Interview with Cati Vaucelle

0portraitcati.jpgWhen i asked her what she does or drink to have so much energy and creativity Cati Vaucelle simply told me that she is spending the nights playing World of Warcraft. Well, i’m sorry Cati, it doesn’t work for us mere mortals! Hanging around with druids and having a stroll through Dun Morogh on the back of a tiger doesn’t usually results in projects that i’d want to blog. And if Cati’s avatar kills monsters and completes quests as fast as she engineers new projects then she might be one of the most formidable players around. One day she’s working on a touch-sensitive dress for sensory therapy, the day after she announces that she’s just finished collaborating with Hayes Raffle on a rubber stamp that children can press onto the page to record sounds into their drawings.

I don’t know which label i should put on Cati Vaucelle: is she a researcher? an artist? a designer? Something in between?

I am a knowledge shopper. I studied philosophy and fine arts, applied computer science, psychology, and computational linguistics starting in Paris with a B.S. in mathematics and economics. At MIT I took classes in engineering and programming, recently graduating from Harvard University in product design and architecture. Juggling among degrees triples my inspiration. I feel empowered by applying this knowledge in my research. Now I define myself as a researcher, an inventor and an artist at the same time. I collaborate frequently as I find it extremely enlightening. My work has implications for fields as diverse as HCI, architecture, fashion, learning and health care treatment.

Can you tell me something about your career: how you came to be interested in tangible interfaces, digital technology, augmented “everyday” realities?

I started to use microcontrollers to augment everyday objects back in Paris. I searched for prior inventions in the domain, and discovered the work of the MIT Media Lab. After a few years of research in physical augmentation via computer means I found that a new materiality emerged based on our physical limitations supported by digital possibilities. This new materiality was also created through the possibility to keep memorized an impossible number of data. I was fascinated by the power of computation in recalling memories. I designed a range of computational linguistic tools from toy design, storytelling systems, to performative text instruments to record stories of experiences. Gradually the six exteroceptive senses became part of my design principles. I like to engage people’s associative memory for elements in their life that can be recalled through AI tools and products.

In my sculpture work, I combine the material representation of a souvenir and its effect over time. I print a series of clothes in plaster molds and in life-sized frames. The pieces of clothing carved in the plaster come from people I care for. Their prints represent their passage in my life at a point. The mold essentially keeps the shape and the textural significance of the clothing.

0boxxx1.jpg0boxx2.jpgMemento Box: Outside and inside

I designed a series of kinetic and architectural installations, electronically mediated clothing, and smell collector systems in relation to my take on memories. I created the Memento Box, a kinetic installation that symbolizes a view on my relationship to souvenirs. This kinetic and electronic Box represents an attractive passage from door to personal space of souvenirs.

0breathingwallll.jpgThe Breathing Wall kinetic piece that I created with Ana Aleman consists of a wall made from thin transparent tubes that react to the public space. Made out of architectural objects that work independently or dependently of one another, it deploys and retracts soft fabric. The wall remembers the sense of the public and reacts accordingly.

In Touching Memories, I originally wanted the system to capture the memory of touch represented by its pressure and warmth. This system, later called Taptap and built with Leonardo Bonanni, Jeff Lieberman and Orit Zuckerman, supports the remembrance of a lost one, sharing physical prompts to recall a souvenir of touch for distant lovers. This work resulted in a series of prototypes: Squeeze Me, Hurt Me, Cool Me Down and Touch Me with implications for support in mental health care treatments. I continue independent research on Seamless Sensory Interventions for the treatment of mental and neurological disorders. Haptics are the key to bringing treatment into the social sphere through devices, providing new ways to mediate between the patient and the therapist both in and outside of therapy. Self-mutilation is a perfect test-case, because of the definitive “physicality� of the symptoms. However, the broader solutions that I am proposing have implications for diseases as diverse as autism, depression, and schizophrenia.

