How USSR Invented Smart House, Apple Watch and Google Glass Prototypes

PHOTO by Technical Aesthetics
Over the course of the past several years, there has been a growing interest in the legacy of Soviet design

Afisha.Daily met with Sergey Moiseyev, the Head of Business Development at the legendary All-Russian Research Institute of Technical Aesthetics, or VNIITE, to find out how Soviet scientists were able to predict such modern inventions as the smart house, the smartwatch, and even Google Glass back in the 1980s.

The SPHINX System

Technical Aesthetics, a Soviet-era journal, ran an article in 1987 presenting the SPHINX radio and television system, which continues to amaze designers to this day because of its incredible detail and design. The concept, outlined in the paper and developed by the design team at VNIITE, demonstrated the possibilities of household electronics in the near future.

The SPHINX system included a set of spherical speakers and a more traditional pair of flat panel speakers, as well as a large screen for shared use and a slightly smaller display panel with a screen resolution of 240 x 240. The system also included a set of headphones, a remote control equipped with a screen, a larger control with a handset, a set of discs, and a processor with three memory blocks.

Sergey Moiseyev: The name of the system, SPHINX (or, rather, SFINCS, to make the abbreviation work), stands for super functional integrated communication system. In short, it was designed to represent what a home television and radio system would look like in 2000. Many things were described with striking accuracy: Wi-Fi (although back then it was believed that communication between the devices would travel by radio frequencies), storage devices, etc. The creators of the design even predicted that the drivers would first have moving parts and only later crystals. The SPHINX devices were divided into three categories – portable (i.e. those that could be worn), those connected to the house and, finally, those connected to cars and other forms of transport. If we take a closer look at these three groups, we have no trouble recognizing them as modern smartwatches and smart bands, smart houses and the on-board computers broadly used in modern cars.

The SPHINX equipment was designed to have everything integrated into one single system, and it was not just about creating a smart house: it also had a lot to do with solving some of the more important problems facing Soviet men and women. Say, for instance, that someone wanted to increase the functionality of his or her tape recorder. Back in the day, they would most certainly have come face to face with a number of difficulties with compatibility. Ergonomics too had its share of issues, since quite often even the appearance of the TV and the recorder had little, if anything, in common.

All this was just one of the concepts invented by the VNIITE as part of a much broader project to overcome the production-copying issue. The forecasting department wanted a design for the future in order to predict what it might be like.

The SPHINX system also has a number of similarities to the Apple ecosystem project that appeared around the same time, but I don’t know whether people at Apple were aware of this. However, I do know for a fact that an American delegation was present at the Interdesign seminar held in Yerevan in 1985.

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Left: A SPHINX CPU block; Centre: Two of the bigger remote controls. The blue one has a touch screen and an additional, small hand-held remote (attached to the socket). The white remote has feather-touch controls, with a handset attached to the socket. To the right of the keyboard is a set of keys (bigger – smaller) to navigate the settings; Farthest to the right: a smaller hand-held remote control with an attached screen.

Quote from the Technical Aesthetics article:

“SPHINX is an electronic equipment system designed for the house of the future. All the work and operations related to the processes of receiving, recording, storing and distributing all types of data will be handled by a central processing unit, or CPU, complete with a universal storage device. The latest studies give reason to believe that such a universal storage device shall become available in the near future. It will first compliment, then later replace gramophone records, audio and video cassettes, CDs, photographs and slides (still images), as well as printed text and so forth.”

The Soviet Apple Watch and Google Glass

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SM: The Interdesign seminar held in Yerevan back in 1985 was dedicated to “the watches of the future.” And it’s really important to note the emphasis here, for it’s not on “the future of watches,” but rather “the watches of the future,” since the participants were not even sure that watches would have a place in the future. The Interdesign seminar brought together designers from all over the world, who were given the task of presenting their ideas and designs based on certain set requirements. The USSR was represented by 14 people.

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The VNIITE designers came up with a number of portable devices, including “memory enhancers and devices that could contribute to methods of identification.” Of course, this was still incredibly far away from the idea of fitness trackers, although the design did include an audio recorder, a camera, a plastic card, electronic keys and a driver’s license – all of which were integrated into contact blocks to be worn around your neck or another part of your body.

The universal system was meant to be used not only at home but outside as well, for instance, as an integrated part of car and transport systems. This would be so that “the family could always have access to information and a means of communication.” The developers wanted to create a system that would allow information to be shared over radio, cable, fiber and telephone networks.

