Randy Tsang – IA / UX Design Musings

Inspiration from the Internet

The digitisation of manufacturing & Bruce Sterling’s “spimes.”

  • Printable electronics using ink jet technology
  • Products that talk to us

I’ve read a couple of interesting articles over the past month. The first was an article by PC Magazine about how Xerox have produced a “printable electronic circuit” using ink jet technology. This is the next step in 3D printing, which began with printers which were able to produce small plastic objects through injection moulding. Imagine “downloading” the plans to custom lego pieces and being able to print them off at home. Printers for metals and complex interlocking mechanisms also exists, which essentially digitises the manufacturing process. Changes that have occurred in the digital media industry, such as 0 distribution costs, unlimited supply and piracy may also shock the manufacturing world. 3D printing has already allowed some companies to shift prototype development of products from heavy industry into the office environment.

Printable electronics also paves the way for the production of ultra cheap electronics that can safely be printed onto disposable materials such as paper and cardboard. Such electronic circuits could store text and graphics on cereal boxes, frozen foods and anything else in a supermarket. Information about origin, expiry date or price could easily be stored for every single item in a shop. Passing through a checkout counter to pay for your goods may simply be a case of passing your entire basket through an RFID reader.

This reminds me of the second article, a talk entitled “When Blobjects Rule the Earth” made by Bruce Sterling in 2004 (make sure you click on “Siguiente” at the bottom to access the 2nd half of the article). In this talk, Bruce Sterling postulates a future filled with objects called Spimes, which are searchable objects which are precisely located in time or space. The example he gives may make the definition clearer:

Scenario: You buy a Spime with a credit card. Your account info is embedded in the transaction, including a special email address set up for your Spimes. After the purchase, a link is sent to you with customer support, relevant product data, history of ownership, geographies, manufacturing origins, ingredients, recipes for customization, and bluebook value. The spime is able to update its data in your database (via radio-frequency ID), to inform you of required service calls, with appropriate links to service centers. This removes guesswork and streamlines recycling.

Imagine everyday objects talking to you and constantly feeding back information about its condition. A vacuum cleaner that tells you when a component is broken and needs to be replaced, which incidentally, you could just download off the manufacturers website and print off at home. A water bottle that tells you where it needs to go for recycling and knows if you have carelessly discarded it at the side of the road. A jacket that feeds back information about its history; how often it was worn, the conditions under which it was used, the other items of clothing that it was combined with. Like Amazon recommendations on speed.

Of course such a future does bring with it certain problems. Spam, privacy issues, identity theft and vandalism to name a few. But as Bruce Sterling argues, in a finite world where resources are being stretched, objects will need to be tracked and located in order to be recycled.

We need to leap into another way of life. The technical impetus is here. We are changing, but to what end? The question we must face is: what do we want? We should want to abandon that which has no future. We should blow right through mere sustainability. We should desire a world of enhancement. That is what should come next. We should want to expand the options of those who will follow us. We don’t need more dead clutter to entomb in landfills. We need more options.

It needs to happen. It must happen. It is going to happen.

Henry Markram builds a brain in a supercomputer

Following on from my last post where I discussed the possibilities of a home computer with the processing capacity of a human brain, I came across this interesting TEDtalk by Henry Markram on the next steps in actually building such a computer. Fascinating stuff.

Achieving Telepathy: Mind To Mind Communication

  • Can the advancement of technology allow humans to communicate directly between each other’s brains?
  • What implications will this have on humans’ ability to communicate with each other and with computers?

Back when I was a child, one of my favourite books to read was The Chrysalids by John Wyndham. This book is the story of a small group of telepaths living in a post-apocalyptic society that resembles the American frontier of the 18th century. In it, Wyndham makes references to a socially and technologically evolved society where telepaths are the norm. The details of this society are never fully revealed in the story, but it is alluded to as an advanced and peaceful community of telepaths that exist and work together as a hive mind where thoughts, knowledge and emotion are easily transferable throughout the community.

Although this book exists very much in the realms of science fiction, there is plenty of evidence around us today that suggests that such a society may not be completely beyond our grasp. Our knwoledge of the human brain is growing every day and there are plenty of examples where scientists have been able to read and input information directly into the brain via electrical signals. The video below details an experiment by researchers at Southampton University that demonstrates a proof of concept of direct person to person transmission of information without the need of an interface.

You can read a little more about this experiment in this article.

There are also examples of how networks of computers perform tasks more powerfully than individual computers by harnessing the processing power of multiple devices. Folding@home is a distributed computing project that uses the excess capacity of home computers to simulate models of “protein folding.” The potential of networks does not have to stop with computers. InnoCentive is an example of a company harnessing the excess capacity of people, mainly amateur scientists, to solve chemical and biological problems that even the most well funded corporations are not able to solve in house.

Previous posts on this blog have looked at possible changes in the nature of communication and collaboration within the context of a very near future with relatively modest technological developments. More optimistic models of future trends and economic developments provide a vastly different picture that some people would consider to be approaching the realms of science fiction. Kurzweil-ian economics postulates that by 2019 we will have a $1,000 home computer with the processing power of a human brain and that the sum computing power of all computers will exceed the processing power of the entire human race combined. Such a development would have profound implications not only how people communicate with each other but also how they communicate with the artificial intelligence that may follow. These kind of developments would instigate paradigm shift in how people interact with each other and will require a new definition of what it is to be an intelligent being. This is predicted to happen perhaps within our lifetime but certainly within the generation that follows. And that would be just the beginning.

Openness in academic research

  • Can a researcher maintain a public blog or wiki related to their research or does it leave them vulnerable to ideas theft?

An interesting issue was raised today during one of my induction lectures about the possible dangers of disclosing too much information about your own research to other academics. When discussing your idea or research, it pays to take care that you don’t disclose too much information to the wrong people, as someone who is in the middle of writing a publication may be able to write about your ideas without referencing you. This may also be true of discussing ideas on a blog, as I am doing here. As an advocate for opensource and as someone who has an interest in crowdsourcing and the wisdom of crowds, it would make sense to disclose any thoughts or ideas I have related to my research. This is especially the case as the purpose of this blog is to share ideas with the community in the hope of receiving insights and comments from the online community to help enhance my understanding of the subject.

Mathworks, the company that developed the statistical programming language MATLAB have demonstrated this principle in the real world. Mathworks regularly post open competitions that aim to solve complex mathematical problems. The difference between this competition and most others is that submitted solutions are made public, allowing other contestants to see and “steal” other peoples’ solutions, add their own contributions and re-submit the solution as a new entry into the contest. These contests generally run over the course of 10 days. According Ned Gully, a software designer at Mathworks, the final winning solution is on average better than the best solution from day 1 by a magnitude of 1000 (Howe, J 2008, Crowdsourcing; How the Power of the Crowd is Driving the Future of Business).

There is also the added complication of not being eligible to receive a PhD if a large proportion of you research (roughly a third I am told) is published before assessment.

How social collaborative models can be used to design the information architecture of an e-commerce website.


Source: Matthew Field

As some of you may know, I am currently conducting part-time PhD research at London College of Communication, University of Arts London. Below is a short extract from my original proposal.

This study aims to investigate the extent and the circumstances in which mass collaboration can be leveraged to design the information architecture of an e-commerce website. The conclusion of this research aims to illuminate our understanding of the potential of large networks to collaborate on design and to further enhance our ability to define a new framework for using new technologies and user interfaces to collaboratively solve creative web design problems.

Developments in technology have seen communication move from a one-to-many broadcast medium to a many-to-many communication paradigm (McQuail 2005). Wikis and social networking websites have brought people together in online communities and facilitated digital content creation that was once purely the domain of professionals (Friedman 2006).

Evidence of the effectiveness of digital communications and crowdsourcing to redefine business models have emerged in various industries (Howe 2009) most notably in:

  • Encyclopedia publishing with Wikipedia
  • Stock photography with iStockPhoto
  • Chemical R&D with InnoCentive

Further developments of sophisticated technologies, intuitive user interfaces, and a subsequent empowerment of the digital natives who are on the verge of entering the workforce (Pew Internet American Life Project 2005) provides great potential for collaborative labour, for instance in the design of information architecture for e-commerce websites.

Parallel strands of research into self-organising systems will also be investigated due to the potential synergy with large-scale online collaboration.  Specifically, the Sociocybernetics  (Buckley 1967) strand of General Systems Theory (Bertlanffy 1967) will be researched in relation to defining a new ecology of social interactions in the context of creative collaboration.

The rise of the “prosumer” has been predicted for nearly 30 years (Toffler 1981) when it was postulated that consumers would begin to exercise an increasing influence over the products that they consumed. However, it is “a generation of digital natives entering the workforce…and the rise of online communities composed of like-minded enthusiasts” (Howe 2008) that has combined to empower consumers to create products for themselves and allow crowdsourcing to transform industries.

This has been made possible by the exponential growth in computing (Kurzweil 2005) which has led to increasingly powerful technologies becoming affordable for average consumers. With the Internet acting as a free educational resource and distribution channel (Anderson 2006) there lies potential in utilizing a network of underemployed talent and creativity in design, taking advantage of the potential benefits of crowdsourcing such as lower costs, more innovative ideas and more diverse solutions (Howe 2009).

The value of e-commerce retailing has benefitted from the increased capability of computing power, with studies by Zhu (2004) finding a “strong positive interaction effect between IT infrastructure and e-commerce capability.” This suggests that “their complementarity positively contributes to firm performance in terms of sales per employee, inventory turnover, and cost reduction.”

The theoretical context will draw from the following perspectives:

User Interface

This field will focus on how developments in human-computer interaction can impact on how people use e-commerce websites, and will draw on studies such that by Egger (2001).

Information Architecture

Morville (2006) defines information architecture as “the structural design of shared information environments.“ As incremental improvements in usability have proven to significantly impact on profitability (Tedeschi 1999), the importance of information architecture has increased.

E-Commerce Website

A website which facilitates the transaction of products or services on the site itself (Laudon 2001). The information architecture is of vital importance as a website’s profitability can be positively influenced by improvements in information architecture (Moville 2006).


Howe (2009) defines crowdsourcing as the “outsourcing of a job that is traditionally performed by employees to an undefined, generally large group of people in an open call.”

To establish whether social collaborative models can be used to design an e-commerce website, this study will initially focus on defining the conventions of professional web development. By establishing the parameters under which the success of an e-commerce website can be judged, the success of crowdsourcing information architecture designs can be assessed.