Saturday, May 10, 2008

Grafting Technology Into Clothing

For a long time, people have thought about how “cool” it would be to have our electronics embedded right into the things we wear. Why carry your cell phone in your pocket when you can have it woven into your shirt? The realistic incarnation of this and other similar ideas have many flaws that prevent it from becoming a mainstream process. There are, however, many places where technology imbued clothing becomes highly sought after and extremely advantageous.

One of the first places I encountered this principal of high-tech clothing was actually through the book “Snow Crash” by Neal Stephenson. In the story, there are agents that walk around with their computers strapped to their bodies and are always plugged into the “Metaverse” (Snow Crash’s successor to the internet). In the book these people are called “Gargoyles” and are talked about with a negative connotation. The book goes out of its way however to make the things strapped to them as an extremely outlandish display of poorly grafted technology.

There is one particular area where integration of technology into clothing highly interests me and is being actively persued. Future Force Warrior is a US military initiative that is part of the Future Combat Systems Project. As our military heads into the 21st century, they are trying to develop more effective techniques to make our ground combatant more effective. One interesting aspect of the future force warrior is a new dichotomy between a network of both autonomous and remote controlled vehicles being controlled from anywhere in the world.

There are a lot of buzzwords that the military uses when describing what a soldier might look like by 2032. They want clothing and personal gear that uses anything from nanotechnology, artificially powered exoskeletons, to magnetorheological fluid, which is a science fiction holy grail of bullet proof armor. The one thing that the military does not particularly care about is whether or not the general public wants to wear these pieces of technology. For the military, the social stigmas that occlude technological garb in the standard civilian world do not exist.

The military uniform situation is another place where it is relatively easy to justify the existence of all of this technology embedded within the clothing. The military is notorious for going to extreme financial measures for incremental improvement in their fighting capabilities. If it can help a soldier be slightly more effective at his or her job without being detrimental itself, then it is a justified component to have included.

Throughout the past few hundred years, the uniform of an armed service man has changed only in material and look. Modern uniforms use sophisticated techniques to conceal and camouflage, while colonial troops displayed bright colors to distinguish friend from foe. I think that the future, however, is going to see an extremely large change in the concept of military uniform. If the military gets everything that they want within the next few decades, soldiers will have to “boot up” their uniforms and will be encased in a suit grafted with a mesh of sophisticated technological enhancements.

Final Reflection-- Why Vital Ideation isn't over for me.

