Facebook as the new model

Posted: 12.23.13

They’re probably doomed now

At Autodesk University we heard several people describe something as the “Facebook of Engineering” or the “Facebook of CAD.” It’s funny, after a year or so of being de¬clared dead, Facebook has risen as the model for communication. Just a quick Google search also revealed Runkeeper as the “Facebook of Fitness,” ResearchGate is the “Facebook of Science,” and Forbes has declared Lockerdome the “Facebook of Sports.”

Email in the meantime has become something like the land-line telephone, a conduit for nuisance calls, flim-flammers, and Aunt Agatha, because she doesn’t like email. By now, we’ve all come around to to Aunt Agatha’s point of view. Email seems mostly good for obscuring the messages I really need to see and annoying me with messages I don’t even understand. Really, I appreciate it that you have enough faith in my language abilities that you send me emails in Dutch, but honestly? I haven’t got a clue. I also love perky suggestions for products I will never ever ever in my life have a need for or an interest in— an iPad stand for retail stores, a digital watch, or a pill to improve a situation I will never encounter. It takes longer to sift through the chaff than it does to deal with the emails I have to deal with, and that’s assuming I didn’t accidentally delete the important emails.

Let’s work together

However, we all have a desperate need to collaborate. We used to do it the old-fashioned way, by collecting around the watercooler or wandering into a co-worker’s cube. Once we even had offices, but that’s another nostalgic path we might as well avoid. We would stand around and look at a proposed design, and ask that the blue be a little bit more green and couldn’t that sweater pop just a little bit more? The great thing is we could see the real colors and, in the case of products, touch the thing and pass it around. Obviously, the bad thing is we had to be standing around the same place and we were in meetings when we might have been better off working on the thing.

Looking back, it’s kind of hilarious to think of how pathetically grateful we were to receive email. Thank you, oh gods of electrons, and thanks for that Internet thing, too.

But collaboration is still an essential need, and we’re not there yet. We’re just finding out what we need by realizing what we don’t have. Email does well and truly suck. Sending files and pictures back and forth doesn’t work because we can’t be sure of colors, we can’t feel the thing, and worst of all, we’re not sure if this thing we’re seeing is the same thing that now exists somewhere in the hands of some other person on the project. Suddenly, I understand the theory of relativity like I never did before.

Facebook, and the Facebook of Things We’re Working On, has an advantage over email because it can be open to just the people on a project, but it doesn’t necessarily solve the other problems of verisimilitude. Though it might.

We wrote about RTT in this issue, and that company is notable because it devoted itself to creating as realistic an experience as possible. In the company’s labs, they were working on every aspect of experience—we’re pretty sure they were trying to recreate the feel of products as well as the look. The company didn’t settle for just being about to render, they tried to build products that took the digital model as far into the real as they could get it given the limitations of science and money so far.

True colors

Other companies we’ve talked to this year are working on their own pieces of the puzzle. Technicolor and Portrait Labs are trying to figure out ways to communicate color so that red is red. Dolby is, likewise, pushing displays to crazy extents to communicate not only a “true” color but also as many colors as humanly perceivable.

The next step might be digital prints that can be sent like faxes so that the person on the other end can run their hands over a design and feel it and have a better idea of the tactile experience.

We’ve talked and talked about digital reality, the ways in which the digital is trying to fight its way into the real, but as it’s turning out, we want more than reality. We want the thing and all the stuff that went into making it. We want it to be alive in ways that were impossible before we could communicate digitally, instantly, and at any time. The Facebook of Something is a step for right now, just like email was a step back then. But it’s all the other stuff we’ve been writing about this year and last that is going to come together for yet another level of real-time communication.

That Internet thing might just pan out after all.