Antony Hall's projects explore the way we interface with technology, and how our interactions with it influence us creatively and socially. Often collaborating with scientists and technologists, Hall is currently focusing his talent on the investigation of biological and physical phenomenon. Some of his recent experiments involve communication with an electric fish, the creation of life through growing crystals electrically on volcanic stone, hunting for Moss bears and training Planarian worms.

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He gained fame in the media and media art festivals with his electro-acoustic sound art devices and performances. Together with Simon Blackmore and more recently Steve Symons, Hall is a founding member of the Owl Project, a group which combines woodwork with electronics to create performances, musical instruments (iLog , and Log1k) and other physical computing projects.

Let's start with one of your most popular projects: the iLog. How did you get the idea of making it?

0aa4ailllog.jpgThe iLog was created as collaborative project with Simon Blackmore and Steve Symons, we are the Owl Project. We developed the Log1K in 2001 as a performance tool to attempt rival the laptop in electronic music, shortly after this apple started pushing the iPod and we had to make a response, something which related more to the trend for portable, mobile hand held technologies. We wanted our devices to be a synthesis of craft and technology, as well as functional instruments. The Log1ks were getting increasingly heavy, among other things they used nearly 30 AA batteries, short circuits and fires, and blown-out speakers were becoming common place. iLog 01 came out in 2003. After we started collaborating with Steve Symons, we reinvented the electronics inside the iLog and started pushing the whole project to a new level; the M-Log is out later this year.

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There's now a series of iLog models. Why do you think people buy the iLog? Mainly as a beautiful and quirky piece of art which they would not use too much fearing that it might be damaged (although you provide technical support.)? Or have you found that people use it extensively as any other kind of musical device? Were you expecting your project to have so much success?

I suppose people want the iLog for its quirkiness, something as an alternative to the mass produced items. We had no idea that it would become so popular - people blogged it like mad at the start and like a Chinese whisper it suddenly became what people wanted it to be; typically some kind of alternative to the ipod - But in reality its something quite different. It is intended to be an instrument for performance.

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iLog signal

Our problem is that although there is demand; making them is still very difficult, and time consuming, so our focus is making them better rather than faster. At the moment we are looking at lending these to artists and working in collaboration to develop the iLog further. When we launched them for sale in London at DWB it was a real learning curve. Simple things like which way up it should be held, were completely un-obvious! We had to create extensive instructions regarding use, as well as repair and maintenance. The 24 hour support is most necessary! Its important that its more hands on than your average mass produced plastic device.

The iLog is something people can use, rather than living all its life in the art gallery. The new series, *M-Log, launching this year, looks like an iLog, and is a USB connective interface. So there is scope for programming your own sensor based instrument, which you can use with your own customized patch. The iLog is more of a stand alone sound generator. We are planning an event in Manchester during Futuresonic where other performers (including Leafcutter John) will be using the iLogs & M-Logs. *The M in M-Log stands for 'muio' as in "muio interface", the chip based interface inside which Steve's invention in his words "The muio interface is a modular system for sensing and controlling the Real World".

The wood is quite resilient and very repairable if damaged.

I love The Sound Lathe, a performance which explores the sonic properties of wood. Do you have any video of it?

There is some video here:

It does look like a very physical performance. Did you have to master new skills in order to be able to do these performances? How does each performance go? Are they all different from each other? Does working with wood creates situations and results you wouldn't have expected?

Yes its been really interesting - my self and Simon ended up sleeping in a kind of bivouac deep in the forrest as part or the "R&D" for the project, learning the skills of traditional "green woodwork", (electricity free) with Mike Abbott, master crafts-person. Mike invented a competition for Bodgers (the name for people who use the 'pole Lathe') called 'Log to Leg' (as in chair leg) so this is the new format for our performance - I think the record is 9 mins; transforming a bit of tree stump, into two perfect chair legs! It takes us a couple hours, but then our lathe is connected to copious amounts of sensor interface technologies. Quite a distraction, if like for our last performance at Lovebytes, it rained torrentially for the whole thing. In the documentation you will see a tarpaulin underneath that are 3 laptops and Simon.

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Image Lovebytes

I think for all of us it's a welcome change from sitting behind a screen the whole time - these physical processes are a great compliment to programming and electronics; and they still require a similar kind of focus and discipline. It is quite exhausting, you need a lot a focus to keep the beat in time as well as make a good carving, in this way it becomes quite mediative. Sharpening the chisels and preparing the timber are all equally demanding skills to learn.

