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Blog posts from January 2012

Friday links

Friday links for week 346, a few things that have been zipping around our mailing list for the last 5 days. I’m keeping it image heavy this week.

Jones sent around the slightly terrifying ‘math blind AI that teaches itself basic number sense’. He also pointed out this article from Don Norman on AI:

The point is that AI is now powerful enough to be commonplace. Not only does it assist in such mundane tasks as restaurant selection, but it helps out in critical safety situations such as military applications, the control of industrial equipment, and driving.

Timo found this discussion on the ethnography of robots.

After reading the Steve Jobs biography this came as no shock, but this post on Apple’s attention to detail with packaging is a good read, and something we’re going to be obsessing over as a studio in the coming months.

There was also a lot of discussion over Ubuntu’s new interface, dismissing menu bars for a launcher style UI:

In our continuing quest to invent a reason to buy a quadcopter to fly around the beams of our new office ceiling all day, Alice sent around this clip of an autonomous flying tracking robot:

We’ve had a lot of incredible pictures of the solar storm flying around. This is a good one:

This is another good one:

And on a similar note this timelapse video of the Yosemite National Park is worth a watch.

Yosemite HD from Project Yosemite on Vimeo.

Via Tom Armitage we found this knitted waveform scarf of the amen break by Andrew Salomone:

Which also revealed the ‘Recursive Cosby Jumper‘:

And the ‘Bitmap balaclava‘:

That’s it for this week. Here’s a picture of a tiny smiling pig. Enjoy your weekends.

Week 346

A good plane based number this week. The DFS 346 was a German rocket powered swept wing aeroplane, completed and flown in the Soviet Union after World War II. The Alenia Aermacchi M-346 Master is a military transonic trainer aircraft, based on the Yak-130. I’ll pretend you all knew that anyway though.

Our fearless leader Matt Webb has returned from 3 weeks in the US, with considerable jetlag, and tales from CES. He’s been taking Little Printer on a whistlestop tour all over the country, so will be unpacking meetings this week when his head is back on UK time.

Simon’s doing his usual incredible balancing act between making sure our client work is running smoothly, keeping all aspects of Little Printer and BERG Cloud on track, and managing the last few bits of new office sorting out. He’s also sorting through job applications (there’s still time to apply if you’re interested, we’re closing applications this coming Friday the 27th). It’s Kari’s last full week in the studio before she heads off on maternity leave, so she’s training Helen up on the last handful of bits. We’ll miss her!

The majority of the office are still pressing ahead with all aspects of Little Printer and BERG Cloud. Andy and Jack are working on the hardware and the industrial design. I’ve been doing a bit of design work for the shell, and working on the sales and out of box experience for when we launch. Andy’s sitting at his new soldering desk with a load of new circuit boards. Alice did tell me what she was working on, but all I wrote down next to her name was ‘moving’. Based on what she’s shown us at Friday demos for the last couple of weeks though, it’s pretty mind boggling and very exciting. James is similarly working on different but again very exciting backend stuff for Little Printer, as well as working on the IA for the mobile website with Denise, who displayed an impressively vast Illustrator document on Friday covered in wireframes. She’s also manning the BERG Cloud CS desk with Simon and Kari. Nick and Phil are as always working on the real backbone of the entire system, with a lot of brief writing and organisation of meetings.

Joe is putting the final touches to his Uinta work which is looking and sounding brilliant. Both him and Jones were in the recording studio yesterday.

Jack is mostly on the industrial design and manufacturing of Little Printer, but is also having a few catchups with Webb and Jones, and working with Timo on the final stretch of a bit of Uinta work. Timo’s doing a little bit of filming, a little bit of editing, and is also talking at the Design of Understanding this Friday. Matt Jones is on some Uinta project work, a few sales meetings, and is getting his hair cut tomorrow.

That’s pretty much it for week 346, fuelled by the 1.125kg of Haribo we’ve consumed as an office in under 2 days, and with the soundtrack of Pinch’s Fabriclive 61 mix, which I entirely recommend.

Friday Links

We started this week, as all weeks should be started. With a video of a creature, on YouTube. Not a kitten, but a corvid. A crow.

