1. Design for context: Where does the speculation exist
The designer must consider the environment and context in which the speculative products or services would exist; this could be a specific space such as the home or office or a cultural or political situation based on current developments or trends. This could be described as an ecological approach to speculative design and helps to ground the concept in a familiar or logical reality. Below are two descriptions of the Martian from The War of the Worlds. The first is an excerpt from H G Wells’ original novel of 1898; the second (and image) from Steven Spielberg’s film version of 2005. If we take the Martian to be a speculative object we can compare the two approaches to its design.
“I think everyone expected to see a man emerge … But looking, I presently saw something stirring within the shadow: greyish billowy movements, one above another, and then two luminous discs – like eyes … A big greyish rounded hulk, the size, perhaps, of a bear, was rising slowly and painfully out of the cylinder … The incessant quivering of the mouth, the gorgon groups of tentacles, the tumultuous breathing of the lungs in a strange atmosphere, the evident heaviness and painfulness of movement due to the greater gravitational energy on earth … Suddenly the monster vanished. It had toppled over the brim of the cylinder and fallen into the pit, with a thud like the fall of a great mass of leather.” (H G Wells)
“I tried a bunch of different heads, but Steven Spielberg wanted to pay tribute to the shape of the spaceship in the original movie,’ Sims said. ‘No matter what I did with that head, we always went back to this shape. For the eyes, Spielberg kept saying they should be overly dilated, refracting with light almost like you’d see in a cat. Spielberg wanted one leg in the back and two in the front. At Stan Winston’s we did an animation of the alien crawling on the ceiling, showing how his legs would function as arms as well and pick stuff up while using the other leg to balance.” (Aaron Sims - designer of the martian)
The question I pose here is not which interpretation is the most compelling, engaging, terrifying or memorable, but which is the most likely. The celluloid version has a certain familiarity, resembling many other filmic depictions of disconcerting aliens in recent years. It displays its physical superiority to humans with a cat-like deftness, employing its several arms to move three-dimensionally around a room. It is without question captivating and terrifying and therefore perfect as a form of entertainment, which perhaps was the primary factor influencing its design. Wells’ Martian on the other hand is clearly suffering, ungainly, awkward and struggling to cope with Earth’s gravity. Wells trained as a biologist, so would have a good understanding of the concept of adaptation. Although this is pure supposition, logic suggests that Martians would be maladapted to life on Earth and his depiction applies this theory to inform the design of the creature.
2. The uncanny: Desirable discomfort
In order to elicit audience engagement and contemplation on a subject, it is sometimes helpful for a speculation to provoke. If a design proposal is too familiar it is easily assimilated into the normative progression of products and would pass unnoticed. However, proposals dealing with sensitive subjects such as sex or death can quite easily stray too far into provocative territory, resulting in repulsion or outright shock. The design solution is complex and contradictory, provocative whilst at the same time familiar. Sigmund Freud described the paradoxical reaction humans have - invoking a sense of familiarity whilst at the same time being foreign - as ‘uncanny’.
Careful management of the uncanny is imperative when a project attempts to deal with subjects such as death or the invasion of the human body (for example technological implants).
The final section combines the knowledge generated during the investigations with the methods described above to inform the design of domestic robots.
This first project was responsible for establishing many of the core ideas that run through the thesis. It was part of the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) funded research project Material Beliefs, and developed together with designer Jimmy Loizeau and engineer Alex Zivanovic. The starting point for Material Beliefs was collaboration between designers and scientists for public engagement with technology. We initially worked with Bristol Robotics Laboratory (BRL).
The project provided an opportunity to experiment with how to migrate BRL’s technology into the home using a speculative design approach. The outcome of the project was a series of five robots, each feeding off living organisms for electrical energy and built as semi-operational prototypes.
The approach was based on a questioning of stereotypical forms, functions and interactions through adapting the technology and concepts to meet the expectations of people in the domestic habitat - effectively domesticating robot technology.
We products five semi-functional prototypes exploring different interactions and possibilities.
