This week on The Digital Life, we discuss the quickly progressing evolutionary cycle from wearable devices to electronic clothing to embeddables. We’re in a time of design experimentation combined with rapid technological advancement. A great example of this experimentation comes from design student Lucie Davis, who embedded the RFID chip for a subway pass into her high tech nails for a university project.
Technology, like attachable computers from Cambridge, Massachusetts company MC10, will provide computing power that can be placed almost anywhere on the body, in the form of small, rectangular stickers. And the MIT Media Lab working with Microsoft Research has created DuoSkin, a smart tattoo that can act like a smart device or connected interface.
Jon: Welcome to episode 171 of The Digital Life, a show about our insights into the future of design and technology. I’m your host Jon Follett, and with me is founder and co-host Dirk Knemeyer.
Dirk: Howdy, Jon Follett.
Jon: Howdy, Dirk. This week on the podcast we are going to talk a little bit about wearable and embeddable computing, all on our way to becoming cyborgs in the future I suppose. We’re seeing a lot of interesting things, interesting research, interesting technology coming along the lines of this evolution from the wearable devices which we see in large amounts right now, whether you’re talking about fitness trackers or fashion and then moving from these wearable devices to electronic clothing, which we’re beginning to see and then finally into the realm of embeddables, so computers that are inserted into your skin or otherwise.
Dirk: Embeddables are the future John.
Jon: That’s what I’m told. There’s a lovely design experiment that you pointed out to me, Dirk, of a student by the name of Lucy Davis who made these high tech fingernails essentially having an RFID tag for her subway pass that was embedded into her fingernails. There’s a video of her going on the tube and just laying her hand on the card scanner very conveniently opening the gate there so she can get to the public transportation all because she has these fingernails that contain the RFID tag. I thought that was a great hack or design experiment on Lucy’s part just because it was so practical and it also gave us a little bit of a glimpse into what was possible in terms of interacting between human and machine. When you first saw that video Dirk, what did you think of it?
Dirk: I think it’s the nascent embeddable future coming to life. It’s an example of why embeddables are the way to go which is convenience, which is integrating the digital interaction into how we move through the world instead of through analog cars of the past or clunky smartphones of the present. I thought it was great that a student was doing it. So often it is the younger people who are seeing the opportunities and putting together solutions because they’re able to see the world from a frame of reference that’s more modern than older people who’s frame of reference is just definition-ally more dated.
Jon: Yeah there’s a company down the road from us in Cambridge called NC-10 and some of their work is creating small attachable computers that basically look like stickers and can include everything from wireless antennas to a tiny battery. It can be more complicated kinds of interactions than we saw with Lucy’s experiment. Additionally, MIT media lab working with Microsoft research has created a smart tattoo called Duoscan which is essentially this tattoo-like metallic covering that allows you to interact with things like your phone but providing the interface on your skin as opposed to a clicker or some other blue tooth device or near field device that might work in such a way. Making the skin the user interface.
I like that all of these are really in their early stages. They’re experiments but it strikes me as both wonderful and then at the same time I’m kind of wondering it’s such a custom type service or design I kind of wonder where it’s going because it seems like if you have a tattoo right, that’s very personal. Is the user interface for on skin tattoos going to be different for everybody? If I want each of my fingers to do something totally different from what you’re doing, it sounds like there’s a lot of details to work out.
Dirk: Yeah, eventually though it will be very custom. Right now we’re in the clumsy, hacky, start of things. Eventually it will be very integrated and very custom. Our whole society has been shifting towards an acceptance of these things and I’ll talk about a few different things. One of them is frankly the existing, old school, analog tattoos. We’ve seen over the last 15-20 years those move from the realm of lower class/tough drunk guy on a bad night realm of society into many soccer moms running around with tattoos. That wasn’t the case 20 years ago. There’s been a huge social shift to mainstream acceptance of tattooing as something that is done by many parts of society, not just certain and generally more marginalized ones. The trend to tattooing is also a trend to a comfort level with body modification which is greasing the skids for the future for sure.
