The New Ecology of Things: Slabs, Sofducts, and Bespoke Objects

Several major trends are emerging that affect interaction design. With the advent of post-PC devices like the iPad, cheap sensors and microcontrollers like the Arduino, and services like Kindle Wispersync, we’re in the middle of a shift towards ubiquitous computing, tangible interaction, and cloud services. Because of these trends, our field must consider the integration of the traditionally separate areas of screen and tangible interaction design.

Of particular significance is the shift away from the generic computation typified by the “personal computer,” which never really achieved the individuality or specificity implied by the term “personal.” In short, we’re experiencing the emergence of The New Ecology of Things, where a network of heterogeneous, smart objects and spaces are replacing our current design context.

The Past – The Personal Computer Has Made Us Soulless

There are signs that all is not well with our day-to-day work life. John Hockenberry’s 2008 review of photographer Michael Wolf’s The Transparent City contemplates the crushing homogeneity and conformity of modern work. Among Wolf’s beautiful images of life seen through Chicago’s skyscrapers, Hockenberry observes “12 random floors of eggshell white, computer screens on brown desks, and wall-hung bookshelves.”

The article goes on to discuss how the environment for “knowledge work” is unlike factories or workshops where the spaces are specifically suited to the activity of making things. The knowledge-working context has devolved to the point where “offices have become stacks of boxes for people who get paid to think out of them.” But I believe this is not only a problem of architecture and environmental design. Our daily activity has been squeezed into the narrow channel of interaction with the personal computer and its attendant posture, furniture, and detachment from the needs of the person. The digital tools we use have played a large role in creating this disembodied, deadening uniformity.

Chicago Office Buildings, Photo by Michael Wolf, The Transparent City, Aperture/MoCP; First Edition edition (November 1, 2008)

Similarly, Matthew B. Crawford has been driven out of the office and into his motorcycle repair shop as described in “Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry Into the Value of Work.” Crawford discusses how knowledge work has become vague and disconnected from the concrete, meaningful outcomes of manual labor. Again, I’d argue that it’s not only the kind of work, but also the manner in which the work is accomplished.

1973 Mototrans in his shop, Photo by Mattew B. Crawford,

This disconnection from the physical isn’t limited to paper-pushing knowledge workers. It afflicts architects, designers, recording engineers and others whom we think of as having “satisfying” jobs where things are made. As creative workers, we’ve seen our day-to-day work compressed from a productive, bodily-engaged studio environment down to the almost motionless “mouse-crouch” that plugs us into the virtual. Seduced by the power of the personal computer, we’ve morphed from active, engaged, social, interactive people to sedentary, soulless slugs, perched in front of our glowing screens.

The personal computer and the interactions designed for it create a homogenous and context free environment removing the meaningful and productive character of acting and thinking in the embodied, physical environment. This needs to change.

The Emergent – Slabs: A Step Towards Re-Engagement

Android, Monome, the iPad, and soon Sifteos represent a new form of computing device that I call the slab. Slabs are hand-held, generic platforms with a range of sizes and capabilities – touch screen, GPS, accelerometer, gyro, WiFi, speaker, mic, etc. that, in effect, turn into something new with each different application they run.

Sifteo Blocks Use Downloadable Apps,

Monome Configurable Music Controller,

Slabs are different from personal computers. First, because they have a smaller, simpler form factor and a direct, touch based interaction. Second, the device effectively becomes the app once it’s launched, and the separation between software, hardware and interaction dissolves. When you switch apps on a slab, you get a whole new device that engages you as a unified, tangible object. The app is the device. Third, slabs will be cheap enough to use multiple, networked devices simultaneously during an activity.

Adobe’s new Nav iPad app,

Adobe’s new Color Lava iPad app,

Finally, with slabs we can begin to disconnect from soulless trap of the (im)Personal Computer. We can re-engage with our environment and feel the physical consequences of our activity. Instead of being tied to a “workstation,” we move around the workspace, utilizing multiple slabs and their spatial relations to one another. We use specialized tools and work practices as slabs morph to the needs of each activity. We touch things again. Instead of losing ourselves in the virtual, we re-engage with people and things in the world. “Here, look” and “take this and work on it” become literal statements once again. Over time, we build a set of specialized tools appropriate to our practice (see the bespoke objects discussion below)

Hyun Ju Yang’s 2009 visualization from my Designer’s Affordances research project,

In addition to their embodied character, slabs excel at leveraging the affordances of computation and networks. Our digital work is no longer tied to a single workstation. The cloud enables our materials to manifest in different forms, on different devices, with activity-specific functionality.It’s the best of both worlds. A graphic designer could have a large, worktable slab for standing and working on layouts. Plus a lap sized slab to sit and edit an image in concentration. A narrow slab might sit on a table to keep track of a to-do list. And of course, the designer would use several 8 1/2″ x 11″ slabs at a client meeting to pass around the table for discussion.

The Emergent – Sofducts: A Challenge for Designers

The slab presents an interesting set of design challenges. Apps are screen-based software. Yet the app becomes more like a physical product once launched. This merging of app + slab leads to a hybrid I call the sofduct (software/product).

For example, GPS navigation systems have been sold in a box, physically shipped, with a warranty card and customer service phone number. Now, the sofduct version gives you the exact same functionality but is downloaded and runs on a slab as a piece of software. To the user, the end result looks and feels just like the traditional physical product. The sofduct is very disruptive in this way.

For one, whole business models are being destroyed by the sofduct. You can now buy the MotionX-GPS Drive app for $0.99, and get turn-by-turn navigation for $2.99 a month or $20/year. Moreover, in-app purchasing of add-ons and features creates a modular “product” model, where the sofduct is actually a range of product possibilities that can be selected and customized by the user. Can traditional GPS units and other physical products survive this kind of competition?

