Technology being everyday more pervasive, the quantity of interfaces and data we are confronted with is increasingly overwhelming. The way MIT's Media Lab's David Rose puts it, we live in a "cacophonous environment".
Rose, an accomplished designer, serial inventor and entrepreneur, published in 2014 the book Enchanted Objects, in which he proposes a direction that design may take to address that problem. He envisions a world populated by mundane objects, enhanced with a blend of Internet of Things and artificial intelligence, and, most importantly, sprinkled with a touch of magic.
In other words, Enchanted Objects is an exploration in how pervasive computing can become part of our daily lives by redistributing some of the useful things digital technology can do for us, and embedding them into the ordinary artefacts that already surround us.
Rose mentions several examples of this concept that either he or other designers conceived in the last few years. An umbrella that blinks to inform that it’s likely going to rain, and it would be wise to take it when going out. A coffee table, inhabited by Google Maps, that animates living room discussions and lets all the family look up places as they are mentioned on TV. A wearable camera that relentlessly takes a picture every thirty seconds, and produces a life-photo-stream that can be mined for trends, habits and exceptions. A smart pill container, offering gentle nudges and reminders, in the form of light and sound, which have been shown to improve patient adherence to therapy.
Animated by a genuinely infectious enthusiasm, Rose openly declares his intention to be humanistic and bring about unobtrusively helpful technology.
Healthcare is just that, a complex interplay of the scientific and the humanistic, expressed through products and services that very concretely reach into people’s daily lives. The perspective of using all the help that advancements in technology can provide, and at the same time leave our environments less complicated than before, rather than more, is therefore a very promising one.
It’s not hard to imagine ways in which these products can help people become better patients, physicians make better decisions, and hospitals be more efficient.
However some obvious caveats and cautionary tales should accompany pervasive technologies, and therefore Enchant Objects, like a Patient Information Leaflet does a box of pills.
Every good designer sympathizes with the desire to make technology more pleasant and helpful. But whenever a trashcan learns about what a family consumes, or a camera captures everything an individual does and sees, enabling companies to market to each based on that information, there are obvious risks involved. Recording large quantities of personal information and uploading it to social networks, or sending it to a cloud based service for processing, poses serious questions of privacy. Marketing based on that information has a dubious ethical standing. And networked personal medical devices can be hacked.
These considerations are extremely important when designing all connected products, but even more so for those carrying medical data.
A secondary risk waiting to ruin the promise of Enchanted Objects is the one of succumbing to novelty-push. By that I mean the tendency of designers to get so enthralled with the new possibilities to overshoot the mark and forget everything they know about designing for real value. The new paradigm then starts popping out everywhere, even when it is not necessary or just plain inappropriate. This is a historically well-established pitfall, as exemplified by the plethora of inventive wastes-of-space peddled on television’s late night shopping channels.
While David Rose's own examples are generally sensible, it's not hard to imagine a stream of novelty gadgets coming up on the market in the wake of a misunderstood idea of what enchanted objects can be.
What the above caveats mean for healthcare, a field of application arguably more sensitive than most, is that we will need the help of designers that are not just designers of sleekness, but are aware of the social and psychological implications of their work.
While authors like Rose fulfil the role of explorers and open and point to new possibilities, the job of the majority of designers is rather to materialise those possibilities in ways that are both useful and safe. In order to do this they will have to work closely with technology and security experts and design operating paradigms that preserve users' freedoms and privacy. Within these paradigms in place, they can then go to work, and infuse products with seamless distributed intelligence that matters.