Tag Archives: invention

TBD Catalog – the story

TBD Catalog – the story.

How might the promise of what at the time was called an “internet of things” play out in the near future? What would the future look like in a world blanketed by advances in protection and surveillance technologies? If Autonomous Vehicle innovations continued its passionate race forward, what would it be to pick up the groceries, take a commercial airline flight, commute to work, have mail and parcels delivered, drop off the dry cleaning, meet friends at a bar across town, go on cross-country family vacations, or take the kids to sports practice or school? Would food sciences offer us new forms of ingestible energy such as coconut-based and other high-caloric energy sources, or caloric burners that would help us avoid exercise-based diets? In what ways would live, streaming, recorded and crowd-authored music and filmed entertainment evolve? How might advances in portable spring power hold up against traditional chemical battery power? How would emerging forms of family and kinship be reflected in social networks? How will Chinese migration to Africa shape that continent’s entry into the world of manufacturing, and how would that inevitability shape distribution and production economies? What is to become of open-source education and the over-supply of capable yet unemployed engineers? Would personal privacy and data hiding protocols be developed to help protect our families and businesses from profile pirates and data heists? What happens to our sense of social relations as today’s algorithmic analytic interpersonal relationship matchers get too good and algorithms effectively pre-pubscently “couple us off” before we have a chance to experience the peculiarities of dating life? Will crytocurrency disrupt today’s national currencies? What will become of coffee and plant-based protein products?

[…]

Ultimately though, our task was to decant even the most preposterous idea through a series of design procedures that would make it as normal, ordinary, and everyday blasé as, for one retrospective example, the billions of 140-character messages sent into the ether each day – a form of personal individual communication that must have, at its inception, seemed to most of the world to be the most ridiculous idea ever. The point being that the most extraordinary preposterous social rituals have often made their ways into our lives to become normal and even taken for granted.

A report (or catalog, such as TBD) offers a way to normalize those extraordinary ideas and represent them as entirely ordinary. We imagined it to be a catalog of some sort, as might appear in a street vending box in any neighborhood, or in a pile next to the neighborhood real estate guides or advertising-based classified newspapers near the entrance to your local convenience store.

[…]

Rather than the staid, old-fashioned, bland, unadventurous “strategy consultant’s” report or “futurist’s” white paper (or, even worse – bullet-pointed PowerPoint conclusion to a project), we wanted to present the results of our workshop in a form that had the potential to feel as immersive as an engaging, well-told story. We wanted our insights to exists as if they were an object or an experience that might be found in the world we were describing for our client. We wanted our client to receive our insights with the shift in perspective that comes when one is able to suspend their disbelief as to what is possible.

[…]

During our workshop, we used a little known design-engineering concept generation and development protocol called Design Fiction. Through a series of rigorous design procedures, selection protocols, and proprietary generative work kits, Design Fiction creates diegetic and engineered prototypes that suspend disbelief in their possibility. Design Fiction is a way of moving an idea into existence through the use of design tools and fictional contexts that results in a suspension of one’s disbelief, which then allows one to overcome one’s skeptical nature and see possibility where there was once only skepticism or doubt.

There were a variety of tools and instruments we could put in service to construct these normal ordinary everyday things. For example, several canonical graphs used to represent trajectories of ideas towards their materialization would come in handy. These are simple and familiar graphs. Their representations embody specific epistemological systems of belief about how ideas, technologies, markets, societies evolve. These are typically positivist up-and-to-the-right tendencies. With graphs such as these, one can place an idea in the present and trace it towards its evolved near future form to see where its promise might end up.

We also had the Design Fiction Product Design Work Kit, a work kit useful for parceling ideas into their atomic elements, re-arranging them into something that, for the present, would be quite extra-ordinary. But, in the near future everyday, would be quite ordinary.

[…]

No. Not prediction. Rather we were providing thought provocations. We were creating a catalog of things to think with and think about. We were creating a catalog full of creative inspiration for one possible near future – a near future that would be an extrapolation from todays state of things. Our objective was to create a context in which possible-probables as well as unexpected-unlikelies were all made comprehensible. Were one to do a subsequent catalog as a reflection on another year, it would almost certainly be concerned with very different topics and, as such, materialize in a rather different set of products.

