Humans run on energy. We have lots of it. Sometimes it comes out in quirky ways. We squirm around, tap our feet, twirl our pens… even when we’re tired and lethargic, we gulp down some coffee and KAPOW! we’re back to being our twiddling, jiggling, air guitar playing, fabulous, fidgeting selves. Fidgeting is entirely natural. We humans fidget to relieve stress and manage run-off energy. Worry beads, rosary beads and malas are all examples of this. They all provide a physical action that keeps us corporeally grounded, which is particularly comforting and ultimately a real boon for us human-types.

What we find even more interesting, is that for many of us, it’s actually easier to think deeply and stay focused when we have something to do with our hands, meaning that fidgeting helps us grapple with and process information. Sure, tapping your foot helps blow off some steam, but even better, it helps engage your thinking process by increasing your levels of dopamine and norepinephrine, two neurotransmitters that sharpen concentration. In other words, you actually think with your body. “Ago ergo cogito” – I act, therefore I think, meaning we’ve known about this body thinking stuff for so long that I can quote to you about it in a dead language, so let’s use this fact to our advantage, yes?

There are a number of studies which prove that via embodied cognition, engaging the body helps the brain to process information. In one such study, researchers focused on kids learning math. In the past, students were given a multiplication table and told to memorize it. Today, more and more, kids are taught to use their fingers while learning math. In doing so, teachers find their students are far more likely to retain what they learn, not only because an embodied instructional method gives them a way to visualize the abstract, but also because the act of manipulating their fingers while conceptualizing new information encourages a deeper, more “full-bodied” understanding of the material.

As you know, at Kicker we’re all about designing devices that celebrate and harness our body’s already fantastic functionality, so we want to capitalize on our natural inclination toward fidgeting, both to help you focus like a ninja, and also to continue our righteous campaign, providing alternatives to screen/keyboard interaction via the principles of embodied cognition. There are some innovations happening currently, that are moving technology in what we think is an exciting direction. All kinds of small, useful, and wearable devices are popping up, like the Nike Fuelband and the Misfit Shine, which are physical activity tracking devices. Using a simple, glanceable UI that lives on your wrist, they provide sensor data about your movement through the world whilst capitalizing on your inherent need to fidget, and anyone will tell you that a good watch-inspired fidget is impossible to resist. The Fuelband and Shine are off to a good start.

Another bunch of wearables that are popping up are the phone watches like the Metawatch Frame. In terms UI, these wearable devices are basically no different than cell phones, only they’re mounted to your wrist and smushed down into a tiny screen. A similar evolution from pocket watch to wrist watch, the big idea being it’s simpler to glance at your watch than it is to pull out your phone to use its apps. We applaud the idea of seamless glancing at a device that’s always at the ready, but unfortunately, it’s not so pleasant to run apps at 1/8 size. Unlike a pocket watch, a smartphone is a computer, and has a multiplicity of capabilities beyond telling me the time. I expect my smartwatch to be smart, (read: not annoying to use) or I’ll stick with the original “dumb” one.

Various flaws notwithstanding, these new devices are encouraging, however, they all still rely on a visual UI. Sometimes, in order to think at maximum throttle, your gaze needs to be drifting elsewhere: driving, walking, listening to a lecture, sitting in a meeting, whizzing by trees on a train. In these instances our wandering eye is actually helping us to focus by shutting out extraneous input, much in the same way white noise would, which is tantamount to a sort of audio fidgeting.

I know how it is when you’re dreaming up big ideas. I notice your fidgeting. Sometimes you’re staring into a dust mote while flipping your pencil around and around. Sometimes you’re rubbing your forehead. Sometimes you bite your nails. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve sat through a lecture, distracted by the click click clicking of your pen, or the bobbing up and down of your foot, which moves in asynchronous time with the speaker’s voice. These variously employed fidgets are satisfying precisely because they provide a rhythm and a pathway to concentration. They block out mental noise and free up the senses for maximal sensory uptake, providing you with the cognitive expansion and momentum to focus your thinking optimally, allowing you to process information with all your senses.

At Kicker, we’re into designing products that enhance the thinking process, make us smarter, quicker, more dimensionally intelligent. We want to design products that are not only novel in the way they’re worn, but also groundbreaking in terms of what they’re capable of doing, and how easily they’re able to get it done. It’s not enough to take an existing technology and call it new just because you’ve strapped it to my head. No sir, not hardly. What we need is the type of technology that seamlessly and elegantly, gives the wearer dynamic control of her environment, by taking advantage of the body’s natural rhythms and propensities, without such reliance on visual UI. That’s what we’re working on here at Kicker.

