Prototyping, public spaces, education and haptics
Two members of our team, Émeline and Louis, traveled to the rainy Belgium in order to attend the KIKK Festival. The KIKK Festival is a yearly event that started in 2011. It features conferences, workshops and exhibitions on art and technology for three days in the city of Namur, Belgium. It was an opportunity for them to conduct a few interviews with various speakers. There were based on recurrent themes from the various conferences and workshops of the 2013 edition.
The last ten years have seen the apparition of two major tools allowing rapid prototyping in design: Arduino and accessible 3D printers. Fail early and fail often, as the saying goes. Prototyping is vital to design, especially in the field of research.
Ivan Poupyrev, from Disney Research, is currently working on haptics and tactile sensations. When asked about prototyping, he highlighted how those technologies have radically changed the way he works: “Technology now matures faster. It’s not a straightforward journey. It develops in its own way. Every product we currently use has been thought a long time ago, because the product cycle is really slow. But tools define the way you think. Technological skills and pressures would lead a project 20 years ago. But you don’t have to do simple things anymore. You define the conditions, and you just decide that things will work at some point. If you can easily prototype something, just do and go. It’s the best way to find out how it works.”
Harvesting energy, a projet by Disney Research. It’s part of a larger research on how to sustain our always growing and energy consuming technologies.
According to Poupyrev, ten years ago, creating a prototype with a screen and network connectivity was a huge challenge and only a few companies could invest enough money to develop working prototypes and test them. Today, platforms like Kickstarter have shown that almost anybody can develop his idea in his own garage. Poupyrev adds: “Now, technology is much more spread out. You’re competing with the entire world. Anyone can make a prototype in his garage. You have to think of the larger implications of your work.”
There’s a parallel to be made with Étienne Mineur‘s company, “Les Éditions Volumiques”. From developing inexpensive prototypes of ideas to connect pixel screens and tangible bits a few years ago, Les Éditions Volumiques are now collaborating with some of the largest companies in the world. Amongst their most prominent technologies, the pawn recognized by a tablet with tactile tags was built, tested and published on the web in just a few days. The area of application of this technology is multiple, opening the doors to a large range of products.
“We developed children books because of the simplicity of their narrative. Proposing new use cases would have been difficult if the content had been more complex. But the ludic mechanism is addressing all generations – it could apply to any other content as well. We’re often co-editors and collaborators. We’re developing tools and narrative mechanisms that are open propositions to the authors.”
The electronic pawn of “Les Éditions Volumiques”
Anouck Wipprecht, a dutch fashion and robotic design, has another vision of prototyping: “For me, prototyping is making something that is already pretty stable. I’d say that if you want to see if something is working or not, you have to mock it up quickly. It helps you to get a clear idea“.
Call it prototype or mock-up, it’s all about bringing ideas into the real world to see whether they can exist there or not.
On public spaces
Design or art can never be separated from their respective environment. Evan Roth (one of the founders of the Free Art and Technology Lab) and Andrew Shoben (from Greyworld) have a practice highly linked to public spaces, but very objectives.
Andrew Shoben: “We make art in public spaces. Primarily, what we were interested in, is creating some kind of creative moment where you can express yourself, usually in open spaces. They don’t allow any kind of creative expression, unless you break the law. That’s our mission.”
Would you say your work has a social impact?
A.S.: “Yes it has. Not political with a big P, as we would say in english. Undoubtedly when you are working in open space, you have to consider the social element, what we call the community of presence. Just the act of you and me, in some shared creative experience, tends to create some kind of social connection occasion. And this is a lovely side effect, but not the primary goal.”
Andrew Shoben and the monument to an unknown artist
Would you say the public engages differently with public spaces, with the evolution of surveillance in the last ten years?
A.S.: “That’s a really good question. Undoubtedly it has a psychological effect. I’m wondering if the unconscious knowledge that all of your actions are being seen and recorded, in fact has some kind of reduction effet in our abiliy to feel free enough to interact in open space. But I can’t see that, or its consequences.”
Evan Roth, on our digital public space, i.e. the world wide web:
“We’ve lost something, compared to the beginning of the web. At first, we all had to become admins. There were no users. Now, with facebook, google and twitter, and I’m not saying they’re all bad because I use them myself, it’s all about being a user, constrained in their themes and options.”
In regards of the recent revelations about the NSA, what should be our attitude towards the web then?
E.R.: “For me, hosting your own data is part of being a citizen. You don’t want the state or anyone else to have it. But, steps by steps, we gave up more and more freedom for comfort. It’s so easy to use google drive right? Well, just like Hong Kong is slowly, and unconsciously getting integrated to China, we are slowly driving towards a corporate web, far away from what it was.”
