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Theatrical robots. 3D printers that churn out cells. Wearables for infants. These types of technologies might be “out there,” but they show off key enabling technologies that are pushing the future of design forward These types of technologies were highlighted at Bloomberg BusinessWeek’s Design Conference in San Francisco on Monday.
While these technologies are paving new paths for design practices, designers will be the ones that make sure these new infrastructures and platforms deliver a valuable experience to the user. As design firm Frog’s AVP of Innovation and Strategy, Timothy Morey, put it, “designers need to be at the front end of the sensor transition so they can humanize it.” The same could be said for building helpful robots, or developing tomorrow’s 3D printing tools that could deliver the next industrial revolution.
Here are five enabling technologies that will pave the way for how designers should think and work, and what products will emerge from design-centric companies and design firms.
1). Sensor tech: Cheap, tiny sensors are becoming embedded everywhere, in devices, in the environment and on the body, and these data-rich systems are changing the way products are being designed and how users interact with them.
Body sensors are changing the way computing is working, making it personal, and making it wearable or an extension of the body. Jawbone’s Hosain Rahman said during a morning interview that “there’s a shift happening from the internet of things to the internet of you.” New connected body products are emerging from startups on a seemingly weekly basis. Designer Gadi Amit talked about his work with the Sproutling, a sort of Fitbit (see disclosure) for babies, which tracks a baby’s heart rate, skin temperature and movement.
2). Robotics: Robotics are becoming integral to basic connected devices where you wouldn’t expect it, like Nest’s smart thermostat. Electric vehicle startup Lit Motors uses robotics for its self-balancing, computer-controlled vehicle, which founder and CTO Danny Kim showed off at the design conference. Robots were at the center of the filming of Gravity, and creative robotics company Bot & Dolly worked with design firm Framestore on building the robot-enabled astronaut shots in the film.
3). 3D Printing: 3D printing is already a large and growing business with companies like Autodesk, Makerbot, Shapeways and others selling 3D printing hardware and software. But as these tools become cheaper and more accessible they could turn many more people into creators, and provide mainstream tools for designers. Makerbot’s CEO Bre Pettis said during a talk that the company’s most recent Makerbot products are like smart phones — with connectivity, and computing — while previous products have been feature phones. As connectivity and 3D printing collide, manufacturing could become distributed and democratized.
4). Synthetic biology: Design isn’t just a tool for the material and digital worlds, it can also be important for the biological world. Autodesk’s molecular biologist, Andrew Hessel, encourages designers and creators to work with scientific engineering tools to program new types of matter and even print new cells and parts of viruses. Hessel pointed to two startups working on biology-based printing including Gen9, and Organovo.
5). Crowd-funding: While crowd-funding has been transforming the way art, film and products are being created, it’s also changing the way designers are designing products, offering a way to experiment. James Ramsey, Principal of RAAD and creator of the Lowline project (the world’s first underground park), used Kickstarter to see if there was interest in their idea, and also to fund the creation of the concept prototype of the Lowline. Lit Motors has tested prototypes on Kickstarter, too. We discussed this topic at Gigaom’s Roadmap conference in November, as well.
Gigaom has its own experience design conference called Roadmap, which will be in its third year this year. We’ll be hosting that event on November 18 and 19th in San Francisco this year, and we’ll announce the speakers and open up tickets later this year.
Disclosure: Fitbit is backed by True Ventures, a venture capital firm that is an investor in the parent company of Gigaom.