Dec 20, 2008

Humanizing Technology

When we were planning our wedding, my wife and I agreed that we had seen too many ceremonies ruined by technological attempts to immortalize the memory. We also wanted our wedding to be intimate and fun.

So we specifically instructed the photographers and videographers to stay out of the way. We didn't want them obstructing the view of the guests. We didn't want their assistants moving around too much, carrying blind-inducing lights.

We wanted our wedding to be experienced firsthand, remembered in human memories and not through images frozen on magnetized discs. That way, the guests experience would be truly unique.

Why am I rambling about our wedding? Today, I was browsing in a second-hand bookstore and discovered Turn Signals Are The Facial Expressions Of Automobiles by Donald Norman, he who also wrote The Design of Everyday Things which I think is one of the most inspiring books on design. The first chapter ("I Go to a Sixth Grade Play") got me all excited. Here's a quote:
"Ah yes, once upon a time there was an age in which people went to enjoy themselves, unencumbered by technology, with the memory of the event retained within their own heads. Today we use our artifacts to record the event, and the act of recording then becomes the event."
Spot on!

How many times have we fidgeted through the controls of our recording gadgets while that once-in-a-lifetime event passed us by? Is stupidly designed technology interrupting our ability to experience an event in more human form?

Here's more of Chapter One:
"Probably we've all seen a wedding reception, an event meant to be full of spontaneous expressions of joy, transformed by the photographer into a series of staged events. 'Kiss the bride.' 'Again, please.' 'Cut a piece of the wedding cake.' 'Would the bride feed the groom?' 'Move out of the way of the camera.' It is amazing how tolerant we have become of this manipulation of experience. The act of recording taking precedence over the event."

The setback, of course, is that having been trained videographers ourselves, we sometimes ask why we didn't have a clip of this scene during the wedding. But then we remember the basic principles we wanted to follow. It is the memory in our minds that is more important.

Dec 15, 2008

The problem with digital

The problem: as gadgets get smarter, they also become more difficult to use. Just look at your remote control and try to figure out your television menu.

In analog devices, we used to have buttons and dials that you can touch and feel. If you wanted to change contrast, you just had to rotate the dial. Feedback was tactile and instantaneous. Today, to do the same thing on our LG television set, we have to navigate a series of dropdown menus.

Standing between the gadget and the human is the user interface. Since more and more appliances are being implanted with microchips, the design of the user interface is transferred by default to computer programmers who know very little about user experience.

This really needs to change. The gadgets that are easiest to use will hopefully win out in the end.

Dec 1, 2008

Building the First LCD iTV

For four months, we teamed up with electronic engineers, industrial designers and software developers to build the prototype of an LCD interactive television (iTV). We dubbed the iTV "Ilumina" and our codename was "Project Faith".

We wanted to show that Filipinos have the creativity and the smarts to build an innovative product through "inovention" -- the fusion of innovation and invention. Hence the company name of the design firm is Inovent Inc. Our company, Dig It All Solutions Inc was asked by Inovent Inc to build the software and the interface for Ilumina.


So we brought in our CEO Val Gonzales and interface designer Jon Danao to solve the software problem. Val and I immediately agreed to build the operating system on existing open source software. It would allow us rapidly make a prototype by standing "on the shoulders of giants" so to speak. For the operating system/interface team, we decided early on to prioritize the following design principles for the OS/interface:

  1. The OS/interface should work and it should work well (ie, not buggy, slow etc.).
  2. It should be fast and impressive.
  3. We should focus on releasing a working system (ie, we concentrate on the core functionalities and drop extraneous features that could be worked slowly into the OS, later).

I think that defining these three design principles early on helped us focus our energies on the things that matter for the prototype. And the team stuck to it and made it work.

The audience started warming up to the Ilumina LCD iTV as we did the demo of its features. From my vantage point, I could see people's eyes widening and the room temperature go up in all the excitement. They asked many questions about what it can do now and our plans for the future. Someone even chided that he couldn't wait to win an Ilumina in a raffle. :) We dropped hints that we plan to release APIs so that third party developers could add features and plug-ins to it.

People swarmed Ilumina prototype to get a closer look.
People swarmed Ilumina prototype to get a closer look.
It was a very fulfilling night for us and credit must be given to the team that built it. Brian Quebengco, for leading everyone and cheering us on. Mark Ruiz for the brilliant thinking on marketing, Noriel Mallari for reverse engineering and building the prototype internals and Val Gonzales and Jon Danao for building the operating system and the interface. Brian worked with Jonas Prealta and Jaed Del Moral to create the beautiful, sleek white design of the Ilumina unit itself.

At the end of the unveiling, the crowd gathered to check out the unit up-close. Because they saw the potential Ilumina, they were willing to forgive the rough finish of the prototype. They saw instead what the real Ilumina set will look like in the near future.


What is equally important is that Ilumina sparked discussions among our guests after the formal program. Media people, bloggers, techies and friends struck up conversations about how Filipinos can do it, what environment is needed to support such an endeavor as Ilumina, and the need to help drum up support for such efforts. Potshots at our misearable political landscape were taken. But over-all, a positive mood was in the small theater where we held our little program. Which is good, because this was what we intended to do, to show that we could do it and to inspire more positively infectious conversations.

The Project Faith Team
The Project Faith Team.