The dream of self-sufficiency and sustainability has become true. Everyone is now able to produce goods, to communicate with anyone without being charged or tracked and to fulfill their basic needs without forgoing modern conveniences.

Rendering of the Cruiser Charisma

Model of Cruiser Charisma as exhibited at RCA

Cruiser Charisma intertwines extrapolations about the latest (and upcoming) advances in technologies with a series of research trips that designer Jonas Loh made into intentional communities, groups of people who attempt to establish their own society on a micro-scale. He visited Earthaven which is ruled by community consensus and divided in small villages, went to see what remained of the ethics and ideals of The Farm and even made a trip to Berlin, Ohio, to get to know the Amish lifestyle built around religious beliefs and resistance to modernity.

Amish doll are faceless

Caravan at Earthaven Community

The project also professes faith into D.I.Y. and open source movement which could one day take technologies that are currently out of you and i -such as synthetic biology, genetic engineering, bio-printing and new form of production methods- out of the hands of venture capitalists and politicians and into everybody else's backyard.

The outcome of the project is utopian, yet credible: a caravan which will run on advanced biofuels, whose inhabitants will be able to produce all kinds of goods and organic materials thanks to a 3D printing production unit, eat synthetic protein rich meat that will be grown through a new generation of plants, recycle their poo to produce energy and experiment with new ways of community living.

Useful Synthetic Plant Garden & Production Facility

Conveyor belt, part of the production unit

Interestingly residents would communicate over long distance using the Earth-Moon-Earth, aka moon bounce, a radio communications technique developed after World War II. The system relies on the propagation of radio waves from an Earth-based transmitter directed via reflection from the surface of the Moon back to an Earth-based receiver. The residents of the caravan selected this form of long-distance communication because it is not yet privatized and because their personal data doesn't get tracked.

Rendering of the Cruiser Charisma

The project explores the possibility to reach a total state of self-sufficiency and with it a different social, political and economical system.

Amish One-Room School

Earthaven Community

All images courtesy of Jonas Loh.
Another project by Jonas Loh (together with Steffen Fielder): Known Unknowns.

Cruiser Charisma is a project developed at the Design Interactions department at the Royal College of Art in London.

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Cost is still a major limiting factor for low-carbon energy technologies. What if consumers were able to fund these technologies just by trying out some new and exciting entertainment experiences? The Energy Pilots, the project that Elliott P. Montgomery is presenting right now at the graduation show of Design Interactions at RCA (god, i really need to write about other schools once in a while), is a research program that develops hypothetical business models by borrowing proven techniques from other sectors, and adapting them to fit the financial challenges of specific low-carbon technologies.

The introduction video below explains the premise of the research initiative:

The research has been presented -as much as performed- at the Sparks Energy Symposium and at the Responsible Business Conference in 2011, catalysing a discussion around the future of energy business and the associated implications. The next presentation of the project is going to be decidedly corporate as Montgomery will be submitting his ideas to Shell. The designer's speculative devices are also demonstrated in public spaces to raise a discussion about the viability and social implications of these theoretical strategies. Some of them are purely provocative. Others, in particular the Extreme Tourism Model, are rather seductive.

Research devices in use

While Richard Branson plans to send passengers above the atmosphere, Montgomery's Extreme Tourism Model follows Jules Verne's A Journey to the Centre of the Earth by offering thrill-seekers the possibility to travel deep into the crust of the Earth and witness its geological wonders.

The deepest hole in the Earth so far is the TauTona Mine, near Johannesburg. The gold mine reaches some 3.9 km (2.4 mi) underground. The Extreme Tourism Model will travel 5 kilometers underground. The cost of a ticket to 'the center of the Earth" would be slightly less elevated than the one for a trip aboard Virgin Galactic's SpaceShip and will fund enhanced geothermal systems.


A second proposal, the Thrill Attraction Model would enable a solar energy company to attract customers by offering them a chance to win a prize each time the customer pays their energy bill. At the bottom of the customer's bill would be a unique number. Within each billing cycle, one winning number would be selected, and the corresponding customer would win the jackpot.