What if you could control your music playlist with a leg flex? Or how about if shaking a pen during a discussion could tag important content for later? What if pacing at the front of the room would automatically start your presentation? There are countless examples of how technology, working with our physical tendencies and taking advantage of how human bodies function naturally in the real world, can actually make us humans more super-powered.

We like superheroes. We want to be more like those guys and yes, we already purchased the spandex tights, but beyond that, let’s say we re-think technology to create interfaces that maximize our powers, by working seamlessly with the behaviors, like fidgeting, that we’re inclined to do naturally.

Design is an applied art, where creativity is married to business. Creativity and business are not always particularly compatible. One stays up all night, bingeing on brownies, exhaling the stars, while the other wakes with the birds every morning and captures the flag. True creativity is reckless and manic. Good business is steady and secure. When Creativity meets Business, she shudders with loathing. When Business meets Creativity, she stifles an eye roll. How on earth are these guys ever going to get along?

At Kicker we realize how important it is to combine our creative ideals with a functional business model. Let’s talk about the nature of both creativity and business, as we see it, and then discuss the Kicker methodology for combining the two for optimal success.

Creativity is enchanting. We humans are drawn to it the way we’re attracted to fire or to kittens. For those of us with a penchant for making things, the process of creating often feels like folding fragile origami creatures whilst flailing around inside a brooding summer hurricane. It’s a dynamic process that takes hold of us, and if we’re lucky, trounces us over a wave of transcendence, eventually. The process entails much beautiful struggle and ultimately, surrender, as we crawl out from the melee, drenched and grateful, like a newborn dragon. As you can imagine, this whole inspired and torturous affair is not something one can perform on cue. That’s just not how the muse works. The Muse of Creativity is effervescent, temperamental and sly. You have to take her out on dates. Spend hours connecting with her, listening to her stories. You have to present her with gifts. Take her on drives. Dream with her.

So then there’s the business of Business, the contracts, meetings, piles of documents, emails, spreadsheets and power calls that are inevitably necessary if you want to run a company. It’s all pretty standard stuff, with well-established protocols for success, that is, if you’re running a bank. The trouble comes when you try to ruin a creative company as if it was a bank. Sorry, I meant to say “run” a creative company, not “ruin” but well, anyway… Banks are linear places, where 1+1 = 2 or you’ve got a problem. In a creative company where 1+1 = 2, you end up churning out cookie cutter “creativity” that relies on the same solutions every time (read: bad design). Many design companies fall into this trap: we work with business, we need to adapt creativity to the business process. These companies have very set document templates for expressing design to clients. The problem is that this reduces ideas down to a formula of filling in the blanks. Following the same formula every time gets you similar results every time. While that may be familiar and safe, it’s certainly not tantamount to innovation.

Or maybe you fall prey to the work harder, work faster illusion, where you think that if you force yourself to just do it, the end result will be better. Any creative person knows that this mindset of forcing it fails. If you push too hard toward getting things done, the whole thing seizes up. That combination of creativity, deadlines and formulaic pressure unique to design, attracts adrenaline junkies who, ironically, waste time spinning their wheels in the rut of an uninspired process whose outcome, like Project Runway, is quickly reduced to mind-numbing noise. In that set-up, there is no time for exploration and designers instead rely on instinct and a toolbox of tricks to push something out the door.

Unfortunately, you can’t just wield creativity. It’s a relationship, and like most significant, worthwhile relationships, it ends up being a marathon, not a sprint. The amazing thing about creativity is that 1+1 > 2, meaning creativity is bigger than we are, and doesn’t care about linear confines. This is why artists live the way we do: wandering, exploring, making, and then sharing our art with anyone who cares to listen. The Creative Muse can’t always be scheduled to show up for business meetings when you need her, or relied upon to take lunch with the rest of the team. You have to yield to her, the way a flower bends toward the sun. If you can run your company so there’s time and space to bask in the sunshine of The Creative Muse, she’ll shine her magic on your work. At a creative company, this magic is at the center of everything. Without this creative magic happening, the company has no reason to exist, so all the contracts and emails and production meetings may as well leap into a black (and white) hole.

So like we were saying, it seems that creativity and the standard business model just don’t mix very well, but here’s the thing… they must find a way. Flying to Neverland is amazing, but no company can run on fairy dust alone. Design is a business, after all. Clients are ultimately paying for ideas they can use, not just pretty daydreams, but concepts and products of utility. Employees need to be paid, deadlines need to be met, the outside world demands attention. All successful designers must find a way to collaborate with the gods of 9-5. Without some of the imposed structure these business gods provide, your company will eventually end up crashing down around you, like that house in the Buster Keaton movie.

Creative teams want very much to do creative work, the question is how do we build a good, strong house that will support our creative collaboration without it falling down around us? At Kicker we’ve tried various strategies and over time we’ve learned how to keep our creative team bobbing and weaving, smiling and producing, with integrity while giving clients exactly what they ask for: great, innovative design that will grab attention in the marketplace.

