Field Guide 2020: Navigating new realities
This Field Guide article sits within a series of commissioned essays, interviews, podcasts and artworks to be published over 16 weeks on designassembly.org.nz and culminate in a downloadable PDF publication which will be distributed nationally.
We are incredibly grateful to Creative New Zealand who funded this 2020 Field Guide, which actively investigates, celebrates, nurtures and challenges current design thinking, methodology and practitioners in the Aotearoa design community. The project is “a multidisciplinary exploration of New Zealand’s post-COVID design practice”. It is produced by five authors, siz illustrators, with art direction, design, editorial, publishing and production support from the Design Assembly team & RUN Agency.
Supported by Creative New Zealand
The artwork to accompany this essay is by Lucie Blaževská a graphic designer and art tutor, originally from Czech Republic. She moved to New Zealand in 2014 and has embraced the culture and art scene over the past few years, further developing her art style from a wide pool of influences and techniques. Lucie is a passionate advocate for social change through artistic practice and creative workshops.
‘Designers by nature are futurists’ is a series of 4 essays which investigate future possibilities, trends and expectations about how our design community in Aotearoa might forge ahead in uncertain times. Topics of interest include how developing technologies are expected to impact practice, how educational institutions are preparing emerging talent, the future of indigenous design, changing demographics in the industry and the way we work.
Navigating new realities – how tech is changing the way we communicate
Advancements in tech are rapidly transforming the way we communicate.
For those of us not versed in computer science – what will these emerging tools mean for our visual design industry? Will AI replace us? What on earth is a mixed reality?
These are just some of the questions explored through Kate McGuinness’ interviews with industry experts: Dr Hayes Raffle, technology innovator and UX lead on Google’s AR team; Jonathan Miller, Callaghan innovation’s Future Insights Manager; and Associate Professor, Suranga Nanayakkara from Aotearoa’s own Augmented Human Lab.
Though we can’t predict an exact future, we can certainly identify global trends and consider some of the exciting opportunities for our industry.
Ridley Scott’s 1982 Blade Runner wasn’t far off the mark.
The classic sci-fi film, based on Phillip K. Dick’s novel (1968) ‘Do Androids dram of electric sheep?’ paints a futuristic world featuring virtual in-home assistants, video-calling, voice-controlled tech commands and robots which appeared so close to humankind, it was almost impossible to tell them apart.
It’s 2020 and we’re not quite hovering around in flying cars (yet), nor have we established colonies on Mars, but if the latest innovations from SpaceX and Uber Air Taxi is anything to go by, transportation is certainly headed in that direction.
It might seem difficult to fathom at first, but as Dr Peter Diamondis and Steven Kotler explain in their book The Future is Faster Than You Think, tech is advancing at such an exponential rate, that emerging technologies are accelerating their own growth. Diamondis and Kotler describe how tech’s convergence will impact every aspect of our lives, dramatically shifting how industries and businesses operate.
Inventor and futurist Dr Ray Kurzeil’s ‘law of accelerating returns’ states “that technological change is exponential… so we won’t experience 100 years of progress in the 21st century — it will be more like 20,000 years of progress (at today’s rate).”
We would be naïve not to consider the potentials available.
The rise of machine learning (ML) and data collection, along with developments in virtual (VR), augmented (AR) and mixed realities (MR), will see tools and software elevate user experience to novel heights.
Suranga Nanayakkara from Aotearoa’s Augmented Human Lab suggests that we only have to look at, “the emergence of digital tools such as Facebook, WhatsApp and Slack,” to understand that, “the way we communicate will be profoundly different.”
“I like to think about these technologies under the category of ‘co-presence technology’,” says Jonathan Miller of Callaghan Innovation. “It’s about feeling physical presence and interpersonal communication between people, even though they are physically remote. A basic example is a group of remote friends organising a poker night over Zoom.”
He adds, “Over the next three to five years, we will see co-presence technology interplay with some important big shifts in the way we live and work, reducing the importance of physical location.”
Looking ahead, we are going to see communication design evolve into a far more physical experience. We will be able to touch, taste and smell.
Will machines replace us?
Well… that depends on your job.
It’s suggested that we let the robots do the mundane tasks, so humans can maximise potential in other areas. Dr Hayes Raffle describes creativity as largely emotional pursuit. “While machine learning can help a computer program find the best solution to a problem, that has a lot of trade-offs. This isn’t really the same as creativity – and certainly has nothing to do with empathy, which has to do with emotions. Computers are fancy calculators. They aren’t emotional.”
