Posted on 2/22/2012 3:02 PM by Robert Nieminen

As someone whose family hails from the small, yet surprisingly well-known country of Finland—thanks, in some part to the publicity it received by late night talk show host Conan O’Brian, whose resemblance to the country’s former [female] President, Tarja Halonen, is nothing short of uncanny—I was pleasantly surprised when the International Council of Societies of Industrial Design (ICSID) announced in 2009 that the capital city of Helsinki was appointed as the World Design CapitalTM 2012.

I probably shouldn’t have been all that surprised. After all, my homeland has produced the likes of famed architects and designers Eero Saarinen and Alvar Aalto, product designer Eero Aarnio, as well as the iconic fashion brand Marimekko. And who could forget the once-dominant cell phone manufacturer, Nokia?

Yet, with its rich history as a sort of mecca for all-things-design, Finland is somewhat of a strange and quirky place that many people don’t quite understand. For starters, no one on a city bus or train speaks a word (talking to strangers is a no-no, even for adults). They host annual wife carrying and air guitar world competitions (I’m serious). They beat each other with birch leaves in the sauna and then cut holes in the ice to go swimming. We eat licorice that contains ammonium chloride (I love the stuff) and tar-flavored ice cream.

So, considering that Finland holds the coveted title of World Design Capital, I can definitely say it was no wonder to me when I discovered recently that a small coffee shop in Helsinki gave new meaning to the term “interactive design” by giving online users complete control over the ambiance of the space. That’s right, Café Kauko allows its patrons to adjust the lighting, the table heights and the music as they see fit, all at the click of a mouse or touch of a smartphone.

The table goes up...unexpectedly?

The description from the KlausK Hotel in Helsinki explains it this way:

“WDC Helsinki 2012 opened a remote controlled café at the Forum shopping centre. The café is used to illustrate the significance of good design in everyday life.

“Sections of Café Kauko (i.e. Remote Café), which is free to all, can be remote controlled in real time online at www.youdesign.fi. Visitors to the website will be able to control the café’s design—chair and table height, lighting, music and other sounds. When a passer-by sits down at Café Kauko, another person can at the same time control and follow the visitor’s coffee break on the café’s website.”

Sounds pretty cool, right? I thought so too, until I watched the video of it in action.

No offense to my fellow countrymen, but are they crazy? Who would want to sit in a café while subjected to the whims of strangers you can’t even see? While it certainly pushes the envelope in terms of what’s possible when you marry technology and design, I, for one, am pretty sure I wouldn’t have the patience to watch my latte rise out of reach as my seat was lowered to the floor while listening to Finnish DJ Darude’s “Sandstorm” in the dark.

Maybe I’m missing something though. Am I being too harsh on my fellow Finns here? Is this a cutting-edge example of interactive design, or an eccentric (or voyeuristic) experiment gone wrong?

Sound off in the comments section below. I’d love to hear your thoughts on this one.