8: Physical Virtuality: Instantiating The Virtual In The Material

Opening example: The Lego Group offered a computer-based tool that enabled users to design anything they want, then enables them to order a kit containing the bricks they need to build it along with diagrams and instructions to guide them.

The tool in itself is a kind of toy a virtual Lego playroom with an unlimited supply of (literally) thousands of components, with the ability to store and share plans - but what fascinates the author is in the way it enables people to obtain, in real physical space, things that they conceived using a virtual tool.

Admittedly, engineers and architects have been using computer-aided design (CAD) software for years, and even before that were using sketches on paper as well as physical models to depict something that would eventually be manufactured and built, but it has largely been the province of designers with considerable education and skills.

Applications such as the Lego Design application provide this ability to anyone, albeit on a smaller scale, but it is only one of a number of applications that enable a common person to develop something in the virtual world that results in a physical artifact.

Printing and Scanning in 3D

The concept of 3D printing involves connecting a computer to a device that sculpts an object that is drawn with software, whether it is sculpted from a block of wax or composed of resin. Archeologists can use this technique to reproduce an item without unearthing it, and the same technique is used to craft prototypes for machine parts, and is also used to create a final product in jewelry and health care.

Other examples include a firm that uses a "truck-sized 3D printer" to build houses out of concrete, clay, and plaster; a molecular gastronomy cook who modified am inkjet printer to spray edible gels onto a plate.

(EN: I wonder if the author would regard any machine that manufactures any good as a 3D printer? An automated/robotic assembly line that molds plastic and assembles a product does the exact same thing. The chief difference seems to be that 3D printing involves a multipurpose device that can make a wider array of things without needing to be physically reconfigured, but I think it's attempting to make perfectly commonplace machines that have been in use for decades or longer to seem new and wondrous.)

The author then describes technology that doe the opposite: takes items that are physically real and renders them in the virtual world. One example is a firm that enables people to use their gaming system camera to take an imprint of themselves and render it as a lifelike avatar in video games. FigurePrints did this for World of Warcraft, and reported that over 100,000 devoted players signed up "almost immediately."

(EN: The relationship to old tech is even more obvious here: any camera or scanner can render an image of the real world, and an artist can do it with pencil and paper. Again, technology merely facilitates what is already possible for those who want to avoid the time it takes to learn a skill.)

The author provides a few examples from healthcare: Dentists now use equipment to mold tooth reconstructions on-site by scanning the original tooth, allowing the dentist to repair any damage, and then molding a replacement from a porcelain slug. There has also been progress in constructing replacement body parts by spraying living cells, cultured from the patient's own tissue, onto a mold - though it's not yet done for major organs, the laboratory has produced usable skin, bones, and even ears and noses.

Mass Customization

The concept of mass customization is the ability to tailor an offering to the needs of an individual customer, and to do so on a larger scale than most boutique operations that do the same for a smaller number of clients.

The concept of customization, even on a large scale, has been in practice for quite some time. Consider LensCrafters, a chain of optical studios that by necessity produces a pair of eyeglasses for each of hundreds of thousands of customers that is made to their specific needs. Major firms, who traditionally mass-produced goods, have experimented over the past few decades with ways to allow the customer to "design your own" product, though the parameters by which the customer is permitted to alter the product are somewhat limited.

The core principal that many of these employ is modularity: the offering is broken apart into components that can be linked together to create a product that suits the needs of the consumer. This can be done with products (eyeglasses combine frames and lenses) or services (a vacation package includes air, hotel, and activities).

Infinite flexibility is still only possible through a custom shop: you can only get a tailored suit from an actual tailor. But if the customer is regulated to specific choices (pants straight or pleated, collar style, sleeve buttons, jacket straight or tapered, etc.), a mass-producer can economically produce a large number of components to enable customers to assemble a product that better fits their needs.

Return to the opening example of Lego building bricks. While the manufacturer produces only a few thousand components, even fewer when you consider many are the same shape in different colors, they can be assembled into a virtually infinite array of models.

One caveat is acknowledged: it is possible to give people too much choice. If they are exposed to a broad range of possibilities, they become indecisive or give up. Some customers are better served by a standard-issue product, others will wish to customize. Ultimately, the customer wants what he wants, and the degree to which he will help you discover a solution to his needs varies by the individual.

(EN: Another book examined the generational differences, which can help untangle the seeming paradox. "Silent" generation customers are happy getting the same thing everyone else gets. "Boomers" want something that's a little better than their neighbor has. "Generation X" is more willing to participate in a design process to develop a product that meets their needs. "Millenials" are apt to play with the design tools and ask others whether they should buy it.)

Design Tools

When you put design tools in the hands of the customer, the tools themselves must be designed in order to match both the skills of the customer and the capabilities of the company. If the tools are beyond the skills of the customer, they will not be able to use them. If the tools enable the customer to design something the company cannot produce, you end up with disgruntled prospects who don't become customers.

(EN: The opposite side of the spectrum is not considered, but is also important. If the tools are too facile, the customer won't value them; and if they design less than the company can deliver, it is regarded as being weaker than competitors who give customers greater capability.)

Aside of the task involved in modeling a design, consumers need a great deal of help imagining what to design. For this reason, a company that allows customers to customize must provide examples of what they can do to inspire them, and provide a visual component that will show the customer what they are doing and compare differences among options.

Consider the example of Loft, an interior design firm, which moved from a mass-production model to a mass-customization one. Customers of the firm found it difficult to conceptualize what they wanted their room to look like, so the firm gave them examples as points to begin with, and a computer-aided design tool so that they could "see" their choices before ordering the product.

(EN: A simpler model is the way automobile manufacturer sites show the user an image of the vehicle with the options they have chosen - model, exterior color, interior color, rims, etc. - because the customer cannot be counted on to imagine what a car might look like based on a text list of options.)

Another example, which borrows on augmented virtuality, is an eyeglass manufacturer that enables the customer to model a pair of glasses on their own head or face, captured with a digital camera, to see what they would look like in a given set of glasses.

Ultimately, design tools are about communication. A good tool "makes sure that what's inside your head looks the same as what's inside my head," whether they are communicating the vision of a designer to an engineer, or from a customer to a supplier.

Do It Yourself

There has been a resurgence of interest in recent decades in "do it yourself" offerings - giving customers the materials, equipment, and skills to take on a task for themselves. The author interprets this as evidence that the customers value or enjoy the act of designing and making a product as much or more as the end result of having or using them.

(EN: I tend to interpret it a bit differently: it is evidence that the standard product offerings are unacceptable, and the customer is increasingly willing to undertake the burden of design and fabrication because he cannot get what he wants from providers. That's not to say that there aren't folks who take a certain sense of pride in making things that they could more easily buy, or that there isn't some stimulation in the act of crafting something, but that these are not the only motives.)

Many retailers cater to the DIY crowd, selling tools and materials to fabricate goods, offering classes and demonstrations to teach customers the skills. Consider the growth of craft-store chains or that of home improvement stores.

The author presents a more extreme example, of a firm that enables customers to rent a workshop that contains equipment most people don't have ling around the house: milling machines, lathes, laser cutters, and the like.

(EN: Again, not a new concept at all. Hardware stores have been around for generations, selling tools and supplies to people who wanted to design and build things, be it a birdhouse or an actual house, rather than hire others to do that task.)

Applying Physical Virtuality

Tips and suggestions:

The real value of providing a product, even by basic manufacturing, is helping a customer to achieve something they could not do on their own: the product is merely a means to this end. Physical virtuality is a means of doing this on an individual level, rather than compromising to the lowest common denominator.