Does your work involve repetitive, pattern-based tasks? Computers are increasingly able to manage this on their own, so it makes sense to leave it to the ‘bots’.
Consider how web design has changed in recent years. Templating and ‘no-code’ platforms increasingly cut out the middle person – the designer. Photo and film-editing software, along with abundant libraries of stock imagery bypass the need to hire a traditional illustrator or photographer.
Even publishing software is also becoming more automated.
No one claims that the quality of automated design will be exceptional, but for small businesses, the opportunity to save money and produce ‘good enough’ communication, is not a bad model.
There will always be a place for designers to oversee and direct the work; it just depends on how much a client is willing to spend. Machine learning can increase our productivity by freeing up time for professional designers to invest their creativity in more inventive tasks.
“Software art is not new,” says Nanayakkara, “the first software art was created in the 1960s, by artists including A. Michael Noll, Georg Nees, and Frieder Nake. However, I don’t think such software systems or even new “AI” could be called artist or designer. This is because, art and design is a social activity, and our “AI” software is still just software that just follows the instructions we provide.”
If you are a UX designer – rest assured, Raffle says, “as long as the internet is turned on,” your job isn’t going anywhere. Nanayakkara adds, “The fundamental role of a UX designer is to understand the users, empathise and coming up with creative solutions. It is hard to see this getting replaced by machines.”
As technology delves into more three-dimensional realms, UX design remains intrinsically valuable.
Step into a new reality
The intersection of computer science with design delivers software that extends our current reality and creates entirely new worlds.
Shape-changing interfaces within AR, VR and MR invite users to step into immersive experiences.
If you tend to get confused by the acronyms, Raffle clarifies, “Virtual reality is about feeling like you’re somewhere else (or someone else), whereas, augmented reality is about bringing the digital and physical worlds closer together.”
A simple example of an AR in everyday use, is the filter feature available on Facebook video chat, whereby digital features overlay real-world elements such as a human face.
On a more sophisticated level, AR has the potential to integrate auditory, tactile, somatosensory (responsive to sensory neurons) and olfactory features.
“One surprising thing about AR is how it can start to make technology “disappear” in the same way that my eyeglasses disappear to me when I put them on.” says Raffle, “Content gets lighter, faster, and more embedded in the world around us.”
In comparison, virtual reality grants a full 360-degree experience inside a simulated physical realm, Right now, our geographical borders are restricted, but virtual travel won’t be.
VR gives designers the ability to perform a different form of research, to experience a culture, to see, to hear, and eventually smell, taste and touch.
“Haptic feedback input and output devices are developing quickly, so that immersive experiences can include the sense of touch,” adds Miller. “I’ve even seen some interesting experimental projects (like a virtual meal) that include smell and taste!”
Mixed Reality (MR) is a hybrid of virtual and real worlds. This means you can control or manipulate physical and virtual features in your surrounding and simulated environments.
Curious? You can begin to experiment with the latest gear now. The most affordable headset option is Google Cardboard*, which uses your mobile phone as the actual screen. A more expensive headset will give you a high quality, fully immersive VR experience.
Thinking optimistically, tech provides opportunities to build empathy, to educate, inform, challenge our worldview and potentially deal with some of our globe’s most complex problems.
Raffle emphasises that technology ‘won’t replace’ but rather enhance our world.
There is immense potential for branding.
Raffle describes how AR technology on smartphones will elevate digital content to feel more real…more personal. “We don’t have very many people in VR and AR glasses yet, but there are some interesting examples from smartphone AR, like the YouTube Lipstick try-ons that let you use your phone’s selfie camera to see how lipstick will look on you before you click ‘buy.’”
“It’s easy to underestimate the way people are using virtual reality,” says Miller,” But certain consumer groups are spending thousands of hours hanging out with their friends on platforms like VRChat. Immersive advertising is evolving in this context.”
“Given the advancement of shape-changing interfaces, web audio technologies, advancements in smell/taste research, there will be an opportunity to do unprecedented immersive branding,” adds Nanayakkara. He even references where ‘taste’ could go, pointing to contemporary research into electric taste simulation.
There is a direct connection between these new ‘realities’ and responsive machine intelligence.
What should the early-tech adopters be learning now?
Raffle suggests that people interested in this space, “should learn all the traditional graphic, motion and type design for 2D as well as 3D design tools like those typically taught for the game industry. 3D modelling and lighting, graphics and game engine work are all needed to be creative in these new media.”
He reassures us, “A lot of content will still be 2D, using text and traditional layout. But 3D content actually looks and feels 3D, and with VR style controllers and 3D hand tracking, you can almost reach out and touch the digital content. This is great for making better decisions about 3D content.”
