Saturday, February 23, 2008


One of the blogs that I read, Yankodesign, often posts about designer concepts rather than actual products. Sometimes it makes you wonder what the concepts are for. Too often you see the un-innovative and plain lazy "fusion" concepts, where you take two seemingly unrelated things (like an MP3 player and a hairdryer) and combine them. Design/steal a shape for your "new concept", use a 3D-software to render pretty pictures of this thing and Bob's your uncle. You probably will get your study credits and 15 seconds of blog fame, but that's it. The problem is, although it is new, it is probably useless.

There are a number of reasons why some products don't yet exist. They might be unnecessary or plain stupid. Not everything needs an integrated MP3 player or videoscreen. Hairdryers, shoehorns and soup bowls do fine without them. Not everything needs to be called iThis or iThat. Not everything needs to be white and green or round and translucent. In short, these concepts are often trying to solve problems that don't exist; they are asking the wrong questions.

Then there are the tweaks: teeny-tiny alterations to everyday objects like plates or chairs, meant to add or enhance some part of their functionality. Unfortunately often sacrificing the original functionality.

Sometimes, however, a concept comes up that shows exactly the opposite: a new purpose, new functions. This mobile internet search device is one great example. Anthony James of Yankodesign calls it "the Looking Glass". It's a great name and I like it because it's a great concept of what could be. It's not about mimicking a trendy line of products, it's not spinning cliché design vocabulary. It's a great example of innovative design because the looks of the product are irrelevant. Actually, it's not so much a concept of a product, it's a concept of a platform, or an interface.

It is an internet tablet, combined with a camera, WiFi internet and a number of other components. The idea is that you look at the world through this and it displays you information about what you see, based on what it finds in the net about it. Point to a monument, the camera takes a snapshot of it, GPS locates it, the picture is analysed, compared to the info on the web and then relevant information from wikipedia and elsewhere is displayed. Point it to a restaurant, it could display the menu and let make a reservation. Point it to an office and it will find you contact details to the company. Point it to text and it tells you where the text is from, which typeface was used and what colour. Etc. The possibilities are absolutely endless. Try it yourself: how many uses can you come up with in a minute?

What would it take to build one of these? How far in the future is this concept? The designer Mac Funamizu sees this in the NEAR future, and hardware-wise it is not that far. I'm actually more interested in the software-side. According to many commentators in the designer's site, many big companies are working on similar concepts already. The information integration that would be needed for this thing to work is what the so-called semantic searches and ontology projects are trying to do. Or, what the web 3.0 will be about, to use web 2.0 terminology. While developing better search engines is of course a task noble enough to drive innovation, research and business ventures on the field, these kinds of products are needed to capture the imagination of people and to give these products clear and inspiring aims and applications.

That is what great concepts are about.

(Pic: petitinvention)

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