SXSW2019; teaming up with the machines

This was the 7th time that I traveled to Austin to experience the center of the (US) tech world. 2011, 13, 15–19 to be precise. As I always tell fresh attendees: it is not so much about the next new app anymore. SXSW got that name in 2007 when Twitter was launched and in 2009 with Foursquare. After that there was never such an impactful launch. You can however see how certain themes emerge. From social media to blockchain to service design and AI. And like last year AI was the most important trend of this year. Last year and also in 2017 it was more the new possibilities and the discovery what AI actually is and what is a possible future. Now it was much more all about the impact on society. Even without super specific examples.

Ethics and inclusiveness were the key themes. It indicates how much SXSW focuses on the society and the impact of technology nowadays, more than the one-off successes (or failures). It is something Bruce Sterling referred to in his closing remarks on Wednesday: we have entered a world that is ruled by the G-maffia, the GAFAM that is dictating our reality. And our reality is changing, so much is clear.

Truly inclusive

In the panel session that INFO organised together with Philips and UNstudio inclusivity was connected to the smart city, looking into design strategies.
– Design contextually and with equity, letting people make decisions, not just assuming they only want to give opinions
– Good interventions are based on a thorough understanding of the user experience in the eco-system
– All inclusive city processes should include ‘negotiations’ between citizens/users

At SXSW there are always several themes and focus points in parallel. For me the theme I focused on was automation, robotics, relation man-machine and AI. And also what it means for the designer.

There was enough to see and hear about that, as AI was in all other tracks too, it was hard to filter the right sessions even more.

So, before diving a bit more into this, here a TL;DR; a look back in a couple of bullets

  • AI as societal impact, triggering societal questions as key to discuss. As we entered a tech-reality ruled by big tech SXSW will be less on startups and more on impact in society
  • As soon as AI is ready for use, it stops being AI, it starts being a tool or a machine
  • Living with tech needs computational contracts as understanding, and computational design as future of design
  • With AI, computational contracts, etc, we will not design, we will be designed, and need to find the right way to cooperate with the machines
  • To make technology inclusive we need to focus on the outcomes on a different human level and we need to dare to choose if necessary for slow technology. And to quote Bjarke Ingels: don’t follow the dogma of thinking outside of the box, be obsessed by the restrictions
  • Podcasts are the hopeful promise for media
  • Scooters (electric steps) are a nice and handy drive but a huge clutter for the sidewalk when you let competition get loose
New type of roadblock this year to prevent passing of scooters

Social home appliances

There were a number of social robots in the LG house. A few large versions with screen for events, but the most interesting was CLOi, a SocialBot as they call it. This is a handy robot, about the size of a Google Home or Alexa, specially developed for emotional interaction. The design looks a bit like the recently ‘deceased’ Jibo robot.

I saw Jibo for the first time on SXSW, at the time at a presentation by the creator Cynthia Breazeal. It then remained silent for a long time, until last year. Jibo appeared to have been overtaken by the law of the inhibiting lead. The robot was extremely good at displaying human behavior, but not intelligent enough to compete with the Alexa and Google Home. Jibo was also far too expensive.

Interesting how LG follows a similar path in the development of its SocialBot, with the difference that attention is a bit more focused on the eyes than on movements. In the LG house also other automated machines were displayed, such as a beer machine and an ice machine. The SocialBot is not a bone in its own right, but must be seen as an intermediary for household appliances from LG, which of course will all become much more intelligent.

The role of such bots is interesting. I often use the Chinese Nio Nomi car in presentations that has built in a similar interface to shape the contact between functions and occupants.

Relationship between man and machine

A lot of discussion at SXSW is about the relationship between man and machine, our intelligence and AI and the ethical aspects thereof. It is super interesting that Asian companies choose social robotics instead of the more functional way of Amazon or Google Home.

Douglas Rushkoff mentioned the collaboration between robots and non-humans too. Rushkoff has a mission that he calls Team Human; “We don’t need a substitute for real life.” He argues that robots should not be treated as slaves. We must not go back to feudal times, that brings us down as people: “Respect non-human rights.”

It was also discussed in the “Academia and the Rise of Commercial Robotics” panel. We are now on an engineering platform, the next step is to use social science to enable cultural interactions.

Another panel spoke about Active and Passive AI, where passive stands for serviceable AI that you can call to execute an assignment, while Active AI itself takes the initiative. You can deduce from the questions from the audience that people are not completely comfortable with it. In addition to concerns about privacy, there is a great deal of fear that robots and AI will take over the world.

