It’s entirely fitting that this year’s San Francisco Design Week — a time honored tribute to the city’s design community — adopted the “Plot Twist” as its organizing theme. Amidst the tumult we’ve encountered in the worlds of design and technology, it feels like we’ve lived through several era-defining plot twists. And the year isn’t even half over…
In our studio, we’ve carefully monitored the integration of AI within the realm of design over several years. Back in 2020, we boldly ventured to speculate, through articles and talks, how designers might harness the power of AI, equating its potential role to that of a highly skilled intern. These conjectures have largely manifested into reality – at a rate that has outpaced our wildest expectations.
So, how have we harnessed this formidable tool? One unanticipated advantage has been the rapid expertise acquisition in domains that previously demanded extensive education and countless hours. Whether swiftly grasping the intricate details of ISO certifications for a specific medical device category, or delving into the potential enhancements of a certain manufacturing process, ChatGPT enables us, the designers, to fast-track the acquisition of otherwise esoteric knowledge, and get us to solutions faster. Let’s be clear: it’s not doing the work for us, but it certainly streamlines the often tedious process of research.
In addition to the clear and present value created by ChatGPT, there has been an explosion in companies developing new AI based products and services. Eventhough the applications may differ, the main user experience across all of these AI products holds a similar theme: Throw it over the wall and see what comes out the other side of the black box. While a lot of the consumer facing innovations over the last two decades have made it easier for us to interact with technology, AI has nothing really new to add to how we interact with the technology but more about what happens before and after the interaction. Ultimately, this emphasis on the outcome rather than the interaction itself defines the true transformative power of AI.
Apple’s Vision Pro announcement earlier this month painted an avant-garde vision of the future and it was a wake up call that there’s a lot of innovation that can still happen around how people interact with technology as opposed to the intelligence of the technology itself. When the Vision pro launched, there was something familiar and understandable about the approach – whereas AI has a tendency to be all about the black box, requiring us to be patiently complicit, The promise of spatial computing is to leverage our knowledge of the physical world in order to produce more fluid and productive interactions.
As a studio, we’ve done a lot of work designing technology products for the head: from early heads-up display sunglasses for runners and cyclists to glasses frames that communicate with implanted technology inside the eyeball. So we definitely appreciate the amazing industrial design of the Vision Pro. But what’s even more impressive is how Apple has framed the ecosystem for spatial computing. The product has been intentionally launched at WWDC in order to entice the developer community to start thinking about what they would build with this new technology well in advance of the product launching. Additionally, the VisionOS framework that leverages Windows, Volumes and Spaces has the capability to be an aha moment for Spatial computing, the same way that the home button on the first iPhone simplified how people were able to navigate between apps in order to gain mass adoption of smartphones.
So how will this thriller end you may be asking? Are these technologies going to battle for dominance or find a way to coexist within our daily lives? No one knows but my intuition says the latter. If AI assumes the roles of a trusted partner, copilot, and cocreator, while new AR platforms are laying the foundation for computing to be ever present, then it’s natural for these two worlds to come together where AI tools support us in our daily lives. Recent indications of this trend can be observed in a Ted talk delivered by one of the cofounders of Humane, a promising startup based in Silicon Valley. During their brief demonstration, the cofounder showcased an AI voice assistant working in conjunction with a wearable projector, answering queries while also augmenting the physical world by projecting data onto the user’s hands. Other examples of moving AI support into our everyday lives is ChatGPT integration into Siri or a ChatGPT-powered app for real-time knowledge that lets you talk to it all day long through your headphones.
This is still the early days of AI. It will be interesting to see how the story unfolds as companies work to develop new technologies and user experiences that really integrate AI into our everyday lives in the most seamless way possible.
At Card 79, we love partnering with clients who seek and seed plot-twists within their unique categories or verticals, pushing towards the unexpected, the challenging, and the new. So it’s fitting (and very very gratifying!) that three of our recent projects received SFDW awards this year.
We are thrilled to have been awarded with three San Francisco Design Week Awards for our work on Lotza.io (User Experience – Winner), Rapid Robotic’s Rapid Machine Operator (Industrial Design – Winner), and Relish Life’s Packaging (Communication Design – Honorable Mention).
