Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Enchanted Objects : A Review

A few months ago, I imagined that the time might be ripe to read a book on the Internet of Things. So with a degree of satisfaction I just put down an interesting book called Enchanted Objects : Design, Human Desire and the Internet of Things. 

David Rose, the author, is a product of  MIT's Media Lab, long known for its research initiatives into innovative human machine interfaces, advanced sensor networks and sociable robots. He is an expert in tangible human interfaces which holds the promise that everyday objects that we take for granted can be designed with an engaging interface to digital information in a way that emotionally resonates with users. 

Shown on the cover of the book is an image that stroked my imagination, the possibility that an ordinary umbrella can be "enchanted" to where it would be able to weigh the chances of a rain and notify its user whether it was needed that day.

Rose starts the book with what he calls his recurring nightmare where years into the future, all our interactions with mundane objects are digitized and reduced into a thin black slab of glass. He then explores the user experience challenges in wearable and prosthetic "computers" and animistic robots that fail to captivate and are dull to interact with.

Moving in a counter trajectory to a screen based world where tablets and clunky wearable heads up displays clutter our world, Rose unravels his career fascination with the most natural, desirable, even invisible ways for human to interact with tools and objects without having to learn a new set of skills. His answer is essentially to take ordinary objects and augment them with a link to the internet and a bit of computation power to enrich the experience of using that object.

The book is littered with numerous imaginative ideas and prototypes which tugs at the heart of the human interface problem. Rose describes an alternative world that range from Ambient orbs, Energy Joules, Live Scribe pens to glowing medicine bottle caps , smart wallets and modular cloud connected cars with over-the-air updating. Designers might like the in-depth instruction that follows in how to design enchanted objects that targets fundamental human desires - six of them - omniscience, telepathy, safe keeping, immortality, teleportation and expression. The rest of the book is a guide on designing enchantment for human senses, human centered homes and human centered cities. 

To be the devil's advocate, I can't but wonder how much true progress will mankind make in a world full of enchantment? Will the promise deliver in solving our most fundamental problems? In a world where a billion people are starving and climate related changes threaten to havoc our peace of mind, the problem of designing better human interfaces don't show up high on the list of our priorities.

However, pressing questions make me sympathetic to some of Rose's appeals, particularly those crying for a dose of reality to the inevitability of smart phones.

For instance, just the other day, I discovered an app for a digital stethoscope on my friend's iPhone. The price of computation might be peanuts these days but it sounded a bit ludicrous to me that you could rely on a phone to reliably monitor your heart beat among the multiplicity of other tasks and background processes the iPhone could have been running at that time. 

The larger question is whether the technology in phones can displace our tools, purpose built artifacts that are designed to do one task and do it right. And who monitors the standards by which these apps are created? How are users informed about for example, the accuracy, precision and reproducibility about readings taken by digital apps? What are the credentials of these app makers? And who watches what users do with these apps? 

The book may have its faults but without visions like those of Rose, we miss asking and debating those vital questions that could potentially enhance and enliven our interactions with the world around us. There is hope that our tools can be made better in such a way that the tool itself can change our behavior to achieve greater goals.

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