IxDA Interaction 17 : A Brief Field Report — Part 1

Part One: Technology Trends

This year’s IxDA Conference was held at NY, from Feb. 3 to 8. If you are reading this and don’t know about IxDA, check their website here.

I’m making this report from the perspective of the specific talks and workshops I was able to attend (most activities involved choosing from simultaneous options, some even in different venues). Considering this as a subjective perception of the event, make sure to keep an eye on the IxDA’s Vimeo Channel for the future release of all the talks in video.

Who should read this report

Initially intended as a way for me to remember and keep an insight of what I witnessed during the event, I hope you find these report useful on your own. The topics summarized here might be found relevant by anyone in the fields of U.X., U.I. & Ix Design; Coders, Developers, and anyone else involved with Technology and Design.

Use it as a guide to identify notable speakers; get a sense of the vibe during the event; and make a playlist with the recommended talks (you will need to wait for IxDA to upload the talks for this, though).

Two-part Report

In order to make it easier to read and enjoy, I divided my report in two parts: Technology Trends (this one) and Introspection (coming later this week).

The first part is my attempt to quickly provide a trend-watcher report for all of you interested in knowing what kind of hype emerged during the event, and getting practical advice on what’s hot and worthy to keep an eye during 2017 (according to my report: Bots & A.I.; Simulated Realities; and Off-Screen Interactions).

For the second part, I compiled all of my notes about more introspective and philosophical topics treated during the event, more specifically: Ethics; Design Education; and Design Futures.

Let’s get started, then.

Bots & A.I.

One of the most prolific topics during this year’s event was Artificial Intelligence. Most notably, Conversational U.I. mediated by chatbots (there was a major workshop by R/GA on Sunday 5, as well as a full series of curated talks on Monday’s afternoon).

Bots have played a key role in a wide range of Sci-Fi narratives – we are getting close to have them in real life

Conversational U.I.

In case you’ve been living under a rock (like me), let me tell you that –apparently– chatbots are a big thing now. People use them nowadays to promote democracy, text during insomnia, and of course, get informed.

Conversational U.I. is basically delivering features and interactions through smart messaging experiences; a sort of undesigned interface where language is the most important thing (and the underlying technology, but we know that of course).

It’s an exciting world for Interaction Designers (as well as brands) because it reduces seemingly complex interactions to one of the most sophisticated ways we interact with each other since ever: conversation.

Conversational U.I. also poses an interesting scenario for a new age of Interactivity: one full of gestures and conversations (text as well as voice), a topic also explored in depth during this year’s talks.

Of course, “conversation is more than interface” (at least according to Paul Pangaro’s talk) and I left the event with a huge set of new methods, tools and resources to conceptualize, prototype and even setup my own conversational bots.

R/GA NY provided an in-depth workshop on how to properly plan and lead a conversational U.I. project, going from prototyping chat-journeys with post-its; developing functional chatbots with Reply.ai; and planning and designing for Alexa.

AnnaRose and Nuzi, from my team during the RG/A workshop (that’s a conversation prototyped with post-its!)

Elizabeth Allen from Shopify talked about the powerful A.I., chat-enabled assistant for Shopify merchants. Providing insight on Shopify’s experience with A.I., she really stressed the point about the bot’s personality; a topic that Whitney French provided depth to.

Whitney on Stage

Whitney introduced what she calls ‘shortcuts to emotional intelligence’ (in bots, at least!), mostly a combination of Intelligence; Flow & Cadence; Helpfulness; Personality; and Utility. Sounds like properties you would expect from a memorable human conversation, right? That’s the beautiful part –and creepy, at the same time– about bots emulating human conversations: we really are not far away from considerably convincing A.I.s chatting with us all day.

Greg Vasallo also provided great advice on how to design and prototype, with a wide range of suggested tools and approaches.

Greg Vasallo

Intelligent Machines in General

Tony Chu provided a great introduction (almost for dummies) to Machine Learning, which by the way he illustrated wonderfully in this interactive website before.

