In The Air_Rethinkery

30th December 2013

Back in the 1990s, futuristic ideas based on films like Minority Report were something only science fiction writers could envision. However, in 1999 when society gave birth to the Internet of Things, this concept became the impetus for making those sci-fi fantasies a reality. Of course, at the time, these concepts couldn’t be developed as quickly as hoped, mainly because wireless technology didn’t exist and sensors were large and costly. Fast forward to 2013 and we are now surrounded by Wi-Fi and the ubiquitous cloud; sensor devices are also smaller, cheaper and raring to be implemented into city infrastructures. Our phones are no longer phones, instead serving as powerful pocket computers armed with apps to quantify and digitize our lives. Sensors have also migrated to everyday objects like refrigerators, collecting massive amounts of marketable data and creating systems whereby inanimate objects talk to one another. While some fear these automatic and hidden qualities will expose our rights to privacy, others are taking advantage of this exciting time, initiating new methods of communication, motion sensor interfaces and interactive experiences. If the Internet of Things is placing society in a position in which we don’t have to worry about what’s in our fridge because it speaks directly to our supermarket and reorders the milk for us, our minds and our time will be freed up, allowing us the opportunity to redesign and rethink everything we have come to know so far. In his book Everyware: The Dawning Age of Ubiquitous Computing, Adam Greenfield confirms change is coming as everyware reshapes our lives, transforming our understanding of the cities we live in, the communities we belong to and the way we see ourselves.

According to Melanie Swan, a Palo Alto-based tech researcher and founder of DIYgenomics (a crowd-sourcer of personal health data) by 2017, 80 million wearable health sensors will be connected to the Internet of Things measuring variables such as pulse, temperature, glucose levels and respiration rates. Already last year the FDA approved the first ingestible chip by Proteus, which monitors personal health and is linked to sensors connected to smartphones. And it’s not only this or wearable sensing that is exponentially growing: in Spain, Santander is a pioneering testbed city that is truly connected via sensing technologies. With 12,000 sensors buried under the asphalt, or fixed to street lamps and city buses, the city is in constant communication with itself. Information such as the location of free parking spaces and localized pollen count are among a few of the benefits for residents, while the city hopes to save money as the sensors can notify garbage collectors as to which bins are full, and automatically dim street lights when no one is around. The well-documented Google car is not alone in the quest for ubiquitous sensing technology either: Volvo has recently showcased its 2015 XC90 car, which boasts a long list of safety tech sensors that include automated parking, road edge barrier detection, pedestrian detection, as well as the prerequisite car-to-car communication. While Volvo states that not all of these features will be on the 2015 model, many will.

In addition to this continual stream of connection, inanimate objects are taking on a life of their own. Presenting a different sort of future, Hello Lamp Post is an experimental platform that allows city dwellers to send text messages to particular objects, including but not limited to lamp posts, post boxes, bollards, manholes, bins or telegraph poles. The project cites itself as “preparing us for a future in which the stuff that surrounds us, from TVs to toasters to tube trains, will be networked and communicative.” Little Printer meanwhile lives in your home: connected to the Internet, it takes online content and repackages it by curating and creating your very own miniature newspaper. Taking a poetic approach to communicating, the Good Night Lamp is another example where the inanimate is animated: a family of connected lamps, it allows users to share bedtime, letting friends and family stay connected around the world.

What was once just a simple device for verbal communication has transformed itself into a must-have necessity. Now sitting at the heart of our lives, the smartphone has replaced so many other objects and offered more experiences than we perhaps thought possible – or would ever need. A series of innovators is designing and building external objects that combine the intelligence of the smartphone with the seamlessness of sensors, creating clever systems whereby alarm clocks can switch on coffee machines or lights can lock doors. The Pebble Watch is a watch that hooks up to a smartphone via Bluetooth, while Bleep Bleeps uses sensors to help users get pregnant, give birth, look after their baby and raise their child. Also sensing external data, Lapka is a beautifully designed personal environment monitor: linking to a smartphone, it can collect data such as air pollution, as well as measure the goodness in food. Similarly to Nike’s 94 Fifty Ball, and following three years of innovative research, the adidas Smart Ball is embedded with a series of sensors that includes an accelerometer and a magnetometer; linked to a smartphone, it offers real-time statistics and is fully compatible with existing adidas miCoach products. Unveiled during Milan Design Week, Renault’s collaboration with Ross Lovegrove also sees the automotive industry connect with the smartphone movement: titled Twin’Z, the car uses a docking station as opposed to a dashboard, displaying the usual statistics in addition to controlling car functions such as windows and car entertainment.

Clever technology, and cheap sensing, has meant that designers are exploring the way we interact with objects. Hibou Radio by Pluvinage uses a conductive paint, which allows touch to control all its functions such as volume and frequency. As well as toying with the interface, technology is also exploring new design typologies. For example Noisy Jelly, another project from Pluvinage, boasts a unique interface: a game whereby the player has to cook and shape his own musical jelly, it rewrites current perceptions of how we interact with technology, exploring our senses in entirely new ways. In the fashion sphere, hidden sensors are the cornerstone of wearable technology, from heart rate knitted sensors to galvanic skin response sensors, but the NoWhere NowHere dress goes a step further, exploring a different connected experience: sensing how the movement of the eye can control the interface, and using embedded eye tracking technology, the dress flutters the more someone stares at it. Also exploring fashion as a vehicle, Dominic Wilcox’s No Place Like Home shoes are embedded with GPS and switching devices; like Dorothy’s ruby red slippers in The Wizard of Oz, one click and the shoes will navigate the wearer to a desired destination through LED lights that signal the route.

