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On bridges - connecting the real world and technology through emotional bridges

20120604-125607.jpg I saw a picture online the other day. “I love my computer because all my friends live in it.” It’s funny because it’s true. I’m also pretty sure there are magic, nearly microscopic elves who live in my iPhone. Think about it, how else can you explain how an iPhone works? Don’t give me that hokum about nanotechnology. It’s elves. Now get back inside my computer, friend.

Regrettably, sites like iFixIt and Wikipedia tell attest there are not, in fact, elves in my phone. As it turns out, you don’t live inside my computer either, though I’m still suspect. The bitter truth, is these things are just metal and silicone. It turns out, according to “experts”, Facebook isn’t really a place either. For that matter, the entire Internet doesn’t really exist anywhere. There go my plans to move there one day. Come to think of it, we’re spending more and more time with things that are really pretty cold and austere; void of any emotional connection.

The real world and what we see on a screen aren’t as connected as we might think. Sure, Facebook has changed how we keep in touch. But, there’s no way to reach out and touch something on someone’s wall. We can have an emotional experience via these sites and technologies, although it’s not the result of an interaction with something real. That’s exactly what an emerging big trend is all about.

Last week I came across two examples of things which connect the real world and the physical world with a particularly enormaring emotional appeal.

DearPhotograph is a site from the same team who did Post Secret. The premise is pretty simple, take a photo of yourself holding an older photo superimposed over the scene where it was originally taken. Then write a little note to that photo.


I know what you are thinking. Hey Nick, get on board the USS Clue, it set sail long ago and left you on the dock. Don’t you know Facebook just bought instagram for like a gagallion bucks? Why are you so amped over another photo site? The difference is in how Dear Photograph bridges the real world, with a real object (a photo) and creates and emotional tie. The site, and technology, are just a vehicle to share the emotional thing created. That’s a pretty cool.

Dear Photograph is more than instagram or flickr or faceboo. It requires you to go and actually do something. You have to find an old picture, one with an emotional draw. Then you have to go to the spot it was taken - does that place still exist? Can you get there? Now align the photo in 3D space over that real place and take another picture. Still sound like just s photo website? The result is an emotional connection with a time and place, and the technology which made it happen.

Now that we’re getting settled in our temporary apparent, I had the opportunity to play with a technology I’ve been eyeing for a long time. The Nest thermostat is…well…a thermostat. But it’s like the iPhone of thermostats. And that’s by design. The Nest was created by Tony Fadell who, during his time at Apple, launched the iPod. The nest is part of a growing class of devices which connects the real world to the digital. For starters, it’s a real thing. You mount this gizmo on your wall (and, as a excellent example of experience design, even the install is well designed).


Once hanging on your wall, the user experience melds between your physical interaction with the thermostat and it’s online features. You can check, set and monitor your temperature and energy usage from an app or the web. And if that sounds nerdy, it’s far from it. You really connect with this thing. It does something, it bridges the real, physical world of your home environment with the online world of data and numbers, and that creates a strange emotional bridge. It makes caring about energy use and savings a meaningful act.

I’m inspired by these two examples. They are bridges. They link our physical world with the intangible, elif-infested, silicone composed digital either. Think about a real bridge, it does more than get you from one side of a bank to another. It enables you to go someplace, to see someone, to touch something and to do something. That’s the next phase of technology - creating bridges.

In healthcare, we’ve known about technology bridges longer than many other industries. We’ve had medical wonder-gizmos for years. Considere the nearly ubiquitous heart rate monitor in every inpatient room. Beep, beep, beep… That rhythmic drone isn’t just a machine making nose, it is the heart beat of some we love. Each beep represents life, someone’s beating heart. Each beep also represents a data point inside the machine’s inner workings which will inform doctors and nurses. That’s a bridge.

We’ve also got a long way to go. While the inpatient room might be strewn with wires and beeps, funneling data into a black box, virtually none of those devices are designed with user experience or emotional consideration in mind. Neither are implantable medical devices. Just ask Hugo Campos who is crusading to get access to the data from a defribulator implanted in his chest.

The Internet is evolving to become an Internet of things, all connected to our real world, which is inherently tied to our feelings, hopes, needs, excitement, etc. Healthcare devices and services need to look towards sites like Dear Photograph and gadgets like Nest. What can we learn from things and services designed around creating emotional connections between the real world and the world of 1s and 0s. Now, more than ever, with health information growing by billions of dollars and health reform pushing much needed change on an already constrained system, we need user-centered design. We need bridges which connect us, real living things, with the beeps and wires, or our doctor’s avatar on a patient portal.

Quant Self gaining popularity in other circles

I'm continuing to see references to self quantification appear outside of the niche world of quantified self devotees. This week on the TWiT podcast network, two of Leo Laporte's shows featured conversations about capturing, measuring and analyzing data about our own health. Now, certainly these two shows represent niche communities and interests of their own. TWiG focuses on cloud computer, social networking and Google. Security Now is about, you guessed it, security. What I find particularly exciting is both shows feature discussions about using personal health devices without knowing the term quantified self, suggesting the ideas of self quantification are creeping into other areas; the long tail is beginning to widen.

On Episode 138 of This Week in Google, the hosts discussed the Nike Fuelband device. Nike's Fuelband wrist-worn gadget made a splashy debute at this year South By South West, selling out via their pop-up store. The Fuelband, which is often compaired to the defunct Jawbone Up, is very similar to the FitBit (which I still think is the best device in the space - love mine!).

Here is a link to the exact position of the discussion on the Fuelband.

Host Jeff Jarvis describes, these devices as "the internet of things, and things tend to be you..."  At last year's Stanford Med 2.0 event, Dr. Bryan Vartabedian  described personal health devices as "An API into the patient." An API - application programmer's interface - is a term in computer programming and hardware which references a programmer's ability to connect with another program or device. The point Dr. V and Mr. Jarvis are marking is that quantified self devices give users and providers access to retime data about health and actives, without needing a lagging lab test or resource-intensive diagnostic study.

On episode 344 of the wonderfully nerdy Security Now podcast, host Steve Gibson discusses his penchant for "conducting experiments on [himself]." In 2009, Mr. Gibson, usually focused on technology security, released a special hour long discussion on his studies of vitamin D. This week, he briefly mentions an expriment he conducted on eliminating most carbohydrates from his diet.

Editorial note - I've discovered in my own move to a mostly vegan diet, there many differing opinions on what constitutes the perfect diet and just as many studies to back them up. That said, I'm not sure I completely agree every part of his food-related discussion with host Leo Laporte. Nevertheless, Mr. Gibson has an almost obsessive habit of regular blood draws and lab tests.

You and watch their discussion on dietary changes and how they affected his lab results here.

Security Now 344: Your Questions, Steve's Answers #139 - YouTube.