Summary: I am still not sure about myself as a designer in the context of having gone through all of vital ideation’s lenses, because feel like I still haven’t tapped into a lot of the value of this course. So, I’m going to keep taking it, on my own. :)
Vital Ideation has not really felt like a course to me until this point. The course itself was a Spring 2008 course organized by Olin students, and the was the idea of viewing the world through different "lenses" to influence design. The reason I signed up for the course in the first place was largely instinctive. I was a part of the early meetings when students talked about their ideas for “student-led courses” when vital ideation came up as an idea, but the impulse for actually taking the class was twofold. The first thing to note was that I often told myself: “I would probably love that class,” or even “I’m going to end up taking that class, as busy as I may be.” The second thing of note was other people, who, especially later on would tell me “You know you’ll love this class” or “You know you’re going to take this class.” Well, I signed up, and I am very glad I did.
Now the semester is over, I’m supposed to be done, but I’m not. In fact I’m sitting in the middle of a lounge in the middle of the night trying to synthesize this course, trying to find what personal value is buried for me, and I can’t really find it. I can’t for the life of me think about how this course has made me truly different, in a truly factual and accurate way. That is not to say that I don’t think I’ve learned much from the course, but I feel like its true value is still not known to me. I really do think that vital ideation isn’t over for me at all. The semester has ended, yes, but the class is definitely not over. In fact, the class feels like it is ready to begin, as corny as that may sound. I feel very strongly that vital ideation for me has been nothing more than a springboard for something of personal value that I can’t discern yet. I’ve spent something around 50 hours this semester, with and without others thinking, reading, writing, but mostly talking about a lot of different topics. It is easy to say that the course was about a variety of design lens, and that the end result is a dozen students who are now more aware about their ability to apply lenses to design, but that’s not so true for me.
In the end, I didn’t spend too much time this semester brainstorming and ideating around specific topics like designing for fun, or ecomimicry, or anything remotely close to designing for the next guy. All those were topics for vital ideation, but none of these things hold any real value to me as design lenses. I actually felt like all of our talks were simply an opportunity to engage in discussion with other students and faculty about a variety of topics, and much of the value for me was found in generating the (few) blog posts I did, reading other’s posts, and spending hours on the web finding what other people have written about similarly to myself and others. More value was found in our evening discussions, how they came up in different forms later, how they added to reflection from the UOCD course, and how all of it together made me somehow a bit different. Right now I don’t feel closure when it comes to this class at all. I’ve written about the things I feel strongly about, and started writing about the things I didn’t really care about so much, and then stopped. The most interesting thing for me about this class is how well it has connected with other things, and it is these examples I would like to reflect a bit more on.
First of all, I kept a notebook for a week or two, then spent hours writing about how much carrying design notebooks was a silly fad, and then stopped keeping the notebook. It wasn’t really intentional in that my notebook was buried under a pile of books and left there, but I certainly didn’t care enough anymore to look for it. It is interesting to see how the notebook changed for me, not physically as in what I wrote in it. Rather, it is my interaction with this notebook that changed for me. At first keeping a notebook was a “man, I should do that” sort of thing, but it soon turned into a “well, I’m doing it now, right?” sort of thing, where I couldn’t really seem to sync myself to having and carrying a notebook. It felt so artificial to me, that I stopped writing notes in it, except for very sparingly. I stopped “ideating” with it altogether very quickly and then turned it into a personal notes book for tasks, work, and any other thoughts that I might multitask by writing during a boring French class or ten. Eventually, as I mentioned already I left the notebook behind, and I’m glad I did. I found that pretending to keep an up to date record of my thought processes was not realistic. I have learned this semester that I think mostly out loud. I tend to talk a lot, and most of it is on the fly, not really knowing what comes five words later. Sometimes the most insightful things I feel I say I don’t actually understand until 5 minutes after I’ve said it. The result of this is that I wouldn’t record things accurately in a notebook, since I felt like I was recording meaningless things. Also, much of my thought process is dependent on clearing my mind and just thinking about something, which didn’t match up too well with recording my every thought on paper for a course, or even for myself.
The second point of connection that this course has had for me also syncs up nicely with another one of my blog posts, which originally was written halfway through the semester. I was a part of a one-credit education research project this semester which involved going on a trip to a high school in rhode island called the MET. We spent a lot of time reading and talking about the school, as well as an entire day at the school and many meetings afterwards to debrief on our experience. This course is also something I think hasn’t really gotten the closure I normally feel when a class ends. There is a lot more about this MET school trip and experience left uncovered. My second blog post was about connecting social networking elements with education and the school environment, something that was a very easy connection to make having seen students interact with both during school, even myself. I won’t get into the specifics here, because I want to reflect at a bit of a higher level than this, but overall I found multiple areas of this notion of connecting social networking and pedagogy that paralleled my experience at Olin, the MET, high school, elementary school, as well as through my siblings and others in general. In fact, I hope to ask a handful of students to actually read my blog post, because I know it will spark a discussion that will be infinitely more useful and valuable to me than that blog post was, even though I felt like I did get a lot out of the thought that went into that post.
Another point of connection for me was actually the art and engineering discussion that we had over the course of the semester. I was never able to put this talk and discussions we had about the talk into a blog post however. I always felt like I hadn’t really thought about anything interesting enough to connect to outside of what I had written about for one of my UOCD design reflections, which was as all about how design is a very akin to art. I spent a lot of time talking to my team about UOCD and how it was presented to others in our class. Without a doubt UOCD is one of the most polarizing courses at Olin as far as student reactions and feedback for the course. I personally loved the class, but I am still quite confused about how students seem to feel that the course should have been much more structured and deterministic. It seems like telling students that UOCD was an art class might have made it a lot more digestible as a course for a lot of people. I could try to explain my thought process here a bit more, but I’ll jump to another topic now.
There really is only one thing left for me to say about this course. I’ve decided that I’ve written about everything that I felt I really connected with well this semester. The only exception to this was the design for fun module, which I read other people’s posts for. I’m aware that the course description says that we needed something like 8 blog posts, but I think I’m going to stop at my four right now. (My first post was meant for both sticky ideas and notebooks, hence the length.) I’d much rather spend another 15 hours reading other people’s posts and hoping they spark future interesting discussions that write about topics I currently feel I have nothing new to say. So, after finishing this blog post I think I’ll be spending a couple hours over the course of the next week continuing to take Vital Ideation, but for myself, not really for credit. In the end it doesn’t really matter if I get credit.
Summary: I am still not sure about myself as a designer in the context of having gone through all of vital ideation’s lenses, because feel like I still haven’t tapped into a lot of the value of this course. So, I’m going to keep taking it, on my own. :)

