—12— I pushed my shoulders back — then I answered the phone

Anuja Bagul — Senior Material Scientist, New Technologies

[Transcript of video]
Material Connexion is a big part of what I’m going to talk about today. I’m going to give you a short introduction about the company I work for. Conventional material scientists are scientists who work in the laboratory on new materials or analysis of new materials. Whereas at Material Connexion — although I’m a material scientist — we try and look at these materials in a very different light. We find new applications for existing materials or find new ways of using these materials for completely unknown applications.

I must say that this project was extremely frustrating for me, being a material scientist. I loved it, but very frustrating, because at Material Connexion the kinds of clients we get — especially all these Fortune 500 companies — they come to us with a very specific goal. They either want to find a new material for something they’re working on, or they’ll ask us for a landscape on innovative materials. There is always a specific agenda. Here, everything was random.

I was asked to observe something. I wasn’t asked for a conclusion. I wasn’t asked for anything specific. I love putting things in a box. I love getting a conclusion, and this whole randomness and abstract thinking really took me by surprise. But what was amazing about this project was it translated into so many different aspects of what we do at Material Connexion. We are looking at materials, not only from the composition and the chemical properties of materials, but also from how the material effects a human being: the social, political, economic behaviors, aspects of all these objects and details that surround us. So I thought of starting by thinking about what is the relevance of this phone.

The first thing I thought of, was my grandfather. This is not the exact image I had in my mind but this is what I found. This is my grandfather. The photo here you see is taken sometime in the 70s or the 80s. What I wanted to show is, this phone brings out this elegance, this readiness in people. When you have it on your table, and you’re trying to make an important decision — any kind of work includes important conversations — you get into that stance. You get into that grace and that mindset of importance: how are you going to impact? That is what I always remembered, that my grandfather was a very important person in India and he had his desk and he had this beautiful phone which he always used. He had this posture when he picked up the phone or spoke to anybody. The same thing happened to me. This is my desk — I tried to clean it up a bit for taking the photo.

I did leave in some of the personal elements just to let you know how the phones we use now can be anywhere. Where I place the phone — the model 500 — is where I would have usually kept my mobile phone. It’s in a very personal environment.

But what was different this time: whenever I picked up the Model 500 — instead of my mobile phone — I straightened up. I pushed my shoulders back and then I answered the phone, or then I picked up the phone. Whereas, with my mobile phone, I am very casual.

And you might think this is not true, but I have some things to prove. It’s not only me — it’s also President Obama. Would you ever imagine him making an extremely important phone call to Putin on a mobile phone — casually? No, he’s going to be at his desk. He’s going to be on this amazing phone, making those important decisions. This made me realize that it’s the materiality of the phone, the sturdiness that brings about the spontaneous reaction your body has to an object. It’s the heaviness. It’s the fact that it is such a grand material, This particular phone was made from Bakelite — an industrial polymer. The heaviness of the mechanical objects — instruments that  actually get it working — is what gives it it’s materiality, its sturdiness.

After these observation, I got this whole project of OBJECT AMERICA. I wasn’t lost — earlier I was just wondering, what are we going to speculate? I have nothing to solve for. What was really interesting is after having that breakthrough, after understanding how we react to the phone, I started talking to a lot more people. That is something we do on a regular basis whenever we look at the new material. We definitely talk to the manufacturers of the material, the scientists to understand new properties, and the way they are thinking about it. Then we translate it into what we would like it to be.

I did the same kind of research for this phone. I spoke to my colleagues. I called up numerous people: my friends, family, anyone I thought had worked on this phone, with this phone, had memories of this phone. And what was truly interesting is everyone had a smile or this, “Oh. Oh my god, I haven’t thought about it”. This happy moment made them talk about the phone, which everyone loved it especially the details like the dial.

That is what I am focusing on here, the movement and that noise – not noise, I shouldn’t say noise – the sound. Everyone really loved the tactility of the phone. Everyone liked the responsiveness of the phone and how — because you have to dial each and every number — you would remember people’s phone numbers. Now, I don’t think I even know my parents’ number —  it’s a button away.

Then everyone started telling me their stories with respect to this phone. There were emotions about the phone, its materiality the cord — all of it. You love the person who has the easiest number to dial. You hate the person who has a zero in their phone number because you have to go all the way to the end and wait for it, and only then dial the next number. All these small aspects, they’re not there anymore in our current phones. But imagine, all of this, this design, the materials, the sturdiness, you couldn’t just carry it around. But people did, because they felt really important talking on the phone, carrying something heavy, walking around your room.

