In December 2021, Card79 launched the Kintsugi Upgrades NFT collection. The goal was to reimagine physical objects in the real world as technologically advanced digital artifacts that could exist in the future. Card79 has sold two NFTs and the rest of our NFTs can be found on our opensea page.
Innovation is at the core of our company ethos and our Kintsugi Upgrades NFTs have allowed us to push the boundaries of the design discipline altogether. We have learned plenty of lessons along the way that we want to share…
There has been a lot of public debate about whether or not NFTs are here to stay. At Card79, we believe that NFTs aren’t just a trend but are helping to build new platforms for empowering creators. Marketing and Communications Associate, Nicole Schaefer, said that “NFTs have introduced this huge opportunity to make every person an investor, a shareholder, an owner, a designer, a creator.”
NFTs make use of blockchain technology which is also the bedrock of cryptocurrency transactions. A blockchain is a database that can be used to trace the transfer of tangible assets (a house, car, cash, land) and intangible assets (intellectual property, patents, copyrights, branding). For NFTs, the blockchain database allows individuals to claim and transfer ownership of digital assets over a secure network with traceable, tamper-proof records.
Through the blockchain, NFTs are positioned as legitimate business assets that creators can utilize to grow their businesses with their own creative content. “With NFTs, the creators are the winners,” Schaefer said, “I think people who call themselves creators and are not branching into NFTs are missing out on an outlet to share their work with a powerful community.”
“The Kintsugi Upgrades NFT project has pushed me beyond my comfort zone and beyond what I had imagined I could be doing as a designer,” said Industrial Designer Mark Choi, “creating digital art that communicates a narrative in an abstract way has been done by artists and animators, but is rarely done by industrial designers.”
Choi is one of the lead designers of the Kintsugi Upgrades NFT collection. When speaking to the inspiration behind each NFT’s tech upgrade, Choi said that “the unique characteristics of the old artifact is the primary driver for inspiration… It’s difficult to create a strong narrative about something we know little about, but after we have already fallen in love with the beautiful aesthetics of the artifact, the harder it is to let go of… Having the artifacts in front of us with the context stripped away allowed us to get very creative with them.”
The Kintsugi Upgrades NFT collection challenges designers to think outside of the realm of possibility. Choi echoed this sentiment in saying, “as an industrial designer whose primary job is to create a physical object that serves a function, I was challenged by my own beliefs on what a good design is, beliefs which I have built over the course of my study and career. This project has definitely changed the way I look at design in many ways and allowed me to have more appreciation for skills and practices I was not familiar with.”
The design discipline itself is going to undergo drastic changes due to the rise of digital design that caters to the metaverse. This can be an exciting or daunting prospect for industrial designers, but Choi shared his enthusiasm in saying “a typical industrial design process has technical constraints that direct the final design to stay within the box of “what’s possible.” However, in the digital world which we create the NFTs for, other than the skills to model and render in 3D software, there is nothing stopping our imagination.”
As Choi mentioned, a design skill set that will become increasingly valuable is proficiency in 3D rendering and modeling software. The visualization and 3D rendering software market is forecasted to grow exponentially by 2028 with an expected 22.5% growth rate. “Different 3D software is optimized for different purposes,” Choi continued, “being able to juggle between multiple types of software that do the job best at certain types of work, and not being confined to one software and workflow, was a valuable learning experience.” Choi utilizes Gravity Sketch, Rhino, Fusion360, Blender and more to achieve the look of each Kintsugi Upgrades NFT.
“The things we own explain who we are. I think the same goes for the metaverse.”Mark Choi
In lieu of tangible commodities, Choi believes that the value of NFTs come from their ability to shape ideas, culture and identity through their design. Choi said that “the Kintsugi Upgrades NFT collection is a set of products that might exist in an alternate future civilization. They are also a manifestation of Card79’s design philosophy of giving form to the future as fortune tellers of design carrying forward tradition and innovation together.”
When asked whether or not he sees this project as part of the metaverse, Choi stated, “Yes. I see the KU NFTs as things that can exist in the Card79 metaverse which we have crafted with our beliefs in design. We challenged ourselves to strip away the tangible functionality from the aesthetics of an industrial design product and thought of ways to add value in the context of the metaverse and web3…”
“…the things we own explain who we are. I think the same goes for the metaverse.”
