Getting deeper

We have some great news: You can participate in a visual demonstration of the Meditation Lab Experimenter Kit the 28th of October on Dutch Design Week in Eindhoven.

At the moment the project really satisfies me. We still get deeper into many aspects of the Silence Suit as you can read in the following.

Reflecting on the collaboration

As you can read in our last two blog posts, Danielle and me are both reflecting on our collaboration with technician, software engineers and designers. By chance, we got a call for a paper this week by DRS Special Interest Groups on Experiential Knowledge. They want to collect papers about experiential knowledge in collaborative interdisciplinary design research. By reflecting further on our personal experience we could contribute a paper to that interesting collection. We choose to work together on one paper and I am really excited about it. Personally, I hope to get clearer what the role of an artist means to me, by reflecting further on the collaboration I am observing in the case of this project.

Deepening of the content

I see that Danielle is working hard to get more knowledge about the influence of light on meditation. She reads many academic articles about how light can influence the relaxing and the activating atmosphere of a room. She mainly wants to focus on first calming the one who is going to meditate and later facilitate his focus while meditating. I find it impressive how she appropriates the knowledge to formulate her own criteria for her own scenarios as you can read here. By still acquiring more knowledge, Danielle retains the deepening of the content of her vision.

NoSQL database

The complexity of the project, I described to you last time, is also noticeable in the setup of the database. Simon de Bakker from ProtoSpace is working hard on the NoSQL database. I learned that this database consists of many different tables. Every table describes one aspect of the whole, such as sensor, session or user. Every table is connected to other tables. That is the point where it gets so complex that I find it difficult to explain. But I understood that it connects for example the user with the suit he is working with. The table about the sensor is first in general about all sensors. When it comes to the suit, as you can see in the following picture, it describes among other things the id of the suit and which specific sensor sits in that suit. When it detects a wrong value the data base learns that one of the sensors does not work. The user first has to know in which suit the specific sensor sits. So that he can later see which sensor it is and how he has to work on it. This is only one example of the correlations which have to be programmed in the NoSQL database, which makes it that complex.

NoSQL data base design

NoSQL data base design

Wire frames

Anne (Protospace intern) is working on the wire frames. I brainstormed with Danielle about the design of the screens. By formulating the criteria, it gets clearer to me what the message should be when the user opens the platform. The atmosphere of a zen meditation and the feeling of calming down do not have to be present in the design. That is something you experience while meditating. Via the platform Danielle wants to transfer the idea of an experimenter kit, tools and functionality. The wire frames have to work as a manual for the kit.

example of the wire frames

example of the visual design

Button ring

To optimise the comfort and the functionality of the Silence Suit we worked further on the button ring to mark a moment in the timeline of your meditation session. I think now we got the most optimal version of the ring. We succeeded in making a ring from conductive fabric functioning as a button sensor. So that the position of your hands do not matter.

button ring from conductive cloth

button ring from conductive fabric

Anyway, you can push the button without much effort while meditating. In the following picture you see the data of our experiment. When you push the button the value minimises. Even if the sensor is a little unstable, you can see clearly the marked moments in your timeline. I am satisfied seeing the success of developing the ring over many weeks in data.

marker button data

marker button data

Generally, I enjoy the moments when our experiments yield insights which bring the Silence Suit to the next level, so that it takes more and more form. Especially, the inspiring conversations with Danielle help me to understand the context and the correlations of the project and the project itself. Personally, it brings me further in my positioning as an artist by comparing my practice to hers.

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Things come together in Twente

Last week we went to University Twente to meet Vera de Pont, our designer, and Klaas and Stephen, two of the students of DesignLab, working on the electronics and the software of the Silence Suit. It was a very exciting day to me. Before, I did not really know what to expect from the meeting. But I planned to take the role of an observer reflecting on how a meeting with people from different kind of disciplines proceeds. I have obtained interesting observations I want to share with you in the following.

Meeting in Twente - Vera, Danielle, Klaas, Stephen

Meeting in Twente – Vera, Danielle, Klaas, Stephen

Network
When we arrived, Danielle introduced Vera and me to Frank Kresin, the managing director of DesignLab. He warmly welcomed us. He asked us: ‘What is your background?’ I explained where I am from: ‘I am studying fine arts at the art academy St.Joost in Breda. I am finishing my final year and among other things I am doing my internship at Danielle’s Awareness Lab.’ He smiled warmly and said something like it was nice to meet. Vera’s answer was much more professional. She really explained what her work is about and which techniques she is familiar with: ‘At the moment, I am focussing on 3D printing’, she said, ‘so I am especially engaged in the graphical side of design.’ Frank seemed interested and wished us a productive meeting.