MotionX-GPS Drive App,

Screen designers need to re-frame practices understanding that a sofduct has to meet the expectations for a traditional product. Users will assume the high-finish aesthetics, ergonomics, tangibility, and conceptual integrity of physical product design. Likewise, simplicity and clarity of interaction are critical. The perception of “product-ness” will also influence user expectations for reliability and customer service – we want our products to simply work. Making this happen is traditionally the realm of product designers.

On the other side, product designers entering the sofduct realm need to understand the traditions and expectations for screens and software. The integration of dynamic media content is different from the static character of physical products, requiring a deep understanding of interaction, typography, content strategy, information architecture and visual design that’s the domain of screen-based interaction designers.

Apple GarageBand App,

Plus, users want constant and rapid upgrades. Product design tries to get it perfect before launch, since there’s no turning back after you send the device to manufacturing. But with a sofduct, it may be better to put out a really good, but simpler version on the market quickly, and use a software model for product planning where upgrades are rolled out on a strategic schedule.

Sofducts are a new category for design, merging the focus, situated character, and physicality of an object with the malleability and media richness of software. This requires an integration of odd-couple disciplines – software practices with product design, screen design with haptics, interaction design with materials aesthetics, and content strategy with physical interactions. Further, new business and design opportunities emerge, and require a complete rethinking of design strategy and implementation.

The Future – Bespoke Objects

While slabs and sofducts are an emerging design landscape today, interaction designers need to prepare for further disruptions and repositioning of their skills in the future. Soon, trends in hardware and software will open up the possibility for low-cost, custom-built systems for individuals and specific applications. In the same way that one can have a bespoke suit tailored to a perfect fit and style, it may soon become possible to have a bespoke object with the hardware, software and interaction design tailored to the perfect fit and style for you and your intended use.

By this, I don’t mean the custom manufacturing typified by NIKEiD and others in recent years. What I do mean something literally like the local tailor, working out of a shop around the corner, who develops a personal and meaningful relationship with their customer and their needs. The production of bespoke objects on the local level is becoming possible because of rapid advances in desktop 3D printing, system-on-a-board components, open-source software and hardware, open source 3D parts libraries like Thingiverse, and the DIY culture growing around these trends.

MakerBot Thing-O-Matic $1,300 3D Printer,

Bespoke Prosthetics,

With cheap, off-the-shelf computational components (e.g. the just announced Android Open Accessory Kit that works with Arduino) and the ability to print 3D parts, the digital tailor will soon be able to hang their sign out and make individual or short-run custom objects full of ubicomp goodness. People will want these because a generic, mass-produced device won’t always be suited to their particular circumstance or activity. Moreover, having a custom designed ensemble of complementary, networked objects, specifically crafted to your way of working will be the hallmark of the enthusiast and professional alike. We’ll want to assemble our own unique ecologies of things, from watch-sized objects, through tablets, to interactive environments.

What does this mean for the interaction designer and design firms? In the same way sofducts are already disrupting design practices and business models, the decentralized, local model of bespoke objects will create additional changes for design.

The Bespoke Tailor, (I got this image off of a blog, unatributed)

I see a few opportunities. First, digital tailors are designers. Just because many components are off-the-shelf, bespoke objects will naturally have custom forms, behaviors and systems designed for a specific person or task. That’s the job of an interaction designer. So in the future, interaction designers may be the small business owners around the corner, selling both locally in person and internationally online.

Second, the off-the-shelf interactions, interfaces, systems-on-a-board, 3D models, etc. – i.e. the ecosystem around the bespoke object – all need design, and a market will develop for organizations to design and produce the virtual and physical components that enable the digital tailor to operate.

The New Ecology of Things

Twenty years ago, Mark Weiser published his seminal paper on ubiquitous computing in Scientific American, “The Computer in the 21st Century”. This remarkably prescient work predicts much of what’s becoming a reality today (and perhaps Apple’s iPad name is a tip-of-the-hat to Weiser’s taxonomy of tabs, pads, and boards). Yet this vision, along with Microsoft’s 2019 video have a homogeneity and sense of virtuality that does not capture the tangible, gritty, idiosyncratic, embodied, productive, and mythic character I hope for in The New Ecology of Things.

I think one of the most interesting challenges for interaction designers is to look beyond the screen, and imagine how we can help make digital life and work more engaged. We need to learn to design groups of computationally enhanced objects with interaction expressed not only through screens, but also through texture, kinetic behavior, haptics, sound, animism, light, and spatial location. This means bridging and synthesizing screen and tangible interactions in an evolved form of left+right brain, analytic+aesthetic, virtual+tactile Interaction Design.

Philip van Allen

7 comments on this article

  1. Rachel Hinman on

    Thank you for the interesting and visionary article, Phillip. The idea of designers evolving into haute couturiers of device ecosystems is a super interesting notion.

  2. Erik Johnson on

    This is a great read, Phillip – thanks. Very thought-provoking.

  3. Pingback: Lu chez Zengo : semaine du 16 mai — Les Bonnes Fréquentations

  4. Pingback: haptix go! | lgliui

  5. Brilliant. A total implosion of software and hardware, that perfect mixture of custom and off the shelf. True iteration of unique objects, moving past even the reproducibility from models. This is the kind of techno-utopianism I like!

  6. mclaren on

    Great stuff. The next step? Crowdsource the design. Then use genetic algorithms to mix up the crowdsourced designs & optimize the result.

  7. Pingback: Philip van Allen » Slabs, Sofducts and Bespoke Objects