0cooolmedo.jpgCool Me Down

Together with Yasmine Abbas I explore the design of a touch-sensitive dress for massage and sensory therapy. The research focuses on the material – how the structure and the embedded components of the garment participate in pushing its function to become an envelope or cocoon for one’s well-being. Touch·Sensitive is a haptic apparel that allows massage therapy to be diffused, customized and controlled by people on the move. It provides individuals with a sensory and alerting cocoon.

I design the Odora Storyteller, a smell collector. It encompasses the experience of the everyday collector and creates an associative memory of smells, places and objects. The first prototype is conceived for children to collect samples from their environment. The children can reveal and create associative connection between smells, textures and visual components of elements that they gather. The collected elements are then used to create and recall stories. I also envision this concept for persons suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. People with Alzheimer’s could benefit from associative memory between smell and souvenirs of places.

The smell collector became a collector of everyday sensations. The collector allows a child to also collect temperatures – from the heat of the sun to the cold of the ice, invited to capture more complex temperature such as the soil.

I am designing Jewelry in the form of arial patterns of a city. My vision is to have in miniature the multitude of patterns that one can see from a distance. The research implication/discussion is now that we constantly travel by plane, use GIS, google map, satellite imagery, our vision is expanded. We now consider differently objects, we have a different representation to them. As much as the car has influenced painting and the representation of space and movement, I want to show how the use of new technologies can change our way to design objects.

Crazy toys allow children to voice out their drawing construction. Crazy toys capture the pitch and loudness of the child’s voice and generates patterns on a screen. I am working on a database management of the child’s pre-drawn pattern that she could decide to use for her compositions. I am currently making a generic doll whose body reacts to the sound input and generates digital drawings. I link max/msp to processing. The digital patterns from processing flow through the body of the doll as a metaphor on how digital technologies invade our everyday space and body.

One of your prior researches was concerned with the underlying mechanisms regarding the improvisation of narratives by children. This gave way to some pretty imaginative projects. What have you learnt from that experience with children? How much did their interaction with the objects/devices you gave them modified your perception of the subject?

I learned that tools for children need to be designed to support their evolving skills. Electronic toys, toys with AI and digital applications for children could benefit from multiple levels of learning including different layers of complexity.

As a research associate at Media Lab Europe from 2002-2004, I designed Textable Movie with Glorianna Davenport. In the framework of computational storytelling, Textable Movie promotes the idea of maker-controlled media and can be contrasted to automatic presentation systems. By improvising movie-stories created from their personal video database and by suddenly being projected into someone else’s video database during the same story, users can be surprised as they visualize video elements corresponding to a story that they would not have expected. With Textable Movie, users make their own inference about these discoveries rather than using artificial systems that make the inference for them. They can then create a personal mode of interaction with the system, e.g. mapping keywords to videos, and incorporate new video clips and sound samples to their database.

0textabemoih.jpgThe complexity, power and flexibility of Textable Movie can be seen in how novel projects presented themselves through its use. The immediate response from the system by the children made it comparable to a video game. I created Textable Game that extends the concept to the realm of video games. This application aims to engage teenagers in building their own games, e.g. action games, exploration games, mystery games, using their own video/audio footage, and allowing them to create their own rules and scenarios. The goal of Textable Game is to invite teenagers to be their own video game producers.

Evaluations with Textable Movie informed me that more fusion between creating an idea and producing it was necessary. For a revisit of Textable Movie, I wanted to couple mobile technologies to a platform that could materialize ideas and retrieve them seamlessly had to be implemented. I explored the concept of tangibility of digital data as a way for children to gather and capture data around the city for later retrieval. In this case, tangible objects become metaphors of captured elements. I conceived a device using mobile technology combined with tangible objects as metaphors called Moving Pictures: Looking Out/Looking In. This project became a team project that I developed with Diana Africano and Oskar Fjellström, both researchers at the Umeå Institute of Design in Sweden.

