Cultured Magazine

February/March 2016

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Imagine a world where technology has advanced to the point where computers and handheld devices have become obsolete. It's a world where technology unites rather than isolates people, where individuals talk to each other face-to-face without using technology as a shield from intimacy or as a tool for anonymity. It's the kind of world that the dean of the University of Miami School of Architecture is helping create. Since joining UM in 2014, Rodolphe el-Khoury has been working with students to integrate technology seamlessly into everyday activities once dominated by smart phones or personal computers. The Beirut-born el-Khoury—who obtained an undergraduate degree in architecture from the Rhode Island School of Design, a master of science in architecture from MIT and a doctorate from Princeton—is one of the pioneers and promoters of RAD (Responsive Architecture and Design). Prior to assuming the deanship, el-Khoury served as the director of Urban Design at the University of Toronto, where he explored ways to advance the science of smart buildings and everyday objects. His studies range from the application of embedded sensors to monitor internal stresses on buildings and bridges to the use of scent, sight and sound to enhance the quality of life in an urban setting. His work even has potential implications in the medical arena, such as the creation of IM Blanky, a prototype blanket with electronic sensors that one day may monitor people with sleep disorders or track the vital signs of the elderly. The dean's fascination with this area of study is now playing out at a UM architecture lab, with students working to transform social media into a communal event at a coffee shop or as an icebreaker at a business convention. They are building a system that can turn an ordinary glass table into a big screen computer that is activated by the simple placement of a coffee cup. The underside of each cup bears an image, known as a fiducial, unique to its owner. Using infrared light, a camera beneath the table reads the image and sends it to a computer, which in turn enables the coffee drinker to access social media from a menu that is projected onto the backlit table. Anyone sitting around the table can partake of the electronic conversation taking place on the tabletop. The dean brought a prototype of the table—called Coff-e-Bar—to the Collectors Lounge at Design Miami last December. UM provided anyone who wanted to experiment with the table a free cup of coffee, each with its own fiducial so they could access their Twitter accounts. "People are delighted by this," el-Khoury says. "There's something almost magical. It's a little like Harry Potter, where you see inert objects in the world becoming animated and responsive." The ability to turn common objects such as a table into a portal to the Internet is an astounding breakthrough, el-Khoury maintains. "Imagine that kind of portal extended to the entire world." Where once only a computer provided access, soon one will be able to tap into the Internet without one. "It's almost like having to wear a prosthetic or being in a wheelchair," el- Khoury says of computers. "It is an intermediary. With the Internet of Things and the possibility of letting that intelligence spill over into the world, it's as if you don't need that prosthetic anymore. You don't need the wheelchair. You can start to discover the entire world around you without this kind of mediation. You can smell it, touch it. You walk around it. You engage more directly with this world of connectivity and information without any need for this prosthetic." The same Coff-e-Bar concept can be used in a convention setting, el- Khoury says, explaining that he and his research associate Christopher Chung are refining the system to make electronic introductions between strangers. By placing your business card face down on the table, the computer could conceivably introduce you to someone seated across the room who has similar business interests. Think of the possibility this technology could have for matchmaking, be it for professional or purely social connections. This nascent technology will soon become a reality, el-Khoury predicts. "It will happen," he says, "and once the overwhelming benefits will become commonplace, that will drive the technology more." He likens the response to that of people who first witnessed the unveiling of the safety elevator at the 1853 World's Fair in New York. "Yes, they were impressed," he says. "But I suspect nobody in that audience could imagine that the consequences of this elevator actually allowed something like Manhattan or Shanghai, with the high-rise, the total, radical transformation of the city." Today, we are at a similar juncture, where the world is on the verge of changing in unimaginable ways. "We are at this moment looking at these things—the Internet of Things—and the more astonishing transformation is not yet in sight," el-Khoury says. "It's beyond the horizon." IMAGE COURTESY ©KHOURY LEVIT FONG 128 CULTURED BEYOND THEHORIZON University of Miami Dean of Architecture Rodolphe el-Khoury uses technology as a portal to the future. BY SIOBHAN MORRISSEY PORTRAIT BY RAFAEL BALCAZAR The Thomas P. Murphy Design Studio Building for the University of Miami's School of Architecture.

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