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Original author: 
Sean Hollister


Three months ago, celebrated video game publisher Valve did something completely out of character: it fired up to 25 workers, in what one employee dubbed the "great cleansing." At the time, co-founder Gabe Newell quickly reassured gamers that the company wouldn't be canceling any projects, but it just so happens that one project managed to get away.

Valve was secretly working on a pair of augmented reality glasses... and those glasses are still being built by two Valve employees who lost their jobs that day.

"This is what I'm going to build come hell or high water."

Former Valve hardware engineer Jeri Ellsworth and programmer Rick Johnson spent over a year working on the project at Valve, and have been putting in six days a week, 16+...

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Augmented reality for mobile devices has grown in popularity in recent years partly because of the proliferation of smart phones and tablet computers equipped with exceptional cameras and partly because of developments in computer vision algorithms that make implementing such technologies on embedded systems possible.

Said augmented reality applications have always been limited to a single user receiving additional information about a physical entity or interacting with a virtual agent. Researchers at MIT’s Media Lab have taken augmented reality to the next level by developing a multi-user collaboration tool that allows users to augment reality and share that we other users essentially turning the real world into a digital canvas for all to share.

The Second Surface project as it is known is described as,

…a novel multi-user Augmented reality system that fosters a real-time interaction for user-generated contents on top of the physical environment. This interaction takes place in the physical surroundings of everyday objects such as trees or houses. The system allows users to place three dimensional drawings, texts, and photos relative to such objects and share this expression with any other person who uses the same software at the same spot.

If you still have difficulty understanding how this works and why I believe when made available to the general masses it will be a game changing technology for augmented reality and mobile devices, check out the following explanatory video.

Now, imagine combining this technology with Google Glass and free-form gesture recognition. How awesome would that be?


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An investigative commission called the meltdown at Fukushima an entirely preventable “manmade” disaster, and the media blew up. Any editor or reporter worth his salt in sensationalist muckraking, after all, knows nuclear disaster stories get eyeballs. The story goes: this was good ol’ fashioned regulatory capture, the fox watching the hen house. A failure of government, a case of brazen recklessness from the nuclear industry—this was no freak fluke of nature. This was a disaster that could have been avoided altogether. This catastrophe was man-made.

Which, obviously …

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Aurich Lawson

In 1999 a pair of researchers published a paper called "Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One's Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments (PDF)." David Dunning and Justin Kruger (both at Cornell University's Department of Psychology at the time) conducted a series of four studies showing that, in certain cases, people who are very bad at something think they are actually pretty good. They showed that to assess your own expertise at something, you need to have a certain amount of expertise already.

Remember the 2008 election campaign? The financial markets were going crazy, and banks that were "too big to fail" were bailed out by the government. Smug EU officials proclaimed that all was well within the EU—even while they were bailing out a number of financial institutions. Fast forward to 2012, and the EU is looking at hard times. Greece can't pay its debt. Italy can, but the markets don't trust it to be able to. Spain and Portugal are teetering around like toddlers just waiting for the market to give them one good push. Members of the public are behaving like teenagers, screaming "F**k you," while flipping the bird. The markets are reacting like drunk parents, and the resulting bruises are going to take a while to heal.

In all of this, uninformed idiots blame the Greeks for being lazy, the Germans for being too strict, and everyone but themselves. Newspapers, blogs, and television are filled with wise commentary hailing the return of the gold standard, the breakup of the Euro, or any number of sensible and not-so-sensible ideas. How are we to parse all this information? Do any of these people know what they are talking about? And if anyone does, how can we know which ones to listen to? The research of Dunning and Kruger may well tell us there is no way to figure out the answers to any of these questions. That is kind of scary.

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Sometimes it’s very easy to get wrapped up in our own lives and when that happens a bit of perspective is needed – and all the better if that perspective looks as good as this. This video by Globaïa for the environmental Anthropocene project shows every road, flight path and shipping route in the world and as you might expect it’s utterly awesome. Not only is it a gobsmacking bit of infographics, it’s also a reminder of the physical ways in which us humans negotiate the time and space that separate us via the arteries that make the world manageable.

