Mirror of the near future, from the near past

I just finished a posting about one ‘future mirror‘, from Panasonic and, as it often happens in this blog, would like to couple this story with another one, both similar and unsimilar.

In some way the ‘future mirror’ from Philips may look like look-a-like of the Panasonic’s one – though one needs to keep in mind that it was proposed more than ten years ago. In this way this concept can be already considered as a retro-futuristic one.

An additional dimension to the story is that I was working with Philips at the time when this concept was created. I wasn’t actively involved in this specific project, but inevitable was aware of some of the contexts that impacted its appearance, and further developments. I don’t posses any ‘insider’ information in terms of technologies or business, but know more nuances about this concept than otherwise presented in promotional materials.

The picture above is from the collection of futuristic concepts issued by Philips in 2006, under umbrella if its Next Simplicity program (more on that later).  It depicts a mirror, and at first there is nothing unusual is seen here. Most likely you’ve either seen such mirrors, or may be even do plaster your own mirrors with post-its, similar to the picture below:

This practice is widely used in some households, and very alien to some other. Sometimes such post-it exchanges are centered around one mirror (not necessarily the one in a bathroom), and often it is really omni-mirrored.  The mirrors in the entry halls are used more often for these purposes, since they also have more space around them to store pens, pencils and post-its.

In essence, that was the core idea behind this concept, to make easier – and hopefully more meaningful – this activity of exchanging short messages with each other via a mirror surface.  Technologically this is not already a mirror, of course, but a display, an interactive touchscreen one, to be precise. It therefore allows creating these short messages right on its surface (their ‘post-it’ look is just a legacy of the original media format).

Using this device people could leave/send their own messages

as well as read and react to the messages sent to them, and perhaps to other family members.

As it is seen here, the messages can be not only verbal but visual, too, and even multi-media in a broader sense. Here a man records his own video-message:

Today we can smile about these images, and specifically about the placement of communication exchange on a mirror (we are doing all that, and more, using our smart-phones these days). iPhone was launched in 2007 and soon made all these concepts ridiculous; or did it?

To answer this question I should perhaps comment on a deeper roots behind this mirror-concept from Philips (or at least some of its essential components). Its origin could be traced ten years earlier, back to 1995-97 when Philips Design, a design agency of Philips Electronics, had participated in one joint research project called LiMe (=Living Memory).

The project was subsidised by the European Commission, as a part of a larges-scale research program aimed at exploring how digital technologies could impact our life, personal and collective. This specific project was specifically focussed on the phenomena of collective memory of neighbourhoods, people living not far from each other and often sharing the same public spaces and their various artifacts.

The project results in a few interesting prototypes, including this interactive coffee-table that was allowing people to share with each other small snippets of information, such as local news or personal messages.

Now I can explain fairly quickly what was the idea behind – just imagine that this table has an embedded display that has a Facebook-like system in it (only with a much better interface and experience) that people can use to share their personal news. And of course we are talking about a system of such devices, that is. not one table but many connected ones.

But back then, twenty years ago and a way before all these web 2.0, blogs and social media, the concept was not at all obvious. Moreover, when presented to people, it was considered by many as a total nonsense (or, to be more accurate, it was highly praised by the design community and well received by lay people, but totally rejected by managers, the ultimate decision-makers of go-no go in this case).  Philips decided that it’s ‘no go’, that’s why you know now companies like Apple, Google and Facebook, but unlikely will see Philips as a leader of digital revolution.

But good ideas don’t die, and despite Philips didn’t start producing any such connected systems, many ingredients and building blocks of this concepts continued to impact other designs.

In the middle of 2000th Philips initiated a massive rebranding campaign, moving from ‘Let’s make things better’ to ‘Sense & Simplicity’ (I think it was a wrong move, but it’s not so relevant for the current story). To support its new brand philosophy of ‘simplicity, the company has launched a large program called Next Simplicity. The goal was to create a range of concepts that would demonstrate the ideas of simplicity in a tangible way.

The mirror that I has shown earlier was one of such ‘simplicity’ demonstrators; initially it was presented merely as an idea, a collection of sketches, but by 2007 the company was already able to demonstrate a working prototype.

Unfortunately, and similar to many other companies, Philips mercilessly delete its own memory, it’s very difficult to find any visuals related to this projects in a public access; there used to be many more of those few years ago, but now many of the links are broken.

I found only one semi-official short movie, apparently made by one of the engineers from Philips Research who described various features of this new ‘mirror’:

After a few years the Next Simplicity program was closed. To my knowledge, none of the concepts developed during three years of its existence went anywhere near commercial production.  But again, some of the ideas found their reincarnations in very different contexts.

For example, some years later Philips presented a new concept of ‘future mirror’, this time equipped with a mini-display (or a set of those) that would update the mirror-user with the latest stock exchange news while he is shaving.

A bit later again another Philips project, called MyHeart, also appropriated the mirror, this time as a display of certain vital statistics about patient’s person’s life, transforming it into a medical monitor of some sort:

Then the company decided to train children to brush their teeth better, using a ‘mirror’ to show an interactive cartoon with a playful character who would guide the kid, combining fun and some nudging.

Philips does produce shavers and toothbrushes, so the motives behind these concepts, of enhancing the corresponding activities of people, are understandable. But above all they had been all motivated by a blunt desire to sell yet another display made by Philips, by then one of the largest producers of TV sets. The initial ideas, of enriching people experiences with appropriate technological enablers, but everything ended with a ruthless push of one more overloaded display into the domains where no one frankly needed them:

Back then  I didn’t have many years of studying history of mirrors with me, but it was fairly obvious that this is a completely lifeless proposition.  The end of predictably bad, not only Philips didn’t produce any of those ‘TVs in a mirror frame’, but eventually the while division went down (and to my information is sold by now).


Going back for a second to the very first picture, I asked myself if I have seen the examples of using mirrors as communication platforms in any of the examples of the art-mirrors that I have collected so far.

Funny enough, but one of such mirrors have already appeared in this blog!  I once wrote a small follow-up to my epic story about the mirrors of Edgar Degas, when I found one example that I haven’t seen when preparing the big story. In this painting, called Toilette after the Bath, we see a small note sticked to the mirror  – and this is 1888!  I am pretty sure that somewhat similar examples could be found even in the earlier works.

But two later works, self-portraits by William Orpen, show already very elaborated use of the mirrors as information storage – if not post-its, then at least letters and other notes:

Self-Portrait in a Mirror

Self-Portrait in a Mirror (1912)

I guess in both cases we see more an individual usage, rather then collective.

I thought to find more examples of such information mirrors in the works by Zinaida Serebriakova, but alas, nothing so far. Again, I am pretty sure that I have more of such mirrors in my collection, but it’s not easy to fetch them out of there (it’s 10k+ by now).  I will keep searching.



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