Tag Archives: design

Form, functionality and tradition: why aren’t lightbulbs flat?

The snap answer is “because no one ever made a flat lightbulb“, but Wired UK now puts the lie to that one: someone displayed a flat lightbulb concept at a design show back in 2008, apparently, though it seems never to have made it to production.

The second (and more considered) answer would probably be “because when they were first being made, limited technology for glass manufacture meant that globular capsules were easier and cheaper to produce, and by the time the technology had improved the shape of a lightbulb was an established given that no one thought to alter“. (I’m not certain about the limitations of early manufacture, but it’s a self-educated guess; anyone who can enlighten me further?)

The paranoid answer might be “their frangibility appeals to the sort of corporate mindset that came up with the concept of planned obsolescence” – in other words, lightbulb makers make lightbulbs that are easy to break because they can then sell more lightbulbs. Pretty sure there’s a logical flaw in there somewhere, though…

But anyway, this tangential waffling is the result of that lightbulb story making me wonder how many other household objects are the shape they are, just because they’ve always been made that way. And from there, it’s a short step to thinking similar thoughts about intellectual and cultural institutions, political theories and so forth…

… yeah, so I’m having one of those Fridays where my mind wanders a lot. Lucky you, eh? 🙂

Happiness is an amorphous beige robotic caterpillar

Funktionide by Stefan UlrichPart of the contract for the flat I rent states that I’m not allowed to keep pets, and there are plenty of other folk in the same situation. Plus pets are expensive – food, vet bills and so on – and demanding of your time. How might one get all the psychological benefits of pet ownership – the sense of affection and companionship, the amelioration of loneliness – without running into those obstacles?

German designer Stefan Ulrich has a solution in the form of Funktionide, a conceptual piece based around electroactive polymers acting as artificial muscles to embody a large amorphous shape-shifting object which will create the illusion of living company. [via PosthumanBlues]

The more design blogs I follow, the more I suspect I understand the motives behind conceptual projects like this… meaning that I suspect Ulrich has fully intended the Funktionide to be more than a little creepy and melancholic. Observe:

The notion of robotic pets – whether truly mimetic or otherwise – is at least as old as science fiction itself, of course. The main snagging point I have with Ulrich’s ideas is that I’m not sure loneliness will be one of the biggest problems in the near future, at least not for most people. It seems certain that our future is a predominantly urban one, which to me implies shared living spaces for the majority of people – it’s cheaper and more efficient, after all. Ulrich’s vision of this poor lonely chap in his spacious and stark white apartment doesn’t entirely match up with my own ideas about the singleton lifestyles of the next few decades…. what do you reckon?

Prosthetics porn

Hans Husklepp - Immaculate Arm prosthetic design conceptThere is an arc of progress with human technologies: first comes functionality, then gradual acceptance, and then the aesthetic overhaul. The transition from practicality to personality has always interested me, because it hinges on that point of acceptance, be it grudging or enthusiastic; only then do notions of art start to appear and entwine themselves with functional objects.

Some objects achieve that point of acceptance more quickly than others; these are usually the objects of power, objects that make someone more than human – swords and cars, for example. Slower to achieve acceptance and freedom from stigma are those objects designed to raise the disadvantaged to the same status as everyone else.

We appear to be on that cusp of acceptance with human prosthetics. Granted, there have probably been carved crutches, peg-legs and walking sticks for millennia, but they were only ever crude stand-ins (if you’ll excuse the pun) for a damaged or missing limb. But they represented a refusal to be stigmatised, a defiant embracing of the user’s condition – “This is me; this is my replacement limb. Deal with it.”

Now we can build prosthetic legs that are in some respects superior to the originals, and it surely won’t be long before artificial arms that can replicate (or exceed) the essential functions of their biological equivalents become available to the widening sphere of those who can afford them – and that defiance, that rejection of stigma, will become more prevalent. It’s a stage of great interest to transhumanist thinkers, naturally, but it’s also attracting the eyes of artists and designers who’ve noticed a new human space to colonise with the communication of ideas.

There’s a gallery of cybernetic design concepts – like Hans Huseklepp’s Immaculate Arm, pictured top right – and photo-portraiture over at New Scientist at the moment which will get you thinking about this sort of stuff (it’s what inspired the preceding paragraphs of waffle from me, at any rate), but consider it only a starting point. Sit back for five minutes and think about the ways we already customise the human body for aesthetic effect; then imagine what we’ll start doing when prosthetics are affordable and effective enough to become ubiquitous. It’s closer than you think. [image copyright Hans Huseklepp, reproduced here under Fair Use terms; please contact for take-down if required]

Here’s your starter for ten: when will we first hear of people choosing to replace undamaged natural limbs with prosthetics, be it for practical or artistic reasons? How will the general public react to that? How would you feel if your teenaged son came home with a cybernetic hand in place of the perfectly functional one he had before?

