Design for Humans and/or Machines

It’s been quite a while since I’ve visited NEXT Conference in Berlin, and I’ve been quite busy since. Still, there are some lasting impressions that I want to write down here. The main theme this year was „post digital“, and there were many interesting thoughts on what this actually could mean. Basically, the term refers to the fact that we no longer „go online“ (at least the digital elite). Instead, we are connected to the internet all the time with a variety of devices. A Cisco report predicts that there will be 25 billion connected devices in 2015, which is more than 3 per person divided by world population. We gonna have to communicate with these devices, and they gonna communicate among themselves. And we’re not only talking about mobile phones here. Think about everything from your fridge to your car to your plant that tweets you messages when it needs to get watered.

At NEXT, there was plenty of input concerning this so called „Internet of Things“. And it was no showcase for products and „solutions“ like the internet fridge, that has been completely besides the point until now. Instead, there was some interesting thinking about what the challenges of the near future of the „Internet of Things“ could be.

For example, in her talk „The soft power of objects“, Alexandra Deschamps-Sonsino was suggesting that robots have a greater influence on us than we might think. As we are forced to communicate with machines more and more, we become more and more robotic ourselves, she stated. As an example, she showed EMY, a robot that was built to mimic human facial expressions and therefore emotions (which could be helpful one day in geriatric care, for example). Our complex emotions need to be broken down into pieces so the robot can understand them. But as the robot can only interpret exaggerated expressions at the moment, Alexandra said she was starting to do big grins so the robot would be able to read them. Imagine how a robot in your home could subconsciously change your behavior over time.

Robots that read facial expressions may be an extreme example. But Alexandra brought up another thing we all know, that was only designed to be read by machines and doesn’t leave us humans any glue at all: QR-Codes. No matter if you are a fan of QR-Codes (which I doubt) or not – the question of Alexandra nails it:

We have to decide who we are designing for: us or them. But maybe this doesn’t matter anymore.

Dan O’Hara from Philter Factory (the company behind weavrs) talked about skeuomorph designs* and „glitches“ – manifestations of hidden technology through failure, that play a huge role in the so called New Aesthetic . At first glance, this doesn’t have to do much with the interaction of Humans and Robots described by Alexandra – but if you look closer, it sure does.

The New Aesthetic is hard to define, as its definition and even more its significance are still broadly discussed. But basically, it is about an aesthetic derived from „Seeing like a digital device“. It incorporates the way machines see our world as well as the aesthetic of manifestions of errors machines make (glitches) into a new aesthetic for arts and design.

I think these quotes out of a blog post from Dan Catt describe quite well where the above mentioned QR-Codes, the question of designing for machines or humans and the New Aesthetic come together.

„The New Aesthetics, or at least the aspect I’m looking at, is inspired by computer vision. And computer vision is at the point now that computer graphics was at 30 years ago. The New Aesthetics isn’t concerned with retro 8bit graphics of the past, but the 8bit graphics designed for machines of the now.“

Dan Catt explains the difference between what graphics machines can produce and what graphics machines can read.

„It’s been there for a while now, bar codes have been around for years, but we can expect to see more of it. The testing and slow introduction of computer driven cars will most likely see special markings on roads & signs giving the cars instructions. All throughout shops, malls, streets and cities markings for machines are appearing.“

„The first part of NA I’ve been paying attention to has been the examples of this spilling out, the bits of the city not meant for us. The second part of NA I paid attention to was what happened when artists began to deconstruct and respond to that encroachment, how can designing for robots influence our own design?“

Another inspiring talk was the one by Russel Davies you can already see online. He showed lots of examples of what is done right now by people around the world in the field of connecting things and playing with bots. He believes that odd DIY-projects are more likely the base of tomorrows product world than the shiny future predictions of companies. He was also talking about the empathy we develop for certain bots. For example, he couldn’t get himself to switch off his twittering plant although it was going on his nerves. That made me think of my mum, who was feeding my sister’s abandoned tamagotchis because she didn’t want to let them die. His point is that these kind of objects develop their own personality somehow.

So let’s see how we deal with all these machines in our lives 😉

*@doppelm, who was with me at NEXT, got inspired by Dan O’Haras Talk to make a tumblr collecting skeuomorphs.


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