Tag Archives: mixed reality

Adapt or plan? Where do we go from here?

I just returned from Nottingham, UK where I presented a paper for Cumulus 16, In This Place. The paper was entitled Design Fiction: A Countermeasure For Technology Surprise. An Undergraduate Proposal. My argument hinged on the idea that students needed to start thinking about our technosocial future. Design fiction is my area of research, but if you were inclined to do so, you could probably choose a variant methodology to provoke discussion and debate about the future of design, what designers do, and their responsibility as creators of culture. In January, I had the opportunity to take an initial pass at such a class. The experiment was a different twist on a collaborative studio where students from the three traditional design specialties worked together on a defined problem. The emphasis was on collaboration rather than the outcome. Some students embraced this while others pushed back. The push-back came from students fixated on building a portfolio of “things” or “spaces” or “visual communications“ so that they could impress prospective employers. I can’t blame them for that. As educators, we have hammered the old paradigm of getting a job at Apple or Google, or (fill in the blank) as the ultimate goal of undergraduate education. But the paradigm is changing and the model of a designer as the maker of “stuff” is wearing thin.

A great little polemic from Cameron Tonkinwise recently appeared that helped to articulate this issue. He points the finger at interaction design scholars and asks why they are not writing about or critiquing “the current developments in the world of tech.” He wonders whether anyone is paying attention. As designers and computer scientists we are feeding a pipeline of more apps with minimal viability, with seemingly no regard for the consequences on social systems, and (one of my personal favorites) the behaviors we engender through our designs.

I tell my students that it is important to think about the future. The usual response is, “We do!” When I drill deeper, I find that their thoughts revolve around getting a job, making a living, finding a home, and a partner. They rarely include global warming, economic upheavals, feeding the world, natural disasters, etc. Why? These issues they view as beyond their control. We do not choose these things; they happen to us. Nevertheless, these are precisely the predicaments that need designers. I would argue these concerns are far more important than another app to count my calories or select the location for my next sandwich.

There is a host of others like Tonkinwise that see that design needs to refocus, but often it seems like there are are a greater number that blindly plod forward unaware of the futures they are creating. I’m not talking about refocusing designers to be better at business or programming languages; I’m talking about making designers more responsible for what they design. And like Tonkinwise, I agree that it needs to start with design educators.

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The nature of the unpredictable.


Following up on last week’s post, I confessed some concern about technologies that progress too quickly and combine unpredictably.

Stewart Brand introduced the 1968 Whole Earth Catalog with, “We are as gods and might as well get good at it.”1 Thirty-two years later, he wrote that new technologies such as computers, biotechnology and nanotechnology are self-accelerating, that they differ from older, “stable, predictable and reliable,” technologies such as television and the automobile. Brand states that new technologies “…create conditions that are unstable, unpredictable and unreliable…. We can understand natural biology, subtle as it is because it holds still. But how will we ever be able to understand quantum computing or nanotechnology if its subtlety keeps accelerating away from us?”2. If we combine Brand’s concern with Kurzweil’s Law of Accelerating Returns and the current supporting evidence exponentially, as the evidence supports, will it be as Brand suggests unpredictable?

Last week I discussed an article from WIRED Magazine on the VR/MR company Magic Leap. The author writes,

“Even if you’ve never tried virtual reality, you probably possess a vivid expectation of what it will be like. It’s the Matrix, a reality of such convincing verisimilitude that you can’t tell if it’s fake. It will be the Metaverse in Neal Stephenson’s rollicking 1992 novel, Snow Crash, an urban reality so enticing that some people never leave it.”

And it will be. It is, as I said last week, entirely logical to expect it.

We race toward these technologies with visions of mind-blowing experiences or life-changing cures, and usually, we imagine only the upside. We all too often forget the human factor. Let’s look at some other inevitable technological developments.
• Affordable DNA testing will tell you your risk of inheriting a disease or debilitating condition.
• You can ingest a pill that tells your doctor, or you in case you forgot, that you took your medicine.
• Soon we will have life-like robotic companions.
• Virtual reality is affordable, amazingly real and completely user-friendly.

