TEI’14: A Report from the Frontiers of Interaction Research

The 8th International Conference on Tangible, Embedded and Embodied Interaction (TEI’14) was in Munich this year and as usual it was inspiring, innovative and at times mind-blowing! This is a conference with a lot of vision (especially technological vision) and since finding it, I feel at home in a community of researchers/artists/designers/social activists that go beyond norms in their fields and are not afraid to be radically different. In this post, I’m going to give an overview of the projects and themes I encountered there. (I also had an art installation and two participants from the MakeShop I was teaching last semester presented a project in the student design challenge. I will write about these projects in future posts so I can include more detail).

For me the conference started a day early when I attended a full-day studio entitled, “The Misbehaviour of Animated Objects”, which was run by EnsadLab, MIT Medialab and Universite Paris 8. In the studio, we explored notions of “misbehaviours” and how to program physical objects to convey them. We worked with a robotics kit developed from servo motors, velcro and processing software. This allowed us to assemble and prototype objects quickly and think about their relationships to us and to each other.

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I worked with two other participants to make a prototype that consisted of a disembodied tail that had a conversation with a physical pacman! Initially, we wanted to make a wearable interface out of them but decided to explore the objects relationship to each other. The scenario was “What happens when you encounter two objects that seem to be communicating with each other but it’s a different language and hard to know if they are friendly or unfriendly?” Other projects, included a shy trash can and a rolling saucer!

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The conference proper started with an opening keynote by Chris Harrison from CMU. He has some really neat data visualization projects but his talk here was different. While his talk was interesting and focused on touch (especially multitouch in mobile contexts), I felt he was a little bit out of place at a conference that is going beyond mobile technology. The gist of his speech was that with the prevalence of touch sensitive devices that can go beyond sensing just the finger tap, we will have the possibility of using a lot of complex touch patterns (such as zooming with a physical camera).

The first day talks were very diverse: An interesting project (Karlesky and Isbister, New York) explored the margins of digital workspace by examining the possibilities of “mindless” activities such as doodling, fidgeting and fiddling for interaction design. In contrast, The Slow Floor project (Feltham, et al. Australia), a pressure sensitive sound-generating surface that was tested with a group of Butoh dancers performing a slow walk, aimed to develop an interface for meditation.

A central figure to TEI is Dr. Hiroshi Ishii from the MIT Media Lab. A pioneer of ambient and tangible interfaces, his idea of translating Bits to Atoms, of accessing, expressing and manipulating graphic bits of information, not only through the desktop computing tools (i.e., keyboard and mouse) but through novel tangible interfaces revolutionized the field. In the last few years, he has had another visionary idea, Radical Atoms, which involves shapeshifting and programmable material. Several presentations from his lab were about weight and volume changing material (through liquid metal injection) and stiffness changing material. Here’s a cool video example of his previous work.

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Katia Vega and Hugo Fuks from Brazil have been doing very interesting work with conductive make-up and augmented nails (that can be used to control music through water, for example) that allow one’s skin and nails to become interfaces. Since last year, I have been obsessed with the idea of augmenting my body and turning it into a digital interface (going one step beyond wearables) and it was very inspiring seeing her work. I believe this project has great potential for users with disabilities as well.

Another artist from Brazil, Philippe Bertrand (who is currently based in Barcelona), showcased an empathetic interface The Machine to be Another, that through an immersive and embodied interface allows one to experience being in another person’s body through a head-mounted display. The system has been used by children and parents, people with disabilities and men and women to experience seeing through the other person’s point of view.

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In the evening of the first day, entries from the Student Design Competition, showed their work which were interesting, complex and fun. (More about this in future posts!)

The second day was also very diverse. In one of the sessions, we saw presentations on an interface that creates art from skateboard movements (Pijnappel et al. Australia), an augmented frisbee that can be used to train novices (Cynthia Solomon et al., US), a stress releasing beatable wall where you can beat the shadow of your opponents to get scores (Floyd Mueller et al., Australia) and an opera singing interface that allows you to create sounds and modalities using facial gestures and hand movements (Feitsch et al., Germany)! I will not go into the details of these projects, but they were fantastic!

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The installations and demos were very interesting and popular. In the Arts Track I particularly liked a project that translated Laido sword movements into 3D objects that were then printed (Ueno et al. Germany), The YU system that used artistic Chinese paintings of fish to convey biometric information about the user (Bin Zhu et al., China), and A Day in a Life, which was next to my installation and used an empty book and air flow to display the time of day (Ivan Petkov, Austria).

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The second day ended in a traditional Bavarian beer hall which was excellently located because it was in a cellar deep in the earth and didn’t have cellphone reception!

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The final sessions included one on public interfaces which included a shape-changing bench (Sofie Kinch et al. Denmark) that encouraged users to talk to each other and a paper on exploring strategies to breach barrier to collaboration in public spaces (Trine Heinemann and Robb Mitchell, Finland and Denmark). The author of the last paper showed many videos of his students approaching strangers with hidden cameras and asking for favour or offering favours and finding patterns in the way they were rejected. I think this project would have been fascinating and uncomfortable to work with!

