What can Interactive Design achieve?

NB: Dipping my toe into Medium with an old post, originally written in Dec 2012.

In 1996, Xerox PARC’s Mark Weiser and John Seely Brown wrote an article entitled “THE COMING AGE OF CALM TECHNOLOGY[1]” that outlined a future directive for the design of product environments in the age of ubiquitous computing. Ubiquitous computing is described as the next phase of the human-computer usage relationship, post-internet, suggested to emerge in the years between 2005 and 2020.

Weiser and Brown also propose a new mannerism for technology, foreseeing the creation of what they describe as calm technology. Calm technology is designed with our attentional needs in mind, with consideration to its permanent presence. Or, as Weiser and Brown point out, “…if computers are everywhere, they better stay out of the way.” This requires an understanding of when and how users access information. It also calls for an exploration of how that information can be delivered in new, appropriate ways. For instance, I feel that if consumption of information is increased whilst relying solely upon digital visual displays, a point of information congestion is sure to be reached (if not already apparent). This opens up the exciting search for alternative methods of information “ingestion”.

A project undertaken in 2005 by the University of Cognitive Science in Osnabrück, Germany dubbed “the feelSpace Project” involved alternative methods of information ingestion. Research from the project found “…data support[ing] the hypothesis that new sensorimotor contingencies can be learned and integrated into behaviour and affect perceptual experience.” (NAGEL, S. K., CARL, C., KRINGE, T., MÄRTIN, R. & KÖNIG, P. 2005.) To simplify, the project involved the use of a wearable computing belt containing vibrotactile motors — the same components that allow a mobile phone to vibrate — in order to let the wearer feel where magnetic north was (using compass data). This opens up exciting opportunities for new human-computer interfaces.

There is a great deal of debate surrounding the concept of interfaces themselves. User Interfaces (UI) are, through necessity, abstractions. They are virtual worlds and entities symbolically represented for the purpose of manipulation in an (hopefully) intuitive way. Interfaces are highly useful, if they are appropriate. I believe that the goal of an interface should be to make that degree of abstraction as small as possible (in the context of this discussion this means endeavouring to connect virtual actions with meaningful physical counterparts). Others go even further:

There is a better path: No UI. A design methodology that aims to produce a radically simple technological future without digital interfaces. Following three simple principles, we can design smarter, more useful systems that make our lives better.

(KRISHNA, G. 2012.)

A few examples of “No UI” are given in Krishna’s “The best interface is no interface” posted online in the Cooper Design Journal, but all of them contain some semblance of an interface — even if only initially — though I do enjoy the thought.

The notion of ubiquitous calm technologies in conjunction with wearable computers employing sensorial substitution leads me to the question; What are the applications? Or rather, Who should this technology be applied to?

There are two main directions that I find interesting.

Firstly, the idea of Design for Inclusivity. That is, technological design used to re-equip people with previously lost abilities. This could be as fundamental as loss of any of the senses or perhaps more abstractly, involve the treatment of social disorders and deficiencies.

Secondly, the idea of Design for Periphery. That is, design heavily influenced by Weiser and Brown’s vision, whereby technology manages to engage and straddle our centre-of-attention as needed. The implications of this sort of design are increased efficiency of information processing (by humans) and an attempt at “humanisation” of the oft times harsh interactions we have with the digital worlds we have created — a process of “encalming” as Weiser and Brown call it.

Of the two main ideas, the former is more democratic and altruistic, the latter perhaps informed by a common good. Normalisation and Augmentation, respectively. The merit of either direction could be argued and I don’t believe that a foray into one suggests any sort of prioritisation. In all honesty, though I feel that Design for Inclusivity is the more worthwhile, fulfilling directive, I realise that in an extreme light it could also be dangerous territory; as promises of various “healings” always are. It’s important that the technology itself has some say in it’s applications via it’s effectiveness. If sensorial substitution methods or alternative interfaces are not adequate enough to enrich the lives of someone with a disability then perhaps it’s best to wait until the technology is sufficient enough to do so.

Ultimately, ubiquitous computing has created a mostly untouched environment to design within — and that is what I find exciting.

KRISHNA, G. 2012. The best interface is no interface [Online]. Available: http://www.cooper.com/journal/2012/08/the-best- interface-is-no-interface.html/ [Accessed September 5 2012].
NAGEL, S. K., CARL, C., KRINGE, T., MÄRTIN, R. & KÖNIG, P. 2005. Beyond sensory substitution — learning the sixth sense. Journal of Neural Engineering, 2, R13.
WEISER, M. & BROWN, J. S. 1996. The coming age of calm Technology [1]. Xerox Parc, 8, 2007.

Industrial Designer working in tech. Currently at @Atlassian designing product.

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