Speaker Spotlight: David Rose

Enchanted objects: embedding ordinary things with extraordinary power

What’s wonderful about fantastical objects in fiction, like all enchanted objects, is that they are typically based on the everyday technologies we have come to understand and trust, but with magical features and added capabilities.”

— David Rose, Enchanted Objects

Book cover of Enchanted Objects by David RoseIn the last 50 years weve seen technological advances that were once the stuff of fantasy and science fiction—from Dick Tracy-style watches to driver-less cars. Chances are youve got a smartphone within easy reach, and it does far more than any Star Trek crew member ever dreamed of.

MIT Media Lab researcher and author David Rose would like to pry that “cold slab of glass out of your fingers and show you something even better. He believes we need technology thats less like a sci-fi communicator and more like a crystal ball.

“The smartphone is a confusing and feature-crammed techno-version of the Swiss Army knife, impressive only because it is so compact,” David writes. “The smartphone is a jealous companion, turning us into blue-faced zombies, as we incessantly stare into its screen every waking minute of the day.”

Instead, he advocates embedding these capabilities into the everyday objects that surround us. And if youre in the business of making tangible products, he says you’d better have an enchanted-objects strategy.

So, who are the wizards that will conceive of and create these enchanted objects? And how will they need to think and work differently? I recently spoke with David about these and other questions that he will be addressing in his keynote presentation at Delight.

Who will enchant the objects of our future?

It takes a polyglot to understand and make smart decisions about human-centered products, so your ability to understand and communicate with other scientists, engineers, designers, psychologists, executives, and entrepreneurs—as well as customers and users—is essential to taking part in the next wave of the internet.

Carmen: What does it mean to be a polyglot, and why is that important today? Especially for people working to create experiences that people love.

David: Its a great question. I think the reason that its so important to have a broad purview in terms of interests in a number of fields is that we are really in the experience design business today. That means understanding whats possible with technology and also what is expected with design and some cultural appropriateness of perspectives.

To bring all of those disciplines together, I think one of the most important things to understand is the history of magic, and the history of enchantment, and the history of fairy tales, and Greek myths—all of the cultural stories that resonate with people. Because if you think about brands like Nike or Disney that are creating experiences, often times they’re really trying to resonate with these wishes and dreams and desires we’ve had forever, from our youth.

Even those that manifest in new ways, like Avatar, or the immersive, VR entertainment experiences that are currently being produced also have a lot to do with storytelling. In order to do something thats really compelling, a mixture of technology, and design and story are all required to fuse together.

Carmen: It seems like MIT media lab, where you spend so much of your time, is the ultimate playhouse for polyglots. How do people from such diverse disciplines collaborate to reinvent things, and what’s it like to work in that environment?

David: Its a pretty extraordinary place because it does bring together people that have a bedrock of computer science skills but then also another interest. An interest in opera, or in childrens toys and play, or architecture, or city planning. A lot of the projects that go on at the Media Lab are project-based. Its not that a professor has a big idea and makes the students do something, but usually they have a big question or a big problem. And they find ways to engage communities.

We just had somebody who deals with transportation networks in Mexico City come in and present to the students. Sharing a problem thats actually happening in the real world inspires the students to go and build interesting things. I think the role the Media Lab plays is more of a place to spawn projects and a place to connect people that are out in the world that have real problems, real authentic things that need to be solved with a lot of creative energy.

Hacking collaboration

Carmen: For a lot of organizations, the bar for creating those kinds of experiences is pretty high. What advice would you have for people who are aspiring to work in a more interdisciplinary, connective way and to create these enchanting experiences? Where’s the best place to start?

David: I think having an attitude of bringing more people around the table is almost always a good idea. I’m inspired by the hackathon culture. It’s not only academic situations where people are doing hackathons on the weekend. Its also happening inside companies where they are doing hackathons in order to get people together that haven’t worked together before, have a little sprint, and make something interesting—or at least a concept of something interesting—in a short amount of time and then present that out to a larger audience. The hackathon recipe works, I think, across almost any sized company.

I think theres also an opportunity to learn from how MIT spawns partnerships. Im surprised that more companies dont have ties to design schools, interaction design programs, computer science programs. I teach also at the Interaction Design Institute in Copenhagen, and they have industry projects where a company like Ikea comes in and hires students as a group for three or four weeks, and has them work on a project that’s relevant for Ikea. I think there should be more of those school industry partnerships that really benefits both parties.

Sparking big ideas by thinking small(er)

The Terminal World asserts a cold, blue aesthetic into our world, rather than responding to our own…. There is no magic device I know of whose possessor stares zombie-like into it, playing a meaningless game, or texting about nothing It does not fulfill a deep fundamental human desire in an enchanting way.

Carmen: In your book you talk about the need to shift our mindset away from the “Terminal World,” but if people are just getting used to designing for smartphones or tablets, how do you instigate that shift?

David: Theres a macro trend taking place that is called ubiquitous computing, or physical computing, where we’re thinking about how you embed technology in everyday objects or everyday gestures. Thats something thats really impacting almost every ordinary object company, like a jewelry company or a lock company or a luggage company or a shoe company. Theyre thinking about how they can reinvent those objects or those pieces of furniture with technology. Whats really powerful is it doesnt have to look like an app.

For example, I was just in Barcelona and did a workshop for this company that makes light switches. Theyre a 100-year-old company and they just make light switches. Theyre thinking about how they can reinvent the category of these physical, tangible switches that are on the wall of every room of peoples homes and businesses and embed the functionality of apps into the switches around the house. You can imagine switches that not only turn on and off, but change the color temperature of the light based on what time of day it is or lighting that shows how much energy the home is consuming right there on the light switch.

A Moore’s Law for the internet of things?

Carmen: How concerned are you about the digital divide as we move into the next wave of the internet? Are enchanted objects for everyone?

David: I do often think about equity and access issues for technology, and one of the things that I notice about the internet of things is the price points are really following a parallel of Moores Law, where we’re halving prices every 12 to 16 months. The cost of enchanted objects is falling and will continue to fall quickly fall below the threshold of the cost of the things that were embedding with the technology. Today you can go out and buy a Fitbit for $100 or $150. The cost of goods for making one of those is less than $10 now. The cost of putting technology into a pill cap was $3 per cap, and the drugs that are inside the caps could be $10 dollars.  I see that more people will have access to more of these internet-connected things and they will be more available for a larger population than cellphones. 

Don’t miss David Rose at Delight 2016. Register now!

David Rose is an award-winning entrepreneur, author, and instructor at the MIT Media Lab. His new book, Enchanted Objects, focuses on the future of the internet of things, and how these technologies will impact the ways we live and work. David is the CEO at Ditto Labs, an image-recognition software platform that scours social media photos to find brands and products. He also founded Vitality, which reinvented medication packaging, and Ambient Devices, which pioneered glanceable technology: embedding internet information in everyday objects. His work has been featured at the MoMA, covered in The New York Times, WIRED and The Economist, and parodied on the Colbert Report.