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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Wouldn’t it be fun to build your own Google?

Exploring open web crawl data — what if you had your own copy of the entire web, and you could do with it whatever you want?

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For the last few millennia, libraries have been the custodians of human knowledge. By collecting books, and making them findable and accessible, they have done an incredible service to humanity. Our modern society, culture, science, and technology are all founded upon ideas that were transmitted through books and libraries.

Then the web came along, and allowed us to also publish all the stuff that wasn’t good enough to put in books, and do it all much faster and cheaper. Although the average quality of material you find on the web is quite poor, there are some pockets of excellence, and in aggregate, the sum of all web content is probably even more amazing than all libraries put together.

Google (and a few brave contenders like Bing, Baidu, DuckDuckGo and Blekko) have kindly indexed it all for us, acting as the web’s librarians. Without search engines, it would be terribly difficult to actually find anything, so hats off to them. However, what comes next, after search engines? It seems unlikely that search engines are the last thing we’re going to do with the web. Read more…

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Three strategies for designing for behavior change

Behavioral design strategies provide high-level direction for how a product should be designed.

Editor’s note: This is an excerpt from our recent book Designing for Behavior Change, by Steve Wendel. 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.

How can a product help its users pass all the way through the Action Funnel and actually take action? There are three big strategies that a company can choose from to change behavior and help users take action. Two of them come straight from the research literature and from the difference between deliberative and intuitive actions. The third is less obvious, but immensely powerful — it’s called cheating.

The conscious, deliberative route is the one that most of us are familiar with already — it entails encouraging people to take action, and them consciously deciding to do it. Users have to pass through all five stages of the Action Funnel, and often spend considerable time on the conscious evaluation stage.

The intuitive route is a bit more complex. Recall from Chapter 1 that our lightning-fast, automatic, and intuitive reactions arise from a mix of various elements: associations we’ve learned between things, specific habits we’ve built up, our current mindset, and a myriad of built-in shortcuts (heuristics) that save our minds work but can lead us astray. Of these, habits are the most promising route to developing a sustainable path to behavior change because there are clear, systematic ways to form them. And once they are formed, they allow the user to pass effortlessly through two of the stages of the Action Funnel — the conscious evaluation and the assessment of the right timing for action. Read more…

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The revolution in biology is here, now

Biological products have always seemed far off. BioFabricate showed that they're not.

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Installation view of The Living’s Hy-Fi, the winning project of The Museum of Modern Art and MoMA PS1’s 2014 Young Architects Program. Photograph by Kris Graves.

The BioFabricate summit in New York rearranged my thinking. BioFabricate was about the intersection of manufacturing and biology: not just “we can make cool new microbes,” but using biology to manufacture products for the real world. Biological products have always seemed far off. But they’re not: the revolution in biology is clearly here now, just unevenly distributed.

The products discussed at BioFabricate aren’t what I thought they’d be. I’ve been asked plenty of times (and I’ve asked plenty of times), “what’s the killer product for synthetic biology?” BioFabricate convinced me that that’s the wrong question. We may never have some kind of biological iPod. That isn’t the right way to think.

What I saw, instead, was real products that you might never notice. Bricks made from sand that are held together by microbes designed to excrete the binder. Bricks and packing material made from fungus (mycelium)Plastic excreted by bacteria that consume waste methane from sewage plants. You wouldn’t know, or care, whether your plastic Lego blocks are made from petroleum or from bacteria, but there’s a huge ecological difference. You wouldn’t know, or care, what goes into the bricks used in the new school, but the construction boom in Dubai has made a desert city one of the world’s largest importers of sand. Wind-blown desert sand isn’t useful for industrial brickmaking, but the microbes have no problem making bricks from it. And you may not care whether packing materials are made of styrofoam or fungus, but I despise the bag of packing peanuts sitting in my basement waiting to be recycled. You can throw the fungal packing material into the garden, and it will decompose into fertilizer in a couple of days. Read more…

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Drone delivery: Real or fantasy?

For the time being, we won't see drone delivery outside of a few very specialized use cases.

prime-air_high-resolution02I read with some interest an article on the Robotenomics blog about the feasibility of drone delivery. It’s an interesting idea, and the article makes a better case than anything I’ve seen before. But I’m still skeptical.

The article quotes direct operating costs (essentially fuel) that are roughly $0.10 for a 2-kilogram payload, delivered 10 kilometers. (For US-residents, that’s 4.4 pounds and about six miles). That’s reasonable enough.

The problem comes when he compares it to Amazon’s current shipping costs, of $2 to $8. But it sounds roughly like what Amazon pays to UPS or FedEx. And that’s not for delivering four pounds within a six-mile range. And it’s not just the fuel cost: it’s the entire cost, including maintenance, administrative overhead, executive bonuses, and (oh, yes) the driver’s salary. Read more…

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Designing for the unknown

Simon King on design intuition and designing solutions that work for the user both now and in an unforeseen future.

Design principles are being applied in all aspects of business today — they are no longer limited to graphic design, product design, web design or even experience design. I recently had the chance to speak with Simon King, design director and interaction design community lead at IDEO in Chicago. In our conversation, King talks about balancing design intuition with prototyping and testing, designing beyond the screen, and designing for the unknown.

At IDEO, they take a human-centered approach, observing the user in their environments. That research informs their design process, says King, but they also rely heavily on collaborative design teams with diverse experience, which helps to bring a fresh perspective to every project:

“Our project teams are generally dedicated in working together on one topic. They draw from all this inspiration. They utilize their intuition. They generate a bunch of ideas and build on the ideas of others. That’s really key to having these project teams of diverse designers together so we can build on each other’s ideas. Another big part of it is that in every project, people are working on totally different domains. They’re working in different industries. They’re working for different types of users. We can really cross-pollinate the things that we’ve seen in one area and apply them to another area during that ideation process.”

Read more…

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