Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, Ph.D.

I study people, technology, and the worlds they make

Tag: endofcyberspace (page 1 of 2)

The Copenhagen Wheel

For a long time, I've been interested in getting an electric bike, especially after I saw the Optibike at the California Academy of Sciences. Via the Daily Dish, I came across an MIT hybrid bicycle project that looks like just the thing: the Copenhagen Wheel. Check out the video:

Not completely clear from the video exactly how it works, but I like how elegantly it attaches to a bicycle (some bike motors look like real kludges), and that it also is a smart device:

Dyson Award-winning design:

Smart, responsive and elegant, it transforms existing bicycles quickly into hybrid electric-bikes with regeneration and real-time sensing capabilities. Its sleek red hub not only contains a motor, batteries and an internal gear system – helping cyclists overcome hilly terrains and long distances – but also includes environmental and location sensors that provide data for cycling-related mobile applications. Cyclists can use this data to plan healthier bike routes, to achieve their exercise goals or to create new connections with other cyclists. Through sharing their data with friends or their city, they are also contributing to a larger pool of information from which the whole community can benefit.

It's called the Copenhagen Wheel because the bike-friendly wants to increase the number of people who cycle, and worked wit the team to

to investigate how small amounts of technology could improve the cycling experience and how the four main obstacles to getting people on bikes – distance, topography, infrastructure and safety – could be overcome. What has resulted is the Copenhagen Wheel: a new type of electric smart-bike which utilizes a technical solution for overcoming distance and topography (a motor and batteries with regeneration capabilities that can provide riders with a boost when needed) and a real-time data network and series of applications to support infrastructure creation and foster a sense of safety.

Trading intelligence for resources; encouraging mergers of people and devices on human terms rather than device terms; bringing information to users in context– all great examples of an end of cyberspace device.

Laptops as earthquake sensor networks

NPR reports on a brilliant combination of DIY, citizen science, and SETI@Home P2P-like systems that reach into the real world:

By downloading a free program, you and your laptop could help researchers pinpoint earthquakes and even sound an early warning to surrounding areas.

Newer models of laptops manufactured by companies like Apple and Lenovo contain accelerometers — motion sensors meant to detect whether the computer has been dropped. If the computer falls, the hard drive will automatically switch off to protect the user's data.

"As soon as I knew there were these low-cost sensors inside these accelerometers, I thought it would be perfect to use them to network together and actually record earthquakes," geoscientist Elizabeth Cochran of the University of California at Riverside says.

So a few years ago, Cochran got in touch with Jesse Lawrence, a colleague at Stanford. They whipped up a program called the Quake-Catcher Network. It's a free download that runs silently in the background, collecting data from the computer's accelerometer and waiting to detect an earthquake.

Laptop accelerometers aren’t as sensitive as a professional-grade seismometers, so they can only pick up tremors of about magnitude 4.0 and above. But when a laptop does sense a tremor, it'll ping the researchers’ server. "And when our server receives a bunch of those, we then say, 'This is a likely earthquake,'" Lawrence says.

Up until now, scientists have been hampered by the lack of enough sensors around the world to monitor and record earthquake data. Cochran and Lawrence hope their application will help build a network of earthquake sensors thousands of laptops strong.  

Car cost-sharing: finally around the corner?

Back in 2004, when I was a columnist for Red Herring, I wrote a piece about what would happen when reputation systems make their way into the world— that is, when they stop being things that we only consult in online transactions, and become things we can consult easily in real-world transactions. I talked about how they could jump-start car-sharing systems.

Today, I saw an article about RelayRides, a

person-to-person car-sharing service, which will be launching soon in Baltimore. Unlike fleet-based services—Zipcar, City CarShare, I-GO, and others—which maintain their own vehicles, RelayRides relies on individual car owners to supply the vehicles that other members will rent.

There are a couple other services like this, including Divvycar, but there seems to be a sense that these systems are ready to take off. So "why are peer-to-peer car-sharing services emerging now?"

