Playground Space

Cross-posted from LinkedInAll images © SpaceX

A lot of people are talking about how the Falcon Heavy is going to open up new frontiers in space, since it can lift robots, building materials, scientific instruments, and even habitats at low cost. The Falcon Heavy’s successor, the Big, uh, “Falcon” Rocket, may even let us colonize deep space and Mars. Exciting, for sure. But I want to talk about something different. I want to talk about Starman.

Starman is a 1984 romantic science fiction film starring Jeff Bridges and directed by John Carpenter. It’s also the name of the mannequin sitting in a Tesla Roadster that the Falcon Heavy placed in solar orbit on Tuesday. The Roadster’s purpose during launch was to stand in for a real payload of the kind SpaceX customers are expected to lift with the Heavy system. But I believe Starman is much more than that – I think he’s the most important breakthrough in space travel since Apollo.

How could that be? Why would a mannequin pointlessly revolving around the sun be more important than the Space Shuttle program, or the International Space Station? Because Starman has tipped us into a new era of space exploration. Before Starman, space was serious business. Today, space can be approached with a sense of humor and a spirit of improvisation.

Media reported that the Roadster was a test payload, used because no customers wanted to take the risk of launching an expensive satellite on an untested launch system. That’s true, as far as it goes, but think about the extra trouble it took to mount a sports car inside the rocket so that it would have a low likelihood of compromising the mission. Could you imagine the headlines if the first Falcon Heavy mission seemed to be going well, until something unexpected happened with the Roadster, and then everything fell apart? Elon Musk would have been criticized for a hare-brained idea that cost ungodly amounts of money. (Maybe the car is just similar enough to a satellite or probe that seeing it survive the launch will convince customers that SpaceX has what it takes to keep their payloads safe. But if that was the goal, there were other ways of achieving that while maintaining a closer resemblance to a real payload.)

The key to understanding Starman is that he’s pointless – and at the same time, deeply meaningful. He’s pointless because there’s no reason to go through the effort and risk to launch a car into solar orbit aside from wanting to be funny and create viral content. It’s frankly still astonishing to me that it even happened.

Starman signifies that space is now a place where we can make jokes and pull pranks. Having a sense of humor is a sign of confidence, and pulling an expensive prank signals an excess of resources.

The center console in the car, which permanently displays the words “DON’T PANIC!” has several meanings, as far as I can tell. First, it’s a funny cultural reference. Second, seeing it from the perspective of the dummy in the driver’s seat makes you think about how it would feel to float through space in a sports car for a billion years while staring at those words, which is hilarious. But most importantly, it’s a message to us still trapped on Earth. Don’t panic – our destiny to become a spacefaring civilization is finally around the corner.

Welcome to playground space!

Tactile Design: New tools let you create user experiences for the sense of touch

Cross-posted from LinkedIn.

UX is a key differentiator for intrepid brands testing the boundaries of what is possible in the mobile form factor. Now that mobile devices are central to people’s lives, consumer expectations have quickly evolved. No longer tolerant of disruption or poorly designed apps and ads, they expect high-quality, immersive experiences. At the same time, the attention span of a mobile device user is shorter than that of a goldfish. This creates an immense challenge for brands who want a piece of that attention span. Never before has it been more important to engage mobile users in ways they’re not likely to forget.

In the fight for eyeballs and brain cycles, the impetus is on designers and developers to use technology as effectively as possible to get their messages across. Today’s sophisticated mobile users expect technology to treat them like people, and touch is an excellent, if underappreciated, way of doing that. The sense of touch and the technologies that engage it, called haptics, are underutilized in their capacity to trigger a different effect on the brain than visual and audio – one that’s more emotional, intimate, memorable, and human.

A turning point as haptic tech comes of age

Designers who are already familiar with the power of human touch know well that the sense of touch can elevate their work by delivering a new depth and excitement to their designs. For example, industrial designers invest significant time and effort into engineering the feel of products in order to convey the values that the product embodies. However, until only recently, the domain of tactile design was limited to a few dimensions such as material selection and the weight and shape of physical objects. As far as digitally synthesized touch was concerned, the pace of innovation was slow and there were limited options. The tools and techniques available to sculpt tactile sensations in expressive and creative ways were unfamiliar, and there was not a long history of best practices and training to draw from.

There are a few reasons that this was the case. As mobile devices increased their capabilities, people were seduced by the idea of mobile video, which prompted focused investment in the development of high-resolution screens. Battery life was a persistent and practical concern. The desire to document and share life’s moments drove unprecedented investment in camera technologies. The result was that haptics was rarely the focus of the design cycle of consumer devices. Haptic technology, invented back in the 1940s, tended to be bulky, complicated, expensive, and often inconsistent. Tactile design was rarely seen as an efficient way to engage people.