On a quite evocative approach, Simone Rebaudengo talked about ‘domesticating intelligence’, as if A.I. would be some sort of wild thing required to be tamed (probably having his studio based in Shanghai he kind of developed this notion!).

Simone made an excellent point about how seeing life as a problem, where efficiency is the main value, leads to cultural biases sponsored by the ‘infrastructure’ of our time. Translating these biases to the way we create technology is dangerous, and Simone posed the question of how can we move from “I.A. and journeys” to “belief and decision making”.

Politics of Power, one of Simone’s project exploring how technology inherits biases from it’s context

Simulated Realities

Probably the most popular technology during the Interaction 17 was Virtual Reality. It was used as a base by a large number of speakers to develop more solid frameworks to approach simulated realities, as well as talking about the possibilities and implications of the medium.

One unexpected speaker on the topic was Gary Hustwit, the independent filmmaker in charge of Helvetica, Objectified and Urbanized. Gary recently founded the Scenic collective, a virtual reality content studio based in Brooklyn.

Scenic members are using V.R. to explore new directions in non-fiction storytelling

Gary is exploring the possibilities that the medium provide to filmmakers, and is trying to promote V.R. “as a way not to escape reality — but to amplify non-fiction stories”.

Setting Realities Straight

Several speakers dedicated their energy to clarify V.R. in the context of other ways of ’simulated’ realities: Augmented Reality, Augmented Virtuality, Mixed Reality, and so on. Brenda Laurel is one of those speakers, who invited designers to learn from a seemingly unexpected source: reality itself (or, ‘Reality Prime’, as she defines it).

Brad Crane and Jon Mann invited us to think of “makers as magicians”, and opening the minds of the audience to new experiences (V.R., for instance). According to them, we should –as designers and makers– “question known tricks, and undo the bias of past solutions”, bringing a fresh approach to new mediums such as V.R.

As an interesting footnote, Brad & Jon went back to their definition of makers as magicians, reminding us that “magic can be dangerous”, but they didn’t elaborate on this topic (or the kind of dangers V.R. might imply). This is representative of most of the Interaction 17 speaker’s stands on V.R. (light warnings, but no depth whatsoever on the topic), being Gary Hustwit probably the most concerned of all about the potential dangers of a medium as immersive and unexplored as V.R.

Off-screen & Physical Space Interactions

John Ryan and Eric Mika (Local Projects) presented a wonderful, kind-of-sequential framework to move away from the screen, towards a fully off-screen set of interactions:

  1. Add context. offer machines the ability to get out of the screen, and spatialize data flow across devices.
  2. Interaction beyond screens. Leverage how we already interact with gestures, and align feedback with locus of interaction.
  3. Tangible interactions. Synchronize and mirror between tangible objects and the digital world, balancing complexity with forgiveness (you don’t want your audience to feel overwhelmed while learning your newly suggested interactions)
  4. Interactive environments. Leverage ’small’ gestures for big payoff (like a small gesture transforming a whole room, for instance).
BioDesign Studio by Local Projects (seriously, go check this dude’s portfolio!)

John & Mika stressed out the relevance of our ‘embodied cognition’, and the possibility of physical interactions to bring people together. From my perspective, much of these projects still live in museums, and there’s still a huge gap to bring them to everyday life interactions; yet it is refreshing to learn from successful approaches from other creatives.

I hope I attended to more talks on this topic

I deliberately skipped other related talks, mostly because I recently don’t work that much in these kind of projects (hopefully that changes soon!). Nonetheless, this was a strong topic during the week, and I encourage you to keep an eye on these talks that should be soon online on the IxDA vimeo channel.

Disclaimer: keep in mind I didn’t attend any of these!

Coming Up Next

That’s it for the first report; let me know if this has been useful for you so far: write me at martinez@raidho.mx. Continue to the second part of this report to read about Ethics, Design Education, and Design Futures.