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July 27, 2006

Plastic lizards from the moon.

In the past month or so I've been testing... er... wearing Lizard Footwear's Agile 500.
With distinctive sculpted lines and entirely made of pliable plastic, they would probably be at ease in the company of props from Space: 1999.
As Oren Horev told me: "... they do look like they come from the future, but I wouldn't be caught dead wearing them...".
Ahem, yes... and no... but these are indeed shoes that tend to elicit all sorts of spontaneous comments from people.

Esthetic considerations aside I have now fully overcome my initial concerns about wearing fully-enclosing plastic footwear, even in Milano's current tropical summer heat.
Thanks to generous vents positioned both above and below the foot the 500s are reasonably cool performers, with the added bonus of full toe protection (not to mention ample opportunities for instant relief whenever a fountain is encountered along the way: just dip 'n go).

Left: the Lizard Agile 500. Right: the Lizard/Vibram Five Fingers.

Left: Lizard's Agile 500. Right: Lizard/Vibram's Five Fingers.

Lizard is actually not new to the world of weird-looking, innovative footwear.
Close collaboration with leading Italian sole-maker Vibram has in the past resulted in products like the Five Fingers, probably the closest you can get to walking barefoot before starting to consider rubber-coating the soles of your feet.
Five Fingers, reviewed even by ID Magazine, push the ever-tighter integration between human anatomy and sporting tools, and seem to take to the next step (and possibly even too far) traditional Japanese jika-tabi footwear, which only separate the big toe from the other ones.

While Five Fingers are a bit too extreme in their looks even for people like me (and I've also heard complaints about their long-term comfort) I am happy with my agile, space-age plastic lizards.
Now if they only squeaked a little less...

Posted by fabio sergio | 9:51 PM | permalink


July 21, 2006

freegorifero PBS.

Two upcoming notable events worth attending/participating to.

Workshop: near field interactions

Organized by Timo Arnall, Nicolas Nova and Julian Bleecker the workshop will focus on user-centred interactions with the internet of things, and it will be held at Nordichi 2006, October 14 and 15, in Oslo, Norway.
Applications are due August 1st, and space is limited to 25 participants, so do hurry if you are interested.

"The so-called ‘Internet of Things’ is a vision of the future of networked things that share a record of their interactions with context, people and other objects. The challenge for design is to overcome the current overarching emphasis on business and technology that has largely ignored practices that fall outside of operational efficiency scenarios.
What is imminently needed is a user-centred approach to understand the physical, contextual and social relationships between people and the networked things they interact with.

The mobile phone is likely to play a key role in the early adoption of the internet of things.
In use, the mobile phone brings with it a history of personal and social activities and contexts. It is in this evolution that we see user-agency and social motivation emerging as an interesting area within the internet of things.

In this workshop we intend to build knowledge around the hands-on problems and opportunities of designing user-centred interactions with networked objects. Through a process of ‘making things’ we will look closely at the kinds of interactions we may want to design with networked objects, and what roles the mobile phone may play in this.
We will focus on the design of simple, effective and innovative interactions between mobile phones and physical objects, rather than focusing on technical or network issues.

EuroGel 06

Mark Hurst brings the the successful Good Experience Live conference to Europe for the first time.
EuroGel 06 will be held on 1 September 2006 in Copenhagen, Denmark.

"Gel is a conference, and community, exploring good experience in all its forms, in business, art, society, technology, and life.
The goal of the conference is to create an environment that allows our multi-disciplinary community to explore the idea of "good experience" in a variety of contexts.

EuroGel 2006 will be a Europe-wide conversation, featuring speakers from across the continent.

Posted by fabio sergio | 9:02 AM | permalink


July 14, 2006

Do machines look for animal shapes in pixelated clouds?

Spurred by the words of Charlie Schick and Matt Jones I've been recently thinking a bit about 2D barcodes.

2D barcodes are glyphs that encode digital data, and typically look like dense checkerboards chaotically rearranged by a crossword enthusiast.
A dedicated camera-based application can precipitate these pixelated clouds into sequences of ones and zeros: hyperlinks, strings of text, images and the like, the limit only being the varying amount of data each barcode type can encode.
Examples include QR Code, Shotcode and Semacode.

freegorifero's URL encoded with Semacode.

