It had been 4 years since my last trip to the Brighton Dome for dConstruct when I returned this year accompanied by Dan. This wasn’t an absence of choice—I’ve always thoroughly enjoyed this conference with its eclectic mix of speakers and subjects.
It’s always been a great meal for the brain, encouraging the attendees to take from it knowledge and inspiration that they may not necessarily have expected to. With a theme of “communicating with machines” it soon became clear that the speakers had placed the emphasis in that sentence very differently to each other. We heard about using technology to communicate with each other, how to communicate with technology, how technology could communicate with us and even how technology could communicate with itself. Here are some of my highlights.
Amber Case – We’re all Cyborgs
I’d seen Amber wandering around during registration. She wasn’t hard to miss as she was the one with Google Glass on. I wonder how long it’ll be before this won’t be such a jarring sight, much in the same way that at some point it stopped looking strange when someone held up a mobile phone to take a photo. But wearing Google Glass was nowhere near such an odd sight as the early examples of wearable technology Amber spoke about in her presentation. Check out Steve Mann and friends—this wasn’t even acceptable in the 80s!
So wearable augmented technology is clearly nothing new. It’s only now we are just starting to be able to use it without looking like a complete fool in public.
Amber referred to how this kind of technology needs to be “calm”, here when you need it and not when you don’t. As Amber says, “the best technology is invisible” and while this is true in the majority of cases I still think that certain applications need to be more overt than invisible—particularly devices that record video. Privacy was a point touched on in more detail by Dan Williams later on in the day.
Luke W – Infinite Inputs
We’re still in the early days of advanced handheld computing devices with their various input types. Designing and developing for the web is still mostly dictated by desktop machines with their (by comparison) limited input types of mouse and keyboard. But what will happen when these advanced devices become more ubiquitous, outnumbering the mouse and keyboard-driven devices. Luke went on to list the enormous amounts of input methods we have at our disposal already to help people interface with our applications. Multitouch, accelerometers, magnetometers, thermometers, GPS, etc.
Luke surmised that soon “everything will be an input”, showing us some demos of how any object can be used to sense how someone is interacting with it. Ordinary tables, plants, door handles, all of these objects can be made to report if and how someone is touching them.
Nicole Sullivan – Don’t Feed the Trolls
A very timely and useful presentation from Nicole on how to handle the less than friendly side of social media—the trolls. Unfortunately, in this industry, this problem is almost exclusively suffered by female designers and developers (and perpetuated by males). It’s great to hear this issue discussed openly at an event such as this, as well as offering advice for victims of trolling on how to handle them when they do rear their heads. Fortunately the majority of these types of cases (when female developers abilities are called into question solely based on their gender) are less threatening than the ones reported in the mainstream media. For example, the attacks on Caroline Criado-Perez reached such hideous levels that I don’t know how I would handle them if I was the subject of such abuse.
The full effect of trolling needs to be spoken about if it’s ever to be eradicated and it’s great that people like Nicole are happy to discuss it at an event such as dConstruct.
Simone Rebaudengo – The Secret Lives of Connected Products
We’re completely used to the idea of communicating with our machines—telling our microwave how long to heat our meals, instructing our DVRs to record every episode of X Factor, and so on. We’re also totally comfortable having our products talk to us—our alarm clocks wake us from sleep and our cars tell us when they need petrol.
But what about inter-machine communication? Simone did the most obvious experiment to investigate product relationships—he created networked toasters. Toasters that were easily attributed human qualities by their owners. Needy competitive toasters. These devices would keep track of how often they were used, but more unusually, they would tell each other this information. The ones that were being neglected by their owners would manifest their disappointment by waggling their eject slider. It’s amazing how amusing it is to attribute this most human of emotions to such a mundane object. However there is a sad side to all this. If the toaster continues to feel un-loved it requests to be sent to a new owner.
However silly this seems it raises an interesting concept—peer pressure between products—which I’m sure could have useful applications. But for now, jealous toasting devices seems like a good enough one. So much so, Dan has applied for one to be sent to the Dusted studio. I’m sure we can keep it happy.
Sarah Angliss – Tech and the Uncanny
Sarah gave us a fascinating history of how we have used sound through the ages. I was particularly interested in the use of infrasonic sound, sound that you can feel rather than hear. A great reminder that the experience is as important as the more obvious design and aesthetics.
Sarah then went on to give a performance in which she plays her theramin accompanied by a clockwork ventriloquist’s dummy’s head. It was as haunting as it sounds.
Dan Williams – Unexpected Item in the Bagging Area
Dan gave an amusing look at the surveillance culture that is endemic of modern society, especially in the UK. He introduced us to the Manifesto for CCTV Filmmakers, a document that describes how you can go about making movies without any video equipment whatsoever. Instead you rely on CCTV networks and the Freedom of Information Act.
Dan also told the story of the Renew bins. These flashy new items of street furniture are installed all around the City of London and show useful information on their integrated screens such as Tube statuses, weather, news, and advertisements. However, what wasn’t immediately clear was they were also tracking passers-by using their mobile phone’s unique wifi signature. The purpose of this tracking was to deliver targeted ads, but this covert activity didn’t go down well with some people and, after some complaining (and a bit of mild vandalising, the City of London stopped the tracking. Dan pointed out that it wouldn’t be as bad if they were good at their primary role, but they weren’t even great bins!
Adam Buxton – Is my Laptop Ruining my Life
And so, to round off the day we had the pleasure of Adam Buxton talking to us about his relationship with his laptop. If you ever want to see a room of geeks brought to tears (the good kind), just stick Dr Buckles in front of them. It was the extremely amusing icing on the beautifully baked tech cake that was dConstruct 2013.
Sketch image credit: evalottchen