Written by Nicole Keegan
Founded in 2014 by Afshin Mehin, Card79 is a design studio located in San Francisco with an extensive dedication to the presentation, development and support of new products through excellent design services. Our mission is to give form to the future with an emphasis placed on innovation.
As we head into 2022, our design studio took a moment to take stock of which direction the fields of design, culture and technology are heading towards and seeing how well they line up with who we are. We are excited about 2022, and we decided to share major design and technology trends that we hope to explore in the next 12 months.
Let’s start out with the word that’s on the tip of everyone’s tongue — Web3. The world is connecting in new ways across borders and cultures, and everyone in the world of tech is questioning dominant platforms, old business models and visual aesthetics. This upcoming year will mark an exciting new start for everyone who’s been longing for a new version of the Internet, digital art, and online connectivity.
A lot of technologies that created a foundation for this year’s major trends aren’t new (a seminal Blockchain whitepaper by Satoshi Nakamoto recently turned 13), but in 2021, we finally created a new language to talk about long-term implications of these technologies. The term ‘Web3’ became unavoidable. ‘Web3, the future internet we’re moving towards, is a decentralized internet. Under Web3, the internet is shared online and governed by the collective “we,” rather than owned by centralized entities. […] Web3 is about rearchitecting internet services and products so that they benefit people rather than entities,’ writes Maven Ventures’ Jay Drain Jr. Web3 imagines an environment that is more user-friendly compared to our current reality of Web2 where users can’t control their data and where newsfeeds and algorithms create dangerous echo chambers.
Another popular 2021 term, Metaverse, offers an even bigger vision for the future — an immersive, interactive version of The Internet straight from futuristic sci-fi novels. Even though the term Web3 and Metaverse are often used interchangeably, they are not the same. ‘The metaverse feels vague and speculative because it is […] While some technologists want to anchor the vision along the lines of Meta’s Ready Player One-esque keynote presentation, the reality is the metaverse will require everyone’s input and participation to truly take form,’ says Senior Product Manager at Roblox the host of the “Hello Metaverse” podcast Annie Zhang. Even though the Metaverse isn’t fully defined yet, it’s a useful concept that a lot of Web2 companies looking for a rebrand are using. This year, Facebook became Meta while Square changed its name to Block. In the meantime,
Microsoft is betting on its Metaverse-inspired Mesh collaboration tool for Microsoft Teams. And we are all patiently waiting to see what Apple’s VR/AR glasses will do to enable new Metaverse experiences.
Even though big players are trying to enter this new market, 2021 in tech was all about celebrating underdogs. Many artists and designers (including those who built their careers creating digital art) have been operating within constraints of conservative art market. The NFT boom allowed creators to gain more control over their work and financial situation. Moreover, it offers a space where industrial designers, architects, and musicians can experiment and imagine virtual worlds that we will soon inhabit.
‘It should not be surprising that a growing number of us–especially we who are most intensely online — are embracing the concept of ‘owning’ online things. A belief in the value of NFTs is a logical extension of the vitality of online experience and existence,’ writes a group of authors behind Dark Star DAO. This year at Card79, we were excited to enter a new world as well and create a series of NFT’s named ‘Kintsugi Upgrades’ that carry on our core values into the Metaverse.
The Kintsugi Upgrades project imagines an alternate future where ancient artifacts are discovered by a more advanced civilization than ours and then they rebuild and augment these artifacts with enhanced technologies. The ancient Japanese art of Kintsugi – which literally translates to “join with gold” – perfectly embodied the spirit of merging old and new to make something better. Through the process of repair and reconstruction, we imagined these objects being even more valuable than the original.
The Kintsugi Upgrades project was enabled by digital scans of ancient artifacts donated by world leading museums (like the Minneapolis Institute of Art and the Malopolska’s Virtual Museums) that we were able to digitally shatter and rebuild in 3D modeling software. Then we modeled upgrades to give each piece a whole new functionality.
Afshin Mehin founded Card79 based on the belief that blurring the boundaries between digital and physical product design would be an important theme with design. That’s why as a studio, we love combining our practice of designing and developing mass manufactured physical products and this new type of product design that involves digital-first NFT artifacts.
This year, a record number of people were affected by extreme weather conditions and felt the impact of the climate crisis. In the U.S. only, we lived through Hurricane Ida on the East coast, wildfires in California, megadrought in the West, floods all over, and much more. ‘Overall, consumers are hyperaware of the condition of the environment. Forrester data reveals that a third of US online adults say they spend more time thinking about the climate than they did before the Covid-19 pandemic,’ writes Forbes.
