Home Shrine proposes a more spiritual and subjective interaction with digital assistants
Designers of the Future is an annual award programme by Swarovski where three young designers are chosen to work on the given brief in collaboration with the company. The final pieces not only use the crystal but are inspired by the technology of Swarovski and the cultures that are associated with the crystal itself.
For this year, Frank Kolkman, Study O Portable and I were chosen with the theme Smart Home — a theme that aims to explore the role of crystals within the home, a place that is rapidly transforming into a very technological environment.
I displayed the final project, Home Shrine, at Design Miami/ Basel. The work portrayed my alternative vision of how we might be able to communicate with digital assistants such as Amazon Alexa, Google Home or Siri. In contrast to these existing digital assistants, with Home Shrine, I proposed a more spiritual and subjective interaction, rather than the data-heavy and objective prediction output that digital assistants currently make, through an interactive prototype of the shrine, crystal and animation that narrated my idea behind the installation.
With the interactive prototype, the visitor would be able to stand in front of the crystal, reach their hands to it and enquire for their future such as “What’s my future this Tuesday looking like?”. The crystal in response would say something like, “I can see you swimming in the River Rhine on Tuesday”, implying that it will be sunny on Tuesday. The prediction is based on weather forecasting data, but the data is transformed to a prophecy or future gazing crystal nuanced response, making it sound more subjective. Concurrently, the response also suggests that whether this future becomes true or not is dependent on the user and not the crystal — transferring the responsibility of the prediction result to its users.
For the exhibition, I went further to imagine who might have such digital assistant installed in their homes in the future. Who would be equivalent to such future persona in the modern times? And then I thought audiophiles, people who are obsessed with getting the best quality audio setup, might be interesting to look into. Audiophiles use gold plated cables to connect all their devices, raise their cable off the floor using a tiny plastic stand and do anything to get the best audio quality. With a crystal digital assistant that predicts the future, would it not be natural to have people who are obsessed with maintaining the crystal at its best condition, just as the audiophiles do with their audio equipment?
Thus, we situated the crystal inside a very minimalistic structure that looked like a shelf and placed items such as pile of batteries, white cloth and sanitiser dispenser on other shelves beneath it, imagining the crystal’s user to be giving a regular polishing and offerings of batteries for the crystal — although it clearly does not use batteries.
Culturally mediating between tech and us at home
At Takram, we usually work with people who have some sort of understanding in technology, so working with Swarovski, a company that operates in home decor, jewellery and fashion industry, was interesting yet challenging. When I first started the discussion around the interests I had around UI and UX for digital assistants, we struggled to find a common language or ideas, so we tried to find a conversational ground with them at the early stage of the project. Through a series of discussions with them, we were quite interested in thinking of Swarovski as a potential mediator between technology companies like Google and people who use them, using their various cultural assets. We also liked the idea of bringing in playful aesthetics to familiarise their assets more. And after we found this common ground, the art direction, product design and the interaction design went quite smoothly.
One of the interesting findings I had during the exhibition was that many people were intrigued by the project, but from a very different perspective than what I had intended. With this project, I was interested in having an alternative to “No UI is the best UI” vision where interfaces have all disappeared either within our bodies or to the environment. In such a world, it is likely that we would be doing weird gestures in front of glass walls or talking to ourselves in order to interact with these hidden technologies. However, what the visitors enjoyed from Home Shrine was quite different — they felt that Home Shrine was more humane and warm compared to the existing digital assistants.
With the call for “No UI” world, many of the smart home technologies around us are designed to fade into the background, with often minimal physical and colour features: few examples being the Amazon Alexa with a black cylindrical shape or HomePod by Apple with a black rounded shape. Because of this, one can also see it as being cold — functional but inhumane. Home Shrine was the complete opposite of this — although the response is functional, it has a strong taste to it and the chunky crystal draws attention rather than fading into the background. However, Google is also looking at a very similar direction as Home Shrine with their Google Home products: they are covered in fabric and some with very bright colours, not completely diminishing their existence but rather trying to create its own space within our homes rather than disappear into our furnishing.
In the age of AI, rather than diminishing all interfaces behind the curtain or designing interfaces that show all the technical behind-the-scenes of the system, finding the adequate representation for them is crucial for people who are not familiar with technology — which is a both exciting and challenging responsibility for designers.