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Plastics live forever. Well, that’s not quite true, but a plastic ring or piece of garbage can last for hundreds of years before biodegrading. And much of that plastic ends up in the oceans, where by one estimate there is now more than 300 billion lbs. of plastic waste floating in the water.

Because plastic is so indestructible, it poses a unique threat to marine life. Turtles and fish, dolphins and seabirds can swallow plastic pieces, choking on the garbage. So much plastic has accumulated in the ocean that you can find a Texas-sized patch of the stuff in the North Pacific, concentrated by sea currents. It would take years to clean it all up—and instead, we’re just adding to it every day.

In her photo exhibition Soup, the British photographer Mandy Barker documents plastic debris that’s been salvaged from the sea, transforming marine detritus into the stuff of art. She began working on the project after reading about the Pacific Garbage Patch on the Internet, and started noticing all the trash that would wash up along the beach. “It seems there was more debris, and especially plastic, than there were natural objects,” says Barker. “I wanted to find out why that was.”

Barker received bits of plastics and other trash from beaches around the world, and the result is a kind of collage of the waste we put into the oceans. The photos themselves are beautiful, the plastic bits artfully arranged and shot against a black background. For all their artificiality, they remind me of the images brought back by submarines of weird undersea life, coated in unnatural colors and strange shapes. “I’ve received actual plastic fished out of the sea from a container ship off Alaska,” says Barker. “I was constantly shocked by what I was seeing.”

Barker hopes that her work gives her audience pause as they consider just where their toothbrushes and disposable razors and others shards of the plastic life end up. “Maybe people will think twice before they throw these things away,” she says. We may celebrate Earth Day on April 22, but the oceans—which do cover two thirds of the planet—deserve our protection every day.

Mandy Barker is a British photographer. More of her work can be seen here.

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An IBM Global CEO Study conducted in 2010 concluded that complexity was the primary challenge emerging out of its conversations with 1,500 CEOs and senior government officials.  “CEOs told us they operate in a world that is substantially more volatile, uncertain and complex.  Many shared the view that incremental changes are no longer sufficient in a world that is operating in fundamentally different ways.”

These same CEOs cited creativity as the most important leadership quality they look for over the next five years.  “CEOs now realize that creativity trumps other leadership characteristics.  Creative leaders are comfortable with ambiguity and experimentation.  To connect with and inspire a new generation, they lead and interact in entirely new ways.”

Over the past several years, we have seen a rising emphasis on design, creativity and holistic thinking in business to help us deal with an increasingly volatile, unpredictable complex world.  This is reflected not just in studies and articles, but in the growing number of design consulting firms like IDEO, as well as of design centers in universities, such as MIT’s Media Lab and the in Stanford.

Business is supposed to be all about applying hard, that is, quantitative, analytical approaches to management.  What then do we mean by bringing seemingly soft topics like design and creativity to business and why is it so important in today’s world?

Analytical approaches work well when you have a pretty good understanding of the product you are developing or when you are dealing with a well defined problem.  But, they do not work so well when dealing with highly complex systems with fast changing, interacting components, where it is much less clear what is going on in the present, let alone how things will evolve into the future.  We need different principles and processes to address this class of highly complex problems, many based on disruptive innovations which we have not encountered before.  This is where we need to turn to holistic thinking to pull together everything we know about the problem, and to creativity to try to make sense of what is going on and come up with a working, satisfying solution.  This is where we enter the world of design.

Design principles are particularly applicable to problems that are socio-technical in nature, that is, they involve people and technology, having to deal both with complex technical, business and societal infrastructures and human behaviors.  They are critical for dealing with the Grand Challenge problems we are facing in the 21st century, including health care, urbanization, education, energy, finance, and job creation.

What do we mean by applying design principles to complex, unpredictable, people oriented systems and problems?  Let me discuss three such principles based on my personal experiences.  The first is flexibility and adaptability.  If you look at complex systems as a kind of spectrum, with natural biological systems–e.g., living organisms, ecosystems and evolution-at one end and physically engineered systems–e.g., bridges, airplanes and microprocessors–at the other, socio-technical systems fall someplace in between.

