Category Archives: issue 12

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Legacy in the Pocket: Reactivating Collective Memory by Co-Design

Could design co-exist with a social-participatory approach? It is a complicated issue, yet it seems only possible in a case where consumers are not seen as passive recipients but rather as co-designers. The Turkish designer Sölen Kipoz seems to have found an interesting device for the involvement of user in the process of design. Her design, a rag doll, not only involves the participants in the design process but also induces them to transcribe their memories onto the product. The first series of the rag dolls exhibited as a pilot project during the art triennial, PortIzmir 2014, Turkey, were carried out with working women from Odemis Cooperation, a rural town near Izmir famed by its traditional hand-woven silk, a local economy. Under the  curation of Slovenian art historian Sasa Nabergoj, Sölen Kipoz conceptualized her idea in coordination with Slovenian design trio-Oloop ( Jasminka Fercek, Katja Burger, Tjasa Bavcon) and Mine Ovacık from Turkey in the frame of the fieldwork Slow Design: Body/ Clothing/ Memory.

As a designer the cycles of the female body and their interrelation to body/memory are themes Kipoz frequently dwells upon. In a novel she read, by Clarissa P. Estés’s; Women Who Run with the Wolves, Myths and Stories of the Wild Woman Archetype, she was moreover thrilled by the wild women of pagan cultures who did not forsake their immediate and intimate relationship with nature. Especially inspired by a tale which tells the story of a girl who matures with the help of a rag doll in her pocket, a legacy from her mother, Kipoz then wanted to design for the women, a productive tool that would liberate them by assuming them within production, and by doing so enable them to transfer their female wisdom onto their production; a reproducible, spreadable object.
Thus Kipoz comes up with her rag dolls that enable bodily memory’s transfer to clothing. These are stereotypical, template-like dolls, composed of a single piece of fabric and shaped up with a few stitches. This uniform, primitive design of the dolls await the contribution of the participants to play their game; deconstructing the role given to women by modernity and letting the participants reconstruct it in their own terms. In this phase the women workers from Odemis cooperation came into stage as co-designers, it is not a mere coincidence that Kipoz first wanted to collaborate with a group of women that sustain a local economy. During the workshop design decisions were taken together, echoing the principles of slow design, and moreover questioning the role given to designer as the autonomous creator by challenging the designer ego.

Furthermore, this social participatory approach of Kipoz’s rag dolls unveils a hidden past; the various body parts of the template-like doll activate and inscribe certain memories of the participants. Each participant then shapes the doll according to her own life story; charging it with their own character and thus finalizing the design.
For instance the rag doll named Sad Bride is made to bear a reluctant wedding dress; created by a participant who got married without a bride’s gown, at the age of thirteen, and became a mother at the age of eighteen. The Bouquet of Flowers apparently bears the hope to bloom again, leaving the sad past behind, however it is added that the brown cord represents the things that cannot be changed. Another woman made her rag doll wear a swimsuit, expressing a longing for the sea because she never had the chance to swim in the sea as a child. The wedding dress, the brown cord, the swimsuit and many others are all interventions of participants on the doll’s surface for the inscription of their memory which completes Kipoz’s design. In the outcome of the installation we see Kipoz’s rag doll disappear and turn into something different, an almost living object that directs our looks to memories; a look that testifies to the repression of the female memory.

When speaking of dolls their intimate relation with pagan cultures come to mind. Such cultures which have not lost a direct connection with nature are full with animist rituals, that objects also have souls. In this context the rag dolls may be understood as objects transcribing this repressed female memory through generations and may even be seen as entities animating legacies, as the name of this installation suggests; Legacy in the Pocket.  Kipoz’s rag dolls allow an instance to deconstruct the role given to the female figure, usually embodied by dolls, and let the participants reconstruct it in their own terms. In doing so they become devices which aid women in activating, through generations, a collective memory pertaining to a lost sense of wholeness, sacrificed to modernity. This common legacy we are reminded of with the soul breathed into the rag dolls binds women, through collective memory, to a world where fertility and nature are intrinsic to one another. A world held by female attributes, privileged but partially lost. Once again underlined by such ritualistic traits, Kipoz’s design is not aimed at subjective consumption but rather for the interaction of as large a community could be.

It is hard not to think what such a social responsible approach towards design can help reveal in many other groups of participants. The design of the rag dolls is so simplistic that a mere pattern suffices to recreate the dolls anywhere. The project is thus open to a social interactive process. The Legacy in the Pocket with its feminist-deconstructive agenda acts thus as a pilot project where Kipoz handles the problematic of how consumers can be made into co-designers by allowing them to co-exist by producing.
Kipoz could well have expressed the repressive female memory as part of her own artistic quest but instead she consulted design for the dissemination of a much larger project. The design of the dolls which is pluralistic rather than unique, attests to a reproducible, sharable outcome. A doll, an object that is complete with the user/participant’s internevtion, thus built by him/her but induced by the designer.

