New ideas

The Thought Font has evolved quite a bit since my original project proposal. Unfortunately, we couldn’t quite materialise our idea of changing a space or room by putting our device in it. We originally wanted the Thought Font to change the flow of a room, drawing people towards itself with an inviting aura of intrigue. In doing this, we hoped to create a feedback loop in which people using the thought font would have their scope of mind changed (for better or for worse), which would then result in a slight difference in atmosphere of the space. The change in atmosphere would then, somehow, increase the appeal of the thought font, thus ensuring the cycle continued, with each new interaction compounding the effect that the font was having on the room.

This idea, though, proved much more difficult to realise than we had initially anticipated. We just couldn’t quite turn our ideas into a device that we could build to a good standard in a few weeks. We had to revaluate our approach to the concept, and decided to take what we felt was the strongest aspects of the concept – the interactions and physical appearance of the font – and focus on improving them with more contextual research and more meaningful applications.

Therefore, we have decided on a new purpose for the font that is, in our opinion, much more achievable. Instead of attempting to attract people to the font through changes in the purpose and atmosphere of a space, the font will now instead be wholly designed for a specific interaction – to act as a gathering point for groups or teams to come together for discussions.

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The font will act as a bit of a combination of a water cooler and a church font. The holy water font is of course a very significant item in the church, acting as the central focal point of the entire building during baptism ceremonies (among others depending on denomination, for example Easter). Meanwhile, the water cooler stereotypically provides an area of congregation around which gossip, anecdotes, and discussion are traded. In combining the symbology of the church font with the behaviour of the water cooler, we plan to create an object that ritualises discussions and meetings for greater outcomes.

To provide greater meaning and function to the font we want to create a useful device, not just a point of congregation.

The font will therefore now be a tool for teams and groups to use in their discussions. The function of the font for the user will be fairly simple; activate the font and carry on as normal, carrying out your meeting or discussion with the device in the physical middle of the discussion. The device, meanwhile, is listening and recording the entire meeting and storing it for future use.

New applications

The application of this new concept has many layers.

Firstly, the record and transcript of meetings is potentially useful for the teams themselves. Providing a record of all meetings and discussions in a team is a great resource for the team or team leaders which to utilise in future.

However, this is just the most simple application which is the drawing point for potential users. It is, in fact, crucial to the success of the following applications for the font to be adopted by large numbers of teams.

Artificial-intelligence-155161_1280The collection of data is of course a massive industry, with multi-billion dollar companies like Facebook and Google basing their entire business models around the collection of data and information. By embedding our device in potentially millions of meeting rooms and teams’ roundtable discussions, we gain the ability to collect transcripts on countless discussions on important topics, building a bank of exploitable data containing information on a plethora of topics.

My comparison of this information to a bank is important also. Just as banks deal in money, collecting peoples’ money and storing it for them in the hope of using it in pursuit of profit (trading etc.), we hope that the widespread use of our device will create a kind of economy of knowledge, in which users/teams deposit their discussions (knowledge) into our system, from which we hope to gain further knowledge. It is of course the purpose of many Artificial Intelligence systems to use a given set of information to discover new things from hidden patterns much faster than people do, for example providing solutions to problems through use of large datasets more effectively that humans. Examples of this area of artificial intelligence and data analysis are easy to find, with the most popular being Flu Trends by Google, who used search engine data to analyse and predict the spread of flu through populations.

These newly discovered ideas bloat our bank of data even further, significantly improving the potential application of our information bank. Such applications include use by third parties, but our main goal is to inject this newly discovered information back into the “economy”, by bringing up related information as a part of the meeting.

Following a speech to the Business Council in the East Room, President Barack Obama meets with Business Council Leadership in the Blue Room 2/13/09. Official White House Photo by Pete Souza

Lastly, the quality of the meeting is something that we are acutely aware of and willing to impact. Kathleen Paris of the Office of Quality Improvement at the University of Wisconsin is uniquely qualified in designing effective meetings, and discusses the correlation between effective communication and effective results

Meetings consume more of our time than any other single other activity but far too many of the meetings that devour our time are poorly planned and poorly led. We seem to accept that inefficient meetings are inevitable. In fact, it almost seems like part of our academic culture that we have to attend long and useless meetings.

