The Strange Strategic Predicament of the Apple Smart Watch

This is a really great linked article, read this too!

Smart watches are all the rage right now. Every self-respecting consumer electronics company needs to have one. Apple’s been feeling that pressure for quite some time, certainly from pundits and fans and probably even from shareholders. The problem is that there hasn’t really been a compelling reason for owning one beyond health apps and perhaps just looking cool (if you can look cool with a giant light-square on your wrist). Apple knows this, but they also know that they shouldn’t release something without having the killer application that makes a consumer feel as if they can’t live without it. Sure, they’d see fanboy buys and some holidays purchases, but there’d be no sustain for it. So, what can Apple do? Release a product without a market or not release a product that makes them look deficient in comparison to rivals? They chose the latter.

One could infer from the sorts of hiring done by Apple recently that perhaps they don’t have a clear direction at Cupertino for this product. This also dovetails with the lack of intellectual property filed on its behalf. I would think the game plan was to wait it out until the watch’s true necessity presented itself and rally the troops then, much like they did with the mp3 player, tablet and mobile phones. Unfortunately, other firms haven’t been waiting, they’re launching and hoping the platform will summon the devices’ utility.

Patents…eyebrows raised. The linked article goes into more detail.

When pebble came out, they knew there’s a diaspora of possibilities for such a device and elected to launch with a simple, open device. Samsung is known for throwing everything at the market and then iterating on the ones that get a little traction. Asus may have actually made a smart phone stylish. Strangely enough, in perhaps Google’s only hardware win, their watch shows a sort of approachable genius that comes from attentive human-centered design. Into this market, Apple drops off their watch.

Apple’s products have always been about giving a refined solution, so the idea of belching out technology and hoping a random coder will find the device’s purpose goes against the fabric of the company. Apple is supposed to have the answers, and polished ones, at that. They don’t have to fumble about the market for help. Maybe that was because Steve had the answers – but more probably, he knew to take the heat until the time and the device was ready.

Steve is gone now and Apple launches a watch. It has iOS on it and one of the big sell points is health tracking. It has a skeuomorphic dial on the side and vaguely looks like every other smart watch on the market from about a year ago. I’m sure there’ll be a robust spec sheet and easy compatibility with an iPhone and the applications on it, but it just feels… pushed.

Lately, there’s been a few articles suggesting shoppers wait for the next iteration of the Apple Watch. Some cite the inevitable issues with launching a new product, like software bugs. The question that needs to be asked is are these legitimate thoughts about the growing pains of a first manufacturing run, or a polite way of saying the Apple Watch (and to be fair smart watches in general) just hasn’t created a compelling product vision that makes having one indispensable as other Apple products?

Television is a Social Event Device, and There’s the Rub

One of the hardest parts about bringing interactivity to the television is not so much getting it on the internet. It’s getting an idea on what exactly TV apps should do.

The graveyard for ‘interactive’ television devices is a very large place, and there’s new residents happening every day. It’s not just third party, flash-in-the-pan manufacturers, either. Some of the tombstones have some pretty big names on them. Why the ongoing tragedy?

The sorrow of it all stems from the fact that the way people interact with a television is so much different than how they interact with mobile devices. Slapping an Android computer on a TV with a revved up tablet UI is not going to work well, no matter what shape you make the box. The problem is that the TV is a fundamentally different product and experience. It’s a social event device.

What do I mean by that? In today’s world, the television is used to share experiences with more than one person. If just one person were going to consume media that would normally be on a television, they would likely do it with another device like a tablet, laptop or phone. We invite friends to watch media on TV together.

This is the big sticking point. The current batch of applications on mobile operating systems are fundamentally designed for interaction with only one person per device. Angry birds? Single user. Hootsuite? Single user. Foursquare? Single user. Their social aspect is derived through the sharing of information across networks to someone else’s device. They are not designed for sharing with others on the same device. The social aspects of sharing a television event on Facebook with the same people who are in the same room as you, seems somehow redundant. Perhaps sharing with others who aren’t in attendance would make this seem useful but that’s just a feint, isn’t it?

The awkwardness of the ‘social’ app issue could easily be distilled down to when there are many sharing one device experience, it’s no longer an ‘I’ event, it’s a ‘We’ event. For whatever the app is doing, everyone is essentially doing it and if something changes, everyone has some sort of hand in the operation (assuming you have courteous friends). Thus, either there are an army of personal accounts invading the device or there is just one person’s account. Redundancy or awkward conformity are in store.

