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The Digital Life

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5 Questions

The Convergence of Digital and Industrial Design

February 27, 2014          

Episode Summary

In this episode of The Digital Life, we explore the convergence of digital and industrial design with Jenn Webb, editor of O’Reilly Radar and Jon Bruner, co-chair of the Solid Conference.

As emerging technologies — from wearables to the Internet of Things — cause the boundaries between digital and physical interfaces to collapse, this intersection of HCI and ID represents the first step to a multi-disciplinary design future.

Our discussion covers great examples of new products pushing the envelope, the future of product design and the skills that will be required, and what the design firm of the next decade might look like.

Jon F:
Hi everyone! Welcome to Five Questions. Today our topic is the Convergence of Digital and Industrial Design. We have two guests with us this afternoon on the podcast. Jon Bruner, who is the co-chair of the Solid Conference and Jenn Webb, who is the Online Editor at O’Reilly Radar. Welcome guys!

Jon B:
Thanks, pleasure to be here.

Jenn:
Hello!

Jon F:
Of course, as usual, you have myself, Jon Follett and my compatriot, Erik Dahl, who will be facilitating this roundtable discussion on the Convergence of Digital and Industrial Design. So without further ado, let’s dig in to our five questions. Jenn, why don’t we start with this question for you. What do you think are the trends today that are driving this marriage that we’re seeing of human computer interaction and industrial design?

Jenn:
Right. I think one the biggest places we’re seeing and are already manifesting in the world is in factories where robots are starting to work alongside humans like at the Volkswagen plant, for instance, in Germany. There’s instituted collaborative robots that are taking over the ergonomically unpleasant and heavy-lifting so that humans working alongside them don’t have to do that. There’s various distribution factories that are doing this as well where the robots are moving the heavier things alongside humans. Another area that I think is a huge part of this is the 3D printing that’s really starting to explode especially as they expand the materials that are available for printing into metals and some flexible plastics that are creating things that aren’t quite textiles but are getting there. Those people working on trying to figure out how you can put some sorts of natural fibers through a 3D printer, that kind of thing. Another area, the thing I find when I’m doing my research, you can really see the trends that are going to be coming as to look at academia and last fall I had the opportunity to talk to Jim Budd, who heads Georgia Tech’s School of Industrial Design and he’d seen this coming for years but he’s been trying to get the industrial design program married together with the human computer interaction master’s program. He finally did get that approved last fall and seeing that sort of thing emerging in academia and colleges, engineering colleges like Olin who are expanding their design programs year after year after year, bringing that together I think is a sure sign of the trends that are coming.

Jon F:
Jon what do you think?

Jon B:
Well, I think the biggest driver in this marriage between human computer interaction and industrial design is the rise of low cost innovation and hardware. It’s becoming really easy, really inexpensive to prototype a new product and increasingly frictionless to manufacture it and market it as scale as well, to have it made in China or the United States, then shipped to your customers directly. What that means is that smaller companies, sort of startups, can take the kinds of risks in hardware that we’ve seen startups taking in software over the last 10 years as the cost of developing software has plunged. I think that same risk-taking, clean-sheet design mentality is coming to hardware and physical devices and so there’s a lot of interest in stuff coming out. That’s what’s really expanding the target area for designers and making it possible to merge HCI and industrial design.

Jon F:
I’d add to those thoughts, expanding on what you said there Jon, the very inexpensive sensors which you can put in just about everything. That’s a little bit more specific along the lines of the types of technology that have become low cost. But I know that’s driving things like the ever so popular Internet of things, buzz word, right or, all the wearable devices that are striking us all at once it seems, from Google Glass to medical devices to the Dick Tracy watches. Erik what are you seeing?

Erik:
Yes, I am glad that you guys mentioned the maker movement, which is what gets a lot publicity in the popular press but definitely, a lot of this we see this in manufacturing. I was at a robotics lab earlier this morning, seeing some of these industrial robots and some of the work that’s being done, and I think that that doesn’t get enough play in the press and I’m glad that you guys mentioned that. I think in addition to the academic institutions that are pushing this along as well, you have places like the Disney Research Lab in Pittsburgh, doing a lot of work in the space of how to digitize and make interactive the entire world around us. They also have a lot of explorations in that space as well. I think it’s an exciting time to see a lot of these experiments happening.