The most intriguing promise of 2D barcodes is that they can easily act as low-tech hyperlinks for the physical world, with the quintessential marketing example being that of a barcoded movie poster which allows passerbys to quickly download the trailer of the film, receive an invitation to the premiere and/or buy a ticket for it.
Truth be told creative uses of barcodes are not new to the market, and some of you might still remember the time when DigitalConvergence Corporation actually tried to to play first-mover in this space by spamming magazine subscribers with a PC barcode reader badly disguised as a plastic (Cue)Cat.
Needless to say the plan did not exactly work out at the time, but today camera-equipped networked handheld devices have made the whole concept actually viable, with many mobile handsets currently sold in countries like Japan with native barcode-reading applications.
Problems with 2D barcodes are similar to those that plague more "traditional" ones like the Universal Product Code: they have to be printed and/or glued onto things, their size has to be fairly large for them to be visible and scannable, they can easily degrade over time and become unreadable... all considerations Bruce Sterling has eloquently made in "Shaping Things", to then point to RFID tags as the logic evolutionary step in this area.

All of this said I share Charlie's enthusiasm for such an effective enabler of immediate-future emergences of the Internet of Things.
It takes very little imagination to envision these graphic embodiments of digital information opening new opportunities when it comes to summoning useful data out of inanimate objects, or enhancing them with digital features.
Still I struggle a little bit with this technology, especially when seeing it in terms of a potentially pervasive medium, and not just as a mean to an end.

My doubts are possibly best explained with the words of Alejandro Zamudio, whom I had the pleasure to advise at Interaction Design Institute Ivrea.
Alejandro's master thesis at IDII, Mulecular Urban Ludic Entity, focused on pervasive play and on what he called "player-centered game design", an attempt at applying a human-centered design ethos to the craft of play experiences.
One of Alejandro's prototypes included the use of 2D barcodes, which acted as the main point of contact between the game master and the players.
While the technical problems encountered where in the end negligible (current camera-phones can have trouble getting accurate readings in varying light conditions) Alejandro was particularly displeased with something that had nothing to do with technology.
In his own words he would have much preferred for 2D barcodes to be "...intelligible not only to machines, but to humans and machines alike.".

I thought his comment perfectly framed my uneasiness with 2D barcodes from a user experience point of view.
There's nothing wrong with them from a purely functional perspective, but things are quite different when it comes to the visual and esthetic qualities of these effective shortcuts to The Network.
Quite simply they have not been designed with the human eye in mind.

What these encoders are lacking is the ability to "tell a story" by themselves, and this seems strangely at odds with their graphic nature, which also inherently gives them an "unmediated" communication potential that RFID tags will not offer, again because of their very nature.
They are doors that are totally opaque to the spaces they lead to, and the outcome of any interaction with them has to be fully inferred from the context in which they have been placed.
Unsurprisingly there are attempts at making 2D barcodes more esthetically palatable, for example using them as graphic elements of manga-like characters, but I still see this as a half-step at best, and would advocate for something far more structural.

Why should human eyes have to put up with graphic gibberish devised for mechanical ones, and not the other way around?

Posted by fabio sergio | 2:16 PM | permalink


July 05, 2006

Everyware is where you find it.

The other day I found myself stuck in a lo-tech scenario exemplary of many of the theses enunciated in Adam Greenfield's excellent book, "Everyware".
It happened, of all places, in the restroom of one of Italy's largest department stores (and if you think that reporting on semi-sentient bathrooms is at least a bit strange I will quickly point you to Don Norman's own reflections on toilet paper algorithms as a disclaimer of sorts).
Without further ado here's what happened, albeit a bit dramatized.

After struggling to even find the restroom, hidden behind rows of look-alike changing booths, I was finally greeted by a door, opening onto a pitch-black space.
I looked for the light switch to no avail, then finally resorted to sticking an overextended arm into the darkness, slowly brushing the nearest wall with my hand, hoping to stumble onto familiar plastic buttons protruding from the tiled, cool surface.
No such luck.
With most of my body now well within the room a bright light suddenly went on, momentarily etching my retinas with fuzzy halos.
"Infra-red motion sensor", registered my slightly annoyed brain cells, busy readjusting pupils and making sense of the casual arrangement of ceramic wares in the smallish room.

