Wednesday, September 11, 2013

The metropolis goes wild

Lena Steink├╝hler is a German filmmaker who has a quite radical future vision for the metropolitan city. In a short movie clip created for her graduation project she portrays how technological structures in New York City start coming alive, react to the local needs of the people, or just freely dance and move around.

Of course this is purely speculative design fiction, almost bordering on a kind of fetishism for the new wave of interconnected and adaptive technologies is starting to come up. Besides the visual power of the movie - the animated movements are wonderful, as are the music, pacing and transitions from NYC how it is to NYC how it could be- , what we should take along is the big idea that adaptivity and intelligent behavior in general can fulfill multiple needs depending on local circumstances, which can even be a strategy to tackle issues such as overpopulation in metropolitan areas.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Projection mapping with disco balls

Kyle McDonald and Jonas Jongejan haven given an entirely new dimension to the otherwise incredibly banal disco ball with their installation "Light Leaks". Watch it in action:

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Bio-organic breast pump

'Fluenci' is an outstanding design project, where the underlying design philosophy, project approach, and design results are all very innovative and beautiful. The project was performed in 2010 by Jaap Knoester as part of his master graduation from Eindhoven University of Technology, and  in collaboration with Philips Design.

The vision of the project was to create a new type of breast feeding pump, that fits the intimate experience better than current models, which feel very mechanical and functional. Several interviews were done with mothers which showed that current breast pumps often make them feel exposed, or even felt degrading. It was also found that the so-called 'let-down' reflex, which triggers the milk flow, is stimulated the most when the mother can see, hear, smell and feel the warmth of her baby.

These stimuli are incorporated into the design of the Fluenci breast pump through a heated breastshield with electric thermofoils, an organic form that resembles the back of the baby's head and neck and allows for cradling, as well as sounds of the baby played by the remote pump unit. Because milk flow is most stimulated when suckling starts out fast and then slows down, this behavior was also incorporated into the breast pump. The device has a button on top which the mother can tap in order to adjust the suckling frequency.

User tests showed that this interaction for adjusting the suckling frequency should be more direct and precise. While a subtle and direct interaction such as the suggested tapping might seem beautiful, I think that the main reason it is not preferred over, say, a slider or control knob, is that it needs too much conscious attention from the user. It requires a felt connection to the device, in other words, the user needs to mentally get into a rhythm and then convey this rhythm in an embodied way. But such a felt connection is subordinate to the felt connection with the baby. A baby's suckling can obviously not be controlled by tapping on his or her head, so it is necessarily a non-anthropomorphic element, and probably it is best to design it as such - as part of the technical device, not the intimate experience. In this case it is probably best to leave the age-old ritual of breastfeeding alone and minimize other subrituals in terms of cognitive and physical load.

Overall, the test subjects much appreciated the device. Knoester explains in a paper written for the DeSForM 2012 conference called 'Fluenci: The expression of expressing' that the underlying design philosophy responsible for the success is based on a new type of anthropomorphic design that does not fit well into current classifications of anthropomorphic design, because it does not fully mimic human form, gesture, social roles or intentionality. Rather, it is more subtly designed with human qualities so that the user can interact with the device as if it were human. Knoester calls this Embodied Anthropomorphic Form.

Now, I think we need to pay some attention to this, because to me it is an extremely beautiful and powerful way to design products. It avoids the uncanny valley by not directly mimicking existing biological forms, and it avoids a too technical, robotic, distant look. I think that deep down, it is exactly where humans want to be in terms of interacting with their technological environment, and that it can dissolve such widespread modern-day feelings of alienation and dissociation. I think that we need to extend this approach into a design approach that can be used for all products, not just ones simulating human to human interaction. We need to learn to design products so that humans are invited to interact with them as if they were sentient beings in general, imbued with the same cosmic life force, you could say, that we humans feel. Then technological products would not feel distant and complex anymore, but we can accept their complexity because we feel the same life in them as we feel inside of us, so on a more basic level there would be a feeling of equality which can them give rise to empathy, acceptance, understanding, even love or oneness.

In the past, I have quite casually suggested the term 'biological modernism' for this design approach, because I believe that we should design according to modernist principles but now extended not just to minimize and beautify static qualities such as form and proportion, but also dynamic, alive qualities of interaction. I think though, that modernistic design could be more like a subclass of this kind of biological design, because it would allow people to also be less minimal (or even extremely extravagant) in case they prefer such an approach. It's just that personally I would advocate minimalism because it forces designers to use their creativity and intellect more fully in order to condense a lot of complexity into elegant design solutions, and this to me is what creates beauty. But of course nature does also not always seem very intelligent, and often extremely messy. The notions that nature is wild, nasty and chaotic on the one hand, and mind-blowingly beautiful on the other hand, are two opposite images and as always, neither is fully true. So now I would like to suggest a new approach, in the broadest sense based on encapsulating the biological lifeforce in technological devices, not just in terms of form such as organic designers such as Luigi Colani and Ross Lovegrove have been doing with their corresponding design philosophies of 'Biodesign' and 'Organic Essentialism', but extending this also towards the embodied relation with human beings. Therefore I would like to suggest the term 'Embodied Biodesign'. In case this sets you thinking and you come up with a better name, suggestions are welcome!