Can you tell us something about the wooden objects produced during the performances? Which kind of objects are there? And what do you do with them once the performance is over?

We have a box full of various objects; ranging in description from 'chair leg' to 'fire wood', or specialist 'rolling pin'. Occasionally we have a look inside & discuss what we should do with them. We did make a chair with Mike about the only truly useful thing we ever made. The latest idea is to make some kind of flat pack, or player. Watch this space. You can see what we decide to do with them at The Piemonte Share Festival, 11 - 16 March 2008.

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Documentation of first ENKI event at the Museum of Science and Industry Manchester, 7th October 2006

You are also interested in bio-digital medicine. That sounds very different from a project like iLog. Can you explain us what it is and how you started to be interested in this field?

Well this is my own personal project, although I have always working with biology or technological experimentation in some way; with ENKi I decide to humanize what I do. This was a decision to move into medicine and treatment technologies. Really its the same things that we work with in the owl project; looking at how technology is consumed and sold. The notion of bio-digital medicine is just one example in hundreds, of how science, or even the suggestion of science is used, and misused to sell ideas. Faceless corporations feed on our anxieties, our basic need to feel contentment or feel complete. I find it interesting that, just as some people turn to religion, others will look to technology or science to provide answers and solutions.

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ENKI uses the bioelectric information from an Electric Fish to trigger human Brain-wave Entrainment. It generates sound and light pulses to induce a state of relaxation similar to the way traditional relaxation systems work, but the electric communication signal comes from an electric fish rather than a chip.

Did you test the system on other people? How do they react?

So far we have tested it on about 40 volunteers,most of them members of the public who had no prior knowledge of the project. We did this in the context of the Manchester Museum of Science and Industry; people enjoy the experience generally. I was surprised at the range of people who were up for it!

By this point I had started working with Greg Byatt as a collaborator. He has experience of using this kind of technology and administering similar treatments professionally. Greg has equipment which can monitor your physiological state and a brain-wave visualiser (EEG); we were trying to measure results this way. We only really came to one solid conclusion. We had to do more tests.

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Isn't the idea of putting one's "brain-wave entertainment" into the fins of an animal scary? Do you feel that people would trust any other electronic device more than a fish or any other type of animal?

That is a good question. It's an exciting notion this whole idea of "wet-wear" interfacing - but not something that should be taken lightly. I don't like to be on my own if i am doing a test run, and yes I find it very unnerving. I never quite got used to the idea of connecting strangers up to electrodes and the fish. I also worry about the fish. The fish needs to be content and 'happy' for this to work.

In my opinion that most of these commercial devices are made by various humans all of whom have different intentions and issues, namely cost efficiency; and so effectively using quite crude means; cheap microchips. The Black Ghost knife fish is the result of millions of years of evolutionary refinement; but you could still say the same of micro chips.

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A Down poker

Is that project completely developed or is it still a work in progress?

It's in progress. I started working with "electrogenic" fish in 2005; ENKI technology was the title I gave it in 2006 when I was in residence at ENSAD in Paris. This was the point I realized I could create a treatment technology that might actually be functional. I had a bit of pressure to actually finish something and so launched the basic concept of ENKI technology. The funny thing was that reflecting on it now - that just marked a new beginning. (It took a year just to convince the director of Pepiniere that it was in fact a real project and not some conjecture in science fiction!). Coming to think of it I have never really finished anything, I am much more excited by the notion of continued experimentation. I don't want to finish discovering. The more I work on ENKI - the more things there are to do and try, it keeps opening up. There are always more questions.

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What is there left to achieve? And how much have you learned about cross-species communication?

There is still a lot to achieve. The 'treatment' side is just one layer of the onion. I started the project with the aim of communicating with the fish, generating an electrical signal and transmitting this in the fish in the tank, to the fish. Then I watch the the fish, looking for behavioral 'interactions' with the electrodes - generally if there is an electrical (connective) change to the electrodes, the fish is aware of this and investigates the electrode by swimming near it and around it (motor-probing responses). I also listening for a 'chirp' response. The 'chirp' response is a subtle modulation of the Electric signal, a specific fluctuation in the wave. The 'chirp' is used during like species interaction and communication. This is closer to the idea of language we have.

