October 07, 2003

Smart Furniture Manifesto Comments

I'm writing this in the jury waiting room in the San Francisco Criminal Courthouse, waiting to find out whether I'm going to be picked for jury duty. The place is incredibly full of a remarkably broad group of people, like an airport waiting lounge during a snowstorm. The 1960s clock is broken, always pointing at 8:45, and there's a sign underneath it (printed in rainbow colors) that says "Decorative Clock Only." That's one solution.

So this is the perfect time to address to all of the responses to my smart furniture manifesto. First of all, thank you to everyone who responded. I like the dialogue. Second, I restate your points below, partially to condense the length and partially as an exercise to understand what it is that you're saying so that I can respond to it appropriately. My apologies if I misrepresent your statements.

  • Peter asks for a definition of smart furniture. The manifesto is my definition of smart furniture, but if here's one more like a dictionary definition: Smart furniture is furniture that uses the information technological advances of the last 30 years to make furniture more functional and elegant.
  • Andrew asks what the connection is between furniture and information other than the literal one (computers have to sit on something). The connection is that furniture, as it's currently designed, has a poor information processing model. If you think of furniture as tools, then current furniture designs are using very little of the information available to them. Some pieces use the weight of the person (the user) to adjust the geometry of the chair, which is clever, but the mechanics are baroque (though not as baroque as the Aeron) and there's so much more information available about the user and the environment that isn't being used.
  • Cassidy asks why smart furniture is better than dumb furniture. Paraphrasing: Dumb furniture is simple to make, simple to use, lasts a long time without upgrades and won't tell on you if you do something it doesn't like on it. All true. And I don't think that dumb furniture is bad. In fact, I love dumb furniture and I don't think it's going away. Whenever you sit on a rock you're essentially making that rock into dumb furniture, and I don't think people are going to abandon sitting on rocks or hanging their jackets on trees any time soon. However, I also think that furniture—the tools of our lives—will be
  • Dave says several things, which although meant in jest actually seem to support my thesis
    Dave says I hear
    Furniture is not dumb, people are dumb People aren't going to get any smarter, but furniture can and should compensate for our failings when it can. Really this applies to all technology, and I think furniture design can do better.
    People weren't designed to sit in most chairs Current furniture is often designed for looks rather than comfort—smart furniture would allow more flexibility to achieve both
    You will pry my Aeron from my cold, dead ass Yes, Aerons are undoubtedly comfortable and an achievement, but they're like an HR Geiger monster mechanically and I think, unnecessarily.
    The Murphy bed is a great space saver and closer to smart than most Absolutely. It was an elegant technological solution to a problem (small apartments created by rapid urbanization in the early 20th century). It cleverly leveraged off of the metalworking expertise that was created in the late 19th century. We should have more of those today, leveraging off of the information technology expertise created in the late 20th.

  • Lane takes dayment's facetious comment about beanbags and points out that beanbags pay more attention to and are more responsive to the needs of the body, unlike Aerons which are difficult to adjusted, and don't adapt to the shifting needs of your back, arms and neck. He then points to chapter 2 of Galen Cranz's book "The Chair" as required reading. I haven't read it yet, so I can't comment on the book, but I agree with the beanbag comment. Beanbags are also a product of the technology of their time, since most of them were actually not filled with beans, but with styrofoam pellets, and utilized the adaptive property of those pellets to create a novel and more easily managed update of the traditional pile of floor pillows.
  • Molly agrees with the fact that cars are furniture and succinctly defines them as furniture incorporated into little capsuled environments. I agree completely. She then asks if smart furniture is better than dumb furniture and what the relationship is between smart objects and smart furniture (i.e. do you need smart furniture if you have smart objects)? I think smart furniture is better than dumb furniture. If it can do what its primary purpose is more elegantly and efficiently because it's smart, it's better. I also think that the issues with making furniture smart and having smart furniture as part of an animist environment are two separate issues, connected by the underlying technology but little else. She's also creeped out by furniture that can reveal details about us that we're accustomed to keeping private. I agree. I think that there are a lot of potentially negative issues with the animist environment I've outlined.
  • Erikpoints to "Chasm City" by Alastar Reynolds, where furniture is "aware" of the environment. He remembers they may have moved out of the way (no stubbed toes) or in your way (a place to sit). I think to some extent that's exactly right, and Erik's comment that it's pretty cool shows that the ideas are attractive. Why shouldn't your surroundings adapt themselves to your life? I, too, would like to have my dining room set arrange itself for the 6:30 dinner party listed in my calendar. I think that dinner parties are a rare enough event that it's likely that that wouldn't be a big consumer sell, but a footstool that scoots itself under my feet when I lifted them may be popular with the La-Z-Boy market, which already welcomes "nontraditional" furniture technology.
  • Michael points to what he calls my earlier manifesto. Thanks for pointing out the similar style, but that's less of a manifesto than a succinct summary of my book. ;-)
  • Adam first asks whether I'm jonesing for is some sort of utility fog. No, not in the extropian nanotech sense. The basic utility fog premise assumes a generic technological platform that can create tools on the fly from basic quasi-intelligent nanobots (or something like that). I'm actually going the other way: I think that tools need to become more specialized and enable specific activities.
    Adam then makes several points:
  • Adam's points My responses
    Desks and chairs are part of a system, and good ones are designed to be reconfigured by the user to suit their needs, rather than some program of the designers. That's one of the reasons why integrated seating/working surfaces fail. I completely agree that all of these things need to be part of a system, and nowadays designing technology (which furniture has always been, even when it was made of wood, wool and iron) in isolation no longer makes sense. Allowing for adaptability is a tricker question, though. Sure there should be flexibility in the design, but one of the reasons that traditional furniture had ambiguous function was that it had to. Then, again, it would be weird to have six Aerons at the dinner table or a leather club chair next to a work surface, so it's not like "traditional" furniture design is all that flexible, either. Besides, maybe smart furniture would present possibilities for more flexibility?
    Adam likes his Murphy bed and doesn't see why it should be quaint. I'm not saying it should be quaint, just that it is. It's of a class of furniture, like wash basins and hat racks, that are no longer nearly as popular because of how our society functions. Modern McMansions are build under different social considerations than when your house was built, so they don't have drawing rooms or root cellars, but they do have media rooms. The Murphy bed is a reminder of that time, so it comes off as quaint.
    Dumb furniture is easier to maintain and doesn't depend on the electrical grid to work. I agree that dumb furniture is easier to maintain, but I'm not sure how much that plays into people's considerations anymore, so I'm not sure how much it matters to my point that furniture needs to become smarter. With the exception of people who seek out older furniture (which is a sizable chunk of the population, but probably not the majority), its function in society is as dictated by fashion as anything else. That makes it as frequently disposed-of as everything else. I too like furniture that lasts (in fact most of my furniture is pre-Modern antique), but my values are clearly not those of the majority of Ikea visitors.
    And so many things aren't going to work when the grid goes out that I'm not too worried that maybe my smart table won't work as advertised. Granted, key devices should still more-or-less function even without juice, but that's part of good design.
Posted by mikek at October 7, 2003 09:55 PM | TrackBack

