My MFA Interaction Design thesis presentation at AIGA National Design Center on May 4th. One year of thesis work summed up in 7 minutes. It’s funny how different it feels to present something versus what a presentation looks like for the audience.
Lasers and herbs
After grad school I finally found myself with some more time to pick up side projects again. Since it is getting really nice and sunny outside and I happen to be one of the lucky owners of a patio with a decent sized planter, I started planning a little garden project. This is my first time really growing things since I grew up myself, so I had lots of veggies and herbs on my list that I wanted to grow.
I had been wanting to play with the laser cutter I had access through at SVA for a long time, and was even more inspired after a studiomate made these engraved business cards. I started experimenting with different layouts for herb signs and made a bunch of different ones. The veneer I used was rather thin so I decided to go with the version where the herb name is carved out rather than the negative space removed.
And after a few weeks the planter looked like this…
Applied design and theoretical design
Paola Antonelli redefining design and the designer’s role in the exhibit “Applied Design” at MoMA:
One of design’s fundamental tasks is to help people deal with change. Designers stand between revolutions and everyday life: they make innovations mangeable and approachable, so that they can be embraced and assimilated. For this reason, in the years to come, designers will increasingly be at the nexus of culture, politics, and society. Like physics, design will be loosely divided into the theoretical and the applied. Theoretical designers will be exquisite generalists, but ready to roll up their sleeves. Applied designers will continue to make objects, never forgetting functionality and elegance. Objects, however, will not always be physical; they will often be shared, not owned; they might be starters that people will complete and customize at home using 3-D printers and other on-demand services; or they will be tools that allow scientists, policy makers, and citizens to visualize and manage complex systems.
Last night I went to see a play at Japan Society where one of the actors was an android. Her name was Geminoid F and she is developed by robotic scientist Dr. Hiroshi Ishiguro. He has worked closely with director Oriza Hirata, who wrote a play called Sayonara to show a future scenario where interactions with androids is an ordinary part of human life. The story is about a girl who is suffering from an illness. Her dad has purchased an android to consolidate her with poems. Through their dialogue about life and death, the android’s emotional intelligence (or lack of) emerges as an underlying theme.
The sequence of the audio output of the Geminoid F was paced to sound more human. Long pauses where a human would normally stop to think, had been added as they were experimenting with how to present the android on stage. Understanding what it takes to make the android more human, is human research through a robotic perspective.
I was slightly disappointed when I realized that the lines of the android were programmed ahead of time and not real responses to the human. But as Hirata puts it: “It doesn’t think - just like the actor!”. Because the lines are memorized for the human, he gives them the same credit for their performance.
Geminoid F is equipped with 12 motorized actuators powered by air pressure, which allows it to mimic human facial expressions. In a Q&A session after the play, human actor Bryerly Long shared her experience from working with the android. Geminoid F uses around three different facial expressions in the play, but the lack of expressed emotions, leaves room for the audience’s imagination. This was definitely the case for me since I was far away from the stage. Long said this minimalistic acting was an interesting contrast to the strong focus on facial expression training in acting school.
This also reminded me of related art experiences I’ve encountered through my thesis research. In the lack of sensory input, our brains fill in the gaps to construct something we can evaluate. This may lead to ambiguous interpretations, but it empowers the audience to participate in the art creation. And that is a powerful art experience to me.
My thesis evolution so far
When I entered my second and final year of grad school I had two main areas of interest; language and health care. I have always been fascinated by how our constructed languages facilitate conversation between people, and how it is a barrier if you don’t share a common language. The semiotics of language is in particular what I’m interested in - how we construct meaning and mental images based on what we sense. The reason why I was focusing on health care is because I feel inclined toward creating something that can help other people, and within health care there are so many outdated models that need designers’ attention. When I decided that I wanted to spend my thesis on designing for blind and visually impaired people, I realized that I found myself in the overlap between these two areas.
I hadn’t really met anyone who was blind or had strong visual impairments up until this point. I realized that I knew very little about what it’s like to live with that disability, and I decided that I wanted to get a better understanding of it. I am curious about how we use our different senses and I think it’s a lost opportunity when solutions are designed exclusively with sighted people in mind. I wanted to think outside pixels and screens. With access to so many new ways of using technology, I was convinced that there are new experiences to be made that include unsighted people better than current solutions do. The market of assistive technology products isn’t very attractive or competitive, and the aids that are produced end up being very expensive.
When I first defined my scope, I wanted to focus on people who lose their vision and how they adapt to relying on their four remaining senses. This is an increasing problem today, due to health related conditions that cause vision loss. I wanted to look closer at navigation, creation and documentation. Some of the questions I asked myself were: How does someone who is blind create new visual images? How much do they rely on visual memory? What is beautiful to someone who is blind?
