Tag Archives: Liz Stinson

Koko – An App To Help With Stress?

Here’s the concept of Koko:

When I’m unhappy or “stressed”, I write a few sentences, e.g., about the terrible consequences soon to come, and post to the network, and push the “help me reinterpret these thoughts”. In a little while, one or more strangers will reply with suggestions for how to find positive interpretations.

This is basically Cognitive Behavior Therapy, except there is no trusted therapist or human contact, just an app and a social media “crowd”. It’s “crowdsourced cognitive therapy”.

This is similar to aspects of McGonigal’s Superbetter, and is based on some of the same science. And it appeals to technophiles.


Instead of working with “allies”, this app is depersonalized, and gives only anonymous advice from strangers. As far as I can tell, the advice comes from other people who subscribe to the service—people like you, but otherwise unqualified and uninformed.

Even if this is the right thing for you, one has to wonder if it will actually work. Yes, there is limited empirical support for the web based version, but who knows if the phone app, used by different populations, will do anything useful.

One tiny point: using mobile devices and apps is generally a source of stress and maladaptive behavior, especially “social” apps that promise you a (reinforcing) response and attention from (we hope sympathetic) strangers. See Greenfield, Turkle, and others. However good the advice might be, delivering it via this kind of app seems like a really stressful approach. Certainly not as helpful as a friendly smile from a person in the same room.

I have to wonder, too, if it is a good idea to train people to turn to strangers on the Internet, rather than family, friends, colleagues, teachers—real people in their life. Many of the “problems” likely stem from social anxieties of some kind, anxieties that are caused by or made worse by paying attention to screens rather than people. Doesn’t turning to the screen for help make the problem worse by avoiding and preventing the person from learning how to actually relate to others in person?

I’m kind of concerned that the “allies”(to use McGonigal’s terminology) are not selected by you, nor are they necessarily people with any particular relevant knowledge or experience.. In fact, we don’t know who they are, or why they are “helping” you, other than they signed up for the same app. (That alone should scare you off, don’t you think?)

In fact, we know that people are likely to present themselves the way they want to be see, and the way they think others want them to be. Indeed, the web site describes how people “learn” to contribute to the community. That is, they are shaped to conform to the style of problem and problem solving that is on offer, whether you had those problems or not, and no matter what your real problems are.

So just how authentic are these presented problems? Are we even “treating” the real problems? Or are we playing a soothing game in which we stroke each other by helping each other write positive stories about themselves?

But the biggest thing that strikes me is, who in their right mind would give advice this way?

How can you help someone “reinterpret” their thoughts, lacking all context? How can your advice be anything other than generic advice seasoned with ill informed guesses and prejudices about the unstated history and context? Shooting nearly blind, I’d be scared that I’d make it worse rather than better.

Heck, I hesitate to give advice to people in person, unless I know them really, really well. Working from a few typed sentences, all I could say is, “I dunno”. I can only see one side of the story, or, actually, only a tiny statement from one side of the story. What is really going on? What do the other people think? How did it get this way? There is no way to know or find out.

For that matter, I don’t know you, and have no way to know if this is real or exaggerated or even just made up. (That alone should scare you off, no?)

How could “helping” a person this way go wrong? Well, the entire point is to give them ways to think about things differently. This implies that they are thinking about them incorrectly, or at least too negatively. But how do I know that? What if they are underestimating the seriousness of the situation? If I tell them to think positively and keep on, I could be sending them into a disaster, with a foolishly optimistic attitude.

Or there could be real problems that they need to rethink, but which they didn’t pose to the net. Naively dealing with what they say is the problem might be useless or, worse, might reinforce their own denial and evasion.

It’s a minefield, I tell you.

Iris Van Herpen: Fashion Before All Else

I continue to be interested in collaborations between artists and technologists, in the performing arts and clothing.  This is purely pragmatic  If you want to design whole body interfaces, you should learn from  dancers.  And if you want to create “wearables”, you need to learn from fashion designers.

Designer Iris Van Herpen is making waves creating women’s wear with trendy technology, including 3D printing and exotic materials. The results are stunning (but so is touching a 200 Volt wire!), and I can’t help but look at her work.

While her earlier work was sometimes mainly about the technology (e.g., Crystallization, 2010), she has evolved to “a modern view on Haute  Couture that combines fine handwork techniques with digital technology”.  For example, Bird Dress (2013), which uses digitally fabricated from exotic materials, but is hand made.

Crystallization, Skirt, Top, July 2010 In collaboration with Daniel Widrig and Materialise 3-D-printed polyamide, goat leather, and transparent lasered acrylic sheets Groninger Museum, 2012.0207.a–b Photo by Bart Oomes, No 6 Studios

Bird Dress, Wilderness Embodied dress made from silicone laser-cut feathers, gull skulls, pearls, cotton, and busk Bart Oomes, No 6 Studios

In addition to imagination and fearless collaboration with technologists, Van Herpen employs another tool: boundless verbal skills. The tells us that shestands for a reciprocity between craftsmanship and innovation in technique and materials”, and explicitly “fashion is an artistic expression, showing and wearing art, and not just a functional and devoid of content or commercial tool”. And so on.