When it comes to applications, it also makes sense to zoom in on ethics. A good example was the last session I attended with Stephen Wolfram, the creator of Wolfram Alpha. This is a computational search engine that is widely used in science and education. Wolfram believes that a new language must be developed, the computational language, and he spoke about computational contracts.

His tool is a smart machine that contains a lot of AI. His story ties in with the discussion about blockchain, so it is not surprising that his talk was called The Future of AI in Blockchain. That title has a high buzzword density, but Wolfram knows what he is talking about. His presentation was therefore not a list of empty words or superficial views. With his tool he showed how we can communicate with machines in a different way.

Computational design

Wolfram was not the only advocate of computational thinking. John Maeda, also a regular SXSW speaker, commented on this during his Design In Tech update and he also writes a book about this: How To Speak Machine Many stories came along in his story, but an important starting point is his focus on Computational Design, a discipline that he puts alongside Classical Design and Design Thinking.

Maeda also makes clear how design changes if you take the dynamics of computer-driven services (of which AI is part) as a starting point. Where Wolfram concentrates on the new language and functions, Maeda is concerned with the impact of AI on design practice. His report on this goes deeply in depth and contains many examples.

Ethics is a theme that was explicitly discussed during SXSW this year, especially when it comes to AI and robots. Both Johan Maeda and Stephen Anderson pointed out, for example, how the designer’s field of work is changing. Not one artefact is the subject of our work, it extends much further. The underlying system is key. Both the DesignInTech report by Maeda and the Framing model by Anderson are recommended for those who want to know more about this.

How are we going to collaborate with AI? How are we going to understand each other. SXSW is much about dangers and the role of robotization and AI, but also about how we will experience our world under the influence of new forms of intelligence, tools and interfaces. It was noticeable that AI is currently high in the Gartner hypecycle. Certainly, last year it was a lot about AI, but then as a concept. This year the relevance was discovered and AI was visible in new services.

War of Cyberpunk

SXSW is the place where you hear new themes for the first time, or where the themes that matter in the coming years are confirmed. As the closing speaker of the interactive festival, Bruce Sterling summarized the state of affairs with a literary statement entitled “War of Cyperpunk”. Sterling concludes that high-tech is now definitely the dominant factor in society.

This has a number of consequences, but one is that there is no room for startups anymore. Whether this is so certain is the question. What is certain is that fewer “things” were shown at SXSW this year. The most important talks were about major changes. Themes such as computational language (the new language that we must learn to speak) and computational design, reflect the change that is taking place. These are developments that call for what Anderson calls a Design 3.0 with which we will relate differently to the things that we design.

This theme coincides in an interesting way with the developments in robotics. It will be another interesting year!

Doing a workshop at SXSW

It cannot be denied that there is a kind of prestige in doing a session at SXSW. Not only because of the procedures and the popularity to send in proposals, leading to a small chance, but more because SXSW is one of the most well-known conferences in our field and it has the name to be the perfect thermometer what topics will be hot the years after. Sometimes that could be apps that change a piece of our behaviour like Twitter did and Foursquare, but more often just the themes that are hot.

So this year my proposal was selected. The topic on adaptive interactions and an internet of touch got more traction than the more generic internet of things, it turns out. It is not the first time I did this session the last year, starting at Vodafone Firestarters back in February 2015, after that atThingscon Berlin, Hack the Visual in London, Thingscon Amsterdam, and a couple of presentations. The subject remains interesting the coming time. For those who missed this session in Austin, we will do another edition at the first Thingscon Salon at April 1. With the presence of both Gijs Huismanand Aduen Darriba Frederiks, the researchers of social mediated touch and new touch garments.

My drive for the haptic interactions is mainly found in the believe this can work very well as a design material in the in the new reality where things and digital become one and we get new experiences of our real world. It is a very suitable way to communicate data from the cloud to human feelings and it strengthen the experience. This is one part of the presentation I give during the workshop. I use this example of a project of James Bridle as an extreme way to make your context tangible.

In the workshop at SXSW I started with some backgrounds on how touch works and the results from the research by Gijs Huisman. This is very insightful, also to experience yourself how to communicate feelings to someone else. We did a little exercise as designed by Gijs that I will not explain in detail in case you will attend the workshop next time.

