Saturday, April 23, 2011

Shape-shifting kitchen tools

By now we all know that shape-shifting can be a very powerful aspect of technology. Since we witnessed the T-1000 change his hands from knives into hooks into pins, we all unconsciously knew that one day, we could have forks that can change into spoons or into scissors. And after a dream finds root into our psyche, the real work begins, which requires us to selflessly devote our mind-processes to the manifestation of that dream.

Many creatives around the world have become fascinated by products that can morph, with one of the new minds in the game being a guy from Eindhoven, the Netherlands with a good name for a designer, Jeffrey Braun. He has posted a video that shows an initial vision towards shape-changing kitchenware. In the video, you will see him varying his movements and gripping positions in order to morph his incredible tool towards the desired shape.

Of course, this video is just a video and only a small step away from the T-1000 towards actual, marketable products. If his aim was to show us something magical, I think he has succeeded. We must not remain sentimentally engulfed in a dream for too long though. I always love to see a designer step up and create a concept that actually has potential to hit the markets within a certain timeframe. It is through the largely social filter of the marketplace that true innovation occurs, after all.

I would actually be interested myself in seeing if we can develop something. Many things need to be critically thought out to see which concepts can survive. For one, magic has its limits. It can draw attention and evoke interest to buy a product, but a product will also have to match and support the actual ecology of use, including the physical, socio-economic, cognitive, and emotional environment. For one, I think that a clear mental model has to be available. Magic can be interesting, but it actual use not being at one with our products but having them do unpredictable, magical things, can be dangerous and induce uneasiness, even fear when using the product. True magic would occur when technology would be able to perfectly decipher the intention of someone in real-time. But in general, we humans have not even generated this ability yet, as this requires an intense felt oneness with the other.

Another approach is to make symbolic couplings from a consciously implemented human action to a consciously implemented technological action, as Jeffrey has shown in his movie. But the value of this is limited by how much we can and are willing to load our cognition. Then there is the issue of confusing an actual functional action in use for having a symbolic meaning for the product, so that it accidentally triggers a function. And the last major issue is that symbolic couplings disembody us from our ecological embeddedness. We lose track of what we are embodied in when we are acting as a result of a symbolic trigger. For example, you don't want to have to stab a knife backwards four times to make it turn into a fork. I can see the symbolic approach working for only a few actions per product, as both cognitive load and accident rate are minimized. If we have to go through the interaction design paradigms that human-computer-interfaces have gone through also for everyday physical tools, things might get a little chaotic.

I see most value in direct embodied couplings, say, when the amount you squeeze the handle of the knife determines the length of its blade, and the pressure you give with your thumb the width. These couplings are intuitive, do not necessarily require sophisticated AI, and have the human being actually become more embodied because it requires him or her to develop more physical control skills. There is a great shift starting towards embodied interaction, and I think that also for shape-changing products we should follow along with it.

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