ANOMALIE digital_arts nr. 3, INTERFACES (2003)
REMOTE DESIGN INTERFACES
Fabio Gramazio, Matthias Kohler
mTable is a case study of the mShape project, which connects
flexible manufacturing of products, based on computer numerical controlled
(CNC) machines, to parametric design on portable devices. The mTable interface
enables holders of a mobile phone to design a table by interacting with
simple actions such as applying pressure on a surface as well as choosing
dimensions, materials and colors. Through the automatic conversion of
this reduced set of parameters into three-dimensional data and transmission
to the CNC production, a custom designed mTable is directly manufactured.
From mobile communication to physical matter
In 2000 we expanded our architectural research into the realm of mobile
communication. Our first projects focused on the impact of wireless technologies,
in particular of mobile phones, on urban spaces and people's social behaviors.
With the location-based communication engine Offsite, implemented for
the Migros museum for contemporary art in Zürich, we focused on digitally
defined locations allowing people to be present at a place both physically
and virtually at the same time. Our motivation for Offsite was that in
todays network society, physical location is not obsolete at all. In contrary,
since mobile devices will become aware of their position through the global
positioning system (GPS), the notion of place as an essential category
for social interaction, remote controlling, information filtering and
surveillance will become even more critical.
In parallel we started linking mobile phones to other digital environments
like the internet and even television. Instead of venturing deeper into
communication, the idea of connecting mobile phones to the most physical
realm - the material object itself - emerged. To approach this idea we
draw upon our in depth explorations of computer controlled manufacturing
methods in our architectural praxis, the most extensive project being
a 1000qm milled pattern in the sWish* exhibition pavilion in 2001 at the
Swiss national exhibition Expo.02.
Into a flexible world
The current generation of portable devices praises features such as being
always online, large color screens, and most important programmable operating
systems. These features will soon turn the vast number of mobile phones
dedicated to voice or short message communication into a huge network
of tiny general purpose computers. This fact allows us to engage in projects
that involve rather complex computation, while still profiting from the
ubiquitous qualities of a mobile phone as a private, personal, always
at hand companion.
In 2002, we implemented an interface for designing a custom table on a
Nokia mobile phone. The mTable interface enables the user to manipulate
the shape of the bottom surface of a table through positioning of up to
seven pressure points. The touch and feel of the interface and the design
process is between that of a strategy game and a tamagotchi. The rules
of the game are an integral part of the design and serve as a framework
for the users to develop their individual creative strategies, thus becoming
co-designers of their table. The raw resolution of the display together
with the limited functionality of the interface allows the users to concentrate
on essential design choices without being inhibited by the high complexity
and degree of freedom that ordinary computer aided design tools offer.
The design is intuitively modified several times depending on the mood,
entourage and insights. A small three-dimensional viewer, the Turntable,
helps users to step back from and reflect their own design. The design
process is open and can even be shared with friends simply by handing
over the phone and discussing the visuals. Through this interplay of individual
and common choices, the user can identify with the table before having
seen the actual object. At every moment, the users know that their design
can become physical whenever they choose. The close relationship between
the users and their mobile phones - the first and only technologic accessory
after the watch that could be regarded as a permanent body extension -
opens up completely new ways of understanding and implementing complex
interactions between the consumer and the surrounding physical built environment.
In this way, the mTable interface allows for flexible manufacturing of
maximal consumer influenced goods through minimal parametric design.
If read in an evolutionary context, the mTable interface is a mere logical
consequence in the development of tools, which humans create to extend
their influence on the environment. mTable empowers the user to shape
physical matter in a remote and asynchronous manner. As a simple tool
it conveys to its users skills in design and craftsmanship. At the same
time mTable illustrates the possibilities of co-authored design through
the linkage of formerly separated computer driven technologies. mTable
reflects the upcoming revolution that will bring up networks linking people,
machines and objects together in several mutual dependencies. Although
this is not a commercial project, it allows a community of interested
people to design, produce and buy a personalized table at a price comparable
to the cost of a conventionally mass produced design table. Moreover,
mTable is a case study producing empirical knowledge that can be applied
to more complex interactions with parametric designs at different scales:
mWalls, mHouses, mGardens, mCities and mLandscapes.
The individual designs submitted as well as further information on the
production of mTables can be found at www.mshape.com.
The mShape project was developed by GJK [Team: Fabio Gramazio, Matthias
Kohler, Beat Ferrario, Patrick Sibenaler] between February and October
2002 in collaboration with Viola Zimmermann (Graphics), Thomas Killer
(Communication), Roman Keller (Photography), Möbelwerkstatt Hotz
(Carpentry), CNC Dynamix (Milling), AGF (Coating), SwissHolz (Wood).
The sWISH* pavillon for the Swiss National Exhibition Expo.02 was conceived
and realized by GJK [Team: Fabio Gramazio, Matthias Kohler, Rasmus Joergensen,
Beat Ferrario, Odilo Schoch] for IBM (Switzerland) and Swiss Re between
October 2000 and Mai 2002.
The Offsite environment was conceived by GJK [Team: Fabio Gramazio, Matthias
Kohler, Rasmus Joergensen] and Anna Klingmann for the Lonelyness in the
city installation of Alicia Framis at the Migros Museum of Contemporary
Art in August 2000 in collaboration with Mike Kenny (Coding), Markus Schietsch
+ Andreas Zeischegg (Graphics), Odilo Schoch, Anne Voneche, Charlotte