Friday, May 9, 2008

Design for Fun -- The Needham Science Center

The Needham Science Center is an absolutely ridiculous place full of well-designed educational materials. According to the email that I sent out to some students, the Needham Science Center has "a life-sized model of a whale, over thirty live animals, fantastic demonstrations that have been around since the 1960’s, a severed crocodile head that they found in a bottle of formaldehyde (which they unfortunately had to get rid of), and mysterious boxes stacked to the ceiling full of ridiculously awesome stuff that need to be sorted through!"

What the Needham Science Center actually does is travel around to all the elementary schools in Needham and give demonstrations and teach lessons for the kids. It's been around since the 1960's, and it was actually going to get closed down a few years ago. The parents in the area then raised over $200,000 in six weeks to keep the place open.

The things I mentioned earlier are pretty awesome. But that's not the half of it -- I forgot to mention the hundreds of animal skulls, the thousands of books, the dozens of Rube Goldburg machines, and the plethora of dead animals including numerous dead birds, tons of dead dear and moose, a number of dead deadly cats, a pair of dead polar bears, and one dead sea otter. The pictures don't do them justice. It's a lot of dead animals!

The live animals include a doves, rats, frogs, toads, snakes, owls, madagascar hissing cockroaches, crickets, a tarantula, turtles, lizards, a ferret, a chinchilla, and more. They told me that they used to have over eighty live animals, but that they had to cut back because they just didn't have the personnel to take care of them.

There are dozens of neat displays packed in the basement. For example, there are optics demonstrations for your arm disappearing, an intangible quarter floating in the air, a ferret changing color before your eyes, and a head floating in midair. There are fantastic contraptions demonstrating electricity and magnetism as well. For instance, there is a bike that you can ride to power a light bulb and a Van de Graff generator that's five feet tall.

One cool display was about bird calls. Stepping on the pedal lightly would light up the picture of a bird. Stepping on the pedal hard, a mechanical contraption would produce the sound of that bird!

When we went to help out today, we sorted thousands of rocks. Opening a random box, we'd find things like a chunk of topaz, labled "8" signifying its Moh's hardnesss. Or we'd find a well-sealed capsule containing a block of fibrous rock labeled "asbestos". You just never know what sort of crazy stuff you'd find in there!

All of the large displays in the science center are hand-built. A lot of the stuff is made of wood, nailed together, and spray-painted. There's a pretty nice toolshop in the basement for putting everything together. There's a vertical bandsaw, a drill press, and hundreds of hand tools. There are plenty of wires, switches, battery holders, circuit elements,lightbulbs, and the like for adding any electrical components. It really makes you think about the types of crazy people who built all that stuff over the years, and what they had in mind when they were designing it. Although most of the stuff is either rusting, chipping, rotting away by now, when you wipe off the dust and give it a go, most of the stuff still works. And for the stuff that doesn't work, if you look at the circuit and replace a part it'll usually come to life.

