How will robots change our lives . . . for better or worse? Ask Carla Diana. She’s the expert. A hybrid designer, she is focused on realizing “new visions for smart objects and the Internet of Things.” In her studio she works on future-specting projects in areas such as domestic robots, wearable devices and sentient kitchen appliances, combining experience in industrial and interaction design to create solutions that bridge the gap between the physical and the digital. Diana projects a soft-spoken intelligence that will sweep you off your feet. She has had long-standing working relationship with the product innovation firm Smart Design and has received the honor of being named the firm’s first Smart Fellow. In this role, she oversaw the Smart Interaction Lab, an initiative focused on design explorations in the form of tinkering and hands-on experimentation around topics such as expressive objects, digital making, and presence and awareness. She was also Advisor for the group Tomorrow-Lab, a young design firm that creates electro-mechanical solutions for smart devices. Recently she was appointed to create the 4D Design program at the Cranbrook Academy of Art, serving as its first Designer in Residence; it will begin accepting students in Fall 2019. I asked her how robotics has changed her life and how it will impact her students.
Poli mobile robot platform, UT Austin Socially Intelligent Machines Lab Carla was the creative lead on designing an expressive exterior for Poli, a multi purpose robot that can be trained to navigate spaces and fetch, deliver and manipulate objects.
How did technology and particularly robotics enter your life?
I think it all started when I was in high school and took part in a summer program that was run by a professor at NYU’s Courant Institute. His name was Henry Mullish and he was awarded a grant to teach computer programming to tenth graders. We started by learning how to encode punch cards and worked our way up to learning the syntax for five different computer languages, along with complex techniques such as sorting algorithms. I spent six weeks of that summer in a windowless basement surrounded by geeky kids like me and I loved every minute of it. To this day, I think that excitement for the wonder of coding is something that I’ve brought with me in everything I do.
Robotics entered my life quite a few years later when I was teaching at Georgia Tech in 2007. A professor named Andrea Thomaz was building a research lab to study how we might interact with computing devices in a natural way, using gesture and language instead of having to content with intermediary tools such as a mouse and a keyboard. She understood the importance of design and was looking for a creative partner to be part of the core team for a new robotics platform she was developing to study robot social interactions. My work was squarely focused on physical things that had dynamic, programmed behaviors, so I jumped at the chance to join her team. The result was a robot named Simon that laid the groundwork for important research in human-machine interaction, and we have continued to work together on many robot projects over the past ten years
LoSai Clever Coat Rack, gathers live weather data from the web and displays the high, low, current temperatures and conditions at the precise time and place when you need it. Carla Diana studio, 2017
You are a designer and an educator, how do the two intersect?
My teaching and my practice as a designer are quite closely intertwined. While I have a great deal of respect for the history of important design work that has come before us, I am also a big believer that design education should also be informed by what’s currently happening in the real world. Some of my best teaching moments happen when I’m in the thick of a particularly challenging project and can share that experience and excitement with my students. At the same time, it’s invigorating to inspire students with the spark of an idea and then see how they take it in many different directions. The fresh concepts and varied perspectives allow me to keep my thinking broad, so there is a sense in which the two activities feed one another.
What have you been doing for the past five years?
A little over five years ago I left my role at the innovation firm Smart Design to branch out on my own and build the creative technology studio I’ve always dreamed of. Since that time I have been designing physical things that have electronic behaviors, always focused on how those things interact in human ways. I’ve been the creative lead for three large robot projects and my clients have ranged from startups developing housewares to established companies developing kids toys. I also created LEO the Maker Prince, the world’s first kids book about 3D printing, with printable objects that live on the cloud and can be downloaded and printed by readers. I’ve taken what I’ve learned through these projects to the classroom, developing and teaching a series of courses around designing smart objects. The first Smart Objects course was launched at SVA and was jointly run in the MFA Interaction and Products of Design programs, where students worked in teams, complementing one another’s expertise and skill sets. I also brought it to UPenn’s Integrated Product Design program and introduced it at Parsons School of Design.
You are starting a new program at Cranbrook. You call it 4D design. What is that fourth D?
Great question! The fourth D is time! The program is focused on exploring critical questions about the world around us through creative applications of emerging technology. It includes everything from augmented reality to applied robotics and 3D printing, and the essence of it is around products and experiences that are responsive. The common thread is that all of these things will have the ability to change over time through intrinsic behaviors such as light patterns, sound, motion and other dynamic displays
Expressive Robot DIY Kit for Sónar+D Festival, 2017
How do you foresee this program as changing or transforming the design practice and experience?
