Carla Diana with her 3D printed self from her book ‘Leo The Maker Prince’. Photo ©James Bareham / Vox Media

Smart Fellow

Carla Diana Is A Maker-Futurist

In its 2015 Diversity Report, just published, Google announced that women made up just 22% of any leadership roles. The tech industry has long had a problem with women, and it doesn't seem to be getting much better. Some suggest quotas and affirmative action. Carla Diana doesn't need any of that. She’s a prominent player in the tech industry as designer, speaker and teacher, and has been for years.

Carla was raised in the Bronx, in the depths of New York City. She went to high school across the street from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which she loved. Neither of her parents were remotely interested in fixing things at home, so it was left to the young Carla to take things apart and see how they worked. With a spell in Mechanical Engineering as an undergraduate, then Industrial Design for graduate school, the mix was there for someone who could be a creative designer but also someone who makes things hands-on.

And now Carla is a Smart Fellow. Back in the day that would have made her sound like some sort of honorary bloke. But now it means that she is the very first Fellow appointed by tech outfit Smart Design, a highly respected design and tech agency which has been around since 1980, with offices in London and New York.

What kind of person is she, to be named a ‘smart fellow’? ‘A technology consultant’ is how Carla Diana defines herself. ‘Or, if I want to be fancy, I call myself a maker-futurist.’

Carla is one of those at the forefront of wearable technology. This is the cutting edge, where the cut of cloth is replaced by computer software modelling. She defines wearable technology as ‘the embedding of electronics within everyday objects that will be worn.’ So that’s clothing as well as jewellery, watches and bands. The point of the electronics is to use sensors to convey information.

Wearable technology forms part of Carla’s worldview of ‘the internet of things’. Current estimates are that by 2020 there will be 50 billion things connected to the internet. Google has recently launched a platform to accommodate this, Project Brillo. Carla describes the internet of things as ‘like a series of concentric circles, working out from the centre. In the centre is yourself, then others, and then you have the environment and the world around you.’

THE INNER CIRCLE

So let’s dive into the centre of those circles — you.

In the near future, that is the three to five years ahead that Carla views as her window, we will become more aware of certain metrics. Her judgement is that we will be able to know about, and be in control of, more information about our physical, mental and emotional states. Take stress for example.

Most of us are familiar with stress, but most of us are aware of it only as a general feeling. We know it’s a killer. Carla is working with others to tame stress.

‘There is an actual physiological state called stress, and it’s correlated to what we call heart rate variability. It’s something we will be able to pick it up easily. The Apple Watch can pick it up easily, plus there’s a Basis Band that can monitor that.

‘The state your body gets into with stress, you can learn how you’re getting into that state but also ways to get out of that state, with body exercises and so on. There’s a startup called Olive Labs which started at the University of Pennsylvania. They're developing a wearable device which combines detecting heart rate variability, skin changes, basically your stress triggers. Their goal is to combine this with other parts of your life to see if you're always stressed at certain times — it knows your calendar — and then it suggests exercises or responses to restore calm.’

‘Curi’ the robot, designed for the Georgia Tech Socially Intelligent Machines Lab. Photo ©Carla Diana

KEEPING CATS HAPPY

Now let’s move to the next circle outwards, others you care about. Often this is someone older, whom we worry about. As Carla points out, someone such as an elderly aunt in her own home has been carrying wearable technology for decades already.

‘It’s the alert button that you give to someone who is a fall risk. But that’s such an all or nothing proposition. You're going to fall and someone will send an ambulance. Or you're going to panic and press the panic button, or you just deal with what’s going on. So wearables will allow others to see the data on someone whom they care about and be proactive rather than reactive.’

This means we, as concerned relatives, will be easily able to tell if that person’s vital stats are reasonably normal. Accelerometers can tell if they haven't moved for hours or even if they've fallen.

We can even add sensors to inanimate objects like indoor watering cans. We will know if the plants haven’t been watered, or if the cat hasn't been fed for a day. Small signs but they could add up to a response. This assumes of course that the cat, having missed a meal, hasn't already dialled emergency services to call in a SWAT team.

COMMUNITY DATA

Let’s draw back still further, to the outer rings, the environment, the world around us. Here’s where people can add their own data with others to create datasets. These don't need the government or big business to get involved, they’re created by people in the community to serve that community or others.

Of course, having all this information may well be life-changing, but Carla knows full well that it won't be accepted if the devices are difficult to operate. They just have to work.

HUMAN INTERACTION

Carla’s background as someone who took things apart as a child stands her in good stead as an adult. It means she understands how things work and how things and people actually go together.

She has worked for some of the biggest names in design technology, including the Smart Design consultancy. But then, in her words, ‘a couple of years ago I left a proper job and now I’m a technology consultant’. And she’s still their first Smart Fellow.

She now operates from Pennsylvania with her partner Mike Glaser. Among other things she is a faculty member of Integrated Product Design at the University of Pennsylvania. This gives her valuable alliances: ‘I love being affiliated with the universities. I can befriend the researchers in nanotechnology or electronics engineering, because a lot of things in the universities are going to trickle down in three to five years. I can see the future being explored before it actually has the chance to filter down into everyday products.’

The key for Carla is how those things interact with real humans. ‘I think this is an awkward moment actually. You have a smartphone and a thousand apps and you have to check in and it’s a drag, right? Fascinating when it’s new but now it’s a drag.

‘What’s most exciting for me, who comes at this from a design perspective, is coming up with designs that fit into the context of our everyday lives. Things that fit intuitively and interact with us. Currently you’re forcing something new that isn't always intuitive onto older people. Things have been inserted in their lives very suddenly, and they've had to learn a new technology.’

‘The tools weren't so good, we didn't have small sensors, we had consoles with buttons, so the fact that we can embed small sensors means as designers we can start to create these interactions that really feel intuitive and natural and are an extension of what we know about the physical world. It should evolve from the way we already use objects.’

The area Carla is working in is based on sensors that can be placed next to the skin, in jewellery or clothing. This has already gone one step further, in that sensors can be placed in tattoos actually ON the skin. It’s obvious what the next step could be.

GETTING UNDER THE SKIN

‘I definitely see a time coming when these sensors will be not just on the skin but under the skin. It’s the thing I think people are most afraid of but it’s the natural evolution from wearable stuff. I think it will be an interesting and dangerous time. Once we wear things we lose track of where all our data is, and how much we can be tracked.

‘I see it as an exciting time. I tend to have a utopian view of these things! But it’s very easy to have a dystopian view and there is a lot to be feared. But I think there is so much benefit to be had and I really believe that information about ourselves and our bodies is empowering. I think we'll see an evolution with wearable devices, where the benefits will overcome the fear.’

For many, this would be far too close to 1984 but that future is coming. What decisions we make about it we will discover before 2020. When Carla was interviewed for this story she was one month away from giving birth to her first child, a child who will grow up with the consequences of our decisions.

Predictably, she is already thinking about that. In 2014 she published her project Leo the Maker Prince. It is not just a children’s story book, it’s also a collection of downloadable toy designs that children can actually 3D print themselves. This works with her new course at the University of Pennsylvania called ‘Smart Objects for Play and Learning’.

Carla Diana may live in the near future now, but she knows whom it belongs:

‘I've begun working on putting ideas about the future into the hands of children. Because they are our ambassadors for the future.’

Photography by James Bareham with the kind permission of Vox Media
Watch Carla Diana discuss ‘The Future of Connectivity’ on The Verge
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