Bye for now

I’m going to stop posting things here. When I started up again a few months ago I had a fair amount of free time but I’ve realised I can’t keep it up.

Although I’m still interested in all this stuff I don’t have the time to run a decent blog dedicated to it. These days there are plenty of better ones. And, not only is it annoying (for me) to have a blog that limps along, it’s harder to write for — the longer I go without posting, the more worthwhile the next post needs to be (or so it feels).

So I’ll close the site for the moment, once again. Some things I write on my personal website might be related but it may not be worth following that if you’re purely interested in futures stuff.

However, I’m going to try storing links to interesting future-y things in my Delicious account, tagged with ‘overlinks’ (RSS feed). So keep an eye on that. We’ll see how it goes. If it turns out I save plenty of interesting stuff I may pump it through to Overmorgen.

So, bye for now.

I’m not clear whether this is new or not but, via the Futures weblog, the Ontario College of Art and Design offers a Master of Design in Strategic Foresight and Innovation:

The Master of Design in Strategic Foresight and Innovation integrates knowledge and methodology from a number of disciplines: design, business, science and technology, and the social sciences. Design provides the crucial link between these areas, drawing on its essential competencies of design thinking, strategic and iterative methodology, and a deep commitment to understanding human needs, wants and behaviour. Through holistic thinking in a co-creative environment, the designer, the business person, the social scientist and the engineer will develop together the skills required for true socio-technological innovation.

The course is two years, part time, and it sounds like at least some of the classes are in the evening, much like I assume the descendent of the course I did in Houston still is. (It’s now clumsily called the Master of Technology in Futures Studies in Commerce.) Anyway, it’s interesting to find another futures course, particularly one angled toward design.

Wrong Tomorrow

It’s getting linked to from many places today but that’s no reason not to mention it here… Wrong Tomorrow is a site on which you can record the predictions made by pundits about the future in order to look back and see which came true.

It looks like a handy way to puncture the certainty attention-grabbing folk make. As I’ve probably said several times here, futurists in the sense that I think of them don’t make predictions like this because we know such predictions are worthless — the future is always too uncertain.

The site’s author, Maciej Ceglowski, describes the reasoning behind creating the site on his weblog. Good stuff.

ETech 09: The Real Time City

Andrea Vaccari, from Senseable City Lab, MIT, late on Wednesday aftenroon at ETech 09.

Massive amounts of data about people and cities are available these days which will help us to see how cities are used.

Once we thought that technology would make cities obsolete — distance working — but we’re seeing the opposite.

New York Talk Exchange. Visualisation to show how New York is connected to places around the world. She shows another visualisation growing/shrinking countries on a world map depending on the amount of telephone traffic between countries. One more: something about how different regions of New York are connected to other parts of the world.

WikiCity. Real Time Rome — Visualiation of activities in the city, cellphones, buses, etc.

A map of cellphone activity in Rome around the World Cup Final.

Obama — One People (Probably launching on Monday). Showing phone activity around the inauguration.

The World’s Eyes — Showing Flickr photos, taken when and where and by who. eg, photos by Britons tagged with “party” in a particular area. Using geotags on Flickr photos to plot peoples’ movements around Spain.

Digital Water Pavilion — Can reconfigure the spaces of the building by switching the water walls on and off, and use the walls as a new medium to display patterns and messages.

Tracing the Visitor’s Eye — With Flickr photos again, tracking where tourists go and what they take photos of. See what things interest tourists, something we could never have done before.

PlaceRank Is this the correct URL? — When you move while on the phone your call is moved from one cell to another. They analysed this data [in some unspecified way] to determine which locations are more popular, analagous to Google PageRank.

Raster Cities — Looking at 3D buildings. Shadow casting, seeing where their shadows are. How tall can a building be to enable a minimum amount of light. How much can be seen from a building.

MIT Enernet [?] — Seeing how people fill the space of a building at different times of the day.

CurrentCity — Amsterdam. To help police monitor emergencies and major events by analysing cellphone activity. You can get a baseline of normal activity across the city and then unusual events stand out.

Ben Cerveny, “The New ‘Situation’: Frameworks for Spatial Mediation” on Wednesday afternoon at ETech 09. There were various chunks of this that I failed to note, so these notes are a bit more broken than usual.

Systems for Urban Scale Interactions.

The software for the built environment of humans has existed for thousands of years — that’s what civilization is. We’ve formalised a vocabulary for social interactions.

Gone from defining computing as social, to social objects, and now defining environments as social. Massively multiparticipant models. Some people now understand how to interact with each other in the spaces of MMORPGs, spaces which are becoming increasingly actualised in our everyday lives.

