provides you with a comfortable ride?
Or maybe the real value lies in what you can see and do once you've reached your final destination?

Seeing things from this perspective it's clear that what matters is the overall experience, and that travelers, not being stupid, can usually discriminate among the various facets of a trip, and who to blame if bits and pieces do not meet their expectations.
If a hotel bed is too soft it's unlikely that people will blame the car's manufacturer for a bad night's sleep, but that will definitely diminish their overall pleasure, so maybe the next time they'll turn to another hotel and/or will think twice before leaving home altogether... so also the car manufacturer might suffer for the hotel's bad service, in the end.
In today's mobile environment things are in many ways similar, but also much more complicated, as everything is much more interconnected.

One aspect that's similar is that much still seemingly depends on the "car" (the handset, that is).
Without a good car there's little potential for exploiting roads, scenery and destinations, in fact mass-market tourism started precisely with the advent of the car.
Currently there's very little "alternative transportation" in the mobile environment, and the handset is for all purposes still the key enabler for things to happen, not to mention the main point of contact between the user and the overall experience, a fact that puts a lot of value in the relationship between the device manufacturer and the customer.
This scenario is changing fast though, as the quality of available handsets (and network coverage) enters the difficult world of commodity and ceases to be the main differentiating factor.
Furthermore mobile devices are simply bound to disappear, even physically: the phone should and will slowly become transparent to what users want to do with it, or to the services and content they will be able to access.
All of this will put more and more importance on the "scenery" and "destinations" (services), and less and less on the "car" and the "road", which makes perfect sense: few people buy cars for the sheer pleasure of owning them (other than collectors) or to test the quality of tarmac.
Most people buy cars to go places... even when they just want to be seen on them.

For this reason operators have started to push handset manufacturers to sell them devices that speak the operator's brand values rather than those of the producer, and they have also been keen on integrating services into handsets as a key component of their offering.
This process might in the end have also positive effects on the quality of handsets, given that operators should have a firm grasp of what makes customers happy and should try to keep them so.
Then again carriers are unfortunately not well known for their altruism...

All of this said, let's go back to the original (rephrased) question: "who will establish a privileged relationship with the customer?".
Well, no easy answer I am afraid, but at least in the short term I think operators, especially large, global ones, will hold an "edge" over the other players.
The quality of that relationship, unfortunately, remains to be seen.

My very, very, very humble take though is that, if we are all lucky, people will become as important a factor in the whole process as the other ones.
Clients will want to communicate with their loved ones, access content (text, images, video, audio) from their provider of choice, buy handsets from their manufacturer of choice.
Freedom of choice is (or should be) an inherent quality of a competitive market.

In other words I think that all the players, and especially operators, would be better off thinking in terms of an "ecology of value" and how each link in the chain should play an essential role, customers included, rather than relating to each other in terms of sheer supremacy.
They will hopefully understand that to keep clients happy the focus should not be on becoming the only surviving species, but to nurture and defend biodiversity.
After all, who would like to travel in a BrandX car on BrandX roads, sleeping in a BrandX Hotel in BrandX City all the time?
Success for all the players involved should thus mean creating together an overall experience that appeals to people, sharing value chains as they appear."

Hmmm.
All in all I would say that my 2-year old answer still mostly holds, albeit possibly giving carriers more credit than what they usually deserve.
Operators are usually portrayed as the "bad guys" in mobile movies, and truth be told they often to do very little to appear not to play that part, but it's also true that they do play a leading role nonetheless, and it's unlikely that that is going to change any time soon, so I'd rather be optimistic than just assume things will never change.

Look at what's happened with low-cost airlines, why not hope that one day similar disruptive business models will improve the mobile travel experience as well?
I'll be the first to go for the ride, that's for sure.


Posted by fabio sergio | 9:31 AM | permalink

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May 11, 2006
 

From joy to magic (pads).

Quite a few references lately to devices that promise to make us all digital Harry Potter emulators: magic wands.

First it was Mike Kuniavsky with "How to make a magic wand", followed by a pointer to Sony's 2005 patent for "an input device for interfacing with a computer" (more likely a Playstation).
An input device that looks strikingly like, well, a wand.

Unfortunately Sony might have come a bit late to the table, as Nintendo has been sitting at it for quite a while, focusing on how the quality of the gaming experience can be bettered by less complex and more natural ways of controlling games than via crazy button combinations on alien-looking pads.
Nintendo's strategy has been apparent on their portable DS, which sports an additional touch screen and a microphone for innovative ways of managing gameplay, but it's the Revolution (now renamed Wii), a truly wand-like controller, that promises to be a real disruptive breakthrough.


Nintendo's Revolution.


Along these lines Time Magazine's Lev Grossman recently wrote "A Game For All Ages", an interesting article on trying out the Revolution.

"Why do people who don't play video games not play them?
To nongamers, video games are really hard. Like hard as in homework.
The standard video-game controller is a kind of Siamese-twin affair, two joysticks fused together and studded with buttons, two triggers and a four-way toggle switch called a d-pad.
That presents a problem of what engineers call interface design: how do you make it easier for players to tell the machine what they want it to do?
And the game interface has to be the key. Without changing the interface we could not attract nongamers.
So they changed it.