After we walked away, I wondered what his question was about. It was all about networking. Danielle explained later that he is into connecting people with each other. I guess that Vera is now saved in his memory and he associates her with the words she dropped within this short encounter. When somebody asks him the next time for a designer engaged in 3D print he will think about her. When it comes to my person, he only associates the intern of Danielle. That is neither good or bad, but the next time somebody asks me such a question I will know what this question is about. I need to name the core concept of my artistic practice in a few words.

I think it is good to be aware of such behavioural codes in the art world as well as in your daily life. As a child you have to learn what the answer should be if somebody asks you ‘How are you?’ We should say: ‘Good. How are you?’ At a certain point those behavioural codes go unknowingly. At the moment I am still the growing child. I am really thankful that I am learning from this internship about the behavioural codes in the art world.

In the course of the meeting I found it really interesting how an interdisciplinary collaboration proceeds. The Silence Suit has to meet many requirements such as beautiful look, stable data and convenient fit. In the following I will reflect on the different kinds of roles of the designer, the technician and the artist.

The role of the designer
Vera de Pont arrived with a big suitcase. ‘I thought it would be better to take some swatches with me, so that we can try different things. The suit itself is not that big.’, she says and laughs. She was well prepared. When we entered the meeting room she immediately unpacked her suitcase and presented the different parts of the suit on a table. I really loved to see how attentive she treated the suit she has made.

Preparing the suit for fitting - by Vera de Pont

Preparing the suit for fitting – by Vera de Pont

The first half of the meeting was about the progress of the electronics. She had many practical questions for the technicians about the look of the badge and the microcontroller container, so that she could include it in the following sketch of the suit. She properly wrote down every information she got about the electronics. In that first half of the meeting, the role of the designer was to understand as much as possible of the electronics to optimise the design of the suit.

Danielle fits the bottom layer - looking for solutions with Vera de Pont

Danielle fits the bottom layer – looking for solutions with Vera de Pont

The second half of the meeting was really about the fit of the suit. Vera seemed very excited when Danielle fit the suit. ‘It is so nice to see it on you.’ She said with a great smile on her face. It fits very well and she seems pleased that Danielle likes it. We have to think of each sensor, where it should be placed and how the cable connects to the microcontroller. Vera came up with new ideas how we could bring the electronics and the design together until everyone agreed. Her arguments were mainly about the look and that it should be as comfortable as possible for the user to maintain the suit. I was really impressed how focused she stayed during the whole meeting. In the second half of the meeting the role of the designer really seemed to be a living source of inspiration. She really thought in options instead of problems.

Danielle fits the suit - by Vera de Pont

Danielle fits the suit – by Vera de Pont

The role of the technician
Stephen and Klaas are both master students of University Twente participating in the DesignLab working on the software and the electronics of the Silence Suit. The DesignLab seemed to feel like home to them and I experienced how deep they are into the subject. They even worked through their lunch break. Before we met, they have worked many hours to optimise the construction of the badge and the microcontroller PCBs. They were able to minimise the number of plugs. Stephen and Klaas seemed happy about the outcome of their research.

Sketch of the electronics - by Klaas

Sketch of the electronics – by Klaas

Finally, they got a nice sketch of the electronics. But still, Vera and Danielle had some questions about optimising the electronics. For example, a screw connection of the plugs would be better than a clicking one. The argumentation of the technicians was mainly based on what the market offers. If there are no screw connections for that kind of plugs, they cannot do anything about it. But they were also trying to understand Danielle’s vision of the suit to bring it to a higher level on the field of electronics. They came up with the idea to change the light sensor with the wind sensor on the badge, so that the shadow of the plug will not influence the data. I enjoyed to see how they tried to think in the artist’s shoes.

Danielle consults about the electronics with Klaas and Stephen

Danielle consults about the electronics with Klaas and Stephen

The role of the technician stayed the furthest away from me. I was really impressed how much they know about their subject, but I only understood some of it. Still, I see the role of technician as a really practical one. In contrast to a designer or an artist who create things, the technician’s choice is more depending on existing things.