I can easily see how the resources in the Needham Science center can be used to intrigue, enlighten, and entertain the young minds of the children around here. The people who put there heart into these displays simply knew what they were designing for. They designed things that were educational, and they designed things that were fun. Educational and fun, fun and educational, thats what the Needham Science Center is about!

Design for Fun -- A Children's Museum Done Right

After Ellen Thompson gave us a lecture and free tickets to the Boston Children's Museum, I went out there to check it out. And I must say, I was extremely impressed by the stuff I saw there!

The museum itself is rather small; I stopped by every exhibit in two and a half hours. But it was so fantastically well designed! Everywhere I looked, everything was colorful, or moving, or you could climb it, or touch it, or play with it!

What are the exhibits that I thought were the awesomest? I didn't take any pictures while I was there, but letsee what we got:

A. Climb
The first exhibit that you see upon entering the museum is the Climb. You can't tell from the picture, but the thing is three stories tall! Little kids climb from platform to platform, high up into the air. It gets them moving, and it gets them to judge distances and take risks!

B. Kid Power
I liked this exhibit a lot. The children got to use bikes and pulleys and such to generate motion. But there were a lot of hands-on displays which taught children about eating healthy and balancing diet and exercise -- an especially important topic in today's society!

C. Bubbles
This was just fun! The kids just got to make enormous bubbles! There were all sorts of crazy contraptions for making the things, you could make circular ones, rectangular ones four feet long, or ones that came up and encircled your body. Absolutely enchanting!

D. Raceways
Imagine a room full of a couple thousand golfballs whizzing around. Spinning, rolling, going up, going down, loop-the-looping, making the jump... Talk about testing out the laws of motion! It was pretty cool.

E. "The Common"
This wasn't really an exhibit, but it was a cool place to hang out! The well-designed and fun objects there included a chess set that had pieces almost as large as the children, and a projector shining butterflies onto the wall which would fly around and land on you!

F. Johnny's Workbench
I only began to do woodwork for the first time this semester, and these kids get to try it out at such a young age! These kids got to don miniature aprons and safety goggles and hack some wood apart, then build them into little boats. The tools they had access to included screwdrivers, files, hammers, and hacksaws (not kidding!).

G. Construction Zone
This was a pretty fun exhibit. They had some actual construction machines, and plenty of things to climb on, build, and play around with.

H. Boston Black
This was an exhibit dedicated to Boston's African American culture. Some parts of America still have a lot of racial tension, so it is good to see an exhibit designed to teach about black culture to children of such a young age.

I. A Japanese House
Speaking of different cultures, check out this exhibit! Get this -- they have an actual house, shipped from Japan, in their museum. Cool!

J. Recycle Shop
They sell all sorts of junk here, but the point is, it teaches children about recycling. It's great for children to learn about such an important topic early on.

In short, this a museum in which I feel they got things right. There are a lot of elements which fit my definition of fun from my previous post. There is a lot of running around, climbing, building, and playing. In addition, they emphasize extremely important topics for young children: they cover exercise, eating right, different cultures, and recycling. It's just an awesome place!

Design for Fun -- The Healthiest Kids I Have Ever Seen

Some of the happiest memories of my life are in the kindergartens and elementary schools in Okinawa, Japan. Here, I was introduced to the healthiest kids that I have ever seen in my life.

The children are insane. They are fantastically cute, but they'll swarm and tackle you. Naturally, you counter by picking them up, tossing them sky-high, flipping them over, and spinning them around.

They are always running, and have an incredible amount of energy! I was in pretty good shape at the time, yet I would get outrun and left breathless by seven-year-old children in a game of tag.

