Austin in SXSW – The Digital Master (1 of 3)

It used to be the case that we understood computation as a representation of the real world around us. It was used to model effectiveness of bombs, cities, or patterns of life. But that has flipped. Now the physical world around us is an instantiation of a digital source. Our source used to be an analog, in the case of photography, a negative. The source is no longer analog atoms, but rather a digital master. This is the first of a three part series. Follow the rest of the conversation in part 2 and part 3
Austin, March 11, 2:50pm: You’re staring at your phone, desperately trying to figure out the most appropriate, break-through, next-level place you could possibly go. But you’re also moving, your feet propel you forward guided by the over flowing list of lives you could be living at 3:00pm today. Welcome to the crowd of SXSW’13, a hoard of nerds, some of whom you’ve highlighted as potential friendships, contacts, and maybe something more. Jumping to your other compass, the twitter-sphere, you search for what’s good in the last 2 minutes. Expo G? You’ve got a good 10 minute walk. It starts to rain, and you see a swarm of folks donning red ponchos with a line emerging behind them. Just in time, you happily wear a url in exchange for a dry walk to the next venue. Despite bumping into other tilted head walkers, you find yourself in a massive conference room, ready to be inspired, snap an instagram, and grab some quotable references for your tumblr later on. Halfway through the talk, it hits you: ‘what’s next?’ You pull out your shiny glass master and realize 4:00pm promises 13 potential futures. The notion gives you pause. Imagine, what would SXSW be without the net? No digital schedule, website swag, no live tweeting, no ambient cloud of intent. Just a room with a bunch of people talking. For better or for worse, our reality has flipped, what was once a world of physical things organized by people, is now a world of digital things augmented by people. We look down for orientation, and up for verification. I’d like to share with you how SXSW taught me to stop worrying and learn to love the new master.

The digital master of the built environment

Making plastic junk is now a digital pursuit. One of the first unveilings at SXSW was a consumer level 3D scanner. A couple of years ago the makerbot was released with a promise to disrupt how real things are made. The cycle is now complete with the ability to scan an object into a digital mesh. The mesh can then be modified and printed out to a new plastic object. This is consumer level! For the price of a PC in 93, you can purchase a 3D scanner and printer.

The demo object (scanned and printed) was a garden gnome, once of many crapjects waiting to happen.

When the PC gained mass adoption, there was a mass of useless text waiting to be released. Horrible rainbow drop shadow ‘word art’ littered our bulletin boards. Adding a new ‘make’ option in the ‘file’ menu will no doubt produce large quantities of low quality junk. But it also changes how we think about the products we love. When we look at a book, we now know it exists in a computer somewhere. A publishing company would never delete the original, and this allows many futures editions to be edited and re-released. Our physical stuff is set to go the way of the weather report; just a snapshot of a complex and evolving digital master.
Fans of 90s RPG games cover the midi songs at live shows; a strange movement from digital to analog.

Despite living online, SXSWers were often tied to the wall. Energy may be one of the last industries to change.

What does this mean for design?

Peruse the pack-store’s inventory of digital/physical hybrid products.

Physical space and tangible objects are becoming as easy to prototype as software. When industries start to get eaten by software, the speed of development magnifies. When we can test, prototype, and fail fast, we can achieve massive change in shorter time periods. 3D scanners, printers, collaborative consumption, and modeling make these changes physically pervasive. The next chance you get, think about how you might make a pack, rather than an app.
During the day, shipping containers provide a way to grab wifi or lunch paid with Square.

At night time these popup places become a way to socialize or share a meal, but discovered via twitter.

Environments matter, context matters, and objects matter. Don’t shy away from offering up artifacts or creating spaces. As software spreads to our walls, windows, and eye-lids, its all fair game for interaction design. On the panel I was part of, we discussed the future of the popup and the culture created by temporary environments. Through Square Foot, we’re able to work with entrepreneurs who are learning more about their audience, their offering, while also building ties within a neighborhood. From start-ups to corporate giants to community groups, physical spaces are becoming destinations for interactions.
Its a business card, but NFC connects it to a digital master.

People like real objects, and they live in physical space. Objects can be augmented like an RFID business card, but their value as physical objects remains. We create trash, but there’s a reason behind it. Our future has fewer screens, and more trash. Making glowing pages with projectors and heralding that as the future is missing the point. Print-on-demand means that paper is a screen, with a refresh rate measure in minutes, not milliseconds. Rather than replacing walls and windows with screens, consider: it will only be a matter of time until moving molecules is as fast a moving electrons.

Attention remains king. Software companies that promise to make your life digital are giving away ponchos, sunglasses, and hamburgers. Posters, brochures, and t-shirts riddle the landscape despite the heights of accuracy provided by digital marketing. We as humans pay attention to our physical environment, but we’ve been trained to ignore those annoying ads interfering with our online experience. All the printed matter we see around us came from a digital world, with links back to some sort of Facebook presence. Your landing page is now a wall somewhere. And that wall is now just part of the program.

Next up

Our built environment isn’t the only domain to defer to its digital master. Our own routines, memories, and preferences now have a permanent place in the clouds. In the next post we’ll learn about developments in AI, UI, and sensors that suggest our computers will know our mood swings better than partners, certainly better than ourselves.

Patrick Keenan

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