OK, I can see that. As Liz Stinson put is, “Iris Van Herpen’s Extraordinary Clothes Are More Like Wearable Sculptures”. Heck, they are sculptures, though how wearable I can’t say.

Looking at the images I have to wonder who could possibly wear these confections, and where? Obviously, these are not for work, but I don’t see that you could even sit or eat in them. I don’t think you can get through metal detectors with some of these, which rules out many public events.

For that matter, how do you even get into them? One amazing creation form her 2016 Quaquaversal show is actually fabricated on the body, slowly. Very slowly.

Central to the show Gwendoline Christie lies in a deep-time dream, wearing a circular dress which is being woven upon her. The live process blends different techniques – lazer cutting, hand weaving and 3-D printing into one dress, which spreads from the centre, quaquaversal in its geometries.

This may be Art, but it isn’t clothing in any practical sense (of being wearable by humans).

In this light, it is particularly ironic to see her “ready to wear” collections—clearly that phrase is not to be taken literally.

Overall, Van Herpen gives us some beautiful images that excite our imagination. Whether these concoctions are or every could be worn by anyone other than a manikin is an open question.

As her web page puts it, “Normal rules don’t apply…..”


Personalized Storybooks For Kids

LostMy.Name is producing an intriguing line of personalized storybooks for kids (2-6 years, I think). You get a real paper book (yay!) with story and hand drawn art. The clever part is customizing the book to refer specifically to the letters of the name of the specific child.

The new release is “The Incredible Intergalactic Journey Home”, which employs real and realistic imagery of both outer space and the Earth from space and air. One image is selected so that the child’s name is spelled out in visible stars, a la a constellation. The journey proceeds from the milky way, to the solar system, to Earth, to the City and then street where the child lives.

I guess this is kind of cool, though not necessarily as amazing as some of the buzz seems to suggest. (And what do I know about what two-year-olds like to read.) I don’t completely understand their methods, but they have done a competent job pulling together a lot of simple pieces into a nice package.

I’m not a big fan of this sort of “personalization” in general. Aside from the “everything is about me” vibe, the actual features are pretty trivial. Most kids would be perfectly happy to help someone find their name or get home, without it having to be about me, me, me.

I also foresee difficulties when you have more than one kid, and you want them to share. How can you share a book that is designed just for one of you? For that matter, there will be no possibility of sales to libraries or other public reading areas. Perhaps lostmy.name should consider creating some more generic versions that have more “us” than “we”. For example, the lost kid could be trying to return a book to his library….so all the kids can identify with that quest.

On the positive side, this sort of swooping in from space is exactly the game I played when I first had access to NASA imagery over the internet. Well, I didn’t look fr my name in stars, but I did move through the imagery, closing in on my own home step by step.  And everybody looks up their own house on Google Earth, no? This is a worthy exercise that helps place yourself in the gran scheme of things (I am a tiny fleck on a tiny planet in a tiny solar system, out in the boondocks of a perfectly ordinary galaxy. Etc.)

The “where am I” game is something anyone can play, though it certainly is convenient to have some artists do the grunge work of pulling up the relevant imagery. It is a great thing for kids to think about. And at a later age, show them how to use the real imagery!

Yet Another “Mindful” App

We are in an age where it is so easy to create and distribute a mobile app that there is almost no barrier to putting out any idea you might have. This is a great tribute to the hard work of the software and systems engineers and designers who have created this infrastructure and made it so easy to use. Believe me, I know how hard it was to create reasonably easy to build with software.

One side effect has been an explosion of apps, far beyond what any reasonable market would demand. When it is easy to create an app, and you let anyone do it, you get a lot of copy cats, a lot of pointless nonsense, and plenty of bad ideas

For one thing, all you need is an idea, however small, and you can build an app. There is no need for any kind of research or reality check at all. Forget market research, scientific validation, or even basic legal due diligence, just do it.

It seems to me that in this upwelling of app building, we are recapitulating earlier history. First, of course, all your favorite applications were recreated (multiple times) as apps. Then developers moved to slap a Inappropriate Touch Screen interface onto every darn thing.

And now, developers are mining new age pop psychology, producing apps to do “abundance” and “mindfulness”. In fact, “mindfulness” is a flavor of the month this fall.  (And, as Natasha Lomas points out TechCrunch, there are certain to be a raft of “mindfulness” VR experiences coming soon.)

