Forward, Into The Past!

recliner.jpg( With thanks to The Firesign Theatre) Of all the Science Fiction genes out there, Steampunk currently has the most interest for me. I think Science Fiction is good reading for anyone interested in the intersection of culture, design and technology and the social implications the occur at the center. Why? Good SF is not about buggy–eyed creatures with ray guns, at least not anymore. Read works by Brin, Asimov, Heinlein, Le Guin, Card and Ellison and nary a bug-eyed creature will be in sight. What you will get are compelling stories that often address forms of societal upheaval, introductions of elements that cause divisions, and of course people overcoming great odds. It’s sometimes easier to let works that are far removed from our current experience to help us contemplate questions about our own societal issues in new ways.

What I like about Steampunk is not just the literature so much, but that many of the most ardent fans are also makers. They create these wonderful Jules Verne era devices that turn the conception of modern technology on its head. For example, the Neverwas Haul, shown in the 1st video, is a steam powered love note to Victorian ideas of exploration and armchair anthropology. Here’s where the tables are turned: it’s a 3 story Victorian mansion the will soon be able to move under its own steam power. Its not just the members of the club that explore… the entire club explores. Art and whimsy can often teach us as much about innovation as anthropology and business can.

The next video is from Crabfu Steamworks. This is the steam powered centipede, but the R/C steam powered spider is pretty damn impressive too.


You don’t have pictures of people you work with at home?

wall.jpgI was listening to the American Public Media program Marketplace when a commentary came on by someone that does not keep her personal photos at work or photos of people she works with at home. Yep, you gotta keep that strict separation of church and state. Apparently some large unnamed company in Britain has banned employees from keeping knickknacks like personal photos or other items on their desks, and the employees were a grumbling about it.

These are the times that, as someone who consults in the world of “innovation”, I make that dent in my desk a little bit deeper. You know the one I mean, it’s that space on my desk where I slam my head after hearing this kind of report in hopes of some epiphany as to why this is happening.

Ok, I just backspaced over three paragraphs of ranting about this, so let me condense it. It’s a stupid, wrong-headed dumbass idea. I can’t even fathom the conversation that brought this policy about. Is the office footage in London so expensive that they charge by the cm square on the desk? Did someone get the bright idea that “Good Gods man, if we let them have pictures of their families at their desks, they will think they are human. Next thing you know they will be walking about on their hind legs and demanding opposable thumbs!”

To be fair, compared to the commentator I am the oddball. I would bet most people don’t have pictures of people they work with in their homes, but I do… bunches of them from all over the place, not to mention a few clients. Why? I have had a lot of fun working with my colleagues and clients, and have photos of us doing everything from building fences on a cattle ranch in Montana to eating something I have never seen before outside the main fish market in Tokyo. I have years of photos in my house, because they are my memories and my life is not a partial one, it is a whole. I have pictures of fellow performers, instrument makers, 90 year old hang glider pilots and clients laughing. But in full disclosure, in my office we don’t have photos on our desks, we have walls of them. They are on the desks, in the project rooms, even the odd standing cutout. We are a bit picture happy.

Look, if you are listening: If you want to cut costs, increase productivity, get people to help you think yourself out of the “well, it could be worse, we could be U-Haul” existence you are in, the pictures on your employees desks is an unprofitable way to start. Oh, and if you are the Board of Directors, and the CEO came up with this idea? Guess whose desk you need to clear off first.


Will the Nintendo Wii keep its lead?

They have a patent, but is it enough to help them keep their experience unique?

I purchased a Nintendo Wii just before the holidays for a simple reason: There has never been a console game that kept me interested. Punching buttons reminds me too much of the ceaseless typing I do now.

The Wii is a great system because they made the risky choice. They choose to create an entire experience rather than enter the technology arms race. If you have not had a chance to play with one yet, I can tell you it virtually brought work to a halt in our office for two days. People weren’t going mad over the graphics, it was the physicality between them, the game and the people they were playing with. The graphics matter so much less because of the fun they are having with other people and you can’t help but move around a lot when you play. There are a number of reports about just how aggressive this movement can be, note this lovely image off Engadget Sony is clearly concerned as the Wii is outselling the PS3 in almost all markets and a spokesperson for Sony made the amusing observation “the Wii is an impulse buy.” Pretty strong impulse on the part of the people willing to line up outside Target at 2am to buy one. “Honey, I can’t sleep. I think I’ll get a nice glass of warm mil…no, I’m gonna get a Wii, that’ll help!”