The second aspect that’s been overlooked is that whatever account that your mobile devices are run through contains a lot of information about you, and maybe some information that’s best left within the safety of password-protection. A quick test of this is taking a stroll through your friend’s mobile phone. The experience turns out to be pretty much uncomfortably voyeuristic. The details saved and the personalization of said device is a deep, deep window into the inner workings of a device’s owner. It’ll become uncomfortable to share a lot of these profile details with others. Even relatively benign shopping lists could cause some to blush if shared with the wrong people.

We have different personas – or ‘accounts’, if you will – a public one and a private one. Truly social event devices like televisions need to be ready to handle the line we set between them. This asks an interesting question: do we then have to individually go into every aspect and assign what can be shared and what cannot, a la Google Circles or do we have second, sharable proxies that are neutered for public browsing? Will they be connected somehow?

With both of these aspects in mind, the biggest issue is that the standard apps available for tablets and phones just don’t work for the social aspects of TV viewing. There will have to be a complete set of brand new apps invented to truly capture the utility and the desire to have this capability on televisions. This is where the excitement should build for what would really turn out to be a completely new market for applications where a sort of real-time social app is born. Instead of being all ‘web 2.0’ on separate devices, groups could have that same interaction through one large device in one location. Or perhaps something even more out on the horizon.

It’s time for manufacturers and programmers to see that this change needs to happen, if they’re going to want to keep playing in this space. From user interfaces that are actually designed for the sort of environment TVs are used to the more mundane aspects of creating a sort of sharing profile that has a tuned environment that’s safe to use where others can browse.

Tactility Means Something

In today’s world of product design there seems to be a lot of emphasis placed on homogenizing the shapes of things. Obviously this looks rather nice and makes for a pretty good looking ‘system’ of things that sit on the shelf well. Then along comes a project like this to remind us that we need to consider other aspects besides congruent shapes when thinking of functionality.

Memories USB pen drives by Vanessa Redondo

I am not sure if this was the main reasoning behind Vanessa’s shapes ( yes, I did not really read the article), but my takeaway from the images is that the set of in-congruent shapes would certainly have a benefit for a user in recalling what is on each of the drives.

Today, we have a lot of data. Although the cloud is coming, we still carry and store a lot of it on devices that are physical to us. Many times this data can’t be held on just one chunk of media for a variety of reasons. Just like days of old with floppy disks, it becomes hard to recall what exactly is held on each drive. Having a drive with a distinctive shape goes a long way to circumvent the issue.

Memories - Vanessa Redondo

Designers usually try and attack this sort of thing with a visual design or some sort of handy color-coding. But these devices are usually quite tactile in use and the project here seems to go a long way to treat this aspect. Seeing this implementation makes me think that in this day and age we haven’t really utilized the capabilities touch gives us in a conscious way. Being able to quickly reach for a media drive and understand generally what their content is without taking eyes off of other things is really a benefit that makes this project quite strong.

For many reasons (which I am sure I will revisit here) I think that designers get into the bad habit of forcing things into systems even though the functionality is obviously sacrificed for style. It would be nice to see a movement where we look at projects like this to truly address function before shoehorning things awkwardly into shapes that merely look good. Oh, and also to consider more deeply tactility as a legitimate form of communication and utility.

Evolving the Mobile Device – The Personal Media Sever

When you look at a smart phone you see a sort of 21st century Swiss Army knife. It has a lot of functionality but every one of its functions are compromised (at least slightly) to cobble them all together. Perhaps it’s time to break them apart. If you did that with the knife, you could have a proper-sized set of scissors and just deep-six that bloody cork screw.

Looking at where phones are at right now, I think most can see that the mobile device world is having some growing pains. You can see it most when you consider the dimensions of the products available. People would really like to have a larger screen to run apps and do a bit of mobile browsing. This obviously bumps into the portability of the device and using it for calls. If it’s too big you can’t comfortably carry it in a pocket without anyone thinking your sumuggling paperbacks and it’s even harder to jam one in a small purse -not to mention holding the brick to your head for calls. Do you then have two phones? One that you can carry easily and the other the mini tablet?

Coming from the other side of things are tablets. Personally, I think the ideal size for a tablet is at least 10 inches. Most companies are aiming at 7 inches. This awkward size makes it just a little too small to do a lot of serious work, but also makes it even less portable than a large smart phone. Then they have a connectivity issue. Do you buy one with 3G? Play the hot-spot-hopping game with WiFi only? Buy both?

Finally, there’s the questions of etiquette. We all know that taking a call while talking to someone in person is pretty rude ( or at least we should ). Perhaps we also know that checking our phones every few minutes or every time we get the buzz of an update is pretty irritating as well. These actions also have an effect on our productivity. Our interconnectivity is not going to diminish in the future. The goal now is to take all these things and think about how we can change them for the better.

