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Furniture Of The Future: Pay-Per-Use, DRM-Controlled, And DNA-Designed

Will furniture behave more like software in the near future?

by Bogar Alonso
May 2 2013, 8:25pm

An observant audience might notice that despite updated, flashy exteriors, furniture in sci-fi flicks is pretty much the same as it is today. Films invest all their imaginative stock on making the computers of 2100 A.D. operate as symbiotic entities to users, but when it comes to couches, they'll just splash some monochrome paint on it and call it a day. Like most of Hollywood, the average consumer treats the furnishings of the future as little more than ambient noise. When they peer through the telescope pointed at tomorrow, their mind only sees Leap Motion:

But a quiet battle is being fought during this era that points to an impending reality that is both fascinating and worrisome. In the post-Information Age that awaits us, furniture will no longer be something to sit on. It will be a battleground where differing value systems will violently converge.

Pull Up A Chair For The Free Culture Movement
Born from the tyranny of out-of-touch copyright laws, the free culture movement began like every other rebellion: with an altruistic cause. Citing the oppressive ways of the permission culture―generally weilded by giant corporations in the media or tech fields―the free culture movement has championed a better world by democratizing what is most in need--in this case, creativity.

But purveyors of the permission culture, the Darth Vaders of the Information Age, don’t want us to bask in the waters of communal creativity. As scarcity breeds value, the villains behind CISPA, SOPA, and PIPA will do everything within their power to impede the natural flow of creativity. And because creativity is but potential energy without information, the free culture movement must blow up the Death Star, and in doing so, liberate people’s right to free information.

This epic conflict has been primarily relegated to the online realm, but furniture might be one of the first places it makes the quantum leap to reality. Digital Rights Management (DRM), perhaps a more hated entity than trolling, is a countermeasure set up by digital rights owners to combat piracy. Operating like a programmable lock, DRM can limit a file’s use based on location, the number of times it’s accessed, who uses it, or even by predetermining its lifespan. When applied to the real-world, as done by Swiss group Les Sugus in a mock-up known as the DRM Chair, the countermeasure feels counterintuitive.

If you find the project to be ridiculous--that's kind of the point. By bringing these ideas into the physical world, the designers hope to underscore the ludicrous nature of DRM regulations.

Pay-Per-Use Public Benches
The first manifestation of this bold, new future might initially make its debut out in the streets. As public places are further commercialized, the homeless further antagonized, and city budgets incrementally slashed, pay-per-use public furniture could be just around the bend (if not already).

Though marred by troublesome implications, pay-per-use public benches, for example, don’t seem any more draconian than pay-per-use public bathrooms. Even if Fabian Brunsing’s interpretation comes equipped with retractable metal spikes:

Other than its ability to limit what seems like a human right, the design above isn’t inherently disquieting. After all, like with a payphone, all you need to do to access the technology is to provide a quarter. But it’s the license-enabled conceptualization of Steve Mann’s 2001 project, SeatSale, that is especially troubling. Mann, who clearly has a great sense of satire and foresight, isn’t making a case for furniture that requires a government-issued ID card to use. But that doesn’t mean that corrupt governments or money-hungry corporations won’t use it as a template to regulate human comfort.  

Steve Mann. Composite image of SeatSale and poster used in exhibit. 2001.

It seems far-fetched to picture a world where a credit card needs to be swiped to access a seat at Starbucks, but, in many regards, that world is already here. Facebook, for example, is secured by its own version of SeatSale’s lock mechanism. In order to access your/their network of friends, you’re essentially swiping a digital identification card of personal information, finances, and spending habits. Facebook then ”charges” you to the tune of your personal brand and purchasing power. With the right technology, why wouldn’t restaurants start “charging” you for seats in exchange for your email address or corporate interests?

And as we know, conditional locks are the stuff of DRM lore.

DRM-Controlled Living Rooms
As it functions now, furniture cannot be treated by companies the way software presently is. If someone purchases a loveseat, a business would have a hard time convincing them why they need to be charged extra if moved to a new living space. Or why a futon was programmed before purchase to be slept on a total of 25 times.

It also is far from being a mechanism―in the vein of SeatSale―that oppressive regimes or opportunistic corporations can use for questionable reasons. But furniture is evolving before our very monitors.

In line with the DIY movement, and facilitated by emerging technologies, furniture is slowly taking on the traits of our digital properties. The design firm Filson and Rohrbacher, for instance, has gifted the world printable furniture, licensed under a Creative Commons Non-Commercial License, that allows you to remix your living space according to your whims. Its use being wholly dependent on your interpretation and preference for building material.

Image property of Filson and Rohrbacher

But where Filson and Rohrbacher’s AtFAB series is limited by their predetermined designs, the open-source tool known as SketchChair puts full-control in the user’s hands. Designed by Greg Saul, the program allows anyone to design their “own digitally fabricated furniture.”

Once ready, the finalized design can be printed into templates that are then taken to a laser cutter for wood processing. But both AtFAB and SketchChair’s final points of manufacture, where they become real-world elements, require the use of technology that isn’t readily available in homes.

3D home printing, then, could be the final piece of a progressional puzzle. From the comfort of your chair, perhaps one that has itself been 3D printed, you would be able to print a dining set from images found on the internet. Already relatively affordable, 3D home printers would serve as personalized factories from which one could furnish a whole house. But just as the Darth Vaders of the Information Age have tagged their digital property with access control technologies, there’s already talk of regulating 3D home printing.

First, for safety reasons: the ability to print weapons at home doesn’t sound like a happy ending waiting to happen. But also because an unregulated industry, especially one that so casually marries creativity and manufacturing, would kill off many a profit scheme. Therefore, the inevitability of DRM-controlled housing quarters seems all too sure. What that would look like is up to interpretation, but the free culture movement would not approve. Picture wheel clamps on rocking chairs that can only be removed by way of license agreements, a pay-per-use system, or monthly charges (a la internet usage).

DNA-Designed Furniture & Beyond
As furniture evolves, so will one’s ability to customize it according to personal preference. In that not-too-far-off future, purchasers of furniture will be more interested in how a couch complements their spinal curvature than its color. Though not hard-wired in science, Frank Tjepkema’s DNA-mapped furniture could be a revealing glimpse into a time when furniture will truly serve as an extension of ourselves.

Tjepkema’s Darwin Table designed from Giulia Wolthuis’ DNA profile.

Perhaps a future beyond 3D printed furnishings is one where our own DNA serves as an IP address or barcode from which DNA-complementary furniture is scanned. Using tactile holograms, this new type of biological furniture is then projected onto the real-world for unlimited contextual uses. Think: a hammock at a beach where there are no trees, or a seat on a benchless train platform while you wait for the next one.

But before that time comes, important developments have to be arrived at. The course of today’s information wars, will dictate the future of furniture and tactile property as those things increasingly take on the nature of digital entities. If steered in the right direction, the cultural debate can allow for a world where transformative furniture is only the beginning. But if it ends up veered astray, our own DNA might one day be used to charge us for the real-world use of someone else’s intellectual property.