There’s something completely delightful about this. As I watched it slide down the roof I found myself thinking – ‘Ha! nice, but lucky’. As I watched the rest of the video, I thought it was less luck, and more that the crow was having fun.

There’s some discussion about it here. I thought this was interesting:

‘… when humans look at a crow doing something human-like, they have a very hard time not seeing themselves as the crow.”

It reminds me of Hello Little Fella, where people see human faces in — as Wikipedia puts it — ‘vague and random stimulus’. Turns out there’s a word for that, and it’s Pareidolia. There’s also a word for the loss of this ability, ‘Prosopagnosia’. It’s taking a huge amount of strength not to fall down a Wikipedia worm hole right now, but the links are there if you have more time. (Chuck Close, a painter of hyperrealistic portraits has prosopagnosia. Apperceptive prosopagnosia is particularly interesting.)

Anyway, to continue.

Alex shared a link to a beautiful 360 degree panorama from the Shard at dusk, and this periscope rifle. I hope the two are unrelated.

After some time out of the office, Matt Jones has been on a link-sharing roll this week. There’s an open source espresso machine (which came via Jennifer Magnolfi), and a piece entitled “The Future Isn’t What It Used To Be”, by BERG friend Jamais Cascio, discussing the problems of future technology prediction.

There was also this Sinclair advert from 1983, and a rather spectacular advert for a dishwasher — a question of which Matt asks: “Is this the best advert ever? Lady fighter pilots, jetpack robot transforming baby bjorn dishwashers and coffee…”

Nick sent us this link of a 3d printing machine that works with concrete. It’s beautiful to watch…

And Alex also shared this link of a record player that plays slices of wood…

YEARS from Bartholomäus Traubeck on Vimeo.

And that’s all for now. Early links this week – so enjoy the rest of the day, and have a great weekend.

Week 345

Week 345 is upon us, and progressing nicely. In number theory, ‘345’ is a sphenic number, but I would imagine you know that already. On to things you might not know; what’s going on in the studio.

We’re almost fully settled into the new space. There’s a bit more painting to be done, some insulation to be pumped into the roof and a large delivery of teabags on order. We’ve worked out most of the major issues – like where to go for lunch, but it has to be said, certain BERGians are missing the coffee hut. I’ve yet to see anyone come back with coffee and look happy about it.

Matthew is still in the USA, where he’s been since the beginning of the year, he should be back soon. Jack is not 100% well, and so has been in and out of the office, trying not to infect us all. When he’s not in quarantine he’s working on the physical aspects of Little Printer with Andy. This involves mechanics and graphics, a mix we’re rather enjoying.

James is back in the office for the first time this year. He’s working on some behind the scenes Little Printer tech with Alice. Nick and Phil are working on a bit of refactoring too, but both of them seem rather cheerful about it. Alex and I are also working on Little Printer – a mix of things from packaging ideas, to IA. I’m also trying to keep on top of the feedback we’ve been receiving (there’s been a lot of it, and people have been lovely, thank you).

Joe and Timo have both been working on two separate projects for Uinta.. The end is in sight for the work Joe has been doing – and it’s looking beautiful. It requires some voice over work from Jones, which should be entertaining. Timo is working on editing, directing and interviewing for the film he’s making. We saw some work in progress last week and it’s everything we were hoping for – magic included.

Kari has been helping to get Helen all settled in. She’s also been battling with studio and finance admin. Simon has been here there and every where, organising the last bits of the studio, getting the timesheets in for last year (no, pressure, Nick) and sorting through job applications.

And I think that’s it.

Your Friday links on Monday

Apologies for the late Friday links post! I had a rather epic Friday the 13th. Apparently there are two more of them in 2012 which is a lot for one year. (Damn these leap years that start on a Sunday!) I think I’ll spend those other two in bed. Or better yet, a cave. Anyway, to the good stuff…

Matt Jones sent us a link to this blog entry about the portrayal of Mars as a communist utopia in Russian popular culture. It’s worth having a look for the images if nothing else.

Also via Jones came a link to the new BMW Art Car designed by Jeff Koons which Jones described as “well new aesthetic“:

Joe sent us a link to this BBC News story about Sesame Street teaming up with Microsoft and using the Kinect to create “two-way television”.

