Looking beyond the obvious

96Ever since this concept phone was first released, the design community has had a field day debating the merits and demerits of such an interface. While looking for this image, I must have browsed a number of gadget blogs from Gizmodo to mobiblog where the comments section was full of stuff like "bad design, oily fingerprints, how would grandma use it, touchscreen would autodial in pocket" and so on and so forth.

But to look beyond the obvious, as I choose to do, one can take this in the context one is meant to – it is a concept. Just like concept cars are reminiscent of our fondest sci-fi imaginings, and you’d never really wear half of what you see parading down a runway, in design, concepts are meant to be just that. A figment of the designer’s imagination, concepts are playful, imaginary, "far out", wild and woolly explorations of what might be, what could be, an exercise in visualization.

Concepts inspire us. There is truth in that hoary old cliche – ideas have the power to change to the world. Ask Tasos. He was inspired by this black box to write a paean to what might be… here’s a snippet from his essay,

This is not about the device. The most attractive thing about the
Black Box is it’s name. If it truly is a black box and no longer a
phone masquerading as all sorts of other stuff, then the potential can
be unlocked. What its really about is access. Leave all the smartphone
baggage and the tiny computer baggage behind for a moment and consider
a device that doesn’t get in the way of people’s access to internet,
e-mail, documents and contacts. A transparent device designed for open
ended access.

Because it accesses and stores
these online, the device has less software, storage and processing
power. A black box. Not exactly a phone nor a computer nor a pda but
something able to perform the most essential actions of those devices
as well as any of them, maybe better. All that at the lower cost of a
simpler device.

And so, like science fiction, concepts inspire another generation of technologists, scientists, researchers and designers to work towards manifesting visions of what might be. Look at this little beauty, sprung forth like Galatea, from one man’s mind,


And here is a snippet from Chandan’s post,

It is not an actual or planned product. Images are obviously made with GIMP. This is my vision or prediction for 2006. Read it as my pet peeves about today’s iPods or mobile phones – cant keep them in a wallet, limited storage, limited processing capability, need for a charger, monopolistic service providers who try to squeeze every pennies out of your pocket for silly things like incoming calls…. I am just tossing an idea, catch it and build it if you want 🙂

Isn’t that the true creative potential of the world wide web unleashed? The freedom to conceive, create, envision and then, just as one would, a paper boat on flood waters running in the front of the doorstoop, let loose? This is my vision too. And quoting Tasos again, here’s why:

In addition, a Black Box can support total language and culture customization. Instead of imposing Scandinavian or American logic and Roman script on others, make the portal transparent to each culture. All anybody needs then is their own culture, eyeballs and fingertips. At the bottom of the pyramid, people have already demonstrated their willingness to shell out months of wages for a mobile phone.

It’s the utility, convenience and economic potential of these items that makes them so desirable. All of these could be dramatically heightened by the next generation. If the device is not a cultural and technological hurdle but an easy portal to go through, this could be the next emerging growth market.

Mobile phones connect the world’s poorest to other individuals. The next generation device could connect them to the world. It has the potential to change everything from banking to grassroots business networking. It’s an enormous leap for the biggest mass market but can it be made effortless?

That’s the challenge but it’s not such an outrageous one.

A fitting end to this, at least until I rewrite it again, would be these words, via Tom Guarriello, from Bruce Sterling’s State of the World 2007,

I used to feel a certain sci-fi "sense of wonder" about design; design doesn’t lack for flashy theatrical histrionics — but what I’ve really come to treasure about it is that sense of *engagement.*  Design isn’t science and it isn’t fiction, but it’s is a way of knowledge and a method of action;

it’s a path into the poetry of things. ~ Bruce Sterling, 2007


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