QR codes and the end the Turing Age

Many things have been written about the New Aesthetic (NA) over the last few months, like many i’ve been watching and waiting, wondering what might come out of it. Just as thoughts were beginning to come together in my mind Bruce Sterling’s essay in Wired.com has sharply focussed many people’s thinking, and the most interesting result of this essay is the response of the community and the clearer definition of various elements of this movement.

Sterling’s extended tretise calls for more thought and consideration and pitches the NA as the next significant movement after postmodernism and the 20th Century; for me the NA is less an artistic movement and more of a dawning realisation and connecting of disparate dots, each of which are a reality of living with networked digital tools. Whether NA truly represents the next movement in art after Post Modernism is for someone else to answer, I ask myself ‘what does the NA mean today?’.


Taming Lions and Domesticating Cats

The continuing domestication of high technology is really what’s at the heart of the NA, as so many articles rightly point out many of the things that get grouped under the umbrella term have been around for many years. It’s a strange set of cultural and technological touch points from satellite imagery to vectorised artefacts of 3D photography – newish things and oldish things – what holds them together is supernatural view of the world they give us. We can look over the planet from a mile above (flight), we can look though the walls of a building and see what’s happening inside (x-ray vision), we can communicate instantly with people on the other side of the planet (telekinesis), we can control objects remotely (telekinesis). I could go on. I almost wonder if our penchant for superhero films will begin to wane, we all have little supermen in our pockets now.

And these SmartPhones (SuperPhones) infiltrate our day-to-day they are leading the charge of pervasive technology. Automatic vacuum cleaners, Kinects, Drone-copters. They’re all making their way in the world. My guess is, if you’re sitting somewhere in the western world, you probably have 100 sensors of various types within 10 metres of you. Which is an amazing/alarming/alluring thing in itself, the fact they can all talk to each other as well is a very 21st Century state of affairs.

All of this technology has been domesticated and subsumed into the everyday, and by small increments we’ve been joined by a symbiotic species – we call them ‘devices’ and ‘widgets’ and ‘do-dahs’. We’ve begun to acknowledge the presence of these new things by adjusting our environment to suit them – albeit in a clunky way. The QR code heralds an interesting era where we share the visual landscape with our new robot friends, building in visual affordances for Computer Vision that make no sense to us at all, but that our smartphones absolutely love. As time goes by, and  Computer Vision improves, these QR codes and whatever follows them will disappear, or perhaps there will be a lasting remnance – just as even the most advanced CGI effects in films are identifiable, they remain otherworldly.


After Turing

Seeing our new robot compatriots as a different species is of course a bit spurious, but it might set some rules for understanding how to interact with them. The dream of Artificial Intelligence was to replace the human brain with technology, to build a thinking machine. The dawning reality is that this was probably the wrong thing to attempt, after all what do we gain from a machine like a human? What a wasted opportunity. The classic test of a thinking machine  was defined by Alan Turing; in short if you could chat with a computer and be fooled it was a human then we could all deem AI a success. What Turning hadn’t factored in was the adaptation by humans when communicating with machines, our ability to meet them half way changed our expectation of an interaction with a machine.

In fact we’ve already passed the point where spam messages can’t be distinguished from real messages, and people are falling in love with chat bots. Not because the machines got smart, but because we all exist on the same networks, and because these networks let everybody in. My Twitter feed is populated by friends, famous people and robots. They all get my attention, whether they pass the Turing test or not.

Ultimately we can leave the AI experiment in the 20th century and start to think about what we could better use robots for. And these decisions will be made by the content consumers not the content providers. More an more we’re building tools and small pieces that other people can assemble themselves, to construct their own personalised spaces. Of course this isn’t a new thing for the old physical world, but it is a new thing for the Network Age we now live in.


Enter the Network Age

So here we stand, us looking at the robots and the robots looking at us. Each trying to understand the other. Sharing spaces, being shaped by each other. What should we be doing to shape and disrupt and embrace this new world? To me there seems to be a few things to think about.

Firstly, maintaining some visible signs of the system we use feels important. Perhaps not in an overt way, but something to help people be aware of the robots having an impact on their world. It’s very easy to hide away the algorithms and snippets of code that set the boundaries around our lives especially as they become more complex – but people are becoming more code fluent and so perhaps there will be ways to keep things near the surface. Ultimately we can stop trying to humanise robots – what we need is to invent new personalities and behaviours that suit the machines themselves.

Secondly, and particularly for designers and content providers, we all need to be aware of the complex and shifting landscape our output will become a part of. This probably manifests itself as a combination of having a clear voice and a realistic expectation of the impact we might make. Let people appropriate your content and let them tell their own stories – forget trying to shape their reactions, they’ll do what they want. It’s hard to imagine how you can begin to legislate for the ways your stuff will bubble up in the world, so focus on making better content suited to serendipity. Distribution is no longer your problem.