[…]

There were no touch-interaction fetish things like e-paper magazines, no iPhones with bigger screens, no Space Marine Exo-Skeletons, no time-traveling devices, not as many computational screen devices in bathroom medicine cabinets as one may have hoped or feared. There was no over-emphasis on reality goggles, no naive wrist-based ‘wearables’, a bare minimum of 3D printer accessories. Where those naive futures appeared we debased them – we represented them with as much reverence as one might a cheap mass-produced lager, an off-brand laundry soap, or an electric toothbrush replacement head. We focused on the practicalities of the ordinary and everyday and, where we felt necessary, commoditized, bargainized, three-for-a-dollarized and normalized.

What was most interesting is that the deliverable – a catalog of the near future’s normal ordinary everyday – led us in a curious way to a state that felt rather like the ontological present. I mean, the products and services and “ways of being” were extrapolated, but people still worried about finding a playmate for their kid and getting out of debt. As prevalent as ever were the shady promises of a better, fitter, sexier body and new tinctures to prevent the resilient common cold. People in our near future were looking for ways to avoid boredom, to be told a story, find the sport scores or place a bet, get from here to there, avoid unpleasantries, protect their loved ones and buy a pair of trousers. Tomorrow ended up very much the same as today, only the 19 of us were less “there” than the generations destined to inherit the world designed by the TBD Catalog. Those inheritors, the cast of characters we imagined browsing and purchasing from this catalog in the near future, seemed to take things in stride when it came to biomonitoring toilets, surveillance mitigation services, luxurious ice cubes, the need for data mangling, living a parametric-algorithmic lifestyle, goofy laser pointer toys, data sanctuaries, and the inevitable boredom of commuting to work (even with “self-drivers” or other forms of AV’s.)

[…]

The near future comes pre-built with the expectation that, being the future, it must be quite different from the vantage point of the present. This is an assumption we were trying to alter for a moment – the assumption that the future is either better or worse than the present. Quite less often is the future represented as the same as now only with a slightly different cast of characters. Were we to take this approach, which we did, it would be required that the cast of characters from the future would be no more nor less awestruck by their present than we are today awestruck by the fact that we have on-demand satellite maps in our palms, that the vapor trail above us is a craft with hundreds of souls whipping through the stratosphere at breakneck speeds, and that when we sit down at a restaurant fresh water (with ice) is offered in several varieties from countries far away, with or without bubbles.

[…]

It was important that the concepts be carefully represented as normal, rather than spectacular. Were things to have a tinge of unexpected social or technical complexity as suggested, for example, by regulatory warnings, a hint of their possible mishaps, an indication that it may induce a coronary or require a signed waiver — all the better as these are indications of something in the normal ordinary everyday.

[…]

the near future may probably be quite like the present, only with a new cast of social actors and algorithms who will, like today, suffer under the banal, colorful, oftentimes infuriating characteristic of any socialized instrument and its services. I am referring to the bureaucracies that are introduced, the jargon, the new kinds of job titles, the mishaps, the hopes, the error messages, the dashed dreams, the family arguments, the accidental data leak embarrassments, the evolved social norms, the humiliated politicians, the revised expectations of manner and decorum, the inevitable reactionary designed things that reverse current norms, the battalions of accessories. Etcetera.

Also, concepts often started as abstract speculations requiring deciphering and explication. These would need to be designed properly as products or services that felt as though they were well-lived in the world. Predictive design and speculative design lives well in these zones of abstraction. To move a concept from speculative to design fictional requires work. To materialize an idea requires that one push it forward through the gauntlet any design concept must endure to become the product of the mass-manufacturers process of thing-making. To make an idea become a cataloged, consumable product in the world requires that it be manufacturable, desirable and profitable. Each of these dimensions in turn require that, for example, the thing be imagined to have endured regulatory approvals, be protected as much as possible from intellectual property theft, be manufactured somewhere, suffer the inevitable tension between business drivers, marketing objectives, sales goals and design dreams while also withstanding transcontinental shipping, piracy of all kinds, the CEO’s wives color-choice whims (perhaps multiple CEOs over the course of a single product’s development) and have a price that is as cheap as necessary in many cases but perhaps reassuringly expensive in others. Things need to be imagined for their potential defects, their inevitable flaws and world-damaging properties. A product feels real if it has problems it mitigates as well as new, unexpected problems it introduces. Things need names that are considered for certain categories of product, and naive or imbecilic for others. Things need to be imagined in the hand, in use in “real world” contexts – in the home, office, data center, one’s AV, amongst children or co-workers. They should be forced to live in their springtime with fanfare, and their arthritic decline on the tangled, cracked and chipped 3/99¢ bin. To do this requires that they live, not just as flat perfect things for board room PowerPoint and advertisements, but as mangled things co-existing with all of the dynamic tensions and forces in the world.

