Sunday, January 27, 2013

Intelligent design of the future

There’s an interesting article in today’s New York Times about a humanoid robot called Simon that is “being developed at the Georgia Institute of Technology for the purposes of exploring intuitive ways for people and machines to live and work alongside one another.”

But the article itself, written by Carla Diana, the designer of Simon’s shell, focuses not so much on the robot, but on how it is designed to appeal to the humans it will be interacting with. Ms. Diana, who is described as “a product designer and creative consultant focused on bringing objects to life electronically,” says that there will be a variety of ways that robotic gadgets and appliances will interact with us, for example through a system of lights, sounds and movements. Many appliances available today already have these features.

She writes, “Whereas designers typically use form, color and materials to make an object express some human element (a drill handle may have a pattern that looks aggressive, a toaster might have knobs and dials that seem friendly), we’re entering a time when sound, light and movement are equally important parts of the creative palette. Everyday objects whose expressive elements have long been static will now glow, sing, vibrate and change position at the drop of a hat.”

Many of the concepts discussed in the article would be interesting to engineering students, since these aspects of design are not only aesthetic, but practical and psychologically effective as well.

As she says. “… the future will be rich with sensor-based, animated objects using expressive sound, light, motion and screens to praise, encourage, advise and comfort us.”

In an accompanying video on the website (time 1:44), Ms. Diana describes the kind of robotic appliances that will be available in the future, and how they will be designed so that they appeal to humans.

A Day in the Near Future

The video is an animated presentation of a “typical” day in a future with interactive devices. It begins: “Another Monday morning. My lamp has just gone from dim to bright. I try to turn over, but it rotates to follow me. I stumble into the bathroom; I brush one side for a while. Bzzzzt. The toothbrush vibrates, so I know it’s time to switch to the other side. Now I’m really awake. The bathroom mirror says, ‘Nice job on your weight. But your heart rate is a little higher than yesterday.’”

It would be interesting for students to discuss whether they think such interactive devices would be useful, or rather annoying. Or to discuss which devices presented in the video they would most like to have in their lives.

Ms. Diana narrates the video and speaks in a way that will be understandable, even for students at a low-intermediate level, and the accompanying visuals make clear what she is describing.

In my next post next week, I'll look more closely at Simon itself (himself?).

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