After the research part we dived into the reasons why it is interesting as a design material, the broader context and relation with the internet of things. Things get rapidly connected to the internet, the next phase will be more about the second skin experience. Digital will be part of the self. This is even more relevant with the rise of the Artificial Intelligence as described in my last post on BigAI. Digital will live as a partner species in realising our needs. Haptics connects the digital and physical layer.

To experience the power of haptics as design material, we did a little design assignment in groups. Every group had a kit to try the vibrations. We provided a case and customer journey of Lyft ride sharing to let the attendees think on the ways haptic can work to help a better experience. The value of the assignment is in the discussion in the groups. Thinking on a concrete case make you dive deep in the possibilities. We had 8 groups that created all their own view on the topic. See the sketches below.

It was interesting to see that a couple of groups actively start creating a language for haptics. The cluttering of haptic feedback was also a theme with some of the groups. The conclusion was that it is a very strong way to focus and amplify certain decision moments in a flow.

We concluded the session with a presentation on some design thinking principles for wearables and in particular haptic interactions. On the shift from the app model to the moment based interactions, and the move to adaptive products and services and how to design rule-based interactions. In haptics is were the conversational UI and the internet of things meet. Creating feedback loops that you can feel fits the more interesting dialogues you can have in the new services. The workshop aimed to let people experience exactly that possibilities.

Thingscon 2015; on the core of the new things

Last Friday December 4 the second edition of Thingscon Amsterdam. In 2014 we organised the first edition of this Amsterdam edition as part of our 20 years anniversary of Info.nl. Thingscon is a Berlin conference that focuses on the design and making of the new hardware, the connected things. Often referred to as the Internet of Things, the approach Thingscon is more on the changes happen in things and manufacturing as result of the connectedness, than for instance a discussion on infrastructure, big data or cloud. It is all part of the total system, but we reckon it more interesting to think on the impact with our relation to things.

With this second edition we aimed to reach more people. We kept the one day format (in Berlin it is a two day conference), and we also sticked to the mix of plenary inspirational talks in the afternoon and in-depth workshops for everyone in the morning. We started with two keynotes this time to make the day more as one full story instead of two separate parts.

One of the ideas behind the composing of the program is a something I addressed in the short introducing presentation: we need to think beyond ‘fake IoT’, the products with an app. The Internet of Things is rather on top of the hype cycle at this moment, and that translates in a lot of concepts where an existing product is extended with an app that functions as remote control and monitoring of that one product. I think real value emerge if the connection between things with their surroundings and other things unlocks new uses, new functions. This is something that Rob van Kranenburg already described some years ago as pro-active thing-systems.

 

I used the example of a car. Nothing wrong that BMW adds an app to their car as extension of the car, but it does not do anything with the car as a product. That is something that is happening with Tesla where with the Model X is acclaimed as the first steps to the self-driving Uber with its recognizing of people approaching the car and opening it automatically. The Tesla is much more a connected system, a mobility software with a symbiose with its hardware.

I think that the core of things is changing -or can change- with adding electronics and connectivity. New uses emerge, new design principles are necessary to plan the things that flourish in the moment of use, that gets the real function when the thing is used.

There is a challenge to make these things. You need a framework where the things and the digital mixes with the inner data and algorithms, with the sensors and connectivity, thinking of energy harvesting and the connection with external systems. That is the challenge for the design and making of the new things. It was very nice to see how the different talks of the speakers followed the same chain of thoughts and adds a lot to this  as inspiration.

Claire Rowland was very clear in their focus on the design of the things that let the users understands the system behind and the importance of interusability. Nadya Peek showed how important the low level making is, with machines that make machines. Tina Aspiala showed us the impact of the new things on the experience of things, something Matt Cottam uses in his installations, making the invisible material characteristics visible. Martijn Thé made very clear that the profit of designing the good things is in the detailing of the software. Ross Atkin took us to the city level emphasizing that the clever city is build with things that deliver a human profit.

The same mix we made with the workshops that focused often on the methods to design and think on several aspects of the new things. From the Thingclash in our world of ubiquitous connectedness, to the haptic interactions to mediate social relations. Imaging the future and designing the connections. Using gaming principles and connecting your body, it all was a great palette of inspiration I think (and hope).

I am happy that this edition turned out that well. This Thingscon showed how a lot of different people are inspired with the new things. It would be great to build upon the event to make more connections between the people. To zoom in on certain topics with specialists and those that apply them in the new things. We are thinking on the possible ways to do so, let me know if you want to join.

