Designing World-realm Experiences:
The Absence of World "Users"


for Vision Plus 6, Vienna
10. July 1999


1. Summary

Today I would like to present a category of experimental design projects called "Senseware." Senseware is a term we coined to refer to tools that facilitate a more vivid perception of the living world around us. We focus on "sense" because we believe that, as humans, sense constitutes the very core of "being alive." My colleagues and I have channeled our efforts over the past few years into developing Internet-based Senseware prototypes.

Senseware is like an open window facing the living world. An important aspect of designing Senseware is "expressing things as they really are."

Design is an interface, not the creation of interfaces. Our objective is not the expression of knowledge or information, but the living world itself. We want to come in contact with other people and the living world, not IT equipment or interface design---they should be nothing more than the medium.
Nevertheless, IT equipment and interface design has become oddly eloquent, and in many cases a hindrance, even though the original intent was to "interface between." And before being connected to the world out there, we are relegated to "users" of the mediating device.

This is a major problem in IT and interface design. It is also one of the tasks addressed in the projects I will show you shortly. Especially in designing tools that are unfamiliar to people, we are struck with this problem head on.
In essence, there probably wouldn't be users. There aren't book users; there are readers. Likewise, there aren't surfboard users; there are surfers. The ultimate goal is to design whole experiences in which there are no entities called "users." This cannot be overlooked.

We are not academic researchers. We've developed this series of Senseware projects for the fun of designing. Hence this presentation will not support anything theoretical, please see it as just a report of our experiments.
So what exactly is Senseware?---Let me show you some actual examples.


2. What is the Senseware?
2-1. Breathing Earth


What do you think this is?

This is a project entitled "Breathing Earth." Live data from every earthquake occurring in the world is acquired via the Internet. The most recent two weeks of seismic activity is visualized in a several-second animation loop shown on our Web page. We have also compiled the over two-and-a-half years data from December 1996 when we started this project.

We discovered a live earthquake data site one day 3 years ago and were amazed. First that we could acquire this kind of precious primary data over the World Wide Web because of its unique characteristics as an information environment. And second, that the earth is being shaken by so many tremors.

As you know, Asia is the most earthquake-ridden region of the earth, a large part of which stems from Japan. Yet even living in Japan, I was missing out on that many earthquakes. (laugh)

The Web page shows the most recent two weeks of seismic activity updated every day, so please check it again when the conference is over. It is animated at a rate of two frames per day; with the date appearing below. The bulge represents the magnitude of the quake. At this very moment, the earth, like any other living being, is shaking its body here and there.


2-2. Night and Day

This is a project entitled "Night and Day." Small windows dotting the Internet show real-time Webcam imagery.

When we first became involved in the Internet around 1995 you could count the number of Webcams on your fingers. Two years passed and suddenly there were easily over 5000 webcams in the world. The increase in Webcams simply embodies another property of the Internet: "the more skillful everyone becomes, the better the entity functions."

It dawned on us that "if these camera images were mapped onto a globe, it would probably be possible to see night and day as created by the shadow of the sun on the earth, at this very moment, in a single glance!" We attempted to express this idea by forming a ring of 24 camera images around the earth in a latitudinal direction. This site makes it possible to view "natural time" as opposed to artificial clock-based time. A new form of natural clock lies in the Internet.

There are a number of renditions of the sun's shadow cast upon the earth using 3D graphic software. Some are very good. All, however, are but numerical calculations. We were not after an accurate timepiece, but rather to use the Internet like a retina, to see views of the world that until now were impossible to see; we wanted to create a new "eye."

These Senseware experiments appear on a Web site we developed called Sensorium. The principal theme of Sensorium, as the name indicates, is "sense." For humans the very core of our "being alive" is, I believe, the accumulation of moments when we sense the world vividly using our senses and our imagination.

And as everybody knows, no matter what the nature of a creative act may be, what matters most in the final analysis is not the ability to create something, but the "ability to sense." In music the definitive power is that of hearing more than of performing, and in photography it is the capacity to see. Environmental problems are less problems with the environment per se, than they are problems related to our sensitivity to the relationship between ourselves and the environment.
For people to be truly creative, above all else it is imperative they be continually grasping a vivid sense of the living world. I believe we need mechanisms that turn the most taken for granted, monotonous events of daily living, into fresh experiences.

