Squat the virtual space! Column for Computer Arts Magazine

This months we were asked to write a column for Computer Arts Magazine. Read the full version here!                         

Squat the virtual space

Designing for technology is a very exciting field to work in at the moment. One of the reasons is the rapid development of augmented reality (AR) glasses. Augmented spaces have been out there for a long time and have always been one of my personal fascinations. However, they were always limited to a telephone screen. Imagine that you won't look at a phone or computer screen but you wear goggles to visit a world where the virtual and physical blend into one experience. A world in which you use your body to navigate instead of mouse clicks and a keyboard. This virtual space will be tangible. A unexplored space without rusty design rules. The virtual spaces are often referred to as the ‘not real’ spaces, in my opinion this space is very real and it’s time to take it seriously!

The younger generation is important to keep an eye on while designing our technology, as they are the ones who influence this heavily. The generation Y (aka millennials, born 1980-2000) is part of the DIY movement and encourage open source and co-creation. Next to generation Y there is a post-millennial generation, called generation Z (1995–2010). These digital natives grow up connected and use code as a second language. Both Y and Z generations have an intimate relationship with their mobile phone and see this as a real extension of themselves.

This relationship is growing even stronger by using technologies that mimic our bodily senses. Touch, hearing, smell and sight are connected to interactions in the virtual space. Some phones can already send you a specific scent to remind you of something. There is the haptic feedback of a smartwatch that starts ‘tapping’ you on your wrist to let you know someone is communicating with you, like a friend would do by tapping you on your shoulder for attention.

Designing bodily interactions in the virtual space creates exiting design challenges with an interesting generation of users. But who decides how this virtual space is constructed? How do we design the intimate interactions? Does this space need (new) rules? What kind of rules? What forms of standardisation? Do we want standardisation at all? Where do we start, or how do we continue?

Historically, the (white male dominated) big tech companies are the ones who take a lead in this. They have the final call in how technology is designed, developed, commercialised and used. They operate in the Silicon Valley bubble where they increasingly loose track of the reality of the end users.

At his closing speech at SXSW last month, Bruce Sterling talked about the power clash between governments and the big technology companies (the new big 5). He ironically referred to their own original slogans:  “Do Apple users have the power to be their best? Do Microsoft users always get to go wherever they want to go today? Does everybody trust Google? Do they never do anything evil?”.

Facebook is bigger than the Catholic Church. Apple kills the creative freedom for designers, by blocking apps from their all-powerful infrastructure and and completely dictate how we should design our apps.

Will the Y and Z generation accept these power positions? They need and want to be in control of their media usage. Look at Snapchat, ignoring the standards in user experience design. Snapchat became a popular tool for communication for these generations, because only they learned how to use it. It feels like a secret code or new language that gives them the power of being in control. In this time, where millennials are the co-creators and co-designers of the way we design our technology, it just seems old fashioned for big companies to decide how we should design and use virtual spaces. Do we need a democratised system? A new virtual revolution with different hopes and dreams than the virtual revolution of the 90’s?

We are on the threshold of entering the 360 degree augmented space, the door is open. This is the time to create a democratised system that gives back power. Until now, visualising this virtual space has looked very technology driven, like a distant stereotype sci-fi movie scene. How will we tell our stories and interact with information in a safe way? Let’s make it intimate and personal. Let’s start co-designing this space, do it ourselves and make it safe and open. Let’s take control, squat this space and start living there...

Time for some virtual squatting!