Experimentally there are factors which make this difficult to measure - The fish learns to associate the vibrations created by me entering the studio & opening the tank with a food reward. So any approach to the tank needs to be made silently, and the fish needs to be 'conditioned' to learn this over a long time. As the project progressed I became more interested in communication as something closer to an idea of commune. For the fish I see the communication signal they make more as a deep expression of self; a projected physical extension of the fish body, rather than 'language' in an anthropological sense. This communication is happening at a more primal level. In terms of the ENKi project I am thinking about this as a biological, or physiological connection between living organisms.

I recently discovered that I might be having a problem with what is known as 'superstitious' behavior in the fish; if I was a scientist in the academic sense, this would be a serous flaw in the project; something to fix, but for me it was a fantastic turn, giving the project a new angle all together. Its now becoming an experiment into animal Psychology, not just electro physiology. I don't want to say too much about this next phase but next year the project will look quite different.

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You recently developed the Opto-acoustic modulator and used it for an interactive work at FACT and Liverpool John Moores University for the National Science and Engineering Week. Can you give us more details about this interactive piece? How does it work? What were you trying to achieve with this project?

The commission was to create and interactive art work that used something other than keyborad or mouse. I was determined not to use a video camera either. The the Opto-acoustic modulator basically turns sound-waves into light-waves. It can take 10 audio channels and convert these into "AM" transmissions through 10 Light Emitting Diode arrays. I am fascinated by the notion of 'Amplitude Modulation' sending data using light waves. The idea was to use 'Hyalite' salt crystals, to broadcast sound through their 'ionizing' ambient glow. You interact with the light and can detect the data as sound using wearable sensors. Additionally, using Steve's 'muio' interface again, 8 light sensors detect movement around the crystals using a lens and light sensor (based on the idea a simple biological 'camera eye') these feed into MAX MSP controlling a soundscape.

I read on your statement page that you are currently "working on new experiments relating to the creation of life through growing crystals electrically on volcanic stone, hunting for Moss bears (Tardigrades; Fresh water extremophiles) and training Planarian worms. " Could you already tell us a few words about these experiments?

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Tardigrade

I have been researching the work of William Cross for quite a while, and finally decided that I needed to recreate his experiments (with a few modifications) It's quite interesting trying to work out what he did - the only way to know is to recreate it. In 1837, he found these creatures "Acari electors" as he called them infesting an experiment, he believed that these things "spontaneously generated" within his experiment, several eminent scientists of the time recreated the experiment with the same results! My experiment is basically a recreation of this experiment, augmented with a little more technology - with the aim of capturing this phenomena of electrochemical abiogenesis. The only problem is the experiment has to run for many months.

I am interested in all sorts fresh water microscopic life; its a great 19h century tradition. With a decent microscope, you can take any roadside moss cluster and explore the interstitial oceans of liquids trapped between damp moss filaments. Here you might be lucky enough to find a Moss Bear ( "Tardigrade" ) an obscure form of extremophile that lives in moss. Believe it or not, it really does look like a bear! This in its self was a reason for laboring days over a microscope just to see if it was real! They don't fit into the zoological classification system, and have been given a phylum of their own. It is believed it is able to survive space travel, and at this moment a small space capsule orbits the earth containing some "Tardinauts" (its hard to compete with that) I simply enjoy looking for them. I like to go looking for moss growing in all kinds of areas, from urban waste lands, to the Peak District. "Tardigrades" are able to survive about 120 years in a dehydrated state; I was sifting through very old moss samples from Manchester Museum to see if I could reanimate 100 year old dehydrated Moss Bears. apparently it is possible. I had a lot more luck looking for the living ones. Unfortunately my one Planarian worm recently went missing in the tank. It is 8mm long, and I dont have the heart to keep it in a petri dish. I am not sure where it is.

Is there any artist or researcher whose work has been particularly inspiring for you?

I don't know where to start! Louis Bec for sure. I am really into what SymbioticA have been doing over the past few years, and what they are doing for the "Bio-art" movement. Otherwise, at the moment I am looking at the work of William Bebe. To be honest - I have been trying to read a lot more science fiction lately, particularly 19th century science fiction, and science writing. Often the science fiction tells you a lot about the popular understanding of science at the time. More importantly, its a good antidote ploughing through contemporary research papers.

Thanks Antony!

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Related: El Niuton has a slideshow dedicated to the work of Simon Blackmore.

