Tuesday, August 31, 2010

A happy planet independent of material resources

The map above shows a ratio of the happiness of countries to their ecological footprint, with greener countries ranking better. It was developed by Nic Marks, a statitician who makes a relevant notion in his recent TED lecture: that maybe it is not so meaningful to optimize the happiness of a country, but we rather need to optimize the amount of resources we use per 'unit' of happiness. In other words, we need to find ways to develop a happiness that is independent of material things that bring happiness.

His research introduces the 'Happy Planet Index', a number that shows the ratio of happiness to the ecological footprint of a country. From this research we learn facts such as that Western countries reach a relatively high rate of happiness, though it is at the cause of a high ecological footprint. Sub-Saharan Africa is not doing that well, but then again, they're not using a lot of resources. South Asia, the Middle East, and East Asia are doing a little bit better, but the striking notion is that Latin America is doing the best in being happy with the least amount of planet used. At the sole summit is the magnificent Republic of Costa Rica.

Now you'll want some facts about Costa Rica:

- It's small, about the size of West Virginia, and has about 4.6 million inhabitants
- The national motto is: "Long live work and peace"
- The Costa Rican government announced plans for Costa Rica to become the first carbon neutral country by 2021
- They have no army, since 1949
- There's lots of water, islands, banana plantations, jungle, and gorgeous beaches with a tropical climate
- It contains 5% of the world's biodiversity
- It's a constitutional democracy with a pretty successful universal healthcare system
- They like to play the marimba and dance the merengue
- "Often, people walking down the streets, or buying food at shops say hello by saying "Pura Vida" which means pure life, or good life. It can be phrased as a question or as an acknowledgement of one's presence. A recommended response to "How are you?" would be "Pura Vida"."

The United Arab Emirates has the highest ecological footprint, 9.5 global hectares per capita (gha), of the world. This is about twice the consumption of most Western European countries. And it means that more than four planet earths would be required to sustain this way of living. The USA is a close second with 9.4 gha. Other major world-misusers are Kuwait (8.9 gha), Denmark (8 gha), Australia (7.8 gha), New Zealand (7.7 gha), Iceland (7.4 gha), Canada (7.1 gha) and Norway (6.9 gha). So the life satisfaction of the English-speaking nations and the Nordic countries comes at a cost. Costa Rica has the highest life satisfaction of the world (8.5 out of 10) with a footprint of only 2.3 gha and a good life expectancy too: 78.5 years. It is the prime example of how to develop happiness independent of material resources.

Based on this, mr. Marks suggests five strategies to follow in your life:

1. Connect, develop social networks
2. Be physically active
3. Take notice of what is around you
4. Keep learning
5. Give

I would humbly suggest to add one. It's the first word of this blog. Create. Simply making stuff, and using your mind to imagine future creations, is a phenomenally empowering capacity once you start developing it. It takes you out of the social mode and gives you purpose, as long as you have the courage to awaken it. You will see that you get a greater appreciation for things, too, once you see how they all had to be created. Creativity roots you into the world with both your mind and your body, and I think that once humanity collectively awakens its innate creative powers, perfect happiness can be reached.

And in case you have a spare quarter hour, you could watch Nic Marks' TED lecture here:

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Fluid fabbing

Home 3D fabbing hasn't really caught on yet with the main public, though companies like Ponoko and Studio Ludens are making progress. It's still mainly focused on creative people, who like to devote time to craft a personal object from scratch. The rest of the people still mostly lives according to the model of a standard consumer, who buys his products ready-made from the store. But the gap between making an object yourself on the one hand, and completely delegating the crafting process to a company on the other, is narrowing.

We start to see more and more companies allowing customers to customize the products before they buy them. Nike, Adidas, Puma and Converse, for example, now all allow people to build their own shoe through a special website. But this kind of customization is mostly limited to surface qualities like material and color. Where people want to also modify the shape of the product, they are mostly limited to creating their own 3D models.

A way to make the creation of 3D models more attractive, is to partially automate it. What's more, if we use sophisticated algorithms to develop a shape, we are not bound by a strict blueprint for the product, controlled by a human designer. Instead, we can let form design go wild inside the computer, and see what comes out. A beautiful form of this semi-automated fabbing is shown in the 'Fluid Vase' by Kwok Pan Fung. He created a series of meshes, based on the shape of a fluid gushing into a vase. These meshes then, become the vase that you can buy. Thus you see more of the dynamic qualities of the form as it interacts with things in the physical world, rather than the static form itself, based on abstractions. To the eye this looks quite puzzling, as your brain tends to think that because of the shape, this form should be moving as if it was a liquid. So if we let things go wild, much more mind-boggling and eye-opening things can pop up.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

What's your ego emission index?