2-3. Star Place

"Star Place" is corner on the Sensorium site. From the moment the page is opened a small counter displays in real-time how many kilometers the earth is moving around the sun.

The world we live in perceived from one point of view appears stationary, but from another is a dynamic constantly moving body. Most people sit in front of their computers, mouse in hand in this sort of pose--and in that very pose, they are zooming through space! (laugh) So is this hall.

2-4. Net Sound

The "living world" seen through the Senseware window is not limited to the earth and the cosmos.
This is a project called "NetSound." The packets flowing through the network of a university lab in Tokyo are converted using a digital sampler into real-time sounds---like placing a stethoscope on the network.

The first tiime I heard the Internet I was ecstatic. More than any page, I was thrilled by the huge mechanism itself. I thought, "Now, this is design!" Design is not color or form; isn't design the work of expanding peoople's view of the world?
And as homage to the Internet, we wanted to create somthing that would express the Internet as it is. "Breating Earth" and "Night and Day," express both the earth, and the Internet, "as they are."

2-5. Web Hopper

And what do you think this is?

This is a project called "WebHopper." It is a live graphic that makes visible via the Internet people's travels from Japan to and around web sites overseas.

We tend to think of viewing a Web page as a solitary activity. But even though we cannot see them, many other people are wandering around the Internet space simultaneously. Our idea was to place a mirror on the Internet that reflects just that. The reflector incidentally illustrates the extent to which the Internet as an environment is biased toward the Northern Hemisphere.

All modern systems, as they become increasingly refined, tend to conceal their structure and infrastructure and become more and more black box-like in nature. But is this really refinement?
To my mind the greatest objective of design is to draw out people's "living ability" to the maximum extent. Modern "black-boxing" however, has restricted people to the role of simple "users" or "consumers" rather than "living entities," which, I believe, is spoiling us as human beings.


Video_Fuurin 3. Design is an interface, not the creation of interfaces.
3-1. Fuurin


Now that you have an idea of what Senseware is, I'd like to show you a classic example---fuurin---which translates to "wind bell" in English.

The interface design of this device is worth a moment's contemplation. The interest of the wind bell lies in the fact that it is not a musical instrument designed for the enjoyment of beautiful tone quality. This tendency is particularly marked in the Japanese wind bell, which has less of a musical quality than wind chimes found in other cultures.

The wind bell is not expressing sounds, it is expressing the fact that "the wind is blowing." On a hot summer's day, a wind bell hanging from the eaves facing the garden alerts people inside to the presence of the wind blowing. The person inside thinks, "Ah, the wind's blowing" (which contains the image of cooling off), and expecting a breeze to blow into the room momentarily, the skin's sensitivity unconsciously heightens slightly. The fuurin commands their senses and imagination to savor this information from the outside world. It is a perfect example of "synthetic Senseware."

I never cease to respect the old wisdom that gave birth to the Senseware known as the fuurin. As I mentioned before, "design is an interface, not the creation of interfaces" and yet in many cases the interface gets in the way. In this respect the unimposing design of the fuurin is an outstanding example of good design.

One of the pioneers of modern design, Achile Castilioni once said, "When you go into a restaurant, and there is a decanter on the table, that decanter is drawing a gentle curve. If one becomes aware of that curve when pouring wine into ones glass, however, the design is a failure."

agree with Castilioni's opinion with respect to interface design. The ultimate aim of interactive design is to design a whole experience which allows us to "become the thing." In my concept of interactivity, the user does not work on anything, nor is there any kind of separate occurance---they experience "becoming the thing."

To give an example, it is like designing the entire experience of "eating" as opposed to a "fork." Senseware's "sensing" objective requires this very totality. In Senseware therefore we need to develop interactive design to its ultimate form. This however is a very difficult proposition.


3-2. BeWare02: Satellite

This is a project entitled "BeWare02: Satellite." It is an object connected to the Internet, and the first physical installation created by Sensorium.

