How the internet of things could make media physical again

Qleek lets you fill the world with “tapps” that “incarnate” any media or link.
Qleek lets you fill the world with “tapps” that “incarnate” any media or link.
Image: Ozenge
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Not so long ago, every act of consumption began with a ritual. We pulled records from sleeves and perched them on turntables, slid books from shelves, watched as VHS tapes were ingested with a soft ca-chunk. Qleek, from Paris-based startup Ozenge, aims to return our digital media to a state in which they can be collected, stored, handled, played and shared in the same way that physical media were, once. The makers of Qleek want you to pick up a wooden hexagon printed with, for example, the artwork for an album or mix, place it on a reader, and hear the corresponding tracks play on your device of choice.

At first, Qleek sounds as if it will only interest the kind of nostalgics who want their houseguests to see how refined is their taste. But it’s an example of a larger phenomenon with the potential to redefine the nature of human-computer interfaces.

The problem: virtual interfaces don’t engage critical human talents

One of the downsides of early 21st-century technology is that the way we organize information emphasizes our dependence on machines rather than tapping into our innate abilities to process and retain things. But with the advent of technologies that bring more of the internet into the real world, designers have a chance to address this oversight.

As neurobiologist Mark Changizi has observed, ebooks, the web, and other libraries of digital media have no geography. Humans have an enormous capacity to remember things by locating them in space and time, so the lack of spatial constancy in our media—the way we are forced to “teleport” from one object to the next, as through a hyperlink—means we are hardly ever engaging this portion of our memories.

In nature, information comes with a physical address (and often a temporal one), and one can navigate to and from the address. Those raspberry patches we found last year are over the hill and through the woods — and they are still over the hill and through the woods. And up until the rise of the web, the mechanisms for information storage were largely spatial and could be navigated, thereby tapping into our innate navigation capabilities.

There was an intermediary period in the development of our technology in which we got interfaces that were both electronic and physical—the control deck of this Russian nuclear power plant is a great example. But now we’ve lost even those.

These days, the closest we get to engaging our spatial memory with our virtual interfaces is the layout of apps on our homescreens. To cope, we’ve replaced spatial memory and navigation with search. While search is powerful, it cannot exist outside of the devices that enable it, and by relying on an algorithm to recall what we’ve forgotten rather than our own intuitive sense of where it is in the world or in our libraries, we forfeit control over which parts of our knowledge we have access to.

Approaching a solution: cheap connected devices

Qleek tiles live on your wall, or wherever you want to display your refined taste.

Qleek is composed of two parts: small wooden hexagons representing media, which could be music, movies or just about anything else, and a reader for the hexagons. Put a Qleek hexagon on the reader, and whatever media it “contains” will start playing on a specified device. Qleek is one of those designs, like Twitter, which at first seems so simple and arbitrary that verges on stupid.

Imagine, for example, a version of Qleek in which each tile contains its own modifiable display. Electronic paper (the same thing that makes up the display of Kindle and other e-readers) is already inexpensive enough to be used in store displays. Qleek tiles could supplement the collection of documents and folders we already splay across our virtual desktops. Where’s that project I was working on? With smart, connected, cheap displays or other physical signifiers, it could literally be in your pocket.

Apple’s iBeacon as an enabling technology

Once your phone knows where any iBeacon-enabled object is, it can be used as an “invisible button” to affect something in the connected world.
Once your phone knows where any iBeacon-enabled object is, it can be used as an “invisible button” to affect something in the connected world.
Image: Qleek

Achieving a re-physicalization of media doesn’t even require a specialized technology like Qleek. Already stores are using battery-powered nodes to allow iPhones to know where they are in any physical space, so that shoppers can get offers and information on products pushed directly to their phones. This means any object containing an iBeacon and a coin-size battery (which typically lasts for two years) that is brought into proximity to an iPhone or recent-vintage Android smartphone could also become a Qleek-style signifier for any digital asset we want to assign to it.

Imagine, then, stacks of papers, or discs, or plastic tiles, that link to a particular location or file on the internet or in our computers. Anything bigger than a poker chip can contain an iBeacon, which communicates with smartphones via a protocol called Bluetooth low energy. Thinking further, it would also be possible to allow physical manipulations of these objects—they could have buttons, they could be touch-sensitive in their own right—to manipulate their contents. It’s also possible that something as simple as the location of these tiles could lead to the activation of what some call “invisible buttons,” which are key to how the internet of things will replace other means of interfacing with computers, like the web.

Thinking beyond historical examples of physical media

It’s tempting to think of physical objects that interface with the virtual world in terms of old metaphors. A wooden Qleek hexagon with an album cover printed on it is a cheeky—and probably unnecessary—reference to record, tape and CD collections of yore. Yes, you can use Qleek to share a mixtape with someone special, but that’s just where the possibilities start.

We’re at a uniquely exciting time in the evolution of the internet of things where the technology is beginning to run ahead of the vision of designers. What comes next is figuring out how to make the re-physicalization of media useful—and perhaps even elegant—instead of merely a curiosity.