So we have buzz this week about Pause, from ustwo studio. Pause is a simple app that invites you to chase an ‘ink blot’ with your thumb. This task requires concentration and is intended to “relieve stress”. A ten minute session is supposed to not only take you away from interruptions but make you calmer and rested. It is suggested that this is like Tai Chi, only just your thumb moves. (It is also compared to a Lava Lamp—a notably useless device!)

OK, we know that there is abundant reason to think that attention to a mindless thumb game on a mobile device is not good for you nor calming (e.g., Greenfield’s Mind Change). Furthermore, you would think that just turning off the device and taking a walk would achieve the same or better results. In other words, I really need some evidence that this app actually works as claimed.

Examining the company web page, they say,


PAUSE has been tested using EEG and is proven to produce a calmer state of mind and a lower mental workload.”

Excellent! I’ll get the papers and look at the evidence.

Oops. There are no papers, nor any indication of what “scientifically validated” means.

Digging around, I found an explanation in an interview in FastCompany:

“Eventually, Peng turned to Dr. Chi Thanh Vi, Human-Computer Interaction Researcher at the University of Sussex, to validate the developer’s findings through (more) controlled EEG testing. What he found was, unbelievably, that Pause not only relaxed someone’s mind more than playing Ustwo’s popular, quietly atmospheric game, Monument Valley, but more than simply relaxing with your eyes closed on the couch.”

This is not much to go on, and is certainly weak science and questionable “validation”.

Just to be clear: they seem to hang their claims on unspecified “EEG testing” which claims to measure “state of mind”. There is no indication that the alleged state of mind was related to subjective feelings of calmness, let alone any behavioral or physiological indications of less stress. We have no ides what the EEG “testing” really was, so who knows what this actually means?

Note, too, that the specific claim is that it “relaxed someone’s mind more than” a calming game or sitting with eyes closed. That is an intriguing phrase. Does this mean that the sample was one person? Does this mean that the change is greater, though they all might be at the same (high) level of stress? It’s hard to be sure.

In any case, this “validation” seems to be a one shot study, with no examination of long term effectiveness, contextual effects, or individual differences.  Assuming the short term changes in EEG are real, does that have any detectable impact on feelings or behavior in the future, and over time?

We also have no idea of who this sample was. Whether these EEG patterns indicate successful stress relief for everyone is a different story.

Overall, this product makes hazy claims that seem highly unlikely on their face based on previous studies. In fact, the company admits that they are setting conventional wisdom on its head, by claiming that a simple app can product “a calmer state of mind and a lower mental workload”, which is why they felt the need for “validation”.

The bottom line is that this product should not claim scientific validation, and, frankly, I think it should be withdrawn until it is proven safe and effective.


While it seems unlikely that mobile apps with tiny screens and minimal interaction could be a tool that would foster “mindfulness” or any kind of relaxation response, I have to keep an open mind.

As Greenfield points out in her book “Mind Change”, interaction with digital devices can and are producing changes in brain and physiology. At the very least, heavy users will surely habituate to their devices, which might feel like addiction or it might feel like a comfortable security blanket.

So, I could imagine that digital natives who use their phone all the time, to the point where it is an important part of their life and extension of their body could find something like Pause to be calming. It might even be calming for all I know. Sort of like digital worry beads.

Indeed, for someone who is “addicted” to their phone, turning it off and closing your eyes will only create images and thoughts of the missing device—not necessarily relaxing. But focusing on chasing an ink blot on the phone, while interruptions are suspended, might actually be soothing, or at least more soothing than closing your eyes and trying not to think about your phone.

It is also possible that the app is useful for people who are experienced meditators, or who have other training, such as martial arts or extreme sports.  This wouldn’t necessarily mean that the app works for other people.

So, this app might actually work for some people, and it is quite possible that the test sample was from this group. We have no way to know.

So I’d love to see broader study of this app, to investigate this hypothesis.

We also need to validate the intended effects: assuming the EEG effects are replicated at lest for some people, do they actually feel subjectively calmer? How long do the effects last? (If the effect of a ten minute session fades in minutes, then that is a serious practical limit, no?)

We also need some careful comparison conditions. Here is a list of conditions to test.

  • Sit quietly with eyes closed and relax, no phone. (The “Turn it off!” condition.)
  • Sit quietly, use worry beads or some other physical prop.
  • Sit quietly, twiddle your thumb similar to app, but with no phone.
  • Hold phone turned off, instructions to twiddle thumb similar to app, but with no app.
  • Phone with blank screen, instructions to twiddle thumb similar to app.
  • Simple solitaire game.
  • Ten minutes of prayer (e.g., a sample of believers who regularly pray)

Obviously, we would want a larger sample of people, with at least some idea of relevan background, such as experience meditating, hours of regular use of mobile devices, and so on.

And, by golly, we’d like to see the study published for review and replication.

If you actually want to do these studies and need help, call me.