The question is can they keep this short lead? The technology in the Wiimote is wonderful because it shows how fairly simple technology can be put together in a compelling way to make something much more interesting. Accelerometers, Bluetooth connection like you have on your cell phone and the plain old IR just like your TV remote. All of this is combined in an interesting and compelling way. The question is, is it clever enough to prevent Sony or Microsoft from being the oh-so-dangerous Fast-Follower?

What they have done is possibly patent existing technology into a new form, its done all the time to everyone’s benefit. Let’s say you patented the eraser, and person #2 patents the pencil. A third can patent the idea of attaching an eraser to a pencil. Sure you can sue person three from using your patented eraser, but you are suing to prevent them from selling more erasers for you. The question for Nintendo is this wonderful combination unique enough to be their own?

I found a patent Nintendo filed in 1999 (#7,145,551) for a “Two-handed computer input device with orientation sensor”

wiimote2.jpgA hand held computer input device includes a first housing portion having at least one user actuable input device. A first extending handle is coupled to, and extends away from, the first housing portion. A second handle is also coupled to, and extends away from, the first housing portion. An orientation sensor is coupled to the first housing and is configured to sense a physical orientation of the first housing portion. The orientation sensor provides an orientation signal indicative of the physical orientation sensed.

The question will be how clever the patent have been written and trust me, you want clever. It has to be broad enough that it covers current and past technology and anticipates future technologies. But, it can’t be so broad that it is generic and covers everything. So, I give it 9 months, MS or Sony will bring out something similar for their consoles, the lawyers will be let off their leashes and the games will begin.

There’s no choice really, Nintendo is betting on the best killer app being another human being. Sony and Xbox are betting on technology. They will have to open up the human experience to approach why people are excited about the Wii. That means getting past this patent.


The Unholy Love-Child of Web 2.0 and PowerPoint

This is a great little short film by A Film by Clemens Kogler.

From the YouTube description
Le Grand Content examines the omnipresent Powerpoint-culture in search for its philosophical potential. Intersections and diagrams are assembled to form a grand ‘association-chain-massacre’. which challenges itself to answer all questions of the universe and some more. Of course, it totally fails this assignment, but in its failure it still manages to produce some magical nuance and shades between the great topics death, cable tv, emotions and hamsters.

If you crossed Marvin the Paranoid Android and Al Gore, I think this this would be the resulting content.


What Clowning Teaches about Rapport

A clown is a poet that is also an orangutan
– Attributed to various people.

clown%20one.jpg
One key to a good ethnographic interview is the ability to gain rapport with the person you are talking to. Rapport can be a mysterious thing, you are a stranger talking to another stranger asking questions and often taking a more intimate look into their lives than they might even share with friends or family.

One framework for thinking about interviews that I have comes from the physical theater theatrical clowning of the late Paris mine and teacher Jacques Lecoq. I learned this framework when I studied with Avner the Eccentric, a student of Lecoq’s. What Avner taught us one day was that according to Lecoq, there are several levels between apathy and enthusiasm that an audience experiences in a performance. If the performer can connect with the audience at that existing level of emotion, then the performer can move that audiences experience during the course of the performance between happiness and sadness. This means if the audience is in an apathetic mode and the performer starts overly enthusiastic, it is not infectious, it will actually push the audience’s emotions lower. A classic “trying too hard” scenario.

During an interview, an ethnographer’s job is actually the mirror image of that. Instead of us trying to control the emotions of the people we are talking to, we need to connect with them where ever they are on the empathy to enthusiasm scale, then let them move us up and down. Why is this important? There is a danger that in an effort to gain rapport, some people will give an enthusiastic reaction to many thing that the participant tells us. The intention of the interviewer in this case, is they want the person they are talking to to feel confident the interviewer is listening to them and to encourage them to go farther. The problem is, if you think of it in terms of Lecoq, that the interview can infuse the participant with a false enthusiasm for a topic. Essentially after gaining rapport, the interviewer can unwittingly lead the interview from any emotional standpoint.

So one way to build rapport is to connect with your participant at their level of enthusiasm for the task at hand and let them move you as the interview progresses and the rapport grows.

Warning, this entry may be somewhat apocryphal. I have tried to locate where I learned this in my various notebooks and diaries that I have kept over many years, and cannot.

Disclaimer: I frequently go back to previous entries to clarify points and edit the numerous typos I am sure you have found