What’s exciting about the 4D Design program is the chance to define a hybrid design practice
where the creative and the technical hold equal weight. It encourages a holistic look at dynamic design elements as well as a focus on overall context in terms of place, time and overall ergonomics. Rather than having designers relegated to what my colleagues and I at Smart used to call the “black rectangle” (designing only what will appear on a screen and not considering the other aspects), we are finally at a place and time where the value of thinking about how spaces and objects can be imbued with data and interact with people is more clearly recognized.
What do you think will be required to train a new generation of 4Ders?
This new generation of 4D Designers will need to be adept at envisioning possible future experiences, so they will learn techniques such as scenario storyboarding, video illustration, and body-storming or play acting to get a sense of how elements unfold over time. The will need to know how to look at today’s academic research and extrapolate how it might be incorporated into everyday life in the future. In addition they will need to become comfortable with code, and adept at working with electronics prototyping platforms such as Arduino and Raspberry PI. Above all, they will need to be nimble in leveraging resources such as open source software and collaborative learning tools so that they can work with the constantly moving target of technology.
How much of this is science fact and fiction, or are the two really the same?
I’m a believer that science fiction leads the way in that it gives us a collective vision of what’s possible. That vision becomes cemented in the minds of researchers and entrepreneurs and becomes an anchor for things to come, so that the fiction inevitably becomes fact. Science fiction also serves an important role in letting us test out how future technologies might impact culture and society, providing both hopeful optimism as well as cautionary tales about how it all might affect us. Science fiction author Bruce Sterling is on board as one of the 4D Design program’s Catalysts, a collection of inspirational professionals who will visit students to provide inspirations and lay challenges to pursue. Science fiction is an important tool for exploration through storytelling.
Electronics Medicine Delivery Device, a vision for future application of low cost printed electronics that could deliver personalized and precise doses through a wearable device. Team: Smart Interaction Lab and PARC, a Xerox Company, 2014
People like me, who grew up with the Jetsons and Robbie the Robot, have a certain robotic stereotype. What is the reality? Must there be a human quality for a robot to be a robot?
From my work with clients currently developing robots as commercial products it’s clear that we are getting close to housekeeper robots like the Jetson’s Rosie becoming a reality. These products can scope out a room, find the mess, clean it up and then figure out where to go next. A key difference, however, is that fiction has always had an exaggerated reliance on the humanoid form as a necessary aspect of being a robot, and today’s products are much more abstract. I don’t believe there needs to be a human form for a robot to be a robot, but there does need to be the human quality of social ability. In other words, a robot needs to be able to communicate with us in order to really perform its job in executing the tasks that we we need it to do, and that communication needs to be in what I call “human-ese”. This may take the form of a simple light indicator that lets us know the robot’s status, or may be more complex, like some of the conversational interfaces that we’re seeing with agents such as Siri and Alexa. In my studio I’m particularly excited about the opportunity to discover what these abstracted languages are and how we as designers can integrate them into the objects we use in everyday life.
Orpheus Fountain at Cranbrook Art Museum, Carl Miller 1938 This is one of a large collection of sculptures that are peppered throughout Cranbrook’s 318 acre campus in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan
How will your program disrupt the stereotypes?
There’s this notion of the technologist as a nerd who can’t communicate well or socialize, and I’m excited to show the world how one dimensional that idea is because 4D Designers will enjoy geeking out and “talking shop” but will also maintain an awareness of how technology is changing society and affecting how we interact with one another. Then there is this other stereotype about the designer or artist who is purely interested in the surface, thinking about materials or colors as if they are the shell around a black box, and 4D Designers will demonstrate that a holistic point of view means understanding an object or space from both inside and out, considering not only the hardware that makes and experience possible but the nature of the data that will flow through an object or environment to affect how it behaves.
In your mind’s eye, what do you see emerging from your future 4D students?
I see two types of work emerging: the exploratory and the speculative. I will coach students to explore concepts through physically prototyped experiences such as a robotic garden that tends itself and perhaps adjusts its yield to match dietary needs over time. Other student work may be driven by questions that require envisioning possible futures in a more speculative way, such as a controversial video of a robot designed to serve the emotional needs of people in hospitals. My mantra for prospective students is this: Ask questions, poke holes, and try the future on for size.
Can you foresee a robot taking your classes?
Not really! I don’t think robots take classes so much as they are given them. I was also drawn to Cranbrook because the curriculum in structured in such a way that there are no traditional classes, but rather a curation of pedagogical experiences. I’m hoping that the exploratory nature of the 4D Design program will keep the robots away for now, at least.