A Brave New World of Computing
The inspiration for Allen Wong’s Next-Gen PC Design Competition entry came from a visit to a remote village in Kenya. “A hand-painted sign on the local elementary school promised ‘Computer Training,’ but the local villagers told me that it was false advertising,” recalls Wong. “The school didn’t even have windows, much less Windows!”
Wong, who with design partner Matt Conway went on to create the BulbPC, one of the competition winners, was inspired by his experience in Kenya to develop a new and revolutionary PC design that can meet the needs for computing and computer education in the developing world as well as address the IT requirements of first-world workplaces.
Wong’s Kenyan inspiration mirrors that of other winners in this year’s Next-Gen PC Competition, a Microsoft-sponsored event that challenges young design professionals and industrial design students to think beyond the constraints of traditional computing form factors.
“This year’s competition winners have envisioned a brave new world of computing,” says Kevin Eagan, general manager of Microsoft’s Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEM) Marketing Group. “Through insightful design, the winning entries take computing to bold new places and to traditionally underserved audiences.”
The competition aims to spotlight creative new PC designs and showcase young industrial designers who are helping move PC computing “outside-the-box” by rethinking the Windows-based PC experience and the role computing plays in people’s lives.
“Some of these winning designs look like nothing we’ve ever seen in the realm of computing,” says Eagan. “The new generation of talent that we recognize today has addressed how an evolution in PC design could meet the needs of a wider group of computer users.”
Interest in Competition Grows
This year’s competition drew 349 submissions -- a 61-percent increase over 2006 – from 35 countries. In addition to manufacturability and market viability, entries were judged on the following criteria:
• Innovation – is the design new and unique?
• User experience and interaction – in what ways does the design make the PC easier to use?
• Aesthetics – how does the appearance enhance the emotional appeal of the product?
• Technology integration – how is the design enhanced with new technologies?
• Ecology – how is the design environmentally responsible?
A panel of 10 jurors, all internationally renowned industrial designers, chose the three Judges Awards winners from 34 finalists. Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates and his advisors selected the Chairman’s Award. The Public Choice Award was chosen online by visitors to the competition Web site.
The annual Next-Gen PC Design Competition began in 2005 during the 20th anniversary celebration of Microsoft Windows as a way to connect with designers and encourage them to think about more innovative PC designs. The competition is held in collaboration with the Industrial Designers Society of America (IDSA) and the International Council of Societies of Industrial Design (ICSID).
“We’re engaging the industrial design community and challenging it to think beyond the grey and beige boxes of the past,” says Eagan. “Many people compare PCs based on price and features. They’ve accepted that design isn’t part of the equation. It doesn’t have to be this way.”
In addition to professional designers, this year’s competition attracted submissions from design students from universities around the world. Jim Budd, associate professor at Carleton University’s School of Industrial Design in Ottawa, Canada, encouraged students in his design studio workshop to create PC designs for the competition, with winning results.[See below, “Canadian School Sets Pace for PC Design Honors.”]
Designs Extend Computing to New Worlds
Rethinking PC design to make computing more practical and appropriate for underserved populations is a recurring theme of this year’s top designs. “Many of the winning designers look at the real world and reveal creative and practical ways to extend PC technology to new users and new functions,” says Eagan.
John Leung, whose design MADE in China won the Chairman’s Award, was inspired to create a ground-breaking computing and infrastructure model specifically designed to bring computing closer to the world’s 1.3 billion Chinese. “I saw so many PCs in the market that were made IN China, but none of which were actually made FOR China,” says Leung, 21, an undergraduate architecture student at the University of Melbourne, Australia
MADE in China involves a MADE (Massively Administered Digital Entities) hardware and infrastructure that consists of a touch screen interface and remote servers that store applications and data. The infrastructure is linked to the interface via 4G mobile phone networks. “Together, they result in a PC which is affordable, profitable, and environmental, all without compromising performance, aesthetics, and convenience,” says Leung.