Jon F:
So let’s next talk a little bit about this boundary between, we have our digital interfaces, which we’re familiar with, and physical interfaces. There’s a lot of design work being done right now to bring those two together. What are some of great examples of emerging products that you’ve seen recently that are pushing this. Jon, let’s start with you.

Jon B:
Well, one that I think that is incredibly interesting is the Misfit Shine watch. This is sort of a watch. It’s a quantified self-device pedometer and wrist watch that you can wear anywhere in your body. It’s a beautiful piece of machined aluminum and you interact with it through a series of taps that are then registered in tiny LEDs that go around the outside of this round device. Both give you feedback on your interaction, show you how far you have walked, how much activity you’ve gone though and also can display the time through a series of flashes. I think a lot of this movement is about reducing the use of screens and using other kinds of more intuitive, less obtrusive interfaces for things and certainly some users need a little while to figure out the Misfit interface but once they do it’s a really interesting way to handle interaction integrate it really nicely with hardware and do something really new.

Jon F:
Yes, I like that example. Jenn what are you saying?

Jenn:
Yes, I like the whole beyond the screen sort of watching how that’s coming out and Erik had mentioned Disney Research earlier and there’s a lot of stuff coming out from them. Recently last fall, they announced their paper generators where you can rub or tap on paper and it’ll generate a signal and connects you to either a computer or another device, anything else but it harvests energy. There are also, their Botanicus Interacticus program that they put out. It’s a sensor that attaches into the dirt into a plant and it turns it into a musical instrument that can be set of anything. But the sensor itself, it’s actually not developed just for the plant.

Ivan Poupyrev who is heading that up at the time explained to me when we met up last fall that this sensor can actually work with any material including water. You could put your whole hand in and it will recognize that it’s a whole hand or one finger, four fingers etc. At that time they had it set so that for about 45 minutes, it could even tell the difference between you and me. That’s pretty exciting if you think about that technology developing and that lifespan of being able to tell difference if you, say your door knob identify you when you walk up to it, you don’t need a key anymore, it notice s you and it opens the door.

Jon B:
I think that’s really interesting. I think you’re right on in terms of… We’ve been seeing a lot of this convergence between ‘Oh, you tied the interface to a mobile phone’, now you have a control mechanism on the mobile phone and I think some of the stuff coming out of Disney Labs is just amazing in terms of completely getting rid of that interface and just interacting with the environment in different ways and making the environment around us a control mechanism.

Jenn:
Right. It’s also interesting watching to have a human body is becoming the interface. I think right now the biggest research that’s coming out is for athletes and I think that’s probably because the FDA requires a lot more testing to turn something into a medical device. But like the skin tattoos, you can actually imprint a sensor tattoo on your arm that will measure various chemicals in your body and wirelessly transmit that information and you can see that it’s quite obvious how that can become a huge part of the medical industry later.

Jon F:
Those are all terrific examples, thank you. So given that, we established this HCI industrial design convergence and the interface moving off the screen, so now let’s focus a little bit on the people who are going to be designing those things. We’re all involved in the design industry in some way and it’s an interesting question I think to imagine what that design firm will look like that will be, what is the Disney Labs for the commercial sector? Who are the people who are going to come together and form that hybrid design firm of the next decade? Erik, why don’t we start with you.

Erik:
Yes. I think that one of the things that the trends that we’re going to see in those design firms is going to be more of a tighter collaboration with, we’ll call them ‘bench scientist’, the people that are doing some of this deep research. Working together in that design firm structure so you’re not just taking research form the academia or some of these research labs but really incorporating that into the design firms. Then so I think we’re going to see collaborations move in that space also collaborations move into designers working more with architects. Architects have been playing with a lot of these same problem spaces for a long time but as we move sensors and control units and stuff like that, into more of ambient environmental space, I think we’re going to have more work with architects as well. I think those are two trends that we are going to see wrapped in this concept of extended collaboration.