Part of the answer might lie in the way online and offline services like Zipcar, Prosper, Netflix, and Kiva.org are training us to share our stuff—people are simply getting used to the idea. “‘Zip’ has become a verb to the point that we could ‘zip’ anything—they just happened to start it with cars. Close on their heels was Avelle (formerly Bag, Borrow Or Steal) and now SmartBike for bikes on demand. The next step seems to be a crowd-sourced version of Zipcar,” says Freed.

Another part of the answer might be found in our response to the ecological and economic crises Americans are facing. As Clark explains, “You just think of the number of cars on the road, and the resource that we have in our own communities is so massive… what the peer-to-peer model does is it really allows us to leverage that instead of starting from scratch and building our own fleet.”

From an individual’s perspective, peer-to-peer sharing is a means for owners to monetize their assets during times when they don’t require access to them. But peer-to-peer models can also be understood to utilize existing resources more efficiently—ultimately, to reduce the number of cars on the road—through shifted mentalities about ownership, the intelligent organization of information and, increasingly, through real-time technologies.

Since peer-based car-sharing companies don’t bear the overhead costs of owning and maintaining their own fleets, they don’t require the high utilization rates for vehicles that Zipcar and similar programs do—the result is comparatively fewer limitations for the size and scale of peer-to-peer operations.

Always satisfying for a futurist to see the future actually start to arrive.

How Flickr changes my view of the world

In a recent article on experiments using automatic digital photography to improve the memories of Alzheimer's patients, I was struck by these paragraphs:

When researchers began exploring it as a memory aid a few years ago, they had patients and caregivers look at all the pictures together.

Although the exercise helped improve retention of an experience, it was evident that a better way would be to focus on a few key images that might unlock the memories related to it. The interactive nature of that approach would give patients a greater sense of control over their recollections, and allow them to revisit past experiences rather than simply know they had happened.

They soon realized that the capriciousness of memory made answers elusive. For one subject, a donkey in the background of a barnyard photo brought back a flood of recollections. For another, an otherwise unremarkable landscape reminded the subject of a snowfall that had not been expected.

The idea that "the capriciousness of memory" would make efforts to automatically generate summaries of events difficult, mirrors my own experience: I have entire trips that I recall through a couple apparently random things– the look of a hotel room, what I had for dinner. Likewise, looking at an entire album of pictures doesn't necessarily do much for me in terms of helping me remember more of an event.

I wonder if the scientists have tried getting their subjects to consciously manipulate those records afterwards– to make a photo album, for example– and see if that process of sorting helps improve recall. I remember trips much better if I write about them, or choose pictures to put online, much as I remember books better when I take notes on them. In fact, it's safe to say that the ritual of going through pictures, tagging them, and uploading them has both made it easier for me to remember these places, and changed my view of the world.

Let me explain.

One of the Web services I use a lot is the photo sharing site Flickr (if you don't believe me, just go to my account and see for yourself). I'm a fairly obsessive photographer, mainly because I like good pictures, but I'm not a very good one. With a film camera, you really pay for artistic mediocrity or technical clumsiness: you have to throw the same amount of money at a good picture as a bad. With digital cameras, on the other hand, you can play the lottery: take enough pictures, and some of them will accidentally be good. I'm also a doting father whose children aren't old enough to put up a serious fight when I get out the camera. And finally, digital cameras are small enough to fit in a pocket, so my Canon PowerShot is always handy. I don't have to plan to carry a camera with me: it's one of the things I always have when I walk out the door.

One of my favorite features in Flickr is its mapper, which lets you tell Flickr where in the world your picture was taken. Essentially, you put a digital pin in an online map, much as you would in a real map. Flickr and Yahoo! Maps got together to provide the service in 2006, and since then I've become a slightly fanatical geotagger. It started out as pure geekdom: I'd written stuff about the future of geolocation services and information, so it seemed a good chance to play with a future I had already described. But now I do it because it's a way to help me remember my pictures, and where I took them.