But that’s now changing.

New tools for today’s generation of haptic designers

Only recently has haptic technology matured to the point where tactile design can be programmed into software, just like the audio and visual elements of our devices. New advanced haptic features such as tactile video, smart notifications, and tangible user interfaces require high-quality haptic tech in order to work, not the buzzy, low-quality haptic motors from the past era. High-definition actuators, the components inside devices that move to create haptic effects like textures and patterns, are proliferating. The V30 handset from LGE is an early example of a device that has haptics carefully incorporated into its design language. The L16, from innovative camera company Light, uses high-resolution haptics to make its devices both more user friendly and provide a premium product feel.

Moreover, there are advanced tools now that let designers play, experiment, iterate, and refine, using interfaces similar to those for editing graphics, audio, and video. Designers and developers can quickly create a rich texture, encode it, synchronize it to video or interaction events, and render it on any haptic endpoint. These tactile design tools are flexible and integrate with creative software suites, audio editors, video editors, and many other platforms designers are familiar with. This opens up countless possibilities for the integration of haptics into media, advertising, and even AR.

This trend, of treating tactile experience as just another part of the consumer experience that should be controlled and designed in an intentional way, is industry-wide, and the demand for tactile design will soon be on par with industrial design, visual design, and audio design as another dimension of great products and content. The time has never before been more ideal for the most innovative designers and developers to consider touch technology as a critical new element in their design process.

As haptic designers, one of the most important challenges is understanding how touch fits together with other modalities to create convincing user experiences. There are many technologies and design elements that fall under the umbrella of tactile design, from forces and vibrations that help gamers become immersed in virtual worlds, to social touch features that let people feel more connected with each other, to tactile tracks that synchronize with video. A good creative tool is something that provides enough degrees of freedom, and also enough constraints, so that people can improvise and experiment in a “clean sandbox.” The latest generation of tactile design tools do this very thing.

Creating the future of UX with haptics

There is no doubt that haptic technology is the biggest evolution in human computer interaction since the GUI. Touch is the missing element from almost all our digital advances. Microprocessors, display, and graphics enjoyed an enormous amount of investment and mindshare. But haptics is one of the next technologies that will change everything. It has been a dark horse, but not for much longer, and when it is more broadly understood and used by designers and developers, it will place them in a small but powerful group of professionals who can think multi-modally when it comes to content and product design.

I’m calling on these early adopters to think creatively about using touch tech in their work, to learn these early-stage tools and technologies, incorporate them into projects, and most importantly, take the time to play and ideate with haptics for heightened memorability, stronger emotional response, and better design. Early adopters of this new tech are at an advantage, helping lead the development of mobile experiences that define the future.

Hit print

Cross-posted from LinkedIn.

In our digital and environmentally conscious workplaces, paper is becoming rarer. Our tools are digital, and our deliverables are posted to shared servers or passed around through email and chat apps. Printing on paper is even actively discouraged in some cases. I know someone whose email signature encourages readers to think twice before printing in order to preserve natural resources.

That’s an admirable sentiment. However, our team has found that printing documents and posting them on our walls has driven our team to new heights of efficiency and creativity. Lately, we’ve been printing almost everything we’ve been creating and posting it in a common area near our desks. Here are some reasons we’ve been doing that and some things we’ve learned along the way.

Printouts let you see relationships

Because the human eye saccades extremely quickly, we are able to take in a vast amount of visual information by simply glancing around. The reasons for that are evolutionary and beyond our scope here. The key thing to know is that you’re able to take in a lot more information when it’s arranged spatially in front of you than you are by accessing chunks of it in a serial fashion, such as when you click through a slide deck or navigate a computer folder. That’s why infoviz guru Edward Tufte has long advised that you buy the biggest computer display you can afford — the efficiency you gain when you can use eye movement instead of clicks and gestures to compare information is massive. For the foreseeable future, we will not have digital displays that cover our surrounding walls and let us quickly and easily post vast amounts of high resolution visual documents to them. For now, we have printouts.

Don’t just print the new stuff, either. Sometimes, when I dig into my archives, I’m surprised to find gems that are highly relevant to current work. Printing old, relevant work and posting it next to current work is a better way of exploring the relationship between these than would be putting them in the same directory of files. It also gives your work a sense of continuity and purpose, since it reminds you that many problems that seem very different aren’t really so, and that you’ve steadily been gaining expertise in your area of focus.