These are simple scenarios because they will likely have aspects that make them even more impressive, more accessible and more profoundly useful. And like most technological developments, they will also become mundane and expected. But along with them come the possibility of a whole host of unintended consequences. Here are a few.
• The government’s universal healthcare requires that citizens have a DNA test before you qualify.
• It monitors whether you’ve taken your medication and issues a fine if you don’t, even if you don’t want your medicine.
• A robotic, life-like companion can provide support and encouragement, but it could also be your outlet for violent behavior or abuse.
• The virtual world is so captivating and pleasurable that you don’t want to leave, or it gets to the point where it is addicting.

It seems as though whenever we involve human nature, we set ourselves up for unintended consequences. Perhaps it is not the nature of technology to be unpredictable; it is us.

1. Brand, Stewart. “WE ARE AS GODS.” The Whole Earth Catalog, September 1968, 1-58. Accessed May 04, 2015. http://www.wholeearth.com/issue/1010/article/195/we.are.as.gods.
2. Brand, Stewart. “Is Technology Moving Too Fast? Self-Accelerating Technologies-Computers That Make Faster Computers, For Example – May Have a Destabilizing Effect on .Society.” TIME, 2000
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Design fiction. I want to believe.


I have blogged in the past about logical succession. When it comes to creating realistic design fiction narrative, there needs to be a sense of believability. Coates1 calls this “plausible reasoning.”, “[…]putting together what you know to create a path leading to one or several new states or conditions, at a distance in time.” In other words, for the audience to suspend their disbelief, there has to be a basic understanding of how we got here. If you depict something that is too fantastic, your audience won’t buy it, especially if you are trying to say that, “This could happen.”

“When design fictions are conceivable and realistically executed they carry a greater potential for making an impact and focusing discussion and debate around these future scenarios.”2

In my design futures collaborative studio, I ask students to do a rigorous investigation of future technologies, the ones that are on the bleeding edge. Then I want them to ask, “What if?” It is easier said than done. Particularly because of technological convergence, the way technologies merge with other technologies to form heretofore unimagined opportunities.

There was an article this week in Wired Magazine concerning a company called Magic Leap. They are in the MR business, mixed reality as opposed to virtual reality. With MR, the virtual imagery happens within the space you’re in—in front of your eyes—rather than in an entirely virtual space. The demo from Wired’s site is pretty convincing. The future of MR and VR, for me, are easy to predict. Will it get more realistic? Yes. Will it get cheaper, smaller, and ubiquitous? Yes. At this point, a prediction like this is entirely logical. Twenty-five years ago it would not have been as easy to imagine.

As the Wired article states,

“[…]the arrival of mass-market VR wasn’t imminent.[…]Twenty-five years later a most unlikely savior emerged—the smartphone! Its runaway global success drove the quality of tiny hi-res screens way up and their cost way down. Gyroscopes and motion sensors embedded in phones could be borrowed by VR displays to track head, hand, and body positions for pennies. And the processing power of a modern phone’s chip was equal to an old supercomputer, streaming movies on the tiny screen with ease.”

To have predicted that VR would be where it is today with billions of dollars pouring into fledgling technologies and realistic, and utterly convincing demonstrations would have been illogical. It would have been like throwing a magnet into a bucket of nails, rolling it around and guessing which nails would end up coming out attached.

What is my point? I think it is important to remind ourselves that things will move blindingly fast particularly when companies like Google and Facebook are throwing money at them. Then, the advancement of one only adds to the possibilities of the next iteration possibly in ways that no one can predict. As VR or MR merges with biotech or artificial reality, or just about anything else you can imagine, the possibilities are endless.

Unpredictable technology makes me uncomfortable. Next week I’ll tell you why.


  1. Coates, J.F., 2010. The future of foresight—A US perspective. Technological Forecasting & Social Change 77, 1428–1437.
  2. E. Scott Denison. “Timed-release Design Fiction: A Digital Online Methodology to Provoke Reflection on our Socio- Technological Future.”  Edited by Michal Derda Nowakowski. ISBN: 978-1-84888-427-4 Interdisciplinary.net.
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