Nick sent a link to this video of dynamic face remapping which is both fascinating and quite creepy:

Face Substitution from Kyle McDonald on Vimeo.

Simon sent us a link to PINOKY which looks like it might be fun to play with for all of about 15 minutes:

Finally, via our friend and former BERG colleague Tom Armitage we discovered Fingle, the iPad game based around the thrill of touching someone else’s fingers:

Fingle Gameplay Trailer from Game Oven Studios on Vimeo.

That’s it for this last week’s links! Enjoy your week!

Week 344

Factoid of the week: the year 344 was a leap year starting on a Sunday. As is 2012. How about that.

Week 344 in the BERG studio has a lot of to-ing and fro-ing. Joe rejoined the studio (back from the US trip with Jones & Webb) on Tuesday. Jones stayed in the US for a couple of extra days but has just arrived back in the studio, straight from the airport. What can I say, he is hardcore. Webb was at CES in Las Vegas yesterday (we can’t wait to get his report) and continues his US mini-tour in San Francisco today. James Darling is still on a tropical beach somewhere. Other BERG folk have been out to see GPs and osteos, track down packages, run various errands, etc. At the same time, we’ve had a number of visits from clients/partners and also have several contractors spending time in the studio this week. So it’s still felt like the busy, buzzing hub that it usually is.

Let me say a quick word about two people who have been mentioned in passing in previous weeknotes without much other explanation as to who they are. Phil Wright is a contractor who has been helping us out with the development of Little Printer since April of last year. He spends most days in the studio and has his own desk and everything, so although he remains on contract status, he feels like part of the regular BERG team. Helen Rogers joined us for two afternoons a week at the beginning of December to start training to take over for me as our Studio Manager when I go on maternity leave at the beginning of February. From this week she’s up to four afternoons a week, and from the start of February, she’ll be four full days a week. It’s been a treat to work with her thus far as she is super clever and catches onto everything so quickly. It’s nice knowing that the studio will be in very competent hands when I step away in a few weeks. Watch for more info about her to show up in the Studio section of the website soon!

As for the rest of the BERGians, this week Simon is doing some rounding off of project costs for 2011 and looking at capacity planning for 2012, leading some workshops on the continued development and future of Little Printer, coordinating various bits of Uinta projects that we have on the go, and working through the final issues that still need to be resolved in the new studio. In case you missed it, he also posted adverts for two new positions that we’re looking to hire for. If you’re interested in working for BERG, please do have a look to see if either of those describes you!

Nick has been working on the technical architecture for BERG Cloud, thinking about chips and font rendering for Little Printer and doing some work on the Suwappu app.

Joe has been catching up on what he missed being out for a week and getting his feet back under him. He’s mainly working on integrating animation in a couple of Uinta projects.

Denise is still very generously handling most of the enquiries that come in about BERG Cloud and Little Printer. She’s also continuing work on the UI and IA for the internet side of Little Printer.

Alex has the fun job of developing the brief for the Little Printer packaging and unboxing experience. He’s still doing some work on Uinta this week and is also helping to make the new studio a happier, more accommodating place with a functional doorbell and signage.

Alice is also involved in the font rendering work for Little Printer and is doing some early stage investigative work into dev tools for people who want to create their own publications for Little Printer.

Timo is working on a Uinta animation brief and is also doing some shooting for a 90 second test pilot. I’m sure more will be revealed about that in good time, but it’s potentially pretty exciting.

Andy is making good use of our CitySpring courier account, sending various components hither and yon. He’s also having conversations about what should be printed on the back of Little Printer. I suppose most people don’t really think too much about the copy on the back of their electronics, but it turns out it’s pretty important.

As for me, I have been doing all the usual financial admin, trying to wrap up some last bits of business around moving studio, ordering office supplies, handling all the general (i.e. non-Little Printer or BERG Cloud) enquiries that come in to the studio, etc. Today I get to teach Helen how to run the quarterly VAT return. (Exciting stuff, eh?) And I’ve been getting kicked in the ribs (from the inside) pretty much the whole time I’ve been typing this. Maybe that second cup of tea wasn’t such a great idea after all…


Quick update on Monday January 23rd: thanks to all who’ve applied already! We’ll be accepting applications for these positions until Friday 27 January.