When I'm in a place, I like to walk. I want to know enough to stay out of bad neighborhoods, to find interesting ones, and to be aware of significant landmarks. I don't want to miss the big attractions, but I also want the freedom to happen upon that perfect little cafe and pastry shop, or the brilliant bookstore that's not in any of the guidebooks. (How many travelers define themselves as people who want to escape the boundaries of the guidebooks?) This style of wandering is one reason I absolutely love certain cities. In London, for example, you can't go three blocks without coming upon something grand and historic, a charming little square, or an interesting piece of street life. You can never be sure which you'll find. It's one reason Samuel Johnson could say, when you're tired of London you're tired of life. Likewise, Singapore and Budapest reward walking, though for different reasons: Singapore is a kind of life-sized scenario of a prosperous, benevolently authoritarian, multicultural Asian Century could be like, with amazing food. Budapest is a wonderful Old European city, alternating twisty streets, grand boulevards, the magnificent Danube, and faded (but rapidly renovating) buildings and apartment blocks, with great coffee on every block.

So I like to wander. But once I'm back in my room, and have uploaded my pictures from the day, I want to reconstruct my path, and figure out where I've been. I used to do this on maps, tracing out my route with a highlighter. This wasn't always very successful. It required remembering street names, knowing how many blocks it had been since I'd turned left last, or estimating how far I'd walked on the boulevard or embankment before stopping to take those pictures. Given that I often walk at night– my days are taken up with work– all this was tough. Putting that information onto a map that often was in an unfamiliar language didn't make things easier, either.

But what turned me into a Flickr map fanatic? And what bigger lesson could that possibly hold?

The act of putting pictures on the Flickr map combines three different kinds of knowledge. First, it draws on your physical memory of travel and picture-taking. Second, it draws on your visual memory. And third, it connects those two kinds of knowledge and memory to a formal system, the logic of the map. Putting these together help you connect your personal, street-level view of a place with a higher-level, abstract understanding of it.

Consider picture-taking first. Like all forms of knowledge-creation, picture-taking is a physical activity as well as an intellectual or technical one, and that physicality can be something that helps fix in your memory the event of taking the picture. I have pictures of Wiamea Canyon, on the island of Kauai, that I can't look at without being reminded of a long drive, and the pleasant contrast between the warmth of the coast and the chilly interior. I'd probably have long forgotten those sensations without the picture, and without the sensations I'd have a harder time placing the picture; but both memories live together and reinforce each other. Often the order of pictures in a photo stream can be used to reconstruct an evening's path. Something in the distance in one picture is in the center of another, or a corner in one photo is turned in the next. With the visual cues that the photographs provide, combined with a few memories of turning down this street and that boulevard, and a couple landmarks as reference points, I can reconstruct my steps pretty accurately.

Flickr lets you put pictures on an ordinary street map, which is just a grid with street names, rivers, train lines, and the occasional park. Sometimes that's enough information; but when it's not, I switch to the satellite mode, which overlays aerial photographs atop the street map. I find that the satellite photographs let me establish much more precisely just where I was, what this photograph shows, and where it should go on the map. Without it, I can place pictures on the right block; with the satellite photos, I can get to within a few feet.

Of course, that requires knowing how to decode satellite photographs, and how to relate that information to my own experience. Figuring out how to connect what you see in your photograph to what's on a satellite picture is a skill that we didn't have to learn before. Unless you worked for the CIA or had a particularly sadistic geography teacher, you never had to make that connection; and until recently satellite photos weren't easy for ordinary people to get. You could think of the Flickr mapping tool as a giant machine that gives people the chance to learn how to read satellite pictures. Maybe it's a cartographic Ender's Game, training a generation of open-source spooks who twenty years from now won't be fooled by doctored military recon photos or what's really scant evidence of wrongdoing.