Jon F:
Jon what do you think will happen with the design firm?

Jon B:
Well integration between hardware and software and kind of moving hardware and software together into a single fluid discipline is a big seam that we are exploring solid. I think that mission carries in the design firms where I think you won’t necessarily have individuals who can do both hardware design and software design and industrial design, but you would have firms that embraced the challenge of designing and in both physical and virtual spaces by having experts in all of those areas and figuring out how to foster collaboration. I’m not sure exactly what the best structure for collaboration would be but I think the short answer would firms to have understanding of both physical and virtual.

Jon F:
I think we’re at a time for lack of a better term, we’ll call it ‘cross pollination’ where Erik has mentioned the bench scenarist working side by side with maybe the interaction designers than and the industrial designers. I think out of that type of collaboration there is going to emerge a new type or new sets of types of designers who might bridge that some of those gaps. As product design, it’s really hard to know where the natural boundaries are or if there are any for interaction design anymore. Just because there are so many possibilities when you start talking about as Jenn did, the human body as the interface.

We may end up dividing ourselves up along the materials lines or how the interactions take place or if we’re working environment, we’re working with objects, large scale installations versus devices. I think there are possibly hundreds of possibilities out there for what that emerging practice is going to be and I can only liken it to the beginning of the internet age which of course I was lucky coming out of college at the time and there were no information architects, coders, interaction designers, all these lovely term that we use today dividing ourselves up into categories, none of those existed. It was just “oh, here’s Mosaic, what do I do with this?” So we are at a similar inflection point now and it’s even more exciting because of just the computing power and the sensor power and all these emerging technologies that we get to play with and determine where we’re going. Jenn, what are you thinking the design firm might look like?

Jenn:
I definitely agree that it’s going to be very much interdisciplinary whether that’s people coming out of college with new skills who have maybe gone to a combination of an engineering design program or designers and engineers working in ways that they hadn’t before that’s already happening. But I also see a rise and a need for the data science skills because every single thing that we’re creating today, we are going to be connecting it somehow to something and it’s going to be collecting data and so now when you’re making a product that never before collected any data, it’s now going to be collecting data and that’s a consideration too.

Jon F:
Yes, you bring up a really good point there Jenn and it actually leads well into my next question which is, right now, for better or for worse, you can have a designer who is that “unicorn” or the person who can do a lot of different things and generate a product at the end of it. So if we’re having this holistic view of the whole product and wanting to use our experience to be a good one, from the interface, to the form, to the materials not just think about each of these elements independently. When we’re talking about the future or product design and for the education and the ways that we get to that, there is almost too much to know, so I know this is a big question to ask but, as we’re moving into these very complex areas, what does that say for the future product design and the education system and just how we bring the industry along because it’s a challenge that we are struggling now just on the digital side I can’t imagine once we introduce data science, genomics, robotics, whatever else it is, I am not sure what that says for design education, Jon do you want take a swing at that one?

Jon B:
Sure, I think design education is always tough. It’s hard to teach creativity. But I think you can teach a little bit about constraint and that’s one thing that I hear from people in like manufacturing about things that they want to designers to understand. What does it entail at the low level, at the engineering level when a designer calls for this kind of material in this kind of shape. I think a little bit of maybe that’s something you would do in kind of apprenticeship model or a hands-on training model. I think there’s a little bit of promise in the way that a lot of this is moving toward a modular approach and a lot of people are working on translation layers that make it easy to go from familiar design tools to less familiar engineering tools.

One of my favorite examples is this firm called Bot and Dolly, which will be at Solid by the way, it does industrial robots for cinematography and one of their key products is this Maya plug-in that translates movements from software that a lot of the designers are familiar with into movements programmed into big industrial robotic arms that have cameras and lights and things mounted on them. That’s a very powerful idea about how we can translate between disciplines. I think technology will solve some of these problems, an interdisciplinary outlook, interdisciplinary view will solve others.

Jon F:
Erik what’s your take on this?

