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What you need to know for the hardware-software convergence

Core competencies and essential reading from hardware, software, manufacturing, and the IoT.

As I noted in “Physical and virtual are blurring together,” we now have hardware that acts like software, and software that’s capable of dealing with the complex subtleties of the physical world. So, what must the innovator, the creator, the executive, the researcher, and the artist do to embrace this convergence of hardware and software?

At its core, this is about a shift from discipline toward intent. Individuals and institutions — whether they’re huge enterprises, small start-ups, or nonprofits — must be competent in several disciplines that increasingly overlap, and should be prepared to solve problems by working fluidly across disciplines.

To use Joi Ito’s example, someone who wants to develop a synthetic eye might begin to approach the problem with biology, or electronics, or software, or (most likely) all three together. Many problems can be solved somewhere in a large multidimensional envelope that trades off design, mechanics, electronics, software, biology, and business models. Experts might still do the best work in each discipline, but everyone needs to know enough about all of them to know where to position a project between them.

Below you’ll find the core competencies in the intersection between software and the physical world, and our favorite books and resources for each one.

Electronics for physical-digital applications

  • Practical Electronics, by John M. Hughes: To know what’s possible and where to start, it’s essential to understand both the analog and digital sides of electronics. This is O’Reilly’s authoritative introduction to both analog and digital electronics, with information on circuit design, common parts and techniques, and microcontrollers.
  • Raspberry Pi Cookbook, by Simon Monk: The Raspberry Pi is rapidly becoming the standard embedded computing platform for prototyping and experimentation, with enough computing power to run familiar interpreted programming languages and widely supported operating systems.
  • Arduino Cookbook, by Michael Margolis: The Arduino microcontroller offers a fluid interface between digital and physical; it’s highly extensible and accessible to people with no prior experience in either electronics or code.

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An ecosystem of connected devices

Our biggest opportunities as designers and product creators lie in a context-driven approach to designing user experiences.

Editor’s note: This is an excerpt from our recent book Designing Multi-Device Experiences, by Michal Levin. This excerpt is included in our curated collection of chapters from the O’Reilly Design library. Download a free copy of the Experience Design ebook here.

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Download a free copy of the Experience Design ebook here.

We have entered a world of multi-device experiences. Our lives have become a series of interactions with multiple digital devices, enabling each of us to learn, buy, compare, search, navigate, connect, and manage every aspect of modern life.

Consider the hours we spend with devices every day — interacting with our smartphones, working on our laptops, engaging with our tablets, watching shows on television, playing with our video game consoles, and tracking steps on our fitness wristbands. For many of us, the following are true:

  • We spend more time interacting with devices than with people.
  • We often interact with more than one device at a time.

The number of connected devices has officially exceeded the seven-billion mark, outnumbering people (and toothbrushes) on the planet. By 2020, this number is expected to pass 24 billion. This inconceivable quantity not only attests to the growing role of these devices in our digital lives, but also signals an increasing number of devices per person. Many individuals now own multiple connected devices — PCs, smartphones, tablets, TVs, and more — and they are already using them together, switching between them, in order to accomplish their goals. Ninety percent of consumers use multiple devices to complete a task over time (PDF). For example, shopping for an item might entail (1) searching and exploring options at home on the PC, (2) checking product information and comparing prices in-store using your smartphone, and (3) writing product reviews on a tablet. Eighty-six percent of consumers use their smartphones while engaging with other devices and during other media consumption activities. Read more…

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Pace of change as a metaphor for full-stack design

Jeff Veen on design teams, flat design and skinny jeans, and full-stack design.

I recently sat down with Jeff Veen, vice president of products at Adobe, and CEO and founder of Typekit. Veen has been a designer for more than 20 years; he is an entrepreneur, writer, cyclist, and lover of burritos. His resume includes Adaptive Path; Wired; WebMonkey; Google; and TypeKit, which was acquired by Adobe. Our conversation covered leadership, hiring designers, and the significance of trends.

Design’s leading role

Design is finally receiving the attention and respect of non-designers. Veen talks about a different dynamic, one in which design plays a leading role in the development of products and services:

“The analogy I always give is that when we started Adaptive Path in 2001, one of our stated values was to have design get a seat at the table, and we meant the board table — like the C level. I feel it is entirely possible to have your own table as a designer and invite other people to have their seats. That is still the exception to the rule, which is probably fine; it probably maps to the wide variety of businesses and products that are out there. But increasingly so, the kind of thinking beind the analytical process and the types of problem solving that designers are particularly good at tends to fit well with the kind of digital interactive, largely consumer-based product development that we’re doing these days.

