Weeknote 9.0

The Future of Quantified Self, Working at the Seams of the Ambient and Tangible, and Prototype 3.0

Steve Dean is a disruptor, educator, and leader in the field of quantified self. He is also a supporter of the department: last year, he was a resource for classmates and I in the creation of Sidekick, he was a guest critic of final projects for a class taught by Karen McGrane, and, this week, he advised me for thesis. From Dean’s perspective, the phrase “quantified self” describes activities that previously existed, but defied categorization. He cited examples ranging from journaling, to logging meals with the Weight Watchers plan, to the rise of personal health tracking devices. He observed, when a category like “quantified self” is created, “a future is created.” The future of quantified self involves two vectors: 1) the continued proliferation of apps, that, in turn, will accelerate the movement of self quantification along the Hype Cycle, and 2) a race to make meaning from the subsequent data that is generated. Dean believes the former vector is easy, however, “meaning-making is the hard part.” Making meaning involves: “understanding behavior, correlation and causation, and cybernetics: startups are seduced by sensing, the work is in identifying the comparator and the actuator.” Ample opportunities exist for designers to make data meaningful and actionable, particularly, in form making and storytelling. My thesis aims to create new forms of data visualization in order to tell stories about alternative futures. The problem with futures is they are too far away to see. It is impossible to grasp how one’s unhealthy behaviors diminish lifespan because they take one’s lifespan to manifest. The form of my thesis is the physical embodiment of self through an avatar with approximately 1/170 the lifespan of an average human. At this scale, the “unseeable” effects of unhealthy behaviors over a lifespan are seen and alternative futures are made possible.

From a technological perspective, my thesis may be classified as both an ambient and tangible display. BERG London explored alternative futures for media utilizing ambient surfaces—idle, “listening,” and non-interactive environmental screens—in a collaboration last year with Dentsu London. In a blog post summarizing their work together, BERG principal, Jack Schulz, describes ambient surfaces as “available at a glance,” “[speaking] more quietly,” and “ignorable.” Although these surfaces don’t demand interaction, their abilities to communicate are rich. The Tangible Media Group at the MIT Media Lab aims to “seamlessly couple the dual world of bits and atoms by giving physical form to digital information.” For more than two decades, the group, led by Hiroshi Ishii, has created tangible user interfaces to create “direct interactions” with the digital realm. As for myself, working along the seams of the ambient and the tangible elicits varied responses. On one hand, most welcome the idea of ambient displays, especially when I cite the clock as an example, on the other hand, some are skeptical, even wary, of tangible displays and tangible user interfaces. Perhaps, because they think of the digital broaching the physical realm as an intrusion, or, projections of light from diodes as innocuous, but, the properties of physical matter—such as the deformation of shape—as not. One thing is certain: the 20-year-old promise of interlinking the digital and physical made by Durrell Bishop’s Marble Answering Machine has yet to be fulfilled. I believe, as others do, that tangible user interfaces are decades away from plateauing into a productive form. To get there will take the sustained efforts of many.

Among other things, such as, hacking with classmates for GOOD, I folded the failings of last week into success, with the completion of Prototype 3.0:

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