Profile: Tom Barker, head of Industrial Design Engineering at the Royal College of Art

‘I tell my students to be prepared for a long period of really hard work if they want to make their mark in design,’ warns Tom Barker, head of department for Industrial Design Engineering at the Royal College of Art. Fair advice perhaps, until it transpires that earlier in his career Barker himself worked 18-hour days – fuelled by 20 huge espressos – solidly for four years. This eventually caused his immune system to collapse and precipitated a heart operation. ‘They don’t need to work quite as hard as that,’ he adds, apparently as an afterthought.

Perhaps it was the weighty presence in Barker’s mind of history’s great innovators that drew forth such a relentless drive. His own portfolio includes the development of technologies for the Millennium Dome’s MindZone, working with Zaha Hadid, as well as overseeing design engineering for the London Eye’s elegant pod capsules. Later this year he will release a book on futuristic technology and materials in design called (after The Doors) Weird Scenes From Inside the Gold Mine. Part of the book is Barker’s exploration of the psychology and cultural circumstances of some of his design and engineering heroes: What, he asks, connects Leonardo da Vinci, Thomas Edison, Isambard Kingdom Brunel and James Dyson?

Partly, the answer is tenacity, a characteristic which Barker has demonstrated in abundance to push his own design innovation – SmartSlab – to its current point of commercial take-off, after more than seven years in development. Drawn by a desire to see a project through from A to B and to be ‘fully responsible for its success’, Barker left behind the consultancy work of his B Consultants group to focus on the development of the SmartSlab digital building block in 2005. SmartSlab has now made Barker a ‘paper millionaire’, although any real cash will be ploughed back into the product and business, he says.

The SmartSlabs themselves are honeycomb-structured modules that combine to create huge digital displays. Content for these screens can be drawn from an array of sources – Bluetooth transfers, web servers, RSS feeds, as well as traditional commercials and television. The strength of the materials allows the blocks to be used as internal or external building facades, walls or even entire city blocks. With computer servers delivering the content, users are also able to interact and affect what happens on the walls before them.

To illustrate their physical structure, Barker rummages through his RCA office for prototype models and then sketches out a diagram on a piece of paper. This shows that conventional screen pixels, which are square, distort images because diagonally adjacent squares are further apart than those to either side. The hexagons of the honeycomb – or hexel, in SmartSlab terminology – are always equidistant. This idea is based on a fly’s compound eye and is the most efficient structure both structurally and optically, says Barker.

But there is more preoccupying Barker than the manipulation of clever materials and engineering structures. If anything, he is more animated by discussion of the content of the screens and the social implications of a fully wired-up, digital population. ‘I am interested in the fusion of digital media and physical spaces. The natural progression for designers who use computers to design spaces and digital content is the digital brick. Architecture as theatre is a trend. If you build interactivity and communications into a structure, it reduces a building’s redundancy,’ he says. But there is an unpleasant corollary. ‘Seeing the world through a screen is killing us as lively, vibrant, messy human beings. We are becoming a screen-based species.’

SmartSlab’s interactive and communications capabilities open a path to what Barker calls the product’s ‘dark side’, where, for example, advertisers could identify passers-by from their mobile phones and spam them with targeted commercial messages. ‘We are grappling with this and hoping that our ethics and licensing contracts will prevent it going down that path. We cannot have an unmanaged digital future. Areas of Tokyo are a complete mess.’

The better alternative, he believes, will be the emergence of ‘living media’. This is content generated from a combination of live, recorded and user-generated sources. It would be manipulated and re-formed by the viewers themselves. At once both modest and proud, Barker describes himself as ‘the bloke who shows up and tries to sell Leonardo a new set of paints and canvases. It is for other people to create the content,’ he says.

This article was written for Design Week, 20 June 2007.

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