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The end of cyberspace argument and its implication for interaction design

Last week I gave an impromptu talk at the Royal College of Art, outlining the end of cyberspace argument and its implication for interaction design. Chris Hand and Andy Broomfield, two recent graduates of the interaction design program, both blogged about the talk.

The whole thing was kind of hurried and off-the-cuff– one of the recent grads and now current faculty invited me right before I got on the plane, and the night I was giving the talk, I dashed from Paddington Station down to the RCA, on the other side of Hyde Park, managing to wander around for a few minutes before finding the right entrance. But it was a large crowd, basically supportive about the overarching idea but also highly skeptical of the particulars– in other words, the sort that’s at once satisfying without being too much of an ego boost.

I’ve been ending most of my presentations on the subject with a slide that shows various overlays of digital images atop a normal street scene.

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Turns out the students didn’t quite hate it, but they thought it didn’t work. And upon reflection, I’m inclined to agree with them, for a couple reasons.

First, and most important, instinct says that we’re quickly going to find that when it comes to overlaying information on top of our everyday views of the physical world, less will be more. To some degree, we’ve assumed that users would go for My Own Private Shibuya (hereafter, MOPS):

Colodio, “do androids dream of Tokyo?”

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Stéfan, “Karaoke in Shibuya

But after some reflection, I’m now questioning that assumption.

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Part of the pleasure of these streetscapes is precisely that they’re collectively experienced, rather than individual visions: for even a brief period, we share with other postmodern, globe-hopping flaneurs and expatriates and temporary natives the light of the ABC-Mart sign and storefront.

If I had a pair of glasses that fed me annotations of the city around me, what would I really want? Would I want dinosaur heads peering around buildings? In England, where I worry constantly about looking the wrong way when I cross the street, absolutely not: I’d be killed instantly. Indeed, in any big city, MOPS would be at worst a hazard to life and private property (how long would it take thieves to learn to target people who are walking down the street watching YouTube?), and at least an intrusion on my experience of the place.

Instead, most of the time I’d want a safety reminder or two, maybe directions if I’m headed somewhere, and then some occasional “look here for more information” icon that popped up whenever, say, I passed a building designed by a particular school of architects. At other times, I’d want other information: when I travel with my kids I want to know where clean, publicly accessible bathrooms are. But would I want MOPS? Almost never.

As is so often the case, the real value won’t come in providing a constant stream of semi-processed data, but in useful abstraction and restrained but enlightening presentation.

So now I’ve got to find another slide to end with….

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