Conversations on the Convergence of Buddhism, Technology, and Global Culture

BG 270: Transcendenz & Anti-Time


Episode Description:

“We can only see what we’ve become conscious of.” – Michaël Harboun

Michaël Harboun wants to design products that find a balance between inner contemplation and external technology. The concept video for his augmented reality project Transcendenz illustrates the positive potential of finding such a balance (you can find the original video here on Buddhist Geeks).

In this episode Michaël and host Vincent Horn discuss the philosophical goals of Transcendenz, the fact and fiction of the current state of some of the technologies portrayed in the concept video–like augmented reality and computer brain interfaces–and finally the way that Buddhist thought has influenced this project.

This is part one of a two part series.

Episode Links:


Vincent:    Hello, Buddhist Geeks. This is Vincent Horn and I’m thrilled today to be joined by Michaël Harboun. Michaël, it’s great to have you on the show. Thank you so much for taking the time out of your very busy schedule to be with us.

Michaël:    Thank you very much for the invitation, Vincent. I’m happy to be here.

Vincent:    Yeah. Thank you. Just a little bit of background for the Buddhist Geeks listeners. Michaël you’re originally from Luxembourg. You graduated from the Strate College in Paris 2011.

Michaël:    Yup.

Vincent:    What where you studying there?

Michaël:    I was studying Interactive System and Objects which is basically what most of designers today call interaction design which is like the art of interacting with modern technology and the study of how we interact with smart phones, computers, and in general how behaviors basically evolve through the modern objects we use today.

Vincent:    Amazing. And you’re also I guess after having finished your degree you came to the states and you’re now designing at a very well-known and prestigious design firm called IDEO.

Michaël:    Yup.

Vincent:    And you’re based in Chicago.

Michaël:    Exactly based in Chicago for a year-and-a-half now already.

Vincent:    Okay, so you’ve been there for a while now.

Michaël:    Yeah.

Vincent:    That’s great. And you’re also a bit of a philosopher. It’s really clear looking at your work, some of your design work, that you’ve got a really strong philosophical and spiritual kind of background.

Michaël:    Yeah. I try to keep it alive as much as possible. It’s not always easy to when you work in a consultancy like that where you have to think a lot about planning and about tomorrows. So it’s very hard in a way to remain in the present time and to focus on more like broader philosophical questions, as often we are in a state where we need to quickly go forward and design something.

So I try as much as possible to step back and try to see the big picture and things. I guess it’s a muscle. It’s a muscle which has to be trained. And I guess the more you train it, the faster you can access in a way to see the bigger picture I feel. But it is a continuous path indeed.

Vincent:    Well said. I was curious to hear a little bit about your background in terms of how you go into design. And then this other side of it also if you could weave in there is how you can get into this sort…

Michaël:    Philosophical.

Vincent:    Yeah, the broader questions.

Michaël:    It’s really hard to track back to what made me really start thinking on a career in design. But I feel like I’ve always been focused on the more creative side of things. As far as I can remember the first thing that I used to draw as a kid were inspired by the videogames I played. I remember imagining all sorts of new characters and levels for my favorite games, which really sounds geeky. But I believe that computer games at that time did really stimulate kid’s imagination.

Vincent:    What kinds of games were you playing?

Michaël:    You know like old games on the NES whether it was the original Zelda or Mega Man or all of these now very classical games which have now become institutions over time.

Vincent:    Nice.

Michaël:    I believe I haven’t stopped being creative since then. I just didn’t know where I should focus my creativity on. I first started studying graphic design but then through my studies and internship changed to architecture and product design. I tried a lot of things before finding out what I’m doing today. And I realized now over time that there was something which connected all these disciplines together and that thing was the concept of experience, I guess. I was always more interested in the experience objects led to but less interested in the actual nature of the design whether it’s an architecture, a chair, or a CD cover.