Oh-one more thing. We need an Android version. I don’t have and will not every have an iPhone.  How can I even try it out?

“Opendesk”: Open Source Furniture

As I commented quite a while ago, one of the interesting things about digital fabrication is that it enables designs to be shared just like any other digital object. There are different ways this can be done, including uploading for anyone to use, uploading to sell, commercial downloads, and commercial services that build a design that you up load.

Digital design files also open the possibility of “open source”, and open source libraries. These efforts are quite interesting, taking the notion of a shared, public, knowledgebase into the realm of “things”. For example, Obrary is developing an “open source hardware”, a collection of free digital plans for DIY tools, intended to be The Global Village Construction Kit.. I’ve never needed a aluminum extractor, but I know where can get the plans for one.

An interesting variation on this theme is OpenDesk, which is a digital service that sells designs under various creative commons licenses, which are free for use. The designs can be downloaded and built (generally out of plywood with a CNC milling machine), perhaps at a local maker space or fab lab.

Opendesk has a global network of makers and a collection of furniture by a range of international designers. Because that furniture is designed for digital fabrication, it can be downloaded as a digital file and made locally — on demand, anywhere in the world.

The company makes money outfitting office workspaces,  customizing the standard open source plans for specific spaces, and sending the plans off to a local maker for delivery to the site.

The coolest feature is something I’ve wanted to see for quite a while: connection to local makers. At the Opendesk site you can also locate local builders who have the equipment and knowhow to build the design. This makes so much sense: keep the jobs local, ship around knowhow peer-to-peer.

I’ll admit that I don’t fully understand the business model for Opendesk, but I do understand most of the technology, so I’m pretty sure it is sustainable and mostly harmless.

The furniture itself doesn’t excite me much. I mean, inexpensive plywood designs are not that attractive or, I fear, comfortable. The Opendesk site has zillions of designs for chairs which are, well, all very chair-like. Lot’s of tables, many that don’t look very practical. And so on. (The bottom line is that the human race knows how to design basic furniture, designs are not the bottleneck!)

But the simple functional designs are more than made up for by the ability to get them built by local makers. For me, making it myself is something I want to do once, just to learn how. And that one time will take time and probably be a mess. If I really need something, I would far rather pay a local shop to build it right. And I certainly would rather have it built by a local shop than some anonymous factory a long way from home.

If I can make a suggestion: I would like to see the service to also include a network of recyclers who will dismantle and reclaim the products at end of life. This will be even more important as they move into “smart” designs that contain electronics.

I’m a bit concerned about their brainstorm about their aim to get into “smart” furniture”.

The workspace of the future will be intelligent, implicitly adapting to ergonomic, social and cultural requirements. For example, adding wireless phone charging to your desk, presence detection, scriptable LED notification systems and configurable touch and sensor inputs.

I dunno about this.  However, if they keep to the “open source” model and keep it modular and interoperable, it might be a good way to experiment and discover what, if any of these features are really assets.


  1. McGrath, R. E. (2013). Introductions to Making at a Community Fab Lab: Experience and Perspectives. Urbana: Champaign Urbana Community Fab Lab. https://robertmcgrath.files.wordpress.com/2013/05/white-paper-2013-mcgrath-v11.pdf

Yumit: Another Bad Idea

Not from Silicon Valley, per se, but certainly from designers with the “Silicon Valley Disease”.

Yumit is an interactive meal set, specifically designed for kids to get them interested in eating. It helps them focus on their food by turning meal times into a fun game.

Tackling a real if small problem of spoiled children who do not want to eat their meal, the creators decided that the solution is to “offer kids an incentive” to eat, and to make it a “fun game”.

Let’s start with whether this will even work. The website claims that this “helps them focus on their food”. Is this really the right problem to be solved? Are the kids not eating because they “can’t focus”, or even because it isn’t “fun”? I don’t know, but I suspect that the behavior is sustained by other factors, including preference for sweets, desire for attention, and desire to do other activities (such as play video games or watch TV). If so, then how well does this device compete with these temptations? I don’t know.

Second, the device is monitoring the amount of food on the plate, which it tracks and rewards consumption. Ignoring the possibility of cheating (toss the food to the dog), it’s not clear to me that rewarding the amount of food consumed is the most important metric—though, “just eat your dinner” isn’t a terrible goal to set.

Third, the consumption is apparently relayed to a mobile device (which apparently belongs to the child), where it is recorded and can be used as points in video games. Essentially, the kid is paid to eat his dinner. Sigh. Very innovative.

Child rearing is something for you to work out in your own family, so who am I to tell you what to do?  But this product does raise many troubling issues that are worth thinking about.  Here are my own views.

I’m imagining that the context is the child eating in the family home, probably along with other family members. So “refusing to eat” the food is not just a matter of nutrition, it is also part of a social interaction within the family. Therefore, deploying  Yumit should be viewed a part of this same overall family interaction.