The thrill of winning money would be an incentive, helping consumers overcome their natural aversion to a higher priced energy service. If we aren't always dependably altruistic, maybe simple cash would bring us to make greener choices.

A key part of the Thrill Attraction Model, the Solar Lottery Ball Tumbler device would be used to hold test lotteries, in public spaces, as a way to study the model, to see whether people would be interested, but also to discuss the ethics of this possibly manipulative technique.

A representative device - the Solar Lottery Ball Tumbler - is used to discuss the Thrill Attraction Model in the public domain

Much more appealing to corporations, the Advertising Capital Model aims to generate additional revenue by advertising using the energy infrastructure. 100m high wind turbines outfitted with smoke printing nozzles would spell out advertisement messages into the sky. The fees for these advertisements would help to finance additional wind farm construction.

This is what it would look like in theory:


And this is the state of the system right now:

A rough 4.5m tall prototype of the Advertising Capital Model is demonstrated and studied in public spaces

Finally, the Alternate Service Model is a solar updraft tower tailored to the needs of a company developing a new solar technology.

The Updraft Replicator used to test drive the Alternate Service Model

The tower would allow people to launch objects into the sky using the vertical gust from the plant. An Updraft Replicator is used to study this model. So far, people interrogated about this new entertainment service have expressed the desire to send seeds or the ashes of their pets up in the clouds.

Presentation at the Sparks Energy Symposium

Check out The Energy Pilots at the Royal College of Art graduate exhibition until 3 July 2011 on Kensington Gore.

For other smoke systems: Smoke and Hot Air by Ali Momeni and Robin Mandel. See also SWAMP (Studies of Work Atmosphere and Mass Production)'s machine that blows miniature artificial house shaped clouds.

Bomb disposal robot

Another project from the graduate show of Design Interactions at RCA.

What should a robot smell like? Kevin Grennan has augmented three existing industrial robots with 'sweat glands'. Each uses a specific property of human sub-conscious behaviour in response to a chemical stimulus: one makes humans about to undergo surgery more trustful, another one makes women working in production line more focused and the third one is a bomb disposal robot that emits the smell of fear.

The contrast between the physical anti-anthropomorphic nature of the machines and the olfactory anthropomorphism highlights the absurd nature of the trickery at play in all anthropomorphism.

The 3 robots exist only as concept and graphic design works but Grennan also worked on robot parts that are decidedly too anthropomorphic for our human taste. At the show he is showing the prototype of a robot armpit, all hair and fleshy colour.

Robot Armpit Prototype

View of the prototype in the exhibition space

The Smell of Control: Fear, Focus, Trust also involved demonstrating the limits of anthropomorphism. The video of the android's birthday shows a lovely android attempting to recreate the most straightforward moment of a birthday celebration: blowing the candles of the birthday cake. Alas! the poor android has no lung and no matter how hard it tries it'll never disturb the flame and the candles will completely consume.


Quick Q&A with the designer:

You told me on Thursday that making anthropomorphic robots is probably not the best approach to robotics. Can you explain me why? What is wrong with anthropomorphic machines? Would it not be easier to relate to them?

Much current research into robotics is focused on the creation of anthropomorphic robots - machines that look and appear to behave like humans. Although there are valid reasons for this research (and a good deal of egotism), I believe that this approach is fundamentally flawed. As Sherry Turkle put it in her latest book Alone Together these machine are 'pushing our Darwinian buttons ... and asking us to love them'. Their ability to target our innate desire to nurture makes us exceptionally vulnerable to manipulation. Fundamentally our relationships with these machines will be based on falsehoods and ignorance. This is especially worrying if we also believe that these machines are to become more prevalent in our lives and more sophisticated over time.

Surgery robot

The drawings of the robots are both charming (the graphics are very elegant, there are touches of pink) and repulsive. Why did you chose to add these flaccid shapes, creepy hair and bits of skin to the otherwise very industrial-looking robots?

