John Thackara | Essays

Research Governance [May 2004]

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Who is responsible for the unintended consequences of design actions? Many information technology researchers tell us it's unfair to blame them for the marketing and innovation strategies of their employers. Human Computer Interface designers, in particular, often comprise tiny groups in huge companies. The issue arose again in Vienna last week, when 2,000 people assembled for a Computer Human Interaction conference (CHI), the worldís most important meeting for interaction and usability design professionals. In the greater scheme of our technology-filled world, CHI contains the good guys: their mission is to put the interests of human beings first in system and device design. The trouble is that in complex systems, as in society, even the smallest action can have unexpected consequences. So what to do? Is some kind of research governance for IT needed, of the kind that is emerging in the health sector?

The opening keynote speaker at CHI, Jun Rekimoto, from Sony's Interaction Laboratory in Japan, impressed the audience with displays of "augmented surfaces". These will doubtless appear on many smart walls and tables before too long. He also showed us a system called "Meme Chat" that enables audience members to chat among themselves in their own language while a foreign speaker is speaking on stage. Your correspondent has lectured to wireless-enabled, laptop-toting monads already - and itís a good discipline knowing you have to compete for their attention. A less benign invention was "ID Camera" which appeared, in the video Rekimoto showed us, to be able to "read" the IP number of devices carried by people walking down a city street. An application scenario showed the camera being used to read real-time customer ratings of a restaurant - but the likely clients for camera are likely to be spooks, not chefs.

Is it unreasonable to be suspicious of computer scientists who try to design software that can detect, model and exhibit emotional states? Robert Trappl, a charming and eminent professor, told us in Vienna about his research into "emotional personality agentsî". In one mid-1990s experiment, research subjects were shown a video of someone having an eye removed while still conscious ñ a gruesome procedure. Most people watching it were revolted by the video, and some even passed out. But a small minority showed no apparent emotion. "You might expect such people to be especially rational and unemotional" said Professor Trappl, "but when we set out to find out more, it proved hard to make an appointment with such a person". We felt like saying that these people were clearly psychopaths and we should lock them up, not try to make an appointments with them. Prof Trapplís study of these loony tunes was funded by Europeís Human Machine Network on the Emotions, or HUMANE.

Boris de Ruyter, from Philips Research, described his company's commitment to create systems that are "personalized, adaptive, and anticipatory". By way of explanation, Boris showed us a video about bathrooms of the future. In one scene, a young man called Carsten uses an electric shaver in front of a smart mirror, and the mirror monitors how hard Carsten presses the razor to his chin. Wondering at first how the world had survived so long without this marvelous invention, we could not help noticing that Carsten left the bathroom without cleaning his teeth. "We have to educate people not to create their own expectations", Boris explained.

"The goal is simple, ubiquitous, easy and delightful-to-use devices that know a great deal about one another, the world, and the people in their proximity". Media Lab's great strength, but also its weakness, is the optimism of its tech-based vision. A symposium called "Designing Bits & Pieces" marks the launch of CELab, a new consumer electronics research program based on a vision of "self-managing device ecosystems". The idea is ludicrous. The consumer electronics dinosaurs likely to sponsor CELab are highly unlikely to embrace open standards. A world filled with their devices will be about as "self managing" as downtown Falluja. 10 May, Cambridge, Mass.

If we were a mischievous God, we'd combine Media Lab's event with Machinista. Originating from an "typical Scottish-Russian collaboration", Machinista seeks to "challenge the societal norms which govern interaction between wo/man and machine, and to soar above the banality of automatic everyday life". A deranged email commands us: "Prepare to have your mind thrust into the outer reaches of feasibility. You will savour the glorious taste of algorhythmic ejaculata, before being spat back out into the unfamiliar present of a malfunctioning dystopia". Machinista's audience will interact with intelligent systems, become lost in multi-sensory environments, and experience "fascinating representations of the robotic worldview". On balance, weíre not convinced that mixing together Russia and Scotland is a good idea. 7-9 May, Glasgow.

Weíre torn between attending Machinista and the International Rural Tourism Workshop that takes place in Eriga, Latvia, June 2-3.

Mobile phones, surveillance systems and electronic barriers have the potential to influence how we spend our time, where we go, and how we express ourselves. "Major international voices in public art and graffiti" are going to Outside In, a workshop in concerned with access, design, and use of public space. June 14-15 Göteborg, Sweden

We hear from our fellow asylum watchers at Need To Know that the Federation Against Copyright Theft (FACT) has aired a cinema advert in which you stare at a branding iron while a voice intones: "piracy funds terrorism" and "will destroy society". The Advertising Standards Authority has ruled that this ad "did not contain a misleading exaggeration". The ASA should hire the US advertising industry lawyer we saw ranting on New York television about billboard pollution as "commercial freedom of speech". Such lovely people can be found in adland.

Howard Dean raised a ton of money on the internet, but his campaign imploded. What have we learned so far about network campaigning? A think-piece by Paul Miller at Demos says that on issues from the environment and human rights, to poverty eradication and debt reduction, network campaigns have confronted some of the biggest and most powerful institutions on the planet. True, but who won? A forthcoming book from Demos may answer that question. Network Logic contains essays by Fritjof Capra, Manuel Castells, Diane Coyle, Geoff Mulgan, Howard Rheingold and many others.