Like what really made me think was how a person would perceive or react to an object and what thoughts would be triggered in his or her mind when interacting with the object? So this is actually what naturally led me to interaction and use experience design which really emphasises on how people interact with their everyday objects and technology in everyday life. And so the funny thing is that interaction design is very similar to game design in a way as it is about defining the rules of how a system works and making them intuitive for a user as he is discovering them. And it’s just funny to think that I kind of went through to a lot of stuff just to come back to what I was actually already doing as a kid in a way. Like thinking about interaction whether it’s on screen or with real objects in general. So I believe the philosophical interest came along this exploration as I got interested in that more hidden fundamental aspect of design.

Not necessarily the design of how something looks like, but the design of how we experience it and what is it exactly that triggers this type of behavior among users. What are people’s first reception of a product and how do these impressions differ from person to person? If philosophy is being considered as a study of fundamental problems such as those linked to reality, existence, like the human minds, language, I believe that behind the design we see there is also an underlying pattern of tensions which essentially raise very similar questions as those raised in philosophical debates. The approach also is very similar as both adopt a very systemic and an abstract way of looking at things.  There is for example a thought experiment. I love to think about it, it’s a thought experiment written by Thomas Nagel which is called Nagel’s Bats.

So in that philosopher story he explains like how bats are mainly perceiving the external world by detecting a song reflection from objects off their own trees. And so they have very different way of seeing the world than we do with our eyes. And so the philosopher is wondering what it is like for that to be a bat. And for him actually there is no way we can actually know that even if a human would gradually transform into a bat, it is impossible for him to imagine how the future states of his transformation will feel like. And so this kind of raises the very subjective nature of experience. The fact that we constantly experience the world through somebody else’s lens. Maybe the way I see the color yellow is sort of different than the way you see it. And as I would never be able to go inside your head, I would never know how you see the color yellow. And this phenomenon is inherent to the design process.

When a designer crafts a product he has his very own way of experiencing it, but he has no idea how a user will interpret it. That’s why at IDEO for instance, research is so important. That’s why bringing products in front of users as much as possible and getting their response is critical because at the end by blending together as many interpretations as possible we are able to create experiences which resonate in a much more universal way. So philosophy I guess helps us stepping back like going to the fundamentals and trying to get to that point where we really look at the purity of things and try to get a rid of what is superficial in a way.

Vincent:    Beautiful. And it’s really interesting the way that I got turned on to your work and your design stuff is through this concept video that you created for you college thesis and it’s called Transcendenz but it’s with a Z at the end. I was wondering if you could say a little bit about what Transcendenz is.

Michaël:    Sure, sure with pleasure. Yes, Transcendenz was my thesis project I realized at Strate College one year and a half ago. It’s a pure design provocation which tackles the question on how we can connect deep thinking and contemplation with modern information technology. And obviously, it’s not in a natural solution or anything like that but more of an exploration with hope to raise the debate among people. So at a very concrete level it’s a pair of augmented reality glasses which transform the user’s perception of reality. So it modifies the user’s sight in a very special way. In a way that makes him question what he’s used to believe in.

And so the user could be walking around in town or sitting in a train and experience the world through this distortion and start thinking about stuff in a different way. And so Transcendenz will offer a variety of experiences and each of those would modify the user’s reality in a very specific way. And so the example I show in the concept video is the empathy experience. And so what this experience does is it replaces all the people’s faces you encounter with your own face. And so what this experience tries to facilitate is our very human ability to project ourselves into others. And of course it’s an extreme metaphor but it does make everybody around us suddenly feel similar and that is one of the core value of empathy: feeling one with others. And so the way Transcendenz is conceptualized is that as you grow through these different experiences we can access deeper levels for each of those.

And the deeper levels transform our perception in even more transformational way. The second level of the empathy experience for instance extrapolates our projection into the world, not only making us feel one with others but with everything around us including nature and the universe. And so the idea is that there would be numerous different experiences each one covering a different fundamental topic of reflection. You could be living in experience about vanity, about the topic of ethics, existence, the human mind and so on. And that’s kind of what at the higher level Transcendenz does. Behind this is a whole concept of connecting to other users who are living the same experience and share your thoughts with them. But also the ability to summon thoughts of famous philosophers and learn what they are thinking on the topic of the experience you chose to live.