The other trend to talk about is plastic surgery. That one is not as mainstream as tattooing yet but there’s a lot of people who are really comfortable getting their boobs sliced open and having bags of jelly shoved in there, or who are really comfortable having their face chopped up in different ways to look younger or if it doesn’t work out well sometimes it doesn’t look younger. There’s definitely a segment of society that’s super comfortable with everything that goes with plastic surgery. Now we’ve got the digital stuff and the science catching up. The comfort level on that isn’t here yet but it’s going to come and there’s a few examples I’ll use.
One is it was in 2000 that I got lasik surgery. That’s a surgery where you are laid down on an operating table and your eyes are literally carved open and altered. If you had told me in 1990, ten years before, “Oh hey Dirk. There’s going to be this thing you’ll be able to do and they’ll carve your eyes open and you’ll be able to see better.” I would have said, “That’s gross. No way. I would never do that. That’s crazy talk.” In those ensuing ten years, as the technology changed, as the social acceptance changed my view on it changed and it reached a point where scientifically … I use scientifically as if it’s in a lab but this is in a more applied with what eye doctors are doing, they’re saying, “No. This is safe, it’s okay. You can come in and do it. It might be painful, there might be this side effect, that side effect, these bad things. But you’re going to be able to see well and it’s going to cost an affordable amount of money and not take very much time.” I’m like, “Sign me up. Let’s go for it.”
That’s an example of the impact that science has on our perceptions. Just in the last week I read two stories that made me very uncomfortable. One was about a face transplant. I’ve read about face transplants in the past. This one, and again it’s a little too gross so I didn’t’ click into the story, but it was about a firefighter or soldier or someone, and it showed in the little photo caption of the story this photo of this disfigured face, this photo of this face that looked like it was wearing an odd mask, to this third photo of this third face that looked slightly off. That was the face transplant for me. I didn’t want to go deeper into the story, wimpy little me but face transplants are a thing now. That story today is going to make me feel a little weird. At some point in the future I’ll meet someone with a face transplant. It’ll feel a lot less weird once it’s real and it’s a person and not just this thing that seems bizarre.
The other one I read this week was about hand transplants. A child had their hands transplanted, it was talking about how miraculous it is. How life has totally changed and how wonderful a hand transplant is. I’m reading this story and I’m looking down at my hand and I’m like, “I can’t imagine somebody else’s freaking hands on my body. Oh my goodness gracious, lock the front door,” but this is the evolution. Just like in 1990 I would have thought it was nuts to be strapped down and have my eyes cut and try and fix them. Ten years later I was like yeah let’s do it. Sign me up. Right now these things are seeming odd but I’m sure if I was burnt horribly and disfigured and was hideous to look at I might be interested in a face transplant even today. If it’s a necessity forcing it in. I’m trying to throw a lasso around all of these different trends from tattooing to plastic surgery to the beginnings of massive transplanting of the self with faces and hands to where embeddables are going.
It’s just inevitable. In the 2020s that will be the decade of a lot of things. It will be the decade of driverless cars and it will be the decade of embedded digital technology. Again, I’ve probably mentioned this on the show before but when I give talks now around anything in this direction I say to the audience, by 2030 I’m confident I’m going to be a cyborg and probably a lot of you are going to be too. You see their faces like, “No fucking way.” In 2025 it’s going to look a lot different.
Jon: Yeah I’m beginning to be more and more aware of these trends towards embeddable computing which is what started this discussion. Part of it I think that I find interesting is that the evolutionary steps that I see happening towards embeddable computers are much the same steps that we saw with digitization of information and portability of computable devices. For each of these steps there were these oddball experiments and products that were released to the public and that flopped terribly. This trough of failure but it’s really all about early adoption and experimentation and then also seeing where products are just not going to be functional for people and where they need to improve. Sometimes those improvements happen in a technological area so for the ubiquitous MP3 player, at least until the iPhone came along, part of the problem was that storage wasn’t cheap enough. As storage became cheaper and cheaper you could carry a couple of songs and then all of a sudden you can carry your entire music collection and Apple famously solved that problem at the right time.
