Wearables, Smart Fabrics, and Authentic Experiences: The Human Dimensions of the Future of Computing

I’m excited to welcome Mirjana Spasojevic, Head of HP Immersive Experiences Lab, as a guest blogger today. Before she shares her thoughts on the future of computing and HP’s impact, let me tell you a little bit about her.

The Immersive Experiences Lab focuses on people and practices in order to craft the best experiences with future HP products and technologies.

Previously, Mirjana co-founded educational startup Kindoma, served as Director of Exploratory Research at the Nokia Research Center in Silicon Valley, and led research activities and technical teams at Harman, HP, Yahoo and Transarc. She has over 20 years of experience in mobile, web, file and distributed systems, and is passionate about integrating technology and design to create innovative products.

At Nokia Mirjana founded Innovate Design Experience Animate (IDEA), an entrepreneurial team of engineers, designers, and researchers, addressing all phases of the development cycle, from user research to the design, hardware-software prototyping, pilot deployments and delivery of final products. This team created family-communication and connected-reading products in collaboration with Sesame Workshop and Pearson Foundation.

Mirjana is a recognized expert in Human-Computer Interaction and Ubicomp fields with work cited over 2,000 times. She has a PhD in Computer Science from Penn State University and has served as the General Chair of the HotMobile 2008 conference and the program co-chair of the Pervasive 2010 conference.

Okay Mirjana, the floor is yours.

The researchers in the HP Immersive Experiences Lab frequently talk about the future of computing. The team of engineers, designers, prototypers, and free thinkers like to push the boundaries of what HP can do next.

The past decades of computing have developed along the lines of technology-centric challenges, constantly seeking to improve capabilities of chips, battery capacities, memory, and screens, among other technical challenges. However, we are starting to see an interesting shift towards human experiences and needs, where the future of computing is recast as person-centric.

Developing this future requires that we consider human dimensions, in particular the challenges of creating new technologies that people will wear on their bodies and that are optimized for new experiences.

Could there be an alternative to screen-based computing that is more human-centered? What are the best ways to distribute compute elements across the body, close to the body (mobile or embedded in the environment), and throughout the cloud-based computing infrastructure? Is it possible to create “authentic” experiences that support individuals in their daily lives? The answers to these questions will help us develop a vision for human-centered computing that feels personal, intimate, and respectful of an individual’s privacy.

The original vision of ubiquitous computing

Mark Weiser, who is widely credited as the father of the Ubiquitous Computing field, wrote the famous article “The Computer for the 21st Century” in 1991. In the article Weiser laid out his vision of the future of computing where technologies disappear into the fabric of everyday life and become invisible, leaving people to do their everyday tasks.

“The most profound technologies are those that disappear. They weave themselves into the fabric of everyday life until they are indistinguishable from it.” – Mark Weiser

This vision of computing was supported by a number of the projects at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center at the time, envisioning the future of computing being distributed through a network of screen-based devices: inch-sized personal devices (tabs), foot-sized devices that appear like a sheet of paper (pads), and yard-sized wall devices (boards). This was the genesis of the famous “computing by the inch, foot, and yard” statement. Much of this vision became reality over the years in the form of mobile phones, tablets, and room displays of various sizes with challenges in interoperability with all of them, remaining even today.

Wearables and Smart Fabrics

In parallel with Weiser’s work, other developments began entering the “fabric of daily life” over the past decade. Tech devices that began as dedicated fitness trackers expanded to smart watches and head-mounted displays or smart earbuds. These are devices that live and compute on the human body. They suggest a technological and experiential evolution where the human body is the center of focus around which the computing infrastructure provides functionality. This human-centered shift raises important questions about the nature of desired interactions with these new technologies.

But the notion of “desired interactions” is based on people’s expectations for these new devices. We know from a number of research studies that expectations for wearable devices range from an always-on information provider, a data recorder, a body signal collector, a sensing transformer, and so on. Looking beyond the obvious, one can see wearables evolving into mind readers or personal confidantes, as was portrayed in the recently-released movie Her.

Smart fabrics raise even more questions: Smart fabrics are a derivative of smart materials and have specific thermal or conductive properties. These new, enhanced materials also have the ability to act as sensors in the environment around the people who wear them.

The research around smart fabrics takes place at the intersection of art, design, science, and cultural anthropology. As these new fabrics become more mainstream, the technology itself has the potential to revolutionize textile manufacturing. These fabrics could eventually replace traditional clothing, becoming our second skin. They would satisfy traditional functions, such as keeping us warm and protected, while at the same time gathering information about our bodies and how they interact with the world around them. Imagine having the ability to show emotions using your clothing to better connect with others, control body temperature, gather important biomedical data, offer new forms of aesthetic expressions, and much more.

Design challenges

In order to fulfil the truly rich potential of this human-centric computing future, devices and smart fabrics residing on the human body need to address many design obstacles. We are talking about designing for the highly-complex personal space of a human body, including delicate support for expressive, intimate, visual, and auditory properties as well as respect for the personal-public boundary.

These are not small design challenges. These are wicked design problems.

The researchers in the HP Immersive Experiences Lab believe that in order to solve these wicked problems, we need to depart from the existing paradigms of screen-based devices. Our Lab embraces traditions of jewelry design as we tackle these challenges, in part because of the inherent communicative qualities of jewelry. We focus on the positive psychological, tactile, and performative aspects that jewelry can embody and convey.

Jewelry has played a functional role since the start of civilized society, navigating the transition between personal/public space and meaning in a way that is still very relevant today. Ideally, when crafting jewelry, the designer wants the person to wear the piece without being overly aware of its physical presence. Such objects of adornment provide comfort to the wearer, whether the emotional significance behind its ownership or the confidence endowed through adornment. Not only is jewelry important for the wearer, more importantly it spurs a discourse, spoken or unspoken, with others who view it. Think about the function that a wedding ring conveys, and the unspoken yet potent message that is encoded in a simple piece of metal.

Wearable technology designers are becoming increasingly aware of the importance of the aesthetics, and ultimately the jewelry-ness, of devices meant to supplant traditional jewelry objects.

Future wearable devices and wearable garments require reimagining people’s interaction and orientation towards them. This is an exciting new playground for human-computer interaction researchers and user experience designers. It is an opportunity to rethink traditional user interfaces and interaction methods. Departing from the model of describing intent through command and control, via mobile apps or other metaphors, we are entering an intriguing domain of implicit interaction conveyed through gestures or biometric signals. How will it all work in the best possible way and support new, exciting experiences?

Future of computing and HP products

The HP mission is to engineer experiences that amaze, while the HP vision is to create technologies that makes life better for everyone, everywhere. Both of these statements describe the tremendous importance that HP has placed on end-to-end experiences that provide real value to our customers. The mission of the Immersive Experiences Lab is to understand people and practices so that we can craft the best experiences with future technologies. Through embracing a broad range of domains (such as jewelry design), we explore the outer edges of multidimensional human experiences that future technologies should support. In doing so we build a powerful, human-centered vision of the future of computing that seamlessly fits into people’s lives. This vision strives to be less about the specifics of devices and computer screens, and more about the emotional experiences that people crave.

HP CTO & Global Head HPLabs. Technology futurist, passionate leader focused on 3dprinting, cybersecurity, drones, travel, and FriendsNational.

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