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Blog posts from November 2011

Announcing a little something

You should definitely check out our new product: Announcing Little Printer and BERG Cloud.

Available 2012.

More about Little Printer here.

I am over the moon!

Week 337

It’s week 337, which is a permutable prime. I imagine they’re pretty rare.

For our All Hands this week there were only 6 of us in the studio space, intended for 6. We could breathe. Jack, Timo and Denise were out filming our freshly returned Barry prototype. Nick was almost certainly with them, but he was on holiday so he ought not to have been. Joe and James were quarantined. Jones returned from a NESTA breakfast event where he was sparring with Usman Haque about the Internet of Things.

The remainder of the week was more of the same for the majority above, including the quarantine in Joe’s case. We’ve had just about enough of studio fever round here. Otherwise Alice, James and Alex are presently fighting the wall of todos in the run up to exciting things. Matthew is writing a talk and going over contracts.

There’s a new project with Uinta kicking off, while work on the existing briefs continues apace and new studio space preparations are high on the agenda. We’re excited about moving, but we’ve only got 5 days to have the space turned from an art gallery into a functioning studio with a meeting room and workshop which as yet, don’t exist. Plenty of site visits, photos, details and logistics filling up fair chunk of Simon, Kari and myself’s week.

Also taking up most of the week, from my perspective, was some longer-than-anticipated dental treatment. And due to these week notes being from my perspective, they reflect my week at BERG: quite short. Sorry.

That’s all from me. Back to the studio.

“Sometimes the stories are the science…”

This is a blog post about a type of work we find successful – namely, video prototyping – and why we think it’s valuable.

We’ve made quite a few films in the last couple of years, that have had some success – in how they describe products, technologies and contexts of their use in public.

We’re lucky enough to work with Timo Arnall, as creative director, who guides all of our film output and is central to the way that we’ve been able to use the moving image as part of our design process – more of which later.

Film is a great way to show things that have behaviour in them – and the software, services and systems that literally animate them.

Embedded in Time.

A skilled film-maker can get across the nature of that behaviour in a split-second with film – which would take thousands of words or ultra-clear infographics.

They can do this along with the bonuses of embedding humour, emotional-resonance, context and a hundred other tacit things about the product.

Film is also an easy way to show things that don’t exist yet, or can’t exist yet – and make claims about them.

We’ve all seen videos by corporations and large design companies that are glossy and exciting illustrations of the new future products they’ll almost certainly never make.

Some are dire, some are intriguing-but-flawed, some are awesome-but-unbelievable.

This is fine!

More than fine!


Ultimately they are communications – of brand and ambition – rather than legal promises.

Some of these communications though – have enormous purchase on our dreams and ambitions for years afterwards – for better, or for worse.

I’m thinking particularly of the Apple ‘Knowledge Navigator’ film of 1987, important in some of the invention it foreshadowed, even while some of the notions in it are now a little laughable.It was John Sculley‘s vision – not Jobs – and was quite controversial at the time.

Nevertheless, designers, technologists and businesses have pursued those ideas with greater and lesser success due to the hold that film had over the collective psyche of the technology industry for, say, 20 years.

Hugh Dubberly was working at Apple at the time points out some of the influences the film in a piece on his studio’s website:

“We began with as much research as we could do in a few days. We talked with Aaron Marcus and Paul Saffo. Stewart Brand’s book on the “Media Lab” was also a source—as well as earlier visits to the Architecture Machine Group. We also read William Gibson’s “Neuromancer” and Verber Vinge’s “True Names”.

Of course the company that authored it, Apple, I’d argue built it eventually to some extent with the iPhone.

The gravity well of the knowledge navigator was enormous, and fittingly, Apple punched out of it first with real product.

As Andy Baio and Jason Kottke has pointed out – their predicted time horizon for some of the concepts realised in the iPhone 4S and particularly Siri was uncannily accurate.

This ‘communications gravity’ – the sheer weight of the ‘microfuture’ portrayed shifts the discussion, shifts culture and it’s invention just a little bit toward it.

They are what Webb calls (after Victor Papanek, I believe) ‘normative’ – they illustrate something we want to build toward.

They are also commercial acts – perhaps with altruistic or collegiate motives woven in – but commercial all the same.

They illustrate a desirable microfuture wherein Brand-X’s product or services are central.