We’re looking to expand the studio a little more as we begin 2012.

BERG is a thirteen-strong design studio at present, made up of a mixture of multi-skilled designers and creative technologists researching and developing media and technology. We also have a super team of extras who help us out. There’s more about our work here.

We’re beginning the search for a couple of new people to join us!

Firstly a Business Development Manager, part time. This person will manage our pipeline of upcoming consultancy work, finding and shaping new projects, working with existing clients and finding new ones with whom BERG can do exciting work.

Secondly – another Project Manager. You’ll be working across a few of our internal projects like Little Printer and BERG Cloud as well as client projects, ensuring things run smoothly and efficiently in the studio.

If you’re interested, or know someone who might be, then you can download the full job descriptions.

To apply, please send your CV with a covering note in to and we’ll get back to you as soon as we can!

Friday links

This has been a quiet week for links, but here’s a little something for the weekend. Denise spotted an interesting video on the topic of underwater fishing.

Denise also spotted that the Bus Tops project is now live, so congratulations to everyone who was involved.

And lastly, a dog on a trampoline.

Week 343

Happy new year! So what is BERG up to at the moment? Well for the most part it feels like we’re awakening from a deep slumber, and there’s been a lot of blinking, yawning, stretching and replenishment of caffeine levels.

We’ve been busy unpacking the remaining crates from the Big Office Move of December. Schulze unearthed some unfamiliar output from early studio work that predates many of us. The terseness of the summary page does not do justice to the splendour of the tools it spawned. Schulze is also deep in project work for Uinta, Chaco, and our very own Little Printer.

Denise has been doing a fantastic job fielding the enquiries about Little Printer and BERG Cloud, and is also driving a lot of design thinking around Little Printer as it comes more sharply into focus.

Andy has been unpacking and setting up the workshop area of our new space, and is also working on various aspects of the physical form of Little Printer. The rest of us have been enjoying Andy and Jack’s ongoing argument over what needs to be thrown away, and what is actually valuable enough to earn precious shelf space.

Alex is wrapping up Uinta work, working on designs for our studio stationary, and writing briefs for product packaging design. He’s also managed to set up a studio speaker system which in all likelihood will cause serious structural failure if anyone were to turn the volume up to 10.

Kari has been catching up on studio admin and finance tasks, answering studio queries, and keeping on top of Zendesk tickets. At the end of this month she’s going to head off for some much deserved maternity leave.

Alice has been taking care of address and content updates to our various websites, and is now engaged in some code sketching of Little Printer developer tools. She’s been wonderfully scathing of our local coffeeshop’s customer service.

Phil is porting some embedded code in advance of vendor meetings happening next week, in addition to helping me set up our Little Printer development bench.

Timo rejoined us on Wednesday and is working his magic on a timeline full of exciting footage that was shot last month. He’s also got his VFX Supervisor hat on, and is overseeing some effects work for his Uinta video work.

There are a few notable absentees this week. Webb, Jones and Malia are together in the US and are gradually going to be reabsorbed into the fold over the course of this month. Our last missing person is James Darling, currently in India and rejoining us later this month.

Lastly, I’ve been doing relatively mundane things like making sure our office network is working properly and remembering how to write in whole sentences. This concludes the very delayed summary of week 343!

Gardens and Zoos

This is a version of a talk that I gave at the “In Progress” event, staged by ‘It’s Nice That‘ magazine.

It builds on some thoughts that I’ve spoken about at some other events in 2011, but I think this version put it forward in the way I’m happiest with.

Having said that, I took the name of the event literally – it’s a bit of a work-in-progress, still.

It might more properly be entitled ‘Pets & Pot-plants’ rather than ‘Gardens & Zoos’ – but the audience seemed to enjoy it, and hopefully it framed some of the things we’re thinking about and discussing in the studio over the last year or so, as we’ve been working on and other projects looking at the near-future of connected products.

And – with that proviso… Here it is.

Let me introduce a few characters…

This is my frying pan. I bought it in Helsinki. It’s very good at making omelettes.