Message to the Kid

This product sends some problematic messages to the kid. It is designed on the principal that “everything must be ‘fun’”, which does not seem to be the best lesson for children. There are many things in life that are not “fun”, but we must do them anyway. (And eating your vegetables is certainly one of them.)

One might also worry about the “pay you to eat” contingency in this product. There are many reasons why one might not want children to learn that they should expect to be rewarded tangibly and immediately for behaving correctly. Eating your vegetables is important and will pay off in the long run, but not because you might win prizes for doing it. That’s a bad lesson to be teaching.

I’m also concerned about the application of electronic surveillance to enforce these contingencies. A child will learn that he or she is being watched at all times, and that his phone is cooperating with authorities to enforce the rules. Since this surveillance is imposed without consent, a child could be forgiven for hating and fearing computers as a tool of his or her repression.  She might even be motivated toward black hat hacking, to turn the tables on the network that spies on her from childhood.  Are these the lessons we want to teach children?

We could go on. At the same time that many children do not have enough to eat, the Yumit child is taught that he or she is so “special” that he deserves fancy, expensive, gamified place setting to “help him focus” on eating. C’mon.

Messages to Parents

Advocating that parents deploy this product sends troubling messages to them, as well.

Should parents follow the principle that “everything should be ‘fun’”? Clearly, the world is not always “fun”, and children must learn to act properly even when they don’t instantly enjoy it.  Do we want the IOT to foist this philosophy of instant gratification onto parents?

“Gamification” is the flavor of the month, but it is not necessarily the best technique for all occasions. Is it desirable to “gamify” daily routines for children?  What will they learn from a video game that encourages them to “power up” by eating?  Will they learn that eating your vegetables is good for you, or will they learn that eating creates imaginary, magical powers in a fantasy world?

Most troubling of all, this product deploys powerful electronic surveillance technology to impose parental authority. As a parent, would you like other people to monitor either you or your child in this way? If not, then how is it OK to do it yourself?

And so on. The parent is invited to spend a lot of money to “solve” a problem by outsourcing to a digital system. How is this good for parents?

Family Life

Viewing the family meal as a social setting, this product is extremely problematic.

Yumit basically introduces a video game into the family dinner. It operates by drawing attention to the place setting, most likely at the cost of attention to the other people present. This adds to a ubiquitous problem, and capitulates to the digital competition for attention.

(In any case, I generally have a firm rule that no digital devices (or TV) are allowed during a communal meal. This just seems like common sense to me.)

In predigital days, the problem of “picky eaters” was dealt with through human communication, especially verbal instructions, verbal reinforcement, and possibly contingencies (such as no desert if you don’t clean your plate). These imperfect social transactions are one way that children learn to talk to people, as well as a basic grounding in the unhappy facts of life about power, bargaining, and the hard truth that you can’t always get your own way.

Yumit replaces this important human exchange with a gamified, “fun”, digital system. Parents need not even be present, so far as I can tell.  Is this a good thing?

Finally, I have already noted the hazards of the expectation that digital surveillance is acceptable and normal. As far as I’m concerned, a family should trust each other, they should not deploy spy systems to monitor behavior within the home.

Design Problems

Yumt is a terrible design for a number of reasons.

Assuming that this problem needs a digital solution (which I doubt), Yumit is an expensive and environmentally awful solution. Dinner and dinnerware did not really need to be “disrupted”, and this “innovation” probably does more harm than good.

I would note that there are potential privacy and security issues, though I can’t tell for sure without a much closer examination. I wouldn’t be happy to have hackers accessing the sensor stream that is monitoring my child, for goodness sake. Nor would I be happy to have my child’s eating habits put in a database and used to generate targeted ads. Who knows what Yumit may expose your family to?

I have to wonder if this device is based on any valid research at all. Their description of the perceived problem, and the design of the solution seem divorced from real life. (Of course, I don’t know very much about the life of people who could contemplate spending this much money on such a device.)

For that matter, has this product been tested? Has it been shown to be safe and effective? The company does not offer any indication that any such testing has been done, or even imagined.

As I outlined above, I suspect that this product probably will not work, or at least, will not work for most kids or for very long. On the other hand, it may have quite a few deleterious side effects.   This is not just bad design, it is irresponsible design.

I am consigning this to the Inappropriate Touch Screen File (TIOWTMT division).

Design Principles for Wearable Computing

Over the last year, I’ve been griping about the weak design seen in the current wave of wearable computing (and many other human interfaces). Fortunately, designers are beginning to wrap their heads around at least some of the issues for the most common case, the wrist screen (e.g,, Apple Watch, numerous fitness bands, and many other products).