After I met with John Schimmel who teaches an assistive technology class at ITP, my eyes were opened up to many new directions. He put me in touch with people he knew, and since then I have met with the education director at a computer center for visually impaired, a photographer that did a documentary about blind people and unemployment, the education manager and accessibility advocate at Guggenheim Museum. I also went to the annual convention for NFB, where blind people from all over the country gathered to inspire each other to get more confident and independent.
I’ve started to see that a lot of the solutions that other designers have suggested are just scratching the surface of how to think about designing for visual impairments. Fancy use of braille can make something look like it’s inclusive, but given the fact that less than 10% of the US blind population are braille literate, I think resources should be spent solving the underlying problem of education.
With all these new insights that I have today, I find it harder to decide where my focus should be as there are so many possible directions to go in. On one hand I really want to do something that can assist people directly such as using 3D printing to assist with education for blind. But at the same time, I also think that creating more awareness around how we use our senses and how they map to each other, is something that everyone could benefit from. I have already learned so many new things from conversations with blind people that help me understand perception and so many other aspects of life better.
I know what the sliders are in my case, but I can’t seem to decide where to place my thesis. If I could find a way to both capture all the insights and create some sort of framework that could be helpful for others to use as well, with a few examples of things that I can make and have people test, that would be my ideal thesis at this point. But is it realistic that I can do all of that within the next 5 months?
Immersing myself into the dark
This past Friday I went to Dialog in The Dark to get a better understanding of what it’s like to be blind in New York City. To try this in a safe environment, the audience goes through four rooms that are created to represent different spaces in New York. This involves cobblestones and fountains in Central Park, grocery shopping, a subway ride and the traffic madness at Times Square.
My first reaction when they dimmed the lights down was panic. I wasn’t sure if I would be able to go through the experience without the sensory input that I’m relying on the most in my daily life. I was scared, but a very mirthful guy named Kerry came to introduce himself as our guide and told us to just follow his voice. Kerry gradually lost his vision when he was 18 years old and have been blind for 30 years now.
The tour involved soundtracks of the different environments, smells and lots of objects or surfaces that helped us navigate. We use our mental memory of objects and situations to interpret the exhibition, but I was surprised by how exhausting this was. I spent a great amount of energy compensating with my other senses and in my brain trying to create an understanding of my surroundings. And still, this was in a constructed environment without true dangers.
Kerry still relies on his mental memory from when he could see, but adjusting to the dark was very challenging for him at the time it happened. There are so many new things to learn and ways that you need to restructure your life. Somehow I imagine that your brain must create more connections and that the amplified input from other senses may help you evolve in directions you wouldn’t have otherwise. But it is not hard to understand that people struggle with accepting the change and become depressed.
At the end of the tour when the lights were dimmed back to normal again, I knew that I wanted to explore this further.
What is my core?
In order to settle on what I should dedicate my thesis to, I am looking through some of the work I’ve done previously that I feel really represents me and that I enjoyed working on.
This started out as a urban space and branding assignment during my undergrad, but turned in to an exhibition and a series of installations that school classes can explore. The goal was to teach children about architecture and different structures, and I used parallells from animal architecture to make these matters more approachable for both students and teachers. Researching all the material for this project, was incredibly fun. I got to dive down in to a world of amazing facts of things that are going on out in the world, that I don’t think about on a daily basis. Urban life today is very human-centered and developing this broader perspective, was very valuable to me and something I really wanted others to experience.
Encouraging more sustainability without moralizing
Facilitating learning experiences and increase people’s perspective
This project came together based on a deep frustration with seeing how an increased number of rapes in my hometown was paralyzing the people and the feeling of “there must be a way to prevent this”. I did the project as my final assignment for the cybernetics class with Paul Pangaro, so the focus was mainly on creating models of the current system that show where it is broken and to find potential intervention points.
Attacking a problem that few people have tried to solve
Breaking a complex problem into comprehensible pieces
Challenging and hopefully changing people’s preconceptions
This project came out of a potential I saw after moving to New York and living amongst so many people with resources that don’t know their own neighbors. I wanted to develop a service where peers could help each other out with smaller favors. And I wanted this to be about building relationships and not making transactions. Therefore, one of the main challenges was to design this system in a way that people would want to contribute without being paid directly for their time.