Intelligent design vs. natural selection

flowerEric Drexler has written a paper entitled Biological and Nanomechanical Systems: Contrasts in Evolutionary Capacity that explores the differences between biological organisms and artificial machines, specifically why some products of intelligent design (i.e. design by humans) could never be created by natural selection. Drexler has written a short preface summarising his argument here:

The basic argument is as follows:

  • Evolvable systems must be able, with some regularity, to tolerate (and occasionally benefit from) significant, incremental uncoordinated structural changes.This is a stringent contraint because, in an evolutionary context, “tolerate” means that they must function — and remain competitive — after each such change.
  • Biological systems must satify this condition, and how they do so has pervasive and sometimes surprising consequences for how they are organized and how they develop.
  • Designed systems need not (and generally do not) satify this condition, and this permits them to change more freely (evolving in a non-biological sense), through design. In a design process, structural changes can be widespread and coordinated, and intermediate designs can be fertile as concepts, even if they do not work well as physical systems.

As I read it (and I could be wrong) the basic notion underlying Drexler’s argument is that the kind of mechanical precision demanded by human engineers is not present in the products of natural evolution. Artificial technologies are not yet fungible. If you remove any part of your CPU it will not work. If you remove some parts of someone’s brain then it still works. If you make a small alteration to an organism’s genome it may still work.

In order for evolution to work the replicator needs to function even when it has some small mutation. Artificial technologies generally don’t work when there is some small error in the manufacturing process.

[from Eric Drexler on Metamodern][image from bbjee on flickr]

Welcome to the 3D economy

Rep-Rap - self-replicating fabberJamais Cascio appears over at Fast Company once again, this time talking about the desktop manufacturing revolution, which seemingly becomes a less science fictional prospect by the week. The shift in plausibility is noticeable in the concerns raised: consider a still-distant technology like nanoassemblers or sentient AI, and you’ll get the species-killer existential risks – grey goo, say, or a hard unfriendly singularity. Ubiquitous fabbing is inevitable enough to be raising more realistic and (by comparison) small-scale concerns… like what the hell it’s going to do the economy. [image by Zach Hoeken]

Technologies that shift production from being atom-dominated to being bit-dominated tend to follow similar trajectories. With both laser printers and, later, CD/DVD burners, the first wave of “creative destruction” came when the prices dropped to the level where the devices were affordable by small businesses; the second, bigger wave came when the prices dropped to a level affordable by general households. Now, laser printers and CD/DVD burners are just about free in a box of cereal–and, for many of us, the production and consumption of text documents and music has moved to entirely digital formats.

If 3D printing follows a similar trajectory, we may not be likely to see a massive shift to entirely digital “products” any time soon, but we could well see a shift to more local–even desktop–production. There’s no guarantee, of course, that 3D printing system prices will crash in the exact same way as laser printers, or that individual households will decide that desktop manufacturing is appealing. Local manufacturing seems a good bet, however, for a variety of reasons. There’s a particularly strong sustainability argument around local manufacturing, from the rising tide of “localism” philosophies (from food to media), to the ability of 3D printing to extend the useful life of manufactured goods by making new parts (as Jay Leno does for his vintage cars). The sustainability argument will become especially powerful once cheap overseas-produced goods reflect rising costs for fuel and carbon. And local manufacturing via 3D printing, even if limited to simple consumer items, has the potential to disrupt incumbent manufacturing, shipping, and retail industries.

If we do see 3D printing follow the footsteps of laser printing, however, the results could be profound. Desktop manufacturing offers the potential for the ultimate “maker” culture, where commercial products are bought off of iTunes-like online stores and printed at home, while eager hardware hackers play with design tools and open-source hardware systems to make entirely new material goods. Lurking in the background, of course, is the potential for design piracy — what one writer termed “napster fabbing,” back in the era when Napster was scary.

It remains to be seen what actually happens, but severe disruption of the status quo is pretty much a given. What do you think – will ubiquitous fabbing usher in a utopian future of happy people making interesting stuff, or a world crammed with cheap and poorly-made junk?