• Transform magazine
  • July 31, 2021

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Five minutes with Rafe Johnson

RJ T

Rafe Johnson, tech designer at design and innovation consultancy, Seymourpowell, speaks to Transform magazine about 'transhumanism,' the process of humans merging with technology, and the role digital design, and XR will play in it, and how designing in AR look like ten years away.

How did you begin working on the development and ideation of a bionic heart?

I was approached by The Science Museum of Minnesota to design and develop experiences for an upcoming exhibition based around transhumanism, the process of humans merging with technology. One of these projects was to create a 3D hologram animation that presents a series of futuristic bionic organs using the peppers ghost concept which presents the hologram. What I found particularly interesting, and challenging was conceptualising a bionic heart through digital design. I was tasked with designing something that was both visually compelling and yet believable, the design concept had to be to be physiologically so that if it was used to design the physical product it could be implanted into someone, connecting the tubing to their arteries.

The goal of this exhibition, which runs parallel with my own goals, is to introduce the public to the world of human enhancement in an exciting and informative way, and what is more engaging than a holographic image of futuristic implants? There is plenty of science fiction that considers bionic bodies, but they tend to paint a dystopian world that makes us fear technological progress rather than welcome it; I believe it’s essential we paint an exciting picture of the future in which the capabilities of humans are vastly expanded, and I feel this exhibition portrays that perfectly.

What will designing in AR look like ten years away?

Whilst the fundamental process of designing is unlikely to change, the tools we use during the process certainly will. Augmented reality (AR) is one of the most interesting and exciting tools that can be used for this. As computers continue to reduce in size and increase in power we will see AR devices like the Microsoft Hololens reduce in size from bulky headsets to glasses to contact lenses and eventually brain implants. All aspects of the design process from research to prototyping will become faster, more streamlined and more connected, with areas of design most affected being concepting/prototyping and collaboration. We will be able to design, prototype, package and release our creations on one single platform, just as we often do with computers now. Our freedom to design where and when will be improved, despite your location; and our ability to collaborate will greatly increase as you'll be able to sync with collaborators anywhere in the world and instantly feel like you are in the same room as them. Discussing changes to your car design that's represented digitally in front of you, quickly making tweaks to the cars surfacing or perhaps the paint finish. At Seymourpowell we are already utilizing this technology, for example, when we were building the interior of Virgin Galactic's spaceship, I could be in my home in VR taking in feedback from a 3D avatar representation of my colleagues as we analyzed the inside of the ship. This allowed me to test and identify issues far more closely and talk to top designers around the UK.

What role does extended reality (XR) play in the world of transhumanism?

XR will play a very prominent role in the world of transhumanism, perhaps one of the most important roles. It's worth asking what reality is at this point. Reality in its simplest form is the sum or aggregate of all that is real or existent within a system. Our experience of reality is largely defined by our senses. If our sensory organs and brains can be adjusted, then so can our reality. In decades to come we may be able to experience things we can’t yet comprehend. Neuroscientist David Eagleman is already exploring sensory substitution, creating a vest that converts audio data to vibrations, allowing users to ‘feel’ sounds. His findings show that after some time users who have lost their hearing can start to understand what others are saying through these vibrations. As AR becomes more integrated into our lives, the more we will rely on extended reality technologies, just as we rely so heavily on our mobile phones now. Elon Musk argues that our attachment to mobile phones already makes us a form of early cyborg, imagine trying to go about your daily life without using a mobile phone. Whilst some voice understandable concern about having technologies so closely connected to our bodies, there are huge benefits, especially in the medical world. We will develop a much closer understanding and level of control of our own bodies and XR will be our primary way of interfacing with this.

What is the future of neural implants and how is the design process defining this?

A neural implant is a piece of technology implanted into the brain. Currently they're in the very early stages, however, many neuroscientists and tech leaders are working on prototypes and testing. It's likely the first brain implants will be used for medical purposes like repairing eyesight or reversing effects of other neural based diseases. The technology will inevitably move into the world of brain enhancement, for example a brain computer interface (BCI), which does exactly what you’d think, connects your brain directly to a computer. Once we step into the world of altering and enhancing our brains, we really begin to consider the reality of turning ourselves into super humans, science fiction no more! Imagine a world in which brain enhanced humans can learn languages overnight or perhaps communicate telepathically. It will eventually become as easy as closing your eyes and plugging into the virtual world. As with all technologies and inventions, neural implants are driven and developed by the design process. It's the designer’s job to plan and direct the development of these technologies and ensure the best possible outcome. As with any design project, the prototyping phase is critical in testing and understanding which paths to take, and to help avoid any possible detrimental outcomes.