I recently had the pleasure of speaking at Frontiers of Interaction V, the 5th instance of the conference conceived and lovingly produced by Matteo Penzo and Leandro Agrò, held in Rome this year in a spectacular setting. As in the past it was a precious opportunity to share ideas about fascinating topics with interesting people, and to do so in Italy - where such occurrences are rare - was an added bonus. This year the theme of the conference was "Social Networks, Internet of Things and Smart Cities", and as expected my personal highlights of the day were Adam Greenfield's "Elements of a networked urbanism" keynote, Matt Jones' "The new Negroponte switch", and Andrea Vaccari's presentation of the work he's done at the MIT's Senseable City Lab. It was a pleasure to finally hear in person Adam articulate with his trademark clarity the (in-progress) key concepts underlying his upcoming new book, while Matt riffed on his recent joining of experimental design wunderstudio Schulze & Webb to talk about the current shift that sees products become less and less tangible as services actually follow the opposite path. A few random words that will surely find their way back in my conversations in the upcoming weeks: the Gershenfeld-Negroponte switch, physical snap-on APIs, Thingfrastructure. All in all it was a long and rewarding day, filled with stimulating conversations that will keep me creatively fueled up for a while. What more can you ask for? Given the themes of the conference and who was speaking after me I decided to steer clear of potential irrelevance, and had fun superficially exploring an area actually at the frontier of the day's very themes. When the smart city of interconnected things will come to be – if it has not already – what will be the implications for its human inhabitants? Even more vertically: what will living in such a techno-cultural milieu do to people's first-life avatar - to their body - and to their very perception of it? I briefly touched upon "the body as a terminal" and "the body as a node", and left "the body as a conduit" for a longer timeframe. What you'll read below (other than the ice-breaker intro, which I removed) is what I had originally set out to say. Of course what I did say in the end was different. I think. I always like to have a fairly solid narrative structure to follow for such events, but then I never rely on notes while I speak, to keep things open for the unexpected and leave enough tension to keep me on the edge a bit. Yes, I know, who cares. In any case: you can use the words below to try and make sense of the slideshow just above them. If you really like getting bored you can also watch the video of my talk.
Singing the body electric
I’ve been asked to be the first “in-person” speaker today, and tasked to somewhat open up the conference, so let’s start with a question: where is Ubicomp, metaphorically and physically? We’re all familiar by now I think with Mark Weiser’s vision for it, and we all somewhat agree that we live today in one possible – and possibly embryonic – expression of that vision. Thanks to our mobile phones, and laptops and wirelessly ubicomputing whatnots we live surrounded by things connected to The Network with a capital “n”. This “subset” of Ubicomp is what I refer to as Ubi-conn, and it’s nicely summed up by a quote I’ve used many times. "We are now in an era of pervasive networks and are thus more properly “in”, not “on” the network. Careful choice of prepositions helps to think more clearly about not only the stakes of cohabiting with things within the networked world, but also for thinking about how to design experiences for this very different mode of occupancy." Julian Bleeker, 2006 To paraphrase a famous European Vodafone campaign, Ubiconn is “all around us”. Invisible, but present. Recently Timo Arnall created a video that beautifully visualizes this constant immersion in an all-pervading, invisible flow of bits.
Arguably the most tangible result of Ubiconn today is Ubi-comm, where things connected to The Network have us in turn communicate with one another, and now also increasingly with things themselves. We live immersed in always-on conversations across channels and media, and if you have been a first-day Jaiku or Twitter user, or now run a Facebook app on your mobile phone of choice and use it often you’ll know what I mean. In 2002 I had called this techno-cultural context “Connectedland”, and I had imagined that this constant connection to The Network would eventually become addictive, and that being detached from it would generate anxiety. More recently Kevin Kelly gave a fascinating talk at TED 2008 titled “The next 5000 days of the web”, in which he spoke about the Internet evolving into the "One Machine", and pointed to the fact that we will be fully co-dependent upon it (and thus upon the tools that will sustain that very connection). Yes. Now within this context here’s the space I’d like to superficially explore today: how is this techno-cultural evolution changing our body and our perception of it? The body as a terminal You could say that this whole train of thought started a few years ago, in November 2005, while reading a Wired article written by Michael Chorost - “My Bionic Quest for Bolero” - which later became a book. The author describes his own descent into a world of silence, and how he decides to undergo the most invasive treatment currently available to regain his hearing and experience again Ravel’s famous Bolero as he remembers it. “A cochlear implant, as it is known, would trigger my auditory nerves with 16 electrodes that snaked inside my inner ear.” Michael Chorost, 2005 What I found extremely fascinating about the unfortunate experience described in the article is that it basically talked about software augmenting the senses (a diminished sense in this case, but still). As the author loaded different software releases into his high-tech hearing aid he could hear various sound ranges