The relationships humans are building with technology are allowing for new experiences to develop. Sensor-based experiences can be triggered via audio, movement, wind and energy, and as such artists and designers are experimenting with different ways to create experiences through the use of hidden sensors. With shrinking technology and cheaper components, technological functionality will in time merge into almost any surface or object, which will have a huge impact on the way we work, play and navigate our daily lives. Scott Garner’s Beet Box is a perfect example of how the norm is changing; powered by a Raspberry Pi, it allows users to play drum beats by touching actual beets. Moving from vegetables to plants, Ivan Henriques’ Prototype for a New BioMachine, which was recently displayed at Like A Second Nature Arts Electronica Exhibit, explores new channels of communication between humans, living organisms and machines. Art exhibitions have also quickly incorporated the immersive experience with the likes of the Rain Room from Random International, as well as WALL by Rejane Cantoni & Leonardo Crescenti, which, using an electronic sensor system, reacts to proximity offering an optical experience that almost endows the wall with personality.

In this quantified world where our smartphones are constantly tracking, collating, quantifying and creating vast amounts of data, the term big data is emerging; and despite being coined as mundane, artists and designers are finding ways to personalize this big, boring data in new, exciting ways. Brian House’s Quotidian Record translates one year’s worth of his daily commute into musical notes, playing the path of his travels via composed audio. Likewise Jed Carter linked 64 public access web cameras together around Europe with each recording the color of the sky; named Eyes on the Sky, he translated the data and compiled the overall effect into a book, which represents one week of weather. Collating the purely mundane, artist Harvey Moon tracks the path of a cricket to create drawings, while designer Lina Patsiou visualizes each letter of the alphabet with a color, incorporating a new narrative through hidden messages encoded on the surface. Currently installed at the Carrousel du Louvre in Paris as part of the Tranoi Preview, Passage is an interactive installation from Bonjour Lab: decrypting the visual and sound imprints of those who step near it, the room is a representation of the data we leave behind in the digital world.

As technology begins to make decisions for us, it is time to address the way we view the world. If a lamp post can speak to our car and sensor-integrated cities become the norm, what was once perceived as common sense is evidently going to change. Designers and cultural thinkers are therefore looking at society again from a different perspective; for example, Different Minded Worlds invites visitors to events that allow them to experience alternative ways of thinking. Rethinking in a similar vein is the fictional nation Creators of the Republic of Privacy, which questions what kind of new system is needed to guarantee a life that is 100% private. Addressing the problem of sustainability, The Incredible Shrinking Man Project is a speculative project about downsizing the human species to 50 centimeters, while The Tyranny of Numbers by Wan Yuhan is another project that questions standardized systems, which is redefining how we quantify in an over quantified world. Challenging the immediacy and accuracy of the digital age, her smile-measuring tool gauges sincerity, as well as the perfect smile, while other tools calculate such qualities as social status and attractiveness.

It is simply a matter of time until our computers, tablets and phones extend their functionality into and onto any surface and object. Inevitably, this will bring inanimate objects to life and propel them into the digital world. Once this goes beyond concepts and matures into a fully integrated connected world, the Internet of Things will bring about a new change – a change that will alter the way we work, interact, play and navigate our daily lives, turning everything on its head as we reconsider what we once considered to be the norm.

Published August 2013 © Reproduced with kind permission of

In The Air_Connected Earth

28th October 2013

2013 will probably be the year that is remembered for the launch of space tourism. For years humans have been looking to space as the next frontier, but in doing so, and in the search for another terra, humanity has overlooked the most important part of being – planet Earth itself. For those lucky enough to have travelled into space, they have gained the unique opportunity of witnessing our planet from above and beyond, as well as experiencing the dawning realization that Earth, our home, is a delicate ecosystem inhabiting space - christened “The Overview Effect” - it is a cognitive shift in awareness reported by some astronauts and cosmonauts while viewing Earth from orbit or from the lunar surface. As explored in our New Geology: In The Air issue, we are living through a new geological epoch that is affecting the planet. The impact of global warming is becoming a daily reality, as we see a string of devastating and destructive events such as hurricanes, earthquakes and sinkholes. There are also increasing population issues in many countries, forcing cities to build underground. Singapore, the third most populated country in the world with over 5 million sharing only 710 km2, is already putting together proposals to utilize space by digging downwards below the Earth’s crust. It’s time we savored our surroundings, reconnected with reality and embraced our ecosystem. A series of artists, designers and architects is exploring Earth in new ways, celebrating its raw beauty and reminding us of its fragility. In doing so, we are able to relate to Earth once again and reclaim our primitive state, which is, after all, the essence of being human.

Geologically and scientifically speaking, we know a lot about Earth: we know its layers and its makeup, but what is less known, and more foreign to us, is our very primitive and primal link to the energy that the Earth gives us. For a long time now, artists have been attempting to decipher the sound of our planet, exploring the rhythmical noises that radiate from inner Earth. Sound artist Jacob Kirkegaard has captured the sound of Earth using accelerometers (high-sensitive contact microphones). Currently on show until late June 2013 at Manchester's Museum of Science and Industry, Beneath and Beyond, by artist Stephen Hurrel and computer programmer Robert Farrell, listens to the tectonic shifts and ongoing movements beneath the Earth’s surface, which, via the Internet, collates the sounds in real time for visitors to experience.The Portland Acupuncture Project by Adam Kuby explores the relationship between the natural world and built environments, aiming to foster a sense of connectedness: personifying Earth as a human body and playing with the methodology of Chinese medicine, Kuby considers the health of Portland city, placing giant needles at key points around the vicinity, and bringing attention to areas that may be overlooked or misunderstood.

