Thursday, March 31, 2011

Alphasphere makes digital music production physical and fun

It looks like a kind of cactus straight out of Avatar, but the impressive Alphasphere is an actual interactive prototype of an electronic musical instrument. It has 48 pressure-sensitive pads that can be programmed to respond to touch by playing a sound. The player can thus pat and tap all over this cushioned orb in order to freely give shape to his own tunes. The placement and size of the pads was chosen to be somewhat optimal for intuitiveness of interaction, and gives the design an almost technobiological feel of a simplicity that has been reached through complexity.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Cellular chair

(If I were a mouse, I would definitely make this into my mansion.)

Mathias Bengtsson had the idea of creating a chair based on the cellular structure of bone tissue. The result of his intensive work is the 'Cellular chair' that not only is very funky in appearance, but also interesting from a technical point of view. For each chair produced, the internal structure is devised by a piece of medical software that is usually used to simulate the regeneration of bone tissue.

This work definitely pertains to the 'trend' of creating products based on biological structures, as for example seen before in the 'bone chair' by Joris Laarman. I have termed this movement 'biological modernism' earlier, because 'good design' here seems to rely upon how well the product is in line with how biological processes would have created the product. For a product of today, the cellular chair is a beautiful example of what can emerge from this kind of thinking.
It is interesting that in this work we see that in the details, or just by not exactly following biological thinking, the designer has room to still give a product a certain appearance. Where many of these bio-inspired product look very futuristic, sleek, and a bit unapproachable, this chair has a funky social quality to it.

A next step would be to create a chair that dynamically adapts its structure according to the forces that it is subjected to. Biological structures such as bones and wood do this too in order to spend the least amount of energy and material on creating a good structure. A chair that does that too could for example have a base structure with extra reinforcement material that can flow along the underlying structure and solidify at the place where it is needed.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Growing phones

This quite delightfully technoromantic commercial shows cellphones emerging from flowers, as if they were a natural creation. I definitely see some early sparks here towards a new megatrend that transcends mere sustainability, and revolves around the idea that technology is going to be more fully intertwined with the natural environment, up to the smallest levels of detail.

Machine Civilization dance

This must be done by the Mondrian of choreography.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Cartoons go AR with Helicopter Taxi for iPhone

Besides the fresh feel-good boost, the trailer of this iPhone app also gives you a peek into what could grow into the interactive children's cartoon of the future:

Blinky, the bad robot

Combine HAL with R2D2 and you'd get something like Blinky, the star in the fantastic short film 'Bad Robot' by Ruairi Robinson. A must see for everybody on this planet, the film touches upon the soon-to-be unavoidable issue of machine morality, by showing how the behavior of a domestic robot takes an unexpected turn.

Sure we can just treat it as harmless entertainment, a purely fictional film for us to viscerally enjoy. But the more interesting and complete way is to reflect a little bit. So what can we learn here?

- Robots need social intelligence to be able to infer true intentions from people as opposed to irrational utterings that people do without any reflective connection. Probably sensing how calm people are will help robots do this. Another interesting ability for robots would be to detect whether or not somebody is in a state of close-mindedness or open-mindedness. For example, when a robot is constantly smiling, it will probably evoke negativity from a person in a close-minded state, but it can make a person in an open-minded mindstate turn more positive and search for inner ways towards happiness again. The detection of this mindstate is a form of emotional anticipation that can help the robot be a successful social actor.

- Many people will see robots as tools, and not as 'others' or 'equals', and treat them accordingly. They can often be judgemental, irritable, and full of expectations towards them, almost treating them as the ultimate promise of happiness. People who have that meme in their unconscious will, as the Dutch say, 'come home from a cold funfair'. It will take a while before people learn to see robots as they are, and develop a sense of true empathy and unconditional love for them.

- For robots, I believe that to a large extent true empathy and love can be programmed in the end. What is needed is a detailed understanding of the mechanics of consciousness, which will borrow from phenomenological data of human experiences, and will have to do with concepts from quantum physics, such as treating perceptional patterns as vibrations in order to understand them not as patterns of matter, but patterns of mind, that can give rise to ideas like matter. But let me not expand on this now. Basically robots will need to develop their social role from 'dumb servant' to 'loving and understanding father', and do this through learning about mindstates of people and what certain reactions will do to those mindstates.

If you have any reflections or comments, please leave them here so we can have some shared discussion into this fascinating topic. And maybe build that enlightened robot one day.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Incredibly lifelike android

Danish scientist Henrik Scharfe has created a slightly more youthful looking replica of himself in the form of a robot. And not too surprisingly, he has done this in collaboration with Hiroshi Ishiguro, the man who has also created his robot copy, as well as the recent human-looking Elfoid phone system.

