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:

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