Exploring connected things with BERG
The London-based design consultancy BERG have produced some very interesting work and their idea that Products are People Too is particularly intriguing since we had been tinkering with the concept of a Social Web of Things. When we stumbled over BERG's brilliant work it was striking how many of their ideas overlapped and added to our own. The people at BERG felt likewise and during the last months we have worked together exploring the near-future of the "Internet of Things".
There have been many visions of an Internet of Things presented. We wanted to examine the small practical and poetical moments of how our networked and somewhat 'smart' products could behave in our daily lives, and we in theirs. During our work with the Social Web of Things-concept we had piled up a backlog of unfinished ideas and concept-embryos which we wanted to explore further, so we brought our idea-backlog to BERG which they matched and enriched with their own ideas. We produced a number of ideas and concepts and we are excited to be able to share some of those with you.
Our previous work in this area that was very much focused on understanding the users' perception of interrelations within complex networks. The Social Web of Things concept was one attempt to solve some of the problems we had encountered during our research. Now we approached some of the same issues from different angles. Remember when we still tuned in to long-wave and medium-wave radio stations, watched analog broadcasted TV and used land line telephones, we knew where the telephone rang in the other end when we called somebody. We knew where the radio broadcasts came from since the receiver had the transmission sites printed on the tuner, and the television test image (there was a test image!) included the name of the TV-mast, which was often the same as place where it was located.
One area we explored together with BERG was related to making the Network legible by altering the behaviours and design of the networked objects and environments. The world's wireless digital nervous systems works so well today and is so seamless that it is to a large degree invisible and to it's users. We have distanced ourselves from these immaterial infrastructures which we surround ourselves with and depend so heavily on, and they have become less comprehensible than before.
In the 'old' days (really just a few years ago), being in one end of a signal that connected two known geographical places gave us a kind of "network-proprioception", a hunch of the contours, existence, position and flows of the network. In the early days of the Internet people were fascinated by the fact that the modems called a local phone number, but could anyway access websites all over the globe. For a while it was exciting to be aware that you browsed a server in Tokyo, San Francisco, Helsinki or Melbourne. Not anymore. Today nobody cares where the Youtube-video they embedded in their blog actually is hosted, or where the "Like" that they just clicked is sent and stored. Today the network is liberated from the geography, which give us fantastic, almost magical possibilities. But magic is diffuse by nature and people seem to relate differently to things they can somehow define.
Before we could be pretty confident that when we tuned our radios to "Hilversum", the transmission we received came from Hilversum in the Netherlands. As a comparison, when pointing the browser to www.hilversum.nl, the signal jumps via many different and unpredictable network nodes, before surprisingly ending up somewhere outside Leeds in the United Kingdom. Who knew.
What if we imagined the behaviour of the network itself to appear more visible and readable? Seamlessness is generally thought of as something positive, but it makes the network more invisible and harder to grasp, so we played with the idea that we deliberately chose to show some of the 'seams' (if there are any left?), and try to make them appealing. The concept of the router that displays the devices and data flows is playing with the joys of tuning and the tangibility of geography. The idea is that we could we regain some of the network-proprioception from the past and strengthen the users' general network self-confidence and add something to the user experience of the network itself. It is interesting that so many mobile phone conversations begin with the question "where are you?". Geography seems to matter, and perhaps asking people where they are is a way to get a sense of the edges of the network?
We also explored a more domestic version of some of the same elements in a this visualisation of data packets murmuring over the walls. Both of the sketches are exploring visualisations of data and flows to make the network itself more legible.
This was a first glimpse of the first phase of this collaboration. We hope to be able to show more soon. Thanks to BERG for being a great research partner and for openly sharing ideas and thoughts with us. Make sure to have a look over at BERG's blog and read about their impressions from the project project.