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Summer of seemingly arbitrary pursuits

Summer cracks on at pace. I thought I’d stop and have a think about what it is exactly I’ve been getting up to.

Pursuing higher aims obliquely is something I seem to do naturally. But I’m also aware that doing so often makes it look like I’m simply flailing about. Well, perhaps I am. I’ve been keen for distractions.

A few highlights from the past month follow below.

Organising.

BBC Archives Fieldtrip

At the end of June, I helped navigate 18 Brighton geeks and enthusiasts across London to the BBC Archives in Perivale, where we met our gracious host, Mr. Bill Thompson. Some months previous, Bill had kindly agreed to take us on a tour of the shiny new archive facilities.

While there we marvelled at the climate-controlled vaults where BBC’s carefully curated back catalogue is stored (including part of John Peel’s LP collection); and watched as giant tape robots meticulously transcribed decades of recorded history into a digital format. And we heard from Bill about some of the inventive mashups being created from the archival content already digitized and about Bill’s efforts to bring awareness about the possibilities of the newly created data stores to the wider public.

Naturally, we also had our obligatory Dalek encounter.

UX Brighton – Mobile User Testing Edition

Danny and I held July’s edition of UX Brighton at Fabrica Gallery, where two fantastic speakers, Walt and Raj, covered the practicalities of running user testing sessions on handheld devices. We had a full house and quite a few new faces, including many students. I was a bit daunted by the prospect of being the newbie half of the organising team, but managing the event turned out to be a blast and we’re already scheming the next one.

Big thanks Walt and Raj for their time and effort; and to Laurence Hill, Fabrica’s head of audiences and communication, for letting a bunch of UX types roam amidst the (very beautiful) exhibit of Annemarie Sullivan’s work.

Learning.

Consciousness Expo

On 30th of June, just prior to kicking off an annual academic conference, Sussex University’s Sackler Centre held a public open day about the latest research into consciousness. We went along to play with the exhibits (a fun-filled array of brain computer interfaces, optical illusions and Turing tests) and to say hello to Kate, Sackler’s lovely artist in residence. Later that weekend, we had a chance to trial Kate’s new work, a magical, one-on-one experience centered around one’s heartbeat, sense of presence and body autonomy. It proved very moving and unexpectedly therapeutic.

Future UI

I’ve started a little Tumblr blog of projects, products and prototypes that propose new interaction modes – or attempt to broaden existing ones. Not quite sure what its purpose is yet – possibly merely to satisfy my hoarder’s instinct.

Summer reads

I’ve chewed through a few novels and a couple of UX books, but the gem of my summer reading has been Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow. A fundamental text on the absurdities of human thinking.

THE Project

Once the slow, rising tide of cynicsm about my topic of choice reached its ebb, I decided to abandon the idea of writing my masters dissertation on slacktivism. I’ll be changing focus entirely, most likely to tablet apps designed for autistic children.

All this being said, I’m still not sure what all of this is adding up to. I suppose the true highlight of my summer so far has been the concerted effort on my part to see more of the people I genuinely like and admire. I’m very lucky that those whose intellect sparkles more brightly than my own can tolerate my company.

Machines and the music of making

I spent yesterday evening learning about the Happenstance project at the Lighthouse. The agency’s two resident technologists spoke about their efforts to integrate aspects of digital culture into the arts community.

As part of the project, and in an attempt to make the invisible practice of coding visible, the Lighthouse reception area was transformed by James into a “workshop”, complete with printouts and projections of code as it was being written, compiled and committed. “This is a working shop” tried to turn the almost furtive act of writing software into a spectacle of craftsmanship.

But on the way home Jane and I pondered if we – a generation of screen slaves – weren’t romanticising the idea of a workshop. Places of skilled craft were and still are filled with noise, pollutants and dangers. I still remember the gruesome tales of lost limbs, told with relish by the machinists I worked with in a biomedical engineering lab. And I remember the missing fingernails of our neighbour in Poland, who worked long hours in a seamstress shop.

That being said, James’ project made me think back to one of the highlight’s from the Ampersand conference I attended on Friday: the screening of Linotype the Film and what it said about the visible – or audible – aspects of the making process.

The film traced the linotype machine ‘s journey from its invention to its fate on the scrapheap, as told by its “operators”, past and present. Two things struck me during the screening. Firstly, the operators recalled working on the linotype with a fond respect born not only from a lengthy relationship with the machine, but also from the bodily dangers it posed and its intimidating learning curve. For anyone interested in usability this is a bizarre revelation. We no longer form such deep bonds with our making machines. Secondly, the distinct, visceral, mechanical racket of a machine built by a clockmaker made itself known almost from the film’s opening credits. Each of its sounds acted as a direct representation of some aspect of the line casting process. At one point during their story, the linotypists began to wax poetic about the “brass against brass” music of the “linotype symphony”, as if it had been the sweetest, most reassuring melody. It fine tuned them to the machine’s inner workings. It made them feel like an extension of it.

Linotype machine
Image source: Flickr

Perhaps they, too, were romanticising a dreary and dangerous toil. But after last week, I find the silence of my modern “making” gadgets deafening. I want them to sing to me of my efforts.

UX fieldtrip: Inition Studios

Last week I joined a group of UX types on a trip to Inition Studios in Shoreditch. Inition are dedicated to all things 3D – from 3D printing to motion capture to visualisation and augmented reality projects – and they kindly let us loose on their marvellous toys.

We got to play with AR projects like this virtual car customisation tool developed for Ford:

Ford augmented reality campaign

We saw the latest lenticular displays and stereoscopic film rigs:

Inition stereoscopic camera and 3D monitor

And we marvelled at the hulking 3D printers:

Inition 3D printer

I spent most of my time playing with and watching others figure out the gestural UIs of Inition’s augmented reality projects. It’s interesting to see people try out new and previously learned ways of interaction on unfamiliar interfaces: swiping, pinching, tilting, taking guesses about what is and isn’t a touchscreen. The playful nature of the evening and of the projects themselves seemed to encourage this kind of exploration and learning – a great lesson to anyone trying to engage users in new ways of interacting with a system or product.

Great evening. Thanks so much to the lovely Alison for putting it together and to the incredibly friendly Inition team for having us. Hope we didn’t break anything but if we did: you DID provide us with free wine and beer in the proximity of your very expensive kit.

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