Why Siftables Excite Me

I first saw Siftables at TED 2009, where David Merrill demonstrated them. I immediately tweeted, “Omg. Siftables are awesome. Google it, watch videos. #ted.” Here’s the talk:

My reaction was not unique. David was quite popular for the remainder of the event. There’s something about Siftables that taps into the “Well, duh” reaction, when you see something new that seems so obvious, which feels so inevitable. We had a couple of the folks from Tacolab, the creators of Siftables, over to Adaptive Path a week ago, and since then I’ve been trying to figure out what makes them so special.

We’re in an exciting time in human-computer interaction. There’s a lot of movement to get beyond the keyboard + mouse and towards new methods of interaction and input, whether it’s Wii-motes, iPhone’s touchscreen, or the Microsoft Surface table of CNN’s Magic Wall. And while I’m intrigued by all those tools, Siftables actually opens up a whole new avenue of inquiry.

See, one thing we’re still really stuck on is the Single Screen Interface. All of this activity is still geared toward a single display, whether a TV, mobile device, a computer screen, or a wall. (Seeing Siftables made me only even more frustrated with iPhone, because there’s no reason iPhones shouldn’t be able to directly engage with one another (I mean, even the original Palm Pilots allowed infrared beaming!). Instead, iPhones are isolated, attention-greedy devices.)

Siftables begins to suggest what happens when your computers are small, fast, cheap, and out of control (I very much think of Rodney Brooks’ comments in Errol Morris’ superb film, Fast Cheap and Out of Control.) There’s a whole new opportunity for connection, interaction, swarming, meshing, and emergence.

Importantly, the form of Siftables also speaks to *fun*. They’re blocks, and, as kids know, blocks are fun. The immediate impulse of anyone interacting with Siftables is to *play* with them.

For some reason I can’t quite figure, when I began to think of applications for Siftables, my mind went back, way back, to 1984, and Rocky’s Boots, an educational software title for the Apple II that taught basic computer logic through graphic assemblage of logic circuits. It would be awesome to physically build such circuitry with Siftables, and take advantage of their interactive nature. I then mused on whether you could program Siftables with a visual programming language on the Siftables, and then my head went all recursive and I had to do a hard reboot, probably with alcohol.

Some thoughts on TED 2009

Last week I attended TED 2009, the world-renowned confab of the wealthy, smarty pants, Makers and Doers of Things, and ne’er-do-wells such as myself. I don’t have as much to say as I did last year, if only because the content wasn’t as dynamic (nothing matched the sublime heights of Jill Bolte Taylor’s talk), and the conversations between the sessions were more meaningful. Still, some things I’m thinking about:

  • Please please please keep the VC away from me
  • This very much seems like a legacy from an earlier TED time, when VCs would meet interesting technology folks at TED and fund ideas, etc. Now it just feels blandly mercenary. VCs add nothing to the texture of the conversation, and, really, their presence only detracts from the noble mission of the event. I wish Chris had the cojones to uninvite these folks.

  • New interaction design opportunities galore
  • Perhaps ironic given that Interaction09 was taking place at the same time, but some of the best-received talks were on work done at the Media Lab. My favorite was Siftables, a technology platform for little computer-chipped blocks with 128×128 screens and teeny speakers that interact with one another. What this technology affords very much reminded me of the Wand in the World work we did with mobile technologies last year.

    Also shown was SIXth Sense (or Wear Ur World), a system that involves the user wearing a camera, a small projector, and having a cell phone nearby to handle processing and communications. The projector beams images on anything, and, through the camera, the user can this interact on any surface. It’s very much proof-of-concept now, but suggests some interesting futures.

    And cannot forget Golan Levin, who is perhaps more a media artist than interaction designer.

  • Willie Smits is your new favorite hero
  • Dr. Smits told his story of protecting orangutans, and how his desire to do so lead him to regrow forests, develop new agricultural opportunities, and support impoverished local communities in Indonesia. It’s an amazing tale, and the TED talk most worth watching.

  • Challenge, don’t coddle me
  • By the end of the conference, I tweeted a realization: “Where are TED’s dangerous ideas? I want to be challenged, not validated.” There was pretty much nothing controversial presented, and much of what was discussed (oceans need saving! sustainable architecture! liberal arts education is important!) were subjects of easy back-patting on the audience’s part. I realized that I’m suspicious of this complacency, and, that I want to be made uncomfortable, to be challenged, because only then can our ideas progress.

The best design strategy conversation I’ve ever read online

This will seem self-serving, and I’m sure it is, but it’s also true. The best conversation I’ve read about design strategy has been posted to Adaptive Path’s blog, a discussion between Brandon and Henning from AP and David Butler, VP of Design at Coca-Cola. It’s broken up into two parts (Part 1, Part 2) and clearly gets at how design can be a force for change in business, even a ginormous multinational corporation.

Somehow, I’m a HarvardBusiness.org author

Read my inaugural post for my “Experience Matters” blog/column for the revamped HarvardBusiness.org. For the column, I’ll be writing about how to become a customer experience-driven organization. I accepted this assignment because I thought it would be an interesting challenge to attempt to communicate these ideas to a business/management audience. I can’t assume anything about what the audience knows about design or user experience. We’ll see how it goes!

“Live 2.0″ – the value of live events

At TED University yesterday, Jim McCarthy talked about the phenomenon of the value of recorded media plunges whereas the value of live, in-person experiences increases. He refers to this as Live 2.0. He pointed out that in 1985, the cost of a CD and a concert ticket were roughly the same. Recorded media has lowered in price (if you think about buying whole albums on iTunes) whereas concerts have gone up and up. Considering he was saying this in a room of people who paid $6,000 to attend, even though all the talks can be seen free online, clearly, there’s something there.

When this trend is discussed, the typical explanation involves people wanting to be together, with one another, because we’re fundamentally social, etc. etc. That’s obviously correct, but insufficient — people in 1985 wanted that togetherness as much as we do today. Other forces at play must have dramatically shifted the value.

A couple ideas:

  • The decreasing price of recorded media means people have money left over, and are able to funnel that money into other things they love, such as concerts.
  • Information about live events is easier to come across, thanks to the internet (whether simply sharing of forwarded emails, or tools like Upcoming). So more people know about these events increasing demand, increasing prices, because supply is limited.

    Your thoughts?