differently, until he found one combination that enabled him to experience his favorite music again the way he remembered hearing it naturally. In other words, the article talked about mediating and enhancing our (auditory) perception of the world, through software. Think about that for a second. Many people would say that all our perceptions of the world are mediated though software, but I am talking about human-coded software in this case. Weirdly enough though the question that came to mind there and then was: “When will we start to consider having a face to face conversation over the phone?” See, I think we’ve all been there, overhearing somebody else’s conversation because other people were simply talking too loudly, because of the context. Maybe they had no choice, they had to have that conversation right there and then, maybe they did not care, who knows. But still. Now enter the Jawbone. This is not just a beautiful (Yves Behar-designed) Bluetooth headset, it also comes loaded with what they claim to be state-of-the-art noise-suppression technology. This is software that basically eliminates all ambient noise and leaves your voice to be the signal. Now. Would you consider using this tool to talk to somebody face to face, if it allowed you to hear them better or if you just wanted more privacy? Think about this for a minute. I actually think I would. I actually think I will, one of these days. This is not an isolated example of course, as many hearing aids come with similar features. For example Phonak – a swiss hearing-aid manufacturer (full disclosure: Phonak is one of frog design's current clients) - has a feature in their high-end products to fine-tune sound settings for specific contexts (even more interestingly hearing aids for kids need to leave “noise” in to get them to learn how to hear, but that’s completely off-topic). Now bearing all of the above in mind consider Lyric Hearing. This is a revolutionary (read: invisible) in-ear hearing aid, intended to be worn 24/7, for 30 days or more at a time. Did anybody think “implant”? Did anybody think “what if this was Bluetooth-enabled and it could connect to my mobile phone”? Did anybody think "what about a version with noise-suppression for people without hearing disabilities"? So did I. Talk about “I am hearing voices”: such a combination might up the ante when it comes to making it difficult to tell global village fools from people that are just talking on their mobile phone. We might soon all be hearing voices: our own conversations, relayed by the One Machine. Contemplating your own discomfort Time to switch sense and move to sight. Visions of smart cities and spaces have shaped our collective imagination around augmented reality, an invisible digital layer overlaid on top of a visible physical one. Common scenarios to reveal the hidden data layer usually involve “glasses of true seeing” of some sort. Take for example the interesting work of Japanese designer Mac Fuminazu. On his website - Petit Invention - he has created a series of concepts along these lines. The idea is fairly simple: an invisible physical layer that makes the invisible digital layer visible. Got it? Physically invisible makes visible the digitally invisible on top of the physically visible. Anyway, these concepts are, well, nice, cute even, and their early commercial applications are already available. For example Wikitude, an Adroid-based application, uses GPS and the camera of a mobile device to show Wikipedia entries overlayed on top of the physical landmarks they refer to. Now. Let’s look at another execution of the same idea. Not so cute. Quite the contrary even. I will thus ask you for the first time today to do something I had to do myself when I first saw this concept, and others that will follow as well. Play Buddhist and try to "contemplate your own discomfort": suspend judgment for a few minutes and ask yourself why that discomfort comes to be, and if it is just cultural – and thus could change – or if it goes deeper. The reason why you should think about it is that I believe something like this mask will come, whether we like it or not, and it’s essential to consider implications sooner, rather than later. This mask is a “mixed reality visor” designed by Ralph Bremenkamp, a talented colleague of mine at frog design. The whole idea here is of course immersion, immersion in an alternative digital reality, but also of course disconnection, disconnection from the physical world surrounding the wearer. It is basically a product to live full time in the "invisible digital layer" rather than in the "visible physical one". It is also something that looks like it’s been grafted onto the face of the wearer. Obviously it’s esthetically meant to appeal to current “extreme” communities and to a specific age range, but still. Disabled enablement (more along the lines of the Wired article) Of course at this point any Science Fiction fan will have zeroed-in onto where I am heading. It’s been described in movies, comics, novels, you name the medium. One reference to rule them all, following up on the mask you just saw: William Gibson’s Molly Millions and her vision-enhancing implanted mirror lenses. Disturbing but cool, right? Well... I’d like to avoid that tangent and follow another one. When it comes to augmentations and cyborgs more realistic images like this one come to mind. These are mid-90's self-proclaimed "borgs" (read: geeks) at the MIT, overloaded with PC paraphernalia and looking – quite honestly – pretty ridiculous. Of course these visions have evolved in the meantime, and just last year the tech world was abuzz with videos of Pranav Mistry’s 6th Sense, showing that cyborgs have gotten themselves better tools now. Too bad that they are still wear(abl)ing things that bounce around their necks and hide in their backpacks. Let’s now sit again on our discomfort for a second, and ask ourselves a question that’s just plain weird: “Would you give away an eye, to have