The designers of android robots we see being developed today have concentrated on humanising them with very broad and obvious qualities; fleshy skin, bright eyes and teeth, with clothing covering everything else. I am interested it how the more complex and private parts of the human body would be translated onto the robot. These are the parts that we ourselves sometimes find disgusting but yet are integral to our humanity. I like to beguile the viewer from a distance drawing them in to the imagery to appreciate the detail only to disgust them as they draw closer. Conceptually I mirror this approach too, whereas initially the ideas I present seem innocent and functional, as the viewer learns more an underlying darkness becomes apparent.

Some of your robots emit smells and sweat. Is this something robot engineers are exploring right now in their labs? Why didn't you just design a perfume for robots? What is the purpose of the sweat and the smells exactly?

I was initially inspired by an idea from the 17th century French inventor De Villayer. He developed a clock that would release a different spice each hour. So if you woke up in the middle of the night and the smell of cloves was hanging in the air you could say that it was 3am. I was inspired by this mechanical communication to investigate whether robots could use smell to communicate in more sophisticated ways.

While there has been some research into chemical communication between robots and also into developing a robotic sense of smell, there is very little inquiry into the use of smell or chemicals in human-robot interaction. Jofish Kaye, currently a researcher at Nokia investigated the area in relation to human-computer interaction as part of his PhD at Cornell.

It was important to me that the odours and chemicals came from within the robots and that they were an integrated means for them to communicate with the humans who would surround them. Each robot that I have augmented with a 'sweat gland' emits a particular chemical that has a specific effect on humans and the chemical has been chosen to further enable the robot's primary function.

In the case of the bomb disposal robot the 'sweat gland' releases the smell of human fear. It has been proven that humans can identify this specific smell and it tends to enhance cognitive performance in. I propose that this robot would enable surrounding humans to work more effectively and to differentiate dangerous situations from false alarms.

In the case of the picker robot. It releases a chemical called androstadienone, which is found in male sweat. This has be shown in research to effect mood in females under certain circumstances. I have speculated that this robot when used on a production line could enhance the performance of female employees in it's vicinity.


The third robot is a surgery robot. It releases a mist of oxytocin, a chemical found in the human brain. This chemical when inhaled nasally has been shown to cause people to become more trusting. I speculated that a patient could meet this robot before surgery and the chemical mist would cause the patient to trust in its abilities to a greater degree.

While from a functional perspective these 'sweating' robots might be able to perform their tasks and interact with humans more efficiently I hope that the dark thought of robots taking subconscious control of humans will cause viewers to reflect on how we really want to interact with these machines in the future.

Thanks Kevin!

The Smell of Control: Fear, Focus, Trust remains on view at the Royal College of Art graduate exhibition until 3 July 2011 on Kensington Gore.

I'll come back with more projects in the coming days but if you're curious or can't make it to London before July 3, check out the website of their show where all the projects are documented.

A second project from the Royal College of Art graduate exhibition which remains open until 3 July 2011 on Kensington Gore.

Last year, stories of families forced to spend their holidays inside Heathrow airport due to bad weather conditions and volcanic ash clouds have made the headlines of newspapers. Inspired by the misery endured by the passengers, Lisa Ma, a graduate from the department of Design Interactions, is now offering stranded travelers the possibility to spend their waiting time in a tour of the area surrounding the transport hub.

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Heathrow Heritage is a series of excursions run in cooperation with the activists, historians and residents of the villages around Heathrow. Most of the locations visited typically look like postcard pretty English villages but are threatened by the expansion of the airport. Lisa Ma also enrolled the complicity of the airport deacon who gets in touch with stranded passengers and informs them of the possibility to spend some time outside of the terminals on a bike tour around the ancient villages.


Passengers are first transport on a free bus then hop on a bike to cycle around and learn about Richard Cox, the inventor of the Cox apple, who was buried in the 12th century village church, to see a Medieval barn rumoured to be the oldest and largest in England....

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visitors will be told about the astute plan Greenpeace hatched to protest against the Third Runway. The activists bought an acre of land and sold it to 100,000 people around the world for £2 each. The plot is now used as an allotment for locals and protesters.

