dConstruct 2011

This post was written 13 years ago.
Sat, 03 Sep 2011

This was my second dConstruct after last year's, and expectations were high. Have they been met? Ultimately yes, but not so much till after lunch, with the three final talks being especially brilliant in my view. This is not to say the morning talks weren't good though, and I particularly enjoyed Kelly Goto and Craig Mod - although the latter left me a bit puzzled as well!

Anyway, here is a summary of the talks:

Emotional Design for the World of Objects

"We live in interesting times. Everything changes". This was a kind of thread running through Don Norman's talk. And in saying that, I guess he was well aware that it's nothing new. But what exactly are the challenges at the moment? This was Don's take:

  • Lack of standards due to many different devices and operating systems, as well as different ways of interacting with them
  • Google and others. Again, not exactly news, but probably worth emphasizing it. "What is Google's business model? You are the product, and the advertisers are the customers." And: "They just want your name. Are you happy to be their product?"
  • Difficulties of focusing. We can not focus on one device anymore. We cannot just develop for desktop, or mobile. We have to think in systems.
  • Experience is not the main thing, it's the memory of the experience that we should think of creating

An interesting observation was the evolution of the ways we interact with programs - although can he be sure it is really going this way? "We started with the command line, then we got the graphical user interface. Now we are moving to gestures. The command line is more efficient. But you have to remember a lot. GUI slower, but easy to understand. The gestures will have to be memorized again. We have come full circle."

Generally he stated, more physical interaction is coming back, although there is a lack of standards. Little of the facts that he related were new to me (including the "inverse" scrolling on Lion OS, although I am not a Mac user), and still I felt that on quite a few occasions I gained a new insight, or remembered one. This is especially true for the "you are the product" statement. I think it is something I'm just often in denial of, and I am probably not alone in that.

Beyond usability - Mapping emotion to experience

Kelly Goto started by asking the audience whether it was the actual phone people felt attached to, or the experience the phone provided. "Who has kept a phone that doesn't work anymore? Has it got memories attached?" 

One of the most emotional moments of the conference for me was, when she related the story of how her daughters each broke a leg at the same time (they were being carried down the stairs by a friend; when he tripped he fell backwards and slammed his elbows into their legs). This was followed by a little video of the two girls walking around happily with each a leg in plaster ("It all ended well"). The whole experience changed the way Kelly was thinking about how someone interacts with devices that are used by medics to support them. Having had to wait 40 minutes to be seen at the emergency department she felt very strongly about making the interaction as swift as possible.

She also observed how by looking at your PC, phone or tablet you kind of "devolve" from the upright human being, to being hunched over your screen. It also becomes difficult to interact with the world around you. How can we "evolve back" ? We have focused on the human-machine interaction. Maybe it is time to think how machines interact with us.

Interestingly the notion of seeing the world around you was picked up in the last talk as well.

How can we evolve to become upright again and look at the world around us?

Kelly quoted another example from her family life. A babysitter had been round for the first time, so Kelly stayed around for a while. The girl was for most of the time totally engrossed with her phone, and kept sending texts or checking facebook/Twitter. "How do I tell her in a nice way? I try to keep the things seperate. When I am with my kids, I don't look at the phone or iPad."

Much of the research she does is involved with looking at the context and the moods in which people use digital devices. How can the experience be made more pleasurable? A company asked how to create "addiction". But addiction can not created by will (also, is that really a good target?), rather it is important to look at rituals. routines that people have, and see that using a service can become part of that.

There are a lot of more interesting points and on the Ubelly site you can read more about the talk and some slides.

Letting go

The slides for Bryan and Stephanie Rieger's talk have been published in the meantime, and I really think they do speak for themselves, so I will just refer to them.

I felt similar about this talk as the Don Norman one. The single facts were not really new or surprising. But it was still inspiring in terms of highlighting the scale of the change that the evolution of technology has brought and continues to bring.

What is the shape of the future book

Craig Mod's presentation consisted part of a talk, part of reading a literary text from his Kindle. He had obviously written the text himself, something I only realised much after the conference. He had made references to Antonio Tabucchi and Italo Calvino at the beginning of the talk, so I had thought it might be by one of those two authors.

But let's start at the beginning.

There were a lot of valid points in the first half of the talk, and it was also quite funny. My favourite was the "knowledge nipple", a concept of how a student's knowledge grows, originally applied to writing a PhD, but which according to Craig, occured in the same way when working as a designer at a startup. 