Humans have lived and worked in caves since the beginning of civilization, and the current rise in their popularity proves our primal attachment to them. Caves are not only places to call home, but are also extremely energy efficient. According to a report by the Los Angeles Times, millions of Chinese people have moved underground: not only is there a high demand for these energy efficient homes, but they boast all the facilities that modern day life requires too. In fact, cave dwellers are springing up all over the place, with families choosing to live in cliff sides and caves. Alongside this, many architects and designers are looking to caves and the ground for contemporary spaces. Touching on this topic, architect Cazú Zegers says, “The building should come out of the ground and go back into it.” An example of her work can be found in the wild southern limits of Patagonia, where the groundbreaking Tierra Patagonia Hotel & Spa explores the relationship between the natural landscape and manmade structures. Really digging into the expanse of caves, Oppenheim Architecture and Design has plans to build 47 lodges carved directly into the sandstone cliffs in Wadi Rum, Jordan. Set for completion in 2014, the structure will utilize the existing geological geometries of the rocks, while new structures will be made using cement mixed with the local red sand to create a harmony and balance with the local surroundings. Italian architect Romano Adolini is proposing to convert an abandoned quarry in Italy into cave-like cliffside dwellings, as he aims to “reinstate the cave as an archetypal dwelling that has cultural and anthropological significance in the relationship between man and nature."

Maximizing urban spaces by going underground is becoming a global trend. Corporations are also retreating into the Earth for a catalogue of uses: The Lowline in New York and Pop Down in London both reimagine disused underground spaces. Pop Down capitalizes on a forgotten network of tunnels under London, providing an ideal environment for an urban mushroom farm, which will be lit by fiber optic technology and filtered daylight. The urban underground gardens will serve as a source of food for the new pop-up concept Funghi restaurants and cafés at each entrance. Utilizing the security that deep underground caves can offer, the Pionen Data Center in Sweden is a revamped bomb shelter that is set deep within 30 meters of granite. Deemed to be bombproof, it is a fully functioning data center with many corporations choosing to house their servers here - this place is even home to the controversial Wikileaks servers. As land prices reach a peak, architects in Hong Kong are also looking to build underground data center caves.

Designers and artists are addressing the loss in the Earth’s precious resources, and are exploring ways to redesign with earthy materials in order to restore balance to our planet. Vincent Kuyvenhoven works with serpentine stone due to its ability to hold and break down carbon dioxide. He makes roof tiles and has proposed the notion of replacing hazardous quartz sand with serpentine, which can partially neutralize exhaust fumes right on the spot. Disquiet Luxurians from Emilie F. Grenier explores alternative trends for the production and consumption of rare and luxurious objects in a world that is running out of precious resources. Her project focuses on feldspar - the world's most prevalent mineral that makes up 60% of the Earth's crust. Through exquisite crafting and cautious efforts to extract the mineral, she is exploring new notions of luxury and sustainability. Terra stools from Adital Ela are made from earth and natural fibers using a unique compression process based on ancient building methods. Exploring the treasures and colors that nature exposes, Kirstie van Noort has rediscovered 12 raw materials found in Cornwall, England, which are made into a base material for paint, suitable for coloring stoneware, earthenware and porcelain. The result is a color palette of 108 colors. Her work, which is collated into a book and a series of porcelain pieces, celebrates the rawness and beauty to be found in nature.

Earth’s natural scent also grabs our attention. Scent blogs are speaking of capturing the evocative smell of dry parched lands that receive a deluge of rain during the monsoon season, while perfumers are also tapping into this newly aroused interest in Earth, as they begin to bottle this raw and untamed scent, enabling us to recapture a moment of real primitiveness and natural connection. Trying to bottle Earth’s aromas is nu_be, the first fragrance collection by Fluidounce, which is inspired by the raw elements at play in the universe. Debuting with five fragrances Hydrogen, Helium, Lithium, Carbon and Oxygen, each scent comes in a grey polystyrene case that has to be physically broken to reveal the bottle, which is supposed to signify the action of crumbling and fracturing the Earth’s crust to access its inner scented core. In a similar vein, Dirt is a scent by perfume company Demeter that is designed with subtle tones to resemble the dirt from the fields around the Pennsylvania family’s farm. Unique perfumer Heather Sielaff has created Forêt, which uses notes of pine and vetiver, recalling the scent of earth and damp northwestern trees, while Victory Wolf consists of birch tar, cedar and tobacco evoking nights spent camping beside an open fire.

Artists and designers are drawing our attention back to Earth, as they celebrate its raw beauty and the raw energy it exudes. Some designers are simply utilizing the splendor of Mother Nature, while others are exploring new ways of mimicking its unique aesthetic. Max Lam, a pioneer in this area, has been using chunks of stones to make chairs, while Lex Pott, who is renowned for using natural processes in his work, has taken a similar approach by excavating Belgian bluestone to create a table called Stone and Industry. During this year’s Milan Design Week, many designers explored the natural beauty of stone. For example, Franchi Umberto Marmi's, rock sinks, shown during the Hybrid Architecture and Design exhibition, celebrate a raw yet refined energy that explores the relationship between man and earth.

