Imagining journalistic IoT

Physical computing technologies are novel materials for many news designers. Photo: Robin Glauser on Unsplash

How might we tell a story about bushfire using heat? Or a story about increases in custodial sentencing using the walls of a courthouse?

As communication technologies become increasingly subtle, tangible and sensuous, journalists and media organisations will need to think about how to design stories for internet-connected objects, responsive buildings, and smart environments—contexts in which established story forms may not work.

The spread of internet-connected devices into homes, workplaces and public spaces reflect the emergence tangible user interfaces (TUIs), which meld the physical and digital worlds. TUIs enable us to interact with information via material things or embodied experiences, rather than just via digital representations. Mixed reality, voice interfaces, and smart fabrics are examples.

We are beginning to see some examples of storytelling designed for tangible interaction. Bigger publishers such as the BBC, New York Times and USA Today have experimented with mixed reality, and research labs are exploring ideas for using sensors and objects in journalism. However, we don’t yet have a clear idea of how to move journalistic storytelling into the physical world and how to create meaningful experiences.

We need to learn.

Tangible opportunities

Massive growth is expected in the market for networked devices, with some analysts expecting the market to be worth US$1.5 trillion by 2027 driven by smart applications for industry, health, homes and cities. With such growth, there is an opportunity for news designers to work out how to exploit physical computing technologies not only to tell stories but to encourage tangible interaction and participation.

Imagine journalism designed to encourage the public to engage more deeply in some of the social, political, economic, or environmental issues that are the subject of journalistic reporting and perhaps to take action in relation to those issues.

One experiment on this front is Vim, a tangible story designed for physical interaction and participation in the issue of energy policy. The design incorporates several physical computing technologies (3G microcontroller, light-emitting diodes, a thermal printer, buttons and dials) that enable readers to interact with the story. By inputting preferences, donating energy or responding to questions, the design and invites readers to participate with the issue of energy futures and to act in relation to it.

Thinking about journalism as physical, embodied and participatory means thinking about storytelling in physical space.

Journalism where?

Tangible interfaces are not constrained by screens. They can be incorporated into clothing, homes, public buildings or the natural world. How can we design stories for these spaces and what are the implications of those places?

A story like Vim, designed for physical input by people, is constrained by its location and the people in that place. The situation is similar for something designed for a home or other private space. Designing for a specific location means people and place become fundamental considerations. Local news gives us some insight into how this works, but how does this extend to a smart city, for instance?

There’s some interesting work in urban informatics that suggests a role for editorial values in the design of digital urban environments.

Imagining alternatives

Physical computing technologies such as microcontrollers and radio transmission tags, are novel materials for designing news and what we know about designing for physical media, such as paper, is unlikely to translate.

One lightweight way of exploring some of the possibilities is to use design methods cards to imagine how stories, technologies, and practices might come together. Low-fidelity techniques such as cards are a way to begin imagining alternative ways to tell stories before investing in prototyping and development.

The Physical News Card Deck

The Physical News Card Deck has been designed for journalists and the types of stories they tell.

It is a set of 48 cards, four activities and concept template that can be run as a workshop. The deck is organised into four categories: story, technology, constraint and frame. In the workshop, you first draw a story and technology card and develop ideas for how to tell the story using that particular technology.

Next, you rethink the ideas in light of a journalistic constraint. The frame card is used to encourage you to think about the storytelling from a different perspective.

The deck is available to download and could be adapted for different types of stories, constraints or technologies. The key is to think about alternative combinations of story, context and interaction with a view to imagining alternative way to design news.

The cards and activities have been released under a Creative Commons licence and are available here: http://jxd.com.au/2019/09/04/physical-news-workshop/

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Media | Design | Innovation

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Skye Doherty

Skye Doherty

Media | Design | Innovation

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