Unexpectedly, one of the few installations at Milan Design Week that resonated past the thick, blurry Instagram lens wasn't created just by designers. Google's A Space for Being (in collaboration with Muuto, Reddymade Architecture and the Arts + Minds Lab at Johns Hopkins University) provoked deep thoughts about the future role of technology in intimate spaces like the home by bringing visitors into a world where their only requirement was to 'be'—no cell phones and no talking allowed.
Before entering the space, a colorful screen-less band was placed on the wrist to measure each individual's reactions, like heart rate and skin temperature. Upon entering, winding hallways led you through three separate rooms, each designed with different furniture (all by collaborator Muuto), textures, books, color schemes and even scents. At the end of the experience, the bands were collected and the data was interpreted by Google, revealing which of the three spaces the algorithm felt you were most 'at ease' in. For Google, this installation was less about designing the next best wearable and more about demonstrating the potential for this technology to influence the design process, whether it be conducting user research before designing a new appliance, or even redecorating a home based on what makes the owner feel most comfortable.
After experiencing A Space for Being ourselves, we sat down with Ivy Ross, VP of Hardware Design at Google, to learn more about the collaboration and to hear her thoughts on technology's role in the future:
When I initially read this installation would be about neuroaesthetics, I thought it would be depicting this scary sci-fi world, but I was shocked to see that it's quite the opposite.
I'm so glad that we surprised and delighted you! Last year when we showed up people said, "oh the tech giant showed up so unexpectedly human". Well yeah, because that's what we are. Us being here is about being a thought leader. We really want to share with everyone the way we think and how thoughtful we are when we design product.
So, how did the idea for A Space for Being come about?
It all started last year when Muuto saw our installation here in Milan and said, "Oh my god, we love your aesthetic", and we said, "We love your aesthetic!" We had pictures of their dots up on our wall at the time. They brought up the idea of doing something together for this year, and I just didn't want to put our home products in their living room settings. That would be really boring.
Two years prior, I had been contacted by Susan [Magsamen] in the Arts + Mind Lab at Johns Hopkins. She told me that she runs the Arts + Mind Lab, and that they were studying something called neuroaesthetics. I didn't know what neuroaesthetics meant, so she explained to me that it's the study of the effect that aesthetics have on the brain and the body. I know the effects it has because I've been a designer and an artist my whole life, and we know that intuitively. But wow, if neuroscience can prove this, than that could be such a great support system for designers.
I also met Suchi Reddy of Reddymade Architecture a few years ago. She is designing a room in a hospital for kids who are coming out of comas to help knit back their brains each sense at a time. It's a beautiful project, so I put them in touch.
I called both of them and said, "Ladies, I have an idea. Can we actually put people through living situations?" I wanted it to be like real life, not some art project. We could make bands with sensors, and Johns Hopkins could help us make an algorithm. We decided to pick at the feeling of 'ease' because it's the opposite of stress, and right now I think there are a lot of stressed people in the world. We could've picked anything, right? I mean excitement is good, being relaxed is good... so we picked this phrase "at ease". We did a lot of research to find a phrase that everyone understands.
"Preference and taste are so individual. I want the world to go in a way where we're amplifying our own individuality, we're not trying to be like each other. We're celebrating who we are."
The idea was to show that we are in control of our environments. Everything affects us, and we have agency over that. I think we've gotten a bit flat lined as a society. Aesthetics isn't just making something look pretty, it's awakening all the senses. And we can do that through an appreciation of all of these different elements—sound, light, color, texture.
On that note, everything within the space and the user experience is so thoroughly executed, down to the data presented as a piece of art. This is, of course, something that appeals to designers because it's a beautiful presentation, but it also makes data more readable for people who aren't designers. Is this something you considered during the design process?
This is the greatest gift for all this hard work, that you get it. For designers that are here experiencing this, we want to support them and tell them that what they do matters. For people that aren't designers, we want to tell them that design matters. Everything you encounter matters. What you choose to surround yourself with matters.