Whether we are designing digital or physical products, we have to ask ourselves about the impact it will have on our planet and our future. The NFT boom spurred conversation about skyrocketing physical costs of supporting the metaverse. Some companies – for example, CurrencyWorks, are promoting ways to make blockchain technology more energy-efficient.
Both legacy companies and emerging brands are betting on sustainability. VW and Porsche now demand that all their 30.000+ suppliers pass a sustainability rating while AllBirds that had an IPO this year made sustainability one of its most important value propositions. In the meantime, Dell is committing to manufacturing laptops that are easier to recycle.
We haven’t eliminated planned obsolescence yet, but 2021 marked a big milestone for the ‘right to repair’ movement that is gaining traction worldwide. This November, Apple announced long-awaited Self Service Repair. In Australia, the Productivity Commission is discussing a policy that will address consumers’ rights to get products that don’t have an ‘expiry date.’
This year, we worked with Relish Life to create a monthly subscription pack that gets rid of as many inessential elements of packaging as possible while still delighting customers. This project aligned with our goal to optimize customer value while minimizing usage of wasteful materials.
Consumers are also driving another big trend in product design — more ethical user interfaces, especially when it comes to smartphones and IoT. This trend has been going on for a few years but in 2021, it gained even more traction as the idea of data ownership is becoming a topic of debate. From screen time trackers to introducing more data privacy settings, electronics manufacturers are approaching design with more consideration of people’s mental well-being (avoiding dark patterns in UX) and long-term future (working towards more sustainable ways of production).
4Here at Card79, we are committed to building a better future. When designing interfaces, we are betting on ethical and user-friendly UX. When we were working on ‘A Day In the Mind’ project that explored the future of brain-computer interfaces, we focused on ensuring privacy and transparency, enabling control, carefully designing default settings, and creating an integrated hardware architecture.4
Even though connected devices have been around for a while now, this market is still growing and maturing. The pandemic became a catalyst for innovation in the field of healthcare IoT devices. Deloitte Global expects that ‘320 million consumer health and wellness wearable devices will ship worldwide in 2022.’ And we will see even more growth in the next couple of years. By 2024, there will be around 440 million devices. It’s not just electronics for social distancing and enforcing pandemic measures. ‘[IoT devices] also allow doctors to potentially examine, diagnose and treat larger numbers of patients, as well as expand healthcare to regions where physical access to doctors or hospitals is difficult due to remoteness or difficulty of access,’ writes author and technology advisor Bernard Marr.
And it’s not just about healthcare. We can expect more IoT everywhere — our computers are becoming less noticeable, yet more powerful and almost ubiquitous. So-called ‘ambient computing’ is all about smaller devices for everyday life — in this space, innovation is fueled by advancements in AI, voice interfaces, gesture recognition, and radar sensing. Tech giants like Google and Amazon are entering the market with more and more specialized smart home devices that disappear into the background.
‘We have just started to figure out how to think about the societal implications of smartphones; now, we’ve got robots and teleconference board game systems for children. It’s all happening very fast,’ writes the Verge Executive Editor Dieter Bohn. At Card79, we are focusing on designing human-centric and ethical devices for the new era of IoT. When working on healthcare tech (like Neuralink R1 robot), smart home appliances (for example, Sepura garburator), or wearables (Slice bracelet), we are focusing on data transparency, user-friendly interfaces without ‘dark patterns,’ and durable materials.
In 2022, we are excited to work on more projects that allow us to center our work around these principles of being human-centered, inclusive and sustainable. We look onto the year ahead to see how we can do to tackle new challenges within our industry.
“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”
― Arthur C. Clarke
The future: the realm of possibility. Though an endless canvas for imagination, the future is increasingly defined by scientific advancement – and few things have been as synonymous with the future as science fiction. The genre was a way to cope with rapidly-changing technological tides, by making meaning through storytelling. Science fiction was earlier called speculative fiction, but we’ve observed that it’s often also somewhat prophetic. We enjoyed discovering some instances where sci-fi shifts from the realm of the speculative, to make surprisingly accurate predictions.
Science fiction takes a kernel of technological truth and, through carefully constrained imagination, turns it into worlds.
