Designing with Empathy Using VR

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We are in a very exciting time, as usual, for technology. Virtual reality has risen from the ashes thanks to Oculus’ successful Kickstarter campaign a few years ago (and subsequent acquisition by Facebook), Google Cardboard, Samsung’s GearVR, and HTC & Valve’s Vive. Not to mention augmented reality platforms like Microsoft’s HoloLens, Meta, and LeapMotion.

The problem? Well, maybe not a problem, but certainly the short-term focus has been on gaming. Almost all of the applications to be released at launch, and shortly thereafter, are games or fun things to do. That’s fine, because it helps generate excitement and sales, which will hopefully lead to long-term platform sustainability. And while there are people talking about other applications, I feel like we need to start seeing some development on them.

One application I’d really like to see more focus on, and development for now, is building and public space design (architecture as a whole, if you will). I would argue that it hasn’t been good enough for decades now for someone to simply design a building, have engineers execute on the design, and then marvel in the result. The more people I meet, the more I realize how inadequate our buildings and public spaces are. If you were to try to get around your neighbourhood or the nearest downtown core in a wheelchair for one day, how would you fare? Not well, I’d bet.

I want to see a near future where designers are not only dreaming up crazy cool spaces, but also experience them the way others do before unleashing their vision on the rest of us. Where an architect will design the first few floors of a building, then plop themselves down in a mock wheelchair of sorts, strap on a VR headset, and wheel themselves around the building. From outside into the building, moving between floors, and determining how easy it is versus the ability to do so on two feet.

Perhaps more importantly, interior designers should be doing the same. I have worked in many workplaces that I feel would be completely unnavigable in a wheel chair, or even crutches! Why? Because an overwhelming majority of able-bodied people own the buildings, design the spaces, and then work in those spaces everyday. Unfortunately we don’t all have the fortune to have full use of all four limbs all day, and it’s high time that we all feel like our abilities are being considered when new building plans are being drafted, or interiors are being renovated, or our public spaces are being built and re-built.

Designing with empathy in mind is a good start. Living the experience yourself is the next step. Virtual reality can put you in the middle of a war zone with a plastic gun, and it can also show you how the world around you has been designed assuming you have four functional limbs, or that you have 20/20 vision, or that you see a full spectrum of colours that others cannot. Being more compassionate at how others will use the things you design and envision will make you better for it.

Oh Nokia…

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Nokia 6185, circa 2000

My first cell phone was a Nokia 6185. Heck, my second cell phone was a Nokia too. They both worked really well, always had good reception, rarely dropped a call. But that was 10 years ago. Since then I’ve gone through a couple of Motorola phones, two BlackBerry devices, and one Samsung. I’m currently using an LG phone and am seriously pondering my next move. An Android-based smartphone or HP’s new Pre 3 are the most likely candidates at this point.

Nokia’s Ancaster, Ontario-born CEO, Stephen Elop (his LinkedIn profile), knows full well that Nokia has lost its lustre. He says so in a strikingly honest, if long winded, memo released to Nokia employees three days ago. He speaks of a story about a burning oil platform (Symbian), and a man having to jump into the icy waters of the Atlantic Ocean in order to save himself. Nokia has leapt… but I fear they have jumped onto another platform that’s about to blow.

When I initially read the memo posted on Engadget, which has been verified as being the real thing, I first thought to myself, “Could they be striking a deal with HP? Wow, a Nokia phone with webOS? That would be a hell of a bombshell.” After watching HP’s press conference the other day where they unveiled the Veer, Pre 3 and TouchPad, I thought, “Wow… HP’s really letting the Palm guys go after it and make a killer product.” webOS looks terrific, the hardware looks great, and early builds of webOS 3.0 (as seen in various hands-on videos on the web) look pretty smooth already. Nokia + HP makes perfect sense. Android? Not so much.

In the memo, Mr. Elop says that Nokia’s employees will know more about the future of the company on February 11. That day was today. Imagine my surprise when I read that Nokia and Microsoft announced today that Nokia would be basing their future on Windows Phone 7. I was surprised, yet unsurprised. Mr. Elop is a former Microsoft executive… how predictable.

As a colleague of mine points out on the official Info-Tech Research Group blog, Windows Phone 7 is not exactly experiencing success. Poor sales, small developer ecosystem, and only five different devices available in Canada – two of which are available from a carrier consumers love to hate.

Nokia 6100, circa 2001

So it looks like Nokia wants to use hardware design credentials with Microsoft’s brand new software design practices (which, again, don’t seem to be winning over a lot of people). But wait… if someone like me – with almost no brand loyalty when it comes to cell phones – hasn’t owned a Nokia phone since I was 18 (with the exception of a 3390 for when I visit family overseas), what hardware design expertise does Nokia plan to leverage that will get people buy Nokia phones again?

Is it the expertise that’s brought us the current schizophrenic line of phones available today? The Nokia N8 is the only device that looks worth owning at this point, especially since all of the phones are based on Symbian (the burning platform). All the other phones look like they’ve been ripped-off inspired by BlackBerry, HTC and Motorola.

Wait… that’s it! People have accused Microsoft of stealing ideas from Apple and Linux for years. Nokia’s phones look like they’re Chinese knock-offs of the real deal. Maybe Microsoft and Nokia were meant to be after all?

Recent Changes to My Website

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With the number of changes I’ve made to my website over the last 12 months, I thought it would be a good idea to go over some of the major features.

  1. Integration of RPX. This means you can login using your Google, Yahoo!, Twitter, OpenID, Facebook or LiveJournal account and start participating in comments/discussions.
  2. The current theme/layout. This theme has a lot of hidden features. One major one I’d like to highlight is if you hover your mouse over the top-right corner of the webpage, you’ll be given options to increase/decrease the size of the text and also the ability to change from a fixed-width version of my site to a fluid-width version of my site. Continue reading