Preference and taste are so individual. I want the world to go in a way where we're amplifying our own individuality—we're not trying to be like each other, and we're celebrating who we are. But in order to have any insight into who we are, we need to understand that who we've been and everything we'll become is a byproduct of what we have experienced.
The data presented at the end looked like a piece of art—the bigger, warm splotches represent spikes in excitement, while the thinner, cool splotches represent moments of zen. Photo: Maremosso
I love that people are telling me how surprised they are that the data is coming out as this beautiful art piece. The data is a series of numbers that feed into this system, but the truth is that the output in the infographics could look like anything. My team worked hard on devising how to use the spread of the ink and bursts of color to indicate one thing versus another.
This installation is obviously one scenario in which this type of data collection can be applied, but do you see other ways in which it could be useful?
Even in the Google School for Learning, we've started to think about what the right environments are for learning. There are certain neuroaesthetic things that actually encourage retention, memory and learning. So I think its just a matter of being aware. The research around this has been going on for 20 years, but only in the last three years has it come into the applied area—out of the science realm and into real world applications. This is pretty much the first exhibit that talks about it.
There are definitely implications in terms of applying this to homes. I don't want to see a world where we're all striving for the same chair or the same table. What's right for one person is not right for another. In different situations, I think this could amplify that. You think we're riding the elephant, we're controlling the elephant but the elephant is really controlling us, and the elephant is the subconscious. Are we saying we love a specific room because that is the room we believe is the prettiest or the one that we should like versus how our body actually feels in it. So in homes we should not get obsessed with it but just use it for a little bit of self knowledge.
Do you think being comfortable is more important than being surrounded by beautiful things?
Not necessarily. Some people equate being calm with being bored. And you know, being bored is a mental construct, but being calm is a physiology thing. What we are finding is healthy for our body is being in that calm state, where we're not excited or stressed all the time. But we live in a world where we're optimizing everything all the time.
I'm interested in this idea of finding those calm places beyond the spa where we can just be chilled out, so I particularly picked the home environment because it's an environment that you can control. So for me, I designed this modern tree house for myself. Anything could be going on at work, but when I come home to the trees, sit on my couch and look up at that forest—I can just feel it.
People say to me, "oh you have so much responsibility at work but you're so calm". I think it's because I've learned to know what works for me. There's all this pressure for us to meditate. It's about finding that calm at times, which you can do even just by listening to the right music and just being. We've asked you to not have your phones in [A Space for Being] because it should just be about being. For some people it's really hard to spend five minutes—it seems to be a real treat that we have to give ourselves permission to do. But it's really important that we do it. So A Space for Being is just a little exercise to remind you that you are in control of finding a peaceful environment.
When I first saw the bands, I was surprised to see that they are screen-less and don't send out notifications. They weren't bossing us around like we're used to. Is silent but helpful the next wave of wearable tech?
The band, which is currently not a commercial product, was done for this exhibition, but it does represent our philosophy that tech is able to amplify our humanity and that it can be here to help us. It's what we do with it that matters. This is a prime example of an indication that tech should give you information about yourself without being scary—just helpful.
It's just like Google Maps—how did we live without it? Before that you had to carry a thick Thomas Guide in the passenger seat. I don't know how we didn't get into more accidents because how did you even look up A9 on a grid while driving? Anyway, even though the band is just for this exhibition, we were very thoughtful with how and why we were doing it.
Oftentimes, technology acts as a way to disconnect from your emotional intelligence. What you're envisioning is instead a way of using tech to better understand yourself and what you need...
Absolutely. We have dug these pathways that thinking and feeling are two separate things. We think we're being smarter by operating from our neck up and always being in our heads, but we forget that the body is an incredible barometer.
Did you see the movie "Her"? It was such an impactful movie to me. It came out right before I took this job at Google. I remember thinking that it was an interesting example of where technology actually helped someone learn more about themselves than any shrink or anyone else seemed to be able to. Now I'm not suggesting that we walk around with an operating system like Samantha, but technology that is additive to your life instead of taking away humanity is the type of technology that my team and I are interested in.