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The theme of Susanna Hertrich's thesis at the Design Interactions department, RCA, in London, is a reflection on humans and animals in the context of "Human Enhancement": How much do we want to borrow from animals and what are the risks this would involve? How much of the animal is still living inside us? How much of the original animal that we once were has been has been lost in the evolution process?

0aaaalertdetal.jpgThe project that Susanna was showing at the work in progress show a few weeks ago is the Alertness Enhancing Device.

The risks we fear the most are often the ones most unlikely to be encountered. The human animal has lost its natural instinct for the real dangers. When worn directly on your skin, the Alertness Enhancing Device will act as a physical prosthesis for a lost natural instinct of the real fears and dangers that threaten us - as opposed to perceived risks that often cause a public outrage.

The idea is it stimulates goosebumps and shivers that go down your spine and make your neck hair stand up, waking up the alert animal inside. You become more alert and ready for the real dangers in life.

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Before / after

Why would we need such device? Studies on risk perception show that many people are seriously afraid of terrorist attacks and their anxiety is heavily exploited in media and politics. A look at statistics shows that the probability of becoming a victim of terrorism is quite small. Meanwhile other real hazards are perceived as rather uninteresting and raise far less fear, for example environmental pollution or car traffic.

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While we consciously know what are the things that really threatens us, we tend to dedicate much more of attention to spectacular disasters with many deaths.

That's when the Alertness Enhancing Device comes in. If you feel dispassionate and bored when reading news stories about another environmental pollution scandal, it's probably time to turn the dial of the device on.

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And since it's a wearable device, you can even alert yourself in any situation, even in public contexts.

"The project is pretty much in a work-in-progress state," explains Susanna. "What I've shown in the exhibition was "just" a form prototype, but I have been experimenting with micro-current stimulations. This is quite unpleasant if placed between your shoulder blades and on your neck, but not as "in your face" as a plain electrical shocks. And...it allows you can alter the current, so you can decide how much you can take for now. Which is how I intend this first prototype to work."

How is the project going to evolve?

"For the next version I plan to work with much more sophisticated sensations on the skin than microcurrents. The project now has shifted more into "skin as interface" and I plan to play with "apparent movement" sensations and "somatosensory illusions" as beeing explored in haptic research. I'm currently in touch with scientists in London and Tokyo to get an insight into how these things work and how I can use those techniques.
I'm not sure if the second version will work the same way as the first prototype. Probably the second version will be triggered automatically by data that is collected from some other place. I see it rather as "desktop device" than a wearable, and maybe it is something next to your door that you want to check before leaving the house. But I need decide on all the details during the next weeks..."

Thanks Susanna!

All images courtesy of Susanna Hertrich.

Ticker Tape is an internet radio for people who suffer from Euphobia, "a persistent, abnormal and unwanted fear of hearing good news". Designed by Will Carey, it was exhibited at the work in progress show of the RCA in London a few weeks ago.

Ticker Tape is a working prototype that simulates the interaction but as this was a project done in only two weeks some details are still to be fixed. Using RSS feeds, Ticker Tape scans for light-hearted news stories from around the world broadcasting them to the listener who can manage the content via the Ticker Tape website (still in construction).

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Activating the radio

Pulling the cord allows the user to choose the duration of the broadcast.

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Tuning direction

The origin of the news stories can be selected by the dial on the top of the radio.

This project explores playful interfaces for the future of digital radio, and is part of wider ongoing research.

As Will was in Tokyo when i visited the show, i wrote him to get more information on the radio:

The first time i read the description of the project, I thought the radio was meant for people who are afraid of bad news. But it is the exact opposite. You created it for people suffering from "euphobia". Do such people really exist?

Yes they do, although very few people experience this condition. The intention was to use a phobia as a starting point for the design process, and the radio was inspired by euphobia, “a persistent, abnormal and unwanted fear of hearing good news”.

So why not make the radio that everyone would expect, the one that people who hate hearing bad news would want to buy?

I think this would leave less to the imagination. I wanted to suggest how someone who really suffers from such a fear could overcome it, either via team therapy or by getting used to hearing good news once they had had the initial support from a therapist. By pulling the tape the person can acclimatise themselves to hearing good news in small measured doses.

