O LED, O LED…, or: The visual rhetoric of ubiquity

A little more technical and granular than we generally get here, but there are a couple of things coming together at the moment that constitute what I think of as the first consumer-level flowering of the visual rhetoric of ubiquity.

Consider this lovely Stephen Fry piece from the Grauniad, discussing the phenomenological and experiential consequences of Motorola’s decision to equip their otherwise “frankly unremarkable” U9 phone with an OLED, or “organic LED,” display. Here’s the money graf:

What is new is that there is no secondary screen; the whole exterior of the phone is pure glossy violet plastic, giving no hint of display capability. The image appears to be going on somehow inside the very surface of the plastic cover. What’s more, if I close the phone while playing a track, a music player now appears – a touch-sensitive music player at that. It is as if you are looking at a perfectly ordinary spectacles case that suddenly decides to show you a television programme and allows you to change channels by touching it. What witchcraft is this?

Witchcraft, sure, or equally so, magic. What Fry’s bumped up against is nothing less than a visual instantiation of the logic of seamlessness, the urge in the design of ubiquitous systems to deny or efface the messiness of everyday life, in favor of an experience “indistinguishable from magic“; I’d argue that what we see here is a novel technical capability rising to meet a pre-existing articulation of value.

Not that I’m necessarily saying that it’s an entirely bad thing, as suspicious of the logic of seamlessness as I am. The first OLED-bearing product in our household – that I’m aware of, anyway – is the rather unbelievably pretty wireless keyboard we picked up from Apple’s new Meatpacking store last weekend, where the OLED application is simply a power-indicator light that’s invisible until switched on. Taken as a whole composition, the keyboard is utterly convincing, and while the indicator is only a small element of the design, it plays a disproportionately strong role in pushing the experience over the threshold separating “pleasurable” from “delightful.”

I have two questions, though maybe they’re really one question posed two different ways. The first is whether “ubicompy” design cues like OLEDs and frameless displays – the closest commercial approximation to which is currently the iPhone – will be anything but a momentary fashion, whether they’ll come to be seen as connoting “late oughties design” every bit as much as a Memphisian explosion of form and color marks objects designed in the early 1980s.

The other has to do with whether this sort of visual vocabulary will support the market differentiation perceived as necessary by the institutions that build these things over the longer term. Clearly, at the moment, Apple and Motorola intend unseamly designs like these to communicate something about their respective brands, and the value propositions that attend them. But it’s not at all clear to me if this is a sustainable strategy, or whether those who got here first will be forced to (cough) “innovate” past an optimized visual design in pursuit of mere distinction.

Obviously, time and the market will tell. In the meantime, I find myself surprisingly open to the language of smoothness, if and when it’s deployed anywhere near as delicately as it is on Apple’s keyboard.

14 responses to “O LED, O LED…, or: The visual rhetoric of ubiquity”

  1. Fred Blasdel says :

    I’m pretty sure your keyboard doesn’t have an OLED in it — If you look *really* closely, you’ll see that there’s a circle of *miniscule* holes machined into the aluminum that the light from a traditional LED escapes through.

  2. AG says :

    Really? Dang. Let me go take a look.

    [Ten seconds later.] Fred, if there’s drillholes there, they are certainly beneath my threshold of perception. Either that’s an OLED, or flawless precision machining at a scale I’ve never seen on a commercial product out of a Chinese factory.

  3. Timo says :

    It surprises me that seamless displays have not been more explored in the past. I remember expecting them to spread rapidly after the weird MP3 Walkmans from Sony in 2006.

    It has always been easy to place LEDs, LCDs or OLEDs underneath a smoky or masked plate of glass or plastic, to give the illusion of framelessness that devices like the U9 (and so many other recent gadgets) give. In fact it’s a trick/hack that we use to make good experience prototypes :)

    But I’m hoping for a move away from smooth, seamless devices (or at least a backlash) if for no other reason that the language doesn’t seem to open up for modification, hacking and user-serviceability.

  4. Timo says :

    If it’s the same light as the mbp, I think Fred’s right, amazingly!

  5. Chris says :

    OLEDs still look like a LED, it’s just how you hide them (harder, actually, as they have lower light levels than normal LEDs). Fred is right, it’s microperferations in the metal.

  6. AG says :

    I pronounce myself way impressed.