Issues such as loss of focus and dominant/disruptive team members are major causes for inefficient discussions, as mentioned by Paris. We therefore have an interest in improving the quality of the meetings in which our devices are embedded, which is the last major application of the device. We hope to design and create a device that actively improves the quality of the discussion around it with emotional queues, thus improving the quality of the information that we collect and improve the overall quality and usability of the information bank.

New context

With a device such as this, there is ample opportunity to draw inspiration from a wide range of disciplines and study areas. Our designs, both in aesthetic and function, have been inspired by some very interesting subjects.

Evolving on our original designs for water as a medium for communication, we found ourselves studying the old practice of divination.

[Divination] is the act of finding divine knowledge or wisdom “by way of an occultic, standardized process or ritual” (Peek, 1991).

As a group, we feel as though Peek’s definition above could also be loosely applied to the act of discussion or meetings for groups or teams, wherein the meeting represents the standardised process and our device, the font, provides the means of finding divine knowledge. This research influenced our approach to the devices function and aesthetic considerably, leading us to imagine our font as a paranormal or magical device, whereby the divine being that the user is communication with is technology, the internet, Artificial Intelligence.

We were also drawn towards the specific method of divination known as Eromancy, whereby seers would interact with a vase of water and interpret the ripples or bubbles that appear on the water’s surface (Spence, 1920). This idea of interpretation was something we explored conceptually, conjuring ideas of meeting rooms coming together to interpret the signals of our device with a kind of codebook or rune system. While this idea is certainly fun and playful, we decided that it drew too much applicability away from the device and made it more of a gimmick than we would like to imagine.

Essentially, the goal is to create a device that blurs the lines between technology and magic. To make our system feel otherworldly or divine in nature. It is of course the most famous of Arthur C Clarke’s three laws that states;

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. (Clarke, 1973)

To summarise:

  1. Users have their meetings and discussions in the presence of our device (currently called the Thought Font), exaggerating the ritualisation of scheduled team meetings and discussions.
  2. The device records and collects a transcript of the meeting, storing it for future, building up a collective bank of data.
  3. The system uses Artificial Intelligence to find patterns in the data, intelligently analysing the whole bank of data to discover solutions to problems.
  4. Individual devices can relay related information back into the discussion, offering new and relevant information such as solutions to teams’ problems, thus improving the discussion. Where a seer might use divination to communicate with the gods, our users will use the font to communicate with AI in a similar fashion.
  5. The device will also analyse the discussion for effectiveness, and actively push the discussion back towards the topic of the meeting, thus keeping the quality of collected information high, and providing more reason for teams to adopt the device.
  6. An economy of knowledge is produced, where it is beneficial for teams to “deposit” their discussions into the system in the attempt to receive greater knowledge in return; “money buys money” in the fiscal economy, knowledge buys knowledge in our economy.
  7. As the collective bank of knowledge grows, the applicable value of it increases, offering greater potential returns for users. A feedback loop emerges where the more knowledge deposited, the more useful the system becomes, thus the more knowledge gets deposited. And in a world where knowledge is power and data is money, we create an indispensable crowd-sourced resource.

Sources

Clarke, A.C. (1973) Hazards of Prophecy: The Failure of Imagination.

Google flu trends (no date) Available at: https://www.google.org/flutrends/about/ (Accessed: 28 December 2016).

Paris, K. (2016) University of Wisconsin–Madison. Available at: https://quality.wisc.edu/effective-meetings.htm (Accessed: 29 December 2016).

Peek, P.M. (1991) African Divination Systems: Ways of Knowing. Indiana University Press.

Spence, L. (1920) An Encycolopedia of Occultism. 1st edn.