While the original intent is to cure a phobia, it can also be used to create more insightful solutions for interaction with technology. (This is not to say that one is trying to make light of what are indeed serious and real fears. But changing one’s mindset as a designer and moving away from marketing-driven design and thinking about solutions from a completely different perspective, can encourage new interactions and designs to emerge.)

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Assembling the prototype

Ticker Tape has a very sleek, pure and shiny design, does this reflect its own "mission"?

The design has considered a neutral and inviting form, which means you almost have to encounter the object and discover out how it works, yet there are some cues and signs that it is a domestic product. I wanted the radio to be made from ceramic – the prototype is plastic, perhaps that is why it’s so shiny. The void running through the object is for the speaker and the overall form is inspired by an old Braun SK25 radio designed by Dr Fritz Eichler in 1955.

Thanks Will!

All images courtesy of Will Carey.

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Tuning the radio

The project that Zoe Papadopoulou presented at the RCA work in progress last week show ticks all the right boxes: there's the knitting, the sense of humour and the techno-induced diseases.

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Knitted Shields is inspired by people suffering from electromagnetic hypersensitivity.

The solution imagined by the young designer is to cover all electronic devices in the house with a cozy. By weaving a thin thread of copper in the wool and grounding it, she ensures that the electromagnetic fields are blocked.

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According to the designer, the shields work better on some objects than on others. The microwave and radio cozies for example block the waves very well. It seems to depend on the density of the knits and the thickness of the copper wire.

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By bringing together ideas about knitting and domestic artifacts, this project challenges the assumption that technologies are taking over our lives, and that we can have no response. It is as much through the process of production, as the protective qualities of the "cosies" themselves, that the knitter feels empowerment and control.

Video.

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At the show opening, Zoe had a lady knitting with wool and copper wire, who was also available for quick introductions to this technique.

All images courtesy of Zoe Papadopoulou.

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Photo by Magdalen Green

As i receive so many emails from young people who would like to graduate in media art, interaction design and other "cool stuff you write about on the blog", i thought i should discuss more often with the teachers and researchers who run these courses in Europe, the US and in Asia. I've interviewed several of them before (Tom Igoe from itp in New York, Tony Dunne from RCA, Stephen Wilson from the San Francisco State University, Alejandro Tamayo from the Javiera University, etc.), today the victim of my curiosity is Graham Pullin.

Graham Pullin joined Interactive Media Design at Dundee after nine years as a senior interaction designer and studio head at IDEO where he most notably created together with Crispin Jones the Social Mobiles series. He has been involved in the design of mobile phones, hearing aids, furniture for children with disabilities and remote-controlled submarines. Previous to entering the design industry he gained an MDes from the Royal College of Art, this after a number of years as a medical engineer, having studied engineering at Oxford University.

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The Home Viewing Chair (Boston, 1956) by Dave Reid and Craig Mitchell

Dundee is a small city situated on the east coast of Scotland. I must confess that i had never heard of it until one or two years ago when the pieces developed by the students of Interactive Media Design (IMD) at Dundee University and shown at the Museum of Lost Interactions started to make a glorious tour of all the design and gadget blogs.

The BSc in Interactive Media Design brings together Computing modules, Design Studies modules and Interactive Media Design modules, in a range of hand-on projects that prepare students for a career in interaction design.

Your bio on the School of design website says that you are "passionate about work that blurs the boundaries between interaction design and industrial design". Could you explain us what this involves? Any concrete example of this blurring of the boundaries?

Muji's CD Player, designed by Naoto Fukasawa, has always been a favourite. The industrial design is the interaction design, suggesting a ventilation fan and inviting you to pull the cord, in the designer's own words "Without Thought"... which is about so much more than ease of use - there is such a lightness of touch, such delight.

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Forgotten Chairs, website designed by Jamie Shek and Ryan McLeod

Perhaps I feel more at home at these intersections - or in the gaps between - because of a twenty-five year journey from computer programming, via engineering and industrial design to (back to? I'm not sure) interaction design. I'm a little envious of my Interactive Media Design students for getting transgress these boundaries right from the start.

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The Gentleman's Chair (Edinburgh, 1898) by Ryan McLeod, Jamie Shek and Ian Shiels

For them, Forgotten Chairs is an introduction to designing interactions in the round rather than on screen. Recreating historical artefacts allowed them to find objects abandoned in charity shops and recycling yards, rather than build from scratch. Whether their exhibit is credible is a real test of whether they mastered the relationships between the three-dimensional and graphic design languages for their chosen period and the qualities of different media and technologies. The Gentleman's Chair has a coherence and attention to detail that I hope Ian Shiels, Ryan McLeod and Jamie Shek will apply to everything they do next.

