Architectures Ancient and New

Borrowing from the 1986 song The Boy In The Bubble written by Paul Simon and Forere Mothoeloa, I declare:

These are the days of wearables and wonders.  This is my smart-phone call.  The way its camera follows me in slo-mo; staccato signals of constant information, a loose affiliation of millionaires and billionaires and baby, don’t cry, don’t cry.

These seeming fragments are quite real.  So real, for those who have a stake in them; the corporations, mobile App developers, thought leaders, entrepreneurs and least of all, those global consumers for whom the Economics of wearables depends, fragmentation is perceived to be the central hurdle, most especially in the realm of Data and Digital Health.
In Barcelona, from February 24-27, 2014 The Mobile World Congress will convene and its attendees will take on many of the perceived opportunities and issues presented by the worldwide adoption and use of mobile-based products.  The event’s organizers assert that Mobile is a catalyst of change and innovation. Mobile is creating the next connected device that transforms communication. Advancing the next payment system that alters commerce. Launching the next must-have app that changes how we interact.”

Among these catalysts, changes, innovations and transformations are concepts like connected living, data analytics, developing markets, intelligent networks, identity and privacy, network economics and optimization. Each of them will be a focus of discussion, debate and dissection in Barcelona.  But most compelling is an afternoon session scheduled on the last day of The Mobile World Congress: “Redefining Reality with Screens, Storage & Wearables.”

While compelling, the session is also provocative and presumptuous.  A sojourn to Barcelona is in fact, not a prerequisite for asking these fundamental questions:  Whose reality will be redefined?  What values will be present in such re-engineering? How will our relationship with our augmented bodies redefine our expectations of Self?

Not long after smart-phones were introduced, I sought to redefine my own reality by first recognizing the implicit design limits of smart-phones.  Their basic physicality; viewed as a function of my biology, was an instance of the classic [and much discussed] tension of form versus function.

Since my first prosthetic fitting at the pioneering Rusk Institute of Rehabilitation Medicine in New York City, I have spent most of my life maneuvering objects, tools and tangible space with a prosthetic arm.  Those daily negotiations are, to some degree, self-imposed.  It is my choice to augment my body with a device as ancient as the Egyptians.

Some decline prostheses for the very reasons some consumers decline to purchase smart-phones. Neither is essential to one’s life.  Cost is another factor.  There is lack of demand by some would-be consumers owing to perceptions of value, need and usefulness.   Also, the requisite learning unique to the mechanics and use of both, respectively, hinder their purchase and adoption.

Viewed categorically, prosthetics and smart-phones occupy a place among the disparate; cached among the fragmentation of data and among the Internet of things.   Their convergence, as I first became conscious of it, was an opportunity to imagine a re-purposing; to lay claim to an embodiment of  a 21st Century Self.   Critical however, was first acknowledging the limitations of prosthetics and smart-phones when viewed as separate entities.

To associate smart-phones with ‘limitations’ runs counter to their current and ever-growing predicted global demand, profit-schemas, cultural and societal prevalence and marketing.   
Such is the primary and unconscious native prejudice of a two-handed marketplace!

The most expedient explanation of smart-phone ‘limitations’ relies on the verbiage used during their initial consumer introduction: Handhelds.  As a matter of design, holding the device of one’s choosing in one’s hand and manipulating its interface is the universal starting place.  Having another hand to anchor or stabilize the hand-held / smart-phone; while optional, is the overwhelming default among users.

Their limits then, as viewed from a one-handed perspective, are quite obvious.  Layered upon this ‘scarcity’ of the body,  are our Mobile lives; often requiring us to hold our mobile devices in one hand and perform a whole range of tasks with the presumed ‘other’ hand.

Re-purposing technology is sometimes pursued collaboratively.  In my case, it was a requirement of breathing life into my vision of creating a hands-free smart-phone —a wearable computer relevant not just as a solution to the problem of scarcity but a design transferable to many different Mobile contexts and users.

A complete re-making of my prosthetic platform was prefaced by a design-based conversation with Dr. Stephan Manucharian, Clinical Director at Othopedic Arts in New York City.  Customization is never negotiated in the fabrication of prosthetics or orthotics.  It is the de facto standard. 

While a one-size-fits-all approach is never a part of the manufacturing process [as it is in many other manufacturing environments] there are certain mechanistic and design features which are viewed as ‘standard.’  The socket, for example [pictured] is usually rounded, not flattened.

All designs, as part of their chronology from idea to their practical application, their usability, require testing.   Some refer to this as “proof of concept.”  Nearly three years have elapsed since I began my wearable trajectory; since taking on a relationship with what is both ancient and new.

Taking my discoveries to scale will require additional collaborations; perhaps most importantly, where self-powered mobile devices are concerned.  Indeed, powering our mobile-enhanced lives is fundamental to our re-engineering.  I view it as an especially exciting aspect of my 21st Century embodiment.

“Wearable technology.  It’s an exploding product category in desperate need of a category-defining product,” began Jon Phillips in his PC World piece titled: Wearable Tech at CES 2014: Prepare your body parts for an onslaught of options.

Wearables require a category-defining product?   My re-defined reality is brimming with categorical evidence.  Its embodiment is already here.  And much of the data favors Digital Health.

I welcome these days of wearables and wonders.

This is my smart-phone call.