The latest images from a weather satellite scanning the earth in longitudinal strips are projected onto a 9 x 160-centimeter plate surface 80 centimeters above the floor, scrolling steadily at the same rate as the progress of the satellite. This belt-shaped information space displays data from one full orbit over the course of 102 minutes. By touching the surface of the plate, the temperature at the locale being shown is communicated through the palm of the hand.

The temperature is displayed by the generation of data resulting from analyses of the weather satellite's infrared images regulating Peltier devices attached to the underside of the plate.

This installation was first exhibited in autumn 1997 at Ars Electronica Center in Linz, at SIGGRAPH 98, and La Biennale in Montreal, and is presently on exhibition at NTT Inter Communication Center for the first time in Japan.

When you touch it, it feels primarily cool. This is because much of the planet is covered in clouds. It is a curiously interesting project; if you ever have the change I'd love you to experience it. From an information design standpoint, however, I am afraid this is a project riddled with difficulties.

At floor level, graphics are generated automatically indicating which part of the earth the image on the plate corresponds to, however there are people who given the instruction "Please touch," touch the image on the floor rather than the plate. The structuring of information is also complex, and the project made us keenly aware of the difficulty of constructing an information space system from zero.

However we also had a strong desire to break away from the present standard monitor/keyboard "computing" terminal platform. A personal computer provides significant power as an environment for "doing something." The objective of Senseware, however, is "sensing," and as I mentioned earlier, this means "becoming the thing." This is where stress can easily arise from the gap between the environmental characteristics of the computer and the objectives of Senseware.

The standard interfaces---monitor/keyboard/mouse---are probably nothing more than one transitional form. The Internet terminal need not be limited to the present-form personal computer. New forms of Internet terminals, like pagers and cellular phones, are appearing one after another.

It is my belief that network technology as an expression is in a gestation period leading up to its second birth. It took, for example, 30 to 40 years for cinematography (the technology of moving pictures) to become "cinema" as we know it now. And during this period, there were a variety of things it could have grown into other than "cinema." The Internet as it is today has been born as a technology, but not yet as an expression. What is required for that stage in design is not "maturity" but "exploration" and "experimentation." Everyone involved in computers and the Internet is presently in that vortex.

We will probably build numerous mountains of corpses in years ahead. But because the skirt around those mountains is expanding as well, new pinnacles will emerge. We cannot forget the joy of being able to participate as an explorer. We should build up design on the Net with the same attitude we approach climbing mountains.

BeWare was an experiment that emerged from that kind of search. Ultimately, we would like to develop live educational devises linked to the Internet. We are thinking of educational tools for classroom use and museum products, that provide, not knowledge, but experiences.



4. conclusion

I have introduced several Senseware prototypes here today, through which I also expressed my opinions on information- and interaction-design:

That "design is an interface, not the creation of interfaces"; that "the ultimate aim of interactive design is to design a whole experience which allows us to ''become the thing' "; and that ''when true interaction is accomplished, the concept of 'user' will vanish." In my concept of interactivity, the user does not work on anything, nor is there any kind of separate occurrence---they experience "becoming the thing."

Two parts--user and designer; two parts--user and the object, or "thing"--a whole experience needs to be designed which avoids this separation. To put it more concretely, one should be cautious if they hear the word 'user' during any stage of the design process.

My next goal regarding Senseware, is to continue developing Sensorium's lab-type experiments, and products side by side. Sensorium projects have been introduced through the field of media-art on numerous occasions, however, they cannot stop in the realm of art. If you see any chance for collaboration please let us know. One of my reasons for attending this conference was to probe the future.

I should like to mention before I close that Sensorium's works are not the products of individual authors. They are collaborative efforts involving several members living in the Tokyo area, including writers, musicians, designers, cultural anthropologists and programmers. My involvement has been primarily planning and coordination, and although I have discussed several of my personal opinions here, the success of these projects represents the multi-talents of this group taking form. I extend express my respect and gratitude to all of them.

Finally, I am deeply grateful to the Vision Plus 6 staff for providing this precious opportunity.
Thank you.



Yoshiaki Nishimura
at "Vison Plus 6"
10. July 1999 / Austrian Museum of Applied Arts / Vienna

Translation: Pamela Virgilio Miki
English-language director, Sensorium