Friday, July 17, 2009

Social Sewing and Networked Objects

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).


peacay said...


Anonymous said...

Hi Heather - love your blog and ideas, have even quoted them in an academic paper or two!

I have a random quibble, and I'm curious to hear your viewpoint. I agree that the tools should be in everyone's hands to make what they please, but isn't the cat already out of the bag? Meaning: for Despina and her friends, this interface makes sense. But for so-called digital natives, would they need such an interface? Sure, they could implement it if they wanted to, but they could just as easily implement it as a 1980s-style video game visualization on a wall painted with OLED material, or as a series of steampunk dials and gauges, or heck via a cell phone or a web page.

I guess what I'm frustrated with is the bandying about in various places in a somewhat obscure fashion that all older and current interfaces are wholly unsuitable. I worry about the baby being thrown out with the bathwater. Or am I just overreacting because I happen to like the current set of interfaces and find myself frustrated by more 'transparent' ones due to my desire to constantly 'tweak the bare metal'?

Heather McDougal said...

I don't have a problem with designed interfaces; I use them all the time and they're great for what they do. I do, however, like the idea of individualized interfaces, and I think that they do require learning. I also don't always like the choices that are made to "improve" an interface (Adobe Flash is a fine example of an incredibly useful program which anyone was able to learn and use, which grew until it became an overwhelming, bloated program suitable to be used only by people in the industry. I would like to see a new version of the "old" Flash interface, which I can teach to middle school kids).

My issues with industry-designed interfaces aside, what you ask is totally relevant. Of course, if the person using the interface is a digital native, the interface should reflect that; however, there are many ways in which we interact with the world, and for this particular woman, the sound of the sewing machine (not a recording of the sound but the actual, in-the-room vibrations) was incredibly soothing and meant a lot to her. So it is exciting to see people using all those other ways of interacting with the universe to design interfaces.

For example, we all use knives and forks to eat. What kind of interface could one create to do something - for example helping dieters be more conscious of their portions - which uses the knife, fork, and plate to communicate something? The thing is, sometimes a digital or steampunk "designed" interface isn't the same as that everyday interaction that we all have, with the cutlery, the toilet, the bedding, the knitting needles. So why not use the things we're already using to make something else happen?

The thought excites me, because it means we're breaking out of the box of industry interfaces. Not that the industry interfaces are wrong, just that these other options broaden the horizons in new and interesting ways.


spacedlaw said...

That is an incredible thing to have put about.

Lady Meerkat said...

This is such a wonderful idea and a really interesting story behind it as well. The future is here: technology where you don't have to think about interaction with it, it's just part of what you do normally. I think it has applicationw for a younger demographic as well.

Anne Harris said...

What a neat story. Thanks for posting this.

Hey, we met at Anticipation in Montreal last weekend. It was great talking with you. I hope you enjoyed the rest of the con.