Everyday life undergoing dramatic changes

Design has now become revolutionary after being a slow evolutionary process

Beyond imagination An OLED installation, the technology which would change the quality of light in public and private spaces. NYT

Lots of once familiar objects and habits must now seem equally prehistoric — to eight-year-olds, at least. Paying by check. Listening to music on CDs. Videoing TV shows. Planning a journey with a road atlas. Calling a telephone helpline to check a train timetable or airline schedule. Being awoken by an alarm clock, and everything else that has been rendered redundant by digital technology.

After decades of being an evolutionary process of incremental improvements, design is now revolutionary. Just think of how quickly we have come to depend on once unimaginable innovations like cellphones, the internet, BlackBerries, iPods, Bluetooth, satellite navigation and iPhone applications. That’s just the start. Advances in technology are accelerating, and the social and political pressure on businesses to develop environmentally responsible alternatives to existing products is increasing. Over the next few years, many more familiar objects will be reinvented. Here are a few possibilities.

Cars: You don’t need a crystal ball to guess that more and more of us will soon be dumping our gas guzzlers for energy-efficient electric cars. The first of the forthcoming crop of electric models, like the Nissan Leaf and Mitsubishi i-Miev, have looked (disappointingly) like their predecessors. But the electric car is a thrilling opportunity for designers to develop a new type of vehicle that could have as dramatic an effect on this century as the Model T Ford did on the last one. “I just wish someone would let me try,” said Yves Béhar, founder of the San Francisco-based design group, fuseproject, whose Mission One superbike broke the land speed record for electric motorcycles last month by tearing along at 150.059 miles per hour, or about 240 km an hour, for one mile.

Another change is the trend for consumers to share their cars, rather than own them. This will create more sharing services, like the Zipcar network in the US, and also has implications for design. Chris Bangle, former head of design at BMW, reckons that sharers will put greater emphasis on the styling of their car interiors, possibly encouraging the development of modular interior components, which can be easily replaced when a new ‘sharer’ takes over. Conversely, he expects them to be less concerned about the exterior of their vehicles, which could be used to display advertising, like buses.

Street furniture: Old-fashioned telephones aren’t the only victims of the cellphone. Think of all of the things that you see (but generally don’t notice) on a typical street, and ask whether we still need them, or quite so many of them. Street lights? Yes. Bus stops? Ditto. Telephone booths? Obviously not. And parking meters? They’re at risk too, now that we can pay for parking by phone.

The parking meter’s days are numbered, but the phone booth’s fate is more intriguing. We may no longer need them to make calls, but they could provide ready-made sources of electricity for recharging electric cars, cellphones and laptops, not least as they are conveniently located by the roadside and tend to be concentrated in busy places. Spain is leading the way. Rather than build a new charging system from scratch, the Spanish government plans to install a test network of charging stations, many of which will be converted from under-used phone booths.

Lighting: Tried to buy a light bulb lately? If so, you’ll have noticed that there are fewer old-fashioned incandescent bulbs on sale, and more eco- responsible compact fluorescent ones. But CFLs (as they’re called) could soon be replaced by LEDs and OLEDs (short for light emitting diodes and organic light emitting diodes). As well as consuming less energy than CFLs and incandescents, they look dramatically different; and OLEDs, in particular, offer the tantalising possibility of developing revolutionary new styles of lighting.

Whereas incandescent and CFL bulbs shine light from a single source, LEDs create clusters of tiny light spots. Designers are already embedding LEDs into the structure of lights, whose design has traditionally been dominated by the need to support the bulb. OLEDs are even more versatile. These super-slender strips of light can be integrated into the existing elements of a room, such as walls or ceilings. Lighting need no longer take the form of an object, but could blend seamlessly with its surroundings.

Newspapers, books and magazines: How are you reading this column? On the printed page of a newspaper? A computer screen? Or the digital page of an electronic reader? Whatever the shortcomings of the current crop of electronic readers, like Amazon’s Kindle, (and everyone I know who uses one has a long list) more and more of us could be reading newspapers, book and magazines on super-sophisticated versions in future.
If the bloggers are right and Apple launches a touch-screen tablet computer early next year, it could have the same galvanising effect on the electronic reader as the iPod did on the MP3 player. Until then, the cute new XOXO tablet computer, which the non-profit organisation One Laptop Per Child is planning to launch next year as an educational laptop for kids in developing countries, is the best example of how appealing an electronic reader can be. The screen opens up like the pages of a book.

Computers: Not that computers will stay the same for much longer. The smart money is on the keyboards and mice of old-school computers being replaced by ‘human interaction’ systems operated by voice or movement. An early example is the motion-sensitive g-speak system developed by Oblong Industries in Los Angeles, which is now being tested by students at the Rhode Island School of Design. If human interaction takes off, even the computer will be reinvented.

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