We Love Technology

I chaired/spoke at the rather excellent We Love Technology conference in Huddersfield the other week. Apart from being an opportunity to see old friends, it was a fantastically well programmed conference, with a wide range of things and ideas that seemed to gel into a coherent arc, without seeming over-curated. Congratulations to Lisa and Abby for organising such a great day, and to the inspiring speakers (Matt, Troika, Regine, Dan&Tuomo, Stuart, etc)

The conference helped me pull together some strands of recent thinking about a number of things, such as vernacular media, new forms of craft and the role of artists in technology research. Anyone who has read some of the (rare) posts on this blog will appreciate that these are recurring passions of mine, and so the conference was like a personal wish-list of speakers and topics.

I gave a very loose introduction, with my top ten favourite reasons why I love technology (which I’ll try and write up here later) and then summarised the day at the end. After discussing with Matt Webb the various really cool ways to sum up conferences that we’d seen over the years, I did nothing cool at all, and just pulled out four themes that I thought had developed in the various presentations. Here they are, in all their hand-waving glory:

Getting away from the screen
I’ve always thought ambient or Tangible interfaces have been one of the asymptotic futures of tech research, always promised, but never delivered. But we’re in the middle of an exciting bubble of activity in this area, from tiletoys to nabaztags. Information overload is the usual driver for this kind of research, but the real market driver seems to be presence – Matt Webb showed a lovely interface for IM that used a pop-up toy to quickly indicate whether someone on your network was available or away. I think this is linked to the adoption of mobile phones, which has introduced subtle kinds of haptic or tangible interface (vibrations, etc) into the mass market. Tangible presence interfaces might really tip over into the mass-market in the next few years, driven through mobiles and broadband games consoles.

Transferring interaction vocabularies across contexts
Tangible interfaces offer opportunities for untapping lots of learned experiences in users from other contexts. So much of the experience of digital interaction is limited by the WIMP metaphor, or the even more opaque UIs of one-off consumer devices like video recorders. Matt Webb used a term – body thinking – to describe the learned behaviours we have from our experiences with the tangible world (I think Roland Barthes wrote about this as well, but can’t remember in what book).

For me, the opportunity with tangible media is not to try and find perfect physical metaphors for digital interactions, but to think about the learned behaviours people have, and how they might be useful in other contexts. Just as WIMP is a desk-bound metaphor that has been stretched to encompass all sorts of tasks that are not normally associated with desks, tangible interfaces can unlock a new vocabulary of interaction behaviours that aren’t limited to waving vaguely in front of screens – for example – Matt showed his hack of the iBook’s accelerometer so that he could ‘bump’ his laptop to scroll through files hierarchies. My dad’s a carpenter, and has over 40 years of experience in how to hang a door, and the subtle interation of materials and tools. Yet programming a VCR makes him feel like an idiot. Why can’t interaction design tap into his areas of expertise, rather than making him feel stupid? It reminds me a bit of a Steve Job’s quote that Matt Jones linked to:

There are no plans to make a tablet. It turns out people want keyboards. When Apple first started out, People couldnt type. We realized: Death would eventually take care of this.

Well, that’s one approach to interaction design, I guess. But I think there are whole libraries of experiences that we could use out there, and I’d rather they didn’t die out before interaction designers started using them.

Not trying to be *really* useful
This is a slightly more vague insight, but a lot of the products shown were very playful in their design. Not useless, but playful. The difference is between an interaction design that is ruthless in its efficiency, and therefore tries to second guess you all the time to prove its intelligence (eg Microsoft Clippy) and one that provides clear, simple functions, yet has an openess that encourages further play and discovery. Flickr is the poster child here – its advanced features reveal themselves to you through you interaction with the interface and its social features. You might notices the notes feature on other people pictures, then find out how to use them yourself. Sociability is key to this kind of design – letting users social play unveil new actions and incorporating them into features.

Dan & Tuomo are really keen on this approach with Tile Toy, which is immensly playful, and have open-sourced the hardware and software to let users find what they want to do with it. There is something more sustainable and ‘thing-ness’ about this approach to design – the resulting tools feel like they have been worn-in through use, rather than being hard-wired out of the factory. Its also worth reading Bijker and Pinch’s Social Construction of Technology for a more theoretical understanding of how user’s create and adapt tools – their analysis of how the common chain-driven bicycle design developed through interaction with user-groups is very illuminating. But the key thing here is the balance between playfulness and functionality – purely playful interfaces are fun, but the appeal tails off, but tools that are playful *and* useful will become core parts of the user’s tool-sets.

The changing nature of Play
Linked to the above was the changing nature of play, and what this meant for the role of art in technological development. When I used to be a digital art curator, there were productive collaborations between artists and technology labs, best illustrated by the work Char Davies did with SoftImage. In the late 80’s/early 90’s, when technology was still prohibitively expensive and access was limited, these kind of collaborations allowed tech companies to imagine other uses for their products, and for artists to develop new kinds of aesthetic practise. In Regine’s talk, she showed a lot of tangible and wearable media projects that are examples of this kind of ‘imagineering’.

But things have changed now. Technology is hell of a lot cheaper, much of the core infrastructure has commodified, and digital media users are in the majority, not a tiny artistic elite. There are still projects that are commissioning this kind of purely artistic ‘play’, but I think the research needs of the sector have moved on. Artists no longer need to ‘rehearse’ possible technological futures, because you can now launch your idea into a real market at relatively low cost. Flickr came out of a publicly-funded project that was originally a purposeless game, but quickly found its niche as a mass-market product.

Play has now crossed the line from R&D, and become an integral part of a mass-design process – the cliched ‘perpetual beta’ of all web 2.0 companies. Rather than a single artist imagining a future and delivering it as a purely aesthetic experience, playful interaction designs are launched onto a market with the understanding than users will invent their own futures for them. Again, TileToy is a good example of this.

This is quite refreshing for those of us who have been dabbling in the borders between art, technology and innovation over the last decade or so. For most of that time, we were happy to spend our time rehearsing potential futures, playing behind the scenes, but not expecting the curtain to ever rise. Well, there’s an audience out there now, and they love technology. We’re not playing anymore – a scary, but liberating, thought. The challenge now is for artists and designers to capitalise on this.

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