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Aug. 21, 2015, 9 a.m.
Audience & Social

Selfie-taking orbs, VR hats, and other visions of communication a decade from now

A workshop created by Vox and Spotify brought designers and teens together to brainstorm new possibilities for communication.

When you ask a room full of designers and teens what they think communication will look like in ten years, you get some weird answers.

If you were at the Communicate 2025 conference in New York earlier this month, you might have walked away convinced that smell-o-vision (going product name: USmell), 3D pets (for when you can’t bring your real pet on vacation), and virtual reality hats (promoted with the hashtag #getyourlifetogetherwiththishat) are all technologies that, in ten years, will change the way we think and live.

Communicate 2025 took place on a recent Friday at Spotify’s New York headquarters. Co-sponsored by Spotify, Vox Media, and “unschool” Hyper Island, a group of 30 or so New York–based designers, and an equal number of teens from the Boys and Girls Club of Kips Bay, spent the day breaking down how they communicate, and how design will change that.

The designers and teens split into groups of six or seven and, with an excellent playlist on in the background, got to work. They started by discussing what it means to communicate without talking — body language, silence, gift-giving, dancing — and how we communicate without technology. As one teen put it, “When you say eye contact, I just think of FaceTime.”

Later in the afternoon, facilitators from Hyper Island challenged participants to come up with use cases for technologies that already exist but aren’t yet fully integrated into daily life. The groups brainstormed about robots, drones, artificial intelligence, 3D printing, and virtual currency, and came up with some possibilities: Robots for farming, 3D-printed bespoke clothes that include technology (a phone programmed into your sweater, for instance), a future that seemed strangely similar to that Justin Timberlake movie where time is money.

The final challenge of the day was to design a completely new way to communicate. How would it work? What would you say?

In addition to the aforementioned smell tech, Pet Bots, and virtual reality systems, the groups dreamed up jewelry that can react to your mood and tell you the moods of the people who matter to you; a home hologram station (useful for when you need help deciding what to wear); and a flying orb that follows you around — a next-generation hands-free device that also takes flattering selfies.

Okay, so this won’t all be possible in ten years. And the ideas presented were sketchy on technical details. But fully developed prototypes weren’t really the goal of the day, explained Dan Sormaz, director of design at Spotify. Instead, the idea was for designers to get out of their comfortable spaces and interact with new types of users.

“When someone has a different background, or is a different age, their usage is different, but their opinion is just as important,” Sormaz said. “It inspires me to remember that in any project we take on. Of course, we do research and consumer insights, but this reinforces it as a core value of how we approach our design process.”

Vox Media and Spotify appreciate each other’s design work and started talking about hosting an event about a year ago, said Kelsey Scherer, a designer at Vox Media.

“The idea of communication unites us,” Scherer said. “Students bring a completely different viewpoint, both of the technologies and of what the world looks like now and how it will change.” After some time brainstorming, Spotify and Vox brought in Hyper Island to facilitate the event.

Hyper Island’s Joelle Panisch came away impressed by the fact that the designers were careful not to overpower the teens in the group work. “We have done hundreds of workshops, and I’m usually very familiar with the flow of the day. I can sense when a group is feeling challenged, or when ideas are soaring. The tempo was different.”

Samwoo Ee, lead product designer at Spotify, said he was surprised by the networks the teens were most interested in connecting with. “A lot of times, with apps, we think about how we grow the social network and follow people that we don’t know, so it’s all about expanding and discovering people,” he said. “But with this crowd, it was all about, I want to talk to my mom, my sibling, my pet. To them, talking to the network that they already have is being social. That’s something we can carry forward into our designs.”

Photo of Communicate 2025 by David Garfinkel, courtesy of Hyper Island.

POSTED     Aug. 21, 2015, 9 a.m.
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