Moving Pictures: Looking Out/Looking In
allows children to gather outside and look around in their environment to collect visual clips, capture short videos using video cameras, and then come back inside to a video editing station where they reflect on and play with their media collection.

0indublin.jpg0indublin2.jpgRecording with the camera and uploading videos on the table

With Moving Pictures the experience for the user is transparent. The cumbersome process of capturing and editing becomes fluid in the improvisation of a story, and accessible as a way to create a final movie. I integrated different layers of complexity, from digitizing the media, performing a movie, to storyboarding a more complex narrative. Elements of design such as cards symbolizing the composition of the screen are used to offer the children the potential to become video artists, understanding and playing with the frame as they go.

Based on our evaluations with children, I found that Moving Pictures suffers from several limitations related to the problem of how to best digitally support meaningful interactions in the physical space. First the scalability of such a system at a networked and international level is flawed. I need to redesign the software technology to centralize the linked data and distribute the nodes of contained data in an organized fashion. To have the technology better assist how an individual moves about the physical space while capturing content their platform needs to be mediated by a centralized software architecture.

Second, system centralization implies new communication technology to mediate the video platforms and allow them to communicate with one another. The RFID technology in the wireless cameras could be redesigned into a pattern based technology using the video camera of any device.

Lastly, I would like to escape the hardware limitations of commercial video cameras. Users could use any phone, any camera or text based device to exchange material. The system should be designed to generalize despite different input modalities. All of these modifications shift the emphasis of the system from a simple, transparent, video platform, and into an architecture for supporting content generation that reflects the physical environment of the user through multiple information platforms.

What are the challenges, pecularities and pitfalls when working with children (compared with projects you’d develop for grown-ups)?

It is complex to work on projects for children because of our responsibility as adults. The video game world is very attractive to kids and it can also easily be allienating without any parental and environmental support. I also wish that companies could facilitate their console hacking for kids, by protecting certain parts of their market, but making it hackable for more creative projects. Kids could still use the console for its game purpose but could appropriate its design to make their own. As an example, experimented adults can hook up applications to the new Wii console using emulators, but this is not being hacked by children.

Also the Wii is an example of interesting design because it uses body motions and physical space as part of its design principles. I recently saw multiple generations, from the young child to the grand parents, play with it and everybody enjoyed it. It seems fully integrated within the family context as much as traditional board games have been in the past. In the realm of PvP video games, World of Warcraft has a nice goody for its users: they can take a break and double their experience the next time they come online but to not forget their addiction, WoW only doubles it up to two levels. This is smart, it allows users to go away from the computer screen for a few days and engage back into their addiction. However, sometimes this time is also used to create other characters…

There are also challenges for electronic toys. In 2002, a friend of mine commented beautifully on the matter:

“The most beautiful thing happened on Tuesday night. I was babysitting for Colum, Jenny’s little boy, he’s 5 (and three quarters!). We made up 2 new super heroes Lava Man and the other Lava Man! We were just having a really good play with lots of jumping around and shouting. Anyway, later we were just sitting down and talking more quietly. He was showing me this little dinosaur that has tiny batteries inside and when you open his mouth he roars. Colum said the batteries were wasted and I said I can get new ones for him. He said ‘no, its terrible when the batteries work because every time he opens his mouth all he can do is roar, even when he tries to eat something all he can do is roar so he can’t even eat anything so lets leave him with the wasted batteries, he’s better that way’. All I could do was smile the widest smile.” Andy Brady

0puppppppets3.jpgTraditional toys such as puppets and dolls encourage young children’s storytelling in the form of pretend play. Unfortunately, the majority of commercial technological toys do not provide the space for children to tell their own stories; rather they tend to tell stories to them or constrain their play pattern. Children could benefit from creating stories rather than listening to them. The quote from Andy Brady is an example of how technology can be useless and, worse, annoying or constraining to the child. In this example, technology is not contributing anything to the play pattern of the child except the repetitious dinosaur roaring which apparently is not pleasing for anyone! The child voices his complaint by asking not to use this technology anymore.