To close, this nice aftermovie gives some first impressions of the day. The videos of the talks will follow as soon as possible. Hope to meet you again soon!

 

 

Read the tweets of the day here.

Protecting privacy is all about critical living

I attended the Big Brother Award event organised by Bits of Freedom in Stadsschouwburg Amsterdam. Three prizes were announced, some bands and poets and talks by Hans de Zwart of Bits of Freedom, Aral Balkan and Edward Snowden in a Google Hangout.

Often the rhetoric in these contexts focuses on privacy. Also this night, but it was good to see that the main concept of freedom was more important after all. Privacy is ‘just’ a mean to leverage the freedom of living we need.

This freedom thinking is more and more important, and more and more linked to our own actions. Aral Balkan is able as no other to preach the ‘we are the product’-story. His focus is Google mainly, as the main representative of the tech companies that have build their business models fully on data. Data is eating the world, also in the new wave of things that are being connected, it all comes back to the data in the end. We as humans are a lab rat mainly. In all we do.

It is a well known concept Aral is telling. His hope pyramid boils down the mission: respect human values. It is definitely important. The winner of the public prize – Ivo Opstelten – showed how little respect the government has by making it into a joke.

You could debate what is more harmful, big companies building their business on data models or governments that define your rights based on making you a suspect by default. The latter probably, but the cynical thing is that governments are standing on the shoulders of big companies to gather the necessary data. That is what the Snowden affair made clear to everyone.

The price for Edward Snowden was more than well deserved. He may not be the great visionair as he says, but he is a classical hero that did what others would not do: stand up on a personal level. This was the main message of his words and also the main message of the night.

As Hans de Zwart in his talk emphasized that diversity is important. We need the space to experiment, to make mistakes. That is what freedom is for. We should strive for personal freedom and we are in the end the only ones that can start this freedom are we ourself. Building walls is not enough, we should learn to act on a critical living.

 

The challenges of simulating reality at This happened UTC

20up. This happened has become an institute on it’s own. With chapters in Amsterdam and Rotterdam now, Utrecht remains the original. I dare to admit I am a fan of the concept and the curation of speakers, and was present at a lot of the evenings (I think I only missed two). After edition 10 I wrote on the role of this happened in addressing some elements in designing interaction.

IMG_3407

It was of course great to have Kars Alfrink to present at this edition, he is the initiator bringing the event to the Netherlands (it originated in the UK). He showed the work of Hubbub for Shell, creating a game (Ripple Effect) that shapes an environment for learning to work together without trying to simulate reality. It is a signature project of Hubbub.

In the presentation Kars showed the way a divers team agents (that were present in room, including the product owner of the client) together with the client makes a project like this possible. It is an great overview of all kind of tools to shape a project like this.

In the questions we could experience a little bit on the conscious thinking of the design of these kind of ‘tools for change’. Kars mentioned how the use of the concept from the daily reality of the Shell workforce, the Goal Zero clock, was blocking the possibility to step out of the reality and really learn something, change behavior. A useful insight in approaching serious gaming. Making a simulation of reality is not the way to go, you need to adapt the principles and try to shape an environment to make understanding possible by taking action.

Next up was Yvonne Dröge Wendel showing a project where she made a simulation of a train coupe that helps patients with Alzheimer to relax. A beautiful project that was a bit suffering from the choice of Yvonne to go into more than one project. Proven a tricky approach with only 10 minutes of presentation, better give one project all the attention. Luckily in the question round we could dive a bit deeper and hear on the hard work to make the videos in the right manner. Shot from a low standpoint, tuning on the pace, and above all how the filtering all the unwanted visual trigger was important. To much of specific elements like a church makes the patient troubled.

It showed how she is really focussing on creating some product that fits the needs of the user. One thing that is interesting in the light of her statement that she is more of an artist than a designer and that the difference is in the way to propose a project. A designer wants to solve problems, an artist creates problems, new questions.

After the break Lilian Henze shared insights and approaches on the research of the use of the packaging of a product from KPN (InternetPlusBellen). The insights from the research lead to design changes that generated lots of reduction in costs in after care.

Real understanding how behavior works should be the beginning of all design, she thinks. Which is true of course.

An interesting chain of thoughts that flew by during the questions: user insights are hard to adopt in the complex environment and keeping them robust. It felt she is looking for a more lean approach; deliver fast, fail fast, learn a lot (oversimplification).

