Crafting our Digital Future

As part of V&A Digital Design Weekend 2015

Writing And Designing The Future

Pepe Flores

The Beginning

Sunday, June 21. 4:34 am I wake up, mildly disoriented. I’ve been sleeping on a row of padded bins; my pillow is the briefcase I keep my computer in. My back hurts. I sit upright. The scene around me is similar: bodies defeated by fatigue. People sleeping on the floor, in chairs, wherever they can. Only one is seated in front of his laptop, focused, unblinking, while the others rest to re-energize.

I approach the survivor. He’s programming a video game. He tells me that the techies on his team had stumbled into an insurmountable bug and given up. But not him. He’s still at it. That’s how you experience Digital Futures: sleepless, against the clock. At seven in the morning – when the others start to wake and return to their workstations – he succumbs to exhaustion. At least he’s got the game far enough along for his companions to resume it and finish the prototype on time.

I’ve been in the Centro de Cultura Digital (Digital Culture Centre) since Saturday, although the marathon session started on Friday night. When I arrive, the work teams are already organized and the ideas are flowing. A few people at one table are outlining some glasses that will produce lucid dreams; at another, they’re designing a video game with a gender perspective. Nearby, others are thinking up a proximity alarm that would prevent people from injuring themselves on the subway; in the back, they’re concocting an application for personalized trips around Mexico City.

Digital Futures is a unique hackathon that brings together three creative communities: video game creators, makers, and dataists. Although the gamers are the majority, there are also designers, illustrators, and musicians. This is an opportunity to play with hardware, to invent things. Someone requests an Arduino board; another prints a piece in 3D. It’s a hackathon of ideas transformed into objects and of objects transformed into intentions, into proposals. Into futures.

The Projects

On Sunday, at 5pm, the participants are called to the stage. There’s no time left to add functions or polish details. The presentations are about to begin, and they’ll have to represent themselves with what they’ve achieved so far. Each team has a few minutes to introduce its idea and show its prototype. Amid nerves and laughter, they make their way down the plank before leaping into the void.

A dozen projects remain at the end of the work sessions. Of those, some were developed only up to a certain stage, and others are still limited to the conceptual phase, with a prototype that depends on the audience’s imagination. For example, one enthusiastic young man presented Light Shot, the model for a bullet train to travel around the capital – futuristic and fantastic, but impossible to apply. Another similar case is that of an augmented reality project dedicated to promoting the conservation of pre-Hispanic cultures. Good ideas, certainly, but mired in one of hackathons’ endemic ills: proposing far-fetched concepts without heeding what’s viable. Without at least a basic prototype, only illusions prevail.

Other teams decide to focus on what they know how to do. For example, a group of video game developers presents Super Dog Squad International, a collaborative video game centered on some dogs that have to combat an invasion of meat cuts. I remember passing by their worktable the day before and wondering what the purpose of the project could be. ‘There isn’t one,’ they responded lightly. ‘It’s meant to be fun; it doesn’t have a social objective. It’s totally playful.’ Not having a declaration of principles is also a declaration of principles. Another video game presented is Proyecto Recicla (Project Recycle), which seeks to promote a culture of recycling among children. The dynamic is simple but addictive: to separate the trash (paper, plastic, or organic waste) into the appropriate container and thus keep the Trash Monster from winning. The straightforward design is ideal for a mobile game. A seed for a social project that could grow if it ultimately takes itself more seriously.

Don’t Touch Me emerges in this vein. The under-slept guy comes onstage – the one who spent all night in the trenches. I’m pleased to see that he’s advanced his mission. A video game (yet another one!) appears on the screen with a very simple narrative: the main character moves through a passageway in which he has to avoid obstacles and recover items. The subject is the fight against bullying in school: the obstacles he has to overcome are bullies, and at the same time he has to rescue victims of their abuse.

I was able to sit and chat with them in the project’s early phase. Curiously, the idea to focus on bullying doesn’t have a personal backstory, despite the fact that it’s a common problem in Mexican classrooms; rather, it was an idea that occurred to one of the members. In addition, the team developed a specific musical score for the game, lending it yet another layer of experience. At one point in the development process, they showed me the previous version of another game, one focused on the prevention of drinking and driving. Seeing the results left me thinking about what they could have achieved if their programmers hadn’t thrown in the towel, because they have potential and dedication in no short supply.

High Potential

‘This is a MaKey MaKey,’ Juan Antonio, a curly-haired eighteen-year-old, explains to me. He hands me a small metal plate. Created by Jay Silver and Eric Rosenbaum, MIT grad students, MaKey MaKey is a device that uses a circuit board, a USB cable, and various cables with alligator clips to connect objects to a computer and perform basic tasks – clicking, pressing the space bar, etc. Its mechanism is a very simple one: the plate connects to the computer via the USB cable; the plate is then connected to an object capable of transmitting a minor electrical current (from a piece of paper to something less conventional, like a piece of fruit) through the cable with the alligator clip. The result is that, when you touch the object in the circuit, a determined action takes place.

Juan Antonio’s team (composed of two other pre-college students) seeks to make a proximity-detection alarm for the Mexico City subway. The idea is that a warning alert goes off if a person is at an unsafe distance on the platform before the train arrives. To achieve their objective, the group uses an Arduino board, the MaKey MaKey plate, an ultrasound sensor, and an aluminium foil strip.