Miller suggests, “If you really love what you do, it will be pretty hard not to spend some extra time doing this. Go along to AR/VR meetups for example and joining online communities is the best thing you can do. Here you’ll get tips on the best courses, software licences, etc.”
“In the 21st century, one of the most important skills would be creative problem-solving.” says Nanayakkara, “…graphic designers, being in the ‘creative community’ have an opportunity to develop these skills. “
Design educators with foresight are already tapping into the latest research, aiming to bridge the gulf between industry and academia.
Aside from curricula, we can expect to see new mark-making tools. Raffle predicts that pens and paper aren’t going anywhere. New developments simply offer more choice. One example he highlights is Google’s Tiltbrush, which allows the user to paint in 3D.
Nanayakkara adds, “It’s more realistic to think about more augmented stylus/pens rather than replacing the core capabilities of them with voice or gesture … the tangibility of digital pens provide an efficient, accurate and intuitive way to create and modify contents, and continue to serve as an indispensable tool. What would be cool is to develop wearables that will allow users to simply grab any analogue pen, pencil, paintbrush etc and use it as if it’s a digital stylus. In fact, recently we developed a small sensor that can be attached to a nail and empower normal analogue pen with digital interaction capabilities.”
Tools and software aren’t the only aspects to change our process, virtual opportunities for collaboration draw us into a studio, without leaving home.
No longer trapped in a “video chat rectangle”
Working from home during lockdown taught us to be damn grateful for tech; however, it’s no substitute for real-life and after a while, we felt the effects of facetime fatigue.
What if technology could simulate a real-life “physical” meeting? Visualise a team pow-wow where you could enter a virtual world and meet your colleagues around a three-dimensional table.
Brainstorm, conceptualise, plan – all in real-time.
“Tools like Spatial.io let people in different places feel like they are in the same room, and do creative work together,” says Raffle. “It could become a great way to “telecommute” without feeling like everyone is trapped in a little video chat rectangle.”
“With the availability of high bandwidth, 3D scanning, physiological sensing and consumer AR/VR sets,” Nanayakkara adds, “it will be hard to differentiate the feeling of face-to-face communication and remote collaboration.”
Aotearoa’s segue into a new era
“There’s some great talent in visual graphics and effects industries in New Zealand, as well as some talented interaction and content designers,” says Raffle, “VR really needs great content, and as AR gains steam, it will too.”
Through learning, cooperation and sharing, we can grow digital communities to adopt the tools and technology early on.
Nanayakkara advises, “Learn to learn. The technology space is changing rapidly, and some get obsolete faster than we think. Therefore, understanding the fundamental logic and ability to adapt to different syntax and usage will be the key. “
“We are developing some world-class technologies here,” says Miller, “and our strengths lie in getting to the heart of a problem and finding a solution that simply works. We need to better-connect innovators and entrepreneurs with the expertise and tools to make the ‘commercialisation’ part a whole lot easier!”
Ray Kurzweil posits that machines will soon become just as capable as humans, with the ability to interact and learn new skills. ‘The Singularity’, a time in the future when machines will surpass humankind in both intelligence and productivity, Kurzweil predicts, is not far away.
For now, it’s humans who shape the tools – the innovators, engineers and tech aficionados.
“I think that products reflect the emotions that are put into them, in their creation.” says Raffle, “Products are made by people, and people bring emotions, intentions, feelings and desires to them.” 
“Innovation is happening where talented designers can merge the best of both capabilities, human and AI,” says Miller.
Let’s put on our headset and enjoy the journey.
Dr Suranga Nanayakkara
Augmented Human Lab
Dr Hayes Raffle
 Dr Peter Diamondis, ‘The Future is Faster than you think’ Blog, https://www.diamandis.com/blog/future-is-faster-than-you-think
 Dr Ray Kurzweil, ‘The law of accelerating returns,’ last modified 7 March 2001, https://www.kurzweilai.net/the-law-of-accelerating-returns
 Nake, F. Computer art: A personal recollection. In Proceedings of C&C. ACM, New York, NY, USA, (2005), 54—62; https://doi.org/10.1145/1056224.1056234”
 Ray Kurzweil, ‘The law of accelerating returns,’ last modified 7 March 2001, https://www.kurzweilai.net/the-law-of-accelerating-returns
 Hayes Raffle, ‘Project Connect: Adventures in Tech with Hayes Raffle’, Techweek, July 28, 2020, YouTube video, 28:08, https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=1668&v=tzRclwch-aQ&feature=emb_title