In addition to designers exploring the materials and aesthetics of Earth, there is also a rise in the number of artists and photographers celebrating Earth’s beauty, power and fragility. Currently showing their first public sculpture in the UK, Swiss artists Peter Fischli and David Weiss’s Rock on Top of Another Rock is situated at the entrance to the Serpentine Gallery in London, and is startling in its simplicity. Photographer Ruben Brulat captures a concurrence between man and nature, as his images present people fully exposed to Earth’s elements, yet appear almost incidental to their dramatic surroundings. Taking a minimal yet contemplative look at rocks is Pascal Grandmaison, whose collection I Lost You In The Desert consists of 12 pieces of dark rock from two islands that float in the beautiful St. Lawrence river in Montreal; placed in specific order, the rocks, which are painted on one side in varying shades of black, create an indoor geographical landscape, complete with peaks, valleys and ranges.

As the world’s population grows and city dwelling increases, we will see a rise in the number of underground developments – not only those that reuse previously discarded developments, but also developments that bore into the ground, utilizing valuable space in a world that searches for a more sustainable approach, while also reaping the rewards that cave dwellings afford. In addition to this, and more importantly perhaps, we will also see a shift beyond mere sustainability: this is a shift in the conscious mind, exploring the possibilities of planet Earth that look beyond the idea of living in space.

Published May 2013 © Reproduced with kind permission of

In The Air_Augmented Control

18th March 2013

Humans used to be a species of hunters, always on the move and ready for fight or flight. Nowadays we spend more of our time online and in sedentary modes, leading to a lack of physicality and a natural hormone imbalance. As a result, our digital future sense of wellbeing and body consciousness is changing. Our natural endorphins have to be stimulated in new ways. With advancement comes evolution and with evolution comes change. Our technological evolution has meant that we are in some ways defying nature, pushing ourselves, and our bodies to new limits. We are no longer dependent on nature’s or our biological rhythms, but instead rely on technological rhythms that accelerate our lives, allowing us to work all hours and be in any place at any time. We are constantly accelerating our pace of life as well as extraordinarily enhancing our cognitive functions. With this 'always on' lifestyle we are forgetting to switch off and in order to push ourselves we are supplementing with a new kind of control. Within this control we are almost defying nature and subverting the commonplace ideal of ‘natural’ by constantly pushing for the optimization of perceived perfection.

Man has defined life based on rhythms, using time, clocks and agendas. Although we still relate to day and night, sleep and wakefulness, moon and tides, we no longer adhere to the natural rhythms that nature bestowed upon us. In an attempt to cheat nature, we are pushing our capabilities to consistently do more, at a faster pace. Medicine and technology are merging, resulting in the rise of tailored therapies and projects that permit increasing synchronization with the requirements of modern society, thanks to body regulators and stimulating devices. Exploring the idea of the circadian rhythm – our own internal body clock, textile designer Julie Yonehara has created innovative lumino-therapy eyewear accessories to help rebalance the body. Through light and color, her facial filters help users maximize efficiency or minimize jetlag. Projecting the body into a future digital world, Extra Endorphin Suppliers by Hélène Combal-Weiss produce a natural substance known to chemically provide the feeling of wellbeing. Similarly, emotional highs and lows are needed in order to maintain equilibrium. Revital Cohen’s emotion calibrator connects to the eye to measure and orchestrate crying in order to guarantee emotional consistency. Referring to a clinical trial that suggests applying women’s tears to men’s upper lips in order to decrease their testosterone levels, Angela Bracco envisions a future where synthetic tears could be produced and converted into a ‘tear mist’ that could be pumped into certain high-conflict environments, like war zones or prisons, to calm groups of men. Based on a speculative scenario,Ai Hasegawa's Extreme Environment Love Hotel copies the atmosphere of the surface of Jupiter. Without gravity, the surface could offer humans an optimized environment for reproduction and evolution of the human body.

Medicine is one of the main drivers of innovation. As digital technology progressively enters into the orbit of the medical world it will lead people to take control and monitor their own health. Dr. Eric Topol believes the Smartphone is the future of medicine and with an increasing number of medical apps, mobiles are becoming portable medical devices. Inspired by this future, designers are redefining the concept of health products and monitoring, where health will be more participative and affordable at home. An early Philips Design Probe explored a future where the organs are represented in 3D and shows the repercussions of one’s lifestyle over a lifetime. It aims to make people become more responsible and aware of their choices. Synthetic Immune System by Tuur Van Balen embodies the idea of making healthcare more accessible and personal. Suggesting a future where we become our own doctors, a series of biosensors will allow individuals to make their own diagnoses. He suggests that we may even be able to externalize our immune systems by outsourcing metabolic functions to microorganisms such as yeast that will then sense and diagnose anomalies in the body and in turn create synthetic immune systems using advances in synthetic biology.

