Art & Design

Gadi Amit: Making Technology Human

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The future is supposed to belong to wearables, but try to find anyone today prepared to wear Google Glass in public. Even Google co-founder Sergey Brin, who for a while had a pair seemingly fused to his face, recently turned up at a red-carpet event bare-faced. He had left them in the car, he claimed.

So has the wearable movement stalled even before it took off? No, says Gadi Amit, the Israel-born founder of San Francisco-based NewDealDesign, the design house of choice for such innovative products as the Fitbit, the Lytro camera and Whistle, a sort of Fitbit for dogs.

Amit, a speaker at the 2015 DLD conference in Munich, while not wishing to be drawn into a debate about Glass in particular, says it isn’t that wearables are a bad idea per se; the problem is the way they are being conceived. “We are dealing with arguably the most personal form of technology,” he says. “These are things that are intimate to us both physically and, more than that, emotionally. “In many cases the designers are asked to play a tactical role of wrapping the piece of technology with something nice, rather than having deeper, more solid discussions about identity, issues of privacy, issues of interactions with other people, and so on. The more the technology world waits in letting designers deal with these deeper issues, the more we will see failures.”

Taking a cue from his own thinking, one of the most innovative and ambitious projects Amit is working on would see such design-led wearables in the hands of everyone. Literally. “What will be the ultimate personal wearable five or 10 years from now?” he asks. “It would include some level of sensory technology that deals with your vital signs or the functioning of your biology. There will be something that deals with the authentication or creating your digital persona for the Internet of Things around you. The third element of it is what is going to be your interaction with this implant?”

His vision, christened Underskin, is a device implanted under the skin that wraps around the base of the thumb. One side, the private side, would extend into the palm; the other side, the public side, stretches onto the back of the hand. The user interface would be not a numeric display, but rather a shifting geometric design that would reveal information to the user. Think of it as a sort of electronic tattoo, he says. “When you shake hands you will see some interaction or exchange of data. But the more private and more intimate side — the palm side — would be more enigmatic and more private to you,” he says. For example, there might be a blinking light at the bottom right of the display to tell you that you are dehydrated.

The electronic tattoo “is obviously still in a conceptual stage,” says Amit “[But] we feel a responsibility to start having this discussion and talking about issues of privacy. I am talking for the first time about the user interface that is enigmatic by intention. This is a very foreign concept to a lot of UI [User Interface] designers. You don’t see data, you don’t see numbers, you don’t see graphs, you don’t see a percentage and so on. It’s a different perspective on how data should be revealed when you have an implantable.” This human touch to data is a theme throughout Amit’s work. He is proud of the decidedly non-tech interface on the Fitbit, a simple device that shows a flower growing as you move towards your goal. “We are all groomed in an environment that’s enshrined analytic, scientific, rational thinking over the humanities, the arts and so on. When Steve Jobs passed away it cannot be an afterthought in the whole story of his genius that he was not a programmer, he was not an engineer. He was basically a liberal arts guy.” Amit’s passion for building for humans may come from his upbringing.

The son of architect parents, he was born in the Israeli city of Holon, a few miles south of Tel Aviv (it now houses Israel’s Design Museum). Amit graduated in Industrial Design from Jerusalem’s Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design in 1989. A job with Israel’s Scitex saw the 31-year-old Amit move to the Valley in 1993 where he eventually joined Frogdesign, (now just Frog) the design house made famous for its work with early Apple computers. He rose quickly, becoming vice president of design before leaving to start NewDealDesign in 2000 together with fellow ex-Frog designer Chris Lenart. Lenart left the company four years later.

No less challenging than Underskin, one of Amit’s other flagship projects is Project Ara. This hugely ambitious program looks to change our way of thinking about cellphones and other mobile devices. What open source Android has done for phone software, the open source Ara wants to do for phone hardware. The project envisages a handset with a central backbone, or bus. The bus lets users swap in and out different hardware modules according to their particular needs. Want more battery life, but perhaps less storage? Take out a storage module and slot in a second battery. Or when a new processor comes out you can upgrade your phone simply by swapping out the old one for the new, dramatically reducing waste.

Amit’s role was designing the bus that not only physically connects the modules, but provides the interconnectivity to give them power and intercommunication. “I got enamored with the project immediately,” he says. “It was very hard work to find the right expression that has the unique physical, digital, electronic architecture on one hand, and at the same time the external expression. It is the physical case, but it is also an aesthetic connecting tissue that puts everything in order and creates harmony in this sea of rather visually chaotic elements of the different modules.” While Ara still has some way to go, prototypes have hit important milestones such as successfully booting. It is slated to go on sale at some point in 2015. Both Ara and Underskin give Amit the opportunity to exercise what he believes is the true role of the designer, and one that is essential if the future of wearables is not to stall at its first outing, with inelegant, unusable designs cast into landfill. “My societal goal is to try to humanize technology and to make the interface between people and technology more human, elevated and responsible,” he says.

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