The relationship between personal space and public space also plays a big part in Anouck Wipprecht’s practice. Most of the dresses she presented were using spatial and personal interaction as a parameter. Intimacy 2.0, with Daan Roosegaarde, is a dress that changes opacity depending on the heartbeat of the person wearing it. The Spider-dress, on the other hand, reacts to the presence of someone close to the wearer. It questions our relationships and acts as another channel of communication. It evokes Edward T Hall’s Proximity Theory, and explores the limits of intimate, personal and public spaces.
“[For] the Spider Dress […] the inspiration came from the game I played, Limbo. I don’t play that much games. But I was really focused on the spider legs and not really on the rest, why is it so fascinating for me, what exactly is this movement… So I started looking at spiders, how they behave, and at interaction with other spiders, between spiders and humans… Mostly it’s one fascinating thing that I see and I start digging the subject, trying to create nature, or maybe a second nature, or I don’t know. Something ‘in between’. I like uncontrolled things. Thing that do something completely unexpected.”
Anouk Wipprecht’s Spider Dress
What do you think of smart-environments and spaces?
A.W.: “I think this is getting interesting. As soon as there are sensors, we are adjusting to them and we adjust them to ourselves. We always think about robotics as having to fill a certain task, but I always wonder, what if not, what if it falls out the other way? At some point, people will get adjusted to those new elements of environment, but it will have to be very persuasive.”
About the political aspect of a world full of sensors and technological interactions you might want or not to engage with, Andrew Shoben concluded :
“It’s not really about technology. If you want people to interact with the work, especially in public spaces, you have to consider the sightings and the position, but you also have to allow people not to interact.”
Digital literacy is “the ability to effectively and critically navigate, evaluate and create information using a range of digital technologies”. It requires one “to recognize and use that power, to manipulate and transform digital media, to distribute pervasively, and to easily adapt them to new forms” (Wikipédia). As our devices and machines become more and more akin to black boxes that “just work”, it raises several issues, such as the control of users on their tools and the education to new technologies. That’s why digital natives are also called digital naives.
On that topic, Evan Roth notes that digital natives are increasingly consumers and not creators. Refering to the web as it was fifteen years ago as the “awkward web”, he explains that this evolution leads people that never explored the original web to stay passive consumers of established platforms.
This search for the missing feeling of control and power over the web is present in most of his works. For example, his piece ‘Identity Capital’ is a to-scale replica of the large TED sculpture present on the stage of the famous conferences. By placing his replica on the floor in his exhibitions, he removes the stage usually reserved to the selected few and allows anybody to stand next to this usually unreachable sculpture. Some of the search results for ‘TED’ in Google Image even feature the replica with random people (including Evan Roth). When asked about how we should encourage the public, and especially young people, to engage with those issues, he highlighted the importance of empowering the user:
“I don’t think there is one correct answer. You just need to make them realize that they can do anything if they want. At some point, we were just distributing markers, telling people to put them in their pockets, and then just draw something if and where they wanted. It’s not like they’re gonna have real troubles anyway, here!”
So it’s all about empowerment?
E.R.: “I remember that feeling, at the beginning of the web, of being able to do and to construct anything. I wish everybody to have that feeling. It was just a free land. Knowing about the tools you use allow you the choice.”
Anouk Wipprecht explained how valuable it was for her to enable people to understand the way her dresses work:
“I use open source hardware such as arduinos. In my projects, I want to keep their educational philosophy. If I can easily explain my technology to say, my grandmother or a young child, then it’s really valuable.”
“So on one hand, it’s good to hide technologies in order to preserve its magic. But if you can look at the design, which is either way quite complex, and understand the general structure, if you can easily explain how everything works out… For me, the educational aspect is much more important than hiding the components because either way people will be impressed by the amount of smoke or whatever happens.”
“It’s a really honest approach. For example, something I really hate about robots, even though I love robots, is that all the cool stuff is hidden. This is why I started thinking about an other way to put it outside, to work it open.”
Are there other ways you are engaged in education?
A.W.: “Yeah, I’m a lecturer and I give workshops, especially to girls, to introduce them to technology. I’ve been confronted to gender inequality a lot. Like people who step up and they think you don’t know about micro-controllers and everything. But I think more and more, girls get really stimulated, and they’re expected to do more with technologies.”