This is Sukie. She’s a pot-plant that we adopted from our friend Heather’s ‘Wayward Plants‘ project, at the Radical Nature exhibit at the Barbican (where “In Progress” is!)

This is a puppy – we’ll call him ‘Bruno’.

I have no idea if that’s his name, but it’s from our friend Matt Cottam’s “Dogs I Meet” flickr set, and Matt’s dog is called Bruno – so it seemed fitting.

And finally, this is Siri – a bot.

And, I’m Matt Jones – a designer and one of the principals at BERG, a design and invention studio.

There are currently 13 of us – half-technologists, half-designers, sharing a room in East London where we invent products for ourselves and for other people – generally large technology and media companies.

This is Availabot, one of the first products that we designed – it’s a small connected product that represents your online status physically…

But I’m going to talk today about the near-future of connected products.

And it is a near-future, not far from the present.

In fact, one of our favourite quotes about the future is from William Burroughs: When you cut into the present, the future leaks out…

A place we like to ‘cut into the present’ is the Argos catalogue! Matt Webb’s talked about this before.

It’s really where you see Moore’s Law hit the high-street.

Whether it’s toys, kitchen gear or sports equipment – it’s getting hard to find consumer goods that don’t have software inside them.

This is near-future where the things around us start to display behaviour – acquiring motive and agency as they act and react to the context around them according to the software they have inside them, and increasingly the information they get from (and publish back to) the network.

In this near-future, it’s very hard to identify the ‘U’ in UI’ – that is, the User in User-Interface. It’s not so clear anymore what these things are. Tools… or something more.

Of course, I choose to illustrate this slightly-nuanced point with a video of kittens riding a Roomba that Matt Webb found, so you might not be convinced.

However, this brings us back to our new friends, the Bots.

By bot – I guess I mean a piece of software that displays a behaviour, that has motive and agency.

Let me show a clip about Siri, and how having bots in our lives might affect us [Contains Strong Language!]

Perhaps, like me – you have more sympathy for the non-human in that clip…

But how about some other visions of what it might be like to have non-human companions in our lives? For instance, the ‘daemons’ of Phillip Pullman’s ‘Dark Materials‘ trilogy. They are you, but not you – able to reveal things about you and reveal things to you. Able to interact naturally with you and each other.

Creatures we’ve made that play and explore the world don’t seem that far-fetched anymore. This is a clip of work on juggling robot quadcopters by ETH Zurich.

Which brings me back to my earlier thought – that it’s hard to see where the User in User-Interfaces might be. User-Centred Design has been the accepted wisdom for decades in interaction design.

I like this quote that my friend Karsten introduced me to, by Prof Bertrand Meyer (coincidentally at professor at ETH) that might offer an alternative view…

A more fruitful stance for interaction design in this new landscape might be that offered by Actor-Network Theory?

I like this snippet from a formulation of ANT based on work by Geoff Walsham et al.

“Creating a body of allies, human and non-human…”

Which brings me back to this thing…

Which is pretty unequivocally a tool. No motive, no agency. The behaviour is that of it’s evident, material properties.

Domestic pets, by contrast, are chock-full of behaviour, motive, agency. We have a model of what they want, and how they behave in certain contexts – as they do of us, we think.

We’ll never know, truly of course.

They can surprise us.

That’s part of why we love them.

But what about these things?

Even though we might give them names, and have an idea of their ‘motive’ and behaviour, they have little or no direct agency. They move around by getting us to move them around, by thriving or wilting…

And – this occurred to me while doing this talk – what are houseplants for?

Let’s leave that one hanging for a while…

And come back to design – or more specifically – some of the impulses beneath it. To make things, and to make sense of things. This is one of my favourite quotes about that. I found it in an exhibition explaining the engineering design of the Sydney Opera House.

Making models to understand is what we do as we design.

And, as we design for slightly-unpredictable, non-human-centred near-futures we need to make more of them, and share them so we can play with them, spin them round, pick them apart and talk about what we want them to be – together.

I’ll just quickly mention some of the things we talk about a lot in our work. The things we think are important in the models, and designs we make for connected products. The first one is legibility. That the product or service presents a readable, evident model of how it works to the world on it’s surface. That there is legible feedback, and you can quickly construct a theory how it works through that feedback.

