The Internet of (Enchanted) Things

Frank Herlinger
Berlin 52° 30' 57.852" N, 13° 22' 37.128" E

A researcher at the MIT Media Lab for 20 years, David Rose has also founded five companies, worked as a designer and is the author of the book Enchanted Objects: Design, Human Desire, and the Internet of Things. On a recent visit to the HERE Berlin office to speak and lead a design workshop, David was also kind enough to give an interview for HERE 360. Obviously, we were keen to understand what David meant by an enchanted object.

“Enchanted objects are everyday things that talk to us or to each other, and in some ways make our lives better, delight us, and give an emotional connection,” he says.

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David’s past career has been a catalyst for his intense appreciation for physical forms. One of the first companies he started eventually became Lego Mindstorms, an experience which has affected his approach from that point forwards. “I was able to work on embedding connectivity and sensors in Lego bricks,” he says. “That really questioned what the future of interaction design might look like, beyond screens, mice and keyboards, to thinking about how to embed technology in everything around us.”

Many of the transformations that David wishes for are subtle adaptations of the everyday, rather than reinventions. “I don’t want the holodeck,” he tells us, “which would completely reshape your environment. There are lots of things I love about tables and chairs and the materiality of the world around us. I don’t want to totally blow that up: I’d like to sprinkle a little bit of functionality into everyday things.”

Many quotidian objects can be made more wondrous through some relatively simple technological interventions, David thinks. “I’m a big believer in pico projection,” he says. “Just imagine that all those light bulbs that people already have around the house could become pico projectors and display data on the kitchen island or table.”

Rather than inventing new objects, David’s work is focused on the ways that people are augmenting everyday objects with a little ‘magic’. “There’s a company in Boston that’s trying to encourage cycling by making an electric hub. Instead of having to get an entirely new bike, you just swap in a new rear wheel. In the hub, you have batteries, electric motor and wireless drive.”

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But objects don’t enchant us forever, and David thinks that our gadgets typically have a ‘half-life’ whereby things like touch-screens and video calls stop being enchanting. “How soon do we acclimate and become accustomed to and expect these things to impress us? That’s natural and not necessarily negative.” This doesn’t always happen though – sometimes objects become more wondrous the more we know about them: “How do they make contact lenses in an hour? How does the eye work? Even though you’re accustomed to it, you can still be impressed by the mechanism.”

Recent moves in technology have involved the creation of life-like robots and responsive artificial personalities, like Siri. But David says that when technology companies make promises about, “intelligence, awareness, and mostly it’s just going to let us down. My Alexa is really good at measurement conversion. She’s sort of good at playing music. But she won’t answer the conversation-busting questions that we want her to answer in the kitchen.”

It's all about expectations, he continues: “Enchanted objects answer the problem by not trying to be the one interface you can do everything with. You’re just expecting them to have a bespoke set of purposes, and you spread them around your life.”

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There’s a broad set of opportunities for designers to add enchantment to objects by looking at the functionality we look to our smartphones for, and mapping those onto heretofore mundane objects to create one-to-one connections. “Chairs also want to play music. Tables also want to be maps. I’d love my coffee table to have a giant HERE map, so I could show my daughter where I was in Berlin. We should intelligently and thoughtfully blow up the phone and embed it in the world around us in personal ways.”

Where would you like to see a HERE map appear?

Topics: Design, Features, Internet of Things, Weekend reads

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