Roger Ibars‘ project entitled “Hard-wired Devices” uses familiar input devices for unfamiliar purposes. Whether he is making a Nintendo controller program the time on an alarm clock or an old-school retro joystick control a game of Snake on a Nokia phone, Roger’s objects pose questions about the idea of interaction and our relationship with mechanical devices. PingMag asked Roger about interaction design and where he thinks the joystick evolution will lead…
Interview by Uleshka and Jon
1) How do you describe your work? What would you call your “profession”?
I’m an interaction designer and I’m interested in how people understand technology and how technology understands people – anybody, any technology.
2) You created the Social Robots blog can you tell us a little bit about your ambition behind this?
The social robots blog is an online archive of all the workshops I’ve been organising over the last three years. Mainly in Switzerland at the ECAL university, but also in Paris and New Delhi. It’s mostly a way of showcasing my students and participant’s work.
Joystick Workshop at ECAL, 2004. Picture courtesy of ECAL students.
In the workshops we do simple electronics projects, which narrate interaction design experiences. We look to create meaningful objects with simple electronics. The most complicated sensor we use is maybe a light sensor or a tilt switch – often this is enough to trigger people’s inspiration.
3) Looking at your project Hard-wired Devices – you use a lot of old/vintage parts which have a cool retro like aesthetics. Is there a reason for these aesthetics? (like the looks, people prefer to buy them, old devices are easier to connect etc….)
The original idea of the Hard-wired Devices was to improve the way you set up the time or the alarm of an electronic alarm clock. If you take a look at a regular alarm clock, you’ll see quite a sense-making interface, which tells you what to do. To redesign the interaction I didn’t simply use another “rational” interface but one from our existing interaction design culture.
That’s why I used joysticks, control pads and light guns. By themselves, they attract our attention to touch and use them – in that sense they are very welcoming. All interfaces and objects should ideally include this “welcoming” concept, to encourage people to use them.
Also, as you mentioned, old electronic devices are easy to hack and modify – but not just because they are old. I generally use high quality electronic devices. Objects that are well-designed, with great materials, quality plastics and long lasting electronics. Poorly-designed objects tend to disappear over time but conversely, great designs can still be found in electronics second-hand markets everywhere. Emotional attachment to objects is of course another driving force – I feel I have to rescue all this material culture before it’s too late.
4) You studied sociology originally. To what extent would you say this influenced your view on technology today?
Sociology is not much different to design. Sociology looks at society and culture like an object. For sociology, the object of study is people and design creates objects for people. Objects, subjects, there seem to be a clear distinction… but there is not. Subjects can be treated like objects and objects can behave like subjects. I’m fascinated in blurring the boundaries between them and obviously this stirred my interest in robots.
However my interest in robots hasn’t been influenced by film or novels in western culture. In Europe and the States that fictional influence is all we have – there is no real experience of “robot culture” as part of daily life apart from the usual freaky guys in the lab. It is all a fantasy that comes back now and then as a revival on the tv, books, comics and films. From corny movies to art house film.
I wanted to find examples of real people being emotionally attached to objects that behave mechanically. In Japanese culture, I found what I was looking for. For example, the Japanese tradition of Karakuri dolls is very interesting to explain and inspire this connection of mechanical culture and things that behave by themselves. My collection of self-made objects was looking at this landscape of objects that remove the user from the interaction and start to “use themselves”.
5) In Hard-wired Devices, what is the symbolic significance of the wire? Would you ever consider doing a “wireless” series using bluetooth or radio waves?
That’s a good question. I started building these objects back in 2003 and to this day not a single person has asked why I connect two objects with a cable when wireless technology is now just as prevalent.
I think the answer is because the use of cables give the objects a sense of completeness. Cables are old-style, retro and great electronic icons. I use them as a vintage aesthetic… and I guess if I’m a little more honest I use them because there are limits to my hacking knowledge. Lets say both
It’s important to realise that these objects aren’t supposed to show off “new” interaction technologies but to question existing ones, rescue them from the past and simply enjoy them again.
I love wireless products too, though. A year ago I took some pictures of remote control decorations in a New Delhi electronic parts market. They have a fantastic electronic culture!
6) Your work in Hard-wired Devices could be described as an electronic “mashup” (the combination of two existing objects to produce something with an original function) – are there any examples of other electronic mashups that inspired Hard-wired Devices?