Support with Sea Legs

At Kicker, our main goal is innovation. We don’t walk backwards, which is what happens when you design based on precedent. This forward-thinking approach requires a business model that puts creativity at the heart of it all. As designers, artists and thinkers, we don’t need a support team that’s constantly shutting us down. We need support that fosters and protects creativity. This is where the sea legs come in. Instead of a business model where the spreadsheet spreader’s fundamental function is to tow the line, and tell the crazy artists “no”, we have a team that takes the journey together. It’s crucial to have business support that gives the team the ability to meet challenge head on, with new eyes and a fearless, optimistic mind. Our support team, like our design team, thrives on real-time problem solving. They are the translators between business and creativity.

Time is Fluid, So Pay Attention

We have an artisan approach to design and that’s evident in our process. We make time to experiment and stare off into space because that is what creativity requires. Sometimes you have to go away from the work and foster new stories to share. Then, suddenly a brilliant idea seizes you, and you have to make it right now! The time-is-fluid concept runs completely contrary to the work-faster-work-harder idea. When you allow your team the time (and space) to ruminate, fertilize and germinate, you end up with many more great ideas to work with. Once you’ve got a bunch of inspired ideas, you can iterate on them pretty quickly. There are phases in the design process: the dream phase, the build phase, the refinement phase, and time behaves differently in each of these phases. If you trust and pay attention to how time works distinctly in each phase, you can nurture each specific part of the process properly.

Reasonable and Consistent Backdrop to the Chaos

We compliment our artisan approach with a reasonable and consistent support system. We build production schedules so that Tuesday, Thursday and the weekends are focused on getting stuff done – the actual making. This time is not spent in justification or meetings, it’s spent lost in the dream of the creative process. it’s messy, and chaotic, sometimes ugly. This is the absolutely necessary aspect of the work that’s often perceived of as scary by business types. We know we’re not the first to honor the creative process by taking this approach. Google Prototyping X, for example, has inspired us by developing great tech in this exact way. But, we’re not trying to scare anybody, so we have focus-days also, which creates a balance. Monday, and Wednesday and sometimes on Friday we focus on meetings, logistics and all that’s necessary to run a company. We distill our work’s progress down into understandable and actionable documents, presentations, and meetings, because that’s what business requires.

Allow for Solutions to Evolve

Finally, we’re brave in our communication with each other. No need to cling to a potentially out-moded piece of the puzzle. If something feels off, we speak up and work through it. We allow for our practices to evolve, both over time and sometimes in relationship to a particular project. It’s important not to get too bogged down in notions of how things typically work, and instead to stay open to each new project as it unfolds. Some of the best business and design is the result of having the brains and the chutzpah to wildly improvise, so we’re mindful about creating a culture that fosters new ideas and laughs at fear.

Now that you’ve transcended your outmoded way of understanding cognition (you’re welcome), we can talk more meaningfully about Natural User Interface, or NUI. Let’s start at the beginning…

User interface has deep roots in industrial design. At the outset, it was all about the interaction between man and machine. Imagine a big, loud, steel contraption in a factory, with a bunch of cogs and levers and maybe a plume of steam shooting out the top for added drama, being operated by someone with impressive biceps, making the machine do its thing. The machine was designed with the operator’s (really nice) body in mind, which set the important precedent: “objects designed for controlling physical matter are designed to relate to, and interact, with the human body.

Eventually, things evolved, which is awesome, because continued evolution is the key to life, (read: good design). User interface progressed to include machines that stored and processed information. At this point, everything moved up into our heads, and our collective biceps became pretty flabby. Users interacted with these new machines, calculators and computers, for example, with minimal bodily effort, a poke here, a click there, most often centered on some sort of screen, and we accidentally lost the intrinsic ability to relate to these machines via embodied cognition.

At Kicker, we recognize the limitations the design world suffered, as a result of the ongoing separation between the physical and mental. Many designers are still burdened by the long-held belief that cognition, or the “mind”, is separate from the functions of the body. However, we sophisticated types (that means you), have been shown again and again by embodied cognition research, that humans think with their whole bodies, so it follows that the interfaces we create need to reflect this shift in thinking. Interfaces need to transcend the screen, be fined-tuned to work efficiently and ergonomically with our anatomy. Emerging technologies have the potential to transform technology, so that body and mind are seen as one.Our passion has always been to use design to continue to make things easier, effortless even. We want to incite a revolution beyond visual interface. The original principals regarding working with the body’s inherent interaction with machines can finally be coupled with our device’s ability to store and process information. Embodied cognition is mounting an amazing design revolution that take into consideration the innate aptitudes of human anatomy and potentially, engage all the senses. We want technology that augments our human qualities to make us super human. We believe that understanding and utilizing our bodily cues and inclinations is fundamental to designing natural user interface that will yield the highest cognitive capacity.