This example is the Flypaper Robotic Clock:
A rubber belt revolves slowly around two rollers on a vertical plane. This belt is covered in honey, which attracts and captures various flying insects. At the base of the roller mechanism a blade is positioned, this removes any insects that have stuck to the belt and they fall into the MFC positioned below. This generates the electricity to power both the motor rotating the belt and a small LCD clock.
There is some basic sensing built into this robot related to seasonal change and its effect on the quantity of available insects. This means that the robot can partially hibernate during the winter months continuing to tell the time through energy harvested during the summer months, but not wasting energy through rotating the belt.
The Lampshade Robot
During the evening period this robot operates as a normal lampshade using household mains power supply. Flies and moths are naturally attracted to the light emitted by the lamp. The lampshade has holes based on the form of the pitcher plant; these allow the insect access to the interior of the lamp but no means of escape. Eventually they expire and fall into the microbial fuel cell housed underneath. This eventually generates sufficient electricity to power a series of U.V. LEDs located inside the shade. These are activated when the mains lights are turned off and in turn attract more insects. This robot lampshade has the potential to be energy autonomous.
Fly Stealing Robot
This robot encourages spiders to build a web within its armature.
A camera mounted on a boom in front of the robot captures live images of the web. A vision system seeks out and extracts the position of dark patches on the web and monitors them. Through machine learning the robot learns to differentiate between flies trapped in the web and the spider patrolling it, should it conclude that a dark patch is a fly, a robotic arm, actuated by stepper motors moves over its location and a small grabber picks it up. The fly is then transported to the microbial fuel cell housed at the top of the robot. The arm then powers down and robot reverts to monitoring the spider web.
The fuel-cell in unlikely to generate enough energy to power the robotic arm (it is an energy intensive task) so this robot relies on the U.V. Flykiller Parasite robot to supplement its energy needs.
U.V. Flykiller Parasite Robot.
A microbial fuel cell is housed underneath an off-the-shelf U.V. fly killer powered by the domestic electricity supply. The U.V. light attracts insects from up to 40 metres away; these are electrocuted and fall into the fuel cell generating electricity that is stored in the capacitor bank. Having no personal need for this electrical energy the U.V. Flykiller robot makes it available to the Fly Stealing Robot.
And finally The Mousetrap Coffee Table Robot
A mechanised iris is built into the top of a coffee table. This is attached to an infrared motion sensor. Crumbs and food debris left on the table attract mice that gain access to the tabletop via a hole built into one over size leg. Their motion activates the iris and the mouse falls into the microbial fuel cell housed under the table. This generates the energy to power the iris motor, sensor and a LED graphic display on the front of the table–top.
One of the big challenges with this project, and in retrospect one I’d suggest was not expertly handled, was the management of the sensational element raised through the use of living creatures as a source of energy. This behaviour, whilst helpful in creating intrigue and interest, tipped the balance towards the sensational or outright unpleasant rather than the desired uncanny. This hindered the project’s ability to draw an audience into deeper discussions beyond initial reactions. This is less of an issue in a conference presentation or exhibition - due to the audience’s interest in the subject and the possibility of a more thorough delivery of information - but on a blog or in a newspaper a sensational headline can rapidly lead to a cessation of genuine engagement, leading to facile comments or first-response negativity.
A more complex problem emerged when we presented the project to the robotic research community, either through academic papers or at conferences. The project challenged robot preconceptions on too many fronts, attempting at the same time to explore alternative ideas of form, methods of engagement and entertainment, modes of interaction and energy autonomy. This diluted the impact of the individual elements and made for a complex and problematic presentation.
The second project was developed in collaboration with Aberystwyth University computer science department.
The foundations of this project were similar to Material Beliefs. Happylife was commissioned as part of the ‘Impact!’ exhibition, a joint project between the RCA, EPSRC and Nesta, bringing together 16 EPSRC-funded research teams with designers from the Design Interactions department at the RCA.