Lotza.io takes the traditional product review format and flips it on its head using new ways to create and consume reviews with unique features like sentiment based rating systems. These advancements cater to the evolving landscape of online products, including subscription services and direct-to-consumer offerings, which are gaining popularity in contemporary times.
The Rapid Machine Operator disrupts the traditional robotics business model by offering simple and flexible robotics systems, enabling small U.S. manufacturers to affordably utilize industrial robots, regardless of their size as a company.
Our design for Relish Life’s monthly packaging system takes a new spin on packaging by showing that sustainable packaging can coexist with an emotive and bold brand.
These award honors our efforts to tackle problems – no matter how complex they are – and turn them into designed products and experiences that people can benefit from.
Our heartfelt thanks to the SFDW committee for this recognition and for uniting the design industry every year to celebrate our city’s vibrant design community. Until next year, let’s see how this story unfolds.
A Reflection on the SXSW 2023 Panel
At this year’s South by Southwest (SXSW) festival, we hosted the urgent and (provocatively) titled panel discussion “Does ‘Mind Control for Good’ Exist?” The panel brought together experts from various fields to discuss recent developments in Brain-Computer Interfaces (BCIs), their potential opportunities and risks, and how they can be designed to enable and empower people for good.
Moderated by Benjamin Hersh from Google, the session featured Card 79’s very own Afshin Mehin, Jacob Robinson of Motif Neurotech, and Anna Wexler, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania. Together, they explored diverse aspects of BCI, ranging from consumer ethics to design challenges and their potential applications in mental health treatment.
Anna Wexler opened the discussion by addressing the ethical implications of neurotech making its way into the consumer realm. She believes that the value and trade-offs associated with BCI devices need to be thoroughly considered. This includes not only medical risks but also privacy concerns and other potential drawbacks. She argued that the media’s futuristic portrayal of BCIs lacks a clear explanation of what these devices will do for users.
As this technology develops, however, questions arise about where the boundary lies between its medical and recreational applications. Many of the devices currently being developed are designed for medical purposes, but as technology advances, it is likely that they will make their way into the consumer realm. The question then becomes, what will these devices look like, and what ethical implications will they have?
These are some of the most important questions that must be answered if we are to fully understand the implications of this emerging technology.
Jacob Robinson emphasized the potential benefits of BCI technology in treating mental health disorders that are not effectively managed with pharmaceuticals, such as depression, PTSD, ADHD, and Alzheimer’s disease. He described how BCIs could target the networks underlying these disorders, thereby providing a more effective treatment option.
While the current focus of BCI research is on assisting those with severe impairments, the potential for BCIs to transform the treatment of neurological disorders is hugely exciting. By tapping into the underlying networks of these conditions, BCIs could eventually replace or augment drug therapies that have limited efficacy for many individuals. The possibilities for BCIs to improve the lives of those with neurological disorders are endless, but the challenge has been in bridging the science into products.
While acknowledging that we are still far from fully realizing these possibilities, Robinson believes that the current work is just the beginning of a journey to develop therapeutic BCIs for mood, memory, and attention.
He expressed a desire for design studios like Card79 to play a more significant role in translating cutting-edge scientific research into real-life applications by collaborating closely with technologists and scientists. He explained that by working alongside these other disciplines, these new advancements are embedded with a humanistic lens early in their development. The ethical concerns posed by BCIs, such as privacy and data transparency, need to be addressed in the early days, especially considering the track record of social media over the last 15 years.
He reiterated that the goal at the end of the day is creating a strong foundation for how users should use the BCI technology and focusing the initial applications on the people who would most benefit from it.
Brain-computer interfaces (BCIs) are becoming increasingly prevalent, and there is much speculation about the future of this technology. The panelists agreed that while BCIs have not yet been used for nefarious purposes, the potential exists. They emphasized the importance of developing the technology responsibly, keeping in mind the different ethical, legal, and social considerations. Issues around privacy, control, and transparency raise important questions about where the data is going and what is being done with it.
