Thursday, 24 April 2008


Relentless have a slick new site and viral vid. At the moment I can't find out whose work it is (Obviously Coke, but I am talking about the digital agency).

I just like the way it's dressed up as some dark medieval potion for the elite operator requiring of more energy than the average serf. The logo font looks fresh off the Gutenberg press. The whole feel reminds me a bit of the Thief games.

The video is a beautiful blend of modern (the clothes, the freerunning, the architecture) and the old (the classical artwork, the end shot of the columns, the black rearing horse statue and Mozart's Requiem).

I also really love the vid's focus on the empty morning. This little look into an unexplored time of the day reminds me of VW's Night Driving ad, where the focus is a few hours earlier:

(Dylan Thomas read by Richard Burton and Don't Blow It by Cliff Martinez. By DDB)

Wednesday, 23 April 2008

Binaural beats

burnblue @ Flickr

When two sounds with two different frequencies are played in stereo (i.e. to each ear), binaural beats are heard. These aren't real but equal to the difference between the stereo frequencies. You can listen to one here (headphones needed, toggle between each ear to see the effect vanish).

There are several companies that claim such binaural beats improve mental functioning and memory by reverse engineering brain frequencies via the audio. Naturally, the combined simplicity and complexity of this idea caught certain people's imagination, to the point that a musician-physicist mate of mine wondered it there was anything to it last year during exams.

There isn't. In this recent study binaural beats had zero effect on brain frequencies and, what is more, participants in the experimental group were more forgetful and more depressed than controls.

Cognitive neuroscience, one. New Age monkeys, nil.

(If you want to see more on music and mind, see this post.)

Saturday, 19 April 2008


I think technology should be about about manipulating space (by making it negligible - e.g., cars, planes etc) and time (by giving us more of it - e.g., microwaves, washing machines etc). In one sense, then, I admire Vodafone's newish strategy - to make the best use of your time - because mobile communication frees up otherwise dead time. This is the essence of their recent TV spot:

As Judy Dench tells us it's "the hanging around time, the A-B time" that could be better spent.

In another sense though, it just stretches the time when we need to be connected and available. This is further time in which to be interrupted by bosses or diverted by the non-linear attractions of the Internet.

Making the most of 'now' also means being in a permanent state of 'now'; time for reflection is suspended by the tyranny of being constantly 'on'. "The hours not really spent doing anything" are assumed to be bad in the ad. But the hours not really spent doing anything are important.

With the growth of hyper-connectivity the need for independence and quiet reflection amid this 'now' state are going to be every more important as technology (and thus bosses) encroach ever more on this time. We need may need digital holidays.

Friday, 18 April 2008

How to sell evolution

Darwin probably had the best idea any one has ever had. His main theory is so elegant, explaining so much with so little. (His other theory, sexual selection, is also pretty hot stuff.)

I'm not getting into the evolution/creationist debate because a debate needs two sides, and, in purely scientific terms, this 'debate' doesn't have that.

Worryingly, despite the vast importance of this account of life there is a staggering level of ignorance about it.

In my experience with children, teenagers, undergrads and adults:
  • some know nothing about it;
  • some hold a Lamarckian view (the idea that acquired characteristics can be passed on);
  • some have a really weird version where frequency of use begets a trait (my favorite example is that smokers' children will be born with their index and middle finger as one uber-finger with a hole in it for the cigarette);
  • lots think in terms of the Great Chain of Being, where there is a linear progression from things like amoeba up to us, stopping off at monkeys along the way. This idea is probably given legs because of Rudy Zallinger's much parodied "The March of Progress" in paleoanthropologist F. Clark Howell's book, Early Man.

    This is wrong because, as Pinker says, "evolution did not make a ladder; it made a bush" [p. 343]. That is, we did not evolve from chimpanzees: chimpanzees and humans both evolved from a common ancestor.
I was never taught about evolution at school. I taught myself at University. This is the biggest betrayal of my education. Now, I don't know about how it's being done in schools now but if the children I know are representative, it's not being done well.

One thing that might be really, really useful is computational modelling of evolution (like Paegel, B.M. & Joyce, G.F. (2008). Darwinian evolution on a chip. PLoS Biol.) This brings natural selection to life, in a way that when made a wee bit simpler should wipe away all the misconception in a lovely interactive, tamagotchi-like way.

