Magical Objects: The Future of Craft

September 30, 2013 at 4:57 pm (One Comment)

Marken PhotographOf the thousands of pictures I’ve taken since I got into photography, there are only a few on display in my house.  Only one of them is what you might call professionally framed.  It’s that one, to the right.  It was taken in Marken, Netherlands, on the Wandelroute Rond Marken Over de Dijk.  Not exactly here, but close by, on a little path at the edge of an island next to the ocean.  The thing is, it isn’t a photograph.  It looks like a photograph, but it’s actually a panorama, digitally spliced together from half a dozen shots.  It’s a photograph, re-interpreted by software.  And it could be the first step on the road to something new.

Ode to a Camera Gathering Dust

A few weeks ago I read a blog post by Kirk Tuck talking about the recent drop in camera sales, and the general decline of photography as a hobby.  Kirk’s assertion was that when a lot of us got into photography, gear made a big difference.  There was the high end to yearn for, but with the right skill and tricks you could make up for it.  There were good sized communities online where you could share photos with other people in the same spot, and you were all getting a little better.  It was something you could take pride in.  Now all the gear is great.  Your cell phone camera is great.  It’s hard to stand-out.  Everyone has read the same tutorials, everyone can do HDR and panoramas.  They can even do them in-camera with one button.  And as photography goes, so goes video.

Dust Bunny 3D PrintsFor a while I thought that 3d printing and the maker movement might be a little like photography.  There’s plenty of gear to collect, and it can make a big difference in the final product, but skill and technique and creativity still count for a lot.  Now I’m leaning towards 3d printing and the maker movement really being a rediscovery of the physical after the birth of the age of software.  Before personal computers ate the world you could still find plenty of folks who knew about gear ratios and metallurgy and who’d put together crystal radios when they were kids.  I grew up in the 80s, and I don’t know anything about either of those things, but I was diagnosing IRQ conflicts before I liked girls.  So the maker movement is kind of new, and photography is kind of past the curve, so what’s new-new?  What’s going to eat our time and interest and energy and fill our walls and display shelves next?  What are we going to collect and tinker with and obsess over?

Beautiful, New Things

It’s been said that we’re all in the attention game now.  Attention is currency.  In an indirectly monetized world it’s what people have to give.  When you create something, you’re vying for that bit of attention.  Given that, I think we’re looking at the birth of a new kind of craft, and a new kind of object.

Let’s call them magical objects: Objects that use software and computation to break or make irrelevant their inherent limitations, for the purpose of entertaining or informing.  They’re objects that use software to amplify their Attention Quotient.  (AQ, is that a thing? It should be.)

First, I’d like you to look at a video that hit a few days ago, Box.  It’s what happens when you combine a bunch of creative folks, some big robot arms, projectors, cameras, and a whole bunch of software.

That’s pretty awesome, right?  Not really practical for your house, but pretty.  Let’s find something smaller, something more intimate.  Maybe something more tactile.  Something like… a sandbox…

Ok, now we’re getting somewhere.  It’s a sandbox that reacts to your input.  The software and the projectors and the cameras make the sandbox more than just a sand table with some water on it, the whole thing becomes an application platform, with sand and touch as it’s interface.  The object becomes magical.  When you look at a sandbox, you know what it can do.  When you look at an augmented sandbox, you don’t know what it does.  You have to play with it.  You have to explore.  It has a high attention quotient.

These kind of objects are going to proliferate like crazy in the next few years.  We’re already starting to see hints of it in iOS 7’s Parallax wallpaper.  The only reason that parallax wallpaper exists is to make your iDevice more magical.  It serves no other purpose than to use software (head distance, accelerometer movement tracking) to overcome the limitations of hardware (2d display), for the purpose of delighting the user (magic).