As the primary driver of our fast paced lifestyles, technology is now being used as a tool to solve the problem it provoked in the first place. Technology is evolving and our relationship with it is becoming more symbiotic resulting in a role change in our lives. A new technological movement is emerging, called the quantified self. People interested in self-tracking and personal infomatics are readily reaching for technology to use for tracking information. These self-quantifiers are gathering data on everything from sleep to the moments in the day when they were happy or sad so that it is possible to control oneself. Exploring this new level of technology and the psychoactive effects it could have is Ludwig Zeller. Through his projects he considers how future generations will deal with cognitive deterioration. Introspectre is a neurological monitoring tool that helps to compensate troubles of concentration. It assists the user to stay attentive on one unique task and aims to reconnect with slow activities. Dromolux is a speed-reading trainer that helps to fight mental decay. Marie-Virginie Berbet’s Empathy Box provides assistance in relaxation and stress management by detecting the user's heartbeat and materializing it through light. The visualization of the inner state makes the user take notice of their own body and regulate it using breathing exercises, for example. Looking to control the mind with technological assistance, Beam Me Down by Sitraka Rakotoniaina creates a self-induced amnesia via hyperventilation in case of an emotional or physical overload. It can help trigger short-term memory loss in an effort to control an unwanted situation.

Our fast-paced contemporary world is shaping modern society – not one driven by religion per se, but one where the priority is finding a place both physically and mentally to stop and be calm. Mental peace has undoubtedly become an essential quest for human balance. Regarding this growing philosophy, designers are looking to new meditative practices provided by experiences or tools. To counterbalance the chaos of Milan Design week, multidisciplinary Studio Toogood organized La Cura, as a therapeutic performance. In this hospital for the senses, the audience was given a white clay ball to shape, representing their mood while experiencing the intimate space that was flooded with calming light, smell and sound. Using a series of toys for adults, Ingrid Hulskamp, aims to bring contemplation into our daily lives. Precious hand-blown glass vessels filled with liquids and pigments reconnect us with simple and poetic enchantments and aim to recall the open-mindedness of childhood. Hitherto, technology has been developed in order to augment cognitive functions and accelerate productivity but it seems it is now going in a holistic direction. Digital could be increasingly used as a tool of relaxation. Ludwig Zeller imagined Optocoupler, an isolation chamber that slows down the user's brain activity through audiovisual stimuli.

Emotions are very instinctual, and often hard to control, but now a series of designers are exploring emotions in order to push the boundaries of self-control. Using the narrative of design fictions, designers have the ability to translate the extraordinary into a kind of reality. Such projects put people in unexpected contexts and make them experience the hyper-normal and the impossible. By placing people in surreal contexts, designers such as Nelly Ben Hayoun take the control of our emotions. She aims to involve common people in science and confront them with the unexpected. Soyuz Chair is a common living-room chair, which reproduces the different stages of a rocket launch. Escape from 20,000 Leagues Below the Sea is based on a similar idea of being confronted with an exciting and stressing context. Studio Good One is a speculative design collective that proposes being contained by a fictional submarine to defy our potential fears of extreme depth and isolation.

Pushing our senses into another realm and exploring the boundaries that our planet imposes on us, such as gravity, designers are re-evaluating how we perceive our environment. Placing some of the control back with us, they are subverting the norm in order to experience space alternatively. Using rudimentary props they propose to play with perception. Exploring the notion of gravity and the influence it has on the body, Multi-Gravity was developed by students of HEAD in Geneva during a workshop led by El Ultimo Grito and Auger-Loizeau and shown during Milan Design Week 2012. The camera captures participant’s faces morphing due to the incline of a rotating chair. Marjan Van Aubel a student in MA Design Products at the RCA, built a pair of mirror glasses that provide full vision directed towards the sky. This disorienting experience was explored during a lecture about clouds from The Cloud Society, providing a new perspective on Hyde Park, London. Similarly, designers Sitraka Rakotoniaina and Gerard Rallo have designed a series of periscopes providing a 360˚ vision that offers an out of body experience. The Inversion Glasses, also by HEAD, are used to navigate through an inverted experience, re-orienting the user’s point of view. Participants followed a path on the ceiling using the mirror on the glasses to push the boundaries of their ability to trust themselves and their perception. Sandra Fruebing’s project proposes alternative experiences towards space by establishing new ways of walking, floating and rolling on angled or uneven surfaces thanks to elementary wooden add-ons.

Advances in genetics and our understanding of DNA has led to some great medical discoveries, but has also meant that DNA databases are controlled by institutions and governments. This level of control means we are still only beginning to understand what this means to our health and reproduction in the future. Taking a particularly critical viewpoint is Jaeyeop Kim. A fictional event, Dr. Weiskind’s Day promotes the sharing and matching of genetic information for medical, genealogical and dating purposes. With widespread sperm donation, the potential for siblings to meet and reproduce in the future is increasing and this project suggests a future where we will be able to test ourselves in order to reduce what is being coined as ‘accidental incest’. On the fictional Dr. Weiskind’s Day, people share edible gifts and greetings cards and genetic pendants that encourage users to share their genetic data. Illustrated through her Genetic First Aid Cabinet and considering issues of genetic harvesting, critical designer Natsai Chezai’s Biocolletibles provokes the debate on a future market for genetic products that leads to the possibility of our bodies being ‘Future Farms’. In a similar vein, Kristina Cranfield has devised a fictional legal case titled GENE CHP- 48/0Z-378 where human tissue becomes a legal battle between governments and corporations, where the state assumes ownership of a person as they carry a rare genetic DNA make-up that is owned by a global leader in human genetics.

From an individual to the whole of humanity, projects such as these highlight a shift in our evolution – from one ruled by nature, to one ruled by the possibilities of technology. Many of these projects highlight the evidence that we are entering into an era of transformation and taking control of nature and our environment in an entirely new way. By linking the natural and the manmade, we are turning ourselves into the perfect beings, one perhaps led by hyper-nature and perhaps with touches of superhuman qualities. In our digital future we will take control of our well-being and body consciousness. This abundance of technology is leading to us becoming hyper-humans, bio-calibrated entities, taking control and cheating our natural selves.