“Hard-science fiction” takes real science and extrapolates it into fantastical stories; but increasingly, sci-fi is mostly just inspired by science and technology, weaving them into fantastical setups. The process of devising the setting for sci-fi is called worldbuilding, which we find reminiscent of how designed objects and systems intentionally define the world around us.
Which is why it’s fascinating when the inspiration reverses direction: when design and technology are in turn inspired by fiction. From video calling to antidepressants, many ubiquitous products and processes of our time first appeared in sci-fi. Science fiction has even sometimes gotten it right on social and political dynamics. But Orwellian surveillance dystopias notwithstanding, sci-fi predicted some pretty remarkable – and useful – everyday things.
The concept of an additive, layer-by-layer manufacturing process has appeared in a lot of science fiction, as early as 1939. But perhaps the most famous “prediction” of 3D printing is Star Trek’s Replicator, which prints food through rearranging atoms and molecules. Today, 3D printing is a quickly developing technology that may well bring us to sci-fi levels of advancement; astronauts print components in space, and doctors are continuing to develop 3D printed organs for transplant operations.
Edward Bellamy’s 1888 utopian novel Looking Backward, the main character wakes up in the year 2000, where the US has become a socialist utopia. One feature of that imagined future is “credit cards”; but instead of owing the bank, each citizen was actually given an equal amount of credit by the government, and could use the cards to make purchases both domestically and abroad. Though he didn’t predict the financing, it’s fascinating that the way his imaginary cards work – down to the double receipt – is pretty accurate to how it ended up playing out in real life.
Some works of sci-fi even had the foresight sharp enough to think up cryptocurrencies. Bruce Sterling briefly described an anonymous, untraceable global currency, unbacked by any government in his 1994 novel Heavy Weather. But sometimes the technological developments that enable science fiction to become fact are less linear than others. Though it’s a seemingly simple idea, the technology necessary to make crypto run (and take the world by storm) was not anonymously created until years later. Without Blockchain technology – which uses a very specialized system of data encryption and relies on a huge amount of power – Bitcoin et. al. could not exist, even though the idea had been dreamt up decades ago.
Perhaps a more blatantly sci-fi invention, exoskeletons or exosuits act as a power-up to human bodies, supplementing strength and offering special features. In real life, this is watered down into various applications, like suits that allow delivery personnel to stack a larger number of boxes on their backs. But beyond maximizing production efficiency and the inevitable cliché of supersoldiers, exoskeletons can help ensure occupational safety and health for laborious jobs, and provide increased mobility to people with physical disabilities, whether as bionic vests that help carry heavy weights with less muscle strain, or braces and armatures that assist someone in going up the stairs or support their spine to help them walk. And some companies are even developing “powered clothing” to supplement natural movements, and even track and enhance athletic performance.
In Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, published in 1953, he described a product called Seashells – what he called “thimble radios” that fit in your ears and were the size of, yes, a thimble. Just six years later, radios were indeed small enough to fit intra-aurally, but it wasn’t until the auspicious pairing of earphones with Sony’s Walkman that in-ear speakers really took off in the late 80’s. Market forces encouraged further design refinement in terms of both function and comfort. Years later, Apple introduced its signature white iPod headphones, leading us to today, where earbuds have become as commonplace on our bodies as clothing.
Science fiction is not just an exercise in dreaming up cool futures. It often grapples with the social realities and fears of the day. We as a studio have certainly been thinking about issues surrounding artificial intelligence. Whether as design interns, or in Siri, Alexa, and therapy apps, AI raises concerns and excitement. Many works of early sci-fi tackled the question of the “humanity” of robots. Though there are countless examples of near-human AIs, the most classic one might be Philip K. Dick’s 1968 Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, more commonly known in movie form as Blade Runner (1982), where “replicants”, AI, are indistinguishable from humans. Google’s Duplex feature that makes appointments for you through very human-sounding voice calls begins to touch on this realm of the uncanny.
Another emerging technology we are thrilled to be at the forefront of is thought-based user interfaces. In M.T. Anderson’s 2002 dystopian novel Feed, young people are “plugged in” to the feed via a surgically-implanted device that enables them to communicate with each other, and provides access to endless entertainment and constant, seamless advertising. But in the novel, the brain-computer connection causes people to become self-absorbed and detached from the larger world, by constantly occupying their minds. As we know from various dystopias, new technology is often frightening for its potential to be used harmfully. But it’s heartening to see this kind of avant-garde tech actually used to benefit people. Today, brain-computer interfaces are used to lend autonomy and restore function to people with neuromuscular disorders.
