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a Studiolab production.
the wind I am enjoying
Posted in June 2009
My colleague Thomas likes to quote a professor of his as being very happy whenever his students designed an interactive object in the form of a glowing cube, because this meant that the cube had been done and that the real design could start. I guess that it is always a strong temptation, having to do in part with science fiction imagery, such as the Borg cube
the Borg, being an entirely rational race, make cubic spaceships because they are not concerned with aerodynamics. Since these cubes will never enter an atmosphere, they can be cuboid and covered with fiddly little appendages. When they feel like doing something wild, they make a spherical spaceship.
On the other hand, if a human designs a cubic object, particularly if it is supposed to be grabbed by someone, it is a safe bet that he is a taking an easy way out and neglecting thought. Just try to remember how many perfectly cubical objects you know. Not many, right?
- dice, cubic so that they can fall on each side with the same probability
- Rubik’s Cube, cubic for gameplay reason
- the Power Mac Cube, that was not really a cube
- the Borg cubes (already discussed, and you are not designing for the Borg anyway)
- the Weighted Companion Cube in the videogame Portal, designed to weird you out with its cubic yet loving inexpressiveness
- silly MP3 players from 2 years ago
- frankly stupid cube shaped clocks that go out of their way to make reading the time difficult
…one runs out of presentable examples pretty fast. And that is because a cube is not such a good form to hold in your hand: first of all it is pointy, and secondly it makes sense only if all its faces are equally significant and work well by being exactly the same size. It is not strange that there are very few cubes around us, while there are millions of objects that are bricks, tablets, slabs, and thin plates: their asimmetry has a reason, while the cube’s peculiar and extreme simmetry is just … a form. Real world objects have a good end and a bad end, a business end and a handle end, a top and a bottom, a front and a back. Their sides specialize, to a degree, just like animals – notice that most higher animals are symmetric only on one plane.
Cubes, on the other hand, have no favorite resting position. Each side is equally good.
These are MP3 players and sharing devices, whose designer I will not mention, and they are really wrong. They offer no use cues: are you supposed to shake them, squeeze them, press them or put them one close to the other? Or eat them with a fine Chianti? Why do they glow, other than they can be made to glow? The bland cube, in its simmetry, is rivaled only by the blander sphere (or egg).
These (horribly boring by now) glowing LED spheres make some sort of sense, because they are hand sized, meant to be grabbed and I bet that you have to squeeze them to switch them on and off. And this is about the only meaningful interaction you can have with a featureless sphere, other than throwing it at people and small animals. The moment you want to add more interactions, though, you will suddenly realize that the sphere is the wrong shape.
The sphere’s best buddy is the egg. Nicely aerodynamic and archetipal, it is a very good shape for containing a baby chicken and making kitchen timers. Oh, and chocolate eggs. And debatable USB minipicture frames distributed by Brando. Here on the side you can see probably the ugliest MP3 player in the universe, that combines the senseless egg shape with commands on the headphone wire (bad) and an incredible fake marble skin. That’s what I call a clear winner, and a good point to stop rambling.
If you liked this post, you might also like the previous fallacy.
At the Salone del Mobile I visited the rather good Philips Lumiblade stand in the Superstudio area (via Tortona). I left them my contact data, and today they sent me a piece of email and a link, inviting me to obtain the Lumiblade experience kit. The Lumiblade is an OLED light source. Monocromatic, cool to the touch, energy efficient, and still relatively new.
(image grabbed from the Philips email without permission)
I followed the link, and I found out that the bare minimum you have to spend to see the technology on your desk is
70 Euro for the power source
72 Euro for one little white square (30 x 30 mm)
In case you wanted to experiment with colors, you could get 3 small rectangles in red, green and blue for a cool 500 Euro. Of course, plus VAT and postage. Can I give this to students to play with? Not really. Besides, Philips has not yet convinced me that their technology does something that electroluminescent (EL) material can not do…
I understand that OLED is a new technology. But the buyers of these kits are not luxury-chasing consumers: they are the designers and architects that must snag the luxury-chasing consumers – and the schools and universities that train the architects and designers. The analogy here is with the software development kits (SDK) that are necessary to make software for new products. If you make the SDK expensive, the software companies will delay adoption of your new hardware: nobody wants to sink large sums of money into risky new technology. Wise companies that want to push a new technology make SDKs free or almost free (the iPhone SDK, for example, is free). Unwise companies that want to make a quick buck make SDKs very expensive.
Is there ever a case for an expensive DK (or an expensive experience kit, as is the case for the Philips OLED)?
- It makes sense to be expensive if your revenue comes from selling the DK much more than from selling the technology, perhaps because there are many other companies out there doing manufacturing
- It makes sense to be expensive if you are selling such incredibly hot, unique, shit that nobody else has it, and so you can basically squeeze the customers for the product, the developers for the DK and any other stakeholder as much as you want. There are not many businesses like this.
I wonder, is Philips in either of these positions with regards to the OLED light sources?