More things, less stuff

Like all of us, I’m a creature of habit. I start my day off with the obligatory gallon and a half of coffee and my normal web rounds to see what’s new since I signed off the night before. One of my favorite places on the web to hit is Ikea Hackers. I love the idea that people look at these pre-built objects not as end items, but as things that can be manipulated, moved, altered, added to, and… well… ‘hacked’ into new versions. I love to study the hacks, see if I can emulate them, see if I can extend them. I even start to look at individual hacks and see if I can hack a couple hacks together. It’s like a grown up version of Lego. The pictures on the website are like the pictures on the boxes of Lego – a suggestion of where to move forward. It just thrills me to no end.

Ikea hackers works because Ikea exists. I know that’s simplistic, but it has some serious implications. Someone has gone through the hassles and problem of making things that fit together in different ways. They figured out how those things can fit together. They made (technical terms alert!) the doohickeys that make the thingies fit into the what-da-ya-call-ems. Those things just work. An allen wrench, a screwdriver, and a few off color words and you can have a bookcase or even a bed. We have this base of objects that are designed specifically to work together in very specific and defined ways. Hacking those things becomes so much easier because it’s left to the hacker to envision ways in which these things that are designed to fit together separately, can be fit together. The hacker is effectively designing new interfaces to things that already have some well defined interfaces. On top of that, they throw in an aesthetic change that can ultimately change the whole product from top to bottom… transforming the ‘hack’ into a whole ‘nother critter.

So what does hacking Ikea furniture have to do with geography and geospatial technology? A lot, I think, specifically as it applies to newer forms of representation such as virtual reality, or serious games, or whatever term you like here*. We can think of the elements in Ikea as a raw product that can be adapted, combined, reconfigured, changed, or removed as necessary for a specific outcome. It isn’t left to hackers of Ikea furniture to create the raw products – Ikea has already done that for them. Nobody goes out to a saw mill, grabs some saw dust, glues it together under pressure, slaps some white scratch resistant sheets over that new pressboard, then drills holes to hold these metal connectors they hand forged with allen heads in them so the boards can fit together. Those already exist at Ikea, so why would you?

Unfortunately I think in the virtual universe, we’re still stuck at the raw materials stage instead of the raw products stage. We have to go out and make our virtual worlds from scratch – every line, every polygon, every bit of physics, nearly every bit of texture needs to be hand created. That puts a LOT of constraint on the uptick in the virtual, I think. Some of us simply don’t have the artistic chops to put this stuff together, and even those who do often don’t have the programming chops to build the world once the models are made. Sure, we can collaborate to get the skills we’re missing, but that takes a shared space to interact and a shared objective. I can program and want to study World War I trenches. You can build models and graphics, but you’re interested in religion in early America. Let’s call the whole thing off.

Admittedly there has been some movement toward making the raw products. Google just sold their 3D modeling software to Trimble, and Adobe and Autodesk maintain applications, for instance. The problem with these products is they focus more upon the model and less upon the process. That’s great for artistically declined people like myself, but not so great for the programmatically challenged. The methods and the process are missing. Then again, even if the model exists, it might not be malleable, either because of ability, license, or source material. To turn back to my Ikea analogy, I can set a bookcase on top of a table, but that’s not the same thing as ‘hacking’ the two together, now is it? For the hacking culture to spark, grow, and expand, there needs to be something to ‘hack’, not this nebulous mass of stuff we have to work into something usable.

How do we get there? I have no idea. Does there need to be an accessible corporate vehicle that encourages this sort of hacking, ie ‘VR Ikea’? Does it have to come organically from the community? Is it the intersection of the two? Where does the spark that kicks this off come from? The current attempts at answering these questions kinda feel like old carburetor cars that would get flooded when you try to start them. We’re kinda flooded right now in the move from creating everything from scratch to ‘hacking’. I can kinda see bits and pieces of the path from flooded to fully running and it excites me. I desperately want to go into a VR Ikea and grab this model and that model and this physics approach and hack something new and innovative and interesting. I can taste it. Then again, it could just be those Swedish meatballs I’m jonesing for… who knows?

*Jesse note: I will tackle these terms at the beginning of August

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