Thursday, January 27, 2011

Sustainable floating cities

Most of the Western cities have just emerged bit by bit, which can cause quite the inefficiencies in a changed, high-paced and interconnected world. Other cities have been based on a grid-like system which works as a system for living but completely takes the 'soul' out of a city. Then there are a few cities that have been based on a different kind of plan, as a more artistic approach, such as the city of Brasilia as designed by Oscar Niemeyer. This has turned out to be quite a failure as it was not anticipated how the people would actually live there.

Vincent Callebaut has another idea, which is also based on a preconceived plan mostly, yet it's a piece of intelligent, somewhat holistic and environmentally responsible thinking. And the structure he proposes is extremely beautiful too. His concept is to create floating cities along the coastline that somewhat look like Lilypads. Each of the cities can provide residence to 50.000 people, which could be people that have lost their home in a traditional city through a natural disaster. Beside aesthetics the unique aspect of these cities is that they have zero emissions, and even process carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. This, the Belgian architect envisions, can be reached through using energy from the sun, the wind, from biomass, and from the tidal waves.

I like the thinking and the design, and I think this can work if we can get the money together. Dubai, Shanghai, Hong Kong, anyone?

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Robotic storytelling tree

The Efteling has always been one of the most successful themeparks in keeping people immersed in a constructed reality. It keeps doing so with one of their latest projects: the fairytale tree or "Sprookjesboom." This impressive combination of art and engineering has children talk to it in order to select stories that the tree will then tell them.

The Efteling's art direction in general seems to be moving away from the mysterious illustrated realms of the late Anton Pieck that the park was originally based on. Instead, it is tending to move towards a more Disney-esque depiction of the fairytale characters. I can see that this is the way to go in a modern world where people have trouble letting themselves become part of the environment, and want instant gratifications. The simple friendliness of creating characters with smiles and big eyes makes them very accessible, but it does take away the depth and mystery of more complex characters. The characters that really seem to live there, and are not just there to entertain the people. Beyond simply giving people a fun experience and stimulating mind-patterns of anticipation and satisfaction, the Efteling especially has the potential to reveal an experience of being immersed in authenticity. This calms down the mind and absorbs us through direct sensations, which in the end can help us to start living 'authentic' lives again too.

Friday, January 7, 2011

The orange alligator

In a world still mainly programmed by the meme of conquering nature, the wild world we were born from is mostly seen as diminishing and endangered. But still it can surprise us, and not only on the ocean floors; this orange, presumably half-albino gator was spotted in Florida. Now let's hope people don't turn it into a symbol and a commodity, but just let the thing be where it is. It can't help its color, after all.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Claytronics, for a shape-shifting future

When it comes to vague future visions of technology, I am with CMU's professor Goldstein. He foresees to realize a technology platform that will allow for matter being fully programmable; in real time, and in three dimensions. Their own description sums it up perfectly:

"Claytronics" is an emerging field of engineering concerning reconfigurable nanoscale robots ('claytronic atoms', or catoms) designed to form much larger scale machines or mechanisms. Also known as "programmable matter", the catoms will be sub-millimeter computers that will eventually have the ability to move around, communicate with other computers, change color, and electrostatically connect to other catoms to form different shapes. The forms made up of catoms could morph into nearly any object, even replicas of human beings for virtual meetings.

Of course this is still very rudimentary, and it reminds me of a guy saying that he would be able to create the T-1000, whose proof of concept was a soccer-ball size cube sliding over another cube. A phone changing into a laptop, a physical re-instantiation of another person, and shape-shifting furniture can then become a reality, according the team. Well, nothing is impossible with the right resources and at least now a research group is working on this matter, so keep your antennas tuned.

iPad goes yoga

The people at Joby marketed this nifty iPad support tool through linking it to yoga practice. This flexible support, called the GorillaMobile Yogi, allows for the iPad to be positioned to what matches the user's preferred situation. And so we see the iPad, about the flattest device out there, do a downward dog and a vine pose.

Tai Chi chair

Modernism meets the far East with this chair that was designed to support Tai Chi exercises that you can do while sitting on it. With a few simple bends in the frame, the designer has created supports for hands and feet at several places. I like this way of design thinking, since it promotes integrating physical and spiritual practice with everyday activities. If it is hard to take a separate time slot for such practices on a regular basis, at least these objects invite you to occasionally take a step back from what you are doing, and pay some attention to your body again.

Towards a barefoot existence with Footstickers

The most brilliant things are often so simple that they make us look beyond the cleverness or originality of the individual creator, but make us see that the best creator is just someone who is open to creating things that almost seem to want to be created. In this we do not force our creations to come out of us; we simply act as an open channel for them to naturally come into existence through our body and minds. So it seems to be with the Footstickers by Frieke Severs, who graduated with the concept at Nike.

It seems almost 'natural' to me that through our technology we move towards an interactive, humanized new form of nature in which we exist seamlessly, up to the point where 'existence' - standing out, as an appearance, a form - moves towards simply being. Technology might move from protecting the fragility of our bodies against the harms of brutal nature towards being so integrated with them that we simply do not perceive any boundaries anymore. And so, our shoes too can become our next skin.

We already had Vibram FiveFingers and Nike Free, and now we might get Footstickers. I can't think of how to explain why we need to move towards this without spending a lot of words on it, so the clear and concise shortcut has become a list:

- The most obvious reason is that it saves material and production energy.
- Moving towards a barefoot existence brings us back to embodiment; we need to connect to the sensations our feet give us, and we can develop intricate skills that way. Our feet can become more like hands again than like stumps that we land on and comfortably rest in the fortresses we call shoes. We focus too much on our mind-skills these days.
- Barefoot walking and running teaches us to use the inherent and optimized physical complexity of the foot, for example by employing the flexibility of the foot bridge. We can learn to spend less energy this way and run faster as well. I speak from experience as I am a regular long-distance barefoot runner.
- I know, we like shoes that support an individual style and identity. But: this is related to a psychological need for privacy, isn't it. We do not like to open up, expose ourselves, and show our most private things, including our body. We like masks because we can construct them. To people that are used to creating a styling-based identity for themselves, it seems silly to use the already given form of the human body as our outer appearance; because that is a form that we have not created ourselves. If we overcome this though, we can come to trust on the natural intelligence that takes care of the workings of the cosmos, beyond our individuality-driven minds. We can learn to listen to our body as our guru, and then this will become socially acceptable as well.

Linking a robot body to a human one with Kinect

I know it's a little nerdiness-heavy and lacking slickness of presentation, but hey, this is the real world, and these early developments towards a world where human and machine live as a brotherhood are just too interesting to not write about at least occasionally.

Enter Taylor Veltrop, who has linked his Kinect to a humanoid robot so he can operate it directly through his own body movements. As he indicates himself, it's nothing but a first rough version towards fluent robot motion control - algorithms such as IK would have to be implemented to give the robot an own mind-connection to its body so that it can make an intelligent conversion of the movements it perceives, instead of blindly following what it sees directly - but it's pretty good already.

The moment when the creator has his robot do push-ups, commenting himself with "Let's do some push-ups", it really seems as if he has created a little version of himself that can now do things through simple control so that the creator does not have to do them anymore within the limits of his own embodiment in the physical world. Whereas this does open up great possibilities, and I do think that in making technology more active we are stimulated in becoming so as well, we on the other hand are reminded again of a future scenario where we have forgotten about the mental and physical development of our own bodies and become the jolly onlookers to a seemingly active world - akin to the media consumers depicted in Pixar's Wall-E. So let's all stay aware.