The role of the artist
I think the role of the artist is a really personal choice. Every artist has to formulate his own criteria. In the following I will try to characterise the role of the artist as I observed it in the case of Danielle during the meeting with Vera, Stephen and Klaas. Danielle herself told me once that she sees her own artistic practice in bringing things together. Her personal fascination leads to the vision of a project. In this case her vision is about Hermitage 3.0. The role of the artist here is to plan smaller steps to realise that vision. One of these steps is the Silence Suit as a part of Hermitage 3.0. Within that project the artist has to look for experts and people she wants to collaborate with. That is why we are sitting in Twente around a table with Vera, Klaas and Stephen.

During that meeting, Danielle kept on task all the time. But for me it seems very difficult to find the balance between practical choices and visual choices without losing your vision. For example, when Klaas told her that there is no screw connection for that kind of plug, she did not want to believe it and asked him to research once more. She asked it in a very respectful way, but I witnessed that an artist does not want to depend on existing things. Maybe Danielle’s role as an artist is comparable to a tinkerer.

Danielle presents the bottom layer of the suit by Vera de Pont

Danielle presents the bottom layer of the suit by Vera de Pont

Generally speaking, I think that an artist has to offer alternatives to existing structures. In my opinion, Danielle contributes valuable aspects by collaborating with different kind of disciplines. She creates her own universe by utilising different kind of research as a source of inspiration. The collaborations and the diversity of sources of inspiration make that she comes to a vision which could not have been thought out by one person.

To conclude this eventful day, it can be said that I acquired an in-depth view on how a collaboration in that professional environment looks like. I have especially learned a lot about the role of an artist by seeing how Danielle defines her artistic practice. That helps me to think about my future position in the art world.

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Design Lab nirvana

Ready, set, go!

After a difficult start things are really starting to move. Since a couple of weeks all the team members are working on their individual tasks: the database design, the interaction design, suit design, PCB design and experiment design. The project feels like a sort of organism that grows organically in different directions. I keep track of what everybody is up to via Skype or phone but nothing beats a face to face meeting. Last week we had such a meeting at the Design Lab Twente.

Teamwork, photo Meike Kurella

Teamwork, photo Meike Kurella

From 12 o’ clock onwards the Lab had kindly reserved a room for our team to collaborate. Present were Klaas and Stephen students from the TU Twente, designer Vera and my intern, art student Meike.

Klaas and Stephen have been working hard on the PCB design. Their main task is to simplify the design and make it more robust. Vera had been working on the first silhouette of the suit. Our goal for the afternoon was to check if things were still matching up.

Paper sensor, photo Vera de Pont

Paper sensor, photo Vera de Pont

Match maker

The boys walked me through their designs. We were able to clarify things for each other and we spend quite some time on the plug layout and the interaction with them.
I’m learning more and more to think like a designer by assuming the role of the user and by quick prototyping of problems and interaction hiccups. I really loved the way Vera and I found solutions by taking a different angle, using paper, key-cards and even a jojo to make future usage tangible.

Key-card as batch, photo Vera de Pont

Key-card as batch, photo Vera de Pont

Vera and I also discussed the fit and aesthetics. Wearing the suit has to be a pleasant experience that has to be put to the test. At the end of the afternoon Stephen said: You must like the way it fits, you’ve been wearing the suit all afternoon. And he is right, it does feel good to wear it.

Storing wires, photo Vera de Pont

Storing wires, photo Vera de Pont

I also loved the way in which we all are working towards something which still isn’t completely clear to any of us. I use intuition, faith and persistence to keep trying to bring the different worlds together. I’m discovering that this is what comes natural to me. Merging these worlds, looking for solutions to make the most of a problem and connecting different ways of thinking to come up with something that surprises myself.

Hardware and design, photo Vera de Pont

Hardware and design, photo Vera de Pont

Calling

I started this project with the aspiration to become a modern hermit. But more and more I’m beginning to see that I am made for teamwork, that I love to inspire and be inspired. Nothing beats creating something new together. I suppose I’ll be the first part-time hermit.

