My friend Gwyan sent me a link (via O'Reilly Radar) to a project developed for Microsoft Research's Design Expo, wherein a group of students came up with a wonderful networked object which is designed to be a comfortable improvement for a grandparent. The project is called Social Sewing, and was designed for Despina, grandmother to one of the people in the design group.
Despina was a dressmaker before she retired, working in a shop with several other people, all sewing and gossiping together as they worked. She did this for many years, until it became too hard to get to the shop. Apparently she is still working, but now does it from home – and finds it incredibly lonely work. So the group designed three little sewing-machine-like-objects, with different colored fabrics on each one, which are networked with her friends' sewing machines. When her friends are sewing, the needles on the faux machines go up and down and the wheels go around - with apparently the right sound - and a light goes on to illuminate the fabric, just like in a real machine. When Despina sits in her sewing chair, communication is activated by her weight, and she can talk to whichever friends are sewing at that time, thus making her sewing the interesting gossip-and-sew experience it used to be in the shop. Apparently the friends are all such good seamstresses that they can tell, just by listening to the sound of the others' sewing, what the others are making. By making the devices familiar in shape and sound, the group have enhanced Despina's life dramatically without making her learn anything outside her comfort zone.
For years people have been talking about humanity getting wired into the world, wearing earrings that talk to the bus (and pay the fare) and so on. But I think that is largely chatter. The real impact is going to be in ways like this, where individual people find ways to make their lives better in ways that corporate entities could never imagine. How well would a device like this sell - or perhaps I should ask how many people out there are retired seamstresses? Not many. And yet people like this group, and many of the people who come to events like Maker Faire, are finding incredibly individual and creative ways to use technology - including, as in this case, networking everyday objects so as to make them familiar and fun, without all the learning involved in a designed corporate interface. As far as I'm concerned, this is where combining humanity and technology will have real impact, when we have the tools to design our own technological objects, when the tools are in our own hands to make what we please, in much the same way we knit sweaters or design our own websites. We are all different from any other person; and so, too, should our technology be different. And part of our everyday world, not as "technology", like cell phones or the Internet, but incorporated into our clothes, our knitting needles, the things we like to do. It's where all the personalized interfaces are trying to go, but in a much better, much more interesting way.
(PS. I'll be posting about Maker Faire in the next few days, I hope).