Title of the Project: Legacy in the Pocket
Exhibited in: PortIzmir3 International Contemporary Art Triennial
Venue: Turk-Austro Tobacco Warehouse, İzmir
Dates: March-June 2014
Photography: Ersan Çeliktaş*

Information on Dolls
Doll design: Şölen Kipöz
Clothing Design: Şölen Kipöz**, Co Designers 1***, Co-designers2****


*Izmir University of Economics, Faculty of Fine Arts and Design, Photographer Technician, Design Studies Programme master student.
**Izmir University of Economics, Department of Fashion and Textile Design, Assoc.Prof.Dr.
***Ödemiş Women’s Cooperative.
****İzmir Women Entrepreneurs Association.


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Information design to support the analysis of organized crime in Northern Italy


The phenomenon of organized crime in Italy is current and urgent.
This article talks about one of the possible ways of how design can contribute to the study of such a complex issue.
The described project, a visual analysis of the organized crime in the Northern Italy, aims to be a valuable tool to support the study of the phenomenon, providing to the users (journalists and academics) the ability to analyze the data extracted from the annual reports of the Direzione Nazionale Antimafia. The extractions of data were made possible thanks to the collaboration with the ItaliaNLP Lab. The research covers the time period between 2000 and 2012 and allows the analysis of trends and changes over time in nine provinces in Northern Italy. The design process was characterized by a continuous and constant dialogue with the users, so as to evaluate the usefulness, clarity and value of the project in all its phases. The result of the process of research and design is an interface that allows the users to explore the visualized data.

1. Supporting the study of the phenomenon. The users’ demands.

A serious problem in Italy is the phenomenon of organized crime. Besides, the issue of organized crime in Northern Italy has been controversial for decades.
Faced with such a complex problem, I wondered how a designer could provide support to the study of the phenomenon. One of the possible answers came from the field of information design.
For these reasons I decided to realize my M.Sc. Thesis: an information design project dealing with the phenomenon of organized crime in Northern Italy.
The target audience of the project is specific: journalist, academics and experts. These users already know the issue, so I decided to realize a tool to support them in their studies and researches.
During all the design phases I was in contact with journalists and experts, in order to constantly evaluate the usefulness of the project. Every visualization has been checked by them and by my supervisor Paolo Ciuccarelli.[1]
In particular, in the first phase of the project I contacted some journalists so as to understand their actual needs.
From these meetings a few common points are emerged:
– visualizing the names linked to the phenomenon;
– individuating and geolocating the main categories of committed crimes;
– linking the names and the crimes.

2. Extracting the data from the sources

In order to realize the information visualization tool to give answer to these demands, I had to individuate a source from which to extract data.
I decided to use an official source: the annual reports of the Direzione Nazionale Antimafia.[2]
These reports contain a chapter dealing with the situation in the main Italian cities: I decided to analyze the paragraphs regarding the Northern cities.
In this phase I needed a tool to automatically extract the data. For this reason I contacted the “Antonio Zampolli” Institute of Computational Linguistics and started a collaboration with the ItaliaNLP Lab[3], a research laboratory that “gathers researchers, postdocs and students from computational linguistics, computer science and linguistics who work on developing resources and algorithms for processing and understanding human languages, with particular attention to the Italian language.”
I selected and prepared the files for the data extraction: the paragraphs dealing with the situation in nine cities in Northern Italy: Bologna, Brescia, Firenze, Genova, Milano, Torino, Trento, Trieste, Venezia. I used the annual reports of the time period 2000-2012.
The ItaliaNLP Lab researchers performed the extraction for my analysis. They used T2K (Text-To-Knowledge)[4], a tool that allows you to automatically extract linguistic and domain-specific information from text.
During this phase, 3.999 pages have been analyzed and 25.935 words have been extracted. I personally inspected and cleaned the files using Microsoft Excel.
The extracted data were divided in three main categories: named entities (the names), domain terminology (the specific terms) and matrix of distances (the proximity in the text between names and terms) [Fig.2]. I used from the domain terminology only the terms referring to the committed crimes.
For every term was indicated the frequency in the documents; for the names entities and the specific terms was also indicated the relevance in the document, calculated as tf-idf value.