Maya cabin hackathon

Since this year my projects Meditation Lab and Silence Suit are part of Hack the Body program initiated by the art-science lab Baltan. They want to combine different programs so they suggested that Hack the Body should work together with people from the Age of Wonderland program.
That meant I could work with Branly again. I met him last year and that was a very impressive experience. Branly works with people using ancient Maya spirituality.
At the same time I could try out the Sensiks cabin. With this cabin you can create multi-sensory experiences. This is very similar to what I want to do in my Hermitage 3.0 project. (This will be a space where I can optimise meditation by changing the environment and influencing the senses.)
I brought my Silence Suit which already has a lot of working sensors. We could use the suit to log biometric and environmental data and see how they are influenced by the actuators in the Sensiks cabin.
The main aim of the hackathon was to explore if ancient Maya culture and rituals can be transferred to a high tech environment. The team members were David, Branly, Masha, later to be joined by Michel.

Day 1: exploring
The first afternoon Branly explained the Tuj/Temazcal. It is used in a purifying rebirth ritual. It is a small dome-like structure that is heated by hot stones and steam. The experience resembles a sauna. The rebirth ritual is multi-sensory too: touch (temperature, rubbing with twigs and salt), smell: different herbs and resins, taste: hot drinks (herbal infusions, cacao, honey). Sound: beating of a drum, like heartbeat. Vision is excluded mostly. The Tuj is dark except for red hot glowing stones. We decided to take this as a starting point for building our experience.

Tuj/Temazcal Wikipedia image

The Tuj is located on a beach or in the woods. A quiet, relaxing space. The ritual isn’t limited to experience in the dome. Preparations start days before. The space around the dome is also part of the ritual. For example the structure has a low door so you have to get on all fours to enter. This immediately takes you back to your childhood.

Sensiks control panel photo by Masha Ru

Sensiks control panel photo by Masha Ru

The Sensiks cabin has lots of different actuators: smell, airflow, light, sound, temperature and VR. Everybody had a test ride. We all felt the cabin was rather clinical. We wanted to connect it to the environment. Make it part of a bigger ritual like the Maya rebirth ritual.

Day 2: concept development
Next day we were joined by other Hack the Body participants and hackers. One of them was Michel with whom I collaborate on the Silence Suit.
The whole group had a very interesting discussion about what an experience actually is and where it is experienced. Is it meaningful to recreate an experience that can never match the real thing? The most interesting would be to create something that can’t be experienced in the real world. We wanted to work on changing our state of mind through bodily experiences.

Another level of conciousness... Photo by Masha Ru

Another level of conciousness… Photo by Masha Ru

Day 3: design and experiments
The Maya team was joined by technology wizard Michel. We decided that we did not want to mimic the actual sensory experiences but try to induce a state of mind, another level of consciousness. We used these keywords as our guideline: womb, unknown, subconscious, abstract and random, rhythm. The next step was to translate these abstract concepts into an experience in the cabin. Actuators that we could use: smoke, heat, sound, red and blue lights.

Michel at work Photo by Masha Ru

Michel at work Photo by Masha Ru

In the womb the developing child experiences the heartbeat and breathing of the mother. In the rebirth ritual they make use of a drum to simulate that heartbeat. We wanted to use our own heartbeat and breathing using life data from the Silence Suit. The Sensiks cabin would provide the feedback through sound and light and influence the user. We did little experiments to try out the effects of hearing your heartbeat and breathing, using smoke, scent, heating the cabin, using airflow, etc. It was promising.

Experimenting with sound Photo by Masha Ru

Experimenting with sound Photo by Masha Ru

Day 4: building and presentation
We wrote a scenario of the ritual which started and ended outside of the cabin. Our aim was to slow heart-rate by manipulating the feedback. Just like the peaceful heart-beat of the mother will quiet the unborn child. This is also a way to connect to the heartbeat of the cosmos.
From this came the idea to limit the experience to 260 heart-beats (there are 260 days in a Maya year). By slowing your heart-rate you can make the experience last longer. Four stages of 65 beats would offer different experiences aimed at first going inward and then returning to the outside again.

The ritual starts outside Photo by Masha Ru

The ritual starts outside Photo by Masha Ru

The main challenge was to get the Sensiks and Silent Suit systems working together and to time the events to the users’ heart-rate. We didn’t even have time to test the final scenario.
One of the jury members agreed to be the guinea-pig. And even though we didn’t manage to manipulate the heart-rate feedback we could hear her heart-beat slowing down as she progressed through the experience. Later she described that she could turn inwards and let go of the world outside the cabin. This was exactly what we were aiming for.