How would this look for a mobile device? I think the best way to think about it would be to make our persons a portable network. We would perhaps carry a ‘Personal Server’ that would really be the link to outside networks like 3G or WiFi and the connector to a number of peripherals, like a handset or a Status Monitor, perhaps even a tablet or some devices we haven’t even thought of yet. If we separated all of these components we could choose which items we would like to bring with and which to keep at home or in the car.

There would be even more advantages to a selective constellation rather than a single device. By pushing updates to some sort of Status Monitor, like a wristwatch or a fob, we could diminish the need to always unpack the phone to check what all the buzzing is about, we’d also diminish the chances of toliet-bowling our phones.

Having a tablet to interface with your personal network would have a few advantages as well. The tablet would operate through your network’s connection, eliminating duplicity as well as perhaps pulling processing from the network server itself, making the tablet a much more affordable item. Perhaps then, you could have two – a completely unusable 7inch tablet you can barely use and a larger one for more pointed operations.

While it sounds great, what makes it better is that the accessories for the network wouldn’t have to updated when you’re finally at that point with your data plan. You could get that peripheral when you need it or maybe even want it really, really bad. Think about it: if we broke with the brick we could finally drive fashion into our electronic accessories and maybe the world would be a slightly less irritating and connected world.

Musings on Meeting People and the March of Technology

Like peacocks, or any animal really, we use our attributes to attract mates or at least like-minded prospective friends: “We like the same sort of sports team, I bet he’s a good fella.,” or  “She reads Gogol, she’s the one for me!” We differ from the animal kingdom in that we have a great number of attributes at our disposal that we can simply purchase or make and change them at will.

It’s really interesting to chart our evolution. We started off like any animal, we displayed our bodily traits and we stayed with types we liked. Then we gained capability and our clothing or tools told our story and perhaps enhanced our form. Recently, we let our love of certain brands define us. Now it seems we are on a trajectory to change again. This time we will base all of this on what our mobile devices divine for us.

This article on Gawker about how the Kindle ruins your dating game does a good job of bringing the point home. The shift to operating more in the technology world than the tangible world has begun.

The Kindle is helping in a small way, sure it gives us the capability to carry any book we ever wanted, but it also takes away from the tangible world a visual definition of ourselves and an invitation to interaction. It wasn’t the first item though, we saw this happen with music players. We used to have CD and tape players with physical media that people could see and make a connection from. This was swallowed by MP3 players. If I had an MP3 player 15 years ago, a State Trooper in Virginia wouldn’t have let me go after searching my car – just because he liked my music. And remember when we would get to know people through looking at their CD collection? It’s creepy to think of looking through someone’s media player.

Soon, we will search for people of like mind solely through our media devices with cleaver apps like OKCupid’s that alerts you when matches are nearby. We will gaze at our phones like people holding metal detectors waiting for the pulse that says someone special is nearby.

Perhaps the physical tolerances of GPS location awareness will keep some of the serendipity alive. Imagine someone seeing on their phone that a good match is nearby and due to the fuzziness of location, they meet someone totally different and it works out. That will be the next generation’s ‘How I met your mother’ story.

In the near future there will be stories of ships passing in the night. Sad, lonely stories about great romances or friendships that never were: they were standing right next to each other, but alas, they were on different networks…

Conversely, the next generation of ‘Players’ will have an entirely different skill set than the ones now. Not having to rely so much on finely tuned interpersonal interactions, since that will be supplanted by our trust in our app’s matching skills,  they’ll have learned to game the system by honing profiles in just the right way.

But for now, we will suffer through the uncomfortable near future of trying to puzzle out how to initiate interaction when we can’t just cleverly read the name of someone’s book or place faith in our phone’s love-seeking capabilities.

Designing Personal Space in a Crowded World

While today everything is about bringing people together, in the coming years, there will be a big push for personal space.

There’s a difference between privacy and personal space. Privacy really is on its way out and we’re slowly letting that happen. Personal space, on the other hand, will probably be highly sought after in the future. The definition of personal space need will also change. It will probably ‘mean insulation from external stimuli’ (like people talking, media, and visual distraction) rather than presenting more room between people.

Along those lines are two remarkably similar solutions by two distinct groups. At the top is the Privacy Chair by Marijn van der Poll and above is the Box chair by Loook Industries. Both of these chairs work to create a certain zone where an individual can be ‘alone’. The Box line contains sound dampening for more private phone conversations and also to carve out the perception of insulation in crowded places. Van der Poll designed his chair to specifically offer “…some privacy for users in today’s open office plans offering some protection from visual and audible distractions.” Something I can understand – working in an open-concept office myself. Even though I am not immediately next to someone, the  times I feel as though I have personal space is when I sneak on some headphones or peer deeply enough in my monitor as to blur out my periphery. Even social animals need their alone time.

