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Behind the Scenes: Collecting objects of the future

Note: Reflecting this year’s theme (The Future We Will Create), the stage and lobby at TED2006 were accented with a collection of distinctive objects, each representing a vision of the future. Thinc Design principal Tom Hennes led the curation effort, and talks here about how he chose.

Ericophone1By Tom Hennes | A small group of people in my office, the indefatigable Bix Biederbeck (yes, that’s really his name), Tim Burnham and Ricardo Mulero worked for two months to collect designs that represent the future for display on the stage and in the lobby for TED this year. Judging from the comments I received after my brief descriptions of what was onstage on Saturday, I thought it might be useful to say a few more words what we selected and why.

The idea of what is futuristic is one of the most mutable memes — nothing gets older faster, yet some objects (and ideas) seem to remain ‘futuristic’ for a very long time. When we decided to populate the stage with objects that signify the future, we thought it would be interesting to include not only things that feel like today’s future, but also a number of things that are from futures of the past. And a number of objects that represent the multitude of things that once changed the future. Or tried to.

What could be more futuristic than the red Roomba? For anyone who grew up with the Jetsons (or the ’64 World’s Fair) the only thing that was surprising about it is that it took so long to appear. Or the Ericophone, that shapely red one-piece design from 1954. Shaped to fit the hand, its curves epitomize one vision of the future. Likewise, Vernor Panton’s one-piece molded plastic chair from 1960, offered universal access to a future of sleek, organic simplicity.

Shape is not the only thing that defines the future, of course…. Materials are equally important; they not only enable shape (try molding Panton’s chair out of wood) but often change the fundamental characteristics of familiar objects. The Space Blanket, made of polyester and aluminum (other versions used gold) was originally designed to protect spacecraft components from the temperature extremes of space by reflecting visible and infrared light. These same properties make highly efficient at reflection body heat inward, protecting against hypothermia without bulk or weight.

Panelite’s beautiful cast polymer honeycomb panels are strong, transparent and thermally insulating. CYMAT’s aluminum foam panels can be made to any degree of openness- they are stunning to look at and shockingly light. North Sail’s fiber-reinforced Mylar sails can be molded to an optimal aerodynamic shape while exhibiting tremendous strength and very light weight. Similarly, the carbon-fiber Crosswind bicycle wheel and Epic wing kayak paddle are high performance, aero- and hydrodynamically optimized designs that increase the performance of human-powered vehicles.

Another human powered device that seems to typify our current future is the Cheetah Pediatric wheelchair. Designed by Simon Skafdrup and made mostly of fiber-reinforced plastic, it is beautiful, maneuverable and lightweight. Equally important, it adjusts vertically and horizontally to fit a child comfortably. It’s a good example of great design applied to a utilitarian and essential object needed by a minority population that has mostly been marginalized in the past by mediocrity. Like the computerized “Rheo Knee Total Solution” prosthetic that uses artificial intelligence to enhance the balance – and grace – of the wearer, it signifies a more democratic, universal vision of the future.

Then there is Joe MacDonald’s Mercurial Form bench that was displayed in the upstairs lobby. A liquid shape developed in a computer and milled on a 5-axis, computer-driven router, it represents the emergence of economical, one-off design and production of unique objects using processes that previously were reserved for mass-production. New forms become possible, shaped for individual users. Long-tail, economically-feasible markets of one, created at the intersection of virtual and physical space.

We included two weapons. One is the red Martin compound bow, which is the latest version of the latest design (invented in 1967 by Hollis Wilbur Allen) of a device that developed on many continents many thousands of years ago. The first bows represented a revolution in hunting and warfare that changed many futures. This bow attests to the durability of the concept.

The yellow Atlatl, made by Thunderbird, is a modern rendition of a uniquely American spear-throwing device used about 12,000 years ago across the continent for efficiently – and lethally – hurling neolithic spears at wooly mammoths. Sustaining hunting and gathering bands for a couple of thousand years, it most likely also contributed to the extinction of the largest megafauna in the Americas at the end of the Pleistocene, about 10,500 years ago. The Atlatl isn’t part of our present future, but the message is clear enough.

Of course, other futures had unanticipated results. We included a Wang Word Processor, which changed the future of writing but didn’t itself survive the change. Or the 1989 Salif juicer from Philippe Starck, which epitomizes, as Chris said, ‘form over function’. Whether Shane McQuaid’s solar backpack or Ross Lovegrove’s Agaricon lamp will alter the future remains to be seen. But for now, they own a piece of it.

One object I wish I’d spent more time talking about was the WaterCone, designed by Stefan Augustin. This simple device is a still for turning salt water into drinking water. Pour salt water into the black, recycled polycarbonate base and place the clear polycarbonate cone over it. Then wait a day for sunlight to evaporate the water, which condenses on the surface of the cone and collects in its upturned lower rim. Tip the cone over, release the cap, and pour out just over a liter of fresh water at the end of the day. Not only is it designed to produce drinking water, this low-cost device is intended to provide opportunities for microeconomic development and empowerment. They’re looking for licensees.

So what does the future look like? In the past, the future seemed to grow directly out of the latest technological present. Many of the past futures were about bigger things with more parts. In our lifetimes, the future has shifted toward the smaller, and more technologically transparent.

As we thought about objects that would signify the future, we were constantly aware of how pervasive design has become, and how easily we seem to recognize the ‘future’ in certain objects. To us, the present future appears organic, individual, efficient, inspired by nature and at ease on the earth.

Of course, that’s also the future we would like to see. It’s only one of many possibilities.

Tom Hennes
Email: tomh (at) thincdesign (dot) com