As Liz Stinson comments at Wired.com, “New rules apply.” And products have been rushed to marker in a “throw-shit-at-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks phase of designing wearables.” (Her words, not mine!)

Setting aside the question of why you would go to so much trouble to put out such poorly designed devices (we may have over done the “failure is good” mantra in this arena), I’m glad to see designers rushing to catch up, even if they are designing for stuff that is already obsolete

Stinson comments on some of the efforts to understand design principles for interfaces on these watch-like devices. Publishing these ideas is a great thing, both for creators and to help all of us indirectly grope toward an understanding of what, if anything, these technologies are good for.

Stinson describes “5 Smart Rules for Designing Wearables That Make Sense”, describing design principles from Fjord studios.  These are:

Fjord’s Rules

  1. Keep It Glanceable
  2. Don’t Look Now
  3. Avoid the Data Avalanche
  4. Balancing Public and Personal
  5. Design for Offline


There is a lot of common sense in here. As usual, a lot of designs would be greatly improved if the designers think about such  common sense things, like what does the user actually need to see now? and don’t display personal stuff without checking that the interpersonal context is acceptable. Naturally, it is easier said than done.



Stinson comments that it is interesting to compare other sets of design principles, e.g., from Google and Apple.


Android Wear


  1. Focus on not stopping the user and all else will follow
  2. Design for big gestures
  3. Think about stream cards first
  4. Do one thing, really fast
  5. Design for the corner of the eye
  6. Don’t be a constant shoulder tapper


Apple Watch


  1. Lightweight interactions
  2. Holistic design
  3. Personal communication



These two lists  are somewhat tied to the specific platforms. (I have no clue what “Think about stream cards first” means. Something Androidy, I assume.) But both are driving at the “keep it simple, stupid” (KISS) principle that is at the heart of most great design. And with a tiny peripheral, this must mean “keep it really, really, really, simple, stupid. Really.”  (KIRRRSS.R)


The Android  folks give us the memorable phrase, “design for the corner of the eye”. The Apple goons give us the notion that we want to do “personal communication”. The latter is unconsciously ironic, since the Apple Watch is a peripheral to your iPhone, which used to be your means of “personal communication” before Apple decided you needed one more level of separation.


I think Stinson is right that discovering the common themes across these different sets of rules we may “begin to see a rough outline of what the smartwatch might actually become.” And, as she says, these principles are “boring in their simplicity.” I would say that these devices are so limited and trivial that you would expect the interfaces to be boring. (In other words, the designers are surely getting into the right ball park.)


I think I differ with Stinson a bit as to the overall significance of these insights. In my view, gaining an understanding how to build interfaces for the current generation of devices doesn’t really address the question of what they are actually good for, if anything.

For example, “design for the corner of the eye” is an interesting rule, partly because it implies that we want something like this in the first place. It’s not obvious to me that I want such interactions, and I can easily imagine situations (e.g., driving) where it seems like a bad idea.


I also despair a little to witness all the effort that is going into these clunky first generation wristwear. I’m confident that this is not going to be a long lived technology. It will be surpassed by printable interfaces (that stick on anything), and by projected interfaces (any surface), combined with whole body sensing.

Small screens, hell! I’m going to give you full body interfaces! No screen at all!

Sure, I can put a “glancable” interface on your wrist if you want. But I can also put the interaction anywhere on your body or clothing, or floating in space near your body. “Gesture” means real gesture, not silly touch-swipes. Dancing will be the new typing. You will walk into the interface. You will wear the interface all through your clothing. You might well swallow part of the interface.


Lets think past the age of the screen. It’s going to be an even wilder west!




Quantified Self Apps For Mental Health

I have commented on various developments in the “quantified self” arena, including sensor based feedback  and mobile apps such as H(app)athon. These ideas are an interesting mix of groundbreaking possibilities, disappointing efforts, and hype.

In this great age of selfies and social media, it is inevitable that the impersonal, thought-free, personality destroying technology of the small screen would be deployed in the pursuit of feeling good. Last year I blogged about the H(app)athon project, which applies the concept of quantified self to try to track and improve “happiness” (based on the Psychology of Happiness, which is a real, if imperfect, thing.) Whatever the merits of the overall program, the app itself was disappointing, interrupting life to make you fill in self-reported subjective feelings.

Moodnotes from Ustwo and Thriveport  is a new app in the same vein. Underpinned by Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (not quite the same as “Happiness Psychology”), the idea is to use a mobile phone to trigger some of the kinds of conversations that occur cognitive behavioral therapy. Given that much of the therapeutic “work” is accomplished by self-discovery in CBT, this isn’t a totally impossible idea.

Caveat: this app is only available for iOS (and, apparently, the Apple Watch as well), so I can’t try it myself (I have no iOS, and never will.)