Why focus on "lost interactions"?

The theme of lost interactions connects young interaction designers to a heritage that is older and broader than the history of the personal computer. At the same time, it can provoke reflections on the pursuit of technical innovation for its own sake. PESTER by Euan McGhee and John Drummond is a 1970s mobile phone with built-in camera, music player and games.

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PESTER (1970) by John Drummond and Euan McGhee

Designing within a historical period can also help the students to be more conscious of the possible social impact of technology, issues easier to gloss over when looking optimistically into the future. The Case Communicator by Alison Thomson and Shaun McWhinnie promises liberating mobility to the modern businessman, but condemns his 1930s secretary to even longer working hours, tethered to her telephone exchange.

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The Case Communicator (1936) by Shaun McWhinnie and Alison Thomson

... and do you feel that in general some kinds of interactions get lost over the years? Can an interaction became obsolete and how?

The radio dial is a loss: a magical interaction, a bit like safe-cracking (I'm told), to navigate a frequency band by half-second snatches of sound, occasionally stumbling across surprises. Instead, we now select a station name from a list - but isn't this just because a little display has been added for the text streamed with Digital Audio Broadcasting and then adopted for the interface as well? If we browse images through thumbnails rather than filenames, why shouldn't we continue to browse radio by its content?

Rather than lose this interaction, we could reinterpret it. True, there are inherent time delays in the way a digital radio tunes to a station and buffers sound, but this is a limitation of imagination more than technology - perhaps a secondary tuner might harvest recent content across all stations in the background? Making the technology work harder towards a richer, ultimately even simpler experience excites me more than adding features.

To be honest with you, i'm in a phase when i've seen so much interactive anything that i've started to be tempted to change room when someone invites me to "interact" with their screen/coat/clock/lamp, etc. I mean it is funny for a few minutes then my attention drifts away. Am i the problem in this scenario? Do you think that i need to see a doctor? What are the characteristics that makes an interactive work engaging and challenging beyond those first few minutes?

Can you make a double appointment for both of us? I am just reading The Poetic Museum by Julian Spalding which argues that the profundity and richness of original artefacts are being overlooked in the indiscriminate move to interactive exhibits. And MoLI certainly isn't about where to draw this line...

But what it is, is a first opportunity for our students to jump in and learn that the success of an interaction depends on its realisation as much as its conception. And this is the reason it's difficult to answer your question - you have to experience the experience for yourself to know if it's working.

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The Amazing Musical Chair (New York, 1937) by Graham Hancock and Raymo Holloway (photo: Chris Phillips)

The Amazing Musical Chair lets its occupant create a complex mix of 1930s instrumental sounds. This might have been a cacophony, but the whole exceeds the sum of the parts because Raymo Holloway and Graham Hancock crafted each loop and went to the trouble of recording musicians playing real instruments. Whereas the Barrow Rocker is just a mechanical music box that plays a note for each rock back and forth and owes its delight to Kirsty Woodend and Rebecca Rumble keeping it this simple.

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The Barrow Rocker (Dundee, c.1870) by Rebecca Rumble and Kirsty Woodend (photo: Chris Phillips)

There is a high focus on documenting the students projects using videos. Is it important to the whole creative process? Or is it just the icing on the cake for the video-hungry web visitors?

On the Forgotten Chairs website, video is used to tell the story of each exhibit and place it in context (there's some nice archive footage) but also to convey the interactivity to those who couldn't make it up to Dundee and experience the chairs for themselves. I think that's something I got wrong on the original MoLI site - most web visitors didn't realise that the models actually worked.

But in general, video is an important and versatile tool for our students - to sketch ideas, even as they are building them, and also to make documentaries and advertisements to disseminate their designs. And some may pursue careers in which video is their primary medium, whether as design ethnographers, researchers or artists.

I had a look at the Degree Show projects from 2006 and was quite intrigued by Andrew Cook - Tactophonics. Could you give us some details about it, how it works, what inspired the project and what in this project embodies the IMD department way of thinking and teaching?