Evolution - and all complex scientific ideas - should be sold in the digital space. It's where children can interact with, test and better understand such ideas. Given a choice between a dull classroom lecture by a teacher, who will likely be worse than the top teachers used to develop a videogame, and such a videogame, the choice is obvious.

GTA Coke

This I like. Excellent work by Wieden + Kennedy and Nexus.

Friday, 11 April 2008

BBC Penguins

Seriously good work from RKCR Y&R (ergh, so many letters and, quick aside, who still has an entry page on their website?) and Passion Pictures for promotion of the Beeb's iPlayer. David Bainbridge, BBC head of marketing communications and audiences for future media and technology (his business card must comes as roll) said on BR: "It is also hoped that this creative device will not only celebrate what BBC iPlayer can deliver, but will also say something quite profound about the BBC's overall appetite for creative risk-taking and innovation." It does. (Although strictly speaking the innovation was out-sourced).

Tuesday, 8 April 2008


Trucks from Cadbury and Fallon is not as good as Gorilla. I think that's the early consensus; some of the comments on YouTube are nasty though. (Aside: Why do people like to rub it in the face so fiercely when something is not as good as a previous performance?) Here it is:

The most interesting thing about it is a comment it invited on YouTube made by a certain funkymonkey86, "i just -chose- to watch an advert. that's weird". Cadbury and Fallon would smile at this I'd imagine: their ad is anticipated entertainment and hunted down for that.

Monday, 7 April 2008

Gliding about Earth

I commented on Photosynth - the very cool little app swallowed by Microsoft - a while back. Viewfinder is similar except it tacks on to Google Earth, adding an elegant new dimension.

I think if it takes on the multi-shot nature of Photosynth (as opposed to single shot shown in the vid above), it will be better.

The software clearly has a slew of uses but I think simply being beautiful is one. Software becomes art.

Saturday, 5 April 2008

Tube paranoia

(ferro_ud @ Flickr)

I'm a little bit fascinated by The Underground. The visual language always gives me satisfaction. Then there is the strangeness to being underneath everything. I love this ad for making explicit what I always imagine (in slightly less pristine visuals) is going on above my head on the tube.

Transparente. Agency: Contrapunto Madrid

Most of all, the tube is intriguing because of the people on it. There's all the covert reading over shoulders, the seat politics, proximity negotiations, the conspicuously empty seats around a nutter and the wilful avoidance of making eye contact to the point where the mundane transmutes into the sublime.

In one of the most massively artificial places humans are forced to congregate, everyone wants their own cocoon; even Tony Blair was ignored on the tube. The only thing that punctures everyone's individual seals is a collective comedy or tragedy, like when someone's shopping or afro is pinched in the door. The valence of the emotion depending on which side of the doors the person is when this happens.

Simmel said in The Metropolis and Mental Life that "[t]he deepest problems of modern life derive from the claim of the individual to preserve autonomy and individuality of his existence in the face of overwhelming social forces...." One result of this struggle is the urban blasé, an indifference to much of the stimuli of the city.

This deadening of the senses though may not be entirely accurate. A nifty virtual reality experiment published in the British Journal of Psychiatry this month has shown a large proportion of tube travellers felt paranoia - a sharpening of the senses - where eye contact is misconstrued for something more malignant.

Being human and the future

Visions of the future of technology are always desperately void of any human element. That's one reason why I like Diesel's knowing 2007 winter ads: they admit that humans are at the centre of all this technology.

This isn't a new idea. People building things got interested in the users at the centre of their systems mostly to safeguard against that human propensity to mess up. For this they needed people who understood or could find out how humans tick: psychologists.

Although there is a history of psychologists and engineers occasionally getting into bed with each other before WW2, the relationship became serious after its start because as early computer scientist Grace Hopper said, "after that, we had systems". The systems they were dealing with were primarily airplanes and the ecosystem that went with that (e.g. radar monitoring). User-centred design became a necessity: lives were at stake.