Finally, a citizen science project was a low-tech sensing system for particulate pollution (Stacey Kyznetsov et al. US) where small paper sensors were handed out to a community. These were to be left outside for 24 hours and then sealed and mailed back where particles gather on it would be examined and would create a map of air quality around the city. I liked this project because of its focus on citizen science and sustainable design.

The closing keynote was by Eric Paulos from UC Berkeley. For his talk, he focused on the theme of “the Amateur”, in its true sense of the world (i.e., one who does something for love) and mentioned that magic can happen when you dare to explore fields in which you are not the expert and combine your background with new experiences. He talked about the maker movement and how through learning by doing it allows the breaking of barriers to creativity. Finally, he talked about the relevance of art and art thinking to science, something that I agree is very present at TEI. He concluded by offering a stratagem that included ideas such as: question progress, embrace the noir, misuse technologies, blend disparate contexts and be tactfully contrarian. An excellent way to end an excellent conference!

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Munich Galleries

I’ve found a new method for deciding what museums to visit when on a trip to a city with many many of them: head to the gift shop and browse their posters. Usually, there is a good selection of the works there and you can gauge if you are in the mood to be in the presence of such pieces! This is how I decided to visit two museums in Munich that I probably would have passed on if not for the above method. And, boy, I’m glad I visited them!

The first museum, the Alte Pinakothek houses works from Old Masters. In the past, I could not connect with these works in a meaningful way and felt a cultural barrier blocking my understanding of them, so when I visited the museum’s gift, I was very surprised when I suddenly felt an urge to be in the presence of these works, to be in the same room as these great canvases that depict such maddening energy. It also helped that the galleries were deserted and I could be (mostly) alone with gigantic canvases that depicted maddening scenes of joy and suffering, sometimes in the same room.

These galleries started with the beautiful works of Bruegel which provide a window into everyday life. These were followed by some amazing work by Jan Sanders van Hemessen. One painting in particular with christ begin tortured and beaten before crucification moved me for the way that each character symbolized various human emotions: ignorance, malice, ridicule, …

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Next came many scenes of ecstatic lust and boundless joy, senseless violence, transcendence, tender love, madness, saneness and everything in between. Visions of heaven and hell covered the walls of these amazing space, I felt the rooms would start screaming, I could hear Mozart’s Requiem and Orff’s Carmina Burana in my head!

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How could anyone (including myself) walk past these walls and not be consumed by the passion to live, to love, to cry, to laugh. I had to sit and take a few breaths. I realized these artists had touched life’s reality intimately. They knew what it was all about and, moreover, they had the ability to express it. Their technique, intellect, mastery came second, first there was the Truth of their Internal Experience. While the methods they used, their language was different, if you could tune into it, you could see the thread of your personal time-less narrative reflected unto them.

On one wall was a picture of mischief himself:

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On another, a vision of heaven I’ve seen strived to be recreate at many festivals and gatherings to this day:

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And on another the resolution to a tragedy of unbearable sorrow:

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I was overwhelmed but happy!

The following day, still surprised by my reaction to visiting the Alte Pinakothek, I went for a long walk around Munich. Eventually, I came across the strange neo-classical Brienner Strase which is a large avenue surrounded by imposing buildings that were once the heart of Nazi Germany in Bavaria. Most of the buildings house music and visual art faculties. I remember about 7 years ago when I visited Munich for the first time with my mom and brother, we were looking for a washroom in the area. We walked into an imposing building that didn’t have a clear sign. We realized this was the University of Music and Performing Arts Munich which was great to visit because my brother was attending the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto. But what was striking was that the interior of the building looked uncannily like a scene from a WWII movie. We found out later that this was in fact a Nazi Party headquarters and Hitler had an office in the second floor (which is now a rehearsal room). When I looked at these buildings today with their imposing walls (some still with bullet holes in them), I remembered Radiohead’s You and Whose Army?

20140212_140541Next, I went to the Glyptothek which houses exquisite greek statues. I never thought I would enjoy this museum as much as I did. The guidebook, rather strangely, dismissed this museum as of interest if “you like Classical art or simply enjoy watching nude guys with missing noses and other body parts”!  Again, the gift shop made me feel I might get inspired by my visit and I was! Spacious room after spacious room were filled with these beautiful sculptures whose colourless skin makes them look even more timeless and at the same time ephemeral.

20140212_142924Seeing these statues in Munich is a bit disturbing because of the way these images were used by the Nazi’s to further their idea of the “perfect human” or “perfect race”.  (Radiohead’s self-loathing Creep was playing in my head.) And, no doubt, these statues do identify and celebrate “ideals” of beauty, a dangerous idea. But for an hour, I tried to suspend these criticisms and enjoy the grace and refinement of these statues of the past win me over and take me to a place where I co-existed if not with ancient artists but with their ideas embodied in stone.

After looking into the face of Socrates and Alexander the Great, I went for a traditional Bavarian lunch of liver dumbing soup and cold sausage salad!

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