There's a magnificent sound synthesizer at Teyler's Museum in Haarlem, in The Netherlands. Eight chunky resonators, a bit like miniature brass water boilers, are attached to electronic tuning forks that are actuated by clunky copper coils. A keyboard, containing eight white keys, is mounted on a wooden plinth. The machine is dated 1859. Nearly 150 years later, it's still less fun talking to machines than to a dog. Microsoft, IBM and others have spent billions of dollars trying to let us talk to computers the way people did to HAL, in the movie 2001 - but progress is painfully slow. Computer scientist Ben Schneiderman says the effort is misguided because it's hard to speak and think at the same time. The evidence after thousands of person years of research seems to be that voice works best when we bark simple orders to a system to carry out a simple task -such as opening a door, or getting a name from an address book. Even then, the simplest of tasks can go wrong. Your correspondent once visited the research labs of Sharp, in Japan, where our host stated "Open!", in English, to a sliding door. It stayed resolutely closed until he went behind a curtain, and flipped a switch. "Sorry" he said, "it was set to Japanese".

In his book Leonardo's Laptop, Ben Schneiderman argues that designers who are sensitive to human needs are more likely to make breakthroughs that will yield useful applications for new technologies. We wish Ben luck in selling this insight to the Telco community; heíll need it. His keynote talk at Mobisys, argues that mobile technologies should be "small, fast, and fun"; he'll give examples that include digital photo applications, personal info, healthcare, and e-commerce.

The last time your correspondent was in Aspen, Colorado, a man with white eyes gave me a lift to the Caribou Club in a Jeep lined in mink. But Aspen does not just contain strange rich people, it also hosts a celebrated design conference. ìSoftware not only changes how design works, it changes how design thinksî says the invitation. Among the white-eyed luminaries you will meet are Greg Lynn, Joachim Sauter, Natalie Jeremijenko, John Maeda, Joel Burdick, Imaginary Forces, Dunne + Raby, Rafael Lozano-Hemmer, and GRAFT. 25-28 August, Aspen, Colorado.

If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a design fair to raise an institute. Until last month, Interaction Design Institute Ivrea was better known and appreciated outside Italy than at home. But "This Is Today", its exhibit at the Milan Furniture Fair, seems to have persuaded Italy to embrace the Institute. 25,000 people came to the event, and the press was impressed. For Panorama, the Institute is ìa point of reference for the generation of new ideas and a new design culture. Prestinenza called Interaction Ivrea "a model for the moribund Italian educational system". And Francesco Gavazzi, in a cover story for Corriere della Sera, proclaimed that ìat Ivrea, students design new ways of interaction between man and technology.

Googling "homeland security" and "design" yields 435,000 results. Fear may be good for the design industry, but could it be bad for innovation? Rob van Kranenburg argues that "if you scare your population, very few risks will be taken". A fear policy, says Rob, goes directly against the call for more innovation.

The Silja Opera ferry - a luxurious passenger liner - is a floating tropical island with pools, palms, Jacuzzi and retractable glass roof. Does that sound like a normal venue for clubbing, sound art, installations, interactive games, and sonic experiments? The organisers of the International Symposium on Electronic Arts hope not. ISEA2004 will be held in Helsinki, Åland Islands, Tallinn, and on this huge passenger ferry cruising between them. August 14 - 22.

"From Jerusalem, to Broadacre, to Black Rock City, maps have a particularly strong relationship to cities, which are themselves expressions of the human imagination. They occupy the threshold between people and place, suffused with our values and aspirations". The producers of an upcoming - "Urban legends: The City in Maps" - seek submissions of finished original work in all media that address the urban landscape through maps. The exhibition runs August 6-21, Oaklandish Gallery, Berkeley, CA

Computers of the future will be heterogeneous in form and universal in presence. So what will all this be good for? Truly compelling applications of new technologies for everyday life seem scarce. In his talk at the Appliance Design Conference in Bristol, Bill Gaver describes attempts to add to their number through designs ranging from illuminating tablecloths to superstitious houses. May 11-13 2004 at HP Labs Bristol.

We set off last week to "The Hidden Interface" and found it in Austria, not far from CHI. This lively event was organised by the Fachhochschule Voralberg, in Dornbirn, to foster interactions between researchers and industry. But the university faces a unique cultural obstacle to its global ambitions: dialects in the area are amazingly diverse. There are as many words for stone as there are Alpine valleys; and forty percent of Dornbirn's citizens cannot communicate well enough to buy a loaf of bread in Lustenar ñ which is three kilometres (two miles) away.

A broad spectrum of fonts is on display at the Museum for Design in Zurich. The event demonstrates "the broad spectrum of what fonts can be and what can be achieved with a specific font". It sounds a tad - er - dry, but works from Swiss typographers and graphic designers from past years are included. Until 7 July.

The Dutch Council of Culture (Raad voor Cultuur) has recommended that Doors of Perception be funded in the 2005-2008 Art Plan (Kunstplan). The minister is free in theory to ignore the Council's advice, and Parliament has to ratify her final plan in September, but most organisations - including this one - regard a positive verdict as good news. The news means that the vital signs of our not-for-profit work are protected. This (free to you) newsletter; the Doors website; tactical events we do with partner organisations; and DoorsEast; all can carry on for another four years. But the future of the main Doors conference remains uncertain. Despite attracting more than 1,000 people, and plaudits galore, Doors of Perception 7 (on Flow) lost money - and the Culture Council has declined to underwrite that gap. Doors' Board meets in May to consider the best way to proceed, and we will announce our plans for Doors of Perception 8 shortly after that.

Oslo has an amazingly fast train from its almost-new airport to the city center. The train's brutal grey styling made the Humvee we overtook on the way in look wimpish. Norway has clearly spent an awful lot of its oil money on teknologi. If itís too late for you to join us in Oslo for Spark!, you could always come to Breda's Museum at 4pm on 19 May for the final presentation of Quality Time, our service design workshop on the High Speed Train Network.

Jobs | May 27