[…]

Ultimately, things are an embodiment of our own lived existence — our desires and aspirations; our vanities and conceits; our servility and humility. A Design Fiction catalog of things becomes an epistemic reflection of the times. One might read such a catalog as one might read a statement titled “The Year In Review” – a meditation on the highlights of a year recently concluded. This would not be prediction. It would be a narrative device, a form of storytelling that transcends naive fiction to become an object extracted from a near future world and brought back to us to consider, argue over and discuss. And, possibly, do again as an alternative to the old journalistic “The Year In Review” trope. Is there a better name or form for the thing that looks forward with modesty from today and captures what is seen there? What do we call the thing that stretches into the near future the nascent, barely embryonic hopes, speculations, hypotheses, forces, political tendencies – even the predictions from those still into such things? Is it Design Fiction? An evolved genre that splices together naive fiction, science-fiction, image-and-graphic mood boards and the now ridiculously useless ‘futurist’ predictions and reports? Something in between crowd-funding as a way to prototype a DIY idea and multiform, transmedia shenanigans?

[…]

We started receiving inquiries from individuals around the world who wanted to order items and provide crowd-funding style financial backing for product concepts. Some entities demanded licensing fees because a product the “catalog” purported to “sell” was something they had already developed and were selling themselves or, in some cases, they had even patented and so were notifying us that they would pursue legal remedies to address our malfeasance.

We found that products and entire service ecosystems we implied through advertisements actually existed in an obscure corner of the business world. Of course, there were items in the catalog that we knew existed already. In those cases, our task was not to re-predict them, but to continue them along their trajectory using one or a combination of our graphs of the future (see following pages). In these cases, it can be expected that an unwitting reader of TBD Catalog would naturally make contact with us to find out why they had not be made aware of the new version of the product, how could they get a discounted upgrade, or how they could download the firmware update for which they simply had not already been aware.

[…]

One could write quite didactically about innovation of such-and-so, or make a prediction of some sort or commission a trend analysts report or a clever name-brand futurists’ speculation. Or, one could start with the names of some things and fill out their descriptions at their “consumer face” and let the things themselves come to life, define the sensibilities of those humans (or algorithms?) that might use them. How would those things be sold – what materials? what cost? what consumer segment? Three-for-one? Party colors? Or one could do a very modern form of combined prototyping-funding such as the ‘Kickstarter model’ of presenting an idea before it is much more than a collection of pretty visual aids and then see what people might pay for an imaginary thing. Design Fiction is the modern form of imagining, innovating and making when we live in a world where the future may already have been here before.

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The Invention of the AeroPress

The Invention of the AeroPress.

Among coffee aficionados, the AeroPress is a revelation. A small, $30 plastic device that resembles a plunger makes what many consider to be the best cup of coffee in the world. Proponents of the device claim that drinks made with the AeroPress are more delicious than those made with thousand-dollar machines. Perhaps best of all, the AeroPress seems to magically clean itself during the extraction process.

[…]

In 1938, a man named Fred Morrison was out on Santa Monica Beach with his wife when he found a pie tin. The two began tossing it back and forth and another beach-goer approached Morrison, offering him 25 cents for the tin — five times its retail price in stores. Morrison saw potential for a market.

Upon returning from World War II, he designed an aerodynamically improved plastic disc, and sold it at trade shows as the Flyin-Saucer, with the sales pitch “The Flyin-Saucer is free, but the invisible wire is $1.” After making about $2 million off his invention, Morrison sold it to toy company Wham-O in 1957, where it was renamed the “Frisbee.”

Enter Edward “Steady Ed” Hedrick, the founding father of the modern Frisbee. Hedrick reworked the rim thickness and top design of the disc, making it more aerodynamic and accurate, and is credited with propelling the Frisbee into mainstream popularity. A true man of his craft, he requested his ashes be molded into memorial Frisbees and given to family and close friends upon his death.

The Frisbee went largely unchanged for many years. Then, Alan Adler came along.

Throughout the 1960s, Adler worked as an engineer in the private sector, designing things that the average person rarely sees: submarine and nuclear reactor controls, instrumentation systems for military aircraft, and optics. He also lectured and mentored engineering students at Stanford University, where he taught a course on sensors. “I was never happier than when I was learning a new discipline,” he tells us.

This curiosity led to his pursuit of a diverse range of hobbies; as “the type of person who always seeks ways to make things better,” his hobbies invariably led to inventions. Today, he owns over 40 patents — some of which are in surprising fields.

