NOT.SO.REAL

Core Concept

Not.So.Real is a project that investigates the way we perceive both boundaries and connections between the digital and real world; between our digital and real identity. These two realities interact with each other through the sensors we wear and the devices we own. Imagine a world in which the sensors we put on our body no longer augmented our experience with the surroundings. Imagine instead, that they gave a body to a digital identity. Following this dystopian scenario, I designed a set of five sensors, related to the five basic human senses. The sensors are to be worn by one person, so that their digital identity counterpart can hear, see, taste, smell and touch. Humans are no longer central to their own experiences, but props and facilitators towards something else. These sensors, though, have to scream that they are different from any other wearable technology that is emerging these days. I therefore decided to make them pixelated. They are standardized rather than custom, they are recognizable rather than hidden.

Instead of showing the objects themselves, I will exhibit a set of 5 pictures.

to-hear to-see to-smell to-taste to-touch

Related Work

Books:

Madeline Schwartzman, See Yourself Sensing

Movies:

La Jetée

Her

Black Mirror

Ex-machina

Design Process

My design process has been quite restless and has involved several iterations, which led me to change my mind from seeing digital and real as antithetic to more and more intertwined. During the first half, I focused on the concept of identity and the perception of self. During the second part, instead, I focused on how experience happens through our sensorial apparatus. In specific, I pinpointed four stages.

Scenario 1: What if we used the digital world, the way we do experience online in order to learn something new about ourselves? My focus was on the way we perceive differences in behaviors and ethical values. It resulted in the first idea “Digital Picture of Dorian Gray”.

Scenario 2: What if we could chose in between the digital and the real world? My interest was in understanding whether switching in between the two realities was an option to speculate on, especially I was thinking of using the digital world to eternalize real identities.

Scenario 3: What if the way we experience in the digital world has become so compelling that it becomes our preferred way of living? Feelings can now be coded and sent directly to the brain area which processes them, making so that digital experiences can finally trigger us in a physical way. It resulted in the idea “Documentary of the Life of Brian”

Scenario 4: What if digital identities become interested in particular physical experiences? This led me to the final concept definition.

In the end, I made the, must say, rather arbitrary decision of showing pictures instead of the artifact. I never took pictures before, and I thought I could take advantage of the expertise around me here at CMU to just do it. Arbitrary decisions should not be allowed in a proper design process, apologies for that.

Reflection

I should have focused on a more specific topic, as the amount of time available proved not to be enough for the massive topic of identity perception first and experience through senses later. I stumbled a lot during this project, I especially got lost within the huge amount of freedom that I was given in finding a proper context for my concept. What I got proven, again, is that building off existing knowledge and the work of others is less disappointing then when you think you made something new but it turns out not to be.

Step back to real sensations, a documentary

The discussion I would like to trigger is, indeed, about the way we perceive the virtual world, but the focus moved a bit from the concept of digital identity to the realm of sensations. What if living in the virtual world is the only way we now have to do experience? What if only digital experiences could trigger our body? In the same way that now digital experiences can trigger us from an emotional perspective (I can feel happy if I talk to my mum over a Skype call), in the world I envision that gets even further, with an actual physical response to digital stimuli. That happens because the functioning of the brain has eventually been fully understood, so we can digitally trigger our nerves, creating a specific sensation. I don’t know where we leave, but most likely is some sort of a box filled with liquid which keep us alive and asleep, completely immersed in our digital world which offers us all we need (I will try to avoid to explain this aspect in the final deliverable)

So, what would the final deliverable be?

I am thinking about and already getting help in movie making. I have in mind a short video-clip, maybe even a movie trailer, which just shows the story of a fictional Brian and his way of experiencing in 2050. Instead of showing how it would be to live in the digital world, I will focus on how it would be for him to be back on the real world. Brian gets sent back from the digital world scientists to his real body for shooting a documentary and he does perform a series of actions which clearly show his incapability in using his sensorial apparatus. He can not open his eyes, he struggles to stand up and walk, he can not taste an apple he bites, he can not feel pain when he pokes his hand. He can not do that, until when a digital sensation is generated from the researchers, who are constantly monitoring what he is doing, avoiding the fact that he could actually cause harm to himself due to his dull real senses.

I am imagining a whitish and rather quiet scenery, with mainly first perspective shots.

As props for the exhibition, I would need a screen and headphones.

The digital picture of Dorian Gray

In this last project I would like to focus on the relationship people have with the so-called digital world. How much are we aware of the “virtual-self” that we create day by day and how is our real life moral code projected onto the virtual world? The title obviously refers to the novel by Oscar Wilde, in which the portrait of Dorian represents the digital identity. How do we navigate the web? How do we treat people on online chats? Do we commit piracy online? These are the type of questions at the beginning of the work. What if there could be an object, either it be an individual device or a huge museum installation, which could make us more aware of our digital-self in a humorous yet reflective way. For now, I imagine a sort of picture cabinet, like the ones at the train station which make passport pictures. You enter, sit down, the machine recognizes you and goes through your browser history, social networks history and texts history too, maybe. The machine then prints out your portrait picture, which will be completely true to reality if your digital-self has the same integrity you have in real life. On the contrary, it will be distorted, aged (or any other visual effect), in case you have written nasty words on the blog of a politician, in case you have watched sexual content images, in case you have illegally downloaded the Beatles discography. My assumption is that looking at the distorted picture of yourself you might reflect on your attitude in a more profound way than just being told “Illegal downloading is as bad as robbing an ATM”.

portrait_of_dorian_gray_by_mercuralis

In the end, it is not about the artifact itself: indeed, I would like to learn more about people, and the artifact is a stronger means than just sending out a questionnaire.