And I suppose the best way to finish is to encourage people to ask more questions, and try to answer them publicly. Share the knowledge.

Public Touchscreens and Logical Gestures

Lets gesture on it

After reading an interesting article by Neil Clavin (@neilclavin) here: http://bit.ly/GCtOGO via an urbanscale tweet (@urbanscale) I was prompted to write a little retort on the importance of understanding gestures when understanding and design interactions. And when I say gestures i’m not talking post-apple pinches and swipes, i’m talking physical behaviours that emphasise the action being undertaken. Old school gestures.

Read the original article and then my response:

Whilst I agree that public touch screens are actually a very unappealing concept when you begin to look at their day-to-day use, making the leap to “preferably touchless interactions” seems to ignore the tactile nature of being human.

I wonder if a better direction is to seek out interaction that are appropriate to the intended outcome. I’d say the reality of most touchless interfaces (such as oyster card) still involve an actual contact. In fact I saw an older woman vigorously banging her Oyster card on the sensor the other day, presumably in the hope that a bit more physicality would improve the functionality.

Above all, successful contactless systems are about a logical gesture. This is why QR is such a ‘WTF’ experience; because it doesn’t have a pre-existing behaviour attached to it (and of course the technology is as clunky as hell, and the content it reveals is usually crap).

So touchless = good. Touchless everything = no thanks.

From Adam Clavin's Walkshop: Analysing QR codes

I could also have gone into the potential difficulties that users with poor eyesight might have with a touchless interface – but this is a moot point, more so because I’ve actually got no specific evidence that it’s better or worse. My instinct is that it’s probably worse, but who knows.

What this really got me thinking about is this notion of carrying over instincts and behaviours from the old way of doing things. I’m forever debating this issue as a graphic designer; using the vernacular of the past to describe the current. Or. Using the vernacular of the present to introduce the future.

It depends on your perspective.

So using the funny visual cues of today can help people into the future, but how does it limit people? The UK road sign system icon for ‘speed camera’ is perhaps the oddest representation of a camera possible. It’s almost surreal.

And this is just visual stuff. What about gestures and behaviours? What learned behaviour do we carry forward to the post digital age? Do we invent new things? Or approximate the old? And what is the value in either?

I don’t have any suggestions yet, maybe other people do. Gesture me an answer if you know something that I don’t. Just make sure it’s a gesture I understand.

Qrcode train timetables

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From First Capital Connect, scan the we code to get a timetable and line map.

This is actually a bit useful, it essentially replaces the little paper maps with a PDF you can save to your device, and for one the whole experience is mobile optimised.

Well done.

The link, incidentally, takes you here: http://www.kadfire.com/webtts/fcc/d/btn/btn.pdf

It’s ironic that the poster is actually te weak link here, sorry for the bad picture above, but as you might see the alignment of information is awful.

Ruddy, downright, awfulmess.

The service seems to be supplied, at least I part by http://www.kadfire.com/ I must look them up…

QR codes linger

One important thing to remember about physical QR codes in the physical world is that they will almost certainly outlive the information they are linked to.

The image below is a qr code in the wild, deliberately left without an accompanying information.

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Look closely. It’s the tiny little smudge at the bottom of the yellow box.

Now if you were to scan this code (which you wouldn’t because nobody scans them) you are take to the website for the Anti Design Festival which was run last year in 2010.

This makes me wonder what happens as these codes are increasingly ‘tagged’ onto real objects. Berg have written interesting things about QR codes tagging things in space and time, but the notion that the little codes will be floating around is slightly different.

It would be even more interesting if these codes were pointing to bit.ly style shortened links, as they only last for a couple of months before being recycled. And then god know where you might end up.

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Idiots guide to QR codes

I hope there is a minor silver lining to be found in all this QR code nonsense: with every qrcode that is shoved out into the world we move slightly closer to something replacing them.

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This bizarre bus add is basically seems to be trying to explain what a QR code is. Odd eh?

Paid for by Clear Channel, the owner of the advertising space. When you scan the bloody thing you just get one line of text:

‘Password is: smartphones’

No idea what the bloody hell is going on to be honest. Pretty much sums up the weirdness of these ugly little blighters.

Who is this QR Code for?

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One of the many, many problems with qrcodes is that the customer facing ones are not that different to the ones that are just part of the back end systems that get the products to you.

Above is an example of that back end breaking out into the real world.

An how the hell are are we supposed to know what’s meant for us and what’s meant for the guy sticking best before dates on the wrapper for me?