1 March 2009

Nicolas Nova and David Rose on change at LIFT09

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LIFT 2009
The entire morning of the first day of the LIFT conference was devoted to change. I selected a few presentations here that I found personally most stimulating.

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Nicolas Nova

Nicolas Nova (blog) is a user experience researcher who studied at EPFL and now works for LIFTlab as a researcher, blogger and consultant, and the editorial manager of the conference.

In his talk entitled “The Recurring Failure of Holy Grails“, Nicolas focuses on the failed product of the future to better understand possible design futures. Examples he highlights were the videophone (launched in 1969), the intelligent fridge (1996), location-based services (1983), – products that never broke through when they were launched.

All these examples share overoptimisim, a recurring reinvention of the wheel with little knowledge of similar attempts, a sincere conviction that this the product is a holy grail solution, and lots of press attention.

But why do they then not break through? Often these products are stuck in a particular frame of thinking that limits the vision of what is possible. They are not really disruptive and tend to extrapolate the short term to the long term. The designers tend to focus on the ‘average human’ and have no real understanding of human needs and differences, and tend to have a slanted view of what constitutes ‘natural interaction’.

These failed products are weak signals of possible futures (as they often contain good ideas) and can provide inspiration for design.

David Rose

David Rose (personal page) is a product designer, technology visionary, and social entrepreneur. Currently David is Chief Executive at Vitality, a company that is reinventing medication packaging with wireless technology. Rose founded and was CEO of Ambient Devices where he pioneered glanceable technology: embedding Internet information in everyday objects like light bulbs, mirrors, refrigerators, umbrellas to make the physical environment an interface to digital information.

In his talk entitled “Enchanted Objects – how fiction foreshadows innovation”, David elaborates on the themes earlier introduced by Nicolas Nova and tries to understand what magical objects can teach us about the ‘web of things’. (Note that he doesn’t use the term ‘Internet of Things’). His hypothesis is that there are at least a dozen or so persistent needs, wishes or fantasies that seem to carry through millennia of time, and keep reinventing themselves in different ways.

He shows how for instance the fantasy is the object for clairvoyance was the inspiration for Ambient Devices’ single pixel browser, which makes you aware in a pre-attentive manner.

Pre-attentive processing can also be triggered by angular displacement, and this was used in a dashboard system developed by Ambient Devices.

Another promise of glanceable information became a display for weather information and sold hundreds of thousands. It has no buttons and is not navigable. You can only read it. It was even imbedded once in a refrigerator.

If the fantasy is to know, there are different type of representations that take different time to know. Often more glanceable information are more valuable, because you read them faster.

David also collaborated with Orange in the design of a display with a proximity sensor that tailors the resolution of the information to people’s distance. It gives more granular information when you are close to it, but just a very big general number when you are looking at it from far away.

Another fantasy deals with socialisation and communication. The big opportunity according to David lies in presence applications, without requiring any intentional input and requiring any cognitive overload.

Then there is the fantasy of healing, exemplified by magic potions or fountains of youth. This was the inspiration for health feedback devices, e.g. a glowing pill bottle caps that alert patients to when they need to take their medication, or a mirror that gives you feedback about your health.

Finally David highlights the fantasy of protection, e.g. magical sword, which of course was the inspiration for the ambient umbrella that knows when rain is coming. It highlights an approach that embeds the intelligence in the objects or environments that are relevant for you at that particular moment.

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