In this second instalment in our series of articles on technology and design supported by computing brand Intel, we look at how our online lives and physical environments will become increasingly entwined.
Above: A.Way by J. Mayer H envisages all buildings, people and objects cloaked in layers of digital data, with the car used as an access point (see our earlier story)
The virtual and physical worlds are colliding. Information technology is creeping into everyday objects like cars, fridges and even park benches, turning them into devices and apps that monitor our behavior and communicate with each other.
Above: TweetingSeat by Chris McNicholl photographs itself and its surroundings then uploads the pictures to Twitter
As this happens, designers and architects are having to think beyond the physical form and harness the power of social networks and cloud computing to give their creations the edge over competitors’ designs.
Above: the Smart Manager Fridge by LG monitors what food you've bought, when it will spoil and what you can cook with it
“Everyone can make a fridge,” says James Wallman, editor of consumer insight network LS:N Global. “What do you do to make a fridge that's a little bit better?” The answer from electronics brand LG is to make a fridge that tells you when food is nearing expiry, orders groceries as they run out and finds recipes that tell you how to cook what you’ve got.
Above: Samsung's Smart Window lets you use the whole suface as a touch-screen and even has digital 'blinds' to cut out sunlight
“The door of that fridge will be effectively a big screen, so you won't have to look inside to know what's in there - the screen will tell you and it will also tell you what you should do with that food,” says Wallman, adding that touch-sensitive screens will become increasingly integral to consumer products – and even buildings. He points to the Smart Window that electronics giant Samsung unveiled earlier this year, allowing the windows of a building to become large transparent touch-screens (yes, just like in the film Minority Report).
Designers have long been experimenting with adding digital communication to inanimate objects, creating such curiosities as Chris McNicholl’s TweetingSeat bench that uploads photos of itself and its surroundings, Samuel Wilkinson’s terrarium that lets you look after your houseplants remotely via an iPad or Rollout’s wallpaper covered in QR codes that have to be read through a smartphone. Now, following on from these pioneering novelties, influential international brands are seriously investing in digitally enabled products that bring genuine benefits to consumers.
Above: Biome by Samuel Wilkinson, a remote system that cares for houseplants in a sealed environment
“We’ve seen lots of playful ideas but we’re asking what is the service in them, what kind of value can they add?” says Christian Gärtner, curator of the Audi Urban Future Initiative, a think-tank for the German car brand. “Audi is looking at how they can be really useful in the real world.”
Above: QRious Wallpaper by Canadian brand Rollout is printed with QR codes that link to specific websites when viewed through a smartphone camera
Gärtner curated an exhibition at the last Venice Architecture Biennale that asked six architects to explore possibilities for urban mobility in 2030. Many of the architects proposed ways of augmenting the driving experience with online networks.
Danish firm BIG envisaged driverless vehicles that could communicate their projected routes to each other then change course automatically to prevent collisions and ease congestion, while German architect J. Mayer H proposed a sea of data connecting drivers which could, for example, alert them when friends are nearby then compare dining preferences and suggest places they could meet for lunch.
Above: Driverless City by Bjarke Ingels Group, where cars, bicycles and pedestrians automatically communicate with each other and the road to chart routes, preventing collisions and easing congestion
"The social media world will become even more a part of our physical world,” says Mayer H. “In the future the car is not only a driving device but it's also a communication device.”
Mayer H’s proposal for Audi, called A.WAY, goes beyond simply facilitating communication between drivers. It is a vision of a digitally augmented urban environment in which citizens, objects such as cars and buildings are surrounded by invisible clouds of data. The intersections of these clouds trigger “splashes” of relevant information. “The facade is something that can show mood information or render something visible that's normally invisible, like wind speeds or ozone levels,” says Mayer H.
In this digitised cityscape, the car becomes a tool for viewing and navigating this data. “Information will come to us rather than us going to look for it,” adds Mayer H. “It will increasingly be embedded in the world around us.”