Presenting "260 beats womb reset" Photo by Stellarc

Presenting “260 beats womb reset” Photo by Stellarc

Some conclusions
For me the “260 beats womb reset” experience was a proof of concept. That you can actually change a state of mind through relatively simple means (light, sound, smell and airflow) using physiological data as input. An interesting insight is that it is important to make the experience bigger than the box. To create a larger ritual that is not isolated from the rest of the environment. The user must be lured and triggered to actually use the cabin, it must make sense in the context of life.

It was a great inspiration to work with Branly, David, Masha, Michel, Fred (the inventor of the Sensiks) and all the other participants. Michel did a great job of getting everything to work in time for the presentation and combining the systems. We’ve been able to create a spiritual experience using technology. It will be worthwhile exploring this further. I feel a step closer to realizing my Hermitage 3.0.

Edit >> In addition to this report there is an interview with me by Olga Mink from Baltan Laboratories all about the hackathon. Included there is a very nice video impression of the whole week.

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Virtual View: Literature research

To get a better idea of which type of landscapes and sound have the biggest effect on (experienced) relaxation explorative research is necessary. At the end of January I started the research trajectory for the project. This is a collaboration with students from the minor “Active ageing” from the Avans Hogeschool. The three students are: Simone van den Broek, Carlos Ramos Rodriguez and Denise Hereijgers. There is support from two teachers from Avans: Marleen Mares and Lowie van Doninck.

Both the students and I started on a literature study. The main questions being:

Which visual elements in a landscape and what landscape properties have the most effect on relaxation and heart rate variability?

Which nature sounds and sound properties have the most effect on relaxation and heart rate variability?

Which emotional, physical and cognitive aspects influence stress and relaxation in relation to nature and landscapes?

To get the students started I made a list of tags to search on: Environmental psychology, Stress, Arousal, Heartrate Variability (HRV), Heartrate coherence, Relaxation, Landscape Aesthetic Quality, View, Landscape preference, Environmental aesthetics, Restorative environments, Attention restoration theory (ART), Stress recovery, Sounds, Birdsong, Stress Recovery Theory (SRT), Skin Conductancy Level, Effortless attention, Soft fascination, Aesthetic, levels of complexity, pattern, depth, surface texture, mystery within an environment, acoustic properties of animal sounds: smoothness, intensity, pitch, biophilia.

There are a couple of authorities in this field: Roger Ulrich and Kaplan & Kaplan. They have done extensive research on visual landscape preferences and restorative properties of nature. While the students search was broader my main focus was on environmental psychology. There has been quite a lot of research on the effect of viewing landscapes and natural scenes versus urban scenes. A lot less research has gone into the effect of nature sounds on health and relaxation.

From Human responses to vegetation and landscapes Roger S. Ulrich (1985)

An example of a preferred landscape from the article Human responses to vegetation and landscapes Roger S. Ulrich (1985). This is the kind of landscapes we’ll use in our experiment.

For me this was my first experience of reading scientific articles on one theme. Some of the findings conflict and I had a hard time combining the theories and findings into a coherent story. (A more official article will follow later.) One of the students suggested looking at the virtual aspect of the piece and how that influences the experience. I hadn’t thought of that so that was valuable input to explore. Most difficult is to draw the line at one point and start thinking about the actual experiment.

For our experiment we’ll be using sets of static images accompanied by existing nature sounds. Three sets of landscapes are based on preferred and fascinating aspects of landscapes as researched by Ulrich and Kaplan & Kaplan. One set of landscapes consists preferred landscape scenes but in the form of abstract paintings. A contrast set consists of neutral hospital interiors. For the sounds we have chosen different combinations of water and bird song sound. As a contrast we’ll be using sounds from a hospital ward. More about the actual experiment design and consideration in the next blog.

Collaboration…

During the I-machine festival in Oldenburg, Germany I met Laura Beloff, who has lots of experience in working with wearables. As it happens she is heading a research and art project on climate change, in Lapland, Finland. At a later stage they’ll also be developing wearables for measuring pollution. She’s interested in collaborating with me. I’ll be keeping her up to date of my progress and findings and she’ll see if she can provide help if needed later on. She’ll also be informing me of requirements they will be formulating together with the scientists. I can see if I can integrate them in my wearable.

With the wearable they also want to promote Citizen Science which is letting the general public collect data for scientific purposes using for example their mobile phones. So I suppose I could fit in there nicely. She already had some tips for me. I should use a Symbian phone with integrated GPS. For her projects she used a Python script to communicate with a server. She said that Processing wasn’t very good yet in the mobile department. So I have good reason to speed up my purchase of a new phone/PDA :)