One of the least useful notions you come up against, particularly in technology companies, is the stated ambition that the use of products and services should be ‘seamless experiences’.

Matthew Chalmers has stated (after Mark Weiser, one of the founding figures of ‘ubicomp’) that we need to design “seamful systems, with beautiful seams”

Beautiful seams attract us to the legible surfaces of a thing, and allow our imagination in – so that we start to build a model in our minds (and appreciate the craft at work, the values of the thing, the values of those that made it, and how we might adapt it to our values – but that’s another topic)

Finally – this guy – who pops up a lot on whiteboards in the studio, or when we’re working with clients.

B.A.S.A.A.P. is a bit of an internal manifesto at BERG, and stands for Be As Smart As A Puppy – and it’s something I’ve written about at length before.

It stems from something robotics and AI expert Rodney Brooks said… that if we put the fifty smartest people in a room for fifty years, we’d be luck if we make AIs as smart as a puppy.

We see this an opportunity rather than a problem!

We’ve made our goal to look to other models of intelligence and emotional response in products and services than emulating what we’d expect from humans.

Which is what this talk is about. Sort-of.

But before we move on, a quick example of how we express these three values in our work.

“Text Camera” is a very quick sketch of something that we think illustrates legibility, seamful-ness and BASAAP neatly.

Text Camera is about making the inputs and inferences the phone sees around it to ask a series of friendly questions that help to make clearer what it can sense and interpret. It kind of reports back on what it sees in text, rather through a video feed.

Let me explain one of the things it can do as an example. Your smartphone camera has a bunch of software to interpret the light it’s seeing around you – in order to adjust the exposure automatically.

So, we look to that and see if it’s reporting ‘tungsten light’ for instance, and can infer from that whether to ask the question “Am I indoors?”.

Through the dialog we feel the seams – the capabilities and affordances of the smartphone, and start to make a model of what it can do.

So next, I want to talk a little about a story you might be familiar with – that of…

I hope that last line doesn’t spoil it for anyone who hasn’t seen it yet…

But – over the last year I’ve been talking with lot to people about a short scene in the original 1977 Star Wars movie ‘A New Hope’ – where Luke and his Uncle Owen are attempting to buy some droids from the Jawas that have pulled up outside their farmstead.

I’ve become a little obsessed with this sequence – where the droids are presented like… Appliances? Livestock?

Or more troublingly, slaves?

Luke and Uncle Owen relate to them as all three – at the same time addressing them directly, aggressively and passive-aggressively. It’s such a rich mix of ways that ‘human and non-human actors’ might communicate.

Odd, and perhaps the most interesting slice of ‘science-fiction’ in what otherwise is squarely a fantasy film.

Of course Artoo and Threepio are really just…

Men in tin-suits, but our suspension of belief is powerful! Which brings me to the next thing we should quickly throw into the mix of the near-future…

This is the pedal of my Brompton bike. It’s also a yapping dog (to me at least)

Our brains are hard-wired to see faces, it’s part of a phenomena called ‘Pareidolia

It’s something we’ve talked about before on the BERGblog, particularly in connection with Schoolscope. I started a group on flickr called “Hello Little Fella” to catalogue my pareidolic-excesses (other facespotting groups are available).

This little fella is probably my favourite.

He’s a little bit ill, and has a temperature.


The reason for this particular digression is to point out that one of the prime materials we work with as interaction designers is human perception. We try to design things that work to take advantage of its particular capabilities and peculiarities.

I’m not sure if anyone here remembers the Apple Newton and the Palm Pilot?

The Newton was an incredible technological attainment for it’s time – recognising the user’s handwriting. The Palm instead forced us to learn a new type of writing (“Graffiti“).

We’re generally faster learners than our technology, as long as we are given something that can be easily approached and mastered. We’re more plastic and malleable – what we do changes our brains – so the ‘wily’ technology (and it’s designers) will sieze upon this and use it…

All of which leaves me wondering whether we are working towards Artificial Empathy, rather than Artificial Intelligence in the things we are designing…

If you’ve seen this video of ‘Big Dog’, an all-terrain robot by Boston Dynamics – and you’re anything like me – then you flinch when it’s tester kicks it.