With MOOs people were being empowered to be creative and create objects and environments, creators of their narrative experiences. They began to build out larger worlds, a long tail explosion of user-generated content.

We move on to Game Neverending which became Flickr. The design of the original game was about discovering new areas. Players would have to come together to decide how to provision that space, how to govern it, etc. There’s the What of the space, and the Who of the space, the politics of it.

Playground Foundation [Can’t find a URL]. The mandate was to aggregate data about Amsterdam into a platform accessible by everyone so that people could access information about the city. A model that curated about the city by its own residents. A collaboratively constructed representation of the city that, in a way, floats above it. To provide an information infrastructure in the same way the government provides a transportation infrastructure.

Area/code’s Crossroads game. People running around streets to get away from a thing they can only see on their phone.

AFK. Wovenspace. [Can’t find URLs for these either.] Building amusement park(s) in Dubai. Building an amusement park that’s “alive”. What does it mean if we have a higher resolution understanding in the park? If we have a higher resolution model based on sensors and can make changes based on this information.

On the smaller scale, handheld devices that communicate with the network. Then small devices in the architecture configured to be input or output nodes. Mix and match sensors and actuators. All of this creates a realtime model of urban scale space and activate things based on this information. Architectural adjustments, changes to handheld devices, etc.

In order to occupy a space that has these capabilties you need to trust the space and the people who are participating in it. The first problem that needs to be solved in rolling these capabilities out to urban environments is a social/political one, of whether you trust the control of these technologies.

Online there’s always a problem with how privacy is handled, eg, Facebook and privacy. Like Facebook (but unlike an urban environment) somewhere like an amusement park is opt-in. If you trust the park to keep you safe on a roller coaster you’ll probably trust them to track you around the park.

[Missed a bunch of stuff at the end as I was a bit dazed by everything.]

Tony Jebara from Columbia University and Sense Networks, “Mobile Phones Reveal the Behavior of Places and People” on Wednesday morning at ETech 09.

[Missed a few minutes.] Stuff about making social networks in Facebook etc. How do we capture these networks in the real world? Sense networks using data from iPhones, TomTom, cellphones, etc. Lots of data being collected all the time.

They monitored people who commuted into the San Francisco financial district. A correlation [looked very small] between how early people arrived at work and the state of the Dow Jones. Monitored the hours people go out in the evening. Again a correlation with the Dow Jones [couldn’t understand the graph at a glance so not sure how much there was]. — real-time density of users at every street corner. Poisson models find the most active bars and restaurants. Gives you a “sixth sense” of where people are in the city. So you can see if lots of people are gathering somewhere. [Oh, only in San Francisco.]

What’s next? Filter it for where people like you are. Different colours for different types of people, a heat map of “where’s my crowd?” They currently have 20 different tribes. Colour bars at the top of the screen indicate which tribe you belong to most at the moment, changing over time depending on your behaviour.

They build a network of people from location data. Like Facebook’s network of people but without the self-reporting. You’re connected to someone because you’re co-located with them. And building links with people who hang out in similar kinds of places, eg, two people who visit Starbucks in two different cities at similar times of day have a connection.

The only data they have are GPS tracks for people. They need to translate the raw latitude and longitude into semantic data; what does it mean to be in a particular location at a particular time. They build a network of places, identifying similar places no matter where they are. To identify this similarity they use three kinds of information: the commercial and demographic activity (using government databases), plus flow analysis.

Flow analysis data: If several people arrive in two places from similar sources and then leave to go to similar destinations, this indicates similarity between the two places. So you can tell that two bars in different parts of the city are probably the same kind of place as they attract people who go from and to similar locations.

Commerce data: Standard Industrial Categorization (SIC) Code. Assigns a number to a building depending on its commercial use.

To work out the profile of an individual they analyse the Flow, SIC and demographic data for the places they go. He shows a table with rows for hours (168 for every hour of the week), and columns of different flow, SIC and demographic types. The table cells show the percentage chance of a person being in a particular column in a particular hour of the week. At this point in the process the GPS data is thrown away. The matrix is adjusted over time as the user changes their behaviour. They only store the current matrix for a person.

People can be connected by their similar behaviours. Uses:

  • Churn — eg, a mobile phone company sees one person has left their network, they might then promote themselves to connected people to stop them leaving too.
  • Advertising —
  • Marketing —
  • Collaborative Filtering —
  • Demogrpahics —

If people go to car dealerships often enough they can be identified as potential purchasers. These people can be broken down into high or low-end car purchasers depending on which dealerships they go. [This is all starting to sound a bit evil, rather than fun.]

