Thursday, April 18, 2013

HCID Open Day, at City University London, 17th April 2013

The inside of a 3D printer
If you want a picture of the future, imagine a line of toasters stretching off into infinity.  On cue, they all pop at once, filling the air with the smell of fresh toast.  At the beginning of the line a toaster designed by Thomas Edison, at the end some kind of nanotechnology intelligent CyberToaster.  The difference in appearance between the two devices couldn’t be starker, yet the toast itself is pretty much the same thing.  It’s this process of evolution that was the main focus of last night’s HCID (Human Computer Interaction Design) 2013 open day at City University London.

The evening consisted of a laboratory demonstration of cutting-edge technologies and later, the keynote speeches by Mark Tonkelowicz representing Facebook, Matthew Cockerill from design agency Seymourpowell and Juho Parviainen from prototyping agency IDEO.   I haven’t had any contact with HCID at all prior to this, so I booked my place out of a desire to hear new ideas about the future of interfacing and hopefully get a hands on demonstration of some cutting-edge technology: I was specifically hoping that they’d have Google Glass or something like it to try out.

The problem with experiencing the future is that as soon as you do, it immediately stops being the future and starts being the prosaic, familiar present.  IOn the Interaction Lab tour, our guide shows us a room they use for brainstorming and research.  Bizarrely, much of the technology here feels slightly antiquated just a few years after release.  There’s familiar household gadgets like a Nintendo Wii and an Xbox Kinect, both used for hacking experiments on motion, and interactive whiteboards as found in most classrooms across the country.  Squatting in the corner is a huge 1st Gen Microsoft Surface Table, one of the earliest touch screen computing devices, released in 2007.  Compared to an iPad it looks positively prehistoric.  

A Microsoft Surface Table
But on a table next to it is a 3D printer, the Makerbot 2; a genuinely futuristic device.  It’s a clunky and industrial looking thing, made out of sturdy matt black steel.  But despite its utilitarian aesthetics the Makerbot 2 is a piece of consumer electronics, you can buy one online if you’ve got about £1,500 burning a hole in your pocket.  3D printers looks poised if nothing else to transform the market for small things made of plastic.  Slightly bashfully, the guide for the tour admits that HCID doesn't really know how to work it properly yet and shows us a printed bookmark.  It’s a far cry from the promises (threats?) of downloadable, printable guns.  But just holding this unassuming bit of plastic feels a bit exciting, it may be just a slightly fraying bookmark, but chances are it’s the herald of bigger things to come.

The Makerbot 2
Next up was a test-room designed to monitor how people interact with computers and mobile phones.  The eye-tracking technology they show us is impressive stuff, showing us heat maps where people are looking at a screen and the paths that their eyes follow.  From what we were shown,, this technology seems to be primarily used for marketing, with companies trying to understand the way people take in the information.  But then, I guess the University has to pay the bills.

Far more exciting and genuinely cutting edge were two examples of ‘mind machine interfaces’.  One was relatively crude, measuring pulse rate and general neural activity, and the other - which requires a degree of calibration and training - allows users to move a mouse cursor with their mind alone.  For example, if you imagine the colour red, the cursor will move to the left.  This technology is in its infancy, yet already the applications feel infinite.  

Mind machine interfaces.
Most obvious are the accessibility benefits for quadraplegics, enabling them to browse the internet or perhaps even control a wheelchair using their mind alone. But the wider applications are almost endless.  Just having to look at a computer and operate it would transform the technological landscape; and a form of silent “brain-to-brain” direct communication would pretty much be an entirely new form of social interaction for humanity.  I’m always a little wary of technological utopianism; when people get all starry eyed about how humanity will evolve through technology I tend to imagine the global rich evolving, leaving the vast majority of humanity behind.  But even so, these direct interfaces brim with potential.

