Designing environments, experiences and communication programs before the 1980’s was a whole lot easier. The only version of “us” that we had to contend with was the physical body — the one we design traffic patterns for and use to carry our head around. Throughout the ‘80s and well into the ‘90s, when the Internet became mainstream, a second version of us emerged: our digital profile comprising social media data, digitized public records, online purchases, Facebook pages, search engine preferences, etc.
The digital us shifted the balance of power between audience, brands, culture, markets and everything else. Digital’s impact on design was enormous, spawning whole new industries, spatial languages, creative expressions, design processes, types of materials and fabrication methods.
Our digital profiles are abstracted portraits of our online activities vividly depicted in ones and zeroes and clustered into search engine optimized profiles outlined on big data canvases. Depending on which generation we fall into, our perception of the accuracy of our portrait digital profiles is entirely different. As the Apples, Googles and IBMs of the world add cognitive computing, deep learning, body sensors and machine vision to the mix, the depth and accuracy of our digital profile will take on whole new dimensions we can only speculate about today.
There now exists a third profile of us that lies at the intersection of the built and digital environments. It is a profile that most people are not even aware of, about which we have little agency, that impinges on our privacy and -- in some cases -- feeds our paranoia. I call this profile the Sensor Stream.
Our sensor stream is collected through a vast, silent, connected, unseen and autonomous network of sensors. It gathers images and data from security cameras, traffic cameras and other sensor nets in strategic locations throughout the world and the Internet of things, and compiles them into increasingly connected big data sets. Sensor streams track the where, how and when we move through physical space and even track the who. To give you a sense of the scale of sensor streams, The Central Nervous System for the Earth (CeNSE), deployed worldwide and being developed by HP and Shell, is predicted to reach 1 trillion sensors by 2020.
Sensor streams have many positive benefits. Themed entertainment, amusement parks and sports stadiums use sensors, image recognition and databases to scan faces to identify known troublemakers autonomously. Sensor streams in airports, public places and transportation hubs are an important tool in the fight against terrorism. Traffic sensors create efficient traffic flows, which also helps the environment.
Then there is the data. The IDC research report, “The Digital Universe in 2020,” states that “Machine-generated sensor data will be become a far larger portion of the Big Data world.” This vast pool of data poses challenging questions like:
- If data is generated in public spaces and paid for by the public, shouldn’t non-sensitive data be available for public use?
- Who owns the data? Us or the government?
- What is the liability for misuse and invasion on privacy?
On a practical level, one could consider sensor streams a new design language. It will require designers and architects to take into consideration people’s use of social media and mobile devices, how many and where to place sensors, lines of sight and access, what applications to commission or buy and how to treat privacy issues. Ten years ago, considerations like that were definitely not on our radar.
Currently, sensors like iBeacon (a low energy Bluetooth sensor) are limited; they only track proximity with varying degrees of accuracy. More accurate tracking requires the use of more than one system to gather data. Smart devices are at the moment not that smart. Once we add the quality of a journey, through space, place and cities, with value added content and the revelation of the dynamics of a place, we will start to realize the full potential of sensor streams. With more intelligence and much greater resolution, the possibility for design and new types of businesses is only limited by our imagination, not the technology.
Creative Destruction Series: Introduction
Creative Destruction Series Part 01: Palpitations on the Slopes of Technology
Creative Destruction Series Part 02: Designing for Plurals, the Evolving Audience
Creative Destruction Series Part 03: Relocating Humanity
Creative Destruction Series Part 04: A Curious Stepchild of Inbound Marketing
Creative Destruction Series Part 05: Automated Design
Creative Destruction Series Part 06: Embracing Serendipity in the Digital Age