Everything around you can become a computer

Computers have become truly incredible. We are walking around with supercomputers in our pocket. How amazing is that? So it is disappointing that the way we use computers, the way we interact with them, hasn’t really changed in the last 50 years. We still use a mouse and keyboards. We’re clicking on screens and buttons. Mobile phones are the same. We’re just using fingers instead of a mouse.

So is that it? Is that what the future looks like? We’re going to be stuck in the screens with our faces not seeing the world around us? That’s not the future I imagine, or the future I’m attracted to. What I’ve been always interested in is things, physical things we use every day, like things on this table that the family doesn’t pay attention to. Things tell our story. They tell who we are. They tell a lot about us. Let me give you an example.

These are photographs of things a person touched during 24 hours. What can you tell about him? He loves his motorcycle. Right? The biggest thing in his picture. What can you tell about this girl? She spends all her time on the beach. There’s a surfboard. She lives by the sea. What can you tell about this guy? He’s a chef. Look at all the ingredients he touched during the day, while he was preparing the food, and the computer is a tiny part of his life, this sad thing in the corner.

So if we are using things all the time, and this is a big part of our lives, can things become the way for us to interact with our digital life? Can the world become your interface? That was my idea. I’ve been working for 20 years on it. My idea is that in order to interact in digital life, you don’t need to have screens and keyboards and mouses. You can interact with your digital life just by using the things you use every day. And to realize this idea, I need to solve three big challenges. Let me tell you about them.

The first one, obviously: Is it even possible? How can you take an everyday thing you use every day and turn it into a computer interface?

Now I was inspired by the book “Hackers.” I read it when I was a teenager, and one of the essential ideas of this book is that you can change the purpose of things by inventing new technology and then hacking into things and changing them. So I’ve been thinking what kind of technology I can invent so that I can hack into things you use every day and make them interactive.

So when I was working on this thing, I invented this sensor which injects structured electric fields into objects and turns them into gesture interfaces. So this doorknob, unmodified, can become a gesture sensor. It can know how you’re touching it. It can feel how you’re touching it. It makes a circle, or can I grasp. And this doorknob isn’t modified. There’s nothing special about doorknobs. Anything can become interactive. What about plants? So plants are interesting, because with plants, they can know where you’re touching. You can see the line moving up and down on the image. And that can turn into a musical interface.

(Musical tones)

Now, we do have also practical applications: a calendar plant for those who are obsessed about practicality.


We can give things a personality.

(Low notes changing in pitch)

So in this particular example, the orchid can communicate to you through images and sounds. It doesn’t like to be touched, so it’s created these electric images that are hissing at you. This plant, for example, is more robust, it’s a snake plant, and it likes playing with you. It engages you. So every thing can be different, and every thing can represent what it feels.

So everything can be hacked, all the things, including your body. In this example, we hacked your body so you can measure how you’re folding your hands and then using your hand gestures to control something else, so if you don’t want to listen to some music thousands of times, you simply can cover your ears to turn it off.

So everything can be hacked, and research is important, but the second challenge we have is how can we go from R and D, and prototypes, to real products? How can we make real things that are also interfaces? And you may ask yourself, who would do this? Silicon Valley? Is it through Shenzhen? Now the challenge there is that the world of things is huge. Every year, the apparel industry produces 150 billion garments. In comparison, the technology industry only makes 1.4 billion phones. The world of things is much bigger than the world of technology. The technology world cannot change the world of things. Instead, we need to create technology which changes makers of things, people who make your chairs and clothes and everything else, into makers of smart things, enable them to do that.

So to test this challenge, we came up with a very simple idea and challenge: Can a tailor make a wearable? Now we don’t want to take a tailor and turn the tailor into an electrical engineer. We still want to have some tailors around. But what we would like to do is create technology which looks, feels and behaves like a raw material used by the tailor to make their clothes. For example, a touch panel made for a tailor would look like this, made out of textiles, so you can cut it with scissors and sew it in. At the same time, it has to retain the performance. The way to make this textile touch panel also requires a very different approach than for making consumer electronics. In our case, we have to go to the mountains of Tokyo to a small factory which was making kimono garments for generations. We worked with my collaborators, who were not engineers. It was an artisan who knows how to make things and an artist who knows how to make things beautiful.