As an amateur astronomer in the early 2000s, he ended up inventing a new type of paraboloid mirror and writing a computer program, Sec, that assisted the way astronomers select secondary mirrors. He developed an interest in sailing and proceeded to design a sailboat that won the Transpac race (from San Francisco to Hawaii). Recently, he took up playing the Shakuhachi, a Japanese end-blown flute, and has already constructed several dozen designs.

Adler had always been fascinated by the magical quality of flight, and, according to one publication, “combines the skill of an engineer with the skills of a practical dreamer.” In the mid-1970s, he began toying with the idea of creating a flying disc — an object that would be “easy for the average person to throw with very little effort.” He retired to his workshop and began chipping away at prototype designs, going through dozens of iterations before developing the Skyro in 1978.

[…]

He took his new design to Parker Brothers, a toy manufacturer, met with one of their sales managers, and “went out in the parking lot to throw discs around for a while.” The manager was blown away by the disc’s ease of flight, but it was made out of plastic and he insisted it was too hard for recreational use. Adler had included instructions on how to line the edges with soft rubber during the manufacturing process, but this technique had never been explored, and Parker Brothers said it was impossible.

So, Adler took matters into his own hands. He went to Mother Lode Plastics, paid them “several thousand dollars,” and had custom prototype molds made. He then brought his completed vision back to Parker Brothers, who bought the rights to his invention. “They didn’t have the foresight to do something that hadn’t been done,” Adler tells us. But he did, and this wouldn’t be the last time he forged new ground as an inventor.

[…]

The Skyro had one major issue: it had to be thrown at a very particular speed in order for it to fly in a straight trajectory. When it was thrown at the right speed, it flew insane distances — from home plate, one man threw a Skyro out of Dodger Stadium — but for the average consumer, it could be difficult to determine this speed. Adler went back to the drawing board.

Six long years ensued. By day, Adler taught classes and consulted; by night, he developed the ultimate flying disc. In the January 1984, in his garage/laboratory, Adler designed a ring-flight simulator on his computer and realized that achieving a perfect balance at any speed was possible. To achieve this, he’d have to create an airfoil (a wing or blade) around the perimeter of the disc that allowed for “50% greater lift slope when flying forward than backward.”

On his fourth prototype, Adler had a major breakthrough: he molded a spoiler lip around the outside of the rim. He took his new model out to a big field on Stanford’s campus, and thrusted it into the sky; the disc flew “as if sliding on an invisible sheet of ice.”

[…]

He contacted Scott Zimmerman, a seven-time Frisbee World Champion, and involved him in a number of publicity stunts through the mid-1980s. In 1986, Zimmerman threw an Aerobie Pro 1,257 feet (383.1 meters) at Fort Funston in Golden Gate Park, San Francisco, setting a Guinness World Record for “longest throw of an object without any velocity-aiding feature;” in 1987, Zimmerman, fully dressed in George Washington regalia, taped a silver dollar to an Aerobie and hurled it across the Potomac River; in 1988, he flung an Aerobie over Niagara Falls.

[…]

Adler says the mainstream toy industry has a tendency to push out new products every three years. “Parker Brothers, for instance, has a quota of ten new toys every year at the NY Toy Fair,” he tells us. Aerobie finds this practice counter-intuitive, and goes against the grain:

“A lot of companies feel the need to release new products; they’ll release products that never really deserved to be sold! They’re just not that good. We don’t look at it that way: we only release products that we think are innovative and offer excellent play value. Companies often spoil products by revising them in an effort to make them new.”

[…]

The AeroPress was conceived at Alan Adler’s dinner table. The company was having a team meal, when the wife of Aerobie’s sales manager posed a question: “What do you guys do when you just want one cup of coffee?”

A long-time coffee enthusiast and self-proclaimed “one cup kinda guy,” Adler had wondered this many times himself. He’d grown increasingly frustrated with his coffee maker, which yielded 6-8 cups per brew. In typical Adler fashion, he didn’t let the problem bother him long: he set out to invent a better way to brew single cup of coffee.

He started by experimenting with pre-existing brewing methods. Automatic drip makers were the most popular way to make coffee, but “coffee connoisseurs” seemed to prefer the pour-over method — either using a Melitta cone (or other variety), or French Press. Adler quickly found the faults in these devices.

The Melitta cone, a device you place over your cup with a filter and pour water into, has “an average wet time of about 4-5 minutes,” according to Adler. The longer the wet time, the more acidity and bitterness leech out of the grounds into the cup. Adler figured this time could be dramatically reduced, quelling bad-tasting byproducts.