Last speakers of the evening were the founders of IJsfontein (Jan Willem Huisman and Hayo Wagenaar), an agency with a long lasting reputation in designing games. As it was a bit the classic edition of This happened they brought an old laptop to be able to show the old game Meester van de Macht, a game that started off their fame in a way. It brought back some old feelings. But also shared some interesting choices, like the focus on a couple of principles, and working together with a designer and a coder to create the best and most efficient solutions. Also in animation.

The way they treat the mouse pointer as part of the interaction and communication of behavior was great in the game. It also unlocked the insight that we are losing the cursor as a concept more and more with the ubiquitous presence of touch devices.

A connection in the projects lies maybe in the that disconnection of simulations from reality. As IJsfontein showed with the bouncing ball how you can replace exact feeling with the right combination of key animation components. And as Kars showed in his approach to serious gamers within Shell. The simulation of a world outside for the Alzheimer patients is clearly an altered reality, and in that a simulation of reality, where it is proved that detailed simulation distract you from engaging with the simulated reality. An approach that could be valuable for Linze to shape the future research, getting more fundamental than detail insights as start for design work.

Thinking on the #sxsw buzz

I do not attend South by South West interactive (SxSW) this year. The conference is becoming even more popular, and will definitely something to be missed, but I will make it up later this year with some other places. Still I was thinking on what buzz we can expect. Just for the fun of it, let’s try to predict this, see what will come true. And at the same time, these are of course also some of the things I hope it will buzz. I did not dive into the program, these are just some of my feelings.

Last year we had (big) data and behavior design. And the introduction of the Glass. That is the first buzz I expect. A lot of Glasses in the wild, it will be probably the most glassed place ever.

I attended some interesting talks on machine learning and intelligent systems last year. I expected more on that this year. The internet of things will buzz SxSW with connected products galore.

Quantified self was hot too last year. More as overall theme maybe. It will be buzzing in a more mature manner, connected to health stuff for instance. On the other hand we will have a buzz on data literacy. With Snowden doing a keynote and all that has happened last year, it could not be other than that this topic will be important. Morozov believers and deniers will be both present.

I can’t remember true breaking apps or services or categories from last year. Wonder if we would get one this year. It could be very well that it is not an app but a wearable this time. The hottest interactive stuff is sensor-based today.

See what Bruce will say.

Design by storytelling at THUTC

Monday November 25 another edition of This happened Utrecht took place (THUTC), edition 18. Because of other appointments I missed the first speaker; Mapije presented her toolkit for making an adventure game of your home. Sounds like an interesting project so I will rewatch this online later.

The other three talks were amusing and interesting. In all three storytelling played an important role I think in one way or another. Or better said, the way using storytelling in the design proces.

Niels ‘t Hooft seems rather clearly connected to this storytelling; he is presenting the proces of writing a novel. He took us through his process of building characters, plotting activities. Also testing the development of the characters and the interdependencies. I think that the steps of writing he took do resemble the way I write (no novels though): 1. write down the story without bothering on style or grammar, 2. write up doing a rework, 3. a paper check, printed out story, 4. first draft. He mapped those to the chapters and those could have different speed and phases.

thutc18 niels

All in all it gave a great insight in his process of ‘designing a story’, and also the changes that occur along the way. I can recommend the book for sure, it is a real page turner.

The talk by Norah Gauw from Developlay on the iPad game for toddlers –Nott won’t sleep– to learn to sleep also have a important role for storytelling. The game is smartly constructed to make the toddlers learn rituals to go to sleep by telling a story. A short story of a couple of minutes but the build in tension is important for the effect.

She shared some learnings that brings designing an app for such young children. Like the simple fact that a request for ratings of the app (very important for the app marketing) is switched off because toddlers loose their interest than right away.

The last presentation was by architecture agency ONL on one of their projects Parametric Climbing Wall. The work of these agency is always characterised by the marriage between architecture and programming. They are able to make forms generated by code that could not exist without this design approach. This project is a wonderful example of this.

The climbing wall is made out of several pieces of wood that are all different. The volume is never bigger than a standard which makes it possible to make it for the same amount of money. The trick is that the office is connecting the design directly to the production machines (CNC) without an in between layer of technical drawings.

It is remarkable how the approach of Oosterhuis is creating a story in the technology, the only way to be able to make this work is to understand the ‘thinking’ of the machine and build a story in code to achieve the projected results.