Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Celebrating computational art

We all know that digital media are rapidly becoming the co-creators of our art, and the makers of Toxiclibs know how that's done. For three years they have been developing customizable building blocks for computational artwork, and here's a funky compilation of their results:

toxiclibs showreel 2010 from postspectacular on Vimeo.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Robot that tries clothes for you

Did you ever order, say, a dress, online that ripped in half as soon as you tried it on? The solution is nigh, as the web-based company Fits.Me has developed a shape-changing robotic manikin that can morph into your body size and try the clothes out for you before you buy them. Thanks to this technology, clothing retailers can send in their clothing for the robot to try it all on with various body sizes, after which customers can enter their body measurements and have the clothes shown in the way that they would look if they would be wearing them.

The guy that presents his company in the following video seems to have a fetish-like obsession for his work, and watching a robotic system change shape is always interesting, so don't miss it:

A flock of robots

The images we have in our heads of robots being present everywhere around us still mostly associate to those generated by the media. Let's replace them quickly with images of 'reality' so we're preparing ourselves for such a future. For example, watch the movie below, which shows an experiment in the "fully autonomous deployment of large aerial swarms."

The creators of these artificial birds imagine the robots to be useful especially for setting up communication networks in rescue areas. What's interesting from a technology point of view is that the robots were designed as efficient as possible through biology-inspired strategies. For example, the collective of aerial robots develops and maintains pathways for communication in a way that ants develop pheromone pathways to a food source.

See more on the official project page here:

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Spraying your shirt on

It's 8PM on an average Wednesday night in 2020, and you have a meeting with one of your clients. You're biking because it's nearby, but it's a little drizzly and windy out. No problemo though. You step out of the shower, and open the wardrobe. It's not half as big as it used to be. You take out a white can that says "water and windresistant", pop the cap, and start spraying - don't miss a spot! - all over your body. You want to look a bit formal yet fresh, so you grab the dark gull grey one that says "with mild chocolate scent" and add some details here and there. And voila, after you've done your hair with self-organizing nano-wax, the spray has turned into a fully finished non-woven textile garment, ready to wear.

A strange scenario indeed, but it might become reality. Particle engineer Paul Luckham and fashion designer Manel Torres from Imperial College London have invented a liquid consisting of cotton fibers, polymers, and a solvent, that turns into a washable and reusable fabric when sprayed out of an aerosol can.

Monday, September 20, 2010

A robotic headset for the sensual cyborg

I know, I know. This looks like a lot of things. A native American chief's headdress, a peacock's plumage, a porcupine, a torture tool, a toilet brush, or something Lady Gaga would wear on stage. And sure, only a tiny group of individuals would probably invest in fitting themselves a high-tech, cyborg identity by wearing such a contraption. Yet although this concept is almost unthinkable to hit the shelves, it does show us an interesting glimpse of the future.

The idea was developed by Jop Japenga, and is meant to share the mood of the music you are listening to with others around you. The device has scales that will behave in a physical way according to six modes: happy, dreamy, passionate, angry, mysterious, and sad. So when the extensive Beatles playlist on your iPhone hits the Vedanta-ish lyrics of 'Within You Without You', the scales will slowly start waving upwards, towards the realm of the infinite, eternal, and absolute. And when it reaches 'Cold Turkey' where John Lennon is roaring because he wants his heroin, the scales might start to stand up out of pure frustration. This way, in Japenga's words, 'a small peephole into our private atmospheres' is opened.

To see why this is interesting we have to think back in time a little bit, to the time before people stuffed their ears with white plastic before heading out the door. Back then, people didn't really live in an information-space like we do now. The television had been suffusing our minds with data within the confined realm of our homes for a while, but as soon as we stepped out the door we were in the big world out there, and there was no other information to control and connect to. So then naturally, people focused more on the people around them, because they were simply the most interesting things around to pay attention to. Now I have not lived long enough to experience this time as a grown and fully conscious person, but I can imagine that this gave rise to much more spontaneous discussions that, no distractions being present for a decent amount of time, led to many intellectually interesting, even philosophical, everyday conversations. And I can imagine too how listening to personal music in public after the Walkman was released was considered rude, and a sign of intellectual decline.

But the digital generation didn't care. The idea that you could control your perceptual space simply won over letting it up to chance who or what you met on your way. I guess it just didn't seem wrong to listen to Metallica or Madonna all the time, if the chance that you might strike up a rich and personally enlightening conversation was remote anyway. Little did we know that our attention would become so fragmented, and digital media would control us to such an extreme extent as they tend to do today.

So we were mostly cut off from our direct surroundings, our mind always tending to be somewhere else. And over time, we each have created an own digital information space to live in. An own cosmos, so to say. What digital media have showed us over anything else is that really we can decide what we perceive and alter things to our liking. The drive to freely explore, create, and experiment is more and more being met through digital media, which is an enormously empowering development.