Since then the relationship between psychologists and engineers has properly ossified. The marriage is called Human Factors (HF), although Ergonomics, Cognitive Engineering and Human Computer Interaction are other terms banded about.

No longer is it about simply making complex systems more tolerant of that human habit of making mistakes. Instead, it aims to create the best fit between the human mind and all the things it has built. More than ever, this is vital as technology becomes ubiquitous.

This includes things like making things easier to learn and use, promoting efficiency, tolerating and guarding against errors and promoting enjoyment. As Noyes (2000, p.63) (my old professor) has said, the role of HF is “to design to enhance human abilities, to support human limitations and the meet the subjective, affective component…of humans”.

This last bit, about "subjective, affective" stuff is getting more and more important. In fact, in a big sit down last month of clever people in this area, the question was asked "what will Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) be like in the year 2020?"

As I said at the outset, visions of the future of technology are always desperately void of any human element. Not in the answer to HCI2020: Being Human: Human-Computer Interaction in the Year 2020 reduces the answers down into a digestible form (in widescreen, which joyously fills my 22 inches of screen real estate) where the central focus is on "the embodiment of human values at the heart of computing."

Here is a summary:

Part 1 - timeline of major changes over last 20 years and beyond in computing, living and society

Changing Computers

1960s - Mainframe: one machine, many users
1980s - Personal computer: one computer, one user
2000s - Mobility era: many computers, one user
2020s - Ubiquity era: thousands of computers, one user
(I think this may have missed out the possibility of returning full circle, to a mainframe which supports many users. The mainframe or cloud will be the Internet.)

Replacing WIMP with more natural gesture, pen, multi-touch, speech, eye and mind control

All materials could be digitised as screens become flexible and part of the fabric of life (e.g. Animated textiles)
Hybrid digital-biological displays

A very large part of all computing will be in the palm of our hands
Act as extension to our hands, shifting from communication devices to interaction devices (e.g. Apple's plans for the iPhone)

Robots become semantic learners and can make inferences about the world (e.g. attractiveness or if now is a good time to be interrupted)

Life caching
When space is no longer an issue more and more of life can be recorded (e.g. MyLifeBits and see this Sci.Am. article)

More home brews
Just as content is no longer created centrally, application creation is decentralised so amateurs can freely mash-up more relevant and personalised applications (e.g. Feel Map or BabyNameMap)

Always on
Simply, that communication channels will be permanently open, everywhere and all the time.

Changing Lives

Learning differently
Learning, using and testing of material will change as new technologies are deployed in the classroom (e.g. podcasts, digital classrooms, Ubi-Learning etc). Home, school and play will be blurred.

Living differently in the family
More digital connections between family. This is not just communication, but also sharing of media and even events (e.g. grandma being 'at' the party whilst being 100 miles away). One issue may be surveillance by parents over children using technology developed for peace of mind.

New ways of growing older
Medical sensors are decentralised to allow better monitoring of health. 'Silver' social networks will be useful in health respects as well as assuaging social isolation. Increases in the amount of games for older populations.

Changing Societies

Computing and government get closer
Government will change the way they work because of computers; public will change the way government operates because of computers.

Part 2 - transformation of interaction

Human Values in the Face of Change

The changes in Part 1 are summarised:
  1. The end of interface stability - they'll be everywhere and in everything
  2. The growth of techno-dependency - we wont be able to cope without it
  3. The growth of hyper-connectivity - being connected to family, friends and society
  4. The end of the ephemeral - desire to be digital magpies, collecting as much as we can
  5. The growth of creative engagement - "the proliferation and appropriation of new kinds of digital tools by people from all walks of life
These are then evaluated in human terms. "People will still wish to be part of families, to stay connected with friends, to educate their children, to care for each other when they are unwell, and to grow old safely and in comfort. Technology, digital or otherwise, is the enabler for all of these things rather than the focus. Shifts in computing are therefore not at the forefront of people’s concerns. What does concern them is how technologies can support the things that matter to them in their daily lives – the things they value."

The end of interface stability
- the issues raised by "the shifting boundary between computers and humans", like personal space, defining features of an individual if technology is part of us,
-the issues raised by "the shifting boundary between computers and the everyday world", like opting in and out of invisible interaction
- the issues raised by "living in a computational ecosystem", like the emergent effects of multiple systems working together, trusting them and problems of accountability.

