Tag Archives: industrial design

When a YouTube Video Almost Made the Modular Smartphone Happen

Image by Maurizio Pesce (CC BY 2.0)

Failure stories come in two distinct flavors: “We almost had it all!” and schadenfreude. At VentureBeat, Harrison Weber’s tale of Google’s suspended project to build a modular smartphone is distinctly of the first type. It channels the excitement of the people who tried to make it happen — and the wistfulness of those who find it hard to let go. More than anything else, though, it shows how hard it to translate a cool, lightbulb-moment idea into a viable product.

“I had an old camera that I broke and I couldn’t really fix it. So I took it apart and I noticed all the components were still pretty good, except for one thing.”

“I thought: Isn’t that weird that we throw everything away just because one part is broken?” said Hakkens.

“At first, I wanted to make a phone that lasts 100 years. But then I realized, I kind of like technology — that it evolves, that it gets better. The only downside is that after it gets better, we throw everything away. I started looking into it, and it generates a lot of e-waste… I mean now we have some devices, but in the future it’s thermostats, fridges, microwaves — everything will be connected. So what if a chip breaks in your fridge? Do you just throw the entire thing away?”

The Phonebloks story spread like wildfire. Gadget blogs covered it en masse, hordes of supporters signed up to support, tweet, and share the idea with a viral marketing tool called Thunderclap, and developers fired back, saying it couldn’t be done — that it was impossible to build. Perhaps they had a point.

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How the MTA Introduced the Touch Screen to New York City

In a recent piece for Next City writer and illustrator Aaron Reiss looks at the design of the MTA’s automated ticket kiosk. As a germaphobe, Reiss hates the amount of screen-touching the MTA kiosk requires, but as he investigates the history of the machine and meets with its creator he begins to understand the reasoning behind the design:

The first thing [the machine’s creator, industrial designer Masamichi] Udagawa did was to provide some context for the realities of New York City in the late 1990s, when the MTA ticket vending system was being developed. What I hadn’t realized before was exactly how novel these machines were at the time.

“This was the first time a touchscreen was really [going to be] introduced to the public [in New York City],” remembered Udagawa. “When [the MTA ticket] machine came out in 1999, 50 percent of subway riders didn’t have bank accounts, so they had no experience with ATMs, let alone touch screens.”

It’s interesting to note here how in the late 1990s the ATM could be used as both an inspiration and as a cautionary tale. Remember, the iPhone was a good seven years off and touchscreens were far less common than they are today. That guided Antenna’s design in a major way. “It was a different world in ’99, even if it was only 15 years ago,” Udagawa said.

The issue is perhaps best illustrated by Udagawa’s explanation of the “Press to Start Screen,” one of the features of the MTA design that most niggled at me.

A huge number of people who tested early mock-ups of the machine were at a complete loss when met with the new touchscreens, he said.

At this point, I was beginning to see the problems with my hyper-efficient ideas of trimming excess screens. I was quickly grasping that the system I battled with daily was created for a different time.

In the late ‘90s, when Udagawa and his team were hired by the MTA to make the machines more user-friendly, riders had a very different relationship with technology and in particular, with technology in the public realm.

Aaron Reiss, writing for Next City. 

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