I was buzzed on a little technological high after this, so I was looking forward to the keynote speakers.  But, unfortunately they brought me back to earth with a bump.  The first speaker, Mark Tonkelowicz has worked for Facebook in various capacities; he’s recently been in charge of their Android application and was previously a part of the team developing the ‘News Feed’.

Mark Tonkelowicz on the right

Facebook is so ubiquitous that to me it feels less like a website and more like a utility.  I admire it in spite of its somewhat cluttered interface and a philosophy that leans towards naked and unashamed intrusions on privacy.  Tonkelowicz's talk explained how they iterate different versions of the news feed; testing it on subsections of users.  They roll out changes to users in countries where people are disproportionately friends with people from the same country; the prime examples being Venezuela, Columbia and New Zealand.  Interesting enough, but what piqued my curiosity was when he began to explained the infinitely complex ways they can analyse the data their users provide.

It’s often said that in the 21st century the hot commodity is information rather than natural resources.  Facebook lives and breathes by this maxim; they have 1 billion users liking and disliking various things, creating perfect marketing profiles of themselves that Facebook can use to target adverts at them.  It’d be hypocritical of me to condemn this; I, like most people reading this have a Facebook profile, and it’s very useful.  

But an information economy makes me wary.  It's a snake eating its own tail; we've running the exhausted the earth’s natural resources, so we’ve moved onto strip-mining our heads.  Looked at this way, it starts to feel like an economy built upon sand.  If one day advertisers realise that the value of the information what Facebook sells isn’t as useful as it purports (and there are rumblings that this might be the case), then Facebook starts to look like a rather precarious house of cards.

To be clear, Tonkelowicz wasn’t talking about this, he was discussing how the company rolls out design updates - which frankly is of little interest to me.  But what is interesting is the way that Facebook seems to see itself as a kind of digital shepherd to its flock of 1 billion, gently trying to corrall its users into doing what they want them to.

Matthew Cockerill
The other two speakers, Matthew Cockerill and Juho Parviainen were slightly less engaging.  For all their artistic and philosophical frippery these are marketing men.  They might well claim their currency is ideas but in the end it is just currency.  These men are the prophets of the infinite toasters.  They run concept factories that decide, through probing psychological analysis, perhaps if you make a temperature knob out of plastic rather than chrome it will fulfil some deep seated consumer need.

Consumerism like this relies on the “Red Queen Hypothesis” to keep functioning; in order to stay in the same place companies need to run as fast as they possibly can.  Aside from the occasional epoch changing piece of technology, businesses and consumers are content to put out ever-so-slightly improved iterations of the same product.  So someone's got to decide the bells and whistles that will separate their product from the crowd.  One of the examples shown to us was a remote boot unlocking mechanism.  If you’ve got hands full of shopping, and you can’t open the boot of your car, simply swish your foot through a beam of light and the boot will pop open, thus saving you the trouble of putting your bags down, and then picking them up.  The cynical side of me is reminded of the Simpsons episode Lisa the Lionheart, where Lisa’s attempts to create a feminist doll are thwarted by the Malibu Stacy company releasing Malibu Stacy with a new hat.  But then there’s another side of me that marvels in wonder when something is released with a shiny new HD camera, or *gasp* in a slightly thinner version.

Juho Parviainen
This rush for innovation and the desire to create an unique product admittedly leads to many possessions I adore.  I’m a little bit in love with my new smartphone, something which is after all the endpoint of a capitalist design philosophy that I find at once quite silly and pretentious and also slightly disturbing.  They repeatedly speak of ‘empathy’, of caring about what people want and behave like they’re earnestly trying to improve people’s lives.  This is a lie. They only care about empathy insofar as tool to manipulate people, to seed in them the desire to spend their money on your product.  

Perhaps this wasn’t quite what I’d expected when I signed up to attend, but it demonstrated a few new ways of thinking and laid bare some often obscured principles.  A little dry, and I still didn't get to try out Google Glass, but a worthwhile evening nonetheless. 

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