If anyone wants to jump on the boat, I would like to work in pair!

A debated feeling

I definitively wish I was in Arizona in 2012, it must have been a lot of fun. As I already said many times on this blog, I consider the multidisciplinary approach to be much valuable and a warranty of democratic thinking towards the future. What I see in this work as a further added value is the thorough documentation and accessibility of the works produced.

However, if I then try to relate many of the work we saw so far with my interest for politics, I can not help believing that we run into too many descriptive and too few normative works. Why are not politicians involved in such workshop? Why are not the outcomes of such workshops material for legislators to bring to parliament? Sometimes we designer love too much our ideas and the fact that they are our “creatures” that we forget that we should involve also manufacturers, economists, legislators. The “creative” idea and concept phase should obviously be the starting point in designing for the future, but it is not an end in itself, especially if we want it to have a serious impact. Designing the future should result more into policy making, maybe? How about this slogan: More normative, less descriptive projects!

Making AI more human

Despite I had already watched Her a couple of times, the article published in Wired made me notice unnoticed aspects. On the social side, I think most of the audience would agree that technology does not play the central role in the movie; instead, human relationships and human-computer relationships do. Having said that, my piece of text will try to analyze three main lessons that an interaction designer (as I ambitiously like to call myself) can bring away from the movie and the article. I will use the “we” form.

.1 Minimize the interface

We design beautiful and elaborate interfaces, but that does not directly imply designing beautiful and aesthetically pleasing interactions. Sometimes interfaces are stuck on products and teach you unnatural and unintuitive actions, such as it happened when we first started to use the touch screen. Sweeping on a flat surface in order to move to another page does not belong to our physical-cognitive realm. In that sense, “Her” explained to us that an interaction with a machine can happen with what turns out to be a non-interface: the use of screens and tangible interfaces is minimized, and the use of human most accessible skills (earing, speaking, watching) are exploited to the maximum to obtain a smooth human-computer interaction which seems more natural than ever. Such a non-interface interaction can still be meaningful!

.2 Elegance

We are becoming more and more multitasking in our everyday life, but still that is regarded as rude in many situations. We should design for interfaces which allow more discrete and elegant interaction within public contexts. People do not look at each other when they are on the metro, the look at screens!

.3 System failure

“Her” also shows us how human it is for the OS to fail. We design machines which ideally perform efficiently and effectively, but when we want to make them more “human”, we might take into account that humans do not perform neither efficiently nor effectively. When towards the end of the movie Samantha does not immediately reply on Theodore’s call, she shows her human side, saying “Sorry I was busy with doing something else”. How human would your laptop be if after a full day of work would not turn on, showing on the screen “Dude, its late, I am tired, lets go to bed”? Would you as user accept that?

Visions of the Future

“Whether utopian or dystopian, these visions of the future shape our collective understanding of the relationship between science and progress and between people and technology”

P.Dourish and G.Bell

With these three readings I got to discover the importance of  communication means in doing speculation on futures. We saw a lot of exhibition pieces and performances so far, and it was refreshing to see what social studies have to say about the powerful media which movies/video clips are. I am now more convinced about the impact that such a medium could have. In fact, as opposed to niche exhibition and cultural performances, movies can go much more viral and reach a greater population. What I also appreciated is the fact that technology is the mainly addressed topic in these movies, but it sounds less important than the context. A well successful sci-fi movie on new technological scenarios will, if I got it correctly, require the director to be both a scientist and a sociologist. As Kirby points out when talking about the movie Treshold, the director has to go through three stages: first showing the necessity for a technology, then proving the normalcy of the technology and eventually show that the technical advance is indeed possible, what he calls viability. The result is a diegetic prototype which is a narration. A movie about the life of a 20-years old guy living with an artificial arm would be much more informative to the general population than reading the same story on a book or reading a scientific paper about the technology involved. Diegetic prototypes in movies make technical progress and technology understanding accessible to most, and this is quite powerful.

Here comes my concern. Both in movies about moon landing or the Microsoft “Future Vision on Productivity”, the grey-scary aspect is the equation possibility=preferability which is, in many cases, made by big power behind the scene. Technological determinism represent the only reading guide which is given to the audience: the movie does not only want to show that landing on the Moon is possible within few years, but it also makes the statement that it is what YOU want. Opposite to the movies cited in the papers, the series Black Mirror, for instance,  exploits the same diegetic prototypes to ask the audience whether the possible technologies presented would eventually be preferable.

How can the audience be critical?

To wrap it up, on the plus side movies and video-clips are a great mean to reach many people lives and are able to give an overall clear picture of the implementation of a given technology in its social context. On the negative side, we might end up believing that it is great to pay taxes and get to the Moon before the Russians do it.