Translating the ground-eye view of a landmark or city grid into an aerial view isn't that hard, but it does need to be learned. London's Trafalger Square becomes a set of long shadows (Nelson's column) with a few shapes (the lions around it, the fountains nearby); Leicester Square, trees and park paths bordered by the blocky shapes of theatres. Sometimes you learn how big something really is ("Boy, Suntec City really is HUGE"); when I'm trying to find someplace I've reached by tai or subway, the satellite photos are the only way to find it. I've walked some parts of Copenhagen, for example, but there are some things– the new Information Technology University, for example– that I've only driven to; I don't know the ITU address, but because I know the shape of the building and have a pretty good sense of the buildings around it, I can find it on a satellite map.

Finally, putting the pictures on the map is a way to relate the personal experience and first person view to the formal, high-level view. They're my memories, organized; and organizing my memories builds my knowledge of– and arguably my understanding of– the place and how it's laid out. Given that I may post 500 pictures from a trip, and geocode almost all of them, the simple repetition of the exercise does a lot to fix in my mind what buildings are where, how places relate to each other, and what route I took when walking, say, from the Elizabeth Bridge to St. Stephen's Church in downtown Budapest.

Right now this kind of mapping is mainly fun (believe it or not) and educational, but it will really pay off in a couple years, when I can go back to city with my e-paper travel journal, equipped with wifi and GPS. So equipped, I'll be able to call up those pictures in situ: see what Piccadilly Square looked like the last time I was there, or see exactly where in Singapore I had those rice noodles so memorable I Fickred them. And I can see where I haven't been, since pictures serve as visual crumbs, dropped on the map to mark my earlier travels.

This is why “cyberspace” matters

It's a powerful conceptual metaphor, to borrow a term from Lakoff and Johnson. Venkatesh Rao explains how metaphors structure our thinking about technology, and can hinder innovation:

As much as we focus on developing new technologies, it is also essential that we break free of certain metaphors that bind and restrict our thinking about what these technologies can ultimately achieve. The familiar “document” metaphor, among others, has cast a long shadow on how we think about the web, and is standing in the way of some innovation.

Consider these terms: page, scroll, file, folder, trash can, bookmark, inbox, email, desktop, library, archive and index. They are all part of the document metaphor, a superset of the “desktop” metaphor. Some elements, such as scroll, desktop and library pre-date the printing press, but all are based on some sort of “marks on paper-like material” reference.

I think you could add to this list a similar set of metaphors that have shaped social media, and in some ways limited it. Think of the use of the term "friend" or "follower," as applied by Facebook and Twitter, respectively. Facebook (and other social networking sites) have been accused of collapsing a wide variety of social connections into a flat category of "friend," making it hard to distinguish between people you're actively socializing with in the real world, people you were friendly with in high school but haven't seen in 25 years, people you don't really care about but don't want to offend, coworkers or superiors, and your family. "Followers" has a sound that I find alternately amusing and creepy, as if I were either a cult leader or target of stalkers.

Back to Rao:

It is important to understand that the document metaphor is more than a UI metaphor. It is in fact a fundamental way of understanding one domain in terms of another. For better or worse, we continue to understand the web in relation to how we understand documents. Unlike figurative metaphors, such as “he was a lion in battle,” which are simple rhetorical statements, conceptual metaphors (a notion introduced in the classic “Metaphors We Live By” by Lakoff and Johnson) like document-ness are pre-linguistic, and quietly ubiquitous. They infiltrate how we think about things on a much more basic level….

It is much easier to create technology that conforms to dominant metaphors. What we need to do as we enter the third decade of the web, however, is consider what we want the web to be rather than awkwardly fitting that vision into older descriptive paradigms.

Easier said than done, of course, but it's essential. Perhaps this is one of the reasons user co-creation or reinvention has become such a thing: users may be more likely to engage in this conceptual reframing than inventors and marketers, who spend a lot of time defining products.