Both’s designs work hard to craft as close to a closed space as possible, much like a cocoon where the three enclosed sides provide a sort of safety which can induce the sort of calming likened to being in your own space. It’s surprising how little stimuli that sensation requires, recalling how using a pay phone that was only a half booth around your torso felt like the privacy of a block house.

Further, it’s amusing to think that some of the principle actions described in both pieces’ benefits have to do with not only shutting out media but creating the privacy to indulge in our own media pursuits – a giant shift from only a few years ago where media consumption was considered a social event.

I find it interesting that online, we are nearly daily breaking down social barriers between each other and at the same time, in the real world, working diligently to buttress our eroding personal space to hold back those same hoards.

Where will Digital Content Creation Go From Here?

Reading an interesting article about the departure of the fella who’s pretty much responsible for the OSX operating system (and also could be argued, the tamer of Linux/BSD into something more consumer friendly) and the postulation as to why makes some interesting speculations about the future of computing.

The number one speculation is that further updates to OSX will now take its GUI cues from iOS rather than the other way around, making iOS the defacto OS king in Apple world. There is a lot of talk about the combining of operating systems in tablets and other mobile items and desktops. The big question is how  and which should lead? I have really no idea how Microsoft is going about it (and perhaps they don’t either).  Android really is its own world with no OS buddy – just like Blackberry and WebOS.

From the article though, it seems that iOS will lead and OSX will be subordinate. This means that the tablet/phone/device market is the path for Apple for the forseeable future. I suppose that anything that runs OSX will become essentially legacy devices. Samsung believes Tablets are the future, as well, but they don’t really have any skin in the conventional desktop/laptop market.

It should be a strange world for Apple, a company previously considered the premium content creation system manufacturer, moving towards things which are more of content consumers. It will be interesting to see if Apple will try to push their mobile products as content creators or keep on the tack of savvy consumption devices, as they are now. Thinking further, will all mobile devices then have this same focus? To be honest, I haven’t seen much for content creation on other OSs, either. Maybe it is not the OS that holds it back. Perhaps it is devices?

Could there then be an upcoming device that is perfectly designed for creation? What would that device look like? I suppose it would have to have finer control than what a touch screen would give and certainly a manner of input faster than a touch-screen keyboard would give. Perhaps an intermediate solution is the Motorola Atrix sort of thing?

There are other options as well. The honing of actually working on touch screens may get us there. Microsoft’s never-ending love of the stylus may help bring us there. It would put more precise control at our finger tips and make for a far easier time with content creation. A stylus combined with some souped up handwriting recognition would go a long way. The question is if handwriting is faster than touchscreen typing? Imagine handwriting making a comeback?

Another aspect to think about is computing horsepower. Graphics applications take a lot processing power. Sure, a lot could be pushed into the cloud but there’ll aways need to be a bit more juice in the device for such things. We have a few audio processing applications on tablets to seemingly good effect but jumping to video editing and image-intensive work is something else.  What gives a bit of hope are the incumbent dual-core processors making their way into devices.

Tablets are here to stay. They will out pace desktops and laptops. I think there are a lot of areas that have yet to be nailed down with our impending transition to tablet world. The real question for creatives is how will we create on these things.? It will certainly be interesting how we go about solving them.

Modular Component Clothing and Bringing Parametric Design to the Masses?

Eunsuk Hur

An article from Make magazine speaks of these fairly amazing clothing creations as being modular and composed of smaller fabric components that are connected into spectacular articles. (I’d like to post more of each of these designer’s works but the world of hip flash sites precludes me from linking to them so I’ll just steal the images from Make to frame my ramblings…). Being someone who kind of geeks out on generative works, I can certainly see a parallel in these creations, and that makes me pretty excited. Just like a lot of parametric works, these seem to talk of a very interesting future that’s tantalizingly just around the corner. Aside from a handful of strong examples, most seem to be still at the proof of concept stage. I often wonder when programmatic design will grow up and leave the experimental designer’s eye and land in the laps of the commoners like myself.

I’ve seen my share of installations that point to proficiency in constructing form and the usage of space. There certainly are pavilions and other simple, essentially utility-free structures shaped with such procedures, but still the honed wisdom of machine thinking hasn’t really found its home in everyday production of items. It’s as if there is a missing bridge between theory and practice that’s just too shaky to cross. I am not sure if it’s from the simple lack of patronage or if it’s an issue of maturity in the process.

