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TEDxBerlin

Fabian Hemmert: The shape-shifting future of the mobile phone

Filmed:

Fabian Hemmert demos one future of the mobile phone -- a shape-shifting and weight-shifting handset that "displays" information nonvisually, offering a delightfully intuitive way to communicate. (Filmed at TEDxBerlin.)

- Designer
Fabian Hemmert studies the theory and philosophy of embodiment, resistance and thinghood. Full bio

I am a Ph.D. student
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and that means I have a question:
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how can we make digital content graspable?
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Because you see,
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on the one hand, there is the digital world
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and no question, many things are happening there right now.
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And for us humans, it's not quite material, it's not really there --
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it's virtual.
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On the other hand, we humans,
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we live in a physical world.
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It's rich, it tastes good, it feels good, it smells good.
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So the question is: how do we get the stuff over
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from the digital into the physical?
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That's my question.
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If you look at the iPhone with its touch
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and the Wii with its bodily activity,
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you can see the tendency; it's getting physical.
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The question is: what's next?
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Now, I have three options that I would like to show you.
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The first one is mass.
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As humans, we are sensitive
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to where an object in our hand is heavy.
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So, could we use that in mobile phones?
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Let me show you the weight-shifting mobile.
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It is a mobile phone-shaped box
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that has an iron weight inside, which we can move around,
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and you can feel where it's heavy.
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We shift the gravitational center of it.
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For example, we can augment digital content
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with physical mass.
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So you move around the content on a display,
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but you can also feel where it is just from the weight of the device.
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Another thing it's good for is navigation --
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it can guide you around in a city.
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It can tell you by its weight,
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"Okay, move right. Walk ahead. Make a left here."
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And the good thing about that is you don't have to look at the device all the time;
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you have your eyes free to see the city.
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Now, mass is the first thing;
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the second thing, that's shape.
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We're also sensitive to the shape of objects we have in [our] hands.
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So if I download an e-book and it has 20 pages --
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well, they could be thin, right --
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but if it has 500 pages, I want to feel that "Harry Potter" --
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it's thick. (Laughter)
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So let me show you the shape-changing mobile.
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Again, it's a mobile phone-shaped box,
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and this one can change its shape.
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We can play with the shape itself.
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For example, it can be thin in your pocket,
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which we of course want it to be;
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but then if you hold it in your hand, it can lean towards you, be thick.
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It's like tapered to the downside.
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If you change the grasp, it can adjust to that.
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It's also useful if you want to put it down on your nightstand to watch a movie
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or use as an alarm clock, it stands.
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It's fairly simple.
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Another thing is,
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sometimes we watch things on a mobile phone,
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they are bigger than the phone itself.
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So in that case -- like here, there's an app that's bigger than the phone's screen --
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the shape of the phone could tell you,
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"Okay, off the screen right here, there is more content.
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You can't see it, but it's there."
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And you can feel that because it's thicker at that edge.
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The shape is the second thing.
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The third thing operates on a different level.
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As humans, we are social, we are empathic,
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and that's great.
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Wouldn't that be a way to make mobile phones more intuitive?
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Think of a hamster in the pocket.
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Well, I can feel it, it's doing all right -- I don't have to check it.
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Let me show you the living mobile phone.
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So, once again, mobile phone-shaped box,
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but this one, it has a breath and a heartbeat,
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and it feels very organic.
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(Laughter)
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And you can tell, it's relaxed right now.
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Oh now, missed call, a new call,
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new girlfriend maybe --
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very exciting. (Laughter)
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How do we calm it down?
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You give it a pat behind the ears,
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and everything is all right again.
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So, that's very intuitive, and that's what we want.
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So, what we have seen are three ways
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to make the digital graspable for us.
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And I think making it physical
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is a good way to do that.
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What's behind that is a postulation,
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namely that not
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humans should get much more technical in the future;
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rather than that,
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technology, a bit more human.
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(Applause)
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About the Speaker:

Fabian Hemmert - Designer
Fabian Hemmert studies the theory and philosophy of embodiment, resistance and thinghood.

Why you should listen

Fabian Hemmert thinks hard about communicating information in non-visual ways -- through weight, shape, touch, movement. His recent explorations into shape-shifting cell phones are part of a long career of thinking beyond the touchscreen. Along with his shape-shifting mobile phones, his newest work explores haptic feedback in pens. He's a design researcher at Deutsche Telekom Laboratories and is working on his PhD in Berlin.

His master's thesis is an elegant exploration of the non-visual -- exploring the surprising effects of closing one's eyes during a movie or a first-person shooter game.

More profile about the speaker
Fabian Hemmert | Speaker | TED.com