With Neuralink, we worked together to develop a combined wearable and implantable system discretely worn behind the user’s ear. The system enables them to control devices, ranging from robotic arms to mobile phones to electric wheelchairs, with the power of their mind in order to live a more independent life
Sci-fi is pure design without the constraints of the real world; but as designers, our role is not just to envision the future; we try to create it. Like sci-fi writers, we are guided by our intuition and imagination, and inspired both by the past and by relentless advancements in technology. But what science fiction provides in dystopias and utopias, we try to rewrite as an optimistic and grounded approach to the future of human-tech interaction. We hope to contribute to the creation of a future world that is more efficient, more accessible, and more sustainable than the one we inhabit today.
For several decades, we used digital design tools to help us create real-world products. As new technologies like VR, AR, and broadband streaming became more accessible, a lot of designers are creating products that only exist in the digital world with manufacturing as one of the options.
This process is also being accelerated by COVID: people spend much more time in the immersive digital environments (like games, productivity tools, or fitness apps) and are more likely to spend money on surrounding themselves with interesting digital objects.
Is real-world design becoming obsolete? In this article, we will explore the possibilities that designing for the virtual world gives us and how industrial designers can stay relevant in this new setup.
3D tools and the dawn of contemporary industrial design
CAD or Computer Aided Design systems first appeared in the 1960s, but they didn’t fully take off until the 1990s when Autodesk and Silicon Graphics software was widely adopted. At the time, personal computers started becoming ubiquitous and CAD tools as well as software applications like 3Ds Max were finally available to the majority of designers, animators, and architects.
Since the dawn of computer graphics, the 3D design field has always moved in several directions. First, there were a lot of tools that helped create physical products. Surprisingly, in the 90s computer aided design was being judged for how it inhibited the creativity of designers and computers were seen as stunting the creative output of a designer. But over time, the gap between the reality and the way it’s represented in the digital world was getting smaller and smaller — each new iteration of design software was becoming more intuitive and allowing the designers to create more realistic renderings of their concepts.
In addition to design tools for architects and industrial designers, the proliferation of 3D tools allowed whole new industries to flourish — now we have 3D animation, video games, and special effects in movies. Technologies allowed creators and storytellers to build narratives and engage the audience through character design and game dynamics — for example, Autodesk tools were used for creating special effects for movies like Titanic, Inception, Avatar, and many other box office hits.
Industrial design is moving away from physical-first
In the past decade, there have been more artists and designers who don’t see 3D tools as means to creating physical objects or telling stories within the canons of the entertainment industry. Digital art is as old as the internet itself, but in the past decade we have seen at least two big movements that were particularly memorable.
First, there was a post-internet art boom of the early 2010s with artists like Jon Rafman using 3D graphics regularly as part of his practice (he often combined these graphics with installations and other mediums). And second, there is an NFT boom that we are witnessing right now. It’s enabled by blockchain technology that is allowing a lot of digital artists to create and sell their unique digital artwork without producing any physical pieces.
The NFT boom has also encouraged a lot of designers to experiment with the new Medium — for example, this February Andrés Reisinger who is known for his surreal furniture renderings, sold ten of his pieces for a combined $450,000. His designs were deemed ‘impossible’ — Reisinger’s beautiful renderings show chairs and couches made out of thousands of flower petals, bubble gum, and other unusual materials.
One of the chairs that Reisinger created — his famous 2018 render, Hortensia chair, was later adapted for mass production by Moooi. This is believed to be ‘the first product designed for the digital world has gone into mass production.’ What does this mean for industrial design? This is a full circle moment — for decades, designers were creating objects for the physical world and using digital tools to help us along the way. Now the physical world is not a destination — it’s an afterthought.
It’s not unusual for furniture designers to blur the boundaries between art and design — in the past decades, the novelty in this space was mostly achieved through experimentation with materials and form, not a function (a chair is a chair is a chair). What’s new is our ability to create these 3D objects that are only possible in the digital world. We then expect manufacturers to follow without considering any material limitations that industrial designers have always been dealing with.