It was soon time to... ahem... look for one of the various flushing actuators that adorn western-world bathrooms.
A hidden push-button of some sort? A more hygienic foot-operated lever?
Nothing in sight.
Faint gurgling sounds put a sudden end to my quest.
"Automated flushing timer coupled with a proximity sensor" filed away my brain, already half-focused on the sink and readying for the next task.

I found myself facing the handleless faucet with an unexpected level of nervousness.
An inner voice mumbled "you're not fooling me this time" as I started to wave my hands in front of the tap.
"Maybe closer?" offered the voice again.
I waved closer. And closer.
Then I stopped waving.
"See? The magic of running water!", enthused the voice, hearing the reassuring hiss of liquid let free by compliant valves.
"Proximity sensor, again", dutifully archived my brain.
The water turned out to be too hot, but no amount of waving could solve the problem.
I gave up.

As I stood in front of the towel-roll dispenser the voice went a bit crazy.
"Wave right away!" it blurted. "No! Just pull!" it immediately corrected itself.
I pulled to a comforting clicking sound, as the fabric towel loosened its grip on the plastic drum it had closely adhered to just a moment earlier.
"Need more towel" noticed the voice, as I managed to only partially dry my hands with the available swatch of cloth.
I pulled again. Nothing.
I waited. Nothing.
I waved.
It was all starting to feel a little silly.
I was starting to feel a little silly.
I turned around, hands still dripping, opened the door, got out.
"CLICK! WHIRLLLL!" chimed the towel-roll dispenser, fabric once more tightly hugging the plastic drum, just as automated darkness dutifully fell again on the now empty room.
"Timed towel-rewinding motor?" inquired my brain.
"Awww, just shut up!" said the voice.

End of the story and time for a few short considerations.
The first one is that all of the above is the description of an experience in a low-tech present-day context, but it has the ingredients of a "tale from the future": immersion in an environment that for all purposes felt reactive as a whole.
Imagine seeing my story not through my own eyes, but through those of someone less geeky than yours truly.
How would this person describe the same sequence of events?
Would he/she perceive a higher level of (deranged) intelligence in the un-orchestrated behavior of the four sensor-equipped artifacts that populated the bathroom?
Not anymore a simple passive room, but a reactive system, a system assembled not by computer scientists in white coats but by plumbers and electricians with off-the shelf components.
This is very likely the way most people are already encountering current incarnations of everyware.

Another consideration is that Adam's aforementioned theses insightfully frame many of the inherent problems of scenarios like the one described above.
The potential for added cognitive friction, the absence of graceful degradation, the inability to opt out.
I will only just add that it was probably the lack of self-disclosure (objects clearly communicating "when" I needed to be actively engaged or not) and of a locus of control (objects indicating "where" and "how" I could interact with them) that particularly upset me in my experience.
Funnily enough what comes to mind here is 2001: A Space Odissey's HAL 9000's ever-present beaming red eye, precisely because of its ever-presence: it was an always-detectable physical point the Discovery crew could turn to when dealing with the otherwise invisibly pervasive, all-seeing intelligence controlling their spaceship.
Maybe a better example comes from Timo Arnall's work on a Graphic Language for Touch, which addresses the impeding need to intelligibly communicate to human beings in their own terms if and where augmented environments should be engaged directly with.

Peter Merholz once said that "Objects aren't simple any more. They don't just turn or push. They behave.".
We are now already at the next level of complexity, with perceived behaviors emerging from the (casual) interactions between those of distinct objects.
What could be bottom-up models for the creation of effective architectures of engagement that will make people feel they are being attended to, and not being held hostages?
Would it be helpful to think in terms of Service Design and touch-points?
Above all I guess my story confirms one more of Adam's theses.
Ubicomp is indeed here already, and the time for intervention is now.

Oh yes, one last thing.
If some elements in my short story brought back faint memories of Ray Bradbury's 1950's "There Will Come Soft Rains "... well, so they did to me.

Posted by fabio sergio | 1:49 PM | permalink


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