The playground design was excellent. You reguarly saw things like 20-foot high slides that were ten feet wide and which were designed to be extremely low friction -- low enough that it wasn't possible to climb up the slide. The kids went down that thing fast! Yes, those are kindergarteners in that picture.

These children had no fear. I recall a playground at another kindergarten which had 15-foot high poles going straight up in the air. Kids of six or seven would climb straight up, hang from the horizontal bar, and laugh.

These kids would really get into the games that we played. Take, for instance, a game of duck duck goose. It was hilarious for all of us everytime a kid slipped and sprawled and skid halfway accross the floor because he was going so fast.

The kids were also sweet and had a good sense of right and wrong. For instance, if you left your wallet full of cash somewhere, then they'd find you and bring it to you. They wouldn't even peek inside.

These kids listened to their teachers. As rowdy as they usually were, when it was time for class, they would sit down and pay attention.

These children were also the nicest childern I have ever met. At the ten kindergartens and two elementary schools I taught at, never once did I see a child treat another child unfairly. Isn't that amazing?

These were also the happiest children I have ever seen. Of the 750+ children who I taught, I recall one time, just once, when I saw a kid not smiling. She wasn't sad, she was just not smiling. In America, her expression would have passed as "normal". However, at the school, I saw during the couple hours I was there, a dozen classmates and several teachers ask her with a concerned look on their faces, "daijobou ka?"

I used to teach at two elementary schools as a high-school student in America. The children there were extremely sweet, but it also had a lot of elements that I found largely absent in Okinawa. For example, in Okinawa, there were far less children acting like they had ADD, there were far less children bullying others, and there were far less children who were overweight and eating fries. What a disparity!

Okinawa has one of the highest life expectancies in the world. This is attributed to, in part, the diet high in goya (bitter melon), seafood, and most deliciously, pork. However, I think it's also because the lifestyle that the children have here is really, really, really healthy.

From Okinawa, I learned that happy is healthy, healthy is fun, and fun is happy. And I also learned (for a fact!) a number of things that are really really fun and happy and healthy:

- constantly running around
- constantly screaming
- constantly horsing around
- constantly being rowdy
- constantly being kids!

Sticky Ideas -- Sticky DS

In our lecture on sticky ideas, Steve Gold introduced stickiness not as an idea, but rather as a product. In other words, what makes an product sticky? I recall a product that was introduced to me several months ago, and which has stuck with me since:

Well, yes, it's just a Nintendo DS. But make sure to buy that hardware that allows you stick a 4 gigabyte mini-SD card in the thing and run whatever you want.

What are some things that this set up can do? Let's see:

A. Emulate

Think about all your favorite DS games. Now imagine being able to load a whole bunch of them on a single cartriage and play them for free. I'm not condoning piracy, this is just what you could do if you wanted to. By downloading Brain Age, a Megaman game, and the new Advance Wars, you've more than recuperated the cost of the hardware. Next, think about how that was illegal as hell, and feel guilty about how you just screwed over all the game programmers and their families, you inconsiderate bastard!

Alternatively, you could download a bunch of freeware games instead.

B. Teach

There is a lot of homebrew software out there for teaching academic subjects. One very well-designed piece of software that was shown to me was a simple dictionary. It was smooth and easy to use. For instance, if I wrote down an Asian character on the touch screen, it would look up the definition in Chinese, look it up in Japanese, translate it to English, and pronounce it for you, if you so chose.

Another neat thing it could do was teach you actual subject matter. For instance, say you were trying to learn another language. It would explain the material, quiz you on the material, pronounce things for you, keep track of the things that you got wrong, go back to the things that you missed, and even give encouragement appropriately. The person who was showing me the product told me, in Chinese, "I felt that I was forgetting my Japanese, so I started using this Japanese program that teaches Korean." Yay, fun!

