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Blush: Designing a Social Wearable

Noah Feehan (New York Times R&D Lab)
Location: Fleet Room
Slides:   1-ZIP 

I’ll start with an overview of what I built:

  • “Curriculum,” a framework that analyzes the semantic content of the webpages that I and my research group browse while at work. I’ll briefly describe the technical implementation, but I’m really focusing on the social and cultural impact of the work.
  • “Blush,” a prototype wearable that actively listens to all my conversations and glows when the conversation involves a topic that is in my group’s Curriculum.

The bulk of the talk will examine aspects of my work that engage more broadly with the state of the art of wearable devices and social postures towards technological interventions – a rough outline of topics to cover follows:

Curriculum and the future of work:

  • What it means to live with an ambient feed of what your colleagues are researching/learning. A strange intimacy that comes from knowing this type of information without having to ask for it.
  • Measure of density/pacing of pageviews – even a rough number of unique pages visited in a day can vary wildly. Interesting to look at this as a characterization of the “work mode” we’re in at the moment.
  • Surveillance tradeoffs – Workplace monitoring is a given, and there are large range of available strategies between full-on Big Brother corporate firewalls and screen recording to Wild-West, freelancer attitude.
  • Curriculum as an approach to monitoring in the workplace that adds value to the fact that we’re being monitored.
  • Reflections on the implementation: how Curriculum proved immediately useful to us, a small research group, in keeping current with what we’re all working on. Just as importantly, Curriculum also became a great way to start discussions both formal and casual. (PS, it also makes for a great game of Pictionary)

The concept of a “social” wearable:

  • First generation of wearables are almost exclusively for data capture; very little social engagement. Most successful wearables in this category actively hide from public display; their design and their interfaces are an apology for not being truly invisible/weightless/omniscient.
  • Social wearables, on the other hand, actively engage with the wearer as well as others. Blush is specifically designed to augment the wearer’s conversations by including a remote source of information only when it is relevant to do so. What other aspects of social interactions might be augmented, punctuated, or expanded by a wearable technology?
  • With this strategy (wearables that engage with the world around them), what design principles can we employ to make sure that the interactions add value, respect privacy, and generally don’t bug us?
  • Reflections on the implementation: when Blush activates, how do you and your counterpart feel? Are we “finally getting to something interesting,” or should we change the subject so you and I are “on the same page?” Are there situations where you or I could be embarrassed by it? How does it feel to wear something so intimately connected to my group’s work?
Photo of Noah Feehan

Noah Feehan

New York Times R&D Lab

Noah Feehan is Maker at the New York Times R&D Lab, which means he designs and implements all manner of solutions in hardware, software, and spaces in between.
Before joining the Lab, Noah did many things, including helping design performance interfaces for Björk, kitting out a Fab Lab at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, and working on UX and product strategy at various startups. He makes art and performances under the name AKA MEDIA SYSTEM, and has a degree in Video/New Media Art from Harvard and a Master’s from the Hyperinstruments Group at the MIT Media Lab.