Dubberly, in his piece about Knowledge Navigator points out the importance of this – the influence the film had on the corporate imagination of the company, and of competitors:

“What is surprising is that the piece took on a life of its own. It spawned half a dozen or more sequels within Apple, and several other companies made similar pieces. These pieces were marketing materials. They supported the sale of computers by suggesting that a company making them has a plan for the future.

One effect of the video was engendering a discussion (both inside Apple and outside) about what computers should be like. On another level, the videos became a sort of management tool.

They suggested that Apple had a vision of the future, and they prompted a popular internal myth that the company was “inventing the future.”

Very recently, we’ve seen the rise of two other sub-genres of concept video.

It’s very early days for both, but both are remarkable for the ‘communications gravity’ they generate for very different commercial endeavours.

First of all – what Bruce Sterling has called the ‘vernacular video’ – often of products in use – created for startups and small companies.

Adam Lisagor has been hailed as the leader in this genre by Fast Company – and his short films for the like of Flipboard, Square and Jawbone have in many ways been defining of the vernacular in that space. They are short, and understated – and very clear about the central benefit of the product or service. Perfect for the sharing and re-sharing. Timo’s written about Adam’s work previously on his personal blog, and I’d agree with him when he says “He’s good at surfacing the joy and pleasure in some of the smallest interactions”. They serve as extraordinarily elegant pitches for products and services that are ‘real’ i.e. has usually already been made.

Secondly – the short videos that illustrate the product intentions of people on Kickstarter, often called ‘campaign videos’ – outlining a prototype or a feasibility investigation into making a product at small scale.

They are often very personal and emotive, but mix in somewhat of a documentary approach to making and construction around prototypes. They serve as invitations to support a journey.

So far, so what?

Video is a well-known way of communicating new or future products & services that reaches the mainstream – and we are seeing a boom in the amount of great short communication about design, invention and making with ever-higher production value as the tools of creation fall in cost, and the techniques of using them become available to small, nimble groups of creators.

Well, we think that’s just half of the potential of using video.

There is a great deal of potential in using video as a medium for design itself – not just communicating what’s been designed, or imagined.

Jack and Timo drew this for me a couple of months ago when we were discussing an upcoming project.

Public Prototyping = New Grammars

We were talking about the overlap between invention and storytelling that occurs when we make films, and how and why that seems to happen.

On the right is the ‘communications gravity’ that I’ve already talked about above – but the left-hand circle of the Venn is ‘product invention’.

During a project like Mag+ we used video prototyping throughout – in order to find what was believable, what seemed valuable, and how it might normalise into a mainstream product of worth.

In the initial workshopping stages we made very quick sketches with cut-up magazines, pasted together and filmed with an iPhone – but then played back on an iPhone to understand the quality of the layout and interaction on a small screen.

From these early animatics to discuss with our client at Bonnier R&D, we moved to the video prototype of the chosen route.

There were many iterations of the ‘material quality’ of the interface – we call it the ‘rulespace’ – the physics of the interactions, the responsiveness of the media – tuned in the animation and video until we had something that felt right – and that could communicate it’s ‘rightness’ in film.

You find what is literally self-evident.

You are faking everything except this ‘rulespace’ – it’s a block of wood, with green paper on it. But as we’ve written before, that gets you to intuitions about use and gesture – what will make you tired, what will feel awkward in public places, how it sits on the breakfast table.

Finding the rulespace is the thing that is the real work – and that is product invention through making a simulation.

Why we make models

We are making a model of how a product is, to the degree that we can in video. We subject it to as much rigour as we can in terms of the material and technological capabilities we think can be built.

It must not be magic, or else it won’t feel real.

I guess I’m saying sufficiently-advanced technology should be distinguishable from magic.

Some of that is about context – we try and illustrate a “universe-next-door” where the new product is the only novelty. Where there is still tea, and the traffic is still miserable.

This increases belief in our possible microfuture to be sure – but it also serves a purpose in our process of design and invention.

The context itself is a rulespace – that the surface and behaviour of the product must believably fit into for it to be successful. It becomes part of the material you explore. There are phenomena you discover that present obstacles and opportunities.