C. Instruct you on Cooking

Pick a recipe; or, search hundreds of recipes based on what ingredients you have available, the number of people you're serving, the amount of time you'll need to prep, etc. The DS will then go through, step by step, exactly what you needed to do for preparation and show you pictures and explanations on how to do it. The pictures are clear, and the product will even read the steps out loud to you. Everything is well ordered, so your carrots are chopped at the beginning and not right before you're hurrying to throw them in. Furthermore, your hands are probably busy, so you can just set the DS on the counter and voice-activate it. Just say, "next step", "repeat that", "louder", etc! Basically, it's just really well designed (if you like Japanese food, anyway).

In general, there are a number of things that I noticed that made the setup sticky. It was easy to use, it was useful, it was easy-to-use enough and useful enough so that you used it, it was hella personalized (the one that was shown to me was completely pink with a pink stylus and pink earphones). Furthermore, you loaded the applications that were personally useful (For instance, I'd probably have the Japanese - Chinese - English dictionary, but not the Korean or French ones). In the end, everything was so smooth with cute graphics and simple animations -- the thing just stuck with me.

Most of the apps are homebrew, so there is a pretty active community. I heard that high-schoolers in Japan would use it to study, because it's useful (and fun!). For those of you wondering about availability, to the best of my knowledge most of the programs are in Japanese, with English being the second most common.
In any case, I want one!

Introduction to Vital Ideation -- Notetaking

Starting about two years ago, I began to experiment out of neccessity with various methods of taking notes. I had a job that could be tricky at times, hundreds of contacts to keep track of, and a dozen little things that changed every day which I needed to pay careful attention to. I did have access to many of the tools that seem to be so familar to Olin College students: namely, email and outlook calendar. However, I often needed to be able to keep track of events while I was on the move, and it was usually a bad idea to bring a laptop along.

The following are my experiences with but a few of methods with which I played around with:

A. Hipster PDA

The Hipster PDA is a cult classic among GTD fans, but I found it not to my liking. I couldn't stand the bulkiness, and, quite surprisingly, I found that access just took too long. Do you know how long it takes to remove that little binder-clip? I gave up on mine within a week.

B. Small Notebook

I use these to keep track of contacts. When I went to volunteer activities before coming to Olin, I would bring my notebook with me. It was great for collecting people's contact information! I got this one after I moved into the area this year -- hopefully, it will be a lot more full after this summer!

C. Post-Its

So, the picture is kinda how I use them nowadays... Anyway, these were extremely convenient back in the day when I had to work with a phone and a desk. They were perfect for taking quick notes, and you could stick them in visible places or on relevant papers and organize them in whatever way you wished. However, when you were on the move, I found the next method to by much more handy:

D. Index Cards

Unlike Post-It Notes, which will fall apart in your pocket, index cards are durable enough to repeatedly stuff in your trousers and take with you on the go. They are the perfect size, and fold up nicely as well. Back in the day, I used to keep them attached with a pencil as shown in the photograph. These are extremely handy and easy to access for the dozen times a day when I had to jot down a note. As things got done and I crossed them off, or when everything just got too messy, I would copy the relevant information into the computer, into a notebook, or onto another index card.

E. Design Notebook

This is a relatively new note-taking method for me; I only started using it last semester in Design Nature. I used it to write, sketch, and design, and I had all my notes in one place, which ultimately saved a lot of time. I ended up liking my design notebook so much, that I filled the whole thing up partway through the second project! However, this item doesn't seem like the type of thing that was especially convenient to use to just jot things down whenever; rather, it was much better to use as something to take with you to an empty classroom at four in the morning when it's nice and quiet to just sit down and work. Nevertheless, for this course, I carried my notebook with me wherever I went and jotted town ideas when they came up.

Now that I am at Olin college, my laptop usually follows wherever I go. Nonetheless, I find that I still prefer to keep track of a lot of things with the methods that saved my life. The non-electronic methods are simply irreplaceable -- the ability to sketch, the speed with which you can jot things down and convey ideas, the lack of start-up time, the fact that you don't run out of power, the replacability, the feel of pencil on paper, and the ability to sort and organize in a hands-on fashion -- these are reasons why I prefer to take notes the way I do.