While such systems,–e.g., the World Wide Web; a city’s congestion management system; an infrastructure for mobile, digital payments; a health portal for treating people with diabetes–are clearly engineered, that is, designed, built and managed by people, they share many characteristics with biological systems, in particular, the need to be flexible and adaptable so they can evolve into the future as technology and market requirements change.

This is easier said than done.  There is a continuing struggle between complexity and robustness in both evolution and human design.  A kind of survival imperative, whether in biology or engineering, requires that simple, fragile systems become more robust, that is, be able to continue operating under lots of different conditions, including the failures of individual components.  But the mechanisms to increase robustness will in turn make the system considerably more complex.  Furthermore, that additional complexity brings with it its own unanticipated failure modes, which are corrected over time with additional robust mechanisms, which then further add to the complexity of the system, and so on.  This balancing act between complexity and robustness is never done.

Critical to designing flexible, adaptable complex systems is the use of platforms based on open standards, as well as an extensive industry ecosystem to generate complementary products and services.  This results in a much greater potential for innovation, growth and robustness than could be generated by a single product from a single company.

Quality of experience is the second major design principle I’d like to discuss.  The industrial sector of the economy is oriented toward the production of physical goods.  Product excellence and competitive costs are its key design objectives.  Much of industrial oriented R&D is thus focused on innovations in development, testing and manufacturing that will result in products with increased performance, efficiency and quality.

But socio-technical systems are oriented toward people and services.  While product excellence and competitive costs are also important to services, they are not enough.  The service sector is oriented toward consumption, that is, toward people, who are the consumers of services.  Therefore, an overriding design objective for good socio-technical, service oriented systems has to be a positive user experience.  Ease of use, intuitive interfaces and good overall customer service must be key objectives for a well designed system.

While advances in technology are now enabling us to bring major innovations to services, most of the really hard issues are not technical at all.  They are human.  A well designed, well engineered, and well managed service system must be primarily centered and optimized around people, whether we are talking about a patient in a healthcare system, a customer of a business, or a citizen dealing with the government.

Most industrial R&D takes place in labs and factories, but that does not work for services.  The bulk of research and innovation in services has to take place in the marketplace, where the people who consume the services are.  The marketplace is truly the research lab for innovation in services, the place where new service ideas have to be developed, prototyped and tested.

Finally, let me talk about the central role of marketing and communications as a design principle, arguably the least understood such principle.  To succeed in the marketplace, it is not enough to have a flexible, adaptable system along with offering a high quality user experience.  These are necessary, but not sufficient.  You must also have a well formulated market strategy–that is, a strategy for succeeding in the marketplace–that explains what you are after in the most compelling way possible, as well as an effective communications strategy to get your messages out to all key stakeholders.

This is particularly important when trying to communicate something new, complex and potentially disruptive, which your audience–including clients, employees, partners, press,  and analysts–has not seen before, which they don’t understand, and whose value will take a while to fully play out.  An example I was personally involved with the formulation of IBM’s e-business strategy in the mid 1990s, while the Internet and World Wide Web where still in their relatively shaky early years.

You have to engage your audience in a conversation about the future you are after.  You have to gain their trust by clearly telling them what’s in your mind, your aspirations, your questions, your doubts, your frustrations, what you know and what you don’t know.  You need them to come along with you for the ride and essentially help you deploy your strategy in the marketplace by becoming early adopters, partners and evangelists.  The more powerful, important and complex the messages you are trying to convey, the more important it is to do so by telling a compelling but simple story that resonates emotionally with your audience.

Advances in technology–faster, more powerful, less expensive–are concrete and visible.  Design is subtle, more subjective, more open to human interpretation.  But, as our increasingly advanced technologies enable us to build larger, more capable, more complex systems, the role of design becomes ever more important.  It is the only way to ensure that our technologies will help us deal with our increasingly hectic lives.

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