Published July 2012 © Reproduced with kind permission of

In The Air_Uncanny Valley

6th May 2014

There is much discussion about the integration of robots in our daily lives, especially with futurists such as Kevin Kelly predicting that robots will override 70% of the workplace in the coming decades. This is something we are already witnessing too, as robots are notably favored for their acute accuracy and cost-effective solutions. But, what is more interesting still is the current shift in robots from functional to emotional beings. What started as a master-servant relationship has developed into an equal partnership, and in some cases has ensued into dependency. Employed as carers for the elderly or eyes for the disabled, the role of robots in our lives is changing fast, so much so that we are wondering what in the future will set us aside from augmented beings, which have been specifically programmed to replace or even better us. Currently robots function, but they do not appear to be able to experience or share empathy, which brings us to question what defines empathy in a digital age. Regardless of the answer, and regardless of whether we are optimistic or pessimistic about the digital age, the reality is that we are becoming more and more dependent on technology. Our interaction with each other and technology is changing: human interaction is shifting to a screen-to-screen interface and we live in a world with fluctuating ethics and social structures. With more and more investment fuelling the world of robotics, we need to begin to question what we will do with ourselves when robots get really good at what we do.

There is a new breed of robot that has a sense of awareness. Perhaps not a sense of self, but this new breed is changing the way that we connect with bots. For example, meet Baxter, a robot that exhibits common sense and is capable of adapting to his task and his environment. Using force feedback technology, Baxter is testament to the robotic evolution, as he displays human characteristics, such as being courteous and friendly. Another bot growing in evolutionary form is the Google car: proving it possible to automate behavior, the self-driving car is now treading into new territory originally preserved for humans alone. As driving requires a sophistication of skills - such as reading the road, the ability to think ahead, as well as reacting in real time - and with Google’s car being deemed a better driver than humans, it opens up a new discussion as to the definition of a machine or bot. ASIMO from Honda is also capable of decision-making, and similarly to Baxter is able to navigate a room without colliding with anyone or anything. Pushing the boundaries, the holy grail of the robotics world is to instill a sense of taste and smell to bots, which researchers believe to be a mere 5 years away. More than smell-o-vision, these advances will enable bots to smell possible health issues. IBM, on the other hand, has developed a cyberchef, a collaborative bot, which helps to explore new flavors as well as design new dishes to help us eat more healthily. Alexander du Preez’s machine craft explores how man and machine will coexist in the future, creating an intimate relationship between the two. Robots are also beginning to create abstract and emotional art: BNJMN is a paintbrush-wielding bot designed by two students at the Basel Academy of Art and Design who are questioning the difference between robotic and human art.

Robotic solutions are being increasingly applied to real life problems, such as our aging population, in order to meet human needs. One particular robot called Paro is a baby harp seal designed by Takanori Shibata from Japan’s Intelligent System Research Institute. Used in nursing homes as a companion or comforter for the elderly or infirm, Paro is being hailed as the world’s most therapeutic robot, as he is able to respond empathetically by purring when stroked or squealing when handled inappropriately. With robots that dry hair and administer drugs, machines are increasingly fulfilling tasks and replacing manual jobs. The annual Human Robotic Interaction Conference devoted its latest event to holistic human robot development, exploring new ways in which to foster robotic interaction in everyday settings. MIT is also leading the way with artificial intelligence and social robots, as Cynthia Breazeal teaches the next generation of robots to be more humanlike. Her robots can sense human emotions, such as anger or surprise, and have the ability to sense human touch, as well as being able to make friends. She even goes so far as to teach her robots to coexist with humans, by designing gaming platforms where they can play together. With the ability to shrug its shoulders and wink, her robot named Tofu elicits an emotional response that opens up a new direction for artificial intelligence and bots.

In response to this ever-changing digital world, we see a slew of artists and designers who are trying to replicate the hand of the machine, almost mirroring what bots are attempting to do by acquiring human traits. STSQ has developed a project called The Human Printer, which breaks down the CMYK separation in order to create CMYK dots by hand. Also using the hand in an almost automated way is John Gulliver Hancock, who is planning to draw all the buildings of New York by hand. Richard Wright who, with a little human help, hand-painted 47,000 stars on the ceiling of the Rijksmuseum. Blending technology and the manual hand, xy patterning addresses digital textures with a hands-on approach, as each graphic pattern is meticulously completed using vector-based software without the use of automation. Shapes and forms are put into repeat, but each work has subtle variations that can only come about by hand manipulation.

Robots are not only being designed to replace humans in the workplace, but also seem to be infiltrating into leisure time too – doing things we enjoy but just don’t have the time to do. The Pareidolic robot, for example, looks for faces in the clouds: described by its designer Neil Usher, it is a robot that aims to "improve the efficiency of our leisure time" by automatically scanning clouds for faces. The Jazz Connect is a meter tall robot that is designed to go places we are unable to go; advertized as being able to “attend the big board meeting you can’t make” it allows us to be in two places at once. Similarly, Double Robotics, which taxis the iPad about the place, cites itself as being “the most elegant way to be somewhere else in the world without flying there”. In its promotional video, it even suggests sending your iPad to visit galleries on your behalf, which you’ll then be able to witness in real time from the comfort of your sofa. The MH-2, on the other hand, not only sees on your behalf, but also acts as your friend: with two arms, a head and a body – as well as a mechanism for realistic breathing – it sits perched on the user’s shoulder, like a parrot, and can be remotely inhibited by your real life friends from anywhere in the world, allowing others who are unable to be with you to share a personal journey or experience.