For this alone it was worth hearing this talk.

I also liked how he talked about the importance of travelling for himself, and how you sometimes got a clearer look for the things you left behind when you are far away from them.

He went on to talk about three important challenges when making digital books

1. Tame unfiltered data
2. Create quiet data (as an example: The Kindle produces "quiet data", unlike the iPad where the distraction of Twitter or Angry birds is always too near)
3. Corral data

The story Craig then read out was an "imagined history of the book". A myth about a gigantic object, that to lift out of the sand took generations of citizens that had to be specifically trained. Once it was finally excavated it fell over and killed some of the people. It was dispersed into myriads of small pieces, smaller versions of itself, but the information contained in them could then not be read anymore (very unreliable digested digested read from my memory)

The reading was accomponied by changing graphics that were mirroring what was happening in the story. I found the story poetic and intriguing, but I could not totally make sense of it, assuming it was meant to make sense. I would pretty much subscribe to this blogpost. And I will certainly listen to the podcast when it is available.

The conclusion: "The book is no longer a package. It is information services. We are now trying to excavate the myth."

Oh god, it's full of stars

Frank Chimero talked about the differences between analogue and digital means of collecting information: A physical stack of objects (analogue) versus the "phantom pile" (digital). There are so many services on the web that let you collect information. Delicious, Tumblr, Flickr, InstaPaper, Readability, iTunes etc. "And I can fav, star, like and +1 things!" You create an array of "multiple stars at varying distances", some collected earlier than others, some more and some less important.

19th Century Gentlemen kept a "commonplace book" where they collected information, which according to Chimero was like "ye olde Tumblr blog". There was an element of serendipity in it, when you were looking to retrieve some information, you would come past other pages that you might end up reading. This is not the case anymore, when you can retrieve something immediately by searching for it. (I find the web hugely serendipitous I have to say, but that is perhaps in a different context.)

Chimero talked about the various challenges in dealing with the invisible digital phantom pile. Sorting it, dealing with shifting things to the future to consume them later (InstaPaper, Readability), using different media.

He finished by pointing to the Biblion project and had the wish he could do something like this with his collection of "stars".

Storytelling, play and code

Dan Hon talked about how people tell stories with different technical means. There was the "hard way" when the web was mostly DIY, and there are tools like Twitter, or heelo (now defunct) where people can set up fake counts very easily, but can have a massive impacts. I will point at the slides for this talk again, as they give you all the examples that were mentioned.

The Transformers

Kars Alfrink said he had originally wanted to talk about the repurposing of buildings, but then "this happened" and he pointed to a slide that showed a scene from the London riots. He was now going to talk about divided cities. Some of them divided very visibly, some by invisible lines.

He started by talking about a town on the Dutch-Belgian border. In Holland it is called Baarle Nassau, and in Belgium Baarle Hertog, and you have Belgian enclaves in the Dutch parts and vice versa, with white lines running on the floor to mark the many borders. Often seperations can happen without physical borders. There is a novel The City & the City by China Miéville about two cities that occupy the same space. But in each city the residents are taught from childhood on to ignore the citizens of the other city which is called "unseeing". Seperation happens without real physical borders.

When you have a divided society you can have situations that remind you of The City & the City. Kars talked about an incident in Hackney where about 30 black kids had been running scared from two hooded figures on bikes, while a white couple was sitting in a cafe sipping whine, unperturbed by what was going on. When this seperation is driven to extremes, it leads to riots. Kars quoted one of the rioters. "You wouldn't be talking to be now if we didn't riot, would you". You have to "hack into the attention economy" to be noticed.

In the 60s, there was a group in Holland called the "Provos" that staged non-violent protests just to provoke the authorithies. In one case for example they were carrying a banner with nothing on it. But they were still arrested.

Protests and riots are nothing new. What is new, is the facility to organise them through social media. The riots are a "Flash crash of civil society". It is not the fault of social media, of course. We should be looking at using social media in more positive ways. How can we make society more resilient? Perhaps by upsetting conventions, rules. What the riots showed was that people lived in different cities.

Games could help. There is a game for the Nintendo DS called Animal Crossing which can be seen as critique of consumerist society. The player is faced with settling into a town and buying a house, but having to take up a mortgage and make new debts if they want to furnish their house, buy new shiny products.

Kars next showed a slide that had the word Gamification crossed out. Gamification focuses on rewards, but by doing so, it neglects the fact that doing good things can be beneficial in itself. A better approach is to focus on the rules of the game.