One exciting possibility for BCIs is that they could become enabling tools, whether for communication or for dealing with mental health situations. They expressed hope for a future in which BCI technology is developed and implemented equitably and responsibly, benefiting those who need it most without compromising their agency or humanity.
As we learn more about the brain and its mysteries, the potential for BCIs to unlock new possibilities for communication, mental health treatment, and overall well-being is immense. At the same time, It’s crucial to approach this emerging technology with caution and awareness to ensure that its development remains focused on empowering and enabling individuals for good. Because the implications of BCIs are so great, it is essential to carefully consider their implications well in advance.
In the pursuit of developing brain-computer interfaces (BCIs), there are a lot of philosophical and ethical concerns that need to be addressed. However, as this technology continues to evolve, it’s important not to fall into the trap of only imagining dystopian futures. Instead, we need to create an environment that is conducive to scientific discovery and technical development while at the same time continuing to use design to envision future scenarios to stay one step ahead and enabling proactive conversations around ethics and policy, staying one step ahead and strive to create a world where technology is a force for good.
Written by Anna Savina
Austin, TX – On March 14, Card79 design studio hosted a panel – moderated by CEO Afshin Mehin – called The Fact or Fiction of Brain Computer Interfaces at SXSW 2022. The studio has collaborated with companies such as Neuralink to design powerful consumer-based BCI products to bring this innovative technology into the hands of everyday people. At SXSW, Card79 invited three industry experts to give their perspectives on the future opportunities and challenges that come with developing BCI technology.
In case you missed the conversation, we held a Q&A with the panelists about the future of brain computer interface (BCI) technology. This is what Yujie Wang, Nastasha Tan, and Sergey Stavisky had to say…
Yujie Wang, MIT Design Engineer
My interest in attention management drew me to the world of BCI. I’m passionate about shaping human relationships with machines and the environment.
We live in an era of extraction of both natural resources and attention. I’m focusing on innovation as well as ethics of BCI research and product development.
Nastasha Tan, Head Designer at Aurora
While I am not working [directly] in the BCI domain, I am interested in it because of my background in cognitive science and neuroscience.
I’ve dedicated my design career to shaping future interfaces — for example, I was designing the future of smartphones as ‘personal assistants’ at Samsung before this concept became so ubiquitous. Right now, I’m working on self-driving experiences at Aurora.
Sergey Stavisky, Assistant Professor at the University of California, Davis
I thought it was the coolest thing. It resonated with me because I wanted to do something in the medical field, enjoyed building things and coding, and was trying to understand how the mind works.
What applications of BCIs do you see as valuable?
Yujie: Clinical applications and support for neurodiverse groups with dignity, such as speech/motor control restoration or new modes of communication. User facing applications like attention/situation awareness support for productivity (learning and working) and life-critical tasks (such as driving). Creative applications like creativity stimulation for self-discovery and art.
Nastasha: Augmentation of human abilities. Faster information sharing and improved situational awareness could lead to more rapid and accurate decisions. People’s memory, attention spans, and cognitive performance could be improved.
Sergey: In the shorter term, medical “neuro-restoration” applications include restoring sensation (e.g. BCIs that write in vision and hearing) and restoring movement/communication (e.g., brain driven typing, speech and robotic arms).
In the longer term, I predict much higher channel count read-and-write devices will profoundly impact how we treat psychiatric diseases that are amongst the largest worldwide causes of morbidity… As better hardware reaches human medical applications, I think both the basic and applied human neuroscience will progress quickly.
What ethical rules do you think should be taken into consideration for designing and using BCIs?
Yujie: To me, [dream hacking] is one of my biggest concerns for BCI technology… Dream hacking or dream incubation is a technique when, with the help of BCI, a person can influence their dreams by focusing attention on a specific issue right before going to sleep. In theory, it may stimulate our creativity. However, this technique can also make us vulnerable to subliminal advertising.