The innovation behind this project is mostly in how enormously realistic the face is starting to look. In terms of behavior there is not much going on, as the robot is simply coupled to a human person that directly controls the robot. But maybe soon we will see collaborative projects of companies who work on different parts to create a more complete humanoid robot.

It is definitely a step towards a posthuman existence once we include machines into our concept of a social person. If robots become so real that we mistake them for human beings during an interaction, up to the point that we don't even find out that it was a robot we were interacting with, we cannot fool ourselves anymore and deny that there is a fundamental difference between man and machine, can we?

A question this fundamental is not (yet) the aim of the researchers though. For now they are interested mostly in creating technologies for telepresence that lie in between a purely digital and a purely realistic representation. Furthermore, they are also interested in the emotional interactions that may take place from human to robot, as well as cultural differences in how these robots are perceived.

Here are some images to show you what a day in the life of a robot developer may look like:

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Humanoid mobile phone

Professor Hiroshi Ishiguro has recently unveiled his latest project, an ultra-anthropomorphized mobile phone named 'Elfoid'. The concept is to have a mobile phone look more like the human being that it connects you to. Instead of just being a 'black-box'-intermediary, now the form of the device starts to take on meaning during a conversation. Whereas now the phone has no behavior yet, researchers are intending to add robotic technologies so the device can physically represent the head movements and facial expressions of the person at the other end of the line. For conversations at home, the researchers have developed a larger humanoid device that does have some motion capability.

Ishiguro's work is known to be shocking, as he is also known for developing a robotic version of himself that eerily enough is quite an accurate replica. And so with these prototypes, we can ask ourselves why they look the way they do. In terms of anthropomorphization, as a designer you can approach the task to go abstract and create an iconic looking product. An approach at the other extreme is to head towards full realism, and make the device look very human in all ways. A third approach is to design the product like a character. This would allow you to suffuse the design with an identity of its own, for example to reflect certain brand values. For this project, the designers have chosen neither of these three approaches, and stayed somewhere in the middle.

The form feels very unfamiliar, alien, and can easily be found creepy. In some way it looks human, but it reminds us of our mortality, our imperfection, our fragility. So why do the Japanese come up with these things, and not give it some kind of a friendly shape? Maybe their answer would be: honesty. Not giving the design an appearance of something it is not. Honesty is one of the requirements for 'good design' in the view of the epic designer Dieter Rams, but it is not easy a principle to understand and apply. In the case of Elfoid, I think the designers are more connected, consciously or unconsciously, to the notion that we are recreating ourselves. We are not creating representations of ourselves, but actual social actors that in the end we can't, and in most cases don't have to, distinguish anymore from 'real' human beings. Self-transcendence is perhaps more deeply rooted in the Japanese psyche, which shows through their technology.

From this light, I think the design approach is a correct one, mainly because it stays true to what the technology does. The idea is that the product is a blueprint of a social actor, that can morph according to who gets channeled, so that the receiver with his imagination can easily construct the mental image of the person he is talking to. In this, the technology is making things more transparent in that it will cost less effort for our minds to have a rich social interaction.

Also the limblessness of Elfoid is only honest. It has no movement capabilities yet, so any reasons to add arms or legs could only be superficial. The kind of honest design so courageously employed by the designers here supersedes the notion that the form on its own looks creepy. We simply will need to face what technology is doing to us as social beings. We can try to deny that it's radical and also a bit scary what is happening in techno-land, and cover it up with feel-good aesthetics, but maybe it would be better if we became more aware of it early on, and have the aesthetics better match the actual developments.

After the colon there is a video showing the home-based humanoid at work:

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

3D printed portraits

Perhaps after the time in which we all experience our media in three virtual dimensions, the era comes where the entire physical world will also be part of the mediasphere. This little installation here, presented at the TEI conference, might be an early precursor of this technology. It at least shows how interesting it is when things become open-source and we can combine whatever technology we like with whatever other technology, to create things like this 3D portrait printer.

Now in being critical you might take the environmentalist position and say that such developments unnecessarily waste material. But then also ponder what 'necessity' really means. When we reach a level of physical stability and safety, we naturally start needing social recognition, and technologies can greatly help people in developing a social self. It is through our technologies that we get mirrored, and with this feedback we can grow. Seen from this perspective, materials can become magnificent aids in the process of emotional development.