And so what I wanted to achieve with Transcendenz was actually more a catalyst of thoughts and debate rather than a finished product. I wanted to create a design fiction which would encompass certain messages I felt strong on communicating. And so one of the messages I really wanted to share with this project is the loss of connection to our inner self. We live surrounded by tools and objects which put us in a constant time of connection, interaction or distraction, but very scarcely in a time of reflection and introspection. Smart phones for instance do a great job with making us super efficient or entertain people, but they don’t do such a good job at connecting us to our imagination and thoughts. And there might be multiple reasons for that. I can think about two reasons. One is basically the amount of data we are confronted with on the daily basis.  We’re constantly consuming information. Spending a day without checking all your stuff online almost feels like skipping lunch or dinner. It becomes a biological need.

Vincent:    Yes.

Michaël:    The problem is that this whole flow and abundance of data is more like fast food. It’s like feeding our instant need of information rather than helping us reflect. Like information pieces which had a real impact on our life and teach us something meaningful are very scarce. So what we need to have one, meaningful information a day, which really makes us think about something rather than a thousand that we forget the day after.  So that’s one point I wanted to communicate.

The other point is actually the nature of our experience with information. Studies have shown that the majority of our time online is spent on social networks. I believe that they have made the world more connected and have had a great impact on society in a lot of society in a lot of situations.  However, the way we use these products automatically put us in a state of outward-ness. The state in which we are naturally focused on how things appear from the outside whether by looking at other people’s profile, see their wedding or holiday pictures, we very often end up in a state where we look and judge what is shown to us. And all kind of information rather than being bound to the external side of things help us connect further to our human ability to reflect and contemplate. And I feel like we kind of keep fleeing our own thoughts by never giving them the time and attention they deserve to flourish, as we often prefer just giving our attention away. So this is one of the things Transcendenz is trying to accomplish, it’s basically immersing us inside a thought experiment which facilitates uncommon thoughts and associations in our minds.   And so rather than just reading passive about our philosopher’s approach in a book, we are immersed inside the philosopher’s mind and interact with the contents of his thoughts. And I strongly believe that technology should leverage the abilities which have brought us to where we are today and not act as a barrier.

Vincent:    Yeah. I was going to say as you were describing this I can imagine one kind of person, who’ve I met, who is very deeply interested in the contemplative and reflective process and may share your criticisms of the information kind of overwhelm situation that we have. And yet they wouldn’t necessarily see technology as a possible part of the solution. There’s more of like a romantic idea of like we got to go back. So that’s one of the things I found so interesting in your work is this sort of fusion of technology with this interest in sort of being more contemplative. Could you say a little bit about the piece of technology, a little bit more about how that fits in and why that should be part of the solution?

Michaël:    It’s interesting that you mentioned that and that you captured that. I didn’t try to say let’s go back in the woods and live like before. That really wasn’t like where I want to go. Cause we can’t bring, we can’t go back. It’s about going forward now. And so it’s not about saying let’s forget about the technology. How can we in a way orient or direct the evolution of technology in a way which makes them more connect with our inner self. And so that was really one of the goals is not to neglect them but to actually incorporate them and work in partnership with them and maybe build the common goal which could lead to a potential harmony again between technology and contemplation. And so the technology using Transcendenz there are two big ones, which are really going to become mainstream in the future.

One of the technology Transcendenz is using is called augmented reality. And so augmented reality consists in overlaying information on our natural site. The car industry already is working on that with their heads up displays which project speed and navigation instructions directly onto the windshield. And so most of the companies, from giants such as Google to start-ups, are working on a more mass oriented version of the project which could be worn like a pair of glasses. Google for instance is working on their Google glass project and they plan to release it already next year or something. And from what Google has been communicating on the project, the first generation of applications would primarily display a very similar content in your smart phone like incoming text messages or like city map, where your nearby Starbucks are, or other types of business.

Vincent:    Right.