View of the Airplot

The Heathrow Heritage activity brings two communities together: disgruntled' travelers passing through the airport on their way to other cities and local residents who are deeply affected by but rarely in direct contact with goings on the other side of the airport fences. The tour leaves entertaining and memorable experiences for the passengers and constitutes a new form of activism for the protesters.

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Village of Harmondsworth from the church tower

Narrative map of Heathrow Heritage (hi-res version)

While working on the project Lisa Ma also met Raj the homeless and 'unofficially authorised resident of Terminal 5."

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The atmosphere inside the Terminals is miles away from the lovely cottages and pubs located a few minutes away from the airport.

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Quick questions to Lisa:

How did the airport authorities react to your project? After all, it's both a lovely way to handle stranded passengers but it is also potentially annoying for them if you let activists point to the problems involved in the expansion of the airport.

You are absolutely right, we are very careful about approaching the airport authorities in case the project becomes prohibited or subverted. If BAA should take on the project, it would be under their campaign of being "committed to being a good neighbour".

I had a conversation with someone from Air France, who was interested in inviting the project over to Paris. They seemed to understand that a combination of self-criticism and debate in a local-run service could actually improve the reputation of the aviation centre. I'm told about the further terminal expansions at Paris-Charles de Gaulle Airport and imagine a similar situation to Heathrow may happen in Roissy.

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Drunk tour guide

Can you tell me again the story of the bank robber? How did you get in touch with him?

The bank robber is one of my favourite characters. When K first approached me at the squat site he asked if I was Japanese and wore leather jackets because he was following the instructions from a fortune cookie. I was terrified when I heard about his experience initially. But he's very sweet and lives in deep regret, even though everyone now thinks of him as a super hero in the recession. He is the drunken tour guide's best friend. With silvering hair a posture that looks like he should be on a Miami beach, K is a charmer with a philosophical approach. I hugged him the last time I saw him.

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Map of the tour

Is the project still ongoing? how many tours have taken place already?

The tours are dependent on me at the moment, so are pausing whilst I am exhibiting at the RCA show. I'm hoping to record the responses and prove to the activists that what the project is strong enough for them to take over and have a life of its own beyond my direction.

We've been aiming for at least 2-3 tours a week so that all the stakeholders could become accustomed to the routine. Some of the tour numbers are smaller than we expected -we were about the only people in the airport wishing for volcanic ashes to stay for longer. I've spent so long with the activists that they've asked me to look after their site when they left it to make hanging baskets in the village!

Thanks Lisa!

All images courtesy of Lisa Ma.

Back from a quick visit to the Royal College of Art Summer Show in London. I stayed 3 hours there and only managed to speak to 5 students, that's how ridiculously inefficient i am.

Urban Stargazing team ready to catapult stars into the London night

One of the most fascinating and clever projects i've seen so far comes from my favourite Design Product platform: the one headed by Onkar Kular and Sebastian Noel.

Because they spend most of their time in an artificially lit environment, city dwellers have long stopped paying attention to those natural night lights coming from billions of light years away: the stars.

With his project Urban Stargazing, Oscar Lhermitte attempts to have us raise our head again up to the stars in the city sky by adding new constellations that narrate contemporary myths about London. Twelve groups of stars have been designed and installed guerrilla-style at different locations in the city. They can only be observed by the naked eye at night time and from the ground they look so uncannily like the old constellations that you might never notice that any change has occurred. Each of these new constellations have a story that is directly relevant to the Londoner.

The V2 / 51.52892, -0.05971

Take the V2 for example. This constellation refers to the bombing of London during the Second World War. During 'the Blitz', V-2 rockets were hitting London over a period of several months, destroying over a million of houses and killing around 20,000 civilians. Bethnal Green tube station was used as an air-raid shelter but on 3rd March 1943, after a false alert, 172 people died of suffocation while rushing into the shelter. The V2 constellation now shines above Bethnal Green.