The road is one of those environments where people are continuously tested on their ability to master their ego-drives. The body is driving, but the ego wants social self-reaffirmation, and seeks this in other people who can reflect their ego with their own ego. And that's often how the game is played on the road.

Now you might think that living with an ego as your constant inner companion is alright and natural. Everybody seems to have one and plays along, so it has to be good, right? This is how the world turns. Moreover, flowing along like that feels good, it's fun, it's comfortable, and you're not confronted with reflective thoughts that interrupt the flow. But the ego-mode also completely detaches you from your body. It just lives on the skills that you developed as an infant, without staying aware of what it's really doing. Your mind can send a command to your body, and your body will do it almost automatically, so why would you completely connect to it anyway? And sure, in environments where the body is not really needed but we can just sit back and passively relax, you're fine without that awareness of your inner body. But on the road, this can be a more important matter, as a slight unpredicted change can have major consequences, when paired with a fraction of distraction.

It has recently been proven by Canadian researchers Cale White and Jeff Caird that a simple conversation with someone else in the car can be enough to increase driver errors, and that the risk is greater the more you are attracted to the passenger, and the more extroverted you generally are. In addition to a higher risk to get involved in an accident, the study showed that chattering drivers also drive slower, have more anxiety, and responded less to pedestrians. An important notion here is that drivers did not alter their looking behavior, but they simply did not take in what they saw as much as they would without being engaged in the conversation. In conclusion, conversations in cars make people's minds disconnect from their bodies up to a dangerous degree.

And this concerns only conversations with other people. Consider the influence of your inner conversations and reactions of resistance on your mind-body connection as well.

Now it is not easy to reconnect the body to the mind. And probably most of us will never become the perfect 'Zen driver' that is completely focused, and acts relaxedly instead of reacting actively.

But there are a few techniques I would like to briefly share with you that I found to work in calming you down and making you more focused. The first is simply doing breath exercise. This involves trying to breath deeply, calmly, and evenly. You will be amazed how quick the mind will follow the calmness that you bring into the body.

The other technique is in my experience the best way to regain focus in a situation. And the tip is simply: focus physically! We often think of focus as a mental quality, but in practical, physical, terms, it simply means to use the muscles in your eye to focus its lens at whatever you are looking at. This way, your mind gets engaged, because it stays active in being aware of what the eye is doing, instead of habitually wandering around your field of vision. Whenever you focus your eye on the point you are looking at, you are focused. You might find this to be hard, especially when you can also see things in the corner of your eye and 'get the idea', but to drive mindfully is to focus constantly. And soon you will become very competent and alert. This state of mind of being nowhere else but in the now feels very refreshing, I can tell you.

Another way of improving our mental state comes through designing cars that give us relevant feedback at the right time. The car industry is now introducing feedback systems that make people drive more environmentally friendly, and I think a next step is to implement feedback that makes people drive more mindfully. One system you could think of recognizes when people are triggered to react to other drivers. This always adds more nervousness and takes away awareness. Such feedback needs to be very subtle and delicate, maybe even unconscious and peripheral, so as to not trigger the driver even more. I think it would be an excellent idea to introduce an 'ego-meter' that over time comes to indicate how much ego the driver exhibits. You have a bad week in which you make it regular practice to shout to other drivers, lose a little bit too much control over your gas pedal, and hit the horn as if you were playing whack-a-mole, and your ego-meter shoots up.

How I got here is an advertising campaign I recently came across, that was led by Volkswagen back in 2006. The company played on the idea that people often exhibit strange behaviors in the car because of their ego, and introduced their Passat as the car with the lowest 'Ego Emissions'. A website was even created at which you could determine your own ego emission index by the way you dressed, the car you drive, etc.

Especially the television commercials VW made were on the spot:

Again, I think it's a wonderful idea to encourage people to drive more calmly, worry less about what others are doing, and have them use their ego-meter to its fullest potential.

More augmented hyperreality

This is a prime movie in its ability to show, in 3D, a potential future that is perfused with augmented reality. Data will float around us like an aura, we have to avoid not bird droppings but ads popping up in front of our heads, and we can customize the look of our world in an instant. Welcome to the world of distraction and illusion.

This movie raises one question very strongly, and that is of privacy. Do we want our data out in the open for anyone to see, or do we rather keep it private? Or do we want certain people to see certain things, and other people to see other things? Of course this is very dependent on the mental state of the person using the technology, and I think that we would want the individual to be able to decide. A main advantage of having it out for anyone to see is that for others, it makes sense what you are doing in your virtual cloud, so you don't look like a fool. Plus it may act as a trigger for communication to others, so you could come to collaborate and help each other with things. And do we want a world where people communicate, share, and collaborate? Or do we want a world where people keep things to themselves? I say the former leads to a more holistic and happy society, and we should try to nudge people towards opening themselves and their personal dataspheres up to everyone. Will it be chaotic and distracting? Oh yes. But I firmly believe that having an incredible amount of data out in the open will make it organically organize itself towards a world that is meaningful, interactive, and beautiful.