Last year Amazon invested $775 million for Kiva systems, an automated shelf stacking system to work alongside humans, while NET-A-PORTER recently introduced robots in all its UK warehouses. With a second wave of intelligence and automation, coupled with cheap sensors, machine learning and artificial cognition, this automation will, for the first time, affect all jobs from manual labor to knowledge work. The robotic bartender from MIT’s Senseable City Lab is a recent example of an automated service in a social setting, while US startup Momentum Machines has invented a robotic hamburger chef, designed not as a complement to the workforce but as a replacement, which they believe will save the industry $9 billion per year. Price will be a key driver in the rise of machines. For example, Baxter who epitomizes this new breed of intelligent robots is priced at $22,000, which when equated to an annual salary that incorporates holiday and sick pay becomes a very viable option. And, this is where it becomes interesting, as Baxter stands for a new breed of robots, representing a new way of working. Who Owns the Future? by Jaron Lanier pertinently poses the question about the role of humans in the workplace, stating: “At the height of its power, the photography company Kodak employed more than 14,000 people and was worth $28 billion. They even invented the first digital camera. But today Kodak is bankrupt, and the new face of digital photography has become Instagram. When Instagram was sold to Facebook for a billion dollars in 2012, it employed only 13 people. Where did all those jobs disappear?”

Shifting away from the typical humanoids and pet-like devices, a series of researchers are exploring an animal kingdom of robots whose behavior is more akin to nature. Salamandra Robotica II, which comes from the Biorobotics Laboratory at the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne in Switzerland, has incredibly natural movements and can swim, crawl and walk. Deemed as unusual in the robotics world and designed as an amphibious service, it and other animal robots may offer a glimpse into a dystopian animal world. Markus Fischer’s bird is not the first robot to fly, but it is the first robot to fly by flapping its wings and mimicking a real bird. Festo, the company behind the bird, has also developed a bionic dragonfly and an aqua jellyfish that mimic real, natural traits.

Programmed and trained robots are getting smarter, but it’s their future ability to think and make conscious decisions that will be the game changer. Thought Experiment has built supercomputer replicas of the human brain, while scientists are hinting at the possibility of a sim card being implanted into a robot, which in turn will make it conscious. In his TED talk last year, Miguel Nicolelis talks about an experiment, in which a monkey in the US learns to control a monkey avatar and a robotic arm in Japan – purely with its thoughts. In a similar vein, a student in Israel has successfully controlled the movement of a robot in France just by thinking about it. Although these are all early stages of research programs, they hint at a future whereby man and machine do merge and the robots of the future have a truly sentient existence.

There are clearly defined traits that set us aside from animals, such as our understanding of death and our sense of self. But, what sets us aside from robots and artificial intelligence? Humanness is currently the divider, as it explores the whole spectrum of emotion, from love to death to hate, empathy, jealousy and the imagination; but as robots are being programmed to feel will they also develop the intangible senses that humans take for granted? Robots are not human and currently there are subtleties they lack that they will need to incorporate if they are to live alongside us seamlessly. As Kevin Kelly says in his article on the future of robotics, we need to shed our view that robots are humanlike, and, instead, concentrate on the new wave of robots that are aware, courteous and have a newfound sense of self. And, admittedly, although robots are replacing us in the workplace, they are also liberating our busy schedules, allowing us to multitask like we’ve never done before.

Published July 2013 © Reproduced with kind permission of

In The Air_Future Legacy

12th March 2013

With advances in science and medicine, our lifespan has increased, but we still only live for a number of decades, which is a brief passage of time on earth. With digital advances, we now live in both the physical and virtual worlds. We die or pass away in real life, but do we die in the digital world too? Technology and digital developments have spurred many artists and designers to begin thinking about how our identity exists in both the physical and digital worlds and question when we have physically died, do we die virtually and how do we design for online death, legacy and memories? Exploring the transformations of our society and its fugacity, we are seeing the emergence of new ways to archive, preserve information and transmit it to the next generation, on a community or individual scale.

We are surrounded by objects that bear witness to our existences, acting as daily memories or archives of our lifetimes. The exhibition, 365 Charming Everyday things , presented in both Paris and Japan, explores this concept. Showcasing everyday items that are commonplace in Japanese people's lives, the exhibition was displayed as a collection or a popular archive, with each item corresponding to a calendar day. Its point was to celebrate the quality, diversity and simplicity of everyday life. Looking more to our daily rituals as a creative process, Lesley Robertson records the traces of morning rituals such as brushing our teeth or drying our hair to create a collection of abstract printed textiles as a representative memory. Before I Die is an interactive public art project by Candy Chang that invites passers-by to write their last wishes on a blackboard.

The web and the digital world have opened up new possibilities to archive and store information and virtual objects in a way that was not possible before. D/STRUCT by Dutch artist Lucas Maassen and Raw Color poses questions about the importance of whether something is digital or analogue and the resultant issues of ownership and archiving in a virtual world. The D/STRUCT website offers small packets of pulverized raw matter, created from digitally scanned objects, to develop a digital archive of objects that no longer do or need to exist. Rapid prototyping technology allows these objects to be re-built in the future, raising questions around issues of storage and archiving. Boîte à souvenirs, by Loïc Lobet, explores digital and physical archiving through embedded RFID tagging technology. The archived images and objects take on a new narrative. Photos appear on the box while its contents are explored. As the objects are touched, images on the box adjust to enhance the story and experience.