In my work, I aim to add technology to prompt the child in a way that allows the child to be an active participant in story creation. When a system for authorship is well designed, the technology is not invading. In 2000 I created Dolltalk (PDF), a set of computational puppets designed for storytelling. Dolltalk captures the child’s storytelling though motions made with puppetry and the voice of the child. In this work, the challenge was to combine the right balance of technology coupled with a narrative structure inspired by the toy. I have worked on business applications of this project with Mattel, Fisher Price and Lego.

Kids today grow among mobile phones, computers, sophisticated video games,… we didn’t. How do you think it affects their perception of the frontier between virtual and physical world?

This current question reveals that each time there is a change, it transforms our ideal image of ourselves.

A useful historical metaphor exists in photography. At the inception of photography, the new medium was equally feared and admired. It was reduced to the status of being useful, but devoid of meaningful interpretations of reality, which was the provence of the fine arts and painting in particular. However, over time, the status of photography changed, and gained its independence from painting. Eventually, the photographic medium was accepted as having its own formal and aesthetic values. The end result was a revisitation of what painting could be, driven by the new aesthetic findings in photography, as exemplified in some of Duchamp’s work, such as le nu dans l’escalier. The paradigm shift was not limited to painting, but provided social change as a new form of expression in the arts.

I gave this example to say that with photography we realized it was not an anti-art, it was another art. It is a medium. Children use these tools. It is important that we understand what they are. Digital is a revolution. It creates children’s expectations of their interaction with their environment (virtual and digital) that can be different from ours (because we have not grown up in the same environment as the children of today).

When i go to tech conferences, i only see a tiny minority of women. how is it like at Harvard Design School? do you feel like you’re part of a minority of geek girls? does it affect you?

In Paris, I studied with a majority of men. Women seemed to fear technical matters. It was clear that this was perpetuated socially. I graduated from Harvard University, Graduate School of Design (GSD), with a Master in Design, Product Design and Architecture. I had previously studied at the MIT Media Lab for a Master of Sciences. I am now back to the MIT Media Lab as research assistant and PhD candidate with Dr. Hiroshi Ishii in the Tangible Media Group. I can compare the impact of women in these environments. Women are less represented in general at the professorship level. A woman with engineering skills and with the same qualifications as a man seems to always be strangely discredited. On my side, I try to avoid this polemic and just develop my engineering work on my own. At the GSD, there are lots of women as students, but not that many as faculty members. At the Media Lab women are under represented in general. There is a mix between designers and geeky girls at the media lab, but the majority have a background in CS or electrical engineering and if not they all learn on the fly. I like working with women a lot at Media Lab, especially because I like seeing a feminine sensibility empowered with the technicality of engineering.

You’re working mainly with technology: computers, rfid, even robots. Are you interested in emerging technologies like nanotechnology, biotechnology, synthetic biology? or is it too far from your own sphere (one only has 24 hours per day after all)?

These topics are fascinating and I am interested in everything that is emerging. I am a knowledge shopper after all! Maybe I will follow a degree in nanotechnology …


How do you think that digital technologies make us re-evaluate the physical world?

We are perceiving a new physicality through digital materials. This modification of our perception of the environment is developed thourgh our experience with the digital.

As an illustration of this new area consider the usual RFID tagging. RFID tags have been used throughout the physical space for cuing purposes. Beyond that, I argue that the presence of content cues throughout the space redefines our very perception of that space. Now an alternative to RFID tagging is possible, such that arbitrary physical properties of objects can be used as tags to content. One promising line of work is using mass to arbitrarily define tags. Any object can be assigned tag status by linking the mass of the object to some content that the user likes to represent from their environment. By reintroducing the appropriately weighted object to the system, the content can be recalled. Tagging serve as a means for feedback from the physical environment back to the virtual community. This line of thought is now possible by having been digital, conceptually, and subsequently discovering new design principles within the physical space. Tagging with the mass of the object uses technology to link the intrinsic physicality of the material to new conceptual possibilities regarding how we perceive physical space, content of physicality and extended virtual communities.