Michaël:    [So most of the information] would be textual or iconographic making the split between what is real and virtual very clear about them. I think the next generation of AR application will have a less clear split between real and virtual and there might be a new kind of reality emerging from that. The mixed reality in which it would be hard to kind of see what’s real and what’s virtual. This raises also a ton of question how the use of advertising will work in that context. How pervasive or intrusive can information become? And what was really interesting with what Google was working on is that apparently the issue they were working a lot on recently was not the actual technological side of the project but more the content aspect. What information are people actually really interested in seeing overlayed onto their everyday world. It’s really mostly the stuff you already see on your smart phone. Is it really worth it? Like what scenario make the fact that it is overlaid really useful and meaningful.

And so we might have an answer in the upcoming products. But I’m really curious to see what actually will make it really useful, what will it actually offer more than your smart phone in a way. Like what makes it the fact that it’s overlay interesting. It is all questions which as technologists we have to deal with in the upcoming years.

Vincent:    Yeah. It’s such a huge set of questions, especially when you’re talking about this whole notion of mixed reality, of the virtual and real starting to become more and more indistinguishable. I mean that’s a complete head trip from a certain point of view.

Michaël:    And as you push it a step further and imagine how this technology could get translated into contact lenses making the split between people who have the technology and the people who don’t have the technology invisible it gets even crazier. And the University of Washington actually already created a functional contact lens which was able to display a single LED pixel, which might not sound like revolutionary right now, but tomorrow it’s going to be 2 pixels and after tomorrow 3 pixels. I mean it’s going to evolve. At one stage, we will be able to display a similar content and augmented reality glasses immediately into contact lenses. It also raises a whole bunch of ethical questions like will people who have these contact lens have to communicate that outwardly, will have to actually mention that they have this contact lenses or not? Is it okay to have it without people knowing, so this is really interest.

Vincent:    Yeah very interesting. You know the other technology that was very interesting in Transcendenz, and I think you’re going to mention it, is this idea of computer brain interfaces. Could you say a little bit about that? How science is that or how science fiction is that? Because there are a few companies I know working on things like this.

Michaël:    Yeah. So brain computer interface, or BCIs, are like augmented reality glasses also leaving the realm of military and scientific use to become consumer facing products. The company Emotive, for instance, released a headset which analyses your brain activity and works as a controller allowing the user to navigate inside a 3D space or to control different objects, virtual objects. It’s great for video games but that’s also great potential in everyday use. You can for instance assign different brain activities and patterns to a physical wheelchair and support people with physical disabilities making somebody be able to control the wheelchair just by thinking on different directions. Another company called Interaction focuses more on the mental state of the mind by analyzing brain waves it is able to understand the level of stress or calmness you are at so it could help you focus on a specific task by letting you know when you’re mind starts to wonder and disconnect. And it’s already very precise at measuring the different states of meditation too which could become valuable for any practitioner in terms of feedback and history tracking. Also IDEO actually partnered with a PhD student from the MIT who is developing a technology to measure the person’s emotional response to specific activity or scenarios. His name is Elliott Hedman and his intention is to apply the findings and knowledge to design better experiences for the user. So the pressure he’s raising is by having tools which help us have a greater empathy, we would be able as designers to design with more accuracy and impact if we can see in a way how people respond to different situations.

So I say in terms of  translating the brains activity and emotional states, the industry is making considerable progress, what Transcendenz is using and which is still in its early infancy is the idea of sharing abstract thoughts like words, sentences, and all types of complex thought associations. The closest I’ve seen so far is a research going on at the University of California where they are developing a computer model able to reconstruct the sounds of the words people are thinking of. And it’s a bit technical but I think they do that by analyzing the patterns of the brains blood flow in an area associated with sounds. And so apparently they were able to get images being thought of by the patients.

Vincent:    So sort of like a mind reading technology in a certain way.

Michaël:    It’s a very low-fi version of a mind reading technology. Yes.

