- December 28, 2016
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A Taxonomy of Device Forms
In Marc Weiser’s seminal 1991 essay The Computer for the 21st Century, he defines three general forms for devices in the 21st century:
- Tabs:“inch-scale machines that approximate active Post-It notes” Mobile phones, and devices such as mobile cameras and MP3 players fall into this category, although most of these are larger than Weiser likely envisioned. Very few devices currently are as small and light as a pad of post-it notes. Digital watches and some medical devices, perhaps.
- Pads:“foot-scale [devices] that behave something like a sheet of paper (or a book or a magazine)” Laptops, tablet PCs, and e-readers are examples of this category.
- and Boards: “yard-scale displays that are the equivalent of a blackboard or bulletin board” We’re making progress on this front, with large touchscreen walls, not to mention our flat screen TVs.
Clearly, Weiser was thinking mostly of an office/workplace environment with his categorization scheme. If we expand our view out a little more to include homes and public spaces, I think there are some other general types that could be included in Weiser’s categories:
- Dots:tiny, nearly- or completely-invisible devices.
- Boxes:devices that are slightly too large, bulky or heavy to be portable. Kitchen appliances such as toasters and many consumer electronics like stereo equipment fall into this category.
- Chests:large, heavy devices that do not move, such as dishwashers, stoves, and refrigerators.
- Vehicles:large, heavy devices that do move. Yes, cars are devices too, writ large.
It helps to consider these categories, because each brings with it different expectations as to how to engage with the device and what kinds of functionality might be available, not to mention qualities such as durability and cost. Device designers need to be aware of this when considering what form a device should take.
Of course, traditionally, this is has likely been determined before the designer even starts the project: “We need a new line of washing machines. Go make us some.” But in the 21st century, it’s not quite as simple. Frequently now, the starting point is not the form, but instead the functionality, with the form enabling and enhancing that. As electronics and computer components get smaller, it’s easier for what might have been a Box at one point to become a Pad, Tab, or even a Dot and “disappear” all together. There’s more computing power in a digital watch these days than in the NASA capsules that went to the moon. Functionality, and thus form, is more fluid and cross-category.
Of course, a Vehicle is not likely to become a Dot, but the functionality such as a navigation system that might have previously been stored in a car (in the dashboard, say), might now be in the Tab that is your mobile phone.
There is also an emotional response around different forms. We have a different relationship to our mobile phones than we do to our stoves, or to our cars as to our laptops. Some of this is certainly about price point (our cars cost more than our mobile phones), but some is the pure physicality of the object itself. A large, heavy, immobile object usually has more emotional weight than a small, mobile one. If just for the fact that it has a larger spatial (and fixed) presence in a room. You would immediately notice if it was gone. This is a tricky problem as more objects dematerialize and become Dots. Will you feel differently about your TiVo/DVR if there was no Box and no remote (only gestures for control)?