“The tf-idf value increases proportionally to the number of times a word appears in the document, but is offset by the frequency of the word in the corpus, which helps to adjust for the fact that some words appear more frequently in general.”[5]

3. The role of design: the visualizations and the interface

At this stage I had all the data I needed, so I began to design the final project.
I decided to realize an interface that allows the users to explore the visualized data. [Fig.3]
This phase was characterized by a constant dialogue with a few possible users as well, so as to validate the clarity of the project and of the visualizations.
The interface is divided into three sections: Persone (People), Vicinanze (Proximities in the text) and Crimini (Crimes). Each section has different views.
All the visualizations have a few common characteristics:
– each term is represented by a geometrical element;
– the size of the element indicates the frequency in the document;
– regarding the names and the crimes, the distance of the element from the center indicates the relevance of the term in the document.

The People section contains:
All the Names view: all the extracted names, organized in alphabetical order or ordered by frequency; [Fig.4]
Geographical view: the names geolocated in the selected cities and divided by year; [Fig.5,6]
Temporal view: a comprehensive view that shows all the geolocated names and all the years. [Fig.7]

The Proximities section is composed of:
All the Groups view: this view shows all the groups that have been individuated during the extraction. Every group contains the terms close to each other within the text; [Fig.8]
Groups by Year view: the groups divided by year. [Fig.9]

The Crimes section contains:
All the Crimes view: this view shows all the crimes extracted in the documents, ordered by frequency or by category. I grouped the terms into 12 categories: public procurement, money laundering, extortion, gambling, illegal immigration, enslavement, kidnapping, prostitution, arms trafficking, human trafficking, waste trafficking, and drug trafficking. [Fig.10]
Geographical view: the crimes geolocated in the cities and divided by year; [Fig.11,12]
Temporal view: a comprehensive view with all the geolocated crimes and all the years. [Fig.13]

This interface allows the user to explore and analyze the extracted data.
When the user hovers the mouse pointer over an element, all the information about the term are visualized. [Fig. 14] Besides, clicking on the element is it possible to access additional information continuing the exploration, so as not to interrupt the work flow.
The project has not been realized yet.
Anyhow, I showed all the screens of the interface to some of the possible users: their comments were extremely useful to obtain a clear final result. Most of the journalists I met weren’t accustomed to refer to data visualization projects so it was very important to me to focus on the immediacy and the clarity of the visualizations.
There are a lot of projects that already use complex data in order to analyze and understand crime: this is one of the many examples of how information design can be useful to support the analysis and the study of complex phenomena.


Bibliographical references

Bonin F., Dell’Orletta F., Montemagni S., Venturi G. (2012). Lessico settoriale e lessico comune nell’estrazione di terminologia specialistica da corpora di dominio. In Ferreri, S. (edited by), Lessico e lessicologia. Società di linguistica italiana.

Dell’Orletta F., Lenci A., Marchi S., Montemagni S., Pirrelli V., Venturi G. (2008). Dal testo alla conoscenza e ritorno: estrazione terminologica e annotazione semantica di basi documentali di dominio. AIDAinformazioni: Rivisa di Scienze dell’informazione, vol. 26 (1-2), 197-218.

Dell’Orletta F., Venturi G., Cimino A., Montemagni S. (2014). T2K2: a System for Automatically Extracting and Organizing Knowledge from Texts. Proceedings of 9th International Conference on Language Resources and Evaluation (LREC-2014), Reykjavik, Iceland, 26-31 May 2014. Curran Associates, Inc.


Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

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An Ontology of Render Ghosts


This paper will cover the topic of render ghosts and will discuss their role in our world, as well as the relationship we have with them. To do that, concepts from sociology, philosophy, and physics were used. The analysis of Jean Baudrillard on modernity was useful to explain what a simulacrum is, and to demonstrate that we live in an everlasting hyperreal situation. The reflections of Karen Barad on the void as an on-going process of creation were necessary to understand the ontology of digitally unborn creatures. Finally, James Bridle and his premises about the New Aesthetic provided us with a panorama of the convergence, and retro alimentation of the digital and the real.

