We Rep [Ideas]

Hard Things, Soft Qualities. Pt1

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Its been a while since Ive posted anything, Started an exciting new job, traveled a bit, and I’m back. Since I have been away, I’ve been writing a lot, and would like to get some things out as I move into new material. This ones called Hard Things Soft Qualities.

It has 5 parts:

  1. Beyond Form and Movement
  2. Meaning and Things
  3. Hard Things Soft Qualities
  4. Human Theater Object Audience
  5. Mass Innovation: Interface is Infrastructure



As I looked around the room I found it difficult to imagine a purpose that could bring together such a motley crew of professionals; here were behavioral scientists; psychologists; sociologists; engineers; industrial, interface and experience designers; human-computer interaction researchers and tangible computing wizards gathered in the iconic setting of Eindhoven’s Ovoluon to discuss the future of how objects will communicate with us and with each other. Seductive demos and massive projection screens revealed a parade of impressive pong playing robots, shape shifting latex boxes, and Japanese kinematic vending machines. The work looked like engineering and smelled like art. Speakers championed prototyping and sketching, showed smashable alarm clocks and empathetic cell phones.

This kind of rare but not isolated event is becoming more frequent as multiple disciplines and professions begin to recognize the steps needed to create and care for tomorrow’s objects. Welcome to DeSForM, the second annual conference on the  Design & Semantics of Form and Movement, a wunderkammer of strange things and larval theory exploring the virgin frontier of “dynamic object semantics.”

The purpose of this gathering, I learn, is to facilitate a dialogue between complementary schools of thought around object behavior. If an objects moves, changes shape, texture or color, what does it mean? A very intriguing and pre-timely subject in light of recent developments and conversations around ubiquitous computing, the real world web, the Internet of Things, “spimes” and ambient intelligence or whatever techfasionista title is hot right now. To “develop design semantics in a scientific and systematic way… focusing on the meanings conveyed by the products and how they behave” puts emphasis on the side of object expression, where there seems to be an equally fertile opportunity to explore object perception and observation. Right? Wheres the dialogue?


If objects have evolved new ways to ‘speak’, they are also acquiring, new ways to ‘listen’. More important is the roles these technologies will fill in their maturity. What might they sense, and how might they act upon their sensations in meaningful ways? How might this augment our senses, our physicality, reach and location.

In retrospect, DesFoRM could be considered a emergent signal of the blurring of the borders between software and hardware, wherby the nature of the object becomes a form of networked media. In this realm, objects also become textual, code; their layered semantics to be continually re-determined and evolved through time as behavior and custom becomes codified material objects. The ITU’s Digital Life report, and the Internet of Things report, record and foresee an increase in the pace and forms of innovation brought about by better systems of networked communication and access to authorship through the internet. Authorship, as an idea has expanded far beyond literature and the Internet, and now encompasses almost all vestiges of human creation as anyone can sit down and read/write reality, beginning with text and image, ending as matter, place, interaction and experience. Taken together, the following ideas proposed in this paper forms a system capable of offering a new form of innovation supportive of human behavior and technology that may come to comprise the emerging internet of things. Julian Bleecker of Near Future Labs recently stated in his Manufacturing paper for Share 2008,

“These are distinct kinds of digital objects that mix physical space, digital technology and design …. The weak signals suggest kinds of design-art-technology that are growing tired of the screen.” [Bleecker]

When objects shape-shift and change their properties to communicate something they become both screen and interface. The question here is, who will have the authority to deeply program these channels, to tinker, and how is this new form of ” hard content” created? Can we evade the illusion of empowerment and engage ‘object behavior’ in a manner that interfaces with, records and enhances, deep individual and collective narratives in everyday living? First and foremost this conference inspired me to start thinking about the kind of future infrastructure of material culture that could holistically address presence and the human experience, the production of meaning, computational perception and expression, and emerging manufacturing processes. Such an infrastructure could create a ‘new dialogue’ between people, artifacts and places. The purpose of this paper is to aggregate promising methods, models, processes, technologies and theories that form a new way of creating and thinking about our ‘stuff’ in a future were the lines between – will, desire, object use and manufacturing – begin to blur.

To the reader I would like to say, this paper is not intended to blindly evangelize about technology, but to explore how such developments might deeply affect the landscape of social life they are unfolding within.  Reflecting on the origin of the term Technology in this context may serve as a humanizing starting point. ‘Technology’ comes from the Greek word Technologia, or ‘techne’ meaning ‘craft’, and ‘logia’ meaning ‘saying’. In the forward to The Technological Society, Robert Merton defined technique as, “any complex of standardized means for attaining a predetermined result” It is in this vein that I would like to focus on technology in so much as it is an expressive intersection between the personal and collective processes of situated goal-setting and the human refinement of actions to reach said goals. Technology is neutral, but this human process is a dynamic ballet of ever changing intents, values and beliefs. There exists an asymmetry that has come to contribute to the reification of things. People on the most part, are able to express verbally what they would like to craft, yet are unable to craft what they are able to say. The programming languages, engineering knowledge and equipment involved in the creation of today’s objects are not designed to be within the majorities reach in the same way that store shelves are.

Due to the highly relational discourse between material form development, software, interface, this discussion opens up the conversation much more broadly than interaction considerations.  It opens up a series of questions about how people naturally engage with, transform and understand objects. What is potentially the most fruitful, mutually beneficial interface between people and artifacts and the organizations that produce them? Not so much how do we design a language of form and movement.

Most importantly, what are the  what are the opportunities for ‘mass innovation’ in which the object becomes a platform of user sketching, annotation and user-guided creation?


Written by rthomas

February 23, 2009 at 7:59 am

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