To quote from our ‘Artificial Empathy’ post:

Big Dog’s movements and reactions – it’s behaviour in response to being kicked by one of it’s human testers (about 36 seconds into the video above) is not expressed in a designed face, or with sad ‘Dreamworks’ eyebrows – but in pure reaction – which uncannily resembles the evasion and unsteadiness of a just-abused animal.

Of course, before we get too carried away by artificial empathy, we shouldn’t forget what Big Dog is primarily designed for, and funded by…

Anyway – coming back to ‘wily’ tactics, here’s the often-referenced ‘Uncanny Valley’ diagram, showing the relationship between ever-more-realistic simulations of life, particularly humans and our ‘familiarity’ with them.

Basically, as we get ever closer to trying to create lifelike-simulations of humans, they start to creep us out.

It can perhaps be most neatly summed up as our reaction to things like the creepy, mocapped synthespians in the movie Polar Express…

The ‘wily’ tactic then would be to stay far away from the valley – aim to make technology behave with empathic qualities that aren’t human at all, and let us fill in the gaps as we do so well.

Which, brings us back to BASAAP, which as Rodney Brooks pointed out – is still really tough.

Bruno’s wild ancestors started to brute-force the problem of creating artificial empathy and a working companion-species relationship with humans through the long, complex process of domestication and selective-breeding…

…from that point the first time these kind of eyes were made towards scraps of meat held at the end of a campfire somewhere between 12-30,000 years ago…

Some robot designers have opted to stay on the non-human side of the uncanny valley, notably perhaps Sony with AIBO.

Here’s an interesting study from 2003 that hints a little at what the effects of designing for ‘artificial empathy’ might be.

We’re good at holding conflicting models of things in our heads at the same time it seems. That AIBO is a technology, but that it also has ‘an inner life’.

Take a look at this blog, where an AIBO owner posts it’s favourite places, and laments:

“[he] almost never – well, make it never – leaves his station these days. It’s not for lack on interest – he still is in front of me at the office – but for want of preservation. You know, if he breaks a leg come a day or a year, will Sony still be there to fix him up?”

(One questioner after my talk asked: “What did the 25% of people who didn’t think AIBO was a technological gadget report it to be?” – Good question!)

Some recommendations of things to look at around this area: the work of Donna Haraway, esp. The Companion Species Manifesto.

Also, the work of Cynthia Brezeal, Heather Knight and Kacie Kinzer – and the ongoing LIREC research project that our friend Alexandra Deschamps-Sonsino is working with, that’s looking to studies of canine behaviour and companionship to influence the design of bots and robots.

In science-fiction there’s a long, long list that could go here – but for now I’ll just point to the most-affecting recent thing I’ve read in the area, Ted Chiang’s novella “The Lifecycle of Software Objects” – which I took as my title for a talk partly on this subject at UX London earlier in the year.

In our own recent work I’d pick out Suwappu, a collaboration with Dentsu London as something where we’re looking to animate, literally, toys with an inner life through a computer-vision application that recognises each character and overlays dialogue and environments around them.

I wonder how this type of technology might develop hand-in-hand with storytelling to engage and delight – while leaving room for the imagination and empathy that we so easily project on things, especially when we are young.

Finally, I want to move away from the companion animal as a model, back to these things…

I said we’d come back to this! Have you ever thought about why we have pot plants? What we have them in the corners of our lives? How did they get there? What are they up to?!?

(Seriously – I haven’t managed yet to find research or a cultural history of how pot-plants became part of our home life. There are obvious routes through farming, gardening and cooking – but what about ornamental plants? If anyone reading this wants to point me at some they’d recommend in the comments to this post, I’d be most grateful!)

Take a look at this – one of the favourite finds of the studio in 2011 – Sticky Light.

It is very beautifully simple. It displays motive and behaviour. We find it fascinating and playful. Of course, part of it’s charm is that it can move around of its own volition – it has agency.

Pot-plants have motives (stay alive, reproduce) and behaviour (grow towards the light, shrivel when not watered) but they don’t have much agency. They rely on us to move them into the light, to water them.