Rompiendo líneas (Breaking Lines) is both a creative and a low-cost solution. The aluminium foil strip is located on the dividing line between the platform and the subway tracks. When a person makes contact with it, the alert goes off. But how to keep the alarm from sounding when people get on the train? The answer lies in the ultrasound sensor: it detects the subway’s distance, sending the information to the Arduino board. When the vehicle enters a determined range – for example, when it’s pulling into the station – the system is deactivated, allowing users to board without triggering the alarm.

When the team presents the prototype, they perform a small test at a thirty centimetre distance. It works perfectly. Beside me are members of one of the organizations that helped with the call for participants. All four of us agree on the value of the project: in just a few days, they have brought forward a useful proposal, with only the necessary resources and a vast application scope. The simplest ideas can yield the most spectacular futures.

The Presentation

Back at the rounds of presentations, a couple introduces, a website that shows the photo of an anonymous person and allows the user to write labels based on his or her appearance. Later, the page shows the individual’s biographical information, permitting the person who commented to verify whether his or her judgments were accurate or not. ‘This way we show the enormous gap between reality and prejudice,’ say Victor and Zura, who are in charge of this project.

Another exercise with a social approach is Machitos Feministas (Feminist Machos), a type of mix between a video game and interactive installation that poses situations through gender-focused questions. For example, an illustration shows a man smacking a woman on the bottom; the following scene shows the opposite situation. The game doesn’t issue the results until the end, highlighting the user’s inconsistences in differently judging particular situations in accordance with gender. The members of the group see their project as a way to raise awareness among young couples, as well as a way to collect information towards better understanding contemporary relationships. ‘We imagine it in the Museum of Memory and Tolerance,’ they conclude in the presentation.

‘It’s called Higgs, after the God particle,’ a video game animator tells me when I peek over his worktable. He shows me a 3D image of a plant whose roots envelop Planet Earth. His idea is fascinating: to create an art installation that allows the plant to react onscreen through the use of sensors. For example, if a heat source approaches the sensor, the plant will burst into flames; if a bit of soil or water is placed on another one, the illustration will show a positive reaction. Unfortunately, by the time the presentation comes around, the prototype still has a compatibility problem and isn’t yet ready; they haven’t successfully got the sensor to communicate. The plant remains on screen, dancing, awaiting a change that will never come.

At first glance, the Guía alternativa de la ciudad (Alternative Guide to the City) seems like yet another mobile application in the style of Foursquare. However, what the team – Luis Noé, Emanuel, Eibram, Jonathan, and Marcos – has in mind is far more ambitious. ‘We want to create trips around places that people love,’ they tell me when I sit to talk with them. ‘We want the users to put in places like where they had their first kiss or where to find the best quesadillas.’ The project seeks to situate hyper-specific spaces within the city, to share experiences that aren’t mapped with a commercial application.

The other aspect that stands out to me is a small, greenish, apparently insignificant object. I pick it up and turn to look at one of the team members. ‘Where did you get this?’ I ask him. It’s a beacon, a small device capable of sending a low-frequency Bluetooth (BLE) signal. He tells me that he imported three from the US and that he’d like to implement them in something. ‘This technology is still in diapers in Mexico,’ he says.

A beacon triggers actions in a mobile phone according to its proximity, which is why it would be logical to use it in a project like the Alternative Guide to the City. Perhaps it could be used to indicate when a challenge has been met; perhaps it could substitute manual check-ins or help monetise the application through special offers or advertising deals. Ideas still in progress and impassioned discussions that, I hope, won’t simply remain in those incipient stages.

Dreaming of the Future

‘This is Spotify for dreams,’ a young man tells us from the stage before he puts on a strange pair of glasses. It’s a wearable device that improves the quality of dreams by using coloured light patterns. By now it’s almost 7pm; this is the last presentation. The wait has been well worth it: 7 Sueños (7 Dreams) is the most-applauded project, and it’s also the most ambitious, the most multidisciplinary.

On Saturday afternoon, I see someone very diligently covering a pair of glasses with purple tape. I approach to check out his workstation. He’s placing an infrared sensor on one of the lenses. He explains that the sensor will enable scans of REM sleep. This is the stage in which dream sleep is most frequent, when a person’s brain is in a phase of rest. When you put on the glasses, the sensor begins to scan your ocular movement. As soon as it detects REM sleep, a series of LED lights begin to issue colour combinations. These patterns induce a kind of dream state in accordance with the environment produced.

They’ve been researching this subject for seven years, one of the team members tells me. Although the original goal was to produce lucid dreams – those dreams in which the individual is conscious of what he or she is dreaming and is able to alter internal logic – they realised that using lights could have a better effect on the quality of rest. While the person’s eyelids remain closed during the process, the eyes are capable of detecting such variations. Why not put them to good use?

The idea goes further: to place sleep stations in public areas around the city in which people can experience this technology. The cabins would include pre-charged permutations of light patterns (or playlists; hence the comparison to Spotify) that could be stored in the cloud and shared. Can you imagine a world in which you could choose the kind of dream you’d like to have?

That’s what Digital Futures is all about: taking control of our own dreams through cooperation, innovation, and technology. Taking control of the future by writing it, designing it, creating it. It’s not just giving ourselves the opportunity to dream; rather, it means taking on the challenge of rendering those dreams concrete, tangible. A digital future made possible; a digital future conjugated in the present tense.

Translated by Robin Myers

UKMX link from Laboratorio para la Ciudad to Small Society Lab in Dundee. UKMX link from Laboratorio para la Ciudad to Small Society Lab in Dundee.