I am liking the idea of 'Meta-products'. What is a meta-product? The best  examples are Nike+, the fabulously daft Nabaztag and, more recently, Alertme. Generally speaking they're physical objects, rooted in networked technology that are driven by mobile and web services. There is nothing new about this idea, it's roots are well established in many sci-fi and computer science paradigms like ubiquitous computing, pervasive computing or more broadly the Internet of Things

What's different here, is the relationship created between 3 disciplines that is compelling and goes beyond just fantasy, research and and hackery. Firstly product design, which feels like it's been in the doldrums for a while, secondly the relentless evolution and physical reduction of technology (which along with the internet has possibly been the reason why products stopped being quite as exciting (don't fret, I don't mean Apple)). The third side of the triangle is service design that builds use and relevance into the products via technology and context of use. There is something satisfying about this tripartite approach since people still *get* products and products are the perfect gateway drug into using services. Just look at anything Apple right now.

The idea of meta-products perhaps gives us semantic framework within which we can talk more comfortably about experiences, without slipping into the void of intangibility that's always felt like a hinderance to the service design dialogue or worshipping the design of objects for their  own sake. Primarily it gives consumers something much more tangible to understand and of course - buy.
At a simplistic level: Technology can drive evolution of new networked interactions, product design can make them mainstream and attractive and service design can make them sustainable. For me the sustainability angle is the most interesting, products that have extended life spans because the services powering them adapt to new situations, but are liberated from traditional formal constraints.
"The 20th century design trend ‘form follows function’ has rendered products that ultimately show their true nature, and are transparent in all of their functionalities. However, in the current world where technology doesn’t constrain the looks of a product anymore, and where it’s increasingly about the digital contents of a product, we start to see innumerous black boxes." Read full article here
For instance. I've stuck with the same phone for well over 2 years mainly because of the scooby-snack style networked services that grab my easily pleased attention (see Twitter, Foursquare, lovecleanstreets, Mappiness) which dilutes the pressure of getting a new device, because I want/need/demand new tech. Key to product longevity and thus reduced consumption is to make objects that can learn, change and share in our experiences. In the long run you'd hope that would mean less waste through relentless churning through new devices. Likewise (and in reverse) Google is colliding new beautiful products with their technology and what can only be described as service carpet bombing.
Another compelling example of the product + technology + service is AlertMe a series of stylish products targeted at home energy and security monitoring. Built on the Zigbee wireless protocol that's designed to be easily extensible by creating adhoc networks between devices - so it's smart. Smarter still is the straight-to-phone interface that reduces the need to have a purpose built, wall-wart powered, interface hanging in the home. So the product experience is extended onto an iphone and therefore inheriting some of the mobile magic dust too. It's all wrapped up in an ongoing service to store the data. Obviously this data is then ripe to be shared and compared across social networks and with energy companies.
The new meta-products will free us from myriad lcd displays, flashing leds and long learning curves, they will be smooth shiny, sculptural and most importantly - connected. The only issue now - is how to refer to myself as a meta-product designer without sounding like a git.
Inspired by http://www.metaproducts.nl/ by Booreiland
Paul Sims

Paul Sims

Paul is interested in product strategy, service design and making things.