The rising tension between digital and material
The story of Moooi and Andrés Reisinger’s design sets an interesting precedent for generations of designers who were taught that it’s critical to understand a medium at its deepest level to create good products. Moreover, renderings were often seen as a cover up for poorly designed things. A beautiful rendering could hide imperfections of a real product and mask bad decisions made by a designer who hasn’t truly mastered their medium yet.
We see not just how digital representation of something is replacing the final product itself, but also how the value of digital products is rising — Reisinger’s digital armchairs cost more than the majority of luxury armchairs available in the real world. Similarly, the world’s first digital couture dress was sold for $9,500 which is far more expensive than a lot of designer clothes made with fine materials and hundreds of hours invested in manufacturing.
It’s not surprising that a lot of people start to see more value in digital products than before. Thanks to new technologies, a lot of household products that were widely used just 10-20 years ago are becoming obsolete (think CDs, USB sticks, tapes, phonebooks, stationary, film cameras, etc.). We are also spending much more time online and having much more fun, especially with new VR headsets, better interfaces, and faster broadband connection.
2020 was a sad and traumatizing year, but industries like gaming grew and attracted new audiences that are likely to invest in their digital presence. Though digital couture is not super popular yet, people spend a more modest amount of money on ‘skins’ in popular games like Fortnite. Experts predict the market for “skins” in video games will reach $50 billion USD by 2026. This comes as no surprise as we spend more and more time immersed into digital experiences, and as our homes before that, these spaces give us a sense of safety, allowing us to express ourselves, and provide entertainment value.
Finding more meaning in the world of objects, online and offline in design
As industrial designers, we’ve assumed the physical world is more important than the digital one, and our beliefs were confirmed by consumer habits. People with disposable income invested in status symbols that are easily noticeable in real life: a piece of jewelry, a Rolex watch, an expensive car or a big house. In 2021, our lifestyle is changing, and with new technologies allowing for greater experimentation, we are getting to a point where the digital world seems like it’s eclipsing the physical world in importance. Now we have tools to buy and sell exclusive digital artworks and objects that become a new equivalent of the exclusive luxury items of the past.
So what does this mean for the industrial design industry and for consumer’s everyday lives? It’s easy to imagine a dystopian vision for the future where we fully move into the digital world, don’t own anything, and only invest in good computers and digital goods. It’s true that a lot of industrial design (and especially consumer electronics) is moving towards miniaturization or even complete obsolescence of certain goods, but that’s just a part of the picture. But as industrial designers we believe that the physical world is not going anywhere. Living in a virtual world allows us to experience things that are visually rich yet lack the ability to engage our tactile senses. This tactility is something that we value as humans because it’s such a huge part of what makes us human.
Yet products of the future will surely look different as we continue experimenting with digital artworks and objects. For one thing we’ll be able to leverage digital objects to better test new product ideas and gauge an audience’s interest before investing in high volume manufacturing. Secondly, we’ll also want to surround ourselves with less physical objects, and instead opt for things made with a much higher standard of quality. With this rebalancing of importance between physical and digital reality, people are reframing the way physical and digital products fit into their lives. Our hope moving forward is that both platforms will continue to be celebrated for their strengths to provide people with useful and meaningful experiences.
As a studio, we are guided by our curiosity around futuristic technology, and a dedication to approaching design problems with empathy, poetry, and mysticism. We are constantly striving to better define who we are, to better shape the world around us. Aligning ourselves with a true sense of optimism and purpose is what drives us to constantly explore new depths of innovation. It is what allows us to see further into the future.
Our studio is inspired to look into the future based on events in the past. Back in the 1950’s, our founder Afshin Mehin’s grandfather, Hormozd, made a name for himself as a talented palm reader in his small town in Iran. Although he was first and foremost known for his palm reading skills, he always kept around a curious set of round fortune telling cards, called the Ganjifa. They were covered in suits and characters Afshin had never seen before on playing cards, and instead of 52 cards, there were 78 in total; 78 cards to see the future. But what lay beyond the 78th card?
As a design studio that is creating things that have not existed before, we are Card79.
We believe that the best design is like fortune-telling.
Fortune tellers inhabit the space between what is and what could be. It is in this space that we, as a studio, thrive. At Card79 we are dedicated to having a hand in shaping that unformed space, bridging it, and helping others envision it as well.
