Demystifying emerging technologies

We wouldn’t have the craze for AI if we didn’t have 40 years of popular images about sentient robots, smart assistants… think about Star Wars, Her, 2001 a Space Odyssey, and many more. The same can be said of other emerging technologies. Cryptocurrencies emerged in a time of distrust of the government and financial institutions from the narratives generated during the financial crisis, the Panama Papers, and the Occupy Wall Street movement. Autonomous cars, drones, augmented reality can be analyzed the same way.

Of course, some of these narratives are shaped by the ingenuity of storytellers and spread artfully via comics, movies, and TV; many of these narratives, on the other hand, are written by special interests, like corporate narratives.

Knowledge Navigator by Apple, A Day Made of Glass by Corning, You Will ad campaign by AT&T, Productivity Future Vision by Microsoft, are examples of videos that depict futures where these companies dominate a cheerful landscape heavily marked by technology advancement but also divorced from real understanding of the consequences of these technologies.

This spring semester I taught the class “Designing Emerging Technologies” at UC Berkeley, and the main message conveyed to students is that emerging technologies are about narrative and culture, more so than a specific technology. Emerging technologies emerge because of a mix of signals from technology readiness, investment environment, but most importantly, the popular imaginary.

We equip students with the ability to have a critical overlook on emerging technologies, recognizing how the emergence of blockbuster technology is shaped not only, by ingredients like technology readiness and the convergence of investor and government interests (see DARPA Challenge, for instance), but by the fact that emerging technology materializes after an extended period of familiarization in the public consciousness.

In our brief, we invited the students to create design narratives that can lead to the familiarization of technologies that “we”, designers and thinkers, want to see emerge. Design narratives are rooted in understanding people’s needs and encompassing a mindset that is not consumerism-based but challenges the world around us ingeniously, through the act of sketching, researching, making, and prototyping, to craft a more positive place to live tomorrow.

It is easy to predict the automobile but difficult to predict the traffic jam.
-Isaac Asimov

The quote above suggests that there is a disconnect between the idealized visions of the future presented through popular media and the potential realities of what those futures might entail. As instructors we prompt the students to consider the unintended consequences of new technologies and strive to create designs that are sustainable, from a humanity perspective, looking at all the cycles of production of a certain concept. We warn against being blinded by overly optimistic or simplified visions of the future and instead advocate for a more thoughtful and nuanced approach to design.

Creating design narrative is important, and while a full practice of Speculative Design, which has a foundation in creating future narratives, has become recognized, (see my article Design Futures: A New Discipline, Tool and Medium), I believe that we are trying to shape a different approach to “futuring”. This approach is based on considering the long-term implications of design choices and avoiding overly simplistic or unrealistic visions of the future. The future is influenced, as expressed above, by creating familiarity in the public with technology, and so we encourage students to research opportunities where it’s not about big speculative leaps or iconoclastic dreams, but instead about crafting, sketching, and prototyping experiences that can spark a more pragmatic imagination and familiarization with worthy design concepts.

We invited the architect Eugene Tssui to lecture in our class. His work is labeled visionary and futuristic, yet the technologies that he implies are ancestral and nature-based. Humans should build like nature, with intelligence and a plan to create forms and structures that are lightweight, efficient, pleasurable, and inspiring. His perspective has been a great inspiration for the students’ work and an example of how we can embrace a value-based practice, where futuristic and visionary doesn’t alienate the contemporary but instead, by been made outside of the stream of technological hype with commercial interest, it can grow organically and help familiarize new ways to look at design, and architecture in the case of Eugene Tssui.

With this framing, we set the stage to have projects that can embody students’ values and beliefs and encourage the use of technologies that they want to see emerging, rather than emerging by external forces. The result is a series of concepts that paints a picture of an optimistic future, a future that could be labelled “solarpunk”, or even better “solarpop”.

The brief’s guiding principles were informed by the principles of sustainable computing as well as the concepts of circular economy and the principle of avoiding the creation of technology to merely address shortcomings of other technologies. I’ve learned from past mistakes, where technology was built to fix other technologies’ flaws, resulting in disjointed experiences that left old technologies victimized and the new interventions failing to create a compelling narrative about a desirable future.

Students’ projects

With an open invitation to experiment with various materials, the student projects showcased remarkable diversity, with the brief constraining the focus on developing measurement tools within the kitchen environment.

