A speculative design project exploring interfaces for cyclists, and more broadly, influencing the future user experiences for navigating London
Back in May 2015, the Urban Futures team I ran at the Future Cities Catapult completed a design research project around cycling. The team was Claire Mookerjee (Project Lead, Urbanism) with design by Anastasia Vikhornova and film by Christian Schmeer, joined by Rebecca Jones (Technologist) from the Catapult’s Lab team (and with a bit of input from me early on.)
This short project used film to sketch out some possibilities of contemporary technologies such as wearables and Internet-of-Things, in order to imagine new user experiences for cyclists. It was covered in depth at Dezeen and elsewhere, so feel free to read about it over there. Below, a few background notes from me, unpicking some of the thinking (though we also do that on our research blog.)
While some of our projects involve more directed development of technologies in place — e.g. 2014’s Cities Unlocked, which was an end-to-end demonstration of a working system for wearable wayfinding — in this mode we’re sketching. We were driven by the particular challenge of wayfinding for cyclists, given that our streets have been designed with cars and other motor vehicles in mind for the last half-century or so, and the signage with it (as good as Kinneir & Calvert’s work is, of course, stand in the street and look at what’s provided for car drivers versus pedestrians and cyclists.) Meanwhile, many pedestrians are looking down at their hands, staring a little blue dots on a map. But what might cyclists need? And what could we do once the street itself start ‘talking’ to people, to services? (In that sense, this project also picks up the threads from on our earlier collaboration with BERG, and their Pixel Track physical prototype for connected displays.)
In both of these kinds of projects — demonstrators and sketches — we were endeavouring to make tangible the promise of otherwise abstract ideas like ‘Internet of Things’ (IoT). To some extent it’s an exercise in envisioning a possible future; albeit the future just around the corner. But the film attempts to locate that future in the everyday, to enable folks like transport infrastructure providers or technology companies to understand how they could work together to improve the ‘user experience’ of cycling. While suitably open, and non-prescriptive, it gives us a token to have those conversations with.
We were often in dialogue with major transport providers — Transport for London, Transport for Greater Manchester, Network Rail, the RTA in Dubai, the MTA in New York — to better understand their challenges, and we know that cycling has so many circular benefits for cities and citizens. And indeed many cities are spending serious money, time and attention on improving the ‘hard infrastructure’ of cities to make cycling safer, more convenient, more attractive. (Transport for London are spending £800m+ on cycling infrastructure over the next decade.)
Yet as well as this investment — and clearly significant attention to such hard infrastructure is key, preceding any conversation elicited by this film — there is still the potential of a soft infrastructure which can be overlaid on existing urban fabric to further support cycling, which could take advantage of contemporary technologies such as wearables, IoT, real time sensor data, and so on. We interpreted part of our job was in making it easier to grasp that potential, partly in order to pull more focus onto the importance of improving the experience of cycling generally (using this as bait, in that sense) as well as exploring how entirely new experiences might manifest themselves. As well as transport providers we’d also talked to tech companies, from startups to multinationals, to understand what’s viable here, and what their interests are too. Films like this can help suture these various perspectives together into a coherent set of possibilities.
The team framed all this in a broader urban perspective — exploring how cyclists navigate and move in the city, which is quite different to how drivers or pedestrians do so — and so we ended up developing this idea of sketching out possible solutions that use the city itself for navigation. We’d like to think that the technology could help people ‘read the city’ better, and at some point effectively disappear (not least as we wanted to explore a ‘heads-up’ stance, as you don’t want to be pulling out your phone to navigate whilst cycling alongside a bus. Nor am I particularly enamoured by people walking the streets head-down all the time, for that matter.)
Although there were several navigation devices proposed for bikes emerging — at the time, Tom Armitage’s great Columba and Hammerhead’s haptic feedback, for example, and several that have emerged since we published the film, such as SmartHalo — we wanted to explore a range of possibilities, hence developing five possible interfaces, from bike to body to bus, all of which were based on some fairly rapid user research from the team.
