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MUZSE: The Present Future

I watched The Jetsons as a kid in the early 1990s. My mom watched it too, when the cartoon series first aired in the early 1960s. By the time I was watching it the trappings of Jetsonian life were slightly less sci-fi than in my mom’s day, but their world was still pretty fanciful and barely resembled mine. That’s obviously changed in the past decade. I’m not exactly sure when it happened, but the Jetsons’ lifestyle no longer seems like fantasy, or even that far-fetched. Certain futuristic elements that Hanna-Barbera imagined in its 2062 utopia have already arrived, if not years ago – holograms; FaceTime; cell phones; flat-screen TVs. Sure, our cars aren’t flying yet (though driverless Google-mobiles are edging us closer) and skylines don’t yet resemble Orbit City, with homes and offices perched atop sky-high columns. But the once-fantastical Jetsons lifestyle is moving closer to reality every day, at least in places where wealth is abundant and people have disposable income.

This clicked for me in late September at Milk Studios’s headquarters in New York, about an hour into the inaugural MUZSE Style Lab. MUZSE is a recently born collaboration between Milk and Intel that seeks to fuse scientific brainpower and innovation with cultural savvy to launch a discussion on how we can and should design for the future.

I had my Jetson epiphany as David Rose, an MIT Professor and scientist, gave his keynote presentation on what he calls ‘enchanted objects’ – everyday items that are or can be made ‘smart’. Example: Rose invented an umbrella that eliminates having to check the weather forecast – the umbrella is itself embedded with information from the internet and tells its owner via a light signal whether he needs take the umbrella out that day or not. It’s quite Jetson-esque, although perhaps to be truly Jetsonian it would need to self-carry.

In his presentation Rose also introduced us to an invention called JIBO – a personal home robot that is the closest thing I have seen to a real-life ‘Rosie’ – the Jetsons’ robot housekeeper, maid, personal assistant and friend. I was a little freaked out by JIBO. I’m not an early adopter – I was using a Blackberry up until late last year and reluctantly replaced it with my mom’s old iPhone 4 – so I’m not comfortable yet with the whole robot thing. But I also know JIBO – with its ability to do pretty much anything except be an actual human – is just the beginning of a world in which these machines, with increasingly human interfaces, are supposed to make our lives easier (AKA: better). And I’m not anti that at all.

Take for example another one of David Rose’s inventions called GlowCap. It’s an Internet-connected pill package that’s bloody marvelous; I have a litany of health issues and I constantly forget to take my medication. GlowCap basically harasses you until you take your antibiotic. The purpose of the MUZSE Style Lab is to bring people together who can dream up utilitarian but intelligently designed solutions like GlowCap. Case in point: wireless charging and spaces and surfaces that will soon be able to bump up my phone battery remotely, about which we were enlightened by Intel’s Edward Butler. I doubt anyone would be opposed to a cordless world except maybe Apple, because they love to hit your wallet for that stuff. We also heard from Opening Ceremony’s Bettina Chin and Intel’s Sandra Lopez about their new and uber-mysterious wearable tech collaboration, the MICA bracelet. We know what the cuff looks like but its creators have so far kept mum on what the embedded technology can do. All will be revealed soon, they say.

Presentations aside, we spent most of our time in smaller work teams. I spent the day with a group that included two folks from Intel, one wearable tech entrepreneur, one e-commerce guru and one designer-actor-artist. Our instructions were minimal: come up with a problem and solve it. Dream big. The world and technology-that-doesn’t-necessarily-exist yet is your oyster. It was basically the fun science project you never actually got to do in school. Our designer-actor-artist joked that we should solve for world peace. And we began to brainstorm.

Idea: A vision-based technology that would tell us when our MetroCard had insufficient funds before the point at which one is actually at the subway turn-style, being rejected by the MTA as a train pulls into a station. Idea: Aware and sensitive objects that self-organize and index themselves, or essentially some way to apply the Gmail search function to actual objects and data in our lives. Idea: Something involving our hands.

Perhaps it was the 69th session of the UN General Assembly (which was going on concurrently on the other side of Manhattan about 30 blocks north of us that day) that got us all riled up, because we actually did come back to the quixotic idea of solving for world peace. No one group or piece of technology can end global conflict, eradicate fear and insecurity, guarantee freedom and human rights protections, promote understanding and provide resources and education to those in need – as if even all those things once achieved would stop humans from killing each other. But there are organizations that can and do try to deal with specific elements of the peace puzzle; we could join in at the micro-level.

We landed on trying to remedy conflict at a personal and societal level. We honed in on a few emotional states that often lead to conflict, like fear, insecurity, and distrust. And we all agreed that we wanted this ‘design’ to help policy-makers better understand the sentiment of the communities they oversee, with the idea that they could begin to ask why this town is more conflict-prone than another, or why this county is more anxiety-ridden than the next, and so on.

Our solution involved a design that would analyze various biometrics (heart-rate, sweat, brain activity) to determine one’s emotional aura using technology that would be embedded in something wearable like a ring, or sci-fi style headpiece or even contact lenses. The technology would feed data from each individual system to a central network, which would measure community sentiment in real-time. We envisioned that sentiment being reflected in a public installation of some sort – a sculpture, a pavilion or a piece of architecture created by a local artist – so that citizens and their government could gauge public feeling in an immediate and constant way, and hopefully communal despair or anger would be harder to dismiss or ignore.

We wanted a person’s emotional aura to be discernible in some way so that in smaller group situations, like a classroom or at a party, there would be an awareness of someone feeling particularly low or anxious. We envisioned this information being used by loved ones or even therapists to better understand the patterns of when and eventually why a person feels like crap or has anxiety attacks or feels alone – all emotional states that may lead to conflict and destructive behavior. We found it difficult to come up with a solution that would allow others to see or detect this aura in a way that would not embarrass said individual. We need to work on that. We called our product ARA: Aura Reflective Apparatus.

It was striking that multiple groups came up with ideas in the same realm – asking questions about how we can improve mood and empathy and better understand why we react to certain things the way we do. One group envisioned what I thought was an excellent educational tool that I urge them to pitch to the White House ASAP (you know who you are; readers you can read about it on MilkMade). Those involved in the MUZSE lab that day were thinking big picture – rather than designing a Jetsonian machine that might improve the daily grind (an automated breakfast machine; an automated shower and hair-drying machine; a car that packs into a suitcase). There was a desire to design solutions that inherently makes people’s lives better. Which is actually quite reassuring, and I think it’s a great place for MUZSE to start.

Artwork by Aleksi Tammi

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