Fruition by Ankur Kela, Jade Hyeryeong Kim, Kirk Mendoza
Strange Timer by Christine Marcelino, Baurzuan Abenov, Lingxiu Zhang

The projects “Fruition” and “Strange Timer” exist in the realm of ambient computing and, while the students experimented with advanced computer vision and heuristics technologies, their form factors are elaborate and refined, and their interactions are gentle and subtle. In particular, Fruition is a fruit bowl that offers ambient reminders before your fruit begins to spoil, and Strange Timer represents a novel approach to experiencing time, utilizing a ferro-fluid interface and an abstract visualization instead of traditional clock faces or digits.

Greenzymes by Jenny Du, Adorey Shen, Yani Shi, Jingyi Guo
Poko by Junjie Li, Jiayi Liu, Weilong Gao and Xingchen Cao

The two projects above have ventured into the space of wetware, where hardware meets wet, a.k.a. biology! Poko is a nitrite detection system designed for enhancing food safety in homes where people prepare Kimchi and other fermented foods. Greenzyme is a comprehensive system designed to create eco-enzymes from food waste. Poko and Greenzyme have gone into exploring how we can use sensors that are out of the eye of the public, but potentially available and how we can use them into the home environment. Their capabilities to detect nitrates and pH levels can spark a new wave of home fermentation, promoting safety or offering opportunities for creating local delicacies, detergents, natural pesticides, and fertilizers.

Rebrew by María-Teresa Carmier, Shameemah Fuseini-Codjoe, Divya Srinivasan, Abigail Chen
TimeHue by Charon Kuo, Katherine Liu, Charlene Lu, Stephanie He

TimeHue is a silicone lid designed to contain food while monitoring its freshness. A color-changing material reacts to environmental moisture, it offers a passive visual alert when food begins to spoil. It requires no electronics, it is based on desiccant materials that are widely available.

Rebrew, takes the form of an edible cookbook that simplifies the process
of creating natural medicines, teas, soups, and healing patches.. By incorporating natural and edible plasticizers into square sheets, Rebrew reinvents the cookbook, where each sheet can be torn apart and immersed in water it transforms into the ready-made result.

Rebrew and TimeHue are important projects because they have re-imagined experiences with material innovation as an emerging technology.

In the interaction design program at Jacobs Institute of Design Innovation, there’s a strong emphasis on digital technologies.
However, the fact that these projects drew inspiration from the principles of sustainable computing, questioning the necessity of computing in the first place and opting to exclude electronic materials altogether, is a monitor of the new perspective that the students have gained. Moreover, while considerations of sustainability played a role in these decisions, the primary motif for excluding digitally mediated tech was on enhancing user experiences and challenging conventional ideas of what emerging technologies are.

Bibo by Yuhe Niu, Carina Lee, Hiro Qu

Finally, on completely the opposite side of the spectrum, Bibo is an AI-companion for mindful eating. This project is probably what most people would expect from 2024, involving Speech-to-Text technology, Language Models (LLMs), and a conversational interface. Bibo helps people with their eating habits. While the project is in line with the current trends, it embodies a playful interface where squeezing the antenna activates Bibo, and the antenna’s motion and animated eyes represent Bibo’s expressive traits. For sure, the space of embodied A.I. is an interesting one for exploration, given the advancements in conversational language models, and the students were rewarded to explore this area if they thought it was part of their sphere of interest.


In conclusion, the “Designing Emerging Technologies” class at UC Berkeley has been a semester long laboratory in exploring futures that critically use technology and pushes the creation of design narratives to spotlight the technologies that we, as designers, want to see emerging in the technological landscape.

The diverse student projects exemplify this philosophy, ranging from analog and sustainable designs inspired by nature to explorations of embodied AI that maintain a playful, humanity-centered approach.

I believe the class has been offering an opportunity to grow from a hard-skills perspective, where we are thinking through making, but also to gain a perspective and vocabulary on how to frame technology. The class perhaps should be called “Demystifying Emerging Technologies”, and I hope to see this awareness grow in the students now and more importantly when they will leave the academic environment and venture in the industry.


Thank you to my fellow instructors Sarah Rosenbach and Brian Hinch and the Jacobs Institute for Design Innovation at UC Berkeley.

Demystifying emerging technologies was originally published in UX Collective on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.






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