From the description on the web pages and from Liz Stinson’s description in Wired.com, you interrupt your day to interact with the app. “The app walks users through a series of actions, which serve as those road signs. These actions, which begin with manipulating Mr. Face [to report your mood], become progressively more introspective as you progress through the app.”

You record your mood, and log some statements about recent thoughts. It also does some guidance about “thought patterns” such as CB therapists do, e.g., to identify “traps”, habits that might limit or undermine your thinking. When this technique works, it helps people think positively and generally not talk themselves into a hole.

As in other behavior tracking systems with or without mobile apps, interrupting your daily life in order to do the questions is less than optimal. The app designers comment that “Normally we design applications to be as cognitively light as possible—this one is very heavy in terms of cognitive effort.” (Alana Wood of Ustwo, quoted in Wired.com). In other words, this is an unusual app, in that it deliberately demands a lot of attention, and is supposed to sometimes be uncomfortable.

Design query: given the purpose and design of this app, how in the world can it really work on an Apple Watch? I have no idea.

While this is an unusual feature for the “swipe here” culture of the mobile social world, it is central to Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. “[I]t’s this intentional struggle that leads to insight and learning” (Edrick Dorian of Ustwo,quoted in Wired.com).

Will this or any other app actually make you happier? No one knows at this point. My bet is that some people will like it, most won’t have the patience to use it, and it might even be bad for some people.

CBT is particularly helpful for people who are troubled by, say, taking criticism too personally. Learning new options to see the same events in different ways, including positive ones, can make a huge difference. Could having an app that helps you “talk to yourself” about the world help? I can imagine that it might for some people.

On the other hand, some people benefit from having the personal mentoring from the human therapist, which is missing from the app. I would predict that some people, especially older people, do not take their mobile seriously, and might not invest the effort needed to benefit.  “Its just a stupid app—what does it know or care about me”.

Finally, there may be some people who are actually harmed by this kind of app. For example, if you are already deep into screen addiction, I’m not sure that even the most carefully guided conversation will help you with the bigger problem that you don’t know how to operate in human society. (With any self-therapy, there is a risk that you are treating yourself for the wrong disease, no?) Sitting in your room doing “mood therapy” with an app is the last thing I want to see you doing. Get out there and talk to real people, face to face.

Social psychological digression: It is interesting to compare the H(app)athon app to the Moodnotes app. While these two apps have similar user interactions, and similar goals, they have substantially different philosophical emphases. The H(app)athon app comes from a school that focuses on behaviors that make us happy, especially altruistic behavior. Helping others makes you happy. In contrast, Moodnotes uses a Cognitive Behavioral approach is focused on subjective interpretation of events and behavior, particularly verbal statements about yourself. You can make yourself unhappy (and even ill) by framing life negatively, and vice versa. It’s not all about you, but you can make life hell if you tell yourself that it is.

So, the two apps will look similar, and both will have similar “quantified self” style tracking (e.g., you can get charts and reports and other annoying goop out of them), and both make you stop living and type on the small screen. But the kinds of stuff they track will be totally different. The H(app)athon app will track volunteer work that you do, the Moodnotes will track what you say about interactions with your boss. Apples and oranges.

This looks like a fertile area for careful research. Do these apps work at all—what outcomes can be demonstrated? How do they compare to other modes (face to face, other kinds of instruments)? Can we incorporate sensor data (e.g., measures that should correlate to anxiety)? What kinds of things can tracking are most effective for? Who will be helped, not helped, or potentially harmed?

Assuming this works at all, how should such apps be designed?

We shall see.

Interesting 3D Printed Augmented Reality Song Delivery

Over the past decade, I’ve dinked around with a number of still-relatively-new digital technologies, including Augmented Reality and 3D printing. And I’ve had colleagues doing music and dance visualization.

So, when I saw “REIFY”, I was excited, if somewhat wary of hype. It seems to mash up all these cool technologies into a personal app.

At first, I was thrown off by the misleading headline at Wired.com, “What Songs Look Like as 3-D Printed Sculptures” (by Liz Stinson). This sure sounds cool, but I don’t think it is a very accurate description.

What the studio says:

“REIFY transforms music into something you can hear, see and hold.

“We make totems that visually represent an artist’s song, and encode them with music and interactive visual experiences that you can play on your mobile phone or tablet. The mobile app used to play totems is called Stylus.”

First of all, the 3D printed “totems” may represent a song, what does that mean? They claim to have “an audio-to-physical design process”, that also includes “totem fabrication processes” to create viable 3D printed objects.

Apparently, this process involves generating “a range of visual interpretations of a specific song”, which are then refined by hand. This makes sense to me, though it’s difficult to say whether their “interpretation” is particularly valid. (My own experience suggests that randomly generated visualizations may be perceived as just as valid as any other “interpretations”.)

The resulting models are cleaned up (again, with a lot of human supervision) to be suitable for 3D printing. The result is printed and distributed.

