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.




science hack day

Last weekend I took part in the first Dutch Science Hack Day in Eindhoven. I had posted my idea on the forum and was hoping for a nice group of experts to work with. The idea was to create a mood enhancer. When you’re sad it could help you be become happy again. When your happy you could help others who are sad to improve their mood or support them. It will consist of a) mood detection, b) mood changing, c) mood sharing.

On the forum one participant, Siddhesh (PhD student TU/e), had already expressed his interest. After I’d introduced my idea I was joined by Leonid and Huang-Ming both students at industrial design at the TU/e and Ketan also a PhD student at the TU/e. We were later joined by Iwan an interior architect. So we had a nice mixed group from different countries.

I was pleasantly surprised at how swiftly we decided on the use case and technologies to be used. Everybody was very eager to start to work and do so in their field of expertise. We decide to use two hardware sensors (heart-rate and skin conductance) to provide the level of arousal and one on-line software sensor,, that uses portraits to classify moods. The heart-rate sensor was already finished because we could reuse it from another project by Leonid and Huang-Ming but there was still a lot of work to be done.

For output we wanted to do something with light and sound as they are the least obtrusive when you’re working. We wanted to work with a physical object to display the mood and also enhance it and to use Twitter to share moods. We had difficulty to decide if the visualisation should just be personal feedback or should also display a friends’ status. As time was limited we decided on just feedback. The application moved from enhancement to awareness of moods which was enough for just one weekend.

I took on the task of implementing the valance through the API. It would all have to be done in 24 hours so that was pretty challenging. Registering at was easy. The API was pretty straight forward and only later I discovered the it could not just detect smiling or not smiling but a whole set of moods: happy/sad/angry/surprised/neutral value and confidence, based on the expression of the person in the the photo. There’s was also a lot of other info to be gotten from the image using the faces.detect method, the accuracy of the results was surprising, even under less favourable light circumstances. The main hurdle was uploading an image for and keeping it in sync with the rest of the application. In the end we used the local Dropbox folder to store the web cam captures and letting Dropbox sync with the web version, the URL and file name are used in the request.

The others worked on building the Galvanic Skin Response sensor, the lamp object and the integration of the heart-rate sensor and software for the new purpose.

We used Processing as the main language to read the values from the sensors, connect to the web and drive the output. The sensors write their current values to a file separate and one script reads all the sensor input to generate a visual output, change the colour and position of the lamp and change the sound.

The main application shows a changing, interactive landscape of lines and circles. The   amount of arousal the corresponding valence determine:

  • The position and colour of the circle. When you click on a circle the web cam image and heart-rate value is shown, allowing you to trace back how you felt during the day.
  • The position of and colour of the light object
  • The sound being played

Iwan made a nice presentation and we were finished just in time. The presentation went well and the jury picked our design as the best in Overall happy living category! That was just the icing on the cake of great and inspiring weekend.

Science Hack Day Eindhoven 2012 winners compilation from M.A.D. ART on Vimeo.

Being one of the winners we also presented at the Internet of Things event at the High Tech campus in Eindhoven.

MADlab kindly supplied me with an artist residency to cover expenses.