It is a mashup, a connection, a combination, a mix, a fusion, a join. I like to say that it is a blend of different interaction cultures: the culture of home appliances and the culture of electronic games. I chose Hard-wired Devices because I found the words elegant, interesting and obvious. There are thousand of examples that inspired my work, for example the old dynamite triggers – the box with vertical handle to push down. You see them often in western movies or cartoons. That is such a powerful object. That is real ACTION design! I love it!
7) For someone like myself, many of the devices used in Hard-wired Devices are icons of my youth. Therefore I would be automatically interested in an exhibition like this. In exhibitions, what is the general reaction from people outside our generation – say, children or older people?
I think that my work particularly touches the feelings of people who like games and are interested in our electronic and material culture in general.
Some people from my generation were never interested in “machines”. The aesthetics are obviously generational but not everyone is actually interested. My passion for these objects is like that for old cars or vintage clothes. There is always a time when you are interested in things from other times. Our culture from the last 50 years is so rich in objects and especially in iconic electronic devices and computers – many of them designed with lots of generosity and sensitivity. Why not bring them back?
8) It’s interesting to see so many retro joysticks in one place and compare them. Many of them are so similar – 8 directions, 2 fire buttons. Obviously human interface devices such as these have evolved now (more buttons, more sensitive controls) – but where do you see them evolving to? Will we eventually be controlling everything with our brains or do you think we will always need some kind of handheld, tactile input device?
That is the big question and I have a very simple answer. The future of input devices is objects that people enjoy and love to use in their lives. If people start to enjoy controlling the computer pointer with their brains or switching off the lights by clapping… Lets go for it!!
I want to use objects that make me feel good and don’t make me feel stupid or make my life miserable. I don’t like objects that control what I have to do. I don’t like to have total control of objects, either. I want interaction. This means that my relation with objects is pleasurable, enriching, meaningful. Not perfect, not precise, not demanding. Sometimes dramatic and sometimes joyful. With space for different feelings and experiences. And, If you can give me a little generosity in your interaction design, it will be very much appreciated. Lots of other people will appreciate too.
If you take a look at the most successful electronic products from the last 5 years you’ll see many products that have these qualities. I am sure in this time period you have also bought lots of other products that really degraded your daily life without you realising it.
Answering your question more precisely: I think joysticks will survive as a product for a long time because of two reasons. First because human hands are not going to shrink 5 centimeters in this century and second because the name of this object is so perfect: JOY-STICK.
9) What was your reaction to the Nintendo Wii controller? Genius or gimmick? Have you used it?
You’ve got me. I haven’t used it yet!
I will be very personal and honest. I hate these “waving” interfaces. I hate all these projects and products that use this haptic-less technology. Interactive visual projections that respond to people’s movements, graphic interfaces that generate sounds when waving your hands or objects that react to your position on the space… I hate all these projects especially when they are poorly designed from the experience point of view.
With very few exceptions, this technology just celebrates the technology itself and the engineers and designers that build them. Nothing against that. Good job but …why do they want me to wave a white toothpaste box in my living room?
Nowadays, the only experience with this technology I like is when you go to the airport toilets and you only have to wave your hand to flush. After you Wii, of course.
10) Lastly – and I apologise if you get asked this a lot – what are your most and least favourite joysticks of all time? and why?
I love this question!
My best and most beloved joystick is the one I used to play all my games on my comodore 64. It was a simple black and red Quickshot II from Spectravideo. It was a best-selling joystick that improved on lots of features from previous models. Maybe it wasn’t the first one to include sucker cups, front fire button, automatic fire button or the ergonomic grip, but it was one of the first to feature all of those in one package.
The Spectravideo Quickshot II
The Zipstick Super Pro
Another great device is the Super Pro from Zipstick. The extra-strong metal shaft along with the rubber feet make it a joy to use and the clickyness is an absolute pleasure to hear! Also, the Telemach joysticks are a must-have for game archaeologists. They were made in Spain and there were marketed to emulate arcade style gaming at home. Really simple and very well crafted.
I wake up every day with a Powerplayer from Mindscape. A weird joystick experiment that removed the sucker cups to fix it on the table, leaving the joystick flying in your hands to play the game. Another market failure that celebrated innovation humbly by itself but, you know… there is always space in my hard-wired devices to celebrate the good, the bad and the ugly.
Thank you Roger, for taking us on a trip down memory lane and also introducing your unique Hard-wired Devices!