The Socio-Digital Systems Group at Microsoft Research Cambridge focuses on understanding how human values interact with the contemporary technological landscape. Moving beyond questions of productivity and efficiency, their research asks how we can build products and technologies to help us be more expressive, creative and reflective in our daily lives, particularly in the context of the home.
Working within this remit, our project 'Domestic Gubbins' explored the niche for consumer products at the intersection of the physical, the virtual, and the domestic – a space previously inhabited by 'smart' fridges and robotic lawn mowers. Through inventive design research and prototyping methods, we created new concepts for 'smart' or 'intelligent' products that might live alongside us, sharing our homes.
The Gubbins are four fictional objects, designed as provocations. They were the subjects for a series of video probes; social objects to prompt conversations with people about their ideas of smartness and intelligence.
A mundane object, sitting on your shelf, expresses its opinion on the weather. The object by your plant sings a soft reminder. The item in your pocket whispers to you, feeding gossip about your fellow train passengers.
These were some characteristics of the Domestic Gubbins, a set of tiny pseudo-robots that share your home, each performing a single task with an unusual level of intelligence and sophistication. At times, they demonstrate a near-uncanny level of autonomy; expressing emotions, opinions and boredom.
These lightweight design methods saved our client time and money, but – more importantly – they allowed us to enter into dialogue with real families, who found it easier to engage with our films and stories.
The processes underpinning 'Domestic Gubbins' capitalised on our research, prototyping and storytelling skills. The project was exhibited in the online exhibition, Design and the Elastic Mind, at New York's Museum of Modern Art, and laid some of the foundations we needed to continue designing for 'smartness', robots, and networked devices.