The Design Science of Conversational Agents

“The challenge of creating a computer “personality” is now one that a growing number of software designers are grappling with,” reports The New York Times. “A new design science is emerging in the pursuit of building what are called “conversational agents,” software programs that understand natural language and speech and can respond to human voice commands. However, the creation of such systems, led by researchers in a field known as human-computer interaction design, is still as much an art as it is a science.”

“Most software designers acknowledge that they are still faced with crossing the ‘uncanny valley,’ in which voices that are almost human-sounding are actually disturbing or jarring … Beyond correct pronunciation, there is the even larger challenge of correctly placing human qualities like inflection and emotion into speech. Linguists call this ‘prosody,’ the ability to add correct stress, intonation or sentiment to spoken language.”

“The highest-quality techniques for natural-sounding speech begin with a human voice that is used to generate a database of parts and even subparts of speech spoken in many different ways. A human voice actor may spend from 10 hours to hundreds of hours, if not more, recording for each database.”

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The Future of Shopping May Be Underground

Tech Insider: Garden Santa Fe, a 7-story-deep underground shopping mall in Mexico City, is a peculiar hybrid of basic infrastructure needs and a re-envisioning of contemporary retail. At a time when urban real estate is a precious commodity, going underground might just be the future of shopping … The Garden Santa Fe Mall has … circular courtyards, complete with live trees at the bottom and second level of the mall, providing a release from what would otherwise be a claustrophobic environment.”

“The presence of three full story glass atriums essentially brings the outdoors to the underground … The entire building is buried 7 stories deep, making heating and cooling much more energy efficient. Overall, the mall uses 60% of the energy of a comparable retail space. An extensive rain collection system and onsite grey water treatment and water reuse system make a similar impact in water consumption.”

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Wild Turkey Inks an Older, Prouder Bird

Bottles of Wild Turkey bourbon and rye whiskey now feature an older, prouder bird, reports The Wall Street Journal. The newly redesigned labels cap a $100 million expansion and modernization of the Wild Turkey distillery, following its acquisition by Gruppo Campari.

Campari marketing vice president Melanie Batchelor says the previous turkey looked “a little sad … not proud.” Consumer research also found that the turkey looked too young, which “conflicted with the idea that the bourbon is aged.” The new illustration is “more of a close-up image, with prominent eyes and fluffy feathers.”

“Wild Turkey also wanted to better highlight its master distillers, Jimmy Russell and his son, Eddie,” whose “signatures are now larger and on the fronts of the bottles, rather than the necks … Bottles also include the words ‘Crafted With Conviction’ … They wanted to avoid using ‘handcrafted,’ a phrase Ms. Batchelor feels has become so common in the spirits industry that it sounds generic.

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Tsumiki: The Japanese Lego

Wired: “Unlike Lego bricks, which are plastic, Tsumiki pieces are made of Japanese cedar (and manufactured using wood certified by the Forest Stewardship). And unlike the brick-shaped Lego blocks, each Tsumiki block is shaped like an inverted “V.” Triangular notches in the legs let the Tsumiki blocks wedge together, making them versatile like Lego bricks, albeit not as sturdy; some of the assembly models shown in Kuma’s Tsumiki brochure look about as solid as a house of cards.”

“Kuma’s Tsumiki are triangular, for the strength that this shape provides. All told, these popsicle stick-like blocks are much more in line with the principles of contemporary Japanese architecture than their predecessors: They’re natural in material, spatially economical, and relentlessly simple. Perfect for inspiring Japan’s next generation of architects.”

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Memoire: A Typeface That Changes Like a Memory

Wired: “A new typeface called Memoire is designed to reflect the ever-shifting shapes memories take as we replay them in our minds. Designers Ryan Bugden and Michelle Wainer created the custom typeface for La Petite Mort, a biannual magazine produced by New York creative agency Sub Rosa. The font, used as the headline typeface for each of the magazine’s 16 stories, evolves from page to page. ‘The core idea was that it would change over time—similar to how every time you revisit a memory, it in fact changes based on the current context you’re in,’ Wainer says.