That leads me to the final, overlapping area of the Venn diagram above – “New Grammar”

This summer I read “The Nature Of Technology: What it is and how it evolves” by W. Brian Arthur. I picked it up after reading Dan Saffer’s review of it, so many thanks to him for turning me on to it.

In it, Arthur frames the realtionship between ‘natural phenomena’ as discovered and understood by science, and how technology is that which ‘programs phenomena to our use’.

“That a technology relies on some effect is general. A technology is always based on some phenomenon or truism of nature that can be exploited and used to a purpose. I say “always” for the simple reason that a technology that exploited nothing could achieve nothing.”

“Phenomena are the indispensable source from which all technologies arise. All technologies, no matter how simple or sophisticated, are dressed-up versions of the use of some effect—or more usually, of several effects.”

“Phenomena rarely can be used in raw form. They may have to be coaxed and tuned to operate satisfactorily, and they may work only in a narrow range of conditions. So the right combination of supporting means to set them up for the purpose intended must be found.”

“A technology is a phenomenon captured and put to use. Or more accurately I should say it is a collection of phenomena captured and put to use. I use the word “captured” here, but many other words would do as well. I could say the phenomenon is harnessed, seized, secured, used, employed, taken advantage of, or exploited for some purpose. To my mind though, “captured and put to use” states what I mean the best.”

“…technology is more than a mere means. It is a programming of phenomena for a purpose. A technology is an orchestration of phenomena to our use.”

This leads me to another use of film we find valuable – as documentary evidence and experimental probe. What Schulze calls ‘science on science’.

The work that he and Timo did on RFID exploring it’s ‘material’ qualities through film is a good example of this I think.

It’s almost a nature documentary in a way, pointing and poking at a phenomena in order to capture new (often visual) language to understand it.

Back to W.Brian Arthur:

“…phenomena used in technology now work at a scale and a range that casual observation and common sense have no access to.”

I think this is what Jack and Timo are trying to address with work such as ‘Immaterials’, and reffering to in the centre of their Venn – creating new grammar is an important part of both design investigation, and communication. It is an act of synthesis that can happen within and be expressed through the film-making process.

Arthur’s book goes on to underline the importance of such activities in invention:

“A new device or method is put together from the available components—the available vocabulary—of a domain. In this sense a domain forms a language; and a new technological artifact constructed from components of the domain is an utterance in the domain’s language. This makes technology as a whole a collection of several languages, because each new artifact may draw from several domains. And it means that the key activity in technology—engineering design—is a form of composition. It is expression within a language (or several).”

He goes on to quote Paul Klee on the the importance of increasing the grammar we have access to:

“…even adepts can never fully keep up with all the principles of combination in their domain. One result of this heavy investment in a domain is that a designer rarely puts a technology together from considerations of all domains available. The artist adapts himself, Paul Klee said, to the contents of his paintbox. “The painter… does not fit the paints to the world. He fits himself to the paint.” As in art, so in technology. Designers construct from the domains they know.”

I think one of the biggest rewards of this sort of work is finding new grammar from other domains. Or what Arthur calls the importance of ‘redomaining’ in invention.

“The reason… redomainings are powerful is not just that they provide a wholly new and more efficient way to carry out a purpose. They allow new possibilities.”

“A change in domain is the main way in which technology progresses.”

“…a single practitioner’s new projects typically contain little that is novel. But many different designers acting in parallel produce novel solutions: in the concepts used to achieve particular purposes; in the choice of domains; in component combinations; in materials, architectures, and manufacturing techniques. All these cumulate to push an existing technology and its domain forward.”

“At the creative heart of invention lies appropriation, some sort of mental borrowing that comes in the form of a half-conscious suggestion.”

“…associates a problem with a solution by reaching into his store of functionalities and imagining what will happen when certain ones are combined.”

“Invention at its core is mental association.”

It’s not necessarily an end product we are after – that comes through more thinking through making. And it also comes from a collegiate conversation using new grammars that work unearths.

But to get a new language, a map, even if it’s just a pirate map, just a confident sketch in an emerging territory – is invaluable in order to provoke the mental association Arthur refers to.

We’re going to continue to experiment with video as a medium for research, design and communication.

Recent efforts like ‘Clocks for Robots‘ are us trying to find something like a sketch, where we start a conversation about new grammar through video…

About a decade ago – I saw Oliver Sacks speak at the Rockerfeller Institute in NYC, talk about his work.

