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Mediated Body: Designing for embodied experience

By Mads Hobye

Review version, accepted for publication, pending  final revisions (do not copy, quote or cite)

Context: Radical self-expression and social play at Burning Man

The key activity in developing the Mediated Body concept was a week-long experiment taking place at the Burning Man art festival in Black Rock Desert, Nevada, in early September of 2010. The festival runs on the notion of radical self-expression (Burning Man, n.d.). This means, for example, that participants expect to express themselves in large and small ways: To present full-scale art projects, to build and drive mutant vehicles and art cars, to shoot light and fire effects into the air, to wear experimental clothes, to engage in improvised games and quests, to drink with and talk to strangers, to play music and to dance. A recurring sentiment at the festival is that you can be whatever you want to be, and you can do whatever you want to do. This creates a ubiquitous sense of social play, where people may dress up as police officers and start controlling the traffic, or build a makeshift mobile prison to drive around and catch stray furries (people dressed up as cats, dogs, etc.) to bring them to the furry camp.

System: The mediated body

Mediated Body is a symbiotic system consisting of a human (the Performer) wearing custom-built technology (the Suit). The system offers a play session to a single Participant at a time. The role of the technology is to sense physical bare-skin connection between the Performer and the Participant, where the sensing yields analogue values in a range starting from a few centimeters from actual touch, via light touch, to full contact. The values are converted into a relatively complex soundscape which is played back in the headphones that both the Performer and the Participant wear. Thus, from the Participant’s point of view, the Performer is a human theremin (Wikipedia, n.d.): a musical instrument that she can play by touching. However, due to the design of the system, the instrument can also play its player: When the Performer touches the Participant, the soundscape is affected in the same way.

The headphones make the interactive soundscape a privately shared experience between Performer and Participant, and they also serve to limit surrounding sounds and thus make the experience more intimate and private to the two players.

The analogue nature of skin touch sensing, and the relatively complex functional relations between input (touch) and output (sound and light), together form an open and ambiguous interaction surface for the Participant. This enabled the Performer to enhance the experience with various performative techniques, inspired by and tailored to the situation and context of the play session.

Method: Exploring embodied interaction

Within interaction design, several forces have coincided in the last few years to fuel the emergence of a new field of inquiry, which we summarize under the label of embodied interaction. The term was introduced by Dourish (2001) as a way to combine the then-distinct perspectives of tangible interaction (Ullmer & Ishii, 2001) and social computing. The work by Dourish has been highly influential in the academic interaction design field; it has to be considered a seminal contribution on the conceptual level, but we find that more work is needed to create contemporary, design-oriented knowledge on embodied interaction. Specifically, the approach of skin-touch sensing is only recently emerging (Harrison et al., 2010) and its experiential qualities are essentially uncharted territory.

For embodied interaction, it seems reasonable to adopt a design research approach where design work is performed as part of the knowledge construction process. Within interaction design in general, the notion of research-through-design is recently gaining currency (Zimmerman et al., 2007) It can largely be seen as an attempt to introduce design-research approaches into the academic field of HCI, and as such it represents a valuable effort of broadening the methodological base thereof. But we find that the nature of the embodied interaction field and the specific direction we have chosen of designing an ensemble warrants a bit of methodological elaboration. 

We propose a research process that may be called research-through-explorative-design, which is distinguished by:

  1. A focus on “sketching with technology” (Buxton, 2007), aiming at exploring issues of behavior and enactment (as opposed to envisionment).
  2. Experimentation in the sense of making and trying out prototypes or partial prototypes is the primary mode of working.
  3. The goal of the experiments is to grow an understanding and a sensibility for the experiential qualities of embodied interaction’s materials (cf. Hallnäs et al., 2002) and ensembles.

The highly dynamic and multimodal nature of the Mediated Body experience, as well as the explorative research method used, calls for a form of academic communication that conveys the nature of the use experience as richly as possible, in order for the work to be useful (and criticizable) to fellow interaction design-researchers. This is the main task of the video part of this video-article, whereas this text concentrates on more abstracted aspects such as the academic framing of the work, the research method and some of the results.