What did you try to achieve with “The Texture of Light”? Was it just a project you had to develop for the Smart Materials course at Harvard or do you plan to go further and exploit the idea in novel ways?

0textureoflight.jpgThe Texture of Light is a tangible system that exploits lighting principles and the exploration of life feed video metamorphosis in the public space using reflection of light on transparent materials. This project is an attempt to fight the boredom of everyday life and employs the simple use of chemistry, Plexiglas, and plastic patterns to form a visual reconstruction of reality, giving it a texture and expressive form. The tangible potential of the direct use of light on Plexiglas lenses and transparent materials presents three opportunities that are critical to this project. First is the collaboration in the public space facilitated by tangible means. The second opportunity is the improvisation and experimentation space offered by such tangible and mechanical systems. The third is the reinvestigation of the physical texture of light materialized, allowing a direct understanding of the effects of light properties on transparent materials e.g. reflection, color transformation, density, and diffraction.

I am implementing my vision of this project on a larger scale such as building-size panels the public could mechanically control using remote devices. Each panel will be pattern and transparent material specific. Two Plexiglas sheets could embed a water-fall, or viscous transparent material the user could distribute along his/her selected point of view. The software will allow media distribution among cities so that the outcomes of the public performances could be exposed on the panels of other cities.

Your work involves augmenting the physical using the digital. aren’t you having nightmare of a physical object that does more bad than good because its digital “layer” is running amok?

The digital has suffered by trying to be too physical, trying to justify its existence by refining itself with physical rules. There are fundamental limits between the form and function of the digital and physical. This step was necessary to combine the digital to the physical without independence between these two modes of interaction. Now that the digital is part of our everyday life, it is the perfect moment to study how it can inform the structure of the physical and how it can drive new conceptions of the physical. The goal is to strike a balance between digital technologies and their physical components, such that despite their fundamental differences of form and use, the two can be seamlessly integrated and mutually inform one another.

I only augment the physical with the digital in certain conditions, because I also care about interdependencies between the digital and the physical. With each other they have a function. Without each other they also have a function. This differs from current considerations of physical and tangible representation by allowing the virtual and the physical to exist independently from each other, or, rather, to co-exist in a way that informs one another.

Specifically, the challenge is to augment the physical using the digital by maintaining a reason d’etre of the physical with the digital. Consider a scarf that warms up if a friend is missing. This computational scarf, even without technology, can be designed so it remains useful as a scarf, and keeps a memory of the interaction with the digital without detracting from its design as a physical object. On the other hand, the warmth generating sensor module, if removed from the scarf, can have another digital function and be integrated into a bedding to provide some warmth as well. Both the physical platform and the technology are dissociable, although the combination of the two generates the impact of the application.

My work incorporates materials that borrow rules from the digital and offer a sense of magic in the physical world. Smart materials are a reasonable platform for our desire to have the digital and physical inform one another simply due to the technical opportunities, such as scalability, computational power, and extensibility. However, in addition to having digital and technical possibilities, smart materials offer a relatively unexplored opportunity to drive new conceptions of digital and physical by adhering to intrinsically physical properties of material. Our concept of materiality can be intelligently redefined by the introduction of technical extensions to the material platform.Digital and virtual applications are changing our very conception of the physical space. A new materiality is emerging, based on our physical limitations supported by virtual possibilities. Digital has changed our perception of the physical, as in surface, light and texture, and also our body, as in its ideal representation. However, I believe that an incredible opportunity is being lost. Combined virtual and physical applications are not being designed with their independent principles of physical and virtual in mind. My research explore the fundamental differences between these worlds, and how, as the line between them blurs, we can take the lessons of the virtual space and redesign the physical space.

Merci Cati!