Text: Jens Persson, February 2018
Interaction designers are time and again asked to guess what the
future might hold. In fact, the essence of the job itself is to
create the future, through innovation. By studying people and their
behaviour, the designer's mission is to predict needs that people
don't yet know they have. In a recent project, truly challenging
their prophetic abilities, the second-year-students of the MFA
programme in interaction Design were tasked with creating a product
for a home 20 years from now, in 2038.
Looking back 20 years, to the mid-90s, the internet had
seriously started making its mark in the homes of ordinary people.
The dial-up modems' robotic melodies penetrated the thickest of
walls as people searched AltaVista, WebCrawler and other then
pioneers of the young internet. The explosive effect that the
advent of the internet has had on society and human behaviour is
almost inconceivable, touching on so many aspects of peoples' daily
lives. From influencing global politics on a major scale to
allowing us to locate the best coffee on the Lower East Side with a
single swipe of the finger.
In the term project 'A Future Domestic Landscape: Faceless
Interaction in 2038', students were asked to imagine what a home
might look like in 20 years. Each of the 15 students created a
unique scenario where they envisioned a future beyond the
screen-based designs that we find around us today, such as
smartphone apps, interactive surfaces or web services. The test
here was to go a step further, above and beyond the horizons
typically imagined by designers. For this project, that meant you
had to time travel. And you had to build the time machine yourself.
A daunting challenge, as one of the students, Lene Rydningen, would
soon find out.
Lene Rydningen utilized the emotional power of
scents and smells in her design fiction project.
"To imagine a meaningful product a couple of decades from now
you first have to create the world in which this product is
supposed to exist. You have to construct a believable society that
is rooted in today's realities but still goes beyond the
technologies and restrictions of now. Once you have created this
world you can start to look for problems to solve within it, to
find areas where you can make things better through design.", says
Like most masters students at UID, Lene is away from what she
calls home. In her case, home is in Tromsö, Norway. That's where
most of her family and friends still live. Therefore, asking the
question of what actually makes a home is not new to her. Drawing
on her own experiences she started to play with smell, a sense very
powerful in invoking strong feelings tied to family, childhood and
home. But how do you go from that to developing a product that's
actually feasible in a house or an apartment in 2038?
In her project,
Lene Rydningen played with a number of smells and their abilities
to invoke different emotional responses.
"I've always been interested in how scents and smells rooted in
your past can bring out such strong emotions in people, myself
included. And yet it's something that is almost not used at all.
Instead we look through photo albums when we want to rekindle fond
memories. So, I started playing around with how I could bring out
these feelings through smell and ultimately came up with a memory
switchboard that can release a number of different smells based on
the favourite people or things in your life"
"The goal of the product is to cheer up or comfort people and
the system is based on face recognition. Through 'deep learning
technology' and A.I. the product, called Ember, acquires enough
information to recognize your different moods based on facial
expressions and then releases smells that will either calm you or
lift your spirits when you need it. That might be the scent of your
grandmother or your dad's baking depending on the memories you've
The Ember prototype in the workshop, prior to
During this project in design fiction, the students abilities as
story tellers were tested, and most found it an unusually demanding
experience. Normally, design students work with the restrictions
and possibilities of today. When asked to produce a vision of the
future it rarely extends beyond a five-year period. Here, without
any clear boundaries, they were forced to think bigger, not only
about what the world might look like in 2038 but what role
designers might play in us getting there.
The finished product set of Ember experience
"To me, this project became something of a wake-up call. It
helped me zoom out and it made me realize that as a designer I have
the opportunity to be part of something bigger, that I can play a
role in shaping the very future that I was trying to imagine. It
was without doubt the hardest design project I've ever done, I
think we were all lost in the beginning actually. But in the end it
sparked a discussion that I know will affect me going forward"
all projects on the 'Future Domestic Landscape'
The platform showcases the collective output of the Faceless
Interaction Design course, a 10-week full time course for the
second year MFA Interaction Design students at Umeå Institute of
Design, running from 2015-17.