Kids These Days

So as we think about the future, let’s step back for a second, and think about the children.  At the Austin Personal Cloud meetup a few weeks ago I had a realization that everyone in the room was probably over the age of 30, and there were plenty over the age of 50.  We have to be really careful about prognosticating and planning the future, because the world that we see isn’t the world that those in their teens and 20’s see.  They have different reference points, and they’re inspired by different things.  I’ve written before about Adventure Time and The Amazing World of Gumball as training for future engineers.  But it occurs to me that when it comes to magical objects, we only need to look at the name to tell us where the inspiration for the next generation will spring.

Luna LovegoodPart of the thing that makes Harry Potter’s world wonderful is that things are more than they appear.  A car isn’t just a car, a hat isn’t just a hat, and a map isn’t just a map.  For all the plot-driving magical objects in Harry Potter like the Time Turner, there are plenty of wandering portraits, chocolate frog trading cards, and miscellaneous baubles.  They amp up the attention quotient of the world.  Maybe they’re the reason we don’t see Harry and Hermione checking Facebook all day, or maybe they just have awful coverage at Hogwarts.

My daughter’s about to turn 2, and her newest discovery is that if she holds a cup to her ear, it kind of sounds like the ocean.  After I showed her that, she held the cup to her ear for a good 20 minutes.  I hold the cup up to my ear, and I hear science.  She holds the cup to her ear, and she hears magic.  Her eyes are wide, and she says, “Ocean!” over and over.

We can make these magical objects now, and we have a generation that would love more meaningful interaction from physical things.  We just need to start assembling the bits and deciding on a few simple standards so we can create ecosystems of art.  We don’t have magic, but we have something that’s nearly as good.  We have software…

That’s a documentary about Processing.  You don’t need to watch the whole thing, but it’s pretty, and interesting. Processing is a programming language for visual arts.  Usually those interesting visual things live on a screen, or through a projector in space or on a building.  They rarely live in your house.  But they could, and they could be really cool.

Wherein We Sketch Out the Future

I think that by combining the artistic software movement, emergent behavior fields like procedural game world generation, and a little bit of hardware hacker know-how, we can create a new type of thing.  A magical, home object.  Let’s look at one…

Back of an Envelope SketchSo this is a thing.  Literally a back-of-an-envelope sketch.  It’s a bowl, or a box, with an arm extending over it.  In the bowl is sand, or perhaps something more pure-white but still eco-friendly and non-toxic.  At the end of the arm is a little pod, it has two cameras in it, for stereoscopic 3D, and a pico projector.  Maybe there’s even another projector pointing up out of it.  Under the bowl is the descendant of a Raspberry Pi, or a Beaglebone Black, or something like it.  It lives on a side table or end table in your house.

This magical device runs programs.  The programs use the sand (or whatever you put under the arm) as an interface.  It can recognize other objects, maybe little shovels or pointers or what have you.  Maybe simple programs are like our virtual sandbox above.  Maybe it’s like a bonsai, but instead of a virtual tree, it runs a simulation of an ecological ecosystem.  Dig out your valleys and pile up your mountains, and see trees grow, animals roam the steppes, birds fly…  Maybe you can even run a game on that, like Populous, but instead of looking into the screen you can walk around it and touch it.  You can watch your little minions wander around the landscape.  Maybe you can talk to it.  Maybe it’s like the asteroid that hits Bender in Futurama’s Godfella’s episode, like Black and White but designed for the long-haul.  Maybe when I’m not running my civilization on it, it plays selections from a feed of cool Processing visualizations across my ceiling.

Back to the Beginning

I’m sure there will be all kinds of form factors for these magical objects.  They’ll come in pocket-sized compacts, or ceiling projectors, or robotically controlled room projectors (imagine a bunch of tiny Disney-esque mice that live in your house, but are only projected onto the walls and floorboards, not actually chewing through them).  Or maybe it’s like my photo of Marken, in a frame on the wall, except that it’s based off a video clip, or some software analyzes the scene and says, “Hey, this is grass, let’s make it wave a little, and these are clouds, so they should float by, and this is a sailboat, so it should drift back and forth.”  And maybe, if you lean in really close, you can hear the ocean.

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