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Smart Environments

"The only user input needed here is walking across the room"

By Lisa M. Sundbeck

As technology embeds itself into the fabric of daily life, we anticipate evolutionary impacts on human behavior and domesticity – shaping the way we learn, live and interact with each other. Technology interactions will soon engage the entire spectrum of human senses, pointing to the demise of our built environment as a static geometric body. The integration of technology and physical surroundings is the breeding ground for incredibly responsive and flexible environments. Spaces like these will have dynamic relationships with the user/inhabitant, and will be alive with adaptations, mutations, reactions and interactions. Interactivity will be embodied in the familiar elements of our day to day and we will interface with technology without an interface. All these possibilities can be filed under "physical computing", and how fast we are able to realize the potential is determined by a number of key ingredients.

One of the promising and critical aspects of modern technology is the way it has, and will continue to, incorporate the artist/designer with science/technology. Designers think differently than scientists – human sensibility versus pragmatic rationalism and process. Over the past twenty years, the introduction of powerful digital media technology has spawned a generation of designer/technologists. Future developments of digital habitats will demand design intervention, focusing on the wholeness of human experience when considering input as well as reaction.

The status-quo interface design of mouse/keyboard/screen employs a conventional interactivity that comes out of the disciplines of computer-human interface design and engineering, and focuses on efficiency and productivity. It is an adoption of existing paradigmatic metaphors and can be potentially detrimental to the development and evolution of new methodologies and critical dialogues. The current standard of interface is a manifestation of this danger – the design has been copied and adopted continually since its inception despite advances in the capacity and performance of the machines. The further involvement of the designer is necessary to provide goals of provocation, discovery and exploration in order to stimulate beyond this sort of static convention and facilitate innovation.

One departure from the convention is to shift focus from how we react to computers and other technological devices to how they can respond to us; how does the machine perceive, sense and understand the user? Digital media artists have been exploring the potential of machine responsiveness to user since the inception of their media. Current work by artist Daniel Rozin utilizes custom software to replicate images of the viewer via ‘digital watercolors’ or rotating blocks of a wooden ‘mirror’. In this installation, balanced between art and multimedia, the computer sees the viewer and translates this back to be seen; a sort of staring feedback loop. Several recent projects from multimedia group No-Organasation – Cityscape, Pixelzoom and Pattern to name a few, deal with computer reaction and interaction to sound and human voice, some enacting manipulation of image by sound and others manipulating data. The Future Computing Environment group at Georgia Tech is in the process of refining a concept they call a mechanism for natural user identification. Also dubbed Smart floor, the system uses human presence acted upon by gravity to measure footfalls and strides and the then identify and track the ‘pedestrian’. The only user input needed here is walking across the room. Various examples of environment-specific interfaces are already in use, many at your neighborhood hospital, to determine and record our physical statistics: weight, body fat, heart rate, breathing rate, our DNA makeup. Innovative thinking can translate and apply these readings as well as a host of additional unconscious outputs to achieve a more meaningful and effective interaction with technology.

Another critical area deserving attention is our more conscious manipulation and navigation of information. A standard mouse works on X,Y coordinates and clicks, while the human body has over 200 ways it can flex itself. Consider utilizing all that flexibility to communicate with computers – waving hands over surfaces to manipulate document visualization or pulling information into view; flicking your fingers over a passage to brush it away like dust. We already posses a natural vocabulary of gestures, so the learning curve would be minimal and efficiency unlimited. Check out Camille Utterback’s Text Rain for an example - participants are afforded a visual interaction between their bodies and movements with falling letters. The beginning of this sort of evolution can be seen in the current development of the infrared keyboard that works on finger gestures and movements to enter text. Further integration of user movement and information would include responses to eye movement, facial expressions, behavior patterns and beyond. One of Thomas Igoe’s recent projects requires users to engage a somewhat forbidding back brace in order to clarify the audio and visuals of the installation. Although this study stems from issues of distance and alienation of the artist, it is innovative in the consideration of emotion, apprehension, curiosity and desire in relation to physical interface.

Current explorations in interactive media and physical computing are more than dazzling exhibits to enjoy after a couple of cocktails at your local gallery. They are more than an opportunity for artists and designers to engage self-serving displays of science and technology. These examples are proactive investigations and discoveries critical to the future trajectory of our daily habitats and environments. As traditional consumer electronics companies push the integration of technology into the physical world, they are developing scenarios and products for the future. As designers, there is an obligation to continue to rigorously explore the relationship between information and body, virtual and physical, action, reaction and interaction. Doing so will develop new scenarios where physical computing can affect positive changes in the way we interact with data, environments, and the other people in our lives.




Lisa Sundbeck received her B.S. in Environmental Design from Texas A&M University. She lives in New York City and is currently working on her Master of Architecture at Columbia University. Current fascinations involve concepts of a digital habitat and emerging theories of Transarchitecture.


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