Aberystwyth University’s ongoing research utilises a high-resolution thermal image camera to detect malicious intent in people passing through border control areas.
Historically, many domestic technologies have their genesis in the field of military and national security research, Happylife pre-empts this transition by speculating on how AUCS’s research could be applied in the home.
The technology lent itself to a more oblique enquiry into robot futures, focusing less on practical functions and physical objects to examine how passive profiling techniques could display and mediate the most private and emotive aspects of home life.
The camera captures the thermal image of the individual as they pass by - this happens non-invasively in real time.
This information is sent to a computer running facial recognition software. The thermal information is fed into the database and compared to base settings.
An algorithm acts on this sensory information to rotate a physical dial on the Happylife display
Designing the object - there are no literal descriptions like happiness or depression. Whilst this would have potentially made the project easier to engage with it would have been factually incorrect. Here the system merely detects change, you effectively calibrate the system yourself - get used to where it normally lies - when the dial rotates to somewhere unexpected it encourages contemplation as to why.
To fully exploit the narrative potential of the technology, it was necessary for the device to be in a home for some time - allowing for the accumulation of data and its subsequent mining and analysis, and checking for the emergence of patterns or long-term shifts in status, both of which might go unnoticed by the occupants. This plays to the strengths of computer technology and facilitates new forms of interaction with technology.
To examine the consequences of Happylife, we speculated on the emotional impact of its deployment in the home of a traditional nuclear family over a 15-year period. These speculations exist as five narratives presented as vignettes, written in collaboration with poet Dr Richard Marggraf Turley. The aim of these was to highlight emotional real-life family scenarios that would somehow be modified or augmented by the Happylife technology. We were careful that these were not wholly dystopian in nature, but showed genuine and even poetic benefits of employing the technology in this context.
Teaching has played an important role in the development of the thesis. This project with the first year design interactions students represented a distilled version of the observations made during the research phase of the thesis. The brief directed the students towards the specific problems and opportunities raised by a design approach to domestic robots - specifically form, interaction and contextual considerations.
Diego Trujillo’s project presents an interesting depiction of the robotic home not as the classic shiny white seamless vision of the future, but a version not too dissimilar to our own.
He explored how the home might be adapted to the needs of robots such as marking on sheets that would assist the robot’s vision analysis when folding.
Or two sets of handles on cups with marking to assist the dishwasher emptying robot.
This project by Neil Usher presented a delicate blend of the technical with the poetic. The proposal used the traits of robots normally associated with production lines such as tirelessness, pattern recognition and repetition, but applied in original and thought-provoking natural contexts. The robot above searches for faces in clouds.
So, to conclude…actually there are two conclusions.
First on robots: A study of contemporary everyday life reveals the extent to which automation is becoming commonplace. This cultural acceptance, combined with ongoing technological developments such as advances in the science of informatics, ubiquitous computing and cloud computing, leads to the likelihood that robotic technologies will become increasingly pervasive - robots will enter the home, but through the side-door as existing products and environments are given agency and intelligence: they effectively become robots.
The second more important conclusion is on speculative design and how it can be used to examine both the impact of contemporary technology on our lives today, and how contemporary scientific research could impact on our future lives. At the core of the problem is the overused and out of date notion of progress, defined here by the Oxford English Dictionary.
Speculative design effectively facilitates the creation of high-resolution imaginaries of possible destinations - these can then be used to encourage contemplation and analysis on whether this is improved or not. Significantly this can be used to engage a broad variety of audiences.
Perhaps most importantly is the possibility of shifting design activity upstream to engage with scientists at the beginning of the ‘domestication’ process.
Here design has the potential to identify research directions that are ‘orthogonal’ to the original research aims and more closely related to everyday life. It invites, through dialogue, a reflection on the relationship between possible and preferable futures, and examines not only new applications for a technology but also its potential implications. Speculative design effectively introduces scientific research to the complexities and whims of human character, usually only found at the end stages of a successful technological journey, providing a much more considered destination than the one we currently find ourselves heading towards.