They get very good predictions of how someone will respond to ads. [I think that was right.]

[For all that stuff about how anonymised the data is earlier on, it sounds like if they have a client that’s say a phone company, they are able to tell the phone company about an individual’s behaviour. Which, of course, the phone company need to to provide a useful service to their clients, but it does sound rather evil (or “commercial”, depending on your point of view).]

One example of a less “depressing” application (in response to a question): if you go to a new city they could recommend places you would like, rather than just recommending exactly the same places to everyone.

They claim around four million users.

Aaron Koblin, “Making Art with Lasers, Sensors, and the Net” on Wednesday morning at ETech 09. A lot of this was just showing us cool stuff, so there’s not many notes to take, but still…

Shows visualisations of flight patterns.

Work with NYTE showing flow of data round the world. Population types in Manhattan.

Quantity of SMS messages sent around Amsterdam.

Having people on Amazon’s Mechanical Turk draw thousands of sheep or parts of a $100 bill.

Radiohead video using a rotating laser device. It spins and records where the lasers hit as a 3D space that can be manipulated live. Google Code page — all the video data is released to play with.

Things he’s learned:

  • Looking at something ordinary in a new way can make it interesting.
  • Combining multiple visualisation techniques.
  • Think about the data, not “the real world.” Don’t get hung up on what you think it “should” look like.
  • You don’t have to use all the data.
  • Let your data free. More than 100,000 downloads of the Radiohead data.
  • Work with Radiohead.

His new project is Bicycle built for Two Thousand, again using Mechanical Turk. Had people record themselves imitating a single sound from the song, out of context. These were then put together to create an aggregated version of the song.

[He seems surprised that the aggregate song sounds intelligible, and that the $100 bill looks like a $100 bill. But I’d have been surprised if they weren’t. Isn’t this what you’d expect from averaging out many things? But still, this was all great stuff.]

ETech 09: Siftables

Jeevan Kalanithi and David Merrill: “Cookie Scale Computing: Human-Computer Interfaces as Piles of Gesture Sensitive Displays” on Wednesday morning at ETech 09. A talk about Siftables. Probably best if you visit the site and watch the video there to get an idea of what these things actually are, as it probably won’t come across solely in text.

Cookie scale computing

How do we design for when computers go from the size of a candy bar (like the iPhone) to the size of a small cookie?

Computers and mobile phones pull us out of our environment into another world. This is a problem. They provide a narrow channel between the physical world we live in and the virtual world of all this information on which we rely. How can we make an interface that provides a better overlap between these two domains?

When we had punch cards you had to double and triple check your cards before using them. Time was scarce. Many people wanted to use the computer. Now we have rapid prototyping and can keep trying new ideas over and over.

A study with Tetris players: how many rotations would a player apply to a piece before dropping it? The better the player, the more rotations they did. For computations that are mentally expensive it’s easier to do that manipulation with a representation outside of your head. Another experiment with Scrabble tiles. The group that was allowed to rearrange the tiles rather than do it all in their head did better.

Related work

  • Tangible: How to make interfaces to computers that aren’t keyboards or mouse.
  • Ubicomp: Things that bring information to us when we’re not at our computer.
  • Gestural: Mouse, sketchpad, Wii.
  • Tabletop: React table, multitouch.
  • Sensor networks: Lightweight and battery powered.

Lucid Touch — a touchscreen you touch from behind so you don’t obscure the image.

Fitbit — sends information about your activity to the internet.

Vitality — smart pill bottle cap.


Came from playing with childrens’ building blocks. Small square blocks with the front face a screen. They can display colour graphics, communicate wirelessly, sense motion, detect when its near other blocks.

Multi-Object gestures:

  • Group. You can group items into one siftable.
  • Incline. Indicate strength of a relationship between two things shown on the siftables by tilting the devices toward or away from each other.
  • Pour. Send an attribute, like a colour, from one siftable to another.
  • Making a list by putting them in a pile.
  • Thumping. Slap the surface the siftables are on to give them a signal.

Key features of Siftables:

  • Multi-person. Easy for several people to collaborate on using them because they’re physical, not on a screen.
  • Anywhere tabletop.
  • 3D interaction. Aware of 3D movement.
  • Two-handed, all-fingers, bodily interaction
  • Offload working memory, mental computation.