Showing other people printouts is courteous and effective

Studies have shown that people report that reading paper is more relaxing and easier for understanding complicated information when compared to reading a screen. If you want a good user experience for the stakeholders for whom you’re creating stuff (and you should), let them enjoy your work on paper, at least some of the time.

It’s easier to remember information you saw on paper, too. We can retain information seen in digital files, of course, but current evidence points to paper as superior for memory formation. One theory to explain this is that we use multiple senses when we encounter paper, including haptics and smell, so we have richer sensory input associated with the information. It also may be because paper allows us to use spatial memory. By laying out documents on a wall, you give people another way to retain the information you’re trying to communicate. For example, viewers might associate one of your ideas with the top corner of the wall next to the door, and this may make it stickier in their minds.

The spatial relationship between your viewers and the printouts is also something to consider and design intentionally. Important material that you really want people to see should be posted so that its center is about 57 inches above the floor. This is the same height many galleries use when they hang artwork, and allows a comfortable viewing angle for most people regardless of height. Oftentimes, if we have a document with many design concepts in it, we will post our favorite ones at eye level, and let the others proliferate above or below so that passersby who stop to spend more time exploring can discover them.

Immersing yourself in your work lets you enjoy the fruit of your labor.

There’s something to be said for the way documents up on walls establish the presence of your team to other departments and promote your team’s value to the organization. While it’s important that the wider org understands the value you bring, perhaps more important is the feeling of being immersed in your own good work as you spend time in the office. Humans do work for a variety of reasons, but one of them is for the satisfaction of a job well done, and seeing your own work up in your surroundings makes you feel competent and plugged in.

Another advantage is that the team’s physical environment will change naturally to reflect the state of the team and the organization. When a project gets old, if it was really cool and people still enjoy remembering it, leave it up. You’ll instinctively know when the posted material gets stale. When that happens, take it down and recycle it. If it’s stale, it’s unlikely you’ll need it again very soon, and if you do, you can always print it again. What you don’t want is to feel burdened by the weight of past work or bothered by seeing work that you always wished you had iterated one last time, or that has negative feelings associated with it. If you get a heavy feeling when you see posted work, take it down. If you love it, consider it a part of the decor.

A new name for a new era

This blog has had three names, including this latest one. When I started blogging in 2007, it was called Tactilicious. Then it changed to Hapticity. Both are plays on words having to do with the sense of touch, which has been a key focus of my career.

The new name, Contrary Motion, is different – it comes from music theory, and refers to two melodic lines moving in opposite directions.

This change doesn’t signify a move away from the themes I’ve been posting about for these past (almost) ten years. I’ll continue to write about anything I find interesting. But it signifies that 2017 marks the year that content creators, artists, and even the investor community will recognize on a mass scale that technology for the sense of touch can no longer play second fiddle to technologies for our other senses. Touch matters, and it will only matter more as VR, wearables, AI, and robotics really get going.

We’ve been building to this moment for a long time. Lots of people have been doing amazing things with haptics for many years. But I noticed something change in 2016 – when I met new people and told them what I do, a majority of them already knew what haptics was. Sure, I live in one of the most tech-forward regions of the planet, but signs of change show up here earlier than other places. We’ve passed a tipping point.

Contrary motion is a term from music, which fits with my background. But the meta-concept of two threads moving toward and away from each other to generate results that humans find compelling can be found in many other domains – for instance, dramatic conflict, or visual contrast. We are watching a fascinating shift where haptics stops being a technology and starts being just another form of creative expression.

In haptics, contrary motion even has a literal meaning, unlike in music, where it’s only a metaphor. Vibration is an oscillation, or back-and-forth motion. Forces push against people, and people push back, and through that interaction, meaning is generated.

We’re about to see haptics flourish on a scale never before imagined. Let’s talk about it!

My social media channels are another great place to continue the discussion. Follow me on Instagram, Twitter, and Snapchat.

A great light has gone out.

Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything — all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure – these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.

ADDED: I’m reminded of this quote by Picasso – it describes Jobs just as well:

When I die, it will be a shipwreck, and as when a huge ship sinks, many people all around will be sucked down with it.

Smartphone as prosthesis

Noticing that many of the same sensors, silicon, and batteries used in smartphones are being used to create smarter artificial limbs, Fast Company draws the conclusion that the market for smartphones is driving technology development useful for bionics. While interesting enough, the article doesn’t continue to the next logical and far more interesting possibility: that phones themselves are becoming parts of our bodies. To what extent are smartphones already bionic organs, and how could we tell if they were? I’m actively researching design in this area – stay tuned for more about the body-incorporated phone.