The third part of the game is to add Augmented Reality using vuforia. The “totem” is used as the target for AR. They work with the artist to create 3D animated content to project onto the target, designed to play in synch with the song. This is an iterative process with intense human intervention.

The resulting AR stuff looks pretty cool, and I know it takes skill and time to make such slick AR visualizations.

Bundling all this together you get a totem you can hold, display, or, I guess, worship. Run the custom app on your mobile, point it at the totem and you hear the song and see the visualization—all tied to the totem. You can walk around it, or turn it, or toss it in the air, and see all sides.

All in all, this is pretty cool and I think I know how all the pieces are done.

But their rhetoric is rather hyperbolic and generally questionable.

Many Quibbles

For starters, while the product may be an impressive multimedia experience, there isn’t any reason to think that these visualizations are any better than all the other annoying lightshows out there. No worse, but no better, either. Definitely not “what songs look like”, as Liz Stinson inaccurately put it.

They claim to “transform music into something you can hear, see and hold.” That is an interesting way to put it. The “something” turns out to be an Augmented Reality application that delivers a digital version of a light show, mapped to a plastic token. You can hear the music replay, you can see the digital animation, and you can hold the totem (an your phone), but the “somthingness” is purely the simultaneity provided by the AR. This is a cool experience, but is that a “something”? I’m not sure, but I think their claims are misleading.

Finally there is the word “transform”. They create this cool AR through conventional digital design processes, augmented with some signal processing algorithms. Whatever “transformation” is happening is quite complex, and include multiple human inputs.

In that sense, putting on a play “transforms” the words into something you can see or hear. And performing music “transforms it” into something you can see or hear. And creating movie or 3D animations “transforms” data into something you can see and hear. And so on.

Taken this way, the word “transform” has almost no meaning.

So Much More Can Be Done

But still in all this is still way cool. But for other reasons than “transforming music into something you can hold”. This technology has a lot of possibilities that REIFY hasn’t really explored yet.

First of all, the totems make the experience extremely localized: you have to “be here now” for it to work. This can make it a very personal experience, the opposite of a giant arena—each of us gets close up performance, in our own hands. Artists should work with this feature.

Second, the visualizations can have really cool interactive behavior. There can be virtual buttons or slides that make it react to your touch. You can dance with it! It can dance with you! You can see different things from different sides. You can turn it over and look at the bottom. Again, artists should see what can be done with these capabilities.

The app can know about more than one token, and can do different things if you and you sweetie place your tokens together. Or require that all six of you are present in order to unlock the final, awesome verse. Or whatever. Think of the totem as a “key” for some of the content.

Another cool thing: the “totems” could be made as jewelry or other wearables. Think of it. I buy my special someone an accessory, that not only looks good, but comes with a song. A song that only plays when she or he wears the token, and only we can hear it! And, more, it has a 3D aura that paints her or him up with glory, and only we can see it.

These experiences are straightforward extensions of the technolgies REIFY is already using.

This Defintiely Is A Possible Future

For this reason, I strongly disagree with Liz Stinson that “this isn’t the future, or even a future, of listening to music”. This could very well be a prototype for one way that people enjoy music—very personal, localized, and socially interactive. Very special delivery.

I would also note that the 3D objects could be distributed digitally (embedded in the app?). So you might purchase the song in a complex package that includes audio, the software app, the 3D model data, software to unlock and print out the totem, and who knows what.

PaperBridge Environmental Art

This project caught my eye. Sure, it is designed to catch the eye, but I mean it was interesting enough to look up what is going on.

PaperBridge by Steve Messam is “a temporary artwork” and very “site specific”. It is apparently successful, having supported 7,000 hikers walking over it.

Technically, it is nothing more than a keystone arch (see: Roman Empire), which stands via compression of the building blocks. It was built just like the Romans did it 20 centuries ago.

The technical novelty is that he used paper, which we are used to considering flimsy. Of course it isn’t, as anyone who has to schlep around boxes of paper knows very well.

I get that part of the joke. Its fun to build something big and rugged out of paper!

The “site specific” notion is a little stretched. I mean, any fixed object is ‘site specific’ in a way. He also makes a big deal about sightlines and whatnot. I can’t really judge, but from the photos it looks to me like the site is nothing but sightlines—it’s flat, bare, and you can see a long way from everywhere.

Still, it definitely draws you to it, and gets you to come and be there. As the catalog says, “Access is by foot only.” You have to be there.

Generally, I don’t like “environmental art” all that much. It’s basically graffiti, and I like nature as it is too much to like human interventions. Messam’s work is temporary and will be removed, so that’s not so bad. Still, a bright red foot bridge is not really that attractive, is it?

If this gimmick got a few more people out of the city and walking the trails, then good. But it isn’t really an improvement on site, in my own view.