“I think to embrace design means that you need to populate your company with leadership that has a design background. That is a true signifier — not like, “You know, we should hire a couple of designers. We should spruce up the website,” but really investing in design. Where is the leadership? Where’s the decision-making for the priorities, for the direction and vision of not just the product but the company itself? Where is that embodied? Is it embodied at the same level that a good engineer is? It obviously needs to be. [It’s a sign that] a company understands the value of design.”

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Designers are engineers

Dirk Knemeyer on the changing role of design in emerging technology.

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The discipline of design is morphing. Designers’ roles and responsibilities are expanding at a tremendous pace. Jonathan Follett, editor of Designing for Emerging Technologies recently sat down with Dirk Knemeyer, founder of Involution Studios, who contributed to the book. Knemeyer discusses the changing role of design and designers in emerging technology.

Changing roles: Designers as engineers

Knemeyer explains the morphing role of designers as technologies advance and disciplines overlap. Designers are expected to have skills or working knowledge of topics well outside design, including programming and industrial design:

“We’re already seeing a convergence of engineering and design. We’ve been talking about it for a decade, that designers need to know how to code. Designers get it, and they’re out there and they’re learning to code. To remain relevant, to remain a meaningful part of the creationary process in these more complicated contexts, that’s only going to accelerate. Designers are going to need to see themselves as engineers, maybe as much, if not more, than as designers in order to be relevant in participating in the design and creation processes within the world of emerging technologies.”

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The web is a critical part of the IoT story

In this O'Reilly Radar Podcast: Simon St. Laurent discusses the web's potential, and Tom Greever chats about experience design.

Simon St. Laurent, O’Reilly’s strategic content director for our web space and co-chair of our Fluent Conference, recently launched an investigation looking into the web’s potential to change not only computing, but the world in general. For this podcast episode, I caught up with St. Laurent to talk about the timing, what he’s exploring, and why the web isn’t dead. He said that in some ways, it has always been the right time to launch this investigation — after all, the web has continued to grow amidst market crashes and the dot-com bust — but noted the driving factors behind the health of the web are becoming more clear:

“Something different is happening, though, in the last few years. I think it’s rooted in the legitimization of JavaScript as a programming language. It used to be seen as this annoying, accidental scripting language. Doug Crockford and a lot of others demonstrated that if you looked at JavaScript in the right context, context that’s more functional, that is less obsessed with classical orthodox object-oriented development, that JavaScript is both amazingly flexible and incredibly powerful. That brought in a whole new generation of people to work on things.

“The concept of the web platform arose, which I like as a phrase to keep me from saying HTML5, CSS, and JavaScript over and over, but which gives people the idea that the web is a platform like Windows or the Mac, where you can really control thing pixel by pixel. Jeremy Keith has done a great job of explaining why that isn’t true, but there are a lot of people who come in expecting to be able to program on the web like they do for any other platform. They’re great JavaScript programmers frequently, but we need to be telling the story of the broader context and how all these pieces fit together for the long-term health of their projects as well as the web as a whole.”

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Physical and virtual are blurring together

Key signals from hardware, software, manufacturing, and the Internet of Things.

Hardware, software, manufacturing, and the Internet of Things

This essay updates a November 2013 article. We’ve expanded it in light of the success of our first Solid conference in May 2014, where we tested many of these ideas, and the announcement of our next Solid conference in June 2015. In addition to this update, you can stay in the loop on the latest developments in the space through our weekly newsletter.

Real and virtual are crashing together. On one side is hardware that acts like software: IP-addressable, programmable with high-level procedural languages and APIs, able to be stitched into loosely coupled systems — the mashups of a new era. On the other is software that’s newly capable of dealing with the complex subtleties of the physical world — ingesting huge amounts of data, learning from it, and making decisions in real time.

The result is an entirely new medium that’s just beginning to emerge. We can see it in Ars Electronica Futurelab’s Spaxels, which are LED-equipped quadcopters that make up a drone swarm to render a three-dimensional pixel field; in Baxter, which layers emotive software onto an industrial robot so that anyone can operate it safely and efficiently; in OpenXC, which gives even hobbyist-level programmers access to the software in their cars; and in SmartThings, which ties web services to light switches.

The new medium is something broader than terms like “Internet of Things,” “Industrial Internet,” or “connected devices” suggest. It’s an entirely new discipline that’s being built by software developers, roboticists, manufacturers, hardware engineers, artists, and designers. Read more…

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