Technology and home furnishing have never been the easiest of partners - yet they are starting to converge in all kinds of exciting ways as digital technology starts to revolutionise design thinking. Cue window blinds that glow or darken in response to light levels, tiles that light up your path as you touch them or wallpaper that changes colour according to how much energy your home is consuming. Some designs - such as a mirror that reflects your outfit from all angles - are highly practical. Others, like a chandelier that mimics outdoor weather conditions, or a chair that becomes the colour of your outfit, are more playful and experimental.
We are not talking about so-called "smart" technologies where, at the flick of a switch, blinds close, temperatures can be adjusted and mirrors transform into LCD screens. And forget the techie black boxes in the living room and labour-saving appliances in the kitchen. This is about designers using technology in a softer way - with poetry and emotion - to add decoration and fun. The UAE should get a taste of the digital lifestyle when The Pad, an apartment tower being built by Omniyat in Business Bay, is eventually completed. (Originally scheduled for handover at the end of last year, it is currently built to podium level.) Designed by the self-styled "cybertect" James Law, of Hong Kong, The Pad promises features that include colour-changing tiles, lighting that can respond to music (including the sound of the phone ringing) and virtual-reality projection walls linked in real time to 60 locations worldwide, making the physical confines and location of the apartment disappear. Thus, instead of looking out at Dubai's hazy skyline, the apartment's view could make its occupants into virtual visitors of Manhattan or Tokyo while residing in the UAE.
In the Middle East, a region renowned for its love of the new, the unique and the customised, manufacturers with digital production technology - and their distributors - are riding a groundswell. In flooring, for example, consumers demand alternative visual options, and the move towards digital customisation produces innovative textures and shapes that could not be created through traditional techniques. Parador, a brand represented by the Dubai-based commercial interiors supplier Ofis, has had digitalised flooring installed in several Q Home stores and Dubai's Ibis Hotel.
Also in Dubai, In-Lite's range of innovative lighting includes Sentavi's Aquarel, which integrates water and LED light, creating a visual - and potentially therapeutic - experience in the bathroom. Where commercial installations lead, private, domestic projects soon follow - and, as with all technology, the more it evolves, the cheaper it becomes. With greater commercial viability, products and our expectations about the nature and use of furnishings will radically change.
According to Kate Franklin, the head of trend forecasting at The Future Laboratory, this technology shift is being accompanied by a significant mood swing. "Technology is becoming more humanised," she told the Financial Times recently. The interaction between homeowners and their furnishings is to be encouraged, as far as the Dutch designer Simon Heijdens is concerned; he believes that the connection between people and the products that surround them would be more meaningful if they were less static. Renowned for implementing technology in subtle ways, Heijdens's best-known work includes Tree, a computer-generated, eight-metre high illuminated silhouette. Projected on to building facades, its branches move with the wind, and leaves fall according to the season, as if the digital tree was growing naturally. "I like the fact that it becomes part of the daily surroundings," he says. On a more domestic scale, Heijdens's Moving Wallpaper contains reactive inks that cause the patterns to change and evolve.
Equally poetic is the work of Daniel Brown (who, likeHeijdens, is represented by the gallerist Libby Sellers). Using complex mathematical programming to create delicate imagery, Brown brings infinite beauty to the sterile world of digital technology. His interactive mirror, The Secret Garden, captures the portrait of the person standing in front of it, while a field of digital flowers slowly blossoms in response to the viewer's physiognomy. Like much of Brown's work, the beauty of the piece belies the technical wizardry behind its creation.
The London-based Lebanese interior designer-gallerist Rabih Hage represents the computer technology maestro Assa Ashuach, whose works combine cutting-edge technology with sculptural forms. His A1 light changes shape in response to its environment, thanks to its artificial intelligence that responds to changes in movement, light, heat and sound. "I'm trying to open a debate," explains Ashuach, "not dictate what design should be like in the future."
Hage also represents Moritz Waldemeyer, one of a new breed of designers who view furnishings as interactive fun. Waldemeyer's LED-embedded By Royal Appointment chairs change colour when a person sits in them, thanks to a sensor that reads the colour of the person's clothing, causing the LEDs to gradually change to match. The similarly witty Disco coffee table, with its built-in sound system, employs laser lighting to transform it into a virtual dance cage.
"We're surrounded by technology in our daily life and people are often put off, feeling that it's taking over - but what is missing is that sense of wonder," says Waldemeyer. "My work reintroduces the human element, allowing people to be childlike, which people respond to, seeing technology in a different light." At the cutting edge of textile technology, the Italian firm Dream & Beauty recently launched the DreamLux range of light-emitting fabrics. Optical fibres powered by tiny battery-run LEDs are woven into the cloth, creating a shimmering effect as light escapes from the fibre surface.
It won't be long before sound and vision become part of the fabric of our homes and all those familiar hardware products - the hi-fi systems, radios, DVD players and televisions - will disappear as consumer electronics become increasingly digitalised and virtual. Key industry players such as Sony, Toshiba and Samsung are exploring new directions and Sony's installation entitled Contemplating Monolithic Design was one of the highlights at this year's Salone furniture fair in Milan.
In a collaboration with the UK-based designers Edward Barber and Jay Osgerby, the company created a living room laboratory that introduced the concept of audio and visual systems that are an integral part of the interior: domestic objects such as stools, bowls and lamps, made from wood, Corian and glass, which function as speakers yet have no working parts or buttons anywhere to be seen. "A whole new domestic typology is emerging from this technology," says Barber.
"We wanted to present Sony's vision of how electronic products can integrate with contemporary interiors... finding the definitive balance between making a statement yet working in harmony with the surroundings," explains Kazuo Ichikawa, the project leader at Sony Creative Center. As the interior-and-digital design hybrid gathers pace, new technologies are offering greater freedom for designers to express themselves, moving from creating tangible products towards digitally produced works and interactive installations.
This was much in evidence at Design Miami/Basel in June, which hosted a series of talks and exhibitions of newly commissioned designs pushing the boundaries of art, design and technology. The lighting installations by the London and Berlin-based studio rAndom International were a highlight. One project, created specially for the event, was programmed to "dance" in response to the observer's body movements, while its You Fade to Light mirror wall allows users to interact with the lit facade. Both pieces demonstrated that such versatile lighting has an exciting future. "We are curious about the behaviour of objects," explained rAndom's co-founder, Hannes Koch, "and want to reveal the hidden poetry and beauty in technology."
Digital design is also high on the agenda for next month's London Design Festival. Among the exhibits will be an interactive digital tapestry by KikiT VisuoSonic at the V&A, which will be created in response to the sound and movement of visitors in the gallery; and a huge mechanical octopus that will take up residence in Trafalgar Square. The designers Clemens Weisshaar and Reed Kram have created software that will allow the public to temporarily control the robotic installation and write texts in light traces drawn by the synchronised mechanical tentacles. The resulting "light paintings" will be recorded and published online. Because technology is intangible (you can't see software, so it's easy to miss the relationship between people and objects) this is creating the challenge for designers to look at how humans interact with technology and at the responses generated when a space or an object reacts to people. For anyone who thinks that technology, unlike furniture, has no personality, this signifies the beginning of a design revolution.
DreamLux www.mcleodintl.com 04 304 2571 In-Lite www.in-liteco.com 04 224 6822 James Law www.jameslawcybertecture.com Moritz Waldemeyer and Assa Ashuach www.rabih-hage.com, +44 20 7823 8288 Parador www.ofisdubai.com, 02 671 3399 Simon Heidjens and Daniel Brown www.libbysellers.com, +44 77 7411 3813