A/D/O by MINI | David Rose's Enchanted Objects

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AR/VR

David Rose's Enchanted Objects

The border between the virtual and physical worlds has been reduced to interaction with cold glass screens. But David Rose is working to return emotional connection to our digital interfaces.

Our ancestors lived in enchanted worlds where every stream, mountain and forest was overlaid with a virtual realm of sprites, nymphs and gods. These landscapes were alive with hidden meanings that the eye couldn’t see and the hand couldn’t touch, but which were no less “real” than the rocks and trees that dotted them. Humans were locked in complex interactions with an invisible world around them.

For academic and entrepreneur David Rose, nothing much has changed. He uses this concept of “enchantment” to provide a powerful metaphor for how we can create more intuitive and satisfying relationships to our new “virtual world” – that is, the digital realm that we’re drawn ever deeper into. This is the case that he first set out in his influential book Enchanted Objects: Design, Human Desire, and the Internet of Things (2014) and is one he continues to explore in his various commercial and academic roles today, which have ranged from lecturing at MIT Media Lab to being vice president of vision technology at Warby Parker, to his current position as futurist at innovation consultancy EPAM Continuum.

“The goal I try to set for my students at MIT and the design community in general is to focus on human interactions rather than the technology itself,” said Rose. “At its core, our role as designers is to think about the emotional reaction that we’re creating in a user – it doesn't matter if we’re doing this through AI or computer vision or whatever. You should never describe an object by the tech that's inside it, you should really focus on the response that object generated in the person using it.”

David Rose's work at Warby Parker included an augmented-reality function to help customers choose the right frames.

For Rose, this interface to the virtual world has been all-but robbed of its emotional content, as he explains in his book: “Over millennia, as humans worked with textiles, wood, and metal to craft clothing, furniture, homes, and cathedrals, we developed specialized tools for specific jobs. But, in today’s world, characterized by the convergence of everything into smartphones, we have become close-minded, obsessed with apps, app stores, and icons. Few innovators are daring to ask what other kinds of future interfaces might rival the dominance of the black slab.”

The border between the virtual and the physical used to be alive with emotion and meaning, but now it has been reduced to cold, hard glass. Essentially, our design focus is now skewed towards the tech at the expense of the human.

An example Rose uses in his book of the perfect enchanted object is Frodo’s blade Sting from The Lord of the Rings. It’s a beautifully designed physical artifact that has a practical function (stabbing enemies) but it also has a seamless virtual overlay (it lights up when enemies are approaching). Taking this same logic, Rose designed an Accuweather-enabled umbrella with a handle that gently lights up and pulses if rain was expected. Rather than the border to the digital realm only being accessible through screens, he visualizes an extreme version of the Internet of Things where all objects are subtly responsive.

Among Rose's products is a "single pixel browser" that allows the user to track their chosen metric through subtly changing colors.

Rose posits that the core human desires around which all good interface design should be based have remained essentially unchanged since our ancestors interacted with virtual worlds of gods and demons. He reduces these desires down to six areas: Omniscience (the desire for total knowledge of past, present and future); Telepathy (the desire to connect and communicate seamlessly with the thoughts and feelings of others); Safekeeping (the desire to feel trust and comfort); Immortality (the desire to live long lives in good health); Teleportation (the desire to cross great distances without physical constraint); and Expression (the desire to be creative and find outlets for this creativity).

“These desires hold true across time and cultures, and are all still true today,” said Rose. “The interesting question now is whether new desires are being added in the digital age. Privacy, for example, is very interesting at the moment and certainly becoming a central desire that may not have been as present for our ancestors.”

Thinking about the border between the physical and digital world as defined by desire rather than by technology changes the entire focus of design. “Our current interfaces are all about hardware – whether that’s touchscreens or keyboards or mice – and they can actually be quite difficult to navigate, requiring a certain amount of specialist knowledge,” Rose said. “What is needed is a more fluid approach where designers focus on human gestures and needs, and are very comfortable crossing that line between the digital and physical – jumping into the sea and onto the beach and into the sea again. We need truly hybrid designs that don’t start with the technological function but are seamless combinations of both.”

Rose is currently developing a tool to encourage hand-washing, using projected imagery that turns from germs to sparkles after 20 seconds.

A recent project that Rose worked on for the Boston Children’s Hospital demonstrates this fluency. Physical badges and tokens were used to activate digital projections and unlock information normally hidden to patients, ranging from which staff were on duty that day to upcoming events and details of their treatment plans. These tokens even allowed patients to create different virtual environments, including recreating their own bedrooms at home. Another project Rose was working on when A/D/O spoke to him was a “nudge” to help people contain Coronavirus, projecting lurid images of bacteria onto your hands that would slowly disappear and give way to sparkles as you washed for the full 20 seconds.

The idea of nudging is central to Rose’s work. Rather than being experienced as a disruption, his idea of the perfect interface is one that you’re barely aware is taking place. “I often ask myself, do we really want a world that is so assiduously nudging, coaching and affecting us,” he said, “and in most cases my answer is: yes, we kind of do actually. We would love to be lavished attention on by a series of coaches that subtly look out for our health, our relationships, our work. We need a lot of scaffolding to help us move through the world and I'm intrigued with how tech can provide those services in ways that are subtle, tolerable, intuitive and welcoming.”

Despite our almost total reliance on digital technology, our ability to access the digital realm remains essentially disruptive and clunky. A vast majority of information is now to be found in the digital sphere but a vast majority of our ability to act is still in the physical world. Rose imagines a future where this division is less defined, allowing us to physically interact with digital information in a more seamless way.

David Rose.
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