Finally, it's worth noting that the whole industry of strategic marketing, as envisioned by people like Regis McKenna and Geoffrey Moore, was intended to define the conceptual metaphors in ways that would help people decide to buy products.

Design and the Elastic Mind, or “performance manufacturing”

This is extremely cool:

Front Design has developed a unique method of materializing freehand sketches. Strokes made in the air are recognized with motion-capture video technology and then digitized into a three-dimensional computer model. The digital files are then sent to a rapid-manufacturing machine that uses computer-controlled lasters to fabricate the objects in plastic, resulting in furniture that is a clear translation of drawing into object.

Check out the video:

As IdeaFestival observes, "When an action as simple as tracing an object in the air can result in a manufactured piece of furniture, the wall separating virtual and physical reality becomes a little less relevant." It proposes the term "performance manufacturing," though all manufacturing is a kind of performance, and often is more creative and inventive a process than we realize.

I've written for Samsung's DigitAll magazine about 3d printing and its potential for transforming the factory, and it seems to me that rapid prototyping, motion capture or object scanning, and 3d design tools– which people encounter in games and virtual worlds like Second Life– are going to make a powerful combination.

Digital devices and embodied energy

In one of John Thackara's Doors of Perception reports, I came across the concept of digital devices as "embodied energy." The term is used by Kris De Decker in a piece on "the monster footprint of digital technology," and it's intended to call attention to the very large amount of energy that is consumed during the manufacturing of electronics. But it also is a data-point in how we no longer think of digital devices as portals to another world, but rather think more about their connections to this one.

The energy used to produce electronic gadgets is considerably higher than the energy used during their operation. For most of the 20th century, this was different; manufacturing methods were not so energy-intensive.

An old-fashioned car uses many times more energy during its lifetime (burning gasoline) than during its manufacture. The same goes for a refrigerator or the typical incandescent light bulb…. Advanced digital technology has turned this relationship upside down. A handful of microchips can have as much embodied energy as a car. And since digital technology has brought about a plethora of new products, and has also infiltrated almost all existing products, this change has vast consequences.

Not only do electronics use more energy in manufacturing than in use, they require a LOT more energy per unit of material to manufacture.

[W]hile the ratio of fossil fuel use to product weight is 2 to 1 for most manufactured products (you need 2 kilograms of fuel for 1 kilogram of product), the ratio is 12 to 1 for a computer (you need 12 kilograms of fuel for 1 kilogram of computer). Considering an average life expectancy of 3 years, this means that the total energy use of a computer is dominated by production (83% or 7,329 megajoule) as opposed to operation (17%). Similar figures were obtained for mobile phones….

The energy needed to manufacture microchips is disproportional to their size. MIT-researcher Timothy Gutowski compared the material and energy intensity of conventional manufacturing techniques [machining, injection molding and casting] with those used in semiconductor and in nanomaterial production (a technology that is being developed for use in all kinds of products including electronics, solar panels, batteries and LEDs)…. While there are significant differences between configurations, all these manufacturing methods require between 1 and 10 megajoule of electricity per kilogram of material. This corresponds to 278 to 2,780 watt-hour of electricity per kilogram of material. Manufacturing a one kilogram plastic or metal part thus requires as much electricity as operating a flat screen television for 1 to 10 hours (if we assume that the part only undergoes one manufacturing operation).

The energy requirements of semiconductor and nanomaterial manufacturing techniques are much higher than that: up to 6 orders of magnitude (that's 10 raised to the 6th power) above those of conventional manufacturing processes (see figure below, source, supporting information). This comes down to between 1,000 and 100,000 megajoules per kilogram of material, compared to 1 to 10 megajoules for conventional manufacturing techniques.

It would be interesting to compare the amount of intellectual energy that goes into the design of, say, a car versus a microchip. I've long thought of digital devices as being knowledge-intensive and resource-light– a laptop computer embodies a lot more intelligence than an iron bar– but this has always been a conceptual thing, not something that I tried to measure.

