John Dimatos On Networked Objects, Creative Technology and Social Good

Following his participation at our NYC Conference in April, PSFK had a chance to talk with John Dimatos, Resident Researcher at NYU’s Tisch Interactive Telecommunications Program.

Following his talk at PSFK’s NYC Conference in April, PSFK had a chance to sit down with John Dimatos, Resident Researcher at NYU’s Tisch Interactive Telecommunications Program (ITP). Given ITP’s focus on the intersection of art and technology – and the increased recognition of the complementary nature of both – we wanted to talk to John about any trends or shifts he’s seeing in the nature of, and demand for, ITP students’ and graduates’ work.

What resulted from our conversation was a deepened understanding of how art and technology are continuing to align more tightly to produce work like networked objects – which can benefit both the commercial sector, and social good.

What are some key themes you’re seeing emerge in ITP students’ work?

Sustainability has been one of the key themes in the past few years. While we might instinctively associate sustainability with the environment, it has actually influenced a broader spectrum of work, leading to more open sourcing of projects, and community-oriented work.

We’ve also been seeing a strong shift towards transparency, as afforded by a multitude of open source projects, and demanded by more informed and empowered consumers in general. Students have been creating projects geared towards empowering regular citizens in various ways: a prototype for organizing your own local music festival, a better community barter system, or an easier way to manage your online social graph.  Also, for a current and much-discussed example of this transparency, just look at WikiLeaks.  Fueled by secure user submissions, citizen journalists (and insider leaks), WikiLeaks may have broken more political news reports than more traditional, established news outlets as of late.

Lastly, a key area of focus within the ITP program involves physical computing.  While the proliferation of information online has educated and empowered consumers, we’re also seeing this empowerment occur with physical things. By incorporating physical computing into our coursework, we’re ensuring that students without a traditional engineering background feel comfortable getting underneath the proverbial hood, and figuring out how technical devices work. We do this using low-complexity devices, like a micro-controller – and work towards students ultimately developing their own inputs and outputs for that simple device.

Is Physical Computing related to the emerging “Internet of Things”?

Absolutely – physical computing involves the development of new interfaces as a platform for interactivity. For example, is there a new form of a mouse by which to interact with a computer? This is the same challenge that “the internet of things” aims to answer for individuals’ daily lives – using networked objects to make “things” talk. Twitter helps a lot as a communications platform, by essentially acting as an API. By combining a communications platform like Twitter with a data visualization tool like Pachube, and embedding or streaming both onto an object, we’re now able to get a physical object to communicate valuable information – and empower the ultimate user.

Tom Igoe, a leader in the field, is a faculty member and Area head of physical computing at ITP – he authored Making Things Talk, which is popular entry point to the topic (for any PSFK readers that want to learn more about the subject).

Have you seen any shifts or themes in what ITP graduates go on to – or who hires them?

Quite a few graduates are hired by ad agencies in the role of Creative Technologists – though I hesitate to rely on the title, given that there still isn’t a clearly defined set of production skills associated with this title/discipline across agencies. We see an increasing number of graduates go onto start their own businesses, and many others prefer to pursue their careers as artists.

Finally, one long-term opportunity John sees for the work produced by ITP students and graduates is to develop applications that will benefit society as a whole. For example, the specific locative technology related to the internet of things – such as GPS and small radios – can have an enormous effect on quality of life in the developing world, when they eventually have the reach and penetration that mobile phones do. The hope is that, by taking advantage of the economies of scale from developing a product or application for branded mass distribution in the Western world, corporations and institutions could also afford to contribute some of that commercial volume to benefit the developing world – which needs technology to survive – not just live better – from day to day.

Let’s hope brands can see this opportunity, as well, and build that expectation into their long-range plans for adopting new technologies.

Thanks, John!

John Dimatos

Tisch Interactive Telecommunications Program

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