it replaced with a camera?” Anybody in their right of mind would (or should) answer a loud “no”. But what If you were missing an eye in the first place? As you might have read Rob Spence, who lost his right eye in a childhood accident, has been developing with a friend of his a prototype camera that will replace his artificial eye, and wirelessly beam video to a nearby screen or hard disk. I think we’re all familiar by now with the concept of Lifelogging – capturing multimedia information about every single moment of one’s life – but this is something entirely different. This is invisible technology built into the body that requires no effort on behalf of the wearer, following his every gaze and recording everything he sees unbeknownst to others around him. What will this do our perception of one another? What will this do to our memory-shaping practices? Time to move on: here’s another video, which will have us focus away from our senses and onto our outer boundary, our skin. This is what Philips Design calls a “design probe”, and it shows how some sort of nano sub-dermal e-ink will react to touch and pressure, enhancing our body and making it a dynamic surface for self-expression. Somewhat sensual, and somewhat disturbing. If you think this is science fiction you are of course right, but here’s a quasi-realistic implementation of what you just saw (it is a concept again, so I am cheating a bit). This is a Bluetooth-enabled sub-dermal black & white screen. Imagine using your phone, or any other Bluetooth-capable device, to beam images to it, so that they will show from under your skin. Cool? Creepy? Yes, Indeed. The body as a node We've been briefly exploring the body as a terminal, as a destination for digital information if you will. Then there's the body as a pulsating active node on The Network. Of course there's the banal: the body's location in time and space turned into an always-on stream of bits. Google Latitude comes to mind. Still in the same realm there are companies that build their service models on tracking data produced by the body as it's exercising, companies like Suunto, Polar or Nike. Heart-rate monitors and pedometers and GPS watches of all kinds, now ready to stream biostats to a portable networked device. Lately also Nintendo jumped into the melee with its Wii Vitality Sensor, which promises to use the gamer's heart rate to change playing conditions. Maybe. I don’t need to tell you that healthcare is the field were most of these visions come with real business models and tangible economic incentives. I am of course talking about constant monitoring of one's heart rate, blood pressure, oxygen and glucose levels etc. Frog Milano is currently running with a few partners a research program called E-monitors that precisely looks at this opportunity area, and will result in the working prototype of an open platform for integrating a network of biosensors. Here's another example along these lines, one where again we might all feel somewhat uncomfortable, but also an example of something that can make the difference for people suffering from diabetes, promising to greatly improve their quality of life: the Dexcom diabetes management system includes a self-implantable sensor, a small data-emitting pod that attaches to it and a glucose meter that can make sense of the data or drive an insulin pump directly. The overall apparatus is still quite clunky to be honest, but you can easily see it as a promising first step towards nimbler executions. In addition the whole idea of performing what is for all purposes self-micro-surgery is mind-boggling to say the least, but again just a glimpse of what lies ahead. What all of the examples above point to it's clearly a basic product/service architecture that will likely be the reference for the near future when it comes to the body as a node. Something sensing and implanted transmitting wirelessly to a larger wearable hub, which distributes data to other nearby devices and aggregates it, making it take the long jump straight to the One Machine for long-term storage and mining. Mass-market enablers for this product/service infrastructure are already in place. Devices like Apple's iPhone are now powerful enough to process massive amounts of data, and come with Bluetooth enhancements that enable them to act as bridges between “sensors” of all sorts and The Network itself. The most interesting aspect here is that all of these scenarios see the body becoming for all purposes an always-on, always-connected, always-communicating source of biodata, pulsating bits with its every heartbeat. Infamous last words One last consideration, one last reference and one last (weird) question. Here’s the last consideration. Remember Timo Arnall’s video at the beginning? In the future that thing absorbing and beaming invisible bits won’t be a device you’ll be wearing. It will be you. Here's the last reference. In one of the latest evolutions of the Iron-Man character Tony Stark controls his all-empowering metal suit by interfacing with it directly through a membrane on his bones, no interface strings attached. At one point he reveals: "I can see through satellites now." We know how that feels by now, right? Here’s the last question. “How quickly is a digitally augmented, mixed reality leading us to feel the need for an augmented body to fully take advantage of it?” In other words: would you give an eye to see through satellites?
Fabio Sergio is Executive Creative Director at frog. He leads frog's global Experience Strategy practice, and is one of frog's Healthcare experts. He's happiest where design, technology and (social) connectivity intersect, wrapping business scenarios around people's needs, desires and dreams to create meaningful solutions that foster change. At frog he has led innovation programs for Novartis, Johnson & Johnson, Merck, BBC, HP, LGE, Vodafone, Swisscom, WEF and Unicef, amongst others. He is an adjunct professor at the Politecnico di Milano.