Transborder Immigration Tool

Via ReadWriteWeb, the b.a.n.g. lab at UCSD has created the Transborder Immigration Tool, an app designed to help illegal aliens map safe routes to enter the United States. As RWW explains,

According to the Transborder Immigration Tool website, the application uses Spatial Data Systems and GPS "for simulation, surveillance, resource allocation, management of cooperative networks and pre-movement pattern modeling (such as the Virtual Hiker Algorithm) an algorithm that maps out a potential or suggested trail for real a hiker/or hikers to follow." In addition to allowing would-be illegal immigrants quick and simple access to map information, the application's creators hope it will "add an intelligent agent algorithm that would parse out the best routes and trails on that day and hour for immigrants to cross this vertiginous landscape as safely as possible."

On startup, the app finds GPS satellites. Once the user begins moving, the app acts as a compass that shows the direction the user is heading and also shows the direction a user must travel to reach a "safety site."

Project leader Ricardo Dominguez is interviewed here. As he explains, the Tool consists of a

Motorola i455 cell phone, which is under $30, available even cheaper on eBay, and includes a free GPS applet. We were able to crack it and create a simple compasslike navigation system. We were also able to add other information, like where to find water left by the Border Angels, where to find Quaker help centers that will wrap your feet, how far you are from the highway—things to make the application really benefit individuals who are crossing the border.

At the same time, it's awfully academic, as this explanation by one of the project members reminds us:

A poetic gesture from its inception, the Transborder Immigrant Tool functions, via the aspirations of such a dislocative medium, as dislocative media, seeking to realize the possibilities of G.P.S. as both a "global positioning system" and, what, in another context, Laura Borràs Castanyer and Juan B. Gutiérrez have termed, a "global poetic system."

Indeed, the global poetic system isn't just a clever metaphor:

The Transborder Immigrant Tool includes poems for psychic consultation, spoken words of encouragement and welcome, which I am writing and co-designing in the mindset of Audre Lorde’s pronouncement that "poetry is not a luxury."… Postscriptually, Derrida’s vision of hospitality, indexed as scrolling text in "Dubliners," speaks to the Transborder Immigrant Tool’s overarching commitment to global citizenship. For, the excerpt, itself infused with the "transversal logic" of the poetic, acts as one of the Transborder Immigrant Tool’s internal compasses, clarifying the ways and means by which I and my collaborators approach this project as ethically inflected, as transcending the local of (bi-)national politics, of borders and their policing.

Naturally, the project has inspired some pretty passionate responses.

[To the tune of Eric Clapton, "Border Song," from the album Two Rooms: Celebrating The Songs Of Elton John & Bernie Taupin (I give it 1 stars).]

Another art project, and when did LGBT become “restrictive”?

This time via the b.a.n.g. lab blog:

In technésexual, Echolalia Azalee and Azdel Slade commit playful erotic acts in physical and virtual space simultaneously, using devices to amplify the sound of their heartbeats for the two audiences….

[The project] seeks to open discussion on the multitude of sexualities outside of the restrictive LGBT formulation and homo/hetero categories, both of which are rooted in binary gender assumptions. The mixing of realities in this project can be seen as paralleling our own personal experiences of queer mixing of genders and sexualities, queering new media. Virtual worlds such as Second Life are facilitating the development of new identities and genders, which allow for unimagined relations and relationships. Through the use of mixed reality technologies in performance, technésexual seeks to look closely at these new relationships and how they affect our everyday lives and our horizons of possibility.

Yes, here's the video. It's kind of like burlesque meets a 1980s video game at a rave– and it's about as smooth as most tech demos you've seen– but maybe I just don't get out enough.

technésexual // Echolalia Azalee and Azdel Slade from azdel slade on Vimeo.

[To the tune of Pax, "Exorcismo," from the album Back To Perú (I give it 3 stars).]

