nahbaste

new media artist

[e]MO

March 2024

[e]MO is a prototype for a tactile companion. It is built using a modular structure that allows multiple configurations: it can be used as a wearable or it can simply rest on your desk.
[e]MO records tactile interactions throughout your day and translates them into a 3D avatar. These build up over time as a way to create a personal emotional diary.

This was a group project developed in the context of the AcrossRCA course at the Royal College of Art alongside with:
•Oghenerume Egbeniyoko (MA Innovation Design Engineering)
•Heather Gibson (MA Ceramics)
•Aimar Shaw-Fernandez (MA Visual Communication)
•Zijian Wang (MA Interior Design)

Ideation

We started with a provocation: we wanted to explore tactility in the virtual space. We found the idea incredibly appealing, since it posed a multi-dimensional challenge. On one hand, there is a clear absence of the tactile in digital experiences, and that has to do mostly with limits to technical capability. Haptic technology is still very early and has not been productized properly. But this technical limitation engenders a conceptual one: in a societal level, we have no ways of digitally conveying tactile experiences, even as indexes: there isn’t a shared visual language in the digital space to convey information along the lines of “even though you can not touch this, it would feel this way”. Touch is semiotically unmapped in the digital space.


The digital space would seem to have been conformed then as a place where tactility does not exist; since it cannot be reproduced we’ve not only decided that it is not an affordance: it simply does not belong. This initial observation sparked a set of open questions: How could we translate tactility into digital experience? What role is there for touching and being touched? How can it interact with other senses in the digital realm?


After the initial round of talks, we reached an insight: that we could use this disconnection, this lack of context of touch to our advantage. This is because touch is deeply rooted in our experience: it is pre-verbal, and has effects that run deeper than what we consciously perceive. Touch is a vehicle for emotion, often at an unconscious level. And since touch is semiotically unmapped in the virtual space, we can produce representations for it without the need to label or explain what these representations are referring to. Because they are not pointing at a labelled emotion, they are pointing at a feeling.

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Tactility and Material exploration

Our first approach was research into tactile interaction beyond screens. We had plans for building a touch-interactive prototype, so we wanted to get a sense of the kinds of marks our hands could make. We tested with three kinds of clay, each with a different level of plasticity.


We discussed how emotional states could be communicated through the marks left in the material. We also noted how materials that give way when pressed encourage fidgeting, and how that can be a vehicle for emotion.

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Prototyping

We then set out to design a prototype. We liked tubular shapes and we thought it best if it could be modular. We designed a modular system with only two kinds of pieces, which could provide the affordances that we'd outlined during the previous research.


We 3D printed the design and played around with some configurations until we found a length that seemed appropriate. This would provide us with a malleable body that was still rigid at some point. We settled on neoprene as a textile material to wrap around the skeletal shape. We chose this fabric because it afforded applying pressure and it would allow us to place sensors beneath it.

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Emotional Moulding Workshop

In order to gain some insights related to emotional expression through color and shape, we ran an open pop up at the Royal College of Art's Dyson building. We asked participants to try and express their emotional state using balls of play doh.


Here we validated a key insight: many people came back with their play doh and simply said “It’s hard to put into words how I feel, but this describes it”. More on this in this article's conclusion.

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App

We designed and built a WebApp as a demonstration of how this platform would work: the tactile prototype would record users touch interaction and translate it into 3D shapes, as an emotional avatar. Users would log in to the platform and see a diary of their interactions, and expression of their emotional states throughout the days. The app refrains from tagging the emotional state, instead focusing on form and color as means of expressing the data.

Conclusion

Finally, I’d like to point out what for me is the most valuable aspect of our project: how it abstains from tagging the emotional responses. [e]MO understands that the emotional landscape is complex and that tactility is too abstract a realm to venture into creating a one-on-one mapping with labelled emotional states.


We also think that it is not our place to tell the user how they feel, but rather to create a tool that enables users to explore their own emotional states and their fluctuations, in the manner they see the most fit. I personally think this aligns with a contemporary conception of design products, with the practice of design being less focused on the creation of a predefined experience and more on how to design the conditions to enable people to make their own change. This design approach is also the main feature I take with me to my practice: a shift towards a journey and practice focused design. Design as a setting of conditions for significant change to happen, keeping user agency as its center focus.

©2024 Nahuel Basterretche