It’s not enough to just see the future; we give it a distinctive form and thoughtfully design its interactions with users. At the core of what we create is a humility and a dedication to the needs and experiences of our users as well as our clients. With our strong ability to understand what people want in a product, we endeavor to make future technology something people both today and tomorrow are excited about. From early concept to production, we take a beautiful design and find a way to bring it into the real world. We shape the future by grounding the present in an atmosphere of progress.
Because of human nature’s innate tendency to innovate, the future is constantly evolving. There is no limit to what might be real in a few years’ time — the times we live in attest to that. Our job as a studio is to help define what the world will look like when forward-thinking ideas, new scientific discoveries, and technological innovations meet user-centered products and experiences.
To tell the future, one must be guided by more than an inkling or an inclination. We are deeply rooted in spaces of innovation, and fueled by our drive to create the most beautiful and integrated interfaces between new (and sometimes unfamiliar) technology, and human users. Sitting across from a fortune teller requires a little bit of faith in the magic of the process — and ours is one that we have spent years refining. At Card79, we work to have the foresight — and vision — to imagine the future, and the skills and tools to create it.
Telling the future also requires a willingness to engage with the undefined, and all the risks entailed in that. By using a more agile mind and being more ready to make connections, a fortune teller can more vividly see what is coming. Their prowess lies not just in seeing the future but in speaking it out loud; conveying it as an answer to a question. While we as a studio remain grounded in the physical world, devoted to responding to scientific discovery, the spirit of mysticism and scrying gives us the framework to achieve greater conceptual leaps and intellectual clarity in our process.
We believe that human intuition and creativity are a powerful thing when honed correctly, and the fortune teller applies those ways of seeing the world in what they do. But what makes a good fortune teller is the ability to make the future resonate with the present. At the core of what we do as a studio is a dedication to human experience, and we work to ensure that the future is not only graspable, but approachable.
At Card79 we are informed by the past and the present, while remaining unfettered by them. We use our global perspective and longstanding experience in designing futuristic technology, to deliver compelling, carefully considered products worthy of the future. When all the cards have said what they have to say, Card79 points down the path yet untold; after all, the future — mesmerizing, daunting, and unknowable as it may be — is a human invention.
Earlier this year, Card79 was a part of CES, the biggest consumer electronics show in the U.S. We introduced a new product that we had worked on — a humble garbage disposal unit for Sepura Home. We collaborated with them to design a new type of garburator that could securely store compostable food matter until people are ready to dispose of it or put it in the garden plot. We were really proud of the result, but some people at the show commented on the fact that it wasn’t “smart” enough because it wasn’t as connected as other devices.
Back in January, we brushed this criticism off, but the pandemic and the pressures to stay home made us think about this story more and more. How do we define what ‘smart’ means during and after the pandemic? Does smart equal better? And how we can make products for the home relevant to our new reality? Here is our exploration of how we can design home devices for the post-pandemic world.
Though it seems like the idea of ‘smart homes’ is fairly new, the idea of devices that have improved our quality of life have been around for decades. The majority of home appliances that we use today (think of dishwashers, vacuum cleaners, food processors, etc.) were popularized in the first half of the 20th century and caught on because of how they were able to free up people’s time. Despite the fact that they were not “smart” by today’s standards, they still made a big impact on people’s lives and got people thinking about what was next for technology in that field.
Both inventors and sci-fi authors started imagining automated homes — spaces that use advanced technology to make people free of chores. After WWII, this dream started coming to life. In 1966, the ECHO IV, or Electronic Computing Home Operator, was built. It was able to turn the stereo system on and off, set an alarm, and control’s home temperature.
In the 80s, the idea of a smart home gained more traction as the National Association of Home Builders created a special interest group called “Smart House” to advocate for this new technology and popularize it with designers and architects.
In the 90s, as computers started to get connected to the Internet, the concept of smart started to seem more attainable than ever. Fast-growing tech companies like Microsoft started thinking about the way devices can be connected, and in 1999, Kevin Ashton coined the term ‘Internet of Things.’ For him, the progress in this field is closely associated with new ‘sensing’ technologies. ‘In the twentieth century, computers were brains without senses […] There is many billion times more information in the world than people could possibly type in through a keyboard or scan with a barcode.’
The Microsoft infomercial from the 90s shows a lot of technologies that would become widely available in the 2010s (for example, touch ID and face recognition). Moreover, the main value proposition stayed the same: smart homes promised too ‘change and improve our lives.’