But the result is a brain that can tend to associate wildly, and always create intentions to explore more, consume more, share more, and create more. Mental calmth is hard to enjoy these days. And we are not giving up our personal layer of information. So what do we do?

What this strange-looking headset does, and what we should do, is to enlarge our information space to connect to our immediate physical surroundings. We will become transparent, we will become our environment, we let our data go, and let it wildly interact with other data. We trust in that simple entanglement will produce something good, something beautiful. The social communication protocol is only one perspective now. With each sensor and actuator we add to our body, we add another perspective that can influence our decision making and our consciousness. This liquifies, even vaporizes our personality to something that is less in our own hands, but can more and more be shaped by our direct surroundings. It doesn't matter with what we interact anymore, we simply interact. And bring the attention back to the physical world. By engaging our full attention with our embodied existence in this world where the digital has blended with the physical, then, our mind does not wander off, because it realizes that the entire universe is here already. And that it is in the present moment where everything needs to be done.

I almost expect that in the coming decade, a breakthrough mobile product will hit the market that will be massively adopted, and that connects us to our direct embodiment stance in the world again. With this headset being one of its conceptual precursors.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Robotics meets furniture design

The first steps towards robotic products are being taken, also at Lausanne Polytechnique. Researchers there are investigating how robotics can be applied to make furniture move by itself, change shape according to the situation, and repair itself.

So far, they've come up with an ingenious module that can rotate around multiple axes, and can connect to other modules. By combining these robotic modules with static elements, then, they can create a walking table, a shape-changing ottoman, or a chair that assembles itself. Their simulations so far are more impressive than the actual hardware they've built, but I hope to see that table that runs away from you in real life at a furniture or design fair someday soon.

Bacteria grow textiles

Bacteria + green tea + sugar solution = a brand new garment out of bacterial cellulose.

That's the idea of London-based researcher Suzanne Lee. Where the material may not be very comfortable to wear, it has a very unique aesthetic to it, so with further optimization this might go somewhere. Whether this can become their original vision of a "garment emerging from a vat of liquid, having been completely shaped by micro-organisms" is the question, but nothing is impossible of course.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

The future of fabbing

This right here is a very amusing animation about the future of manufacturing. It starts out almost as the typical corny design video showing first a problem, and then introducing the solution, but this video emphasizes also the evolution of manufacturing products over time, which is a nice mix.

So according to this video, we are going from mass production to mass customization, from central manufacturing facilities to a decentralized system, and eventually to an increasingly intelligent system where we as individuals have the technology to scan objects -even when they are broken- and reproduce them in any kind of material we like. We can even determine a product's internal structure, based on a kind of molecular, DNA-like, blueprint.

This way, production of everyday items becomes more and more biological, with products becoming more and more adapted to their individual environment of use.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

iPad holograms

Ok, ok, it's not real, it's a trick. It's art. But it's the kind of art that opens our minds, and shows us the possibilities of the future. And that is useful in itself.

Holograms have always been on the list of those technologies we always wanted to have around us. And why not? Design studio Berg thinks so too, and has developed this nifty technique to, as it were, paint with light in the space around us. For this, they use an iPad which they move through space while it plays a preprogrammed movie, and take long exposure shots of the scene. The result? See for yourself:

Making Future Magic: iPad light painting from Dentsu London on Vimeo.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Coral-inspired 3D printed lamps

I see a future for product design that is in many ways quite different from how the trade is practiced at the moment. It's a future where we learn to handle materials in an increasingly intelligent way, and work hand in hand with computers. Which we will probably not call computers any longer. I am recognizing this shift where materials more and more become part of the dynamic function of the device they constitute. In fact, I think that with new, responsive, and programmable materials, structure will become function again. So that we become linked to our technologies in a fully embodied way. Design then, gets to be more of an evolution, a growth, not unlike a carbon-based organism is grown these days. Design becomes emergent rather than plan-based.

This is how it is in what we call nature. Everything is grown as one structure, and electric communication is simply an intrinsic part of this structure, rather than a separate system within an enclosure. So in nature at least we can find inspiration for this new type of design. And we can start translating what we find slowly into our products, to make for a gradual shift to a materially intelligent future.

The design studio 'Nervous System' does exactly that. They have taken a hypothetical mechanism found in nature, and developed products, partially using that mechanism. It's called 'reaction-diffusion', and is supposed to be responsible for the complex patterning and coloring of animals like zebras and tropical fish. The lamps that the designers subsequently created through 3D printing techniques came to look somewhat like corals. Whether it looks beautiful is for everybody to decide for him- or herself, but surely the way the materials are handled here is quite extraordinary. That is beautiful to me in itself.