It struck Adler that he could use air pressure to shorten this process. After a few weeks in his garage, he’d already created a prototype: a plastic tube that used plunger-like action to compress the flavors quickly out of the grounds. He brewed his first cup with the invention, and knew he’d made something special. Immediately, he called his business manager Alex Tennant.

Tennant tasted the brew, and stepped back. “Alan,” he said, “I can sell a ton of these.”

A year of “perfecting the design” ensued: Adler tried out different sizes and configurations, and at first “didn’t understand the right way to use [his] own invention.” The final product, which he called the AeroPress, was simple to operate: you place a filter and coffee grounds (2-4 scoops) into a plastic tube, pour hot water into the tube (at an optimal of 165-175 degrees), and stir for ten seconds.

Now comes the fun part: you insert the “plunger” into the tube and slowly press down; the air pressure forces the water through the grounds and into your coffee mug that’s (hopefully) positioned below. This produces “pure coffee” that is close to espresso in strength, and can be diluted with additional water. The process of plunging the tube also self-cleans the device, but Adler says this was simply “serendipitous.” After all, great inventions, he says, “always require a little luck.”

Alan’s new method shortened the typical wet time of other makers from 4-5 minutes to one minute. Not only that, but Adler claims his paper filters (which run $3.50 for 350, and are reusable up to twenty-five times each) reduce lipids that typically incite the body to produce LDL cholesterol (this is debated greatly in the coffee community).

[…]

The AeroPress’s “hackable” nature has led to a variety of barista-made supplementary inventions. The S-Filter, a reusable metal filter for the AeroPress, was invented by Seattle-based Keffeologie in 2012. The company, started by two coffee-loving friends, raised over $30,000 on Kickstarter with only a $500 initial goal.

Portland-based Able Brewing Equipment invented a little stopper to convert the AeroPress into an on-the-go cup. Numerous companies have also made specialized brew stations for the device.

There is also a heated debate among coffee pros as to whether brewing right side up (as intended), or upside down (inverted) is superior when it comes to taste. Some claim that the inverted method results in “total immersion brewing” like that of a French Press; others say the method is just a fancy way for baristas to distinguish themselves. Adler doesn’t think the inverted method makes any difference in taste, and says “about half” the winners of the AeroPress World Championships do it this way, and the other half don’t.

[…]

Alan Adler’s two-car garage in Los Altos, California isn’t much good for parking.

“There’s no way you can get a car in there,” says Tennant; “it’s just not going to happen.” Two large industrial tools — a lathe, and a milling machine — take up most of the room’s space; boxes of prototypes, plastic molds, and relics of foregone creations are packed into every other conceivable nook and cranny. In here, says Adler, “the inventions are born.”

A few times a year, Adler packs a small book bag and heads to his local junior high school to teach students some of the things he’s learned in this garage over the years. Most of his students have no idea who he is, but have probably tossed around an Aerobie Pro. Adler’s inventions have snaked their way into everyday use in society, and his inventing tips are prescient. He imparts five of them to his class:

1. Learn all you can about the science behind your invention.

2. Scrupulously study the existing state of your idea by looking at current products and patents.

3. Be willing to try things even if you aren’t too confident they’ll work. Sometimes you’ll get lucky.

4. Try to be objective about the value of your invention. People get carried away with the thrill of inventing and waste good money pursuing something that doesn’t work any better than what’s already out there.

5. You don’t need a patent in order to sell an invention. A patent is not a business license; it’s a permission to be the sole maker of product (even this is limited to 20 years).

But Adler possesses a sixth skill that can’t be taught: tenacity. In the face of failure, he persists with a level head. Neither the Aerobie Pro, the AeroPress, nor any of his other 17 inventions came easily. But as Adler says, “inventing is a disease and there is no known cure.”

[…]

Instead of giving up, Adler invested thousands of his own money constructing his own plastic prototypes, re-molding, and re-designing the toy. In a classic toy inventor move, he packed a small suitcase full of Slapsies and journeyed to Los Angeles to meet with the companies again. This time, Wham-O bought the rights.

[…]

But the notebooks also contain years of failure, frustration, miscalculation. At every turn, the AeroPress — like most of Adler’s other inventions — encountered innumerable roadblocks, faced skepticism, and was doubted. Like anyone who has forged new ground, Adler had a choice at each junction: throw in the towel, or return to the drawing board; he consistently chose the latter. In many ways, the AeroPress is a reflection of its inventor: it’s simple, but precise, it’s highly adaptable, and it squeezes every last drop of flavor from the bean.