The Brick / 51.54249, -0.05883

Lhermitte told me the fascinating story behind the Mosquito constellation. It has recently been discovered that the London underground houses its own peculiar species of mosquito. Apparently, they mutated from the bird-biting form that colonised the underground when it was built in the last century to a variety that nips rats, mice and maintenance workers. Underground mosquitoes are reluctant to mate with their outdoor cousins, indicating that they have become a separate species -- a process that normally takes thousands of years rather than decades. These underground mosquitoes naturally deserved to get their own constellation.

The Mosquito / 51.52873, -0.04058

Each constellation is a triangulated structure made out of clear ø 0.6mm nylon line, ø 0.2mm polyethylene braid, ø 0.75mm fibre optic and a solar powered LED. During the day, the battery is being recharged by the solar panel and the circuit switches ON the LED when it is dark enough to observe stars.
In order to have the constellation in the air, the team uses a telescopic catapult to fix the structure on top of trees.

Poster of the constellation

Check out the google maps that points to each constellation with their corresponding coordinates.


I think that the question i heard the most when i visited the work in progress show of the Design Interactions department at the RCA, London last month was "Have you seen Milan's project?" The second most asked question was "Have you seen the duck project?"

My aim is to virtually live like a male Mallard duck in order to find friendship and who knows, maybe love, writes Milan Metthey. His self-assigned challenge to establish a personal connection with a duck is less absurd than it sounds. If a swan can fall in love with a plastic swan-shaped pedal boat, why wouldn't a duck fall for a man?

Metthey's project Love Ducking looks at how technology can help bridge the gap between human and non-human species. In his attempt to try and seduce a female Mallard duck, the designer tried to integrate the world of ducks.

Duck777Human Mask.jpg

First, he scanned his face into a 3d modeling software and morphed the result with the head of a duck. A radio controlled duck was then fitted with the hybrid head and sent swimming among the ducks and recreate their mating ritual.


After that, the designer dressed like a duck, filmed the result and submitted a lady duck to a screening of the impersonification (not sure one can apply the word in this context but hopefully you'll get my point.)

Since that wasn't good enough to impress the duck, he invited it to a romantic dinner in his studio:

Love Ducking - Experiment 3, Romantic Diner

Extract from an email interview with the designer...

Hi Milan! What gave you the idea of trying to establish friendship with a duck? And why did you chose the duck? Why not a cat for example?

The initial idea came after thinking about the complexity of human relationships and how someone could want to break away from those. Technology allows us to be super-connected which dramatically increases the amount of communication between each other. We are constantly exposed to huge amounts of information from this ongoing process of updating ourselves, and that can become very quickly overwhelming.
So I wanted to break up from this flow, find a way to escape this complexity. The language and sign barrier present between animals and us seemed to be the perfect place to initiate new kinds of relationships.

The reason why I chose the Mallard duck is because I wanted to find an animal that is still perceived as wild, but who would also be living in cities. The cat has been living with us for thousands of years, they already have quite complex relationships with us; they have been completely assimilated in our human lifestyles. The relationship we have with some pets can already be quite complex, there are so many stories where the master is under the control of his pet and this is what I wanted to get away from. Therefore domesticated pets were simply not good enough candidates. And also, ducks are pretty darn funny animals to watch.

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RC777 Duck.jpg

You documented 3 experiments so far. Was any of them more successful than the others? Are you planning on developing new strategies to establish friendship with them? Do you think that you're progressing in any way?

It's pretty hard to tell accurately which one worked best because in the case of the Romantic Diner experiment, there was a magic element to trigger an interaction: food. The other ones were trying to test if the duck would recognize a specific movement or understand a 2D projection. Also ducks need a time of adaptation before they accept and welcome the robot-duck newcomer. So I would say that the flirt experiment with the radio controlled duck is the one I enjoyed most. And from what I saw, the costume projection is the one that the duck enjoyed most, she wasn't cautious or distant about the object, she just hanged out there as usual.

In terms of new strategies, I am currently working on creating tools to enhance and facilitate cohabitation with the infamous urban Fox. I have been monitoring the foxes in my street for the past few weeks and I am just about to start implementing those tools and see what happens. It's very exciting to see another species interact with things I've made, it's very candid and naïve, but mind blowing at the same time.
I do go back to flirt with the ducks from time to time but in order to really see if there is a progress I should ideally leave my robot there all the time. Something I will certainly do when the next mating season starts in October/November.