Andrew Cook is also a computer musician (under the name of Samoyed) and his project was inspired by how unengaging performances of computer music can be - how difficult it is to understand what sounds are pre-stored and which are being manipulated or created live. The difficulty in setting up any kind of rapport between the audience and the performer is unrewarding for both.

Tactophonics was about making interaction with computer music more physical by letting a performer choose any object - for their own reasons - and turn it into an instrument. It worked by attaching a series of contact microphones to the object, not using these sounds directly, but shaping other sounds generated in MaxMSP. At his degree show, Andrew exhibited a tree branch that had been wired up: shaking the whole bough, bending the branches, scratching the bark, even snapping off the twigs, each produced different sounds. The relationships between action and sound was at once abstract and intuitive, engaging to play, and also a compelling spectacle for other visitors.

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Tactophonics by Andrew Cook (photograph: Paul Gault)

I suppose this embodies our approach to thinking by making and playing. Andrew crafted a beautiful kit of parts and instructions, but this was just the starting point for each musician to create their own instrument and performances. It was about understanding this distinction, but also that design has a role within this creative whole.

By coincidence - well, not really coincidence - Cook is now working with me as a PhD student. We are trying to make synthetized speech more expressive - in particular for some people with impaired speech who use communication aids based on Text-To-Speech technology. Current devices offer little or no control of tone of voice, which can give a false impression that the person using them is also emotionally impaired. We are going to start off by building six speaking chairs.

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Six Speaking Chairs by Graham Pullin and Andrew Cook

This research is the real reason I left IDEO and came up to Dundee. My exploration of new interactions with speech started with Social Mobiles, a project that Crispin Jones and I led. The Speaking Mobile asked how much could be communicated with only the words "yes" and "no", if their intonation could be controlled. Once bitten, I decided I had to devote more time to this intriguing and under-explored area.

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Social Mobiles by IDEO and Crispin Jones (photo: Maura Shea)

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The Speaking Mobile (photo: Maura Shea)

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The Speaking Mobile (photo: Maura Shea)

Have you ever come across projects from interactive art which you found relevant and interesting for an interaction designer?

One of the most relevant and inspiring to my own work was Listening Post by Ben Rubin and Mark Hansen, an installation that sampled text from internet chat sites and played it back as hundreds of synthesised voices. Its aesthetic qualities came from these voices being deliberately monotonic and tuned to a scale. The whole effect was reminiscent of Gregorian Chant, eerie but quite beautiful. In a field dominated by the quest for so-called 'natural' speech, Listening Post is one of the few examples I have come across of synthetic speech being treated as a design medium.

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Listening Post, Brooklyn Academy of Music, Next Wave Festival, 2001

Could you name us one or more interactive media designer(s) whose work you find particularly inspiring?

Oh dear, I think I know how this is going to sound Régine, but please bear with me...

Wofgang von Kempelen, better known for the Mechanical Turk, built the first speech synthesiser in 1791 (here's a sketch I made of it in the Deutsche Museum in München). Obviously, in those days, his Sprachmaschine was a mechanical analogue of the vocal organs and so speech sounds were derived from actions, not written language. But the design is also rather theatrical: the operator placed their hands through holes in a wooden box, so that no-one could see what they were doing, heightening the magic.

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The Speaking Machine (1791) by Wolfgang von Kempelen

I realise this may sound nostalgic, especially following the Museum, but there is nothing nostalgic about the research that I am engaged with. I am quite serious about gaining inspiration from Kempelen and applying it to computerised Text-To-Speech. It's the interaction that counts, not the technology.

The IMD website mentions that "Interactive media is one of the fastest growing sectors in the international economy". I noticed when visiting design student shows that other departments, such as for example product design and industrial design, are getting more and more engaged in interactive projects. What is the specificity of IMD in Dundee?

I suppose I'm more interested in blurring again: interaction design and interactive media are part of so many sectors. In my 9 years at IDEO, leading projects and running a studio, that was increasingly the point: that interaction design had a role within a wide range of businesses and organisations, not just those focused on interactive media or interactive products.

Compared to product design courses, IMD is coming from the opposite direction, if you like. My current role is to introduce this shared territory to students who are already immersed in media and coding and narrative and interaction design - my colleagues Catriona Macaulay, Ali Napier, Shaleph O'Neill and Morna Simpson have backgrounds in design ethnography, sound recording, semiotics and content design.