Sleep scientists state that… what we see when we’re asleep shapes our reality when we’re awake. Regulatory effects are way behind for dream advertising, and we must act now to prevent it:
Transparency and accountability [are necessary when designing BCIs]. Be sure to inform the subjects about the methods you’re using, what brain information is being detected, and what aspects of reality are being manipulated or interpreted based on what criteria. Be clear who is responsible for what in which scenario in the application of BCI. When it comes to privacy concerns, always provide options to users and don’t make any presumptions.
Nastasha: Because BCIs directly access the brain, I think it’s important for the industry to update basic human rights to address autonomy and create guiding principles around designing interactions between human-to-technologies that are more about establishing partnership rather than decision-maker.
Start with people. Invest time in understanding the needs of those we are designing for before investing in solutions. Generally, emerging technologies like BCIs need to respond to actual needs, and there is always a danger of falling in love with an exquisite technology and developing something just because it’s possible.
Design for agency. …Designing BCIs to enable people to be self-governing and as a partner to the individual, rather than as an executive decision maker would allow for people to maintain their autonomy and build trust in BCIs. Because BCIs are constantly evolving your thinking or decision-making, giving people the ultimate decision so there is room for their own judgment will prevent compromising their agency.
Sergey: I think it’s great that there’s so much more awareness of BCIs than a few years ago, but at times that excitement has serious downsides. I worry it can create unrealistic expectations among the public… I would hate for someone out there to… [decline] a currently available proven treatment or a clinical trial because they have been overpromised that something way better is “just around the corner” when, in fact, it could be many years away.
The BCI field is very broad, so it’s hard to advise anything without knowing specific context. I want to emphasize that there’s a big range in how invasive different BCI technologies can be, and what kind of information they can measure and/or how specifically they can affect the brain.
A piece of practical advice I’d therefore give is to think deeply about what type of neural interface you need for a particular application; making the right choice early on will help you make your project more successful.
What do you find inspiring about the state of the field now?
Yujie: Innovation not only in terms of radical technology change, but also the change of meaning making, how everyone sees and perceives BCIs in our daily life. [As well as the] strong ethical considerations that go along with the research and product development, and awareness of regulation.
Nastasha: I think it’s incredibly exciting to see how neurotechnologies like BCIs can profoundly shape a person’s life… As a designer who is always thinking about accessibility in what we design, I’m particularly excited that BCIs widen accessibility for all kinds of differently abled people — not limited to just input devices that are biased toward the visually or the haptically abled.
Sergey: It feels like the field of medical BCIs is rapidly developing. We’re seeing decades of preclinical research in animal models actually working on people, and at the same time, there’s so much more investment in better neural interface hardware that we’ll need to make the next big step in this area.
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.
“A thought-based interface is the ability to engage with technology, interface with it, not using your fingers to type, not using your voice to speak, but simply using your mind to think.”
Last month, Afshin Mehin, our founder and lead designer, sat down with the hosts of the Liftoff by Bottle Rocket podcast to have a colorful conversation about the future of Thought-Based Interfaces. The conversation went in a lot of interesting directions asking questions like: what would thought-based interfaces be good for? What are thoughts exactly anyways? How will we interact with thought-based interfaces? And what are the ethical Implications of thought-based interfaces? The full podcast is available to listen here, otherwise you can read the condensed version of our conversation below.
As a studio we’ve always been interested in new technologies that can change the way that we live our lives. We worked with Neuralink for the last couple of years to carry out the industrial design for the Neuralink wearable implantable device as well as the outer enclosure of their surgical robot. After completing the work for Neuralink, the Card79 team took it upon themselves to start to ask themselves what the User Experience of a Brain Computer Interface could feel like and what it would be good for.
Brain computer interfaces have been around for a while and there is presently a huge push within the scientific neuroscience and neurotech community to better understand how to create interfaces for people with limited physical capabilities who can use BCI’s to improve their daily lives. During these developments, these scientists and engineers are digging deeper into how the brain works and trying to create a holistic understanding of how the brain works.
The Liftoff Podcast conversation looks at this from a designers perspective asking how this technology could impact people’s lives in both positive and negative ways and what the user experience might look like for both people using this technology as an assistive technology as well as broader applications that could also apply to non-disabled people.
Have a listen!
For more information about Liftoff: https://hubs.li/H0Bq3T40