Everything Connected: The IOT( Internet of Things) Boom Of The 2010s
In 2010, the promises of the 90s became a reality. That year, Nest introduced its first smart thermostat. It was the first product in a long line of home innovations that became staples of the modern home, from Amazon Echo to Philips Hue.
This new generation of devices turned a lot of visions of the 90s into reality, but they still lacked a lot of features needed for a truly seamless experience. ‘Smart home systems often have gaps in their functionality, leading to disjointed experiences and at times causing users to abandon them altogether’, writes Veronika Ji, Senior Strategist at frog. ( frog design?)
Without an industry standard or a shared platform, it was hard to create a sense of control over the user’s home. ‘I believe the next generation of smart home will also need to be truly context-aware, which means understanding a user’s situation (e.g., whether the user is home alone or with others) and being able to make intelligent interaction decisions accordingly,’ adds Veronika.
Innovation Post-2020: What Makes a Product Smart
Here at Card79, we believe that it’s time to redefine what ‘smart’ means in the context of home devices, and, more broadly, consumer electronics. It looks like the overall trajectory is changing. A lot of features of the smart home devices from the past were designed to enable busy working lifestyle — your smart home was there, waiting for you to come back from work. It greeted you with turning on the lights and setting the right temperature. Post-COVID, as we are spending more time at home, our priorities change. Our home is our whole world, and we need new devices to accommodate our new lifestyle.
For us, ‘smart’ is about innovation, usability, and efficiency. The pandemic and the climate crisis are demonstrating that the world doesn’t need more gadgets for us to play with. We need sustainable devices for our home to quantify and understand our environment and use our resources wisely.
When we think about what ‘smart’ means in 2020, there are several aspects of that term that we want to focus on and highlight:
In one of the episodes of Mr. Robot, a TV show that ran between 2015 and 2019, one of the characters was attacked by hackers. Her smart home suddenly started ‘acting out’: the temperature dropped, the water in the shower turned boiling hot, and the phones started ringing. The owner has to flee the house, allowing hackers to enter it.
Though the technologies shown in the episode weren’t available at the time, Mr. Robot illustrated a common fear associated with smart homes. Smart home devices gather data about people and environments, and the episode showed how the home was able to use this data against the owner.
What we hope to see in the future is more transparency around the ways data is being collected and how it’s used. Otherwise, we risk encountering these fictional scenarios in real life where we don’t know if the smart home is really acting in your best interest or prioritizing the interests of the companies trying to sell their goods and services.
Creating more immersive experiences. The pandemic showed that although a lot of smart home devices are connected to the internet, they don’t present us with opportunities to feel immersed in certain experiences.
Mirror is one of the good examples that represent devices that are focused on providing this type of experience and entertainment rather than bare utility. This startup selling full-length mirrors that can also act as an interactive home gym was bought by Lululemon for $500 million this June. Unlike VR-headsets, these devices don’t allow their users to lose connection with their physical reality, but they represent an experience that we have previously had outside of our home in a pretty believable way.
In the future, we may see more immersive experiences and entertainment. Not just for workouts, but for watching sports, interacting with your friends, attending events, etc. As broadband speeds are getting higher, it will be easier to stream better quality videos and give people access to events and happenings that only existed in real life before.
Using new materials and building for sustainability. When creating smart home devices, it’s important for designers to focus on sustainable materials and production techniques. We need to design the ‘end of life’ experience and avoid planned obsolescence. Over the last 5 years, we’ve seen examples of where this hasn’t been a priority. In 2016, when Nest acquired Revolv, a company building smart home hubs, they permanently disabled the platform, rendering the Revolv smart hubs as essentially useless.
A more inspiring example is with the smart watch Pebble. Despite the fact that it’s not a home device, its story gives us an insight into how the future of smart home electronics could look like. Released in 2013 and discontinued in 2016, Pebble got a devoted fan base that kept the platform alive years after it’s shutdown. This kind of scenario is far from perfect, but it does shows how truly useful products can and should survive beyond the teams that created them.
We believe that COVID is helping us redefine our expectations for home comfort and efficiency. It’s a chance for designers and builders to create the next generation of devices that solve the challenges of the past. Whether you are designing utilitarian products that make people’s life easier amidst the pandemic, protect them, or entertain them, it’s a chance to build devices that are more sustainable, autonomous, and safe than what they were before. This indeed feels like what smart really is.