A phrase from his address has always stuck with me since. He said of what he did – his studies and then the writing of books aimed at popular understanding of his studies that ‘…sometimes the stories are the science’.

Sometimes our film work is the design work.

Again this is a commercial act, and we are a commercial design studio.

But it’s also something that we hope unpacks the near-future – or at least the near-microfutures – into a public where we can all talk about them.

Friday Links

A bumper crop of videos this week.

Denise pointed to this from Wired UK, 2D patterns assembling into 3D objects once exposed to light.

You’ve probably all seen this ISS timelapse by now. But I can’t stop watching it.

Chairman Bruce‘s Venn diagram on product invention merits study.

In the ‘things you can spend money on dept.’ Matt W pointed to this New Aesthetic backpack, and Alex pointed out that our friend Brendan Dawes has got his new Beep store up and running which is awesome.

From our ‘robot-readable world dept’, Kari shared this advert she saw for a children’s toy video camera with face tracking A.R. capabilities

In the ‘giant nutty land-art dept’ Andy shared this sculpture in Germany

Alex shared this ‘superhydrophobic’ nanotech

Reminds me of ‘The Man in The White Suit’

Robofold! Robot-Readable-haircuts for footballers!! Rhianna vomiting ribbons!!!

Finally, Kari won ‘subject line of the week’ prize with her email to the list entitled ‘Big Brass Nuts’… Which turned out to be this marvellous film about hand-casting a short run of beautiful metal things rather than a meditation on Schulze’s sales techniques…

Have a great weekend!

Week 336

336 is apparently an untouchable number, and the number of dimples in an American standard golf ball.

It’s cold in London, and people are ill.

Kari and Simon are observing Wildfire Protocol, and working from home – both helping run the studio and all our projects smoothly through magical electronic tendrils.

Jack and Timo are in Copenhagen for the beginning of the week, teaching with our friends at CIID.

This week is dominated by work on Barry, for nearly everybody.

It’s building up to something special.

Also, excitingly – we’re very close to agreeing terms on a new space. We love our studio, and we’ve spent almost two years here but it’s too small for all of us now. Getting a new room to work for next year is going to be brilliant. Andy and Matt W are going to do a final look at our possible new place this afternoon.

A studio is not just a place to sit staring at a screen (well, it mostly is) but somewhere that should be a force-multiplier.

Space is the machine!

So, what’s in the machine this week?

Webb’s got nearly all his attention on Barry, talking with potential partners, thinking about next steps around what’s possible, making sure all aspects of the offer are working in unison. Aside from that he’s working on our move, and with me on a bit of sales.

Andy’s mostly on Barry, doing a bit of prodding and progressing on some modelmaking work we’re doing, buying more plastic sample to do more material exploration, and helping with some preparations for our move. In between all of that, he’s having his wisdom teeth out, poor lamb.

Alex is working with Alice and James on developing the web service component for Barry to the designs he’s been working on. He’s also doing a bit of Uinta UI work with me.

Joe’s working hard on Uinta with Nick, and cranking on some video-prototyping for Chaco.

Denise is in Kaizen-focus on the visual and service design for Barry. She’s also doing a bit of partner presentation work with Webb, and will be working with Timo on the filming on the project at the end of the week.

Nick’s doing some data-compression research, nudging Uinta’s foundations along by examining how some new experimental software works on some new experimental hardware, and doing a hell of a lot of work on Barry to get ready for it’s next stage – along with James and Alice.

I’m working on our projects for Uinta – doing some speculative interface sketches ready for more filming with Timo and Jack next week. I’m helping out with Barry – as it’s really all-hands on deck around that project right now – mainly helping Webb with the partner discussions. I’ve also got some interesting meetings to look forward to at the end of the week.

And finally, tonight, I get to see a personal hero of mine, James Burke speak.

Some upcoming talks in November and December

Like buses it seems – none for ages, then loads all at once.

I’ll be speaking at a breakfast at NESTA discussing the “Internet Of Things” with the estimable Mr. Haque on November 22nd.

On the 25th November, there’s an incredible sounding 2-day event staged by Intelligence Squared called the IF Conference which I’ll be giving a sort talk at. The line-up is diverse and strong – reminding me of the late lamented Etech…

After that I’ll be on a panel with various extremely clever folk discussing “Robot Futures” on December 1st at the Science Museum.