Creating relationships between people and foster communities
Encouraging people to use and develop their skills more
I spend about 90 minutes on my bike on a daily basis. This time often serves as the time during the day when my mind can wonder off and I know I can’t do any work so I might as well think about silly unimportant things. But today I needed some extra motivation and I decided to listen to old Radiolab podcasts while I biked in to school (one ear dedicated to the traffic). It made waiting for the red light more exciting and I came in to school with some fascinating insights about whale falls and Transient Global Amnesia (TGA). In hindsight, what I thought was so interesting about this, was how the places I passed on my bike ride became the markers for the different stories that I heard. The story about the ecosystem whales create when they die and sink down to the bottom of the ocean, lined perfectly up with my stretch along the Hudson River.
This experience reminded me of how our memory is stimulated by having visual journey references to the things that we learn because it creates more connections in our brains. If I can’t remember the story I heard before the one about whale falls, I can think about what I was listening to when I passed City Hall. The sound of degrading analog cassettes - there we go! And all of a sudden the entire episode has visual references - in addition to the ones your imagination creates bassed on what you hear - that helps me remember both the storyline and the content.
I’ve thought a lot about mapping music to different locations where you have listened to it, more as a way of recalling old memories. But the potential of stimulating your memory this way to learn new things is interesting. I’ve never really managed creating these mental journeys in order to remember things. Moving in real space seems to be working a lot better. I need to get on my bike and see how this works when I reverse the experience!
Tickets for the cheese celebration here
The Cheese Map is here! If you live in the New York-state area and you love cheese (duh, you love cheese), drop by The Bedford Cheese Shop to celebrate the world’s finest cheeses, some good tunes, and a preview of the completed maps.
Details at her latest project update.
How much is one hour of human intelligence worth?
I spent one hour as a worker at Mechanical Turk a few weeks ago. The service is named after an 18th century mechanical chess-playing device housed in a wooden mannequin decked out in Turkish garb, built by a Hungarian nobleman. Naive spectators were told that the machine made decisions using artificial intelligence, when in actuality a chess master hidden inside actually did the thinking.
Amazon outsources work that computers aren’t able to do themselves, like writing blog posts and tag them afterwords or categorizing images. Some of the tasks pay only a few cents per minute, and I already felt that my qualities as a worker was highly overlooked. I decided to look for a task that could learn me something new instead of making me rich. One post by last.fm stood out because it would give you music recommendations based on a artist you claimed to like, and I thought this would be a good way to get to know new music. However, for some unknown reason I was rejected to do this work. Being disapproved to perform work worthy 50 cents didn’t feel great.
But, I didn’t give up because a computer insulted me. I came across a multiple choice test about how people use music to relax or energize themselves. The test was interesting to begin with because it asked about things I was looking into myself at that point for a school assignment. But the further I got into the 100 questions, I started to realize that the same questions repeated themselves but with slight changes to the syntax. I figured that this was so that they could test the consistency of the performer to see if the results were reliable or not. Realizing this made me so conscious about what I had answered earlier, and I don’t think I always responded my with a unbiased first reaction. Since so many of the questions lacked any context or room for explanation, I wasn’t able to communicate the insights I think would have been valuable. I ended up feeling that my answers became more and more random, and that they might as well save the 60 cents and use a robot for the task…
Connecting the cheese
Wonderful things have happened since the word about The Cheese Map came out. I’ve gotten in touch with cheese enthusiasts from all over the world, and already learned a lot more about strange and exotic cheeses I hadn’t heard of before. Doing a Kickstarter turns out to be a great way to reach out to other people with your ideas. Cheese schools have contacted me and asked me if I want to collaborate with them or teach classes on the overlap between food and art. I’ve gotten the feedback I needed to take this work further.
Through Twitter I’ve gotten in touch with enthusiastic cheese bloggers. We’ve shared jokes and cheese facts, and one of them even got back to me after a couple of days with a map of New Zealand he had made out of electron microscope photos of a local blue cheese. He told me I had inspired him to make it, so now I even have a NZ ambassador that inspires me back.
I also reached out to Mike Geno, a talented artist that paints portraits of cheese. He was recently featured in The New York Times for his work, and this is how I got to know him. We obviously share the passion for cheese, but we also realized that we have the same mission about discovering cultures through food, even if the modes of expression are different. As he was heads down with new commissions lately and I am wrapping up my spring semester, we agreed to meet sometime over the summer to talk more about each others work. Looking forward to it.
Oh, and I also have to mention the awesome cheese hat I got from one of my backers. That made my day!
These are countries constructed out of the cheeses that have originated from them. This is The Cheese Map project, where you can get one of these maps for your very own. It just launched — go and say hello!
Thanks for blogging about my project, but here is the correct link: