Phonebloks, the phone of the future?

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When we started talking about Shanzhai and the maker culture in China, we got the chance to discuss the role it has in fostering creativity and advancing technology in China. A couple of days afterwards, I remembered an article I came across about a phone that you can build yourself assembling its pieces as you want them. The idea originally came from the Dutch designer Dave Hakkens, who wanted to reduce the amount of electronic waste in the world by making sure that people could upgrade/get rid of only the parts that were outdated/deteriorated. Hakkens explains on the project’s website that he wants this new generation of phone to be developed and created by a group of cellphone companies and a community made up of fans of the idea. This led to many companies starting to develop and build their own version of this potential next generation of cellphone. The most famous one being carried out is the project Ara, by Google/Motorola, and in this video, you can see the first prototype of the product. The idea behind phoneblocks is not only to reduce E-waste, but also enable the consumers to be more creative and be able to personalize their phones to fit their needs and preferences. The consumer is hence less restricted by the company’s product. The Phoneblocks team explain this concept even better in this detailed video from their website. They want to go even further and apply this modularity to all technologies, ranging from cellphones to laptops and washing machines.

This relates so much to the discussion we had in class concerning the Shanzhai and the maker culture in China, particularly to the discussion we had after watching the short video by MIT about this market in China. Indeed, one of the many points touched was the fact that the big phone companies around the world are not giving room to their consumers to personalize their own cellphones and define the features according to their needs. The video shows the market with unique phones that you usually do not have the chance to see in the world market (phones that can help charge other phones or ones with lights). This discussion also led to the fact that we, as consumers, do not have the chance to be creative and innovative with products such as phones or computers. We are less and less likely to become “makers” because we are so used to just buying them and adapting to their features.

The existence of this “community” in the making of the Phoneblocks also shares a great feature with Shanzhai and the maker culture; the gathering of a group of people with different ideas and skills who are free to develop their own versions of a technology.

It is very exciting to see the development of such a concept that is not only environmentally friendly, but will enable us to have more freedom over our technological products and make them fit our needs. It is also very impressive to see it coming from a Dutch designer and developed by groups of people from all over the world.

The 1989 Tiananmen Square protests

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Many people (outside of China) have had the chance to come across this iconic picture of a young man standing in front of a tank. This picture was taken in 1989 during the Tiananmen Square protests led by Chinese students. The students first started gathering to mourn the death of the communist party general secretary Hu Yaobang who had previously started developing liberal ideas within the communist party and was forced to step down as a result of the growing hostilities that his ideas provoked. The students then started asking for the government to accept the views of Hu Yaobang on democracy and gathered in campuses and famous places to conduct hunger strikes and protests. These protests also happened during the visit of the Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and as Rebecca MacKinnnon says in her article China’s ‘networked authoritarianism’  “Students hoped that Chinese leaders would follow his policy of glasnost, the Russian word for “openness,” which became the catchphrase for a loosening of controls on the Russian press and discussion of political reform”.


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On the 3rd of June 1989, the Chinese government ordered the clearing of Tiananmen Square where thousands of Chinese (students and other citizens) were gathered to continue the protests. 218 civilians died during that attack with thousands wounded. Despite the major media turmoil this event created in the world, the Chinese government made sure that any discussion on the event was suppressed and to this day, China celebrates more the birth of Hu Yaobang than his death in fear of bringing back the memories of this event. Some terms related to the Tiananmen Square massacre are still censored by the “Great firewall” and the government controls any information available to the public on this event. The results of this control are heart breaking and the silence of the government is completely erasing it from the History of China. In 2005, a PBS documentary crew showed the photo of the man standing in front of the tank to many university students in Beijing. The majority didn’t recognize it at all. This shows how by creating the “Great firewall” and controlling the information flow, the Chinese government is not only depriving its citizen of the events happening now around the world, but also their own past. People outside of China who have no direct link with the event have probably viewed this emotional video more than the Chinese citizens whose freedom has cost these people’s lives. This also reminds me of the story told by one of my classmate who couldn’t find information about a protest his father was part of in mainland China and how he spent a lot of time searching for it on google once he was on vpn. I believe that the Chinese government risk facing more uproar by making it hard for its citizens to have access to these kinds of events so crucial to the past of their country, as they cannot hide it from them forever.

Augmented reality in therapy

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, commonly known as PTSD, is defined as a disorder that can be developed after a person has been exposed to one or more traumatic experiences. This anxiety disorder has been frequently diagnosed among soldiers or veterans. Lately, with the rise of augmented reality or simulated worlds, doctors have found new and effective ways to help these patients recover from this disorder.

This method is part of a broader practice called exposure therapy which is defined as the exposure of the patient to the feared object or context without any danger, in order to help them overcome their anxiety. In this case, the scenario, environment, object or creature responsible for the anxiety is virtually reconstructed using augmented reality. In the case of PTSD in the military, this mostly involves recreating moments during the war or making them meditate like we can see in this video about “Satellites” (augmented reality system).

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Using exposure therapy through simulated worlds has been particularly successful in treating PTSD and other anxiety disorders. As you can see in the following image, it can be used to treat a wide range of psychological disorders.

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This is also used in the treatment of anger management among troubled teenagers, like it is described in this article. A mental health center used a game in order to facilitate communication between a 13-year-old patient and his family.

This medical breakthrough is very crucial to our understanding of the interactions between the world of games (virtual world) and human beings.

In the documentary “Web Junkies”, a group of Chinese teenagers were sent to a center in order to help them get over their video games addiction. While watching it, one could feel a set of recurrent reasons that those teenagers used to explain why they prefer the virtual world to the real one, or why they are willing to spend so many hours in that world. From the teenager who sees real life as “fake”, hence worthless, the one who couldn’t see his father for consecutive days, to the one who affirms that “At home, I feel I don’t exist” and “On the Internet, I have friends who care about me”, we can affirm that gaming addiction is very tightly related to the fact that those suffering from it are sometimes trying to escape from the real world in order to “create” another one in which they have more control. There are also a couple of them who affirmed that unlike school, they were really good at playing video games and this made them feel worthy. In this article published in Psychology Today, the author affirms that:

“When it comes to problems in socializing that might make gamers especially vulnerable to video game addiction, the following factors seem to be important: Lack of successful, experiences in real life, Low parental support, Divorce or separation of parents, Behavioral problems or problems at school, School phobia, Poor grades, Repeating a grade (…)”.

These are also factors that can lead to depression. Going back to the practice highlighted at the beginning of this post, we are trying to see whether there is a possibility to use video games and simulated worlds in order to help these people conquer the feelings generated by those factors. Instead of letting them lock themselves in these worlds, we can use video games to not just help them escape their reality, but also learn to understand the real world and gather the right emotional tools in order to conquer their fears. They can be taught how to communicate better with people around them. As the engineer Andy Fawkes says in his talk reported here, “on some level you know it’s not real, but that doesn’t stop you from being emotionally invested”, this is the power of augmented reality and we can use it to help human beings overcome some psychological disorders they have to deal with on a daily basis.