Vincent:    Cool. And you know, just to wrap up this interesting, really interesting exploration of Transcendenz, because this is all in 10 minutes, I’ve just got to mention. This is a 10-minute concept video so all of these ideas are being explored in these different kind of really big questions are being brought up through the work that you’ve done. And I also was really clear, having done a lot of Buddhist contemplative practice, that there is some sort of Buddhist influence in there. And when I went to your Vimeo page and looked at the comment I saw somebody bring up that same question. And you responded positively that in fact that there was a Buddhist influence and that you’re glad he sort of picked up on that. And I wanted to ask you know since this is Buddhist Geeks. I mean we definitely are not limited to the Buddhist side and we’re very geeky, but it’d be curious to hear what the influences were specifically on the Buddhist side.

Michaël:    Yeah. I have a very basic knowledge of Buddhism. I’m not a practitioner myself but feel very closer to the high level approach of it. And one of things which influenced the project a lot I would say is actually more related to our general mindset rather than a particular belief. I deeply connect the idea of striving to reach a state of mindfulness through a continuous process of contemplation and meditation. The fact that one has to adopt a certain discipline and be extremely patient in order to involve a perception of the world, and dharmic influence on the project is for instance the way you get to select these different experiences. The idea is that you can’t actually play the game by just switching on the button and select among all the available experiences. To put it simple, the system detects our meditation level by reading our brainwaves. And it only let us in if we have reached a certain meditation threshold. And so the idea there is that there are experiences which could only be accessed when we are on a deeper level of meditation.  So the more we strive to go deeper in our meditation the more transcendental the experience become. And so this rule actually encompasses a message, a value I wanted to communicate. We can only see what we have become conscious of. And gaining mindfulness, gaining the ability of seeing the hidden side of things can’t be achieved in a blank. It takes patients, work and a lot of contemplation time. And the problem with new technologies today is it has made everything instantaneous. We have become so spoiled to the fact that everything is always available easily that we lose the effort to strive for what is hard to reach and not necessarily instantaneous. And lot of what technology does is satisfying our desires in an ever increasingly quick way. Instant gratification for instance is everywhere.

Unfortunately like mindfulness is not a quick switch we can just turn on. And so the question is with all the possible ways of spending a long time today are we willing to dedicate a certain portion of it to reflection. And I’m very interested in a very particular type of time which is the anti-time. A time in which you don’t try to fit an activity which removes you from contemplation and become increasingly uncomfortable with the idea of just sitting there and thinking of what nature of stuff without having anything specific to accomplish in a way. I’m fascinated by the concept of anti-time and how we have evolved our relationship to it over the centuries. A few centuries ago with the fact of having a lot of time for yourself was considered in society as a symbol of power, like kings and other figures of might had as many people they wanted to perform all the tasks they needed to accomplish. And on the other hand, the people on the lowest scale of society had no time for themselves at all as they were working to survive.  And so the more anti-time you had the more powerful you were.

Today, I almost feel like we have entered an era where the opposite is going on. We ask someone to go out for coffee for instance and you get the answer I’m sorry. I’m super busy right now. I have tons of stuff to do. We basically assume that that person is important and that he or she has very little time for you and for himself. In fact, the status of being busy today is naturally associated with the idea of power and success. And on the other hand someone who has tons of empty time will be almost considered as lazy in comparison. And so technology today is building on this approach of time efficiency and optimization. And as time has become money no one wants to spend it doing nothing.  Like the sangha. Even having the appearance of doing nothing has become an issue for itself.  Like through the mediums we have nowadays we’re constantly avoiding anti-time through entertainment or interaction. We all do that waiting for a bus for instance, like we just sit there looking at this. Nobody sits there just looking at the sky or the trees. We almost feel like we’re looking weird if we do that. Now smart phones give us the impression that we’re always doing something important. And so maybe one of the Buddhist approach, which really inspired this project, is to not be afraid of letting yourself go into your own mind again. Because at the end that’s where the most beautiful things happened. The most amazing moves in games happen in our own minds. Of course only if we want to let them happen. Being afraid anymore with being alone with yourself rather than being connected all the time.


Michaël Harboun

Michael Harboun is originally from Luxembourg, and graduated from Strate College in Paris in 2011. He’s currently designing at IDEO in Chicago.