Above: A.WAY concept by J. Mayer H
Audi now has a team of designers and engineers, called Audi Connect, working on making such fantasies a reality. “Audi knows that people will ask for these kind of services more and more - they are always on and the car has to be always on and ready to connect them,” says Gärtner.
Intel themselves have responded to this demand by announcing the $100 million Intel Capital Connected Car Fund in February, to be invested over the next four to five years in companies working on hardware, software and services that aim to enable seamless connectivity between vehicles and any other online device.
Above: the Little Printer by London studio BERG aggregates information from selected data streams like Twitter updates, to-do lists and content you subscribe to, then prints it out on a till-roll like a miniature, customised newspaper
"This is really a transition that has happened over the past three years as the expectation of consumers has shifted to much more interactivity with embedded devices, and all of these embedded devices have become connected," says Intel vice president Ton Steenman, pointing to applications like self-checkouts at supermarkets as helping to normalise computers in all areas of life.
"People want experiences they're used to getting at home or on their mobile devices," agrees Intel Labs researcher Joe Pitarresi. "They want the entertainment and access to online services they're used to getting outside the car to extend to what we call the fourth screen, which is inside the car."
Above: UP by Jawbone was designed to monitor your health and give advice to make you healthier. See our earlier story
Digitally enabled products are also being used to accumulate information about daily activities like sleeping, eating and exercising, allowing them to analyse the results and make suggestions for improvements. In February, for example, sports brand Nike launched training shoes that can monitor your workout and transmit data including calories and reps straight to your phone for analysis by an app, then publish your scores via social media channels.
Above: Nike+ Training shoes monitor your activity then transmit that data to your phone for analysis
This is part of a broader strategy by Nike to integrate technology into sportswear. Called Nike +, the initiative also includes a watch that measures biometric activity and a new product, the Nike FuelBand, a wristband with a built-in accelerometer that allows you to set personal sporting goals. At the end of each day the user can sync data wirelessly to their smart phone to review their performance.
“Nike first started to integrate digital services into products about five years ago,” says Nike global creative director Andy Walker. “It allows athletes to measure their performances and improve on them”.
In February, the brand opened its first NikeFuel Station – a hybrid of a traditional sportswear shop and a digital physiotherapist, where runners can have their data analysed by experts who can recommend personalised training regimes and appropriate equipment.
“The computer doesn't need to be the hub any more,” confirms Wallman. “It's a question of where those mini computers or mini sensors can talk to each other: the cloud is the hub." Any physical object can theoretically collect and store data and share it with any other object: our possessions are becoming nodes.
Above: the Delen Memory Table by David Franklin automatically photographs your work process and uploads the pictures to Facebook
"We are now looking for these kinds of nodes, using devices to access digital data in the cloud,” concludes Audi’s Gärtner. “In the future we will have more of these nodes in the real world; they will be real mobile devices, including mobile phones but increasingly other objects like cars will be mobile devices too."
|What would it mean for you to be surrounded by smart products that are always connected? Let us know your thoughts in the comments section below, on Facebook or by tweeting with #IntelAlwaysOn.|
The first article in this series took us inside university workshops and studios to investigate how digital technology is radically transforming design education and ask whether emerging technology a help or hindrance to design education. Read it here and have your say »
We've gathered together a selection of reactions from Twitter below:
@missalixandra: Playful? Inventive? Cutting Edge? Or, just creepy and absurd: Technology and design http://www.dezeen.com/2012/04/25/technology-and-design-our-digitallyenabled-future/ #IntelAlwaysOn
@kate_amtico_eur: Technology truly is amazing... fascinating article http://www.dezeen.com/2012/04/25/technology-and-design-our-digitallyenabled-future/ #IntelAlwaysOn
@l_a_blue: Really inspiring article about the worlds of design and technology colliding http://www.dezeen.com/2012/04/25/technology-and-design-our-digitallyenabled-future/ #future #IntelAlwaysOn