The growth of techno-dependency
- what happens when systems fail and when there is a digital outage (e.g. YouTube in February)?
- what kind of basic skills will atrophy (c.f. calculator and mental arithmetic)

The growth of hyper-connectivity
- with everyone connected to everyone there are issues of etiquette. "For example, students feel it is perfectly acceptable to email their professors with excuses for late assignments using informal text slang. Professors, however, may feel differently."
- The need for independence and quiet reflection amid the constantly 'on' state.
- Work and home blurring, and the effect this has on life.
- The difference between digital crowd and mob, and whether the former reflects opinion accurately or just extreme and offensive views

The end of the ephemeral
- How digital footprints and privacy work
- Authentication, security and personal identification to protect the digital footprint
- Human memory is selective and constructive, digital memory is stable; how do these play out? Should we be able to delete digital memories (like completely removing a Facebook account, which is notoriously difficult)
- How will identity be shaped if such (unwanted) digital memories persist?
- People's awareness of when data are collected about them
- The possibility of geo-aware systems being used for surveillance by friends, family, society or state

The growth of creative engagement
- Is more automation a good thing?
- "How can the interaction and design of new computational tools be structured so they do not impede creative engagement?"
- "What new toolkits can be developed to enable scientists, and others to create tools for themselves to solve their own problems and explore new avenues?"
- How will new tools affect expertise?

Part 2, 3 & 4 - a desirable HCI agenda

I wont go into this in detail. See the paper for more.

Lots to be thinking about.

Pixels and Colour

Having been nowhere before computers, pixels are now everywhere.

They rarely get noticed because their sum is greater. Christian Zuzunaga - apart from having a great surname - has created a really strong visual language of lushly coloured pixels across his work.

One example that is doing the digital rounds, after being in Design Week, is the sofa above; I wouldn't want this in my house but I'd love it on my wall (as I pic, I'd add quickly).

His other work is exciting too. You'll find them on his website, which I would also class as a piece of art in itself, although I am a sucker for bright colours on black.

Friday, 4 April 2008


Hanging from a branch is Cocoon, O2's latest phone.


I like it for lots of reasons, one of them is that it's called Cocoon and not the RX400 or something similarly cold. Engineers should be allowed to design things, they should not be allowed to name them.

Like Apple's operating systems, imaginatively named products are better because they slice off the bland and replace it with a useful communication moment.

Writing in the Journal of Consumer Psychology, Miller and Kahn (2005) found, at least in colour labels, more imaginative and unusual names beget more favourable perceptions and rates of purchase than functional ones. See their paper for why they think this happens.

Added to the various cognitive dynamics that bring about this effect, the nature of the label will cause a cognitive Litchenberg figure to branch out activating all sorts of potentially interesting and positive associations. There's something snug about a cocoon, something exciting about what's inside, and, of course, something natural.

Nature crops up again in a nice bit of 'ornimorphism' (attributing bird features to inanimate objects - yes, I made the word up), where the dock is called a nest, which lends it further cutesy charm.

More imaginative naming for bits in technology ecosystems please.


It's clearly white, but the design doesn't end up tripping over itself to imitate Jonathan Ive; it has a sleekness and freshness of its own. I particularly like the LED lights on the outer shell that spell out messages, callers and the time.


Anyway, that's the product; the marketing's is also good example of something done well because digital is used for digital, not as some lame TV follow up or place to stick JPEGs of posters.

VCCP discovered the 40 most influential bloggers, gave them a Cocoon and no formal instructions to do anything in particular. I believe similar blogger outreach was done with the Nokia N95.

The result of shirking the need to be perfect has payed off. According to Revolution, "72 per cent of the bloggers who took part said they would not have expected a brand such as O2 to do something like this, while 80 per cent would now recommend Cocoon/O2 to a friend." So impressive were the results on early sales that a TV spot was not commissioned, saving considerable money.

And engaging bloggers means a denser network of links that then exploits the algorithms of the Google ranking system to get higher within it. Such organic seeding obviates the need for specialists to artificially get it ranked higher, again saving money. All in all, good job O2 and VCCP.