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Quote from the Technical Aesthetics article:

“Portable effectors, in certain cases connected to processors and interface systems, will become an integrated part of our clothing and accessories, even becoming a separate brand (such as watches, for instance). There is room for creativity and imagination, with possible solutions including, for example, sunglasses that can turn into a screen ready to display time or other relevant information (pulse rate, body temperature and the weather).”

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The on-board computers included such functions as navigation, diagnostics and communications, and, of course, a variety of entertainment options. The heads-up display idea (displaying data on the windshield) is a particularly interesting one that is being experimented with even today in many cars.

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SM: I believe that the project presented at the seminar by Azrikan’s team was indeed the real breakthrough of the event. Their detailed plans even provided for “replacement cards,” offering different options depending on when and how the system would be used: a “regular” card for everyday use, a waterproof one for athletes, pilots, submariners and the like. The watch was designed to be incredibly functional, and it would not only show the time but it also boasted some of the functions of present-day apps, such as, for instance, showing news alerts and monitoring the person’s health.

The paper also featured the design for smart glasses, smart bracelets, smart bands and even a control ring (to be worn on one’s finger) tied to a bracelet (an excellent idea that for some reason has not yet been done). The journal also published sketches for what looks surprisingly like the tablets of today, and even something that bears a certain resemblance to what we call the Game Boy.

Such research and designs are clearly lacking in modern Russia, where being a designer is now commonly associated with drawing ads and logos, or doing web design, at most. But that’s just not right because a designer is, first and foremost, an inventor, a creator of something new; and a good designer could, with their work, determine the development of a whole industry for decades to come.

How Western Companies Draw Inspiration From Soviet Designs

SM: There definitely is an interest in our designs but mostly from international companies. In Scandinavia, for instance, the designers do not hide the fact that they are borrowing from Soviet ideas. I have a feeling that those working today to develop the concept of a smart house have almost certainly looked at our designs; and I think they might have even contacted someone from the original design team.

I am absolutely certain that the Americans are aware of the work we’ve done. The Soviet tradition had a strong methodology in place. Shchedrovitsky [the author of the STA, the system-thinking-activity approach], for one, described a methodology that is remarkably similar to what we today call design thinking. And designers abroad are well aware of this. What is more, I can say that some of the older methodological guides do not need much adjusting, and some can be implemented right away.

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People walking by VNIITE's Technical Aesthetics Centre, 1981

VNIITE Over the Past Twenty Years

SM: At the beginning of the 2000s there was not much going on. The Institute got smaller and smaller, gradually losing its branches in other cities. We lost the design centre on Pushkinskaya Square and we had to let go of some of our employees. The most important change that took place, however, was the change in the structure of the country itself. The vertical system associated with the Institute in the Soviet era (since practically all designs made in the USSR passed through the VNIITE) almost completely disappeared. Entire design departments were closed down and the institute’s main priority shifted to academic work.

The team itself did not suffer many changes between the early 1990s and the mid-2000s, and people don’t tend to get younger. But new people started joining the team by the mid-2000s, and now we have a good mix. There are still those absolutely brilliant (albeit elderly) colleagues that even the younger members of the team would have trouble keeping up with.

The Institute in 2016

SM: In recent years we have succeeded in making a return to the international arena. International Industrial Day is now held every year, and during this past year, two separate events were organized: one at Skolkovo, and the other one at the Institute itself. We now do academic work and public projects, and we participate in the education process. We have a functional ergonomic laboratory and we are working to recreate the Theory and Methodology and the Design Departments. We also have ongoing projects with several big companies. Furthermore, we are having our records digitalized. The records we have include vast volumes of texts, as well as plans, photographs and papers on design theory and methodology. All this data will be digitalized and stored in a unified electronic filing system, with some of it made accessible to the public. Some of the designs have been patented while others still have to go through the process, which is why we will probably be unable to publish all of the documents in the public domain.

The current major project for the VNIITE is the Ergonomic Atlas. Anthropometric indexes have not been measured in Russia since 1971 and their physical characteristics tend to change. The Atlas is currently in the final stages of production and will be published shortly. It is an important achievement because in Russia many standards (including working standards and occupational safety) have all been measured according to the 1971 data.

Author: Vitaly Volk