On the other hand, we are a design course, which distinguishes us from a number of Computer Science or Human Computer Interaction courses that have rebranded themselves 'interaction design' or 'interactive media design'. It is important that our studios are at the heart of an art college, sharing ideas as well as workshops with product design and textiles and illustration and fine art... as well as computing.

Why Dundee? Apart from IMD, what should make us put Dundee on a map?

It's no coincidence that IMD is in Dundee, as it's a collaboration between the School of Computing here and Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art and Design. The School of Computing has always focused on what it calls 'applied computing' rather than computer science and Duncan of Jordanstone has a great reputation in Scotland.

This year we are launching a Master's course in design ethnography, aimed at students and professionals from human factors or design backgrounds. And there is lots of research going on across these traditional discipline boundaries.
http://www.computing.dundee.ac.uk/mde/

IMD has a sister course called IPD, which (a bit confusingly) stands for Innovative Product Design - where IMD is a blend of design and computing, IPD is a blend of design and engineering. IPD too has a strong point of view on "lighter and smarter" interactive products. Course director Polly Duplock has built a team with strong links with the RCA, Goldsmiths and industry, which now includes Jon Rogers, Andy Law and Pete Thomas. Second Year students on our two courses are currently working together on an invited brief for Microsoft's 2008 Design Expo. We're getting them to look at their relationships with their grandparents and consider where simple networked objects might play a role.
I will send a link for IPD next week - their new sit will be going live then

Any upcoming project, either personal or school related, that you could share with us?

I have just written a book, 'Designing Braille for the sighted (and other meetings between disability and design)' which is being published by The MIT Press and should be out in the autumn.

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Designing Braille for the sighted to be published by The MIT Press

Twenty years ago, I spent three years as a medical engineer in a hospital designing products for disabled people. Then I went back to the Royal College and spent the next twelve years in design consultancy, designing all kinds of things for all kinds of people. The starting point is how distant these two cultures still are from each other - but how much each could inspire the other (sorry, it's about boundaries blurring again...)

It starts with seven tensions between conflicting values and priorities. Is it more important for a wheelchair or a hearing aid or a prosthetic hand to be discreet or fashionable? Universal or simple? Sensitive or provocative? Is it more important to solve known problems or to explore new possibilities? Striking the right balance - and a different balance for different disabled people - requires the skills and sensibilities of both design cultures, not either one working alone.

It ends with conversations with some designers I like - including Tomoko Azumi, Vexed, Crispin Jones, Michael Marriott and Graphic Thought Facility. We discuss design briefs related to disability in some way - wheelchairs and wheelchair clothing, prosthetic legs, watches for visually impaired people and Braille. Their first trains of thought are diverse and inspiring.

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Sketching thoughts about step stools, by Tomoko Azumi

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Collecting bicycles and chairs to inspire wheelchairs, by Michael Marriott

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Sketching a Braille wall for visually impaired and sighted people, by Graphic Thought Facility

Despite the subject matter, this is anything but a textbook (there are several of these already!) It's to be an affordable - and I hope beautiful - little book to carry in your pocket and read on a train journey.

...and some dates for your diary:

24 February - 12 May 2008: Social Mobiles exhibited as part of Design and the Elastic Mind, MoMA, New York

16 - 24 May 2008: IMD degree show at Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art and Design. This year's IMD graduates were responsible for the first Museum of Lost Interactions

27 - 29 July 2008: Microsoft Design Expo 2008, that will feature the work of Dundee IMD and IPD students

Autumn 2008: The MIT Press due to publish 'Designing Braille for the sighted'

December 2008: the opening of the next gallery of MoLI (sorry, the theme is a secret!)

Thanks Graham!

Just back from London where i visited the Work in Progress show at the Royal College of Art (you've got until Thursday 7 February to visit it). I'll come back with more details later but here's an appetizer from the department of Design Interactions.

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Revital Cohen got interested in Life support machines and the way the technologies involved in keeping patients alive in intensive care enter and merge with the body. By doing so they redefine its material and functional properties. As the human anatomy gains technological capabilities, where does the body end and the machine begin?

The Telepresence Frame is a domestic object which utilizes the fact that one's bodily functions are digitalized in order to create a new form of telepresence. Your family would have the frame at home as a presence that keeps them constantly aware of your physical state while you're being kept alive at the hospital.

The Human Black Box records and stores this information, keeping a record of your very last moments. Once you die, the frame plays your life data back. In loop.

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