Nintendo threw away the controller-as-we-know-it and replaced it with something that nobody in his right mind would recognize as video-game hardware at all: a short, stubby, wireless wand that resembles nothing so much as a TV remote control.
Humble as it looks on the outside, it's packed full of gadgetry: it's part laser pointer and part motion sensor, so it knows where you're aiming it, when and how fast you move it and how far it is from the TV screen.
If you want your character on the screen to swing a sword, you just swing the controller. If you want to aim your gun, you just aim the wand and pull the trigger.

It's a remarkable experience.
Instead of passively playing the games, with the new controller you physically perform them. You act them out.
It's almost like theater: the fourth wall between game and player dissolves.
The sense of immersion, the illusion that you, personally, are projected into the game world, is powerful.

Nintendo has grasped two important notions that have eluded its competitors.
The first is: don't listen to your customers. The hard-core gaming community is extremely vocal but if Nintendo kept listening to them, hard-core gamers would be the only audience it ever had.
The second is: cutting-edge design has become more important than cutting-edge technology. There is a persistent belief among engineers that consumers want more power and more features. That is incorrect.
"

Experience first. Technology second. Design mediating.
Yes.
And also: "It's almost like theater".
Time to dust off Brenda Laurel's "Computers as Theatre" (and also "Hamlet on the Holodeck" for good measure).

To close this quick list of magic devices Peder Burgaard reports on We-make-money-not-art about Hillcrest Labs' spontaneous navigation controller, presented at Connections 06, The digital Home Conference & Showcase.
More 3D mouse for media centers than gamepad, the circular device would make a good prop on any Star Trek set (just set it to "stun" to silence noisy neighbors)... but:

"The device was fun to use and felt like waving a magic wand at the TV obeying my every command, scrolling in and out of menuís and through multiple layers of user interfaces.
The interaction was very natural like and with all control available through your thumb with a mouse like user interface of left and right buttons plus a scroll wheel in the middle.
"

There you go.
Magic wand, again.
Start practicing your waving techniques, you'll need them soon.

The funny thing is: we are already carrying with us the real wands of the future.
One day people will wonder why we called them mobile phones.


Posted by fabio sergio | 2:59 PM | permalink

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May 08, 2006
 

MyUpcoming.

Looks like in the next month or so my plate is going to be pleasantly full.

On May 29th-30th I'll be in in Lausanne, Switzerland, as I've been kindly invited (thanks Nicolas!) to the follow-up to the first Blogject Workshop, organized by Nicolas Nova and Julian Bleecker.

"By talking about 'blogjects' (objects that could potentially disseminate a record of their interactions with people, context and other objects on the web), we envision a new participation of 'things' in the physical and social space.
In this context, the so-called 'Internet of Things' may give rise to a new ecology of things, and consequently to a different set of social practices and relations to space.
The previous workshop addressed that issue by considering how this would generate new possibilities for integrating networked artifacts such as 'blogjects' in both the physical world and the Internet.
The description and discussion of various scenarios allowed the definition of usage opportunities.

The workshop will be a more 'hands-on' follow-up.
In the form of a two days retreat, its aim is now to design the networked artifact of the future.
The idea is to have 3-4 groups made up of people with different skills and background to go through usage scenario, prototype implementation and socio-cultural discussion.
"

Sounds like pure fun to me!

On June 1st Valeria and I will be in London, where I'll be taking part to MEX 2006, the PMN Mobile User Experience conference.


MEX 2006, the PMN Mobile User Experience conference.

It's my second time there (thanks again Marek!) and I'll be the keynote speaker on the "Interacting with the Real World" panel.

"Mobile devices are evolving from tools for person-to-person communication and enabling users to interact with their physical environment.
Point-of-sale applications, mobile ticketing, billboards which broadcast content, the world around us is starting to find a digital voice of its own, and this presents unique interface challenges for the mobile industry.

Do person-to-machine communications require a fundamentally different interface to person-to-person (P2P) applications?
What are the biggest challenges for adoption: consumer trust, technology standards, cost of deployment?
How much of the environment will contain embedded intelligence?
Which devices will it be possible to track and interact with using mobile handsets?
Is the mobile handset the obvious and only choice for interfacing with the digital environment?
"

Last year I gave an "insight talk" on embodied interaction, and it feels great to see those seeds blooming now into a full panel.
Really looking forward to hear what will come out of the discussion.

Finally on June 16th it will be the turn of Interaction Frontiers 06 (thanks Leandro!), which is going to be held in Milano.
This year Frontiers will look at the design challenges raised by adaptive artifacts that can detect people's moods and (re)act accordingly: agents, avatars and the like.
Fascinating stuff.

It's the second time Leandro Agró and Matteo Penzo organize this opportunity to see academics and practitioners seated at the same table, kudos to both of them for bringing water to Italy's quite arid interaction design landscape.
Participation is free but seats are limited, so go ahead and reserve one right now.


Posted by fabio sergio | 5:34 PM | permalink

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