Game features in the real world

When I've spoken about the end of cyberspace, and the displacement of the idea of cyberspace as a Platonic plane of information, separate from and superior to the real world, someone's almost asked, "But what about Second Life?" (or World of Warcraft, or Everquest, depending on what year we're talking about). The idea is that these kinds of games and game-worlds represents a continuation of the vision of cyberspace as alternate world.

My response has been twofold. First, despite claims about the utility (or potential utility) of Second Life to business, or the number of hours devoted players spend in World of Warcraft, so far as I can tell, nobody argues that these constitute alternatives to physical reality that will lead to the death of the office or the transformation of travel. They have their appeal, but their appearance is not a sign that the tectonic plates of reality are starting to rumble. Second, it looks more likely that with the coming of ubiquitous computing, some of the kinds of interactions and feedback that make games compelling are going to migrate into the real world, but with serious social and economic implications.

This evening I ran across a piece by Brett McCallon on the growing pervasiveness of games in everyday life that echoes this last point:

"Lexulous", and the game's incredible popularity on Facebook, does say something about the way that gaming is infiltrating the experience of seemingly non-gaming-related activities. As gaming becomes more mainstream, and as designers learn to use gaming mechanics to enhance our work, education and relaxation, we can envision a time in which nearly every experience offers the possibility, if not the requirement, for play….

Exercise is only one of the non-gaming areas into which gaming has intruded in recent years. Games that teach foreign languages, cooking and other skills are also becoming increasingly popular…. Even such mundane activities as household chores can be made less onerous through the addition of gaming mechanics. A free, web-based game called "Chore Wars" lets players apply traditional role-play game rules to their laundry, dishwashing and vacuuming duties. For each completed task, players are granted "experience", "gold", etc, which helps their characters advance through imagined quests. It's a fairly basic system, but as a means of motivating lazy spouses and housemates to pull their weight, it could be quite helpful.

I think McCallon's argument is inaccurate but in a revealing way. It's inaccurate in the sense that while we are going to see the growth of feedback and incentive systems around everyday activities, they're not going to really be games. They may borrow some bits and pieces from games– familiar visual tropes, rewards, and the like– but they won't turn housework into a game, any more than my offering my son a quarter to clean his room turns my family into a labor market.

But what's revealing about the piece is that it suggests how likely we are to embrace the language of games when thinking about, and interacting with, these technology. I saw something of this when I was interviewing people about the impact of the Prius MPG estimator on driver behavior. As I wrote in 2008,

Interestingly, many drivers describe efforts to boost their fuel efficiency as a kind of game. One driver, a former Silicon Valley tech executive and car afficionado, recalls that "When I got my Prius, it absolutely felt like I was piloting a large, rolling video game, seeing how to optimize the mileage." Another, a Valley educator, reports that driving her Prius has "become a game for me. I always try to improve the mpg over the last trip." When I gave my end of cyberspace talk at IDEO last week, I brought up the Prius MPG estimator, and one personal immediately said, "It's like a game!" Game designer Amy Jo Kim recalled, "When I first got my Prius 4 years ago, I was completely transfixed by the real-time MPG display. Multi-scale feedback! I could see my mileage per tank, in 5-minute increment, and moment-to-moment. I experimented with my driving style, trying to beat my "high score" each day." A 2006 Cnet article described the Prius as "a mobilized video game… surely the most expensive, biggest gaming machine built… so far."

This may sound like a distinction without a difference, but think about how many times we borrow bits and pieces of phrasing from one realm and apply it to another, and how those borrowings have but a limited influence. We talk about business as war, or coworkers as teams, but we understand that these metaphors don't mean we should bomb a competitor's offices. Doubtless we'll be able to learn some things from game designers about how to improve the interfaces for, say, home energy monitoring systems, but it's not clear that creating an entire game– complete with characters, more elaborate rules, goals, etc.– would be necessary or even desirable to achieve substantial energy savings.

[To the tune of Peter Gabriel, "Intruder (Live)," from the album Plays Live (I give it 2 stars).]
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