“It’s hard to see the changes at first. The sharpness of the serifs softens almost imperceptibly with every use. On the first page, edges are knife-like; by the last, they are almost friendly in their roundness.”

“Memoire was designed for print, though it lives beautifully as a digital file, where you can see the transformation in hyper speed. Reading it in print is more of an exercise in perception, and in many ways, the typeface is a metaphor for memory layered upon yet another metaphor: By its very nature, the print page blurs and fades, each time it’s touched.”

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“Brave” Browser Offers Users Ad Revenues

Christian Science Monitor: “Brendan Eich, former CEO of Mozilla Corporation and creator of JavaScript, is launching a new startup – Brave, a browser with a less-than-intuitive solution: block ads by default. The browser will automatically block disruptive ads on the Web and replace them with safer, less intrusive ones. The browser will also reward users with a cut of the advertising profits and a choice to support their favorite websites … the main goal of the browser is to give users control over their advertising experience and more control over how they support their favorite websites.”

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Co-Creation Is The New Museology

Hyperallergic: “In plain terms, across the field, in museums, art institutions, performance forums, and even historical societies, the visitor’s experience is now being personalized. This means that not only is the visit marked by enhanced, interactive, and ‘dialogic’ engagement, but also there is an institutional recognition of the visitor as an independent maker of meaning who uses the museum in a variety of ways to fulfill particular, individual needs and desires.”

“Three key means of accomplishing this is first, recognizing visitors’ capacity to make meaning for themselves; two, partnering with them to discover what they personally want from the museum; and lastly, mobilizing the museum’s resources to meet these needs. These tasks can be met by, among other things, new curatorial strategies through which museums partner with visitors to develop activities and events: co-curation projects, and crowdsourcing exhibition content.”

“Visitors are no longer passive receptacles for the curator’s knowledge, but rather active, engaged participants.”

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Is The Deck Stacked Against Disruptive Innovation?

The Wall Street Journal: “Anshu Sharma, a venture capitalist at Storm Ventures, thinks he knows why so many companies that should have all the resources and brainpower required to build the next big thing so often fail to do so. He calls his thesis the ‘stack theory’ … the mistaken belief that” building something new is a simple matter of “moving up the stack.”

The “stack” is a “layer cake of technology, one level of abstraction sitting atop the next that ultimately delivers a product or service to the user.” IBM, for example, “moved up the stack from making things that compute to selling the services that computation enables … Google tried to move up the stack from search to social networking.” Apple apparently hopes to move up the stack to make electric cars.

According to Mr. Sharma, failure to move up the stack happen when the company lacks empathy for its customers and doesn’t understand its customers’ wants or needs. It’s generally easier to move down the stack (e.g., Tesla builds its own batteries because it knows its own requirements). Uber would be more likely to succeed at building its own cars than General Motors would be at creating a ride-sharing service. That’s because “Uber has the advantage of knowing exactly what it needs in a vehicle for such a service.”

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Why Aren’t Wearables Well Worn?

In The New York Times, Nick Bilton offers several reasons why so much wearable technology has not worn so well. “First, almost all of them require a smartphone to be fully operational … a wearable becomes yet another gadget that we need to lug around. There’s also the fact that most of these devices are quite ugly … Then there’s the unpleasant fact that the technology just doesn’t seem ready … But the biggest issue may be the price … consumers just can’t justify buying a smartwatch that costs nearly as much as a smartphone.”

Geoffrey A. Fowler, writing in The Wall Street Journal, meanwhile extols the virtues of the Mio, which uses a metric called Personal Activity Intelligence (PAI), which tracks heart patterns rather than foot movement. “Mio’s hardware isn’t as elegant as others on the market, but PAI is the best example yet of how wearables can turn data into tailored, actionable advice, and hopefully longer lives,” Geoffrey writes.

“Unlike step counting, where you start over each morning at zero, PAI runs on a rolling weekly tally … Everyone’s PAI is a little different, by design. The formula takes into account your age, gender, resting heart rate, max heart rate and other unique signals. It’s personal Big Data,” Geoffrey writes.

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