It was a small, quick project in a way — a few weeks — as we were also interested in how we can use design and film in this way, as a sketching method. Not simply filming to document, but as part of the design process. They had not benefited from in-depth ethnographic research; they didn’t look at lead users, or refuseniks, or the broader accessibility issues, or terrain/climate issues, or more contingent views on how brittle such Internet-of-Things infrastructure could be, nor do they do all the other things one would do if doing product development for real. And clearly, it’s only when making something for real that these very meaningful issues are genuinely addressed, sometimes resolved.
Yet we still felt this has value as design research, for all that.
With London’s awful recent record in terms of cycle safety in mind, we are very careful to place this film in context. I would foreground numerous other necessary improvements to London’s roads first, before any experiments like this — dealing with large trucks and buses; proper bike-lanes; massively reducing private car traffic; dealing with smaller-scale logistics movements; driver education; redesigning roads; campaigns; provision of better basic signage; better streets; bike parking and other infrastructure — all of these are more important than the technologies we’re exploring here, which may finally work best as an overlay onto those hard infrastructure alterations. On the research blog, where the film is presented, we drew attention to all these issues, using the film as ‘bait’ for that, essentially, as well as capturing a sense of what a better user experience for cycling might be.
The ideas emerged from conversations with people in London, and our own observations and understanding of London, and cycling (a kind of informed ‘self-centred research’) — and in particular here, the strategy to shift cycling to quieter ‘backstreet’ routes rather than the potentially dangerous heavily trafficked arteries. It’s a London film in that sense (and I’m tempted to suggest it actually addresses the “internet of fings”, as a result.) But many modern cities have the same issues, just as many cities have air pollution issues, bike-sharing schemes and so on.
Watch the film, and then read about each fictional interface in turn below.
The first two elements explore variations on ‘head up displays’ (HUD) — or, what if you took the essence of Google Glass-like interfaces and built them into bike helmet instead? And what kind of wayfinding elements might come into play if so? Not necessarily signs and bike paths as traditionally understood.
They also explore my original starting point — drawn from influential urbanist Kevin Lynch’s old idea of ‘imageability’ — of reading the city via landmarks, edges, paths and so on, yet with augmented data. (This aspect came from our conversations with Google Creative Lab here in London, back in July 2014.)
In essence, such interfaces could help this process of learning the city, and ultimately disappear — but also understanding that tech can also do amazing things, like see through buildings, as with the Shard example in the film. So we could take advantage of that. It might be that, after a few goes with it, you don’t need the interface at all, as you’re reading the urban fabric as wayfinding. This would probably work better as a momentary ‘taking of bearings’, while paused at a traffic light, as in the first interface. (This idea of seeking only the ‘magic’ elements of tech—for instance, in this case, seeing through buildings—but not over-reaching, and finding a recessive, humble mode that foregrounds what humans can ‘natively’ do instead, is something I’ve subsequently developed, and used a few times in other projects.
The idea of technology being recessive, of finding its position in the landscape, we call Quiet Tech, or Humble Tech. The idea of only doing what tech can uniquely do, and thus leaving space for humans to be humans and the natural world to be itself too, we call Minimum Viable Magic. All of these are key design principles for me and my teams. More later.)
The second shows someone moving whilst using the visor display, towards the Shard …
This is a thought I originally sketched out for Museum of the Future 2015, based on a bike HUD heading towards the Shard (see quick mockup above), though we didn’t put that concept in the final show. Sometimes ideas recycle themselves from project to project. The Shard did make it into these films, however, recognising its value as wayfinding landmark, at least.
Ed. Although of questionable value as an actual building, The Shard has other value too, as a demonstrator of minimum viable parking.
These are little nudges, based on the idea of the rider taking bearings at certain points, but ultimately reinforcing the idea of learning the city. (And the nice thing about having an urbanist like Claire in the team is that she could take this half-formed thought and run with it.) These first couple of prototypes captured the imagination, such that this project was often reported as ‘bike helmet of the future’.