Components of the hardware are inspired by traditional Asian objects, making them more familiar for the target Chinese market. Aesthetically, MADE in China’s most striking element is its interface, which resembles a flat Asian-style dining platter complete with a chopsticks-like CHOPstylus for input on a specialized touch screen.
“The CHOPstylus extends the ancient Chinese tradition of chopsticks to the next level of use,” says Leung. “The MADE in China design makes the visual statement that using a PC is as simple and essential as having three meals a day.”
Carleton University student designers Christianne LeBlanc, Jessica Livingston and Maarianne Goldberg created blok, an interactive learning tool for the kindergarten classroom, based on working with children and watching them at play. Inspiration for the box-like design, which won the first-place Judge’s Award, came from classic toy building blocks and not from the standard monitor/keyboard/CPU setup. “Children do not learn or use products the way adults do, and they cannot be expected to use computers intended for adults,” says LeBlanc. The learning tool, she says “is focused on making computing accessible and appealing to children.”
The blok classroom PC allows children to work at basic tasks, such as the recognition of shapes, numbers, letters, and symbols, all while interacting with their peers. The aim is to develop important social skills, including sharing, learning to take turns, paying attention to others when working in a group, and fostering interaction among children and between children and teachers.
With its interlocking pieces that reveal an inner toy chest, blok acts as a sort of puzzle. The product consists of two computer units that interlock to form a cube. All peripherals and use operations are simple and intuitive, resembling objects and toys familiar to a child. The peripheral devices include two ‘keyboard’ mats, a set of digital markers, and a set of interactive shapes. The keyboard mats help children explore the alphabet and introduce children to computing. The digital markers allow the children to draw and develop their representation skills. Each unit includes a set of speakers and microphones that are enabled with voice recognition software so that the children can verbally interact with the systems.
All three members of the design team were students of Jim Budd and will graduate from the four-year Bachelor of Industrial Design program at Carleton University in June. LeBlanc, 24, grew up in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, and is interested in a career in industrial and toy design. Livingston, 20, is an Ottawa native, and looks forward to pursuing work in industrial design. Goldberg, 23, also a native of Ottawa, plans to attend teacher’s college overseas to pursue her passion for children’s education.
The second-place Judge’s Award went to Allen Wong and Matt Conway’s BulbPC, a simple and efficient computer designed to meet underserved market needs in both developed and developing worlds. Shaped like a sleek light bulb with ports exposed on its front, BulbPCs are designed to seamlessly integrate into a first world workplace environment by fitting into the standard grommet hole on desks, providing the power of a PC but with less clutter and requiring less power, time and money. Its affordability and design also extend its use to the developing world, where it can help bring computer training and digital tools to third-world communities, as well as bolster local economies. BulbPCs are shipped as kits, designed to be assembled, repaired and supported by artisans in village settings using traditional skills and handcrafts.
“I’m most proud of the beauty and simplicity of the idea,” says Wong. “It makes the digital lifestyle available to the half of the world population who make less than $2 a day. I see the future of computing hardware moving away from the bigger, faster, stronger, and trending towards the smaller, lighter and more efficient. I believe the design vision for the future is ‘appropriate computing,’ meaning that one size does not fit all. This is an exciting time, and this fundamental shift could open up a whole new world of product possibilities for industrial designers and PC manufacturers.”
Both in their 30s, Wong and Conway work at Johnson Fain, an architecture, planning and interiors firm located in Los Angeles. Wong, with a degree in architecture from the University of California at Berkeley and a second bachelor’s in industrial design from San Jose State University, is a marketing assistant. Conway is a 3-D graphic artist with a degree in business administration and a second in computer animation.
