Friday, October 29, 2010

Dutch Design Week '10 - a synopsis

Creativity will be 'flying you around the ears', as the Dutch say, if you are in Eindhoven this week. In case you're not, here's an overview of some of the most noteworthy work.

To start off, we're seeing interesting furniture designs based on the idea of physical transformation. In 'de Krabbendans', a piece with slow, worm-like movement is displayed that consists of several modules, which can autonomously rotate through a crude mechanism based on gears and long wormwheels. The design academy has a table on display with a top that can change its radius through sliding from being a small four-seater table to a larger table. Also there is an impressive couch that consists of a fairly uniform, crystal-like array of thousands of scissor mechanisms which allow the couch to shrink over two dimensions when you push its sides inwards.

In the idea-realm of sustainability, we see some interesting developments. In the 'Designhuis' we see new lighting concepts making use of energy-efficient LEDs. One of these is a birdhouse with LED lighting that is solar-powered. So while you may not be able to afford rooftop solar panels, at least the birds in your garden can now have it. Also at the Designhuis, Philips is showing their OLED technology for lighting applications. The light output is still quite low, but thin and energy-efficient it definitely is. Then there is a carpet with integrated LEDs for decorative purposes, another step in making technology softer. At the design academy we see some attention paid to an environmentally sustainable world, including an architectural work for a housing unit with a huge reflective dish as the roof, which will reflect the sunlight and convert it to energy inside the building.

The idea of technology becoming or merging with biology was scarcely represented this year. There are the far future concepts of the Nanosupermarket, such as Nanowine that changes its taste on command, or a Nanosock that autonomously crawls up your toes, but the lonely spot of immediately practical applications is reserved for a treehouse based on a balloon that you blow up in between its branches. The makers envision a city in tune with its nature, merged with it instead of isolated from it. Another product that loosely fits in this category, but is just too cool in a geeky way to not mention, is the pudding bowl that makes your desserts look like the chilled monkey brains from the Temple of Doom.

The developments in rapid prototyping are presented again by Shapeways, displaying full color and metal-printing, among other options. The price for a self-created golden ring lies around 40 euros, which seems like an impressively affordable price for a nice and personal, though a little less shiny piece of jewelry. At the design academy some ideas are presented on the application of home-based 3D printing, and its societal implications, in the sense that we are now moving towards the true socialist ideal where the masses own the production system. We couldn't take over the centralized manufacturing system, but now at least we can reach the same effect through a decentralized system that everybody carries. In terms of applications, rapid prototyping here is presented as a way to repair things by creating custom components or in-between sections, where you would otherwise have bought an entirely new product. But the other, less sustainable side of it is that now people could print whatever they want whenever they want, which could lead to incredible flows of material that are largely not very useful, such as when we use material to simply display messages. This is a big drawback, still I'm all for it, since at least it puts the creativity, and with that the power, the responsibility, in the hands of the end user. However slow, I think that this does invite personal development towards more intelligent and ethical actions.

The Industrial Design faculty at the Eindhoven University of Technology again presents the harvest of a year full of projects. As an ex-student, I'm coming to find that, the projects of this faculty were always for a large part nice explorations into how technology can solve a problem for somebody but often pretty unmarketable due to the costs of required development, production, and the limited user base. I'm not your business expert, but high technology seems still only profitable when it either is implemented in an already known product group with the production channels already grooved in place, or when the innovation is so groundbreaking as to attract a large new market that will support production. If the technology is not that needed or desired, in other words if masses of people are not lying in bed at night thinking about this stuff, it seems that it simply will not happen. Another part of projects were based on exploring technological innovations, and often this produced projects with a sort of adolescent, techno-slick, urban feel to it, not rarely circled around the concept of having technology construct an identity for you. Out of the large and extremely technodiverse population of projects this faculty has already created, I have come to feel that one segment is particularly groundbreaking, and suited for this faculty. This is the development of new interactions with digital products as a means to innovate. A new interaction can often radically change a product - after all, it's what mostly defines the product in terms of how it impacts our lives - without needing to necessarily change the production system of the product all too radically. It is my guess that in this field, industries will be likely to pick up projects and invest in them, so that it could in the end lead to worldwide distribution of the products coming out of these projects. It is going in the right direction, with this year two projects standing out for me. One is the digital camera designed by David Menting. It has physical controls that directly correlate to the digital controls of photography parameters such as shuttertime and ISO settings. By connecting a control to one parameter in a more or less natural and always direct way, the user becomes linked to the digital world with the body, which in my eyes is crucial if we want to develop clear, understandable, and natural technologies. Another interesting project is the high-end faucet by Jasper Dekker based on gesture interaction. The exhibition has working prototypes, so by all means go take a look and feel.

This leads me to mention that one strand of development is just not seen in the design world of Europe. Japan is full of it, and America has their take on it, now where is Europe? I am talking about robotics. Not just because I have a personal sentiment for it, but simply because I think that within Europe are mostly people with mindsets that differ on crucial points from North Americans and East Asians. And this could expand the robotics field significantly. A quickly modernized Japan has put its faith in the development of technology, so that's why we are seeing their fancy humanoids that are becoming more and more lifelike. They are a little reserved in general, but now robots can do their physical entertainment such as dancing and singing, too. Americans think in general that this is rather silly and creepy. They, being protective and family-driven, focus more on people, so they are building social robots, as well as an army of (semi-)autonomous war robots. What Europe mostly is good at are two things that in the best cases hang together: reason and art. Europe can focus on creating ethical robots, that could point out certain things to people, or just try to do good and learn things through action. It could also focus on developing creative robots, that show people that in becoming creative, we can lift ourselves from a purely self-centered or social life. I think this needs to start, and in the next years we at least need to see some ideas over here for potentially successful applications.

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