Third, we know that air pollution is a big problem in modern cities, and although some research shows it can actually be less of an issue for cyclists than for car drivers, it was an issue we also wanted to explore, given cyclists’ ability to explore roads less travelled more flexibly (e.g. canal tow paths, parks, as well as quieter backstreets.) Our related Sensing Cities project (with Intel ICRI and others) involves building a sensor network capable of generating real-time data around air pollution. Thus the third interface suggests a way of enabling cyclists to choose routes with cleaner air in real time (probably fewer cars, HGVs and buses there too.) This device also suggests that wayfinding is not simply always about the quickest or most efficient route, but that there could be a range of reasons people choose a particular route: the quietest; the most beautiful; the one with a nice café on the way; the one most likely to avoid, or bump into, a particular person …
Fourth, heavy goods vehicles (HGVs) and buses present particular problems for cyclists. We are not pretending for one moment that this kind of tech could solve a city like London’s problems singlehandedly — again, that will require more concerted efforts by regulators and infrastructure providers. This will only be fixed by seriously reorienting our cities’ hard infrastructure towards walking and cycling, with regulation to support the removal of HGVs wherever possible, genuinely shifting the way logistics is handled. These augmented reality prototypes are no more than a sticking plaster in comparison. We have always been clear about that, as part of the motivation for the film, lest anyone is confused (road.cc readers, I’m looking at you.)
Nevertheless, the blind spot visualisation mock-up here suggests different things that so-called ‘machine-to-machine’ tech could do to enable a more considered interaction between bikes and large vehicles. A relatively small thing that might help in large ways.
And finally, we wanted to address bike sharing schemes, which we suspect have quite different usage patterns to privately-owned bikes. Here the team 3D-printed a device that clips to the share-bike’s basket, and used post-production to overlay a relatively subtle interface designed to help the more occasional user. Note the fluid, almost playful sense of direction and route, in direct counterpoint to the blunter, more linear signs for car drivers (left, straight on, right etc.). This recognises that cycling has a different dynamic and use of space, more like a bird than a bus. It’s a quieter mode, somehow in keeping with the meandering, perambulating kind of cycling that can occur on the sturdy, heavy bike-sharing bikes, yet also a kind of game-like interaction — keep the dot green to stay on the right trajectory. As with all the interfaces here, the team explored a more ‘glanceable’, almost ambient mode.
Again, the prototypes are ‘design fictions’, simply mock-ups in film (albeit skilfully done by the team, using a combination of 3D printing, Final Cut Pro and After Effects.) We make them to provoke dialogue, a way of thinking about technology in the city, and in this case, to engage people in a richer discussion about how we need to think about the experience of cycling.
Turning such things into products that would be ‘viable, desirable and feasible’ is not trivial, and we know that execution is all. Yet the core technologies exist, and are more or less at the right stage of development, price point, interoperability and so on — these ideas are not exactly science fiction. I know the Catapult would still love to work with partners to explore how to turn concept into reality. Equally, we put these out there to inspire others to look at and test these kind of possibilities, and develop their own ideas, responses or counterpoints. To paraphrase a certain architect, they’re not the answer, but they might suggest better questions.
The project was covered at Dezeen, Atlantic CityLab, The Guardian, Smithsonian, Road.cc, NextCity, Sydney Morning Herald, BusinessInsider, PSFK, Daily Dot etc. and numerous cycling forums.
Lovely work by Claire, Becky, Anastasia and Christian, and the wider team, for which much thanks. This was another project in the Connected Streets programme we ran at Future Cities Catapult, which previously included Connected Homes (looking at networked approaches to fabrication, construction and planning, in conjunction with Wikihouse, Arup et al) and Connected Displays (the Pixel Track prototype, with BERG), and also related to our Sensing Cities environmental sensor project (with Intel ICRI and others.)
Originally published on 4 September 2015 at cityofsound.com.
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