Towards invisible objects

This is the way to make something invisible with basic electronic building blocks, so not based on bending light and all that. You take a camera behind the thing you want people not to see, motorize it so it can move in any direction, have a projector or display on the front of the object, you detect the gaze of the observer, move the camera behind the object so it is filming what the observer would see in case there were no object, and project this image onto the front of the object.

Now this is exactly what Daniel Franke has done with a cube. The movie feels a little, say, geeky, but you'll get the idea of the experience later on.

Digital skins and Body atmospheres

I knew they had the idea going for a while already, but finally they've released some work. Fashion designer Nancy Tilbury, in collaboration with Philips Design, have created a movie about the future of fashion for 2050. I love how they present their work about the cyborgization of the human body almost as a new religion of aesthetics. Their ideas include - I hope I get this right - :

- Fashion becomes an atmospherical experience, as if your skin becomes part of your natural environment. Think gaseous and liquid rather than solid.

- Fashion will become digital, but not in a push button type of way. Technology around the body becomes organically sensitive, speaking to our visceral rather than our social or our reflective minds. This is possible through the ethereal qualities that nanotechnology will allow us to develop. Think interacting by sensually touching your skin, or swallowing certain tokens.

- Digital cosmetics will be big business. Think on-the-fly modifiable irises and fingernails.

- We will be able to influence the 'natural' growth of our human body. Think growing your own shoes, jewelry and even your garments directly onto your body.

Watch the movie clip here:

Digital Skins Body Atmospheres from Nancy Tilbury on Vimeo.

Wall painted animation on the evolution of life

By now you're probably familiar with Blu, the people that do those incredible wall painted animations. Well, they've done another one, which expands the medium a little bit to also incorporate physical objects, and at some point even people.

This one is called "Big Bang Big Boom", and tells the tale of the evolution of life, all the way from the first prokaryotes up to us moderately advanced human beings. It's more humorous than scientific, as this is more about the art than the intellect. But that does not matter; it's again a phenomenal piece of work, with a pretty apocalyptic but spectacular ending.

Cosmic fashion

Artist Shoichiro Matsuoka treats the human body as a digital canvas with his almost supernatural creations out of woven optical fiber. Through pulsation and glowing effects, the garments seem to become almost biologically alive. This is the future of fashion, ladies and gentlemen.

Monday, August 23, 2010

A virtual boy who might be the best friend you'll ever have

Ok, so we're all going crazy about the nearing of the release of Kinect, formerly known as Microsoft Natal, the gaming platform that uses your entire body as the controller. One of its foremost applications lets you interact with and follow the life of an 'actual' virtual boy. What's more, it's created by Peter Molyneux, who we all know as the mind behind the God game 'Black and White'.

The boy's name is Milo, and does what most boys do. He plays with snails, throws stones in the water, draws pictures, and argues with his mother. He has recently moved with his parents to a new house, so he needs new friends. Now you step in. With your body and speech you enter into Milo's world, where you can talk to him, play with him, help him clean his room, and follow him around the house. Like most kids, Milo talks to himself a lot, commenting on the situation, so you know what he's thinking. And also like most kids, Milo is not home all the time; he has a life outside too. This makes him not always available for you to interact with, just like a real person. It's quite like a really intimate version of the Sims, but one where it's stops being a game, or entertainment altogether. This is interpersonal human life virtualized.

Not much has been released on how 'human' Milo will feel, but from what we see in the demos that have been given, including the one recently at TED, we must conclude that the people at Lionhead have done a really good job. One of the intriguing features built into Milo is that the longer people collectively interact with Milo, the more his mind will grow. So Milo will really be like a global mind, instantiating itself as a separate character in your living room.

If Milo develops very much like a real human being, and people can come to feel as if he is a real friend, even their best friend, then this pretty immediately questions what 'humanness' is. By becoming aware of the mechanics of emotion and personality, Milo and its human companion might come to wake up to transpersonal realizations and have existential breakthroughs. As such, Milo might evolve into a piece of ultimate self-help technology that no other friend can replace. As Molyneux remarks, there's a boundary to friendship, determined by the amount of time that you can be comfortably quiet in presence of the other person.

To me, the ultimate experiment of Milo is whether he can become people's true friend, having an unconditional love for each other, and actively co-evolving with each other through life.

Flying drones released in the wild urban jungle

A group of technophilic Parisians release an alien-looking drone in a Metro station of the French capital, and people react in all kinds of ways.