Love Ducking - Experiment 2, Costume

How about you? Have you developed a stronger sense of affection? or just more respect for ducks?

You inevitably do get closer to the animal when you design for it. Spending so much time with the duck in mind does have a big impact. However I do force myself to keep the relationship I have with them strictly professional. I don't want my feelings interfering with the project. I still eat duck from time to time even though now I take a different look at my plate. I guess it is a sort of curious respect, I respect the fact that they undergo my experiments although they don't really have the choice. You do get to learn from other species when you analyse their lifestyles. The political systems are really fascinating to look at, because they are driven by nature itself, not brains.

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Did you pick up one in particular for your dinner? How did you select it?

I did all my experiments in Surrey Docks Farm in London. It's a wonderful place where they happen to have a duck pond in addition to all the usual farm animals. Barry Mason, the farm manager, kindly accepted to let me test my installations over there.

Ducks like to live in community so the staff had to pick up one duck that wouldn't be too stressed when left alone with some strange projections and objects. The same female duck was used for the different experiments. We didn't expect her to be so relaxed during the experiments, but it went really smoothly.


And do you feel you need technology to reach your goal?

Yes, it was clear from the start that technology was going to be a big part of the project. I had to find ways to transform the human body shape into something that would be closer to a duck. In addition I absolutely had to bring in some motion to integrate a sense of "life" into my designs. Using electronics was the best tool to use for creating and simulating behaviours. I have also been using technologies such as 3D scanning and 3D printing to build unique duck heads that would then be fitted on my Radio Controlled duck. These kinds of tools allowed me to integrate my identity into my objects. But it is also important to keep some natural elements into the process. For example when I am impersonating a duck with my costume, I need to do it physically in order to have a true dialogue going on with the animal. When natural things are combined with technology, it creates some hybrid results that are very interesting. And seeing how nature reacts to it is even more astonishing.

Love Ducking - Experiment 1, Radio controlled duck

Have you consulted with any scientist or community of duck amateurs to develop the project? And if you did, did they encourage your experiments or did they suggest that was a bonker idea?

I have been in touch with many different people who are connected in various ways with the duck. When I started my research, I wanted to get opinions and views from everywhere. I started by watching hours of documentaries about ducks in order to have a basic knowledge of the animal and then I started getting in touch with various people linked to the duck in their everyday life. People like duck farmers, duck hunting shop owners and many various duck associations, both amateur and professional. I did a lot of research on youtube, this tool is exceptional for the casual aspect of my research. Of course it's not the most valid tool for scientific facts but it really shows the human in all his splendor. The amount and diversity of videos you can find about people interacting with ducks is insane. It's a very rich database that contains the worst as well as the best on pretty much any subject. An invaluable tool for me.

When I started contacting farms and duck owners to test my designs, I had mixed responses. Some of them simply refused to get their ducks involved into these experiments and saw no interest in doing such experiments. Others had doubts but were curious to see what the hell I was talking about. I think in the end it is all about the mindset of the person, exactly like a situation where parents are against having their kids going out and mix up with strangers. Surrey Docks City Farm manager Barry Mason was very keen to let me come and hang out with the ducks. As soon as I started setting up the experiments, even people who had doubts on the farm entered into the game and started being curious to see what would happen.

Where is the role of the designer in your experiments with ducks? I'm assuming it's not in the wired cutlery.

My role here is to design the experience that the user will go through. I built these objects with the aim to give a quick and comprehensive feedback to the user when he is using these tools. The design importance here isn't in the beauty of the object, it's in the way it is going to be believed by the animal and in how you can control it in function of the ducks response. The other challenge was to find interesting and entertaining ways to communicate the story of a human seeking simpler relationships, tired of the human-to-human interactions. I chose iconic human tools and situations, then tried to put myself in the skin of a duck so that I could see from his perspective and adapt my design to a duck's point of view. My job was then to combine this duck approach with our human habits.


Thanks Milan!

All images courtesy Milan Metthey.

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