They show videos of a series of blocks being used as a game, like Scrabble tiles. Or being used to do simple equations with numbers and symbols. And being used as a musical sequencer, with siftables as instruments, musical filters, tempo controller, etc.

ETech 09: Explosives

Christa Hockensmith: “Jackhammers, Polymers, and Diamonds: New Applications in Explosives”, one of the early talks at ETech 09 on Wednesday morning. Hockensmith is from the Energetic Materials Research and Testing Center at New Mexico Tech. It was a really fun talk and the notes will miss out on a lot of the flavour. And some of them won’t make sense out of context but are possibly just for me to remember the fun:

“Y’all don’t wear very colourful clothes do you?”

“I remember the ethernet.”

What’s an explosion? A chemical reaction that happens in thousands of a second. A release of lots of pressure and heat. Exothermic. “It’s not a good idea to heat our homes with explosions.”

We could use cartridges of walnut-sized explosive cartridges to power jackhammers — it wouldn’t need to be tethered to anything..

“There is no loony scale. If you can think it and draw it and make it… what’s not to love?”

The pressure wave from an explosion does the damage to buildings. It moves faster than the fireball.

Pencil lead is more stable than diamonds. “My mother is more stable than diamonds, and she, god rest her soul, is no longer with us.”

Explosive-aided polymers. Medical supplies are packaged in plastic containers that can deform in transit. A small explosive charge can create enough gas to reshape the container.

A very large explosion can create diamonds. A small detonation might destroy tumors… if we could implode the tumor rather than exploding it and then the body will clear up the debris. Even smaller detonations might clear blocked arteries and blood vessels.

Explosives Camp going to be run for the first time [Can’t see it on the website yet.].

ETech 09: Urban Futures

Chris Luebkeman from Arup. One of the first presentations on Wednesday at ETech 09. It was an interesting presentation, and he was a great talker but… I still don’t know what the point of the presentation was. It all felt like an introduction to something that we never reached:

Shows a photo of a very dull meeting room in Tokyo where he went to meeting a government minister. He asked why the room was so dismal. The minister said it was because they couldn’t be seen to waste public money. What does it mean to waste money? Is making a room pleasant wasting money? How would the decisions made there be different?

Peak urbanism. Urban populations will fall [due to overall population changing? I missed exactly why.] As your city infrastructure becomes superfluous what would you disassemble?

The context of what is normal depends on where you are. Toilets that squirt you with water are normal in Japan, not here. What would be normal for an eco city?

Urban Ageism — What should we be designing that is useful for ages 0-100.

The majority of the urban world live in informal developments.

Urban infrastructure wasn’t designed for everyone to have cars. They weren’t designed for downtowns to be abandoned. Imagine San Jose devoid of people [not hard to imagine…].

The modern breadline — people need food to survive. Shows a huge crowd of cars trying to get to the petrol station in Harare. How can you increase the resilience of our urban areas? Many people couldn’t work if they couldn’t drive.

Urban equality — is the question what we can/should be doing, or is it what should we not be doing? We use too many resources. How do we make things equal?

About 100 years ago, only 14% of Americans had a bathtub, only 8% had a telephone. The Panama canal got started, the Hindenberg zeppelin disaster. Our working day was reduced to ten hours a day. If you were a woman smoking in New York you’d be arrested. Only 8,000 cars in the USA, driving on 144 miles of paved road, at 10 mph in cities. But Studebaker made a car and you could choose whether you wanted an electric or petrol engine. The world’s largest cities were already multi-modal, there was diversity [not quite sure what he means there].

Hénard presented his future city ideas to RIBA in London, making a city dense, pushing services underground. At a similar time Ebenezer Howard had the idea of garden cities, distant nodes connected by good transport. We had this conflict, opposing ideas of density and sprawl. We know that our eco cities need to be dense in order for public transport to work.

“The future is always over sold and under imagined.” We, technologists, always over sell the future. Only a tiny amount of what we predict comes true. We had many dreams about what our lives would be like in the 1920s or 30s, and in the 1950s or 60s. Fantastic, optimistic ideas. “When we dream we can create.”

Huge numbers of people are moving to urban environments. Unsustainable urbanisation is a threat to security.

The Dongtan Eco City in China. The project is currently on hold for political reasons — the mayor changed. The city is all about transit-oriented design. If you plan a city for cars, you get cars. If you design it for people, you get people. 65% of energy for the town comes from rice husks.

Sustainable urbanism. Not everyone has the pirvlege of being able to experience nature as we can. They can’t all go to the beach.

If you could cut and paste anything out of your community, what would it be?

Further recent posts

Recent Comments