Kenneth W. K. Wu, an independent designer from Toronto, created Zeed+ for the Future, which won the third-place Judge’s Award. Zeed+ is a PC that maximizes the mobility of its hardware components and also offers an unusual and elegant PC design. The overall design concept is inspired by “Ikebana,” the Japanese traditional art of formal flower arrangement devoted to balance, harmony, and form. With the Zeed+ PC, each of the stem-shaped hardware units has its own height, shape and character to reflect its function, and they sit in a base that resembles a flower vase. Users simply touch the vase base to operate the computer, play movies and music, surf the Internet and check personal emails. The computer, which resembles a stylized floral arrangement, can be placed in either a workstation or family room to provide both aesthetic enjoyment and powerful computing functionality.
With the plug-and-use design of Zeed+, says Wu, people who have limited computer knowledge no longer need to wonder what’s inside the computer case, as they can easily upgrade any components themselves. “The mobility of the hardware units also offers the benefit of trading or recycling the old hardware for use in new and different market segments,” says Wu. “’Need’ and ‘Seed’ is the message behind Zeed+.”
Wu, 30, has a Bachelor’s Degree in Architecture from Ryerson University in Toronto, Canada. He co-founded Monoedge Inc. in 2002 and he currently works as a creative director at Dymaxium Inc., also in Toronto.
Light up your Life, the design by Zhu Fei that won the Public Choice Award, targets an audience in the developing world. The design features a mobile terminal in the form of a glowing cylindrical orb called the Light. The Light can serve as flashlight, portable multimedia player, mobile phone and an interface to pervasive and powerful wireless networks that enable mass data transmission between the mobile terminal and a remote server. The Light mobile terminal has both a traditional graphic user interface and natural-speech-interaction interface.
“The relationship between users and the Light computer is more like communication between friends, rather than one between a user and an object,” says Zhu. “People will not ‘operate’ a Light PC, but ‘communicate’ with it.”
Zhu designed the Light PC to be both fashionable and easy to use in a developing country, such as China. “The demand for certain skills, such as using a keyboard, that are required for operating traditional computers is an obstacle for many potential users,” says Zhu, 33, a self-educated freelance designer from Jiangxi, China who has previously won a number of international design competitions for jewelry, furniture, automobile and industrial products. “The traditional interface limits the masses from realizing the convenience brought about by computing.”
Microsoft hopes to sponsor another Next-Gen PC Design Competition in the future. “Microsoft has an ongoing interest in innovative PC design as new designs can help create a better and more complete PC experience that extends beyond the software to include the entire computing package,” says Eagan.
Canadian School Sets Pace for PC Design Honors
Jim Budd has a reason to be proud.
As an associate professor at Carleton University’s School of Industrial Design in Ottawa, Canada, Budd encouraged students in his Fourth-Year Studio Class in industrial design to develop a project for the Next Gen PC Design Competition.
Of the 15 teams from Budd’s class that created a design for the competition, 10 went on to submit their designs, five of the teams were among the 34 finalists, and two were selected among the eight finalists. The first-place Judges Award went to three of Budd’s students for their design blok.
“It was a fairly strong showing by our students,” says Budd, who has been teaching technology and design for the past 12 years at universities in the United States and Canada. “It was very satisfying to watch the students do so well.”
A younger generation of designers has grown up with computers and has insights into what technology is able to do that older designers may not have, Budd says. “I try to impress on students that the world they live in is going to change and that they have the opportunity to develop new technologies that fit into the lifestyles that they will lead,” says Budd.
“I try to teach students that opportunities lie in identifying specific groups of people who have particular needs, discovering what those needs are, and tailoring a product to meet those needs,” he says. “Thinking of the needs first is a big shift for many people in the design field. Understanding what people need, and then involving them in formalizing and developing a solution, changes the way we do design and the kinds of design we will see as a result.”
Budd says his students are very open to new form factors that address new or underserved audiences. “Students have great insights into how technology can address specific needs. My interest as an instructor is leveraging that knowledge and empowering them to build on it. The Microsoft Next Generation PC Competition really opens the door to explore these designs,” he says.
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