Discovering the synergies of becoming solid

July 18, 2014

Working as director of design research and strategy for Design Concepts, my projects are largely in support of creating something. With designers and engineers as colleagues, I am used to creating for the physical world. Software development seems complicated and mysterious in comparison — something that happens behind closed doors in Silicon Valley. So it was an eye-opener to attend the O’Reilly Solid Conference, which has the apt tagline of “Hardware, Software, Everywhere.” Turns out, our counterparts in the software world think the manifestation of reality is hard. 

Watching these two worlds come together for a few days in San Francisco was truly an eye-opening experience. It was interesting to see some of the whimsical ideas created for our recent Design MMoCA exhibit already becoming reality in different forms.

Some of the bigger themes were:

The rise of the maker and rethinking of business models

Robots, 3-D printers and rapidly advancing software are making it increasingly easy to customize products. While there will always be mass production, the opportunities for smaller, local manufacturing of products are being explored by entrepreneurs. For example, Amanda Parkes is a biomedia designer & fashion technologist. She is the founder of Skinteractive Studio in Brooklyn, NY, researching and developing technologies and hi-tech textile projects at the convergence of fashion, the body, biology and materiality. She is also the chief of technology and research at Manufacture NY, a new hybrid fashion incubator, factory and research facility. Manufacture NY is rethinking how fashion is made, manufactured and delivered. Affordable local fashion — it’s a completely different business model that means we may start to see a new textile industry blossom in the U.S.

Using new materials with technology was also a major theme. For example, researchers are using DNA as if it’s a building material with 3D printers. This has mind-blowing implications for medicine. A DNA “box” filled with medicine can be injected into the body. When the box reaches its DNA target it springs open to deliver its contents.

Notable Talk — Folding = Coding for Matter

Matthew Gardiner, artistic/senior researcher, Ars Electronica Futurelab, is an artist most well known for his work with origami and robotics. He coined the term Oribot 折りボト and then created the field of art/science research called Oribotics. Oribotics is a field of research that thrives on the aesthetic, biomechanical, and morphological connections between nature, origami and robotics. His talk ranged from origami to biology.

Technology’s interaction with the human body

There was a lot of discussions about wearables, which is technology that takes its signals from its wearer. Our Design MMoCA exhibit was especially prescient in this area — I saw shoes with circuitry and a piece of clothing that looked exactly like something we designed as part of the HACME exhibit. Some of it was as whimsical. For instance, one exhibiter was demonstrating a band wore around the head with a clip on the ear that assessed emotions. The exhibitor strapped mechanical tails and ears on people, so you could see their tails wagging and ears perk up as they reacted to stimuli. The same technology could be used with music to calm or energize a person. It could also be used with light.

In San Francisco, anything is possible. Now the work becomes getting the future more evenly distributed to benefit everyone.

Notable Talk — Blush: Designing a Social Wearable

noah feehan of the New York Times R&D Lab spoke about his team’s wearable project. Blush actively listens to conversations and glows when the conversation involves a topic that has been identified as part of a work group’s “curriculum”— subjects frequently browsed on the Web at work. What could social wearables mean to the future of the workplace?

Notable Talk — Lessons Learned Building the Hue Cloud

Korjan van Wieringen, project lead, discussed the development of Hue for Phillips. Hue has put the Internet in a light bulb. With tunable whites and great colors, people can create all kinds of different scenes in their home. With every Hue set sold, it put another device inside the household that connected to the Internet, with an Internet API. And as with any newly launched product, the question is how much traction it would get. Philips Hue was one of those products with a flying start. As our environments become increasingly able to read our emotions, everything from the light, temperature and the music around us could work seamlessly to help change how we experience everyday life.

Using data wisely and well

As the Internet of Things develops, everything from our toothbrush to our car will be producing vast amounts of data. Much of it will be useful and benign, but do you want the toothbrush company to know if you floss daily? Protection, storage and privacy of data pose some thorny issues moving forward. While all of this data about individuals and populations can lead to real improvements for society, what are we willing to give up for the greater good? And what are the possibilities for chaos? For example, what if someone was able to hack a Google car and kill people? There was lots of conversation, but no easy answers.

Notable Talk — Smart Machines, Smart Privacy: Rules of the Road and the Challenges Ahead

Laura Berger, an attorney in the Division of Privacy and Identity Protection at the Federal Trade Commission, discussed how the FTC is taking an active role in examining the impact of the Internet of Things on consumer privacy and security. This includes bringing a law-enforcement action alleging that an IP camera maker failed to take reasonable steps to secure its devices.

In my work, I’m reminded every day of a quote by author William Gibson, “The future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed.” Walking through the Solid exhibit hall and seeing everyone from Google and GE to entrepreneurs working out of their garages, the excitement was palpable. In San Francisco, anything is possible. Now the work becomes getting the future more evenly distributed to benefit everyone.