Galya Rosenfeld

Bringing this back to the modular clothing, I think these examples (and further on each of the designers pages) are some of the best that have crossed that shaky bridge of thinking and into utility. The shawl at the top of this post  is perhaps the closest example to everyday usage and makes me excited to see where Eunsuk Hur takes her concept next, while Galya Rosenfeld‘s dress above holds its own in a high-fashion sense.

The idea of using small components of materials like this to create larger works would go a long way to using the overage from standard textile production processes. It would interesting to see if one could hone the methods that these designers use specifically to the tailings of large textile manufacture’s patterns, creating a sort of symbiotic relationship of efficiency. The shapes of the non-used portions could even be made available for modular colthiers to build off of as most patterns are now machine cut, creating perhaps a secondary market for the dross.

Maybe the way to bring the parametric world to the rest of us is through manufacturing efficiency? Using the capabilities of machine thinking and clever programming to use all the left-overs from primary processes. Could this be done with other industries? could one make sun shades perhaps from the cut-offs from the making of automotive body panels?

Until this is realized, make me a scarf, Eunsuk, it gets cold here in the midwest and I’d like to look cool when it is!

My Absolute Favorite Design Book So Far

I’ve seen a lot of design book reviews lately. I dig that because I’m a book sort of fella, but one of more selective tastes. It’s really hard to find good architecture or design books. You certainly would have a hard time bumping into one at a local book store – unless you have an awesome book store. I used to and then it closed. I miss you Prairie Avenue Bookstore.

In the interests of sharing and a bit of thanks for everyone who’s posted some really interesting books lately, I will share my favorite design book.

This is Human Interaction & Interior Space by Julius Panero and Martin Zelnick . Yes, my copy is beat up. I’ve had it for quite some time. Whenever I start a new project, chances are I consult this book at the onset. Basically, it’s a giant human factors book and I have to admit that I perhaps consult only the first third of the book, but those pages I do use are all invaluable.

The book is a giant treasure trove of anthropological information. I think that my volume here might be a bit out of date, taking into account of the changes the populace is trending to but it is still quite relevant. My searching seems to indicate that there has been no updates to the book, unfortunately. We all get to stay in the 70’s.

Otherwise, I’d like to pick up another one, just in case, but they’re nearly impossible to find – or apparently not. Regardless, I guard mine more than almost everything else I own.

I think that I’ve had this book for almost two decades now. Searching out Human Factors books is a latent hobby of mine. They’re quite difficult to find, especially used. They’re a bit easier to find new but certainly not easy on the wallet.

If you have the capability, I absolutely suggest you pick up a copy, it is pure genius. Partially, it’s kind of fun to see the page layouts and text handling from 1979. Look at that masterful stroking of Helvetica! A gem to be sure!

Breaking Through All the Little Boxes of Fine Art

This dazzle-painted installation by Tobias Rehberger  for Artek has picqued my imagination. Obviously, the dazzle painting derived from WWI ship camouflage – although in my mind it’s not as closely related to the original work – is nifty and certainly a fresh decorative aesthetic. The thing that interests me much more is that this installation breaks through all of the little boxes of decoration that we furnish our homes in.

I have snatched the image above from the totally great home decorating site, Apartment Therapy and is a nice example of a well-appointed and nicely styled contemporary room. Using this as an example of how we compartmentalize things in our homes – where everything is corralled in its spot and for its purpose: The floor is the bottom of the room. The walls touch the floor at a specific point and the art hangs on the wall. The couch touches the floor and maybe the wall but is distinct from both and so on.

The Artek installation breaks that trend. In the installation, the artwork is continuous across all planes and items. The wall artwork extends across the floors as well. The furniture blends to both the walls and the floor, not merely matching it. The entire effect creates a cohesive space, perhaps even a modern space?

I think it’s interesting to postulate on the effects this open thinking has on home furnishings, where your art is not  just put in compartments on a wall, instead it’s able to flow everywhere. Or how your furniture could become much more integrated with the space – even if it’s just aesthetically. The idea of calling into question the division of art and style in a room is kind of exciting. It’s like a fine art and interior design “mash-up” concept.

The idea of not finding the edges where art or the definition of a space ends and the utility begins is a concept that should certainly be explored more. I think it creates a lot of exciting opportunities for the artist and how one lives in such a realm. With the seeming movement of fine art toward decoration, perhaps this is some thinking that could push back the tide a bit. It would have to be through artists who are willing to look beyond the canvas as well as into new materials, not to mention new thought processes. The kind of thinking that is not compartmentalized in small rectangles.