All these things translated into how we, as human beings, communicated — what information we relayed, because we could not take this in public. We were having extremely private conversations on the phone. I want to discuss what impact this phone had. Basically, it changed a lot of things. It got us from an era where communication was so necessary in connecting people, and beyond that there was no looking back. We, as human beings, have just continued progressing, using this phone in different ways — in different formats. The common thread of communicating with another person hasn’t changed. What has changed now, in our current system, is the data we get from the phone: all the simple tools of calling up your mother, calling up your teacher, calling up Blockbuster to find out when the movies are. All of those things you are still doing. There is an added element of visualness on our phones, because if you look at your phones now, you get to see anything on the Internet — anything that is around the world is in the palm of your hands. It is really nice that there is so much more locked into something this small.

What made me very skeptical — and I was supposed to speculate about this object — was, how can it be improved? What needs to improve? And that is where the emotions come in. Model 500 was something that was one-to-one, whereas our phones right now take us all over the world. When I am talking to someone on the phone, I am listening to them, but at the same time it’s very unlikely that I will be on the phone with them when I’m holding it like this. I’ll either have my earbuds on, or put it on speaker and sit doing something else while talking. Either my email will be open, my Instagram — and I am saying me, but I know a lot of other people who do this.

But apart from just being in two worlds at the same time, we’ve lost the connect.

Although the phone is able to connect us to people around the world, it’s not connecting us to the people sitting next to you. If you go out to a restaurant and have lunch with your friend, half the time you both are going to be on the phone. That is the problem with my generation. I remember in our first conversation for OBJECT AMERICA, I had made this point that maybe it is not such a bad thing that everyone is always looking at their phone — because sometimes you are doing important work. However, there is obviously the negative aspect of not having that emotional connect. The solution for that was something that Facebook came up with. Imagine Facebook, a company who is the leader of social media, is thinking of getting people to look away from their phones and do something else.

Facebook added Building 8 — that is a new division of Facebook where they are working on new technologies. One of the technologies that I’m going to play a video about is called the Hearing Skin. The eventual goal is to have a system where you can hear through the vibrations, so you don’t have to look down at any device. You are present in the moment, you’re present in your surroundings, and so I’m just going to play this. There are frequencies that she’s feeling on her skin — the vibrations. That’s what she’s able to recognize.

Basically, what this technology is going to allow you to do is: if I’m talking to you in English, you might be able to feel what I’m saying in Spanish. There is going to be no language barrier. You can do anything, any kind of conversation in this ether just through feeling. The other aspect of this project is getting you to look up, to get you to stay away from your phone, be present in a conversation without having to look at a device. This is a very seamless form that I think we are moving towards. So looking at the three types, I know there have been many variations in between.

But looking at the past, the Model 500, it was an amazing phone, heavy, dextrous with all these industrial polymers. Then we are in an age right now where we move to a more elegant form of phones — in general trying to make them lightweight so that you can take them anywhere, trying to make them small enough so that they fit in your pocket, in your bag.

But these materials that they’ve used are glass and metal. Glass and metal are the surface that you’re touching the most in the world. The most touched surface in the world is your phone. Did you know that? It’s amazing, but the phone is made of materials that are cold and hard.

We as human beings have been around so many different tactile experiences that now we are missing out all of it. The future, which I’m really excited about, is seamlessness. It’s having skin-like, biomimetic materials behave as your communication device.

Here is an example by MIT Media Lab. They are developing this particular tattoo as a communication system to increase volume or add a certain toggle, which communicates with another device.

DuoSkin:Functional, stylish on-skin user interfaces from MIT Media Lab on Vimeo.

But eventually, imagine if we were in a world where you had a seamless smart skin around your body that lets you communicate — instead of being tethered to a device just like our parents, grandparents, or even us a few years ago, tethered to this Model 500. Thank you.

Anuja Bagul

Anuja Bagul is a Senior Material Scientist, New Technologies at Material ConneXion. In this role, she is able to use her diverse background in core material science to provide innovative and strategic material solutions to clients from Fortune 500 companies. Prior, Anuja worked as the Material Specialist at Material ConneXion, assisting members in the library, conducting research, and creating content for the extensive online materials database. Additionally, Anuja served as an assistant editor for Material Innovation: Packaging Design, published by Thames & Hudson. She is a frequent speaker on various topics relating to materials, most notably the idea that “Every Idea Has a Material Solution.”