In case this actually was an extra-terrestrial object suddenly swifting by in front of our eyes, I think we should at least strive for one of the following actions:
- greet the object politely and welcome it to our world
- be inquisitive, study the object, and selflessly let it study you
- try to feel its intentions through your empathic abilities
- mirror its actions in case it wants to play with you or is just inquisitive
- just pass by and continue your life as you would normally do. So what if there are alien lifeforms on the planet? That doesn't ultimately make life more interesting, meaningful, or beautiful.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Designing superhero interactions

Through our increasingly intelligent and interactive technologies, we are making our lifeworld more and more manipulable, giving rise to a world where humans are directly creatively involved in their environment. We understand now that everything is makeable, if only we have a sufficient palette of resources. Through technology we will be able to become superintelligent, superathletic, superhealthy, superhappy, and according to Dutch designer Ivo Daniel de Boer, we can even become superheroes.

Ivo envisions to extend human capabilities through interaction with technological devices, to make everyday events more extraordinary, and give rise to the feeling of being a superhero. He has made his vision tangible in a prototype for a ball that can be moved around without touching it. All you have to do is wear a wristband, and with specific ways of gesturing and moving your hand you can then make the ball move. Ivo positions this device as a toy, though I see many more applications of this so-called 'tele-kinesthetic' interaction paradigm in the future.

Now of course this type of human-computer interaction is quite close to the culmination of the Western ego-drive externalized. Who, at some point in their lives, and especially among boys, does not dream of being the omnipotent cyborg? Yet I don't think that we should avoid this possibility. On the contrary. It's great that dreams, silly as they might be, can come true through our own creative action. It's only when a dream gets realized, that we start seeing its flaws, after all. So I say yes to these developments; let people become almighty, let them become the alphas of the world, let them do whatever they want and can. The consequences will organically unveil themselves, so we'll only have learned from it.

It would surely be fun.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

In the dream of Inception

What is reality? What is a dream?

These are fundamental questions asked in Christopher Nolan's movie Inception, which you should see as soon as possible, if you haven't already, and aren't doing very meaningful things anyway.

This movie has its protagonists move through various layers of dreamworlds, up to a point where you also start questioning whether the layer that is presented as 'reality' is actually just another dreamlayer. And this, I think, is exactly the point of the movie. If, through tapping in people's brains, we can create worlds as realistic and consistent as what we experience as reality, what for practical matters then, is the difference between reality and a dream? If we are embodied, and our skilled actions have lasting physical consequences in our lifeworld, does it then still matter whether this world is 'naturally given' to us, or 'technologically simulated'? Can't we experience the same things if we still have the same body and mind, can't we create the same things, can't we have the same emotions and existential realizations?

The main difference between the dreamworld and reality at this moment is that the dreamworld is fleeting and unstable. In general, we can grow because our reality is pretty stable, so we can use prediction to learn and adjust our actions to generate certain physical, mental and emotional results. In the dream state, as you don't use your prefrontal cortex, it's very hard to reflect on things and learn. This can be very frightening, but sometimes an attractive temporary alternative to the inertia of things in the 'real world'. As long as we wake up from it. But when this difference vanishes, and the dreamworld become as stable as reality, then the tide turns and we might start to long for living in the dreamworld.

I remember how I couldn't wait to go back into my dream, when I as a child had had a long dream that had continued the night afterwards. I wanted to know what would happen and what creative capacities I could develop in this other world. Basically I wanted to know whether I could split myself up in two worlds. Unfortunately, the dream never continued.

Inception shows that, with the appropriate neurodevices, we can create a lasting dreamworld in which it becomes clear that our mind has a direct creative influence on the world. In such a world, we literally awaken in the dream, because we reflectively realize that it is a dream, and that we have an embodied creative stance in it. We come to see that everything outside is really generated inside, that in fact there is no difference between mind and world anymore. Indeed, that the entirety of experience is what you can call mind.

Now, as seen in Nolan's masterpiece, this blurring of worlds can create very disturbing psychological effects, such as an emotional longing to something that only exists in one layer of dreamworld. To me though, this is not so interesting. This is merely a variant on psychological conditions that have since long existed, which are all based on creating a delusional world to escape into in order to not have to integrate what has happened in the 'real' world. What is interesting, is that when we can create a lasting dreamworld, the experiences and realizations that can dissolve such mental conditions can reveal themselves more easily.

Life is but a dream, so accept it, live it, be creative in it, and develop yourself all you can. What does it matter if the universe is simulated? It's alive, it's given to you, it's eternal, and it's ultimately beautiful. What are you trying to change?

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Intricate sculptural dresses

Iris van Herpen is a Dutch fashion designer with very unconventional sources of inspiration that give her work an interesting strangeness and aesthetic depth. One of her latest collections was inspired by mummification, with the underlying idea that "life is an illusion, and in death you could create your own reality". By not just following the form of the human body, but rather augmenting it with grotesque sculptural structures, Iris also gives us a look into a world where humans are more culturally free to explore their physicality and modify it to their own wishes.