The practice of observing and archiving is not new, it is of course the traditional method of referencing history and the past. Recently however, we have seen an increased desire to preserve our culture and biodiversity, fueled by climate change issues as well as an understanding of the potential of life beyond Earth. The Doomsday Vault, built in 2008 in Norway, is deep inside an Arctic mountain and is established to conserve millions of seed samples, keeping them safe from potential world disasters. The UK Pavilion for the Shanghai 2010 expo designed by Heatherwick studio and called Seed Cathedral, was comprised of 60,000 transparent long optical strands with embedded seeds. The botanical archive by Studio Glithero is an anthology of the weed specimens collected and pressed by the design duo. Gathering hundreds of weeds from their London neighborhood, they archived them in a book that serves both as a documentation of the specimens collected to date, as well and as a tool for composing new designs for their Blueware Vase process. The Blueware series places silhouettes of the archived weeds on vases through the use of ultraviolet light. The Golden Record is a phonograph that was included in the Voyager spacecraft, launched in 1977. Containing sounds and images selected to portray the diversity of life and culture on Earth it offers a visual and audio archive.

Time capsules offer the potential to write a letter to the future. The power of time capsules isn't just what they contain, but much more the visceral act of burial and disinterment. There is a combination of commemorative expectation, community feelings and superstition. Mundane objects and messages are metamorphosed into quasi-religious relics. Time Capsule by White Elephant is part of The Lava Project led in the lava flow fields of Hawaii. A message was put into an aluminum vessel that was injected into the lithosphere. It aims to literally link the present with the creation of our planet and raise the question of awareness for long-term thinking and responsibility towards our own and future generations. The same studio also created a chair made from a vessel used as a Time Capsule to carry photos, memories and messages over time and generations. Similarly Kai Table by Japanese designers Naoki Hirakoso and Takamitsu Kitahara appears as a simple table but in fact is hiding numerous secret compartments that act as an archive for future generations.

Age brings about wisdom and value. Old or vintage objects often hold more reverence, which has led designers to explore ways to prematurely age or fossilize. Archive of things to come by Koby Barhad, a student in Design Interaction at the RCA London, explores our attraction to obsolete or yesteryear products. He has designed a machine that can age books using radiation and humidity. The device takes just 4 hours to add a year to a book. His accelerated maturation process gives an aged past to modern objects. Austin Houldsworth’s device, 2 Million &1AD, was designed to fossilize organic material in a few months. Exploring whether humans can control such a process, he fossilized a pineapple and a partridge. Dutch designer Carolina Wilcke designed objects using 600-year-old wood, excavated from Eindhoven’s city foundations. Inviting the viewer to touch, feel, hear and smell, her Please do touch! project explores the value placed on age and places old materials charged with history within the present.

Genetic identity is passed down as biological inheritance but with innovation in medicine and genetics, we may choose to pass or not pass our DNA to our descendants. Revital Cohen’s Genetic Heirloom project explores a series of devices, speculative heirlooms and objects designed to allow people of the same family to connect and share their genetic identity. Considering the tradition of passing precious metals and jewels through families as well as a number of genetic cancers that are traditionally passed down the generations as inheritance, the project draws parallels with the emerging use of precious metals in medicine, especially in cancer treatment. Material heirlooms and genetic ancestry become intertwined. Data Fossils by Tobias Jewson explores what happens to our collective history when everything goes digital. In the digital era our information no longer takes the form of the physical, but that of an electronic file stored in “the cloud”. With our attachment to physical objects replaced by information, the project questions what we will leave for future generations. As a series of fictional scenarios, it looks to advances in bio-computing that suggest the possibility of storing data in the skeleton. The bones’ ability to remodel themselves can be hacked to provide data storage. Polyps of calcified binary code become embedded into bones, portraying digital identities. The treasured remains of a loved one become archaeological memories.

What happens to our bodies once we die? Burnt or buried they just becomes one with the earth. But what if human bodies could offer more than that, and become a precious resource? Auger and Loizeau imagined a device that would make it possible to recover the energy of a body after death via an electrochemical reaction. By filling up a battery, the device would offer both psychological and memorial benefit as a new form of mourning. Then, they commissioned several designers to propose what they would do with this afterlife battery, charged by themselves or family member, post-death. A range of fictitious devices resulted, suggesting emotive uses for the captured energy. Also considering the post-death body as a resource, textile designer Kerry Greville’s project, Recycling the dead, explores the potential of precious resources to be found, post-cremation, for future material mining. She raises questions of human relationships with objects if the object’s components were previously human.
Such projects question the possibility of life after death, which has taken on new connotations thanks to our presence online and in digital worlds, and has lead to new forms of heirlooms. Many websites are proposing the recording of a last message or last tweet. If science and technology are transforming concepts like time and materiality, this movement of preservation clearly reveals both a common wish to share experiences and a long-term perspective legacy. Beyond the idea of leaving a message during our time on earth, these new forms of legacy raise questions about the future of our existence. It's not only about leaving a trace, material or not, but it leads to questions about how the body could become a new form of inheritance while our digital selves become something entirely different. Concerning our identity, if we assume that technology can now predict our tastes and actions; it is not impossible to imagine that our digital being will behave independently after death, using all the data stored during our lifetimes.

Published April 2012 © Reproduced with kind permission of