Results: Artifacts and qualities

Generally speaking, the results of research-through-explorative-design can be expected to be threefold: Artifacts occupying previously unexplored points in the design space of embodied interaction; the qualities of the suggested solutions, abstracted to a level where it can be reasonably claimed that they inform the understanding of a whole class or genre of possible artifacts; design strategies and directions, including useful conceptualizations, indications of gained insights, identification of crucial issues and outstanding questions, etc. Due to space limitations, we choose to focus here on results pertaining to artifacts and qualities. For a more comprehensive discussion, including the methodological grounding of our approach, see (Hobye & Löwgren, in prep.).

Artifact: Aspects of the Mediated Body concept

The Mediated Body concept was very successful in the superficial sense that it turned out to be highly attractive and much appreciated. We find two artifact-related aspects that we deem to be crucial to the success of the concept, as well as transferable to the academic community of designer-researchers in embodied interaction.

First, the idea of connecting touch to audio seems to make for an engaging experience, provided that the right balance is struck between direct responsivity and more complex, emergent responsive behavior.

Secondly, it is a highly distinctive feature of the concept that touch detection requires bare-skin connection, and that it takes place between strangers. This is a somewhat novel and daring move, which makes the experience considerably more intriguing and titillating. In some sense, it forms an excuse for questioning a whole range of established social norms by engaging in a polyvalent moment of social play.

Qualities: Characterizing the Mediated Body experience

Moving on to experiential qualities, we briefly summarize the most salient themes from our analysis of the use experience. Again, the aim is to characterize the experience in ways that form useful knowledge for fellow designer-researchers.

It is obvious from our findings that performative immersion is an important theme in understanding the Mediated Body experience. Our data indicates an interesting duality where Performer and Participant are on one hand wrapped up in the bubble of exploring and playing with touch, audio and light together and on the other hand performing knowingly for an Audience.

Further the Mediated Body experience is one of an alternate social reality, however short and insignificant it may seem. We find that ensemble will break down a number of inhibitions and question norms for social behavior, and essentially skip over a whole number of steps that are normally required in social interaction with strangers. There is ample data to show how the performer and the participant often had to backtrack along the chain of social steps when taking the headphones off (the “decompression” step), reverting to asking for names, talking politely about the experience they had just shared, and so on.

Finally, the Mediated Body experience involves qualities of emergent meaning. This is manifested in how the Performer narrates the possibilities and functions of the ensemble, as well as in how the Participant explores the effects of different actions. A particularly clear example here is the concept of an “aura”, which the Performer found to be a highly generative concept for inspiring Participants to engaging and pleasant interactions.

Acknowledgements

Bent Haugland (Performer), DZL (Sound engineering), Nicolas Padfield (Electronics) and Nynne Just Christoffersen (Sewstress).

References

Burning Man (n.d.). Principles. Accessed at http://www.burningman.com/whatisburningman/about_burningman/principles.htmlon February 11, 2011.

Buxton, B. (2007). Sketching user experiences: Getting the design right and the right design. San Francisco: Morgan Kaufmann.

Dourish, P. (2001). Where the action is: The foundations of embodied interaction. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

Hallnäs, L., Melin, L., Redström, J. (2002). A design research program for textiles and computational technology. Nordic Textile Journal 1:56-63.

Harrison, C., Tan, D., Morris, D. (2010). Skinput: Appropriating the body as an input surface. In Human Factors in Computing Systems (CHI ‘10 Proceedings), pp. 453-462. New York: ACM Press.

Hobye, M., Löwgren, J. (in press). Touching a stranger: Designing for engaging experience in embodied interaction. To appear in Int. J. Design, slated for December 2011.

Ullmer, B., Ishii, H. (2001). Emerging frameworks for tangible user interfaces. In Carroll, J. (ed.) Human-computer interaction in the new millennium, pp. 579-601. Addison-Wesley.

Wikipedia (n.d.). Theremin. Accessed at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Theremin on February 11, 2011.

Zimmerman, J., Forlizzi, J., Evenson, S. (2007). Research through design as a method for interaction design research in HCI. In Human Factors in Computing Systems (CHI ‘07 Proceedings), pp. 493-502. New York: ACM Press.

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