The more we engage the body, the more effective we as humans think. Amplified through technology, tools that enable the use of the body and the mind working seamlessly, offer limitless possibilities.

NUI is based on the science of embodied cognition, which says that thinking is grounded in our body mechanics. Here’s an example: We associate control with up and being controlled with down, right? Because you have experience with down as heavy and up as light… When we don’t understand something, we say it’s “over our heads” because we naturally relate not being able to understand something with the physical experience of not being able to see it…it’s about embodiment…Ok, how about this one? We associate anger with heat, because our body temperature literally rises when we’re pissed off. You get it, but what does that have to do with Natural User Interface design?

You’re familiar with ASIMO, yes? He’s the Honda robot who can dance, run, climb stairs… stuff like that. He’s quite impressive and pretty cute too, but somehow, a bit sluggish, even geriatric at times. The thing about ASIMO, is that it’s really easy to screw him up. Put down a wad of paper in his path, and he’s as befuddled as Grandpa from the Simpsons. That’s because ASIMO’s “thinking” style or “computational approach” is non-embodied, or “top down”. ASIMO makes all his decisions by assimilating input (the wadded up piece of paper on the floor), processing that input in a central processing center (his “brain”) and then sending output back to his body parts (move foot five inches to the left). Are you thinking, wait, isn’t that how humans do it? Wasn’t that how they said it worked on School House Rock? Actually, we humans are way better than that.It turns out that people use embodied cognition too. Think about catching a baseball in the outfield. You don’t just stand there, looking at the ball. You look at the ball AND simultaneously, without “thinking” about it, run in a curve, which makes it easier for you to figure out where the ball is going to end up. This is what cognitive psychologists call a “perception-action loop”, and a great way to understand embodied cognition.

At Kicker, we’re all about dynamic design. We recently worked with DARPA to design a Natural User Interface for the robot called Alpha Dog. Alpha Dog is to be a companion to soldiers. He’ll walk over rugged, unpredictable terrain, carrying heavy loads, and need to react quickly to stimuli. His thinking process needs to be more dynamic and way less cumbersome than ASIMO’s, who’d be utterly confounded by an unpredictable landscape, and end up on the floor most of the time. Designed and built like a dog, Alpha Dog has amazingly bouncy and flexible legs and joints, and interestingly, not a lot of brain. His legs are built specifically to interact with the surface they’re on, and with each other, without needing to wait for recomputational information from the big boss, his “brain”. His anatomy is constructed to respond to stimuli directly, meaning he’s not just thinking with his brain; he uses embodied cognition.

Alpha Dog was designed to be nimble and strong, but best of all, we designed him to be trained like a dog. This was Kicker’s contribution to the project, designing the way in which Alpha Dog will interact with people. We observed how the soldiers interact with one another in the field and quickly realized Alpha Dog needed to be trained to understand their language. Alpha Dog will sense the soldiers, discern their commands and respond accordingly every time, in the same language the soldiers use. If the soldier gestures, Alpha Dog will gestures back. If the solider speaks, Alpha Dog speaks back, etc. Dog training for robots. If the soldiers had been forced to interact with a screen in order to use Alpha Dog, the experience would have been clunky and he wouldn’t have been half as useful. Alpha Dog worked seamlessly with the soldiers because he was designed to conform to the way the soldiers functioned naturally in the world.

We humans have an array of senses at our disposal. Vision is the sense that currently dominates the way we interact with technology. Vision is great, amazing even, but at Kicker, we believe that focusing so narrowly on vision is ultimately hampering our capacity to innovate effectively. We communicate with our whole bodies, not just with our eyes or our voices, but also with body language, touch, etc. We use the sense that works best, depending on the scenario. Think about a cup of coffee. If you want to know its temperature, you don’t examine it to see whether or not steam is rising from it. Most likely, the very first thing you do, without even thinking about it, is touch the coffee cup, right? What if we lived in a world where touching coffee cups just wasn’t an option, and in order to check the temperature of your coffee you were obliged to examine it for steam? Silly, right? What kind of ridiculously limited world is that? You can’t make me live there… well, the truth is, you do live there technologically, but not for long, because we’ve made it our mission to push past this limitation. We design by focusing on what people are naturally inclined to do in the real world, and use emerging technologies like touch, haptics, gesture, voice, kinesthetics, orgomomics, anthropometrics, optical flow, bio and emotion sound signatures, and physical sensors to interact with that process. We look at how people exist, process information, and communicate, then make technology understand that and talk back to you.