    (I think the point about the visual rhetoric still stands, even though I turned out to be wrong w/r/t its specific underpinnings. And my reservations definitely parallel yours.)

  7. Greg Borenstein says :

    In a talk recently podcast on IT Conversations, Mike Kuniavsky of ThingM made a very compelling argument for the use of magic as a driving metaphor for ubicomp design. Rather than the typical Clarkian emphasis on incomprehensibility, though, Kuniavsky wants ubicomp designs to bring to life the playfulness and helpfulness that “enchanted objects” possess in fantasy stories. He sees magic as “an existing metaphor for objects that sense, analyze, communicate and act” which can hence be brought to bear on this emerging technology, possibly humanizing it in the process. He says: “I do not advocate that we pretend that technology is a kind of magic, but that we use our existing cultural understanding of magic objects as an abstraction to describe the behavior of ubiquitous computing devices.”

    It’s really a humdinger of a talk.

  8. AG says :

    Greg, Mike and I have had an ongoing debate about this for something like five years now.

    I love Mike – he’s a very good friend – but we simply do not agree about this, at all. I think magic is ultimately an awful, disempowering metaphor that leads people to build bizarre mental models of their tools’ workings. My whole talk at ETech last year was dedicated to explaining why.

  9. Greg Borenstein says :

    Adam, I should have known, of course, that you’d be totally familiar with Kuniavsky’s take. Can I ask you to describe your critique of it? Or is the full text/audio of that ETech talk up somewhere? In the abstract, you definitely draw out the cultural originals of the desire for “enchanted objects,” but I could see that history playing into Kuniavsky’s argument about it being a useful existing paradigm into which to fit the design of ubicomp projects.

    Is your argument just that any mental model of an object as complex as a ubicomp gizmo that does not reference the principles under which is actually works is obfuscatory? Are you resistant to abstraction and metaphor when explaining these tools generally?

  10. AG says :

    Honestly, the best way I can answer those questions briefly is to point you at Everyware, and the extended discussion of seamlessness/seamfulness there.

    In this context, I think of magic as the ultimate in seamlessness, and while of course I’m not entirely opposed to the use of metaphor in explaining complex systems to their users, neither do I think that’s anything like the right one.

  11. Greg Borenstein says :

    That’s fair.

    After this bit of discussion today, I was thinking: what about “wonder” as an alternative to “magic”? I’m thinking of “wonder” in the Cabinet of Curiosities/Museum of Jurassic Technology pre-modern worldview sense. Wonder, in that definition, is a value that overrides the distinctions between nature and artifice.

    While it does contain a strong flavor incomprehensibility, wonder definitely doesn’t imply seamlessness. On the contrary, wonder is all seams: human horns, a mermaid made from sewing a fish to a monkey, the mythical creatures of the new world, the world’s largest gems and smallest paintings, etc. — objects, ideas, and creatures that don’t fit comfortably into existing comprehensible categories and so make us stop and marvel at them while also making us conscious of our existing frameworks for thinking.

    While I’d like to believe that design is up to the task of making the emerging world of ubicomp legible to its non-technical consumers or that the Make magazines and Instructables of the world are capable of making all the non-technical consumers into capable do-ers, deep down I really think that the people are just going to be increasingly surrounded by technology that they don’t understand. Think about the standard home wireless network today. How many people actually understand one well enough to even adequately maintain it, let alone to actually reason about it.

    Whatever metaphor (or set of interlocking metaphors) we come up with, it’s going to have to overcome or deal with this incomprehensibility in some way…

  12. AG says :

    Do you know, I have no problem at all with the sense of wonder – though I tend to think of it more as the capacity to delight, and I guess those really are two separate things.

    But to your larger point about the inevitability of being surrounded by technologies that we don’t understand, I only partly agree. I think it’s a design challenge, and I think it’s the responsibility of the designer to explain (or at least suggest) how things work.

    You’re right that we’re not all of us suddenly going to become a planet of tinkerers – but I’m pretty steadfast in insisting that we should be doing a much better job of demystifying these things. This is particularly true of the growing gap between our tools’ affordances and their perceived affordances. (“Tools and spaces,” actually.)

    So, yeah, I think we’ve got our work cut out for us. More to sink our teeth into, as designers. The prospect, it must be said, fills me with a certain glee.

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