Working with them, we created one of the best yarns in the world, which consists of thin metallic alloys wrapped around with polyester fibers and cotton fibers. These yarns were made in the same machines which were making yarns for kimonos for generations. We then took these yarns and gave them to the factory, which is making textiles, and we wove our smart textile using regular machines in a variety of colors and materials, and we gave those textiles to a tailor in Savile Row in London.

So tailors are traditionalists, particularly in Savile Row. They don’t use computers. They don’t use machines. They use hands and they cut. They fit their products on the human body, not on 3-D avatars. Technology is not a part of their vocabulary, but they are modern people. They know how to use technology. So if technology can be formed and shaped like a button, like a textile, like something they can use, they absolutely can make a wearable, a garment which can place a phone call.

(Phone rings)

So now we’ve proven that you can actually make a wearable, not by an electronic company, but by a tailor. We worked and collaborated with Levi’s, our partners and our neighbors, to make a real product, and this product is this jacket I’m wearing right now. You can buy it. It’s on sale. It was made in the same factories which make all their products, and you have noticed I’ve been controlling my presentation from the sleeve of the jacket. I go like this, it goes forward. Like this, it goes backward. And of course, I can do more things. It’s not just to control a presentation. I can now control my navigation, control my music, but most importantly, it stays a jacket, it stays a thing, which makes me look great.



And that’s the most important thing.


So OK, we proved we can turn things into interfaces. We proved that these things can be made by makers of things and not by technology companies. I look awesome. Are we done?


Not yet. The third challenge: How can we scale? How can we go from one product to many products? And that’s what we’re working on right now. Let me tell you how we’re going to do this.

First of all, I want to make myself clear — I am not talking about the Internet of Things. I’m not talking about creating another gadget you get bored with and throw in the back of your drawer and forget about. I am talking about the foundational, important principle which guides my work: “Technology has to make existing things better.” It makes them better by connecting them to your digital life and adds new usefulness and new functionality while remaining the same original purpose, not changing it. This jacket I am wearing can control my mobile phone and presentation, but it still remains a jacket. That means that once we start making all things interactive and connected, every thing would have its own set of actuators, displays and sensors specific for those things. A pair of running shoes does not need to have a touch sensor. Why would it have one? If you have a sensor, it should measure your running performance or knee impact, while remaining a great pair of shoes.

Makers of things will have to start thinking what kind of digital functionality they have to offer to their consumers. They will have to become service providers, or they may become irrelevant. We will have to provide and create a service ecosystem just like we’ve done for mobile phones, where you have apps and services and everything else, and sometimes, you’re still making a phone call.

Now to make this ecosystem possible, we have to avoid fragmentation. We have to avoid different interfaces for different people for different things. We have to create uniform user experience and, for that reason, we have to create a single computing platform which powers all those things. What is the platform going to be? And I think the answer is obvious: it’s a cloud, cloud computing.

Now you cannot connect things directly to the cloud, obviously. So you have to develop a small device which can be plugged into all the things and make them connected to the cloud to unlock their potential and add new functionality.

So let me show, for the first time, the real device which we’ve built. We are showing this for the first time. That’s what it looks like, and it’s a small device which will be connected to things we want to make smart and connected and interactive.

How is it going to work? So on the back, you have a few electrodes. So when you plug them into different things, like here, the device will recognize where you’re plugging them and then reconfigure itself to enable specific functionality for this particular thing. We would like to give this device to makers of things, the people who make your clothing and furniture, so they can use it just like they use a button or a zipper. And what they’re going to make with them is up to them. We don’t want to dictate the use cases. We would like to let people who make those things — artists and designers, brands and craftsmen — to imagine and create this new world where things are connected and have all this new, exciting digital functionality. We don’t need keyboards and screens and mouses to interact with your computer.

So I’ve been working on this idea for 20 years, and now it’s taking shape, and as it’s taking shape, what we are realizing is that I always thought I was working on computer interfaces, I always thought of myself as an interaction designer, but I’m realizing that I’m not building interfaces. What I realized is that me and my team, we’re building a new kind of computer, an ambient computer.

Thank you.


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