I read the Galen Cranz book and this is where the concept that people were designed, through milliions of years of evolution, to run and squat, but not to sit in chairs. That most chairs were bad for your back and body in general. Everything I know about ergonomics talks about not sitting continuosly in a chair...that you should get up and walk around and stretch, etc. If smart furniture found a way to rearrange itself such that...let's say...my beloved Aeron could morph into an excercise machine with low impact (and low cardio - no sweating) but strength and flexibility mini-workouts, that would help to keep people more fit and less prone to back problems. That my bed, upon sensing that I got in it could warm up a bit to take the chill off then cool down as i got warm. That furniture would 'know' to get out of the way of party attendees or folks with bad vision. That a couch could sense when to be cushier. Dining room tables with built in warmers to keep food warm.

Posted by: Dave Hoffer at October 8, 2003 08:13 AM

Mike's response to my original point:
"The connection is that furniture, as it's currently designed, has a poor information processing model."

To me this is like complaining that bananas as currently designed have poor information processing models. Where does this need to add an information model to furniture come from in the first place? What is the specific problem with furniture that only the application of an information model can solve?

Posted by: andrew at October 8, 2003 12:20 PM

I think that bananas actually have decent information processing, but it could be better. The role they play in people's lives, the purpose they have to the people who buy them, is to provide nourishment and enjoyment (and when worn in a headdress, decoration, but that's a pretty rare use). Their way to display information about themselves is skin color. Among fruit, it's one of the best, but if they were able to communicate their freshness in a more precise way--like a countdown to freshness followed by one to total mushiness--that would make it easier to enjoy them at their peak.

Unfortunately, we don't have that kind of control over bananas, but we do over manufactured products, which can use information that supports their intended use, making them easier and "better" at what they do. And that's my point: information processing doesn't solve a specific problem, but it opens the door to making a product do what it's supposed to do better. Furniture currently has none, and I think it should.

[OK, that HAS to be the most riduculous post I've done in a while. I mean, I stand behind the whole banana thing, but--thank you--you've made me make one of the most absurd analogies I've made in a long time...days at least. ;-) ]

Posted by: mike at October 8, 2003 05:32 PM

psichologically speaking...

- can smart furniture be a little too intrusive? i mean, one piece can be amusing, but your whole house/office/favourite-park-benchs, all smart, well... could be annoying, not to say invasive, don't you think?

- since i don't expect anything from my chair, but to stand my weight and make my living room a little more MY living room, i am happy with it. but if you give me smart chairs, with behaviours a piece, then i would expect them to do something else, which could lead into dissapoinment (priorly nonexistent) let me call it "the remote control syndrome". (i want my remote control to actually remotely "control" everything!)

- alan key pointed out some time ago (once upon a time...) that public toilettes know when you leave or arrive, but your own computer doesn't. is my computer a piece of furniture? does it apply to the "smartization process"?
(corollary: we cannot do smart computers... and they're already packed with technology! can we expect to be better with furniture?)

- in six months (not to say half an hour) will my smart chair become a stupid chair since i saw another chair that does ten times more? (ergo: have you thought about learning furniture? scalability? costs? my neighbours buying a smarter chair?)

- what about dumb people? won't they suffer from having furniture smarter than they are? (sorry, couldn't resist...)

Posted by: pollux at November 3, 2003 12:33 PM

That furniture would 'know' to get out of the way of party attendees or folks with bad vision. That a couch could sense when to be cushier. Dining room tables with built in warmers to keep food warm.

Posted by: relays manufacturer at October 26, 2004 02:29 AM
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