In the same way we have these tattoos that can be user interfaces. You have nails that can open up the subway gate. These are all interesting functions but they don’t have universal applicability so as the technology from NC-10 gets smaller and smaller and easier to produce I think that’s going to drive adoption as well. You talked a little bit about the societal trends, the acceptance of having these things on your skin or in your flesh somehow. The other side of it is stuff gets smaller and smaller. It’s not going to seem quite as odd because it’s the equivalent of taking a pill or getting an earring put in. It’s going to become less obvious as the technology gets better and you’re going to go home and when you’re in proximity of your house your air conditioning is going to turn on, the coffee pot’s going to turn on, the TV is going to click over to the news and your favorite music is going to be playing when you enter the house because the house knew you were coming. It could probably do that now.
Dirk: Sounds pretty good doesn’t it John? I mean a big part of it is the relevance of the solutions. One of the things I like so much about the story about the student and the subway is it’s a solution that makes sense and it’s also not scary. I would do it today. If I had a daily subway commute and if she had a package where I could pay her. I don’t know what my threshold would be but certainly $100 bucks would be an auto buy. If I could pay $100 bucks and she would give me the kit to make it so that my fingernail was my subway card, I would do it today no question. Because for a small amount of money, for really no intrusion into the self basically, I don’t have to take out my wallet anymore. I don’t have to mess around. I can just wave my hand as I walk through. Pretty great.
The problem right now with embeddables and I think why embeddables seem scary to most is that the stories you read are clumsy. There was one last year about German teenagers who embedded lights into their hands. The lights that they embedded were these big chunky red lights and they had these big scars on their hands. I’m like, “Oh my god, it’s so intrusive and for what? So you can have this novelty thing.” After you’ve done it like the second time to a person you go, “Enough with the lights dude. I get it. It’s not cool anymore.” Whereas getting in and off the subway that’s a utilitarian thing that you need to do every day multiple times a day for folks who are relying on that kind of transportation. It’s all about the use cases. The use cases synthesizing with the social readiness, synthesizing with the right technology so it’s not overly intrusive relative to people’s tolerances to alter themselves.
Jon: Yeah I think we’re right on the early stages of it and what’s kind of nice about embeddables and as far as emerging technology goes is it’s enough out of the mainstream that you’re not getting the insidious type hype cycle that we’re getting with the internet of things right now where everything’s going to get solved by the internet of things. I think for some of these experiments to be able to take place and for people to learn from those mistakes and build this area, this design language, whatever it is that’s going to make these things possible. I think the hyper-attention on certain types of technology just makes it that much harder to experiment. I’m glad for this time where embeddables are not on the news all the time and they’re not going to solve enterprise …
Dirk: Embeddables for the enterprise. That’s when you know you’ve made it.
Jon: Yeah I dread the first headline that talks about how we all can be having our chip cards embedded in our hands so we can access the conference room more easily. I think I’m going to run screaming if that ever happens.
Dirk: At that point, when those things are happening, it’ll more be we’ll have some sort of universal chip and it’ll be a software update not a hardware update. The company software will be put into our thing. It’ll be our thing.
Jon: Now you’ve totally scared me. Listeners, remember that while you’re listening to the show you can follow along with the things that we’re mentioning here in real time. Just head over to thedigitalife.com and go to the page for this episode. We’ve included links to pretty much everything mentioned by everybody so it’s a rich information resource to take advantage of while you’re listening or afterward if you’re trying to remember something that you liked. You can find The Digital Life of iTunes, Sound Cloud, Stitcher, Player FM and Google Play and if you want to follow us outside of the show you can follow me on Twitter at Jonfollett. Of course the whole show is brought to you by Involution Studios which you can check out at goinvo.com. Dirk.
Dirk: You can follow me on Twitter at @DKMEYER and thanks so much for listening.
Jon: That’s it for episode 171 of The Digital Life. For Dirk Knemeyer, I’m John Follett and I’ll see you next time.