Murrill Oakes is a prolific creative technologist and industrial designer currently developing modern home AV systems at OneButton, a technology design firm founded by a physicist and an artist, Matt Emmi and Michael Izatt. OneButton innovates new user interactions with automated home and commercial interior technologies.
Clever Tech Digest sat down with Oakes to discuss the new human-tech paradigm, and how to mindfully design the integration of our physical and emotional existence with the new digital world. Oakes explains the nuance of emotionally intelligent design, and its importance in the dawning age of automation, connection, and the "Internet of Things."
Read on to learn about where technology is taking our personal homes and emotional lives.
Interview by Ray Fontaine
Murrill, you work at OneButton, a company that describes technology as, “at its best and most empowering when it simply disappears. Each system [we create] is designed as a seamless extension of the space.” What led you to this work, and what have you learned working on the cusp of architecture, interior design, and automation technologies?
My graduate thesis focused on emotional intimacy in domestic spaces and how the digital age has shifted the residential paradigm. A director at OneButton saw this project and recruited me as a design associate. My thesis warned of the potential detriments of smart home technology. Many audio/visual (AV) integrators and smart home designers are filling homes with expensive equipment and screens in every room, resulting in more automated scenes than a homeowner can realistically appreciate or enjoy. I feel fortunate to work within a company that wields technology responsibly.
In residential applications, there always will be designers, clients, and integrators that view technological gadgets as status symbols; the more gadgets, the better. In these applications, each piece of software, hardware, or equipment loses its functionality within the chaos of an overly complex system. The goals for successful designers should be for technology to go unnoticed and for its application and installation to seamlessly facilitate peace and calm within domestic existence. This is a time of digitized toys and tools. Although toys are fun, smart home elements should reside within the tool category.
What are the more global implications of automated and connected infrastructure built into homes, hotels, and retail spaces?
My pessimistic concerns imagine a not-so-distant future fueling completely out-of-control consumerism. Current events demonstrate that personal data has become a commodity; an obtuse infiltration of personal information has led to targeted advertisements.
In homes around the globe, family members choose to engage with screens rather than loved ones. But, then again, this same technology allows long- distance relatives to arrive via video chat and families to gather in home theaters for movie nights. Technology can also benefit health and emotional well-being, a prime example being the use of cutting -edge LED technologies to allow interior fixtures to follow circadian rhythms of natural light, a proven health value to those who suffer from “seasonal affective disorder” (SAD). Technology employed in healthcare fields to increase the availability of resources, also has tremendous benefits for those with location constraints and for those without access to adequate facilities.
Does software interface well with all operating systems?
No. We live in a consumer-driven world where technology companies are in constant competition. Cooperation is not incentivized; therefore, communication is always compromised.
How much is too much integration of our homes, mobile applications, search engines, and retail experiences? Is it possible to become too connected?
I believe we already are too connected. Below is an excerpt from my master’s thesis that outlines my belief regarding hyper connectivity in the digital age:
“Internet-fixation dictates the future of human societies, brains, and relationships. Human progress, a nearly immeasurable and non-linear system, relies on digital solutions, but not without an intensely critical perception. I seek to question human motivations and what appears to be blind, unconscious submission to a software-driven existence, an apparent abandonment of physical realities. As technological advances cause seismic shifts in daily interactions, it becomes an individual’s responsibility to condemn, reject, and avoid those things that do not serve his or her best interests; “we must kill the false woman who is preventing the live one from breathing” (Cixous 876).
Visual designers use stimulating visual tactics enhance these enticing virtual realities. The visual appearance of the notification symbol, the luminescent red orbs decorating smartphone touch screens, instantly send signals to the most stimulating receptors in the brain. However, a myriad of opinions and emotions are inextricably ascribed to these symbols before visual contact occurs. The red orb notifications reward users for the external perception of identities curated through smart devices and social apps. Mankind is addicted to connectivity, and the smartphone notification system, interwoven with likes, comments, SMS, emails, and SnapChats, has been elevated to the ultimate authority on defining the caste system of acceptance and clout. Rapidly inflating social vanity is perched upon an unstable and exceedingly insecure foundation, reliant on the gods of the touch screen to shore up the wobbly pilings.
What if these digital stimuli that lure us into digital interfaces could be applied to interactive objects in our physical realities such as a door? What if the focus of stimulating object-based interaction could be shifted from feeding our vanity to feeding another innately human need: emotional intimacy?
The age of the individual and the stage of development when that individual becomes “connected” or integrated with an internet presence crucially impacts and differentiates the potentially harmful effects of technological dependence. According to marketing analyst Pierre Brais, “[social media] has created and perhaps encouraged a false sense of connection” (Brais 2). It can be argued that a constant interaction with this new “digital religion” is reshaping society. Is it necessary for individuals to connect on a genuine, human level, or is the curation of personal identities hiding behind a curtain of digital comfort now perfectly acceptable? We must question what the “epidemic of loneliness is doing to our souls and our society” (Marche). “
Emotional Objectification, Murrill Oakes 2017
Brais, Pierre. “In the Digital Age, Relationships Have Become Fragmented.”
entrepreneur.com, 19 Sept 2014. Accessed 8 Dec 2016.
Cixous, Helene. “The Laugh of the Medusa.” Signs. Vol.1, No 4 (Summer, 1976), pp.
Marche, Stephen. “Is Facebook Making us Lonely?” The Atlantic. May 2012 Issue.
How would you define emotionally intelligent design? What makes a product demand mindfulness or inspire presence?
Emotionally intelligent design can fall into two categories: awareness and impact. An environment can either be aware of its inhabitants, raise inhabitant awareness, or resonate with an impactful emotional state. Sensory tools can be implemented to indicate the designer's desired emotional results. But it is inherently up to the designers to determine their tactics of emotionality.
Can you share some of your emotionally intelligent design heroes or favorite home-tech projects?
That’s a difficult question because I believe that all successful design is emotionally intelligent,designs that smack you in the face and overwhelm you, beauty that makes you skip a beat. For example, architects like Tadao Ando, his Church of Light literally took my breath away. I do not think that level of emotional impact has entered into the home tech realm. We (meaning the industry - NOT my company) are still into color changing Phillips HUE LEDs as a gimmicky solution to “personalization.” If your mood is pink, that doesn’t mean that you should change the color of all your lights and make your skin look like an alien. That being said, a killer sound system can certainly move me to all sorts of emotions.