Erik:
Yes Jon, I love that idea of these translation layers or sort of these meta-products that makes this movement of data or intent from one domain to another capable. I think that dove tails well into what I see needing to happen which is stronger emphasis on soft skills because if we’re involving so many of these things I think it’s going to necessitate collaboration between individuals, between disciplines even more so than we see today. There needs to be an emphasis on how do we develop individual soft skills and how do we create for the organizational structures to forward and facilitate communication and collaboration in a more effective way.

Jon F:
Yes I would agree with that Erik. Jenn what do you think?

Jenn:
Great answers from both, absolutely but I also think that maybe this falls under the soft skills area too but the UX is going to be a huge consideration going forward and then any product or service or anything that’s being created is going to have to be, the use is going to have to be taken into consideration way earlier on and production but I think that we’ve seen so far.

Jon F:
Yes I would agree with that as well Jenn. My last question in the afternoon is another sort of large one for us to tangle with and that’s, so the design industry is at this point where we have tremendous technological possibilities. However, we’re still at the point where we’re seeing possibilities and not necessarily products. We’re increasing the complexity of our world by introducing all this stuff that people, who knows whether we need it or not. As we’re really looking to bridge the gap between the physical world and the digital world what is it that the design industry needs to do to understand these new possibilities without creating, for lack of a better word, just junk that we don’t need. Erik let’s start with you.

Erik:
Yes. We’ll see. I may answer this in a roundabout way. I think one of the things that we’re seeing, maybe this is what you’re alluding to, we’re seeing a lot of what I call are experiments in this space which is good I think it’s fine and that’s natural evolution, people have to play around with this stuff but I think a lot of these experiments are being sort of, framed or packaged as end consumer products and sort of an end state or a vision of the future. I think that that’s misguided. I think that that’s going to give the general public a misunderstanding of where the possibility for all of this is going. So I’d like to see us as an industry recognizing callout when these things are experiments and when these things are end visions of the future and also the distinction between when we are playing at a level of fashion, and when we playing at a level of infrastructure because I think the requirements of these are very different and the outcomes of those are very different. I think I’d like us as an industry be more truthful with ourselves and identify when we’re playing in those different spaces communicate that to the general public.

Jon F:
Yes, I wonder if the general public would buy things that were called experiments though. I remember, I told you this story before Erik, when I bought the Rio Mp3 player, which is definitely an experiment way before the iPod. I thought that was a wonderful Mp3 player, little did I know that the iPod would trump it by like 100X. So it was indeed like the beta, the early adopter product there but I have no idea of knowing that at the time. And if you’d told me, “Hey, just wait two years and you can get this iPod that holds like multiple gigabytes of your songs,” maybe I would have waited on that. That is something that the design industry or the product industry may or may not have some difficulty being truthful about just because of the nature of these things. Jon what are you thinking on this topic?

Jon B:
I think this area presents some really great opportunities to reach into what Tim O’Reilly always calls ‘stuff that matters’. There are a lot of problems, a lot of challenges that we can take on as engineers, as designer, as entrepreneurs that haven’t yet been touched by software or they can’t be touched by software alone, need some contact with the physical world. This is the great opportunity to really make the world a better place by improving energy efficiency and safety and access to infrastructure. I think everyone in the hardware, software community now has the opportunity to work on that stuff. I’d say the way to avoid just creating a lot of junk that this worthless is to start by asking some big difficult question and go from there.

Jon F:
That’s a good way for it I think. Jenn the final word from you.

Jenn:
Yes, I got to agree with Jon that ‘work on stuff that matters’ really should be a guiding principle in any of the work that we do. Another thing, Erik might have touched on this a little bit, but as we expand our forays into context of where design and interactive design. I think it is also important designing an end-product maybe think about designing for the ecosystem and where and how this might develop and how your product might be melded into something different by another designer later or fit into a different system that doesn’t exist yet, that kind of thing.

Jon F:
Yes that’s a great final word Jenn. Thank you, Jenn and Jon and Erik for joining me today on Five Questions. We look forward to having you back again very soon.

Jenn:
Thank you very much.

Jon B:
It’s been a pleasure. Thanks guys.

Jenn:
Thank you guys.

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