Some recent projects have looked to augment domestic plants with some agency – Botanicalls by Kati London, Kate Hartman, Rebecca Bray and Rob Faludi equips a plant not only with a network connection, but a twitter account! Activated by sensors it can report to you (and its followers) whether it is getting enough water. Some voice, some agency.

(I didn’t have time to mention it in the talk, but I’d also point to James Chamber’s evolution of the idea with his ‘Has Needs’ project, where an abused potplant not only has a network connection, but the means to advertise for a new owner on freecycle…)

Here’s my botanical, which I chose to call Robert Plant…

So, much simpler systems that people or pets can find places in our lives as companions. Legible motives, limited behaviours and agency can illicit response, empathy and engagement from us.

We think this is rich territory for design as the things around us start to acquire means of context-awareness, computation and connectivity.

As we move from making inert tools – that we are unequivocally the users of – to companions, with behaviours that animate them – we wonder whether we should go straight from this…

…to this…

Namely, straight from things with predictable and legible properties and affordances, to things that try and have a peer-relationship, speaking with human voice and making great technological leaps to relate to us in that way, but perhaps with a danger of entering the uncanny valley.

What if there’s an interesting space to design somewhere in-between?

This in part is the inspiration behind some of the thinking in our new platform Berg Cloud, and its first product – Little Printer.

We like to think of Little Printer as something of a ‘Cloud Companion Species’ that mediates the internet and the domestic, that speaks with your smartphone, and digests the web into delightful little chunks that it dispenses when you want.

Little Printer is the beginning of our explorations into these cloud-companions, and BERG Cloud is the means we’re creating to explore them.

Ultimately we’re interested in the potential for new forms of companion species that extend us. A favourite project for us is Natalie Jeremijenko’s “Feral Robotic Dogs” – a fantastic example of legibility, seamful-ness and BASAAP.

Natalie went to communities near reclaimed-land that might still have harmful toxins present, and taught workshops where cheap (remember Argos?) robot dogs that could be bought for $30 or so where opened up and hacked to accommodate new sensors.

They were reprogrammed to seek the chemical traces associated with lingering toxins. Once release by the communities they ‘sniff’ them out, waddling towards the highest concentrations – an immediate tangible and legible visualisation of problem areas.

Perhaps most important was that the communities themselves were the ones taught to open the toys up, repurpose their motives and behaviour – giving them the agency over the technology and evidence they could build themselves.

In the coming world of bots – whether companions or not, we have to attempt to maintain this sort of open literacy. And it is partly the designer’s role to increase its legibility. Not only to beguile and create empathy – but to allow a dialogue.

As Kevin Slavin said about the world of algorithms growing around us“We can write it but we can’t read it”

We need to engage with the complexity and make it open up to us.

To make evident, seamful surfaces through which we can engage with puppy-smart things.

As our friend Chris Heathcote has put so well:

Thanks for inviting me, and for your attention today.

FOOTNOTE: Auger & Loizeau’s Domestic Robots.

I didn’t get the chance to reference the work of James Auger & Jimmy Loizeau in the talk, but their “Carnivorous Robots” project deserves study.

From the project website:

“For a robot to comfortably migrate into our homes, appearance is critical. We applied the concept of adaptation to move beyond the functional forms employed in laboratories and the stereotypical fictional forms often applied to robots. In effect creating a clean slate for designing robot form, then looking to the contemporary domestic landscape and the related areas of fashion and trends for inspiration. The result is that on the surface the CDER series more resemble items of contemporary furniture than traditional robots. This is intended to facilitate a seamless transition into the home through aesthetic adaptation, there are however, subtle anomalies or alien features that are intended to draw the viewer in and encourage further investigation into the object.”

And on robots performing as “Companion Species”

”In the home there are several established object categories each in some way justifying the products presence through the benefit or comfort they bring to the occupant, these include: utility; ornament; companionship; entertainment and combinations of the above, for example, pets can be entertaining and chairs can be ornamental. The simplest route for robots to enter the home would be to follow one of these existing paths but by necessity of definition, offering something above and beyond the products currently occupying those roles.”

James Auger is currently completing his Phd at the RCA on ‘Domestication of Robotics’ and I can’t wait to read it.

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