Wipprecht’s opinion is close to Mark Weiser’s concept of beautiful seams, applied both figuratively and literally to her work. Indeed, the design of Wipprecht’s dresses exposes technology in a beautifully functional and clear way to make it easier for people to understand and appreciate.
Interestingly, this is precisely how Jessica Walsh got started with design. Walsh, 26 and already an art director and designer at creative studio Sagmeister & Walsh in New York, first discovered design at 12 while creating a page for her digital creature Kacheek at Neopets.com. This page quickly gained success and soon she began to earn money by writing html and css tutorials for Neopets users. Later, she studied graphic design at the Rhode Island School of Design, and became an award-winning designer in New York before joining Stefan Sagmeister at his studio and becoming a partner.
When asked about her approach to teaching at the School of Visual Arts, she explained:
“I’m encouraging my students to really get out there and experiment, and do things they wouldn’t normally do. I think that too much of the design program, especially in the school at teach at (the SVA) is too focused on developing rather portfolio works. Most of the time students don’t even know how to come up with an idea or a concept. So I’m constantly trying to teaching them how to do that. Often it just means getting out into the world and starting in some bizarre way that they may not see related to their work.”
According to her, education is way too often focused on carreer, instead of discovering “what drives them [the students], what are their passions. Coming up with ideas is something they have no idea about.”
Adobe Max: 24 hours, constantly watched, to reinvent Adobe identity
This observation echoes Evan Roth’s view of the younger generation as feeling powerless, more passive than ever. And while Evan Roth argued for misuses, hacking and knowing the tools, Jessica Walsh advocates for learning by playing. Walsh’s teaching philosophy and her own practice is governed by serendipity and constant experimenting. She insists on the need to make our school safe places where failures are accepted and even encouraged, and where students can get in touch with what they really care about. “School is just the time and place where you can and should do crazy things, right?”
Interestingly, there was one area of research common to Ivan Poupyrev, Anouk Wipprecht, Andrew Shoben and Felix Beck: haptics and tangible interfaces. They all believe in a technology growing closer to us, getting out of sight.
Ivan Poupyrev underlined the fact that “Haptic and tangible mediators are really underdevelopped”. Several of the last Disney Research projects investigate that question. During his presentation, he advocated for the merging of the digital and physical world, in a sustainable manner.
When asked about the absence of screens in both of their practices, Andrew Shoben and Felix Beck highlighted the process and paths that lead to it :
F.B.: “It’s kind of a development, we went through those phases before, what can we do with a computer… There was the machine itself and its possibilities to explore, and then step by step, it wasn’t something that happened in one day, it was a continous process to jump into the real, haptical, world.”
A.S.: “Well, I will say something very similar and very different. For us technology has no interest at all. Technology is a turnoff. It’s a wonderful tool, but… For us, the ultimate technological level would be to make it completely invisible. When you are working wth new technologies you have to take into account the aesthetical effect of those technologies while in fact I don’t want anything between my work and the public. When objects will simply be metaphors, I’ll be much happier.”
F.B.: “If you use it in a right way… I see our company as a translation service, translating content into something else using technology, but still having to find the right medium. And I think that, with finding the right medium, the message gets a lot stronger”
A.S.: “I don’t like the separation between content and transmission. It’s too delineated. I don’t produce content. I create artworks people can interact with.”
F.B.: “Which speaks for itself?”
A.S.: “Yeah, exactly.”
Then, there’s the embodiement of sensors and technologies in our daily lives, something that Anouk Wipprecht has been exploring:
“I really believe in things that are more sensitive to our needs, like little collars telling you about yourself or what is happening in your body, because we mostly don’t know about that. So it’s nice if you have something that can translate it and communicate it to our environment or the people around us. I’m working to make this happening. I think it will first be embedded into accessories, especially with the miniaturization of the components, and I really believe in that kind of new communication.
I think of the body like a host organism, with a dress that is protecting or communicating. But it’s a merging. For example, once we didn’t have a model and I was self-wearing my own design. You redefine the space for the model, but maybe my notion of personal space is different, so it’s really interesting to tweak the design. You put it on then you can personnalize the behaviors of the dress, going back and forth between your sensations and the settings. Not only the shape of the dress needs to be tailored, but also the system. I want to do something reactive and responsive, and see what kind of interaction you can make with the interface and the body and the interface and other people.”
Those interviews made several patterns emerge for our research, and the insights we could gather on the topics of prototyping, education and haptics were particularly rich. As such, we would like to thank all interviewees for their valuable time and contributions to this report. Looking forward to KIKK 2014!
Interviews conducted by Émeline and Louis at the KIKK festival 2013.