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Oblong’s g-speak: Spatial Operating Environment

Great demo of Oblong’s g-speak spatial operating environment, from SIGGRAPH 2012, via the Oblong web site:

My quick thoughts:

Obviously, interfaces like the SOE are rapidly collapsing the “mediated distance” between the human neuro-sensory system and virtual objects in virtual space. The implications are so huge here, not just because of Oblong’s SOE, but by all the other related, converging technologies and by the increasing power of the underlying data storage, processing and display infrastructure.

I don’t want to overstate this point, but here it is: this “disintermediation” of the man-machine interface may be a huge iceberg drifting along in the dark while the Titanic of our current web/tech ecosystem steams on its merry way. I see an accompanying collapse in metaphors: the metaphoric mediated space of the web is based on the gestalt of previous media (e.g., print, video), but the new metaphoric mediated space of immersive environments becomes more primal and material. We will no longer talk about pages and content; it may be more objects, textures, motion and space.

The difference seems trivial, as we’ve all played with immersive games and environments like Second Life, but the impact is likely to be seismic, something like the emergence of the web itself: existing business models, economic models, social models will all feel some pain. Individually and socially, this is also new epistemological and ontological territory: subtle changes will occur in what it means to know something and what it means to be something. What counts as knowledge? What is real?

Further, this has the potential to go beyond the venerable dream of virtual reality, as some alternate dimension. The inter-connectivity of a variety of new tech comes into play here: a disintermediation of the man-machine interface, and the re-representation of objects, motion and space, coupled with automation, 3D printing, nanotechnology and the “internet of things,” may not be an alternate reality, but rather a fused reality.

That is, there may be a fusion of virtual space with “real” space in which you could do something like create and run a virtual machine, or a distributed point of view, with the ability to act in “real” space. You might imagine an object, see it visualized in digital space, tweak it there, then realize it in material space. A new Cartesian formula: You think, therefore it is.

UI designers should be salivating at these developments, because UI designers will inevitably be called upon to craft the metaphors to make this possible future work.

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Work Different: “The Future of Work”

I’ve written a bit about automation and structural unemployment in previous posts, primarily because I think the changing nature of work is one of the most critical issues of the short-term future. And when I say the nature of work, I mean on one hand the precise, individual activities through which human beings are able to secure the resources they need to live, i.e. employment, but on the other hand, work also means collective productive activity through which economic value is created throughout the broader, increasingly global society.

The nature of work in its form and substance, individually and systemically, is a reflection of economics, technology, society — all those dynamic contextual factors that add up to Life. So, as history has demonstrated, the nature of work changes with all those other changes.

Here’s another systemic view of the changing world of work from the Economist.

And this article from Forbes reflects a bit on the changing individual dimensions of work vis-a-vis the “empowered employee.”

So there’s plenty of evidence work is changing now, individually and systemically, both in its form and substance. But what does it mean for you? What does it mean for us? Today and tomorrow.

Well, it depends. For some, the changes in work will continue to be painful: job insecurity and/or unemployment. For others, the changes may be liberating.

Consider this kickstarter pitch, called “The Future of Work,” from Thor Muller and Lane Becker, authors of Get Lucky: How to Put Planned Serendipity to Work for You and Your Business.

That’s right, they are raising funds to ride around the country in a party bus, shooting video about unique work. To quote their kickstarter page: “‘The Future of Work’ is a web video series that tells the stories of the obsessive makers, innovators and entrepreneurs that are leading the way to a new wave of business. They share a set of traits: irreverent, adaptable, purpose-driven, and unattached to conventional categories.”

It sounds like a fun ride and a great project, but how cool is it that Muller and Becker are crowdsourcing funds to do unique work about people doing unique work? It’s an example of the other side of structural unemployment — technology and society at present facilitate empowered, self-driven work that may not show up on traditional payroll statistics.


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Leap into the (Near) Future

Leap Motion has introduced Leap, a very affordable and compelling motion device that could begin to revolutionize how we interact with our computers.

Here’s the video:


It looks great. Since I work in creative, marketing and online advertising, I can imagine so many web applications, especially in terms of interactivity. Flip through products or images on a web site. Rotate a 360-degree image with your hands. Manipulate any number of games, puzzles, etc. [In fact, I just applied for a developer unit so that maybe me and the guys and gals in the office can play with it. Let’s see if they send us one.]

Projecting this tech into the future, there are so many human-machine interface possibilities. Why, for instance, do we need a steering wheel to drive a car? Can’t we simply gesture in the direction we want to go? But let’s cut to the chase: why do we even need to move our hands around? The ultimate controller is thought; it’s the mind. And guess what, there’s already work being done on brainwave controllers for wheelchairs.

What will a thought-controlled internet look like? With facial recognition and all the other technologies that are streamlining the interface between mind and machine?

Think William Gibson’s Neuromancer, perhaps: we might be jacking into a fully realized world of pure data.


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My Vision Rule

I have a rule in regard to business, which I call my Vision Rule:

“The fortunes of a business will expand or contract to fit the vision of its leader.”

So a business can grow through the competent stewardship of a leader with a big vision.

A business can also shrink through the competent stewardship of a leader with a small vision.

Incidentally, this last point is often what happens with a leader who plays only to the return objectives of shareholders, which are inevitably small in vision.

I think now that the same must hold true of nations, populations and our species generally:

“The fortunes of a nation/people will expand or contract to fit the vision of its leader.”

Something future-oriented to think about.


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The Future and Context

A simple reflection.

Obviously, there are a variety of possible futures, but future outcomes depend entirely upon contextual factors. Technology often develops in unexpected ways, but it always develops within a complex, interactive environmental context. What happens in politics, law, society and other non-technological areas of life impact the future as much as technological innovation.

It remains true that necessity is the mother of invention. It’s also true that one change can drive a ripple effect.

The collective decision, for instance, that certain kinds of labor are inhumane may drive technological solutions, but only if context (i.e., other factors taken together) allows. For instance, at this writing, mine workers are striking in South Africa. After many were killed in conflicts with police this past week, they persist in their strike for higher wages; they are even facing the loss of their jobs, which will happen if they do not go back to work tomorrow. At present, the striking workers have presumably determined that current wages are so low that they would risk their lives and livelihood for improved compensation. Lonmin, the mining company in question, has presumably determined that the higher wages are sufficiently costly that they would risk negative global press and a loss of productivity in order to break the strike.

In such a traditional labor impasse, many familiar economic and social models are at play. The workers are embedded in the model that their survival depends on trading their labor for wages, and that striking is an effective method to renegotiate wage rates. The mining company is embedded in the model of trading currency for labor, at a certain rate, and under certain conditions that they themselves control. In such a situation, an obvious or “model” conclusion might be the resolution of the labor dispute through a capitulation of one side or another.

But is that the only possible outcome?

A not-so-obvious outcome is a change in the model. The workers might adopt, if available to them, a different livelihood, one in which they do not trade their labor to a corporation in exchange for currency. They might even determine that no amount of currency is worth such labor as mining. They may do something else, or nothing. The company, similarly, may adopt a model which does not include human beings for the extraction of value from the earth, i.e., automation. Or they too may do nothing, and close the mine.

Whether or not an alternative conclusion is found depends entirely upon surrounding circumstances; economic, social, technological factors influence alternatives. There are many opportunities to subvert the current dynamic. For instance, a manufacturer might step in to provide the local population an alternative employment option. The government might also intervene. The people might move, if they can. A robotics company might step in to offer an automation alternative to the company.

Any impasse like this opens the doors to possible futures. And context is everything.

Will the inhumanity of mining drive a technological solution? It depends.

In order to build the future, then, one must bridge from the challenges of today, but one must also understand the contextual complexity around these challenges. The cross-currents of context can point to innovation opportunities.  Similarly, if one seeks a particular future, one must be prepared not only to shape technology but to shape the overall context as well.

This is a note to governments, businesses and people in general: are you doing enough to understand context?


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Mitchell Joachim and Maker Power

NYU architecture professor Mitchell Joachim is pioneering the future through design, sustainability and pure innovation. You’ve probably seen some of his work before; it’s garnered a lot of press. He’s even been on The Colbert Report.

From his soft cars to his organic domestic structures, it’s inspiring work.

Here’s his blog.

Here’s his Terreform company.

And here’s a TED Talk from him:

I think Joachim’s approaches can be translated into a variety of grassroots and local efforts. And let’s face it, the grassroots level (and to some degree the cutting-edge tech circle) is what’s going to transform how we design and build our personal and urban spaces. The old economic construction models have fallen out of touch and will continue to fall further out of touch.

Can you imagine building or growing your own house, car, office, or town? DIY living.

Paired with the maker movement, 3D printing, and the various handmade craft outlets online, there is the potential to make everything you use. There’s also a further economic potential for a kind of self-expressive, individualistic cottage crafts industry the like of which we haven’t seen for some time (ever?).

Open collaboration and open space (physical, legal, and social) are required: protectionist codes, laws, and other status quo intrusions become more of an obstacle than technologies. Another obstacle to overcome is the cost of materials. If we are going to see a populist terraforming of our material world, materials need to be accessible to the masses. Making productive use of recycled and repurposed materials could be a huge enabler.


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Robot and Frank

New film Robot and Frank looks like it explores a “Driving Miss Daisy” style interpersonal dynamic between an elderly jewel thief and his robot caretaker. Here’s the trailer:


I suspect that this future is not so far away, at least for a relatively wealthy segment of the population.