Games can counteract the filter bubble, the tendency to seek out like-minded indiviuals. They can embed different perspectives in rules (they can also do the opposite and create a monoculture). There are some interesting urban games doing this (there is Visible Cities for example). But the problem with urban games is that they don't scale. You have to organise an event, and it takes effort to organise them.

Rules can be made up by the participants, Barcamps are a great example of self-governance. There is a lack of a central authority. Another good example is bookcrossing. There is also an interesting game called Nomic. A move consists simply of creating a new rule. Then the players have to vote on whether it will be accepted.

In western culture, it is almost as if we are playing massive parallel games of Nomic. We have much liberty in choosing how to live, We live by self-selected individual rules. Nomic together with social software could be used to create shared rulespaces.

I think it is very interesting to think of this purpose of games. But I wonder how this could be put into practice. In any case, this talk, which was for me the most impressive one of the event, made me look at games in a different way.

Pocket Scale

Matthew Sheret came on stage with a sonic screwdriver in his hand which turned out to be a laser remote control, that the London Hackspace founder Jonty Waring had built for him. "I think we are time travellers", he asserted. And Doctor Who turned up many times in this talk.

I would not give it much credit if I tried to decribe it. You have to see it (or hear it) to get the most of it. It was very entertaining and had many good thoughts about the meaning of pocket-sized gadgets and how hacking can personalize an item.

Sheret wished for "intimate, meaningful objects that humanis networks, making timetravel a bit more fun".

Reality is Plenty

Kevin Slavin's talk was another highlight for me, and a great talk to conclude the conference.

He challenged notions of reality and how much we believe those to be linked to a single sense, vision. He comes to the conclusion that we don't really need an extra layer transposed on our vision ("keep the naked eye naked").

He started off with a video from 5 years ago showing a boy playing a game with an augmented reality layer on his phone.

After that he set out to do an "American-style interrogation of reality". He related the story of a technician in the US army during the second world war ("only half true, and I don't even know which half is true"). Norman was an operator working in the navy who had to transpose images from a small radar to a big screen upside-down and backwards. He had to do this very quickly, so that the army could act on the targets picked up by the radar efficiently. To train for this, Norman was sent to a town where everything (for examples the newspapers and signs) was written upside-down and backwards. Norman said it took three weeks till he was able to convert those signs in a snap.

Taking this as an example, where reality is altered in a certain way and changes perception, Kevin then contrasted this with what we understand these days by "augmented reality". The term was only coined 20 years ago by Tom Caudell who helped aircraft workers to fix cables by overlaying their vision with the paths along which the cables had to be fixed.

Slavin quoted the books Rules of play on the "immersive fallacy". We might think the more real something looks the more real it feels, but that is not necessarily the case. It is much more important how something behaves. What matters is not perfection, but expression. "It doesn't matter what you look like, but what you do". In 1996, the Tamagotchi game succeeded so well in immersing children in the reality of caring for a pet, that it was banned in some schools in Hawaii. And it outdid in numbers any 3D games that were coming out at the same time.

The uncanny valley is the point between barely real and completely real, we feel uncomfortable with a robot that has some human traits.

Adding a visual layer might not be the best means to achieve an enhanced experience of realty: "As we aspire to build lenses that will render the world in front of us, we are actually at the fronteer of this uncanny valley. The uncanny valley will finally have real-world geography. Our cities which we've been browsing since they were built, will become searchable. But by transposing secrets and facts on the human eye, these facts might actually become further apart."

Another point is that for pilots it can be helpful if marks are drawn onto the screen, because they only have to look forward. But when this was tried with car screens it turned out that this was actually not helpful. A driver needs to perceive what is around him as well. By focusing on a small point on a screen his reality actually diminishes instead of being augmented.

Instead of changing what we see, it might be better to change how we see.


This was again a very inspiring dConstruct. It is a long way to go to Brighton just for one day (and the journey home was a bit of an adventure, but amusing in hindsight), but I have a feeling I will go there again next year. So maybe see you there in 2012!


Places where to find more about the talks:

Eva-Lotta Lamm's sketches
Good blog posts with pics, written on the day by Adam Tinworth 
Lanyrd dconstruct coverage

This post was written 13 years ago, which in internet time is really, really old. This means that what is written above, and the links contained within, may now be obsolete, inaccurate or wildly out of context, so please bear that in mind :)