Finally (you’ll be glad to hear) I’ll be at the “In Progress” conference run by It’s Nice That, alongside Tom Uglow, Mills from UsTwo, James Bridle and other fine reprobates on December 9th in the Barbican.

All the events above that I’m participating in are in London, but Matt W., I think will be further afield soon, but I’ll let him tell you about that…

Tomorrow’s World

We staged a small event for Internet Week Europe – a night of drinks and ten minute talks. We were totally suprised when it sold out in under ten minutes!

Tomorrow's World - Alice Taylor

Thanks to our great speakers: Alice Taylor, James Bridle, Karsten Schmidt, Fiona Romeo, Jamais Cascio, Russell Davies and Warren Ellis.

Tomorrow's World - Russell Davies

At the end of the night, I asked the packed little room at The Gopher Hole whether we should do it again – and the result was a resounding “yes” – so stay tuned in the new year!

Tomorrow's World - Fiona Romeo

Thanks to Beatrice, Kevin and all at The Gopher Hole, Penny Shaw at Internet Week Europe and most importantly everyone who came along on the night!

Week 335

This week there’s an enormous amount of things going on. There’s a Hopeful Monsters workshop being run in the US, software and hardware development for both project Uinta and project Chaco, and filmmaking on location for both of those projects. Models and UX prototypes are coming back from modelmakers and contractors. On top of that, internal projects Weminuche and Barringer are ramping up towards a demonstrator and filmable prototypes. There’s also a little sold-out BERG event tomorrow, and a conference on Thursday. Very exciting.

Friday links

Hello! It’s Friday, we’ve just done our usual Friday demos. I’m sitting at my desk with a can of polish lager and Matt Jones is playing Huey Lewis and the News. It’s probably time for a roundup of the things floating around the studio mailing list on week 334.

Nick sent around this link of an old experiment looking into male / female walking patterns.

We liked this site advertising a workspace in NYC. Simple but very nice.

Nick also sent around this research project from Microsoft, working on scaling up 8-bit pixel art for modern displays. I don’t think Denise agreed with it.

Denise sent around lumibots – “small, autonomous robots that react to light”.

Jones sent around a nice post on Chevrolet speedometer design over the ages (I’m a sucker for anything design – car related):

And then Andy sent around this picture of the dashboard of a Citroen CX dashboard, with cylinders that rotate to display dashboard info. I’m a massive fan of Citroen’s design from this era. Brilliant. Look at the steering wheel!

Finally, Matt Webb sent around some an email entitled ‘First words’, so I’ll end with the first words spoken on the telephone, from Bell to Watson in 1876:

“Mr. Watson — come here — I want to see you.”

I’ll leave you with a studio staple track as it’s been a slightly music themed weeknotes. I think we have BERG alumni Matt Brown to thank originally for introducing us to this. Have a good weekend.

Week 334

Usual weeknotes with a little surprise at the end – I thought I’d give a quick rundown of the kind of music we listen to in a normal week in the office. Enjoy.

Matt Webb is deep in business development – working on a new office space, lots of presentations for the end of the week, and lots of future work possibilities. Always exciting to hear what’s coming up.

Matt Jones is on sales this week, as well as preparing a few workshops, and working on various aspects of Uinta.

Jack and Timo are preparing for some upcoming film work, as well as working with Joe and Durrell on some Chaco related business which is looking lovely. They’re lodged over in our new (temporary) overflow space.

Kari’s doing her usual sterling job of keeping the office (and us) in check.

Myself, Denise, James, Alice, Nick and Andy are all deep in various aspects of Weminuche – design, manufacturing, code, you name it. The progress in the last few weeks has been phenomenal, I wish I could say more about it. Soon!

Joseph Malia is doing baffling things Uinta related, on top of some Chaco work for Jack.

Alice is working on the final bits of Dimensions on top of Weminuche.

Simon is producing what I’m expecting to be the world’s largest gantt chart, and generally keeping his very capable eyes on most of our work to make sure it runs swimmingly.

Finally, here’s a few samples of what we’ve been listening to in the office this week:

Oh, and I very nearly forgot Storm Queen’s ‘It goes on’, which I think is only coming out on a limited 12″.
Until next time…



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