Dr Kate Stone: making technology magic and invisible

What happens when our tech gets so small, and so hidden, that the objects around us become magic? Dr Kate Stone believes that this is a step to reconnecting ourselves with the world.

Dr Kate Stone is the Founder and Chief Technology Officer of Novalia and sits at the intersection where art, science, design, and technology meet. In the second episode of the NEXT–SHOW series 5, she explored how technology can enhance our link with the world around us, instead of isolating us.

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Some people are clear about the distinction between scientists and creatives, but not Dr Kate Stone. Yes, she’s a scientist but, as she puts it, “secretly inside, I’m a creative”. And her work, while rooted in science and technology, is essentially expressive in nature.

“Science is like my paintbrush, it’s how I create, it’s how I express how I feel,” she says. “What I’m interested in is creating things that trigger human emotions.”

She’s best known for her paper/technology work, where she infuses inanimate objects with technological life. She prints touch sensors onto paper. Then, she adds some graphics and electronics, to make an object the user can interact with.

“And then we have something, say, like a poster or a pizza box or a book or a hat,” says Stone. “And when you touch it, it might play some sound, or it might talk to you.”

Making magical objects

One example is a notebook for musicians, which has a paper piano which you can unfold, play some notes, and write them down. For Pizza Hut, she made a pizza box with an image of two DJ decks. You can actually DJ by touching the image.

“So if you want some cheesy beats, then you can be DJ with your pizza box.”

But, fundamentally, she’s less interested in the product than in creating the tools with which anyone can make something.

“Really, what I’m really fascinated by is creating platforms and tools so that other people who are creative can make an object interactive,” she says. “So, we can have a piece of paper that we can connect to a cell phone, and then you can go onto a website, upload your sounds and your images.

“You’ve now made an app, and you can put that object in the post, send it to someone, they open another app. And it just automatically downloads the experience you’ve created.”

Using science to facilitate creativity

This, to her, is an example of technology and engineering facilitating creativity, rather than getting in its way. She wants the engineers around her to build new tools that the creatives can then use to build new experiences for people. The technology in use is not, in of itself, expensive — it’s roughly equivalent to making a musical greetings card. What does cost is the time to conceive of the idea and design it. But that time and effort could have a disproportionate impact.

“I’m really fascinated by the idea that everyday objects around us could have technology in them and be magical in some way,” she says. “I imagine a future that’s not designed by engineers, but by Mary Poppins. What if I walked into the room, and everything became magical? What if I could cast a spell with my voice, or the room changes colour when it recognises me?”

This is technology forging a connection with our environment, rather than detaching us from it. As she explains, “we are animals, and an animal in the forest connects with the environment and understands it.”

Using tech to connect with our environments

Her work strives to allow us that same connection with our artificial environments. The experiences are currently largely sound-based, but she wants to work more with light. In particular, she sees plenty of potential in the AR space, suggesting the idea of an album cover you can physically hold, but which triggers a hologram of the band playing, which you can then move around. It’s a physical object with an AR experience attached to it.

“You can disconnect what something feels like from what it looks like and what it sounds like. You can create impossible and unreal things. What can that mean in terms of how we understand data?”

Data and accountability

But is there a downside to this vision? Would filling our environment with sensors further erode our privacy and our ability to be anonymous, giving even more data to bad actors to manipulate us?

“I am not independent of the system, or of the universe. We are all connected and one thing. To want to be disconnected, to be shut off, literally removes us from the universe,” she explains. “I don’t really think it’s about the data captured about me; I have location sharing turned on on my phone, and plenty of friends can see and know where I am. I don’t think they care or even check. The problem isn’t the data — it’s the accountability.”

She cites the examples of newspapers using data about people without accountability, and the security service anonymously capturing data about us, and affecting our lives as a result. She sees the use of data with impunity, in a way that impacts people’s lives, without accountability, as the problem.

“I wouldn’t change the capture of data,” she said. “I’d change the accountability. Any use of data about me should be known by me within five years. And, if they broke the law, they have to go to jail. They have to feel accountable.”

Taking responsibility for data’s consequences

Some years ago, Kate was in a bizarre accident when she was gored through the throat by a wild stag. And the newspapers who reported on it used a non-secret, but also non-relevant, fact about her in those stories — on the front pages. But when she connected with the newspapers, explained why she was upset, and they changed everything online about it. She even did a TED talk about this, and now sits on the UK press regulator.

A new availability of information needs a new set of rules and ethics. Our children are growing up in a world that’s very different to the one we lived in. We’re all new here. We’re all figuring out how to make sense of this new, technologically driven world we exist in.

“That means that we’re all like children, and we don’t have adults around us who have experienced this life and are passing on their knowledge to us,” says Stone. “So there can be regulation, but we also need to think about the morality of it, and set some standards. We need to ask ourselves if we’re hurting people by doing this.”

Predicting the NEXT world

Through her work, she’s ended up embracing a belief that the future might look more like the past than the present. She explained the six reasons why in detail in her talk at NEXT22, but she thinks much of it is driven by technology shrinking to the point where it’s essentially invisible — hidden within us and our environment. That would make the world feel more like the pre-laptop, pre-phone age.

After all, we’re nostalgic creatures. We love light from candles and heat from a fire. It makes us feel safe and comfortable. Much of the push of technology has been to remove friction from human experiences, but people are craving that challenge again. People choose to cook food and chop wood because friction makes every moment “meaningful, mindful, and memorable”.

We also need to recognise how our environment impacts our thoughts. We can perform mind surgery by changing our surroundings, suggests Stone. And we can make those environments more resilient, by focusing on using the materials and resources around us, rather than importing them over ever-increasing distances. Short supply chains are often safer.

But, fundamentally, we need to build stronger communities, by connecting with more people who are different to us, and then we start building a strong society. “When we recognise that the quietest voice in the room might have the most to say, then I believe we will build a better world,“ she says.

This is a summary of an interview with Dr Kate Stone conducted by Monique van Dusseldorp. It was broadcast on the NEXT–SHOW on 16th March 2023. You can catch up with Kate and her work on Twitter, LinkedIn, and the web.