1. Introduction

At the end of the last millennium, The Truman Show film (Weir, 1999) starred by Canadian-born comedian Jim Carrey was received with great acclaim. The movie depicts a nonchalant man who lived all his life unaware that he was only a character inside a televised series. It was only by an accumulation of signs that he ended up uncovering the truth.
In The Truman Show, the scope of reality television was cleverly questioned: what if we were only props in a simulated world? I cannot but wonder that Truman Burbank is the perfect analogy for a virtual entity. Isolated in a parallel space, living in an idyllic world, raised as real but fake as a forgery banknote.
In present times, reality television series are not shocking anymore. In the same manner, the fact that our environment has been duplicated is not a big surprise. On a daily basis, we experience a series of simulated phenomena and we do not even bother to question what is substantial, and what is not. In fact, it would be almost impossible to tell apart one thing from the other, because that is by definition a property of simulacrum.
Render ghosts constitute, more or less, one of these simulation phenomena. Because it would be complicated to approach this topic from a single point of view, this proposal will cover the ideas of three authors: Jean Baudrillard, Karen Barad, and James Bridle. These spirits share some commonalities, for they have discussed themes such as simulation, ontology, and virtuality on their own works.

2. Hyperreal Beings

A good point to start our discussion about render ghosts is to look up the ideas of French philosopher Jean Baudrillard. He is considered to the date one of the most influential thinker and theorist of modernity. His ideas about simulation and hyperreality, conceived during the decade of the 1980s will allow us to settle good foundations so as to understand other hypothesis, like the ones Karen Barad and James Bridle have presented in more recent times.
The first question will be: what is a simulation and how it differs from a mere representation?  While both terms can be easily confused, Baudrillard makes an effort to make a distinction between both concepts. When we face an image -a form of representation- we can distinguish it from the original. Therefore, reality has not been compromised; in this case, it is clear the boundary between the source and the copy. A simulacrum, on the contrary, threatens reality masking it. It no longer resembles reality, because it is a product without a basis on something authentic.
Baudrillard starts citing Borges’s fable on the first chapter of Simulacra and Simulation (originally published in 1981). In that story, an exact replica of the territory was created in the form of a map and was placed over the land. Over time, it was the map that survived, masking what it had below. Citizens will no more inhabit the real world, but the map. Here and there we can find vestiges of the territory, a subverted scenario where reality has been superseded. This will lead to a scenario where a new reality is generated without having an origin in the real: the hyperreal (Baudrillard, 1994).
Constant exposure to media alters and influences the way we perceive reality. Because of that, there is no more need to deepen in into the real in order to construct new universes, for everything can be simulated. In words of Baudrillard (1994), by using matrices reality can be manufactured and reproduced infinite times. Our render ghosts are clearly a simulation, generated from models (beings) and placed inside a virtual environment (Figure 1).
Can we think of these digital worlds as non-places? If so, we should stop for a while and refer to the work of Marc Augé. For him, non-places are a consequence of supermodernity, an era characterised by excess on three main fronts: overabundance of events (the speed at which they occur makes impossible to grasp history anymore); spatial overabundance (changes of scales, proliferation of imaged and imaginary references, and the acceleration of means of transport); and the individualisation of references (citizens becoming isolated worlds) (Augé, 1995). Non-places and places complement each other, they “are rather like opposed polarities: the first is never completely erased, the second never totally completed; they are like palimpsests on which the scrambled game of identity and relations is ceaselessly rewritten.” (Augé, 1995) What are, if not, these pristine minimalist villas found in advertising billboards? What about those HDR beaches where phantasms stroll next to the seashore, expecting a marvellous Bali-like sunset? What can be more hyperreal than this non-existent microcosm? Like Disney World, nobody questions these chimeric mise-en-scènes.
The aftermath of being progressively accustomed to the hyperreal is that our past experiences are no longer satisfactory. Lo-res videos or five-megapixel photos are some kind of heresy nowadays. Resolution overrules content. Programmatic obsolescence. This hyper-thirst for the ultimate gadget and a hubristic desire to achieve (a better) reality has leaded us towards a maze of artifices. And then, Elvis appeared from thin air in 2007, materialized thanks to light on a televised show. Dead or not, his resurrection in the form of a hologram surprised more than one. Would not many of us like to have also a three-dimensional self? Baudrillard (1994) could not have said it better: “the closer one gets to the perfection of the simulacrum (…), the more evident it becomes (…) how everything escapes representation, escapes its own double and its resemblance.”
Many relations can be found between render ghosts and holograms. Both are generated in another world, that of the software. Whether emerged from a Computer Aided Design (CAD) environment or sculpted thanks to a laser beam, they belong to the virtual. Holograms and ghosts are, to some extent, prolongations of our existences. We are not unique anymore.

If, according to Mach, the universe is that of which there is no double, no equivalent in the mirror, then with the hologram we are already virtually in another universe: which is nothing but the mirrored equivalent of this one. But which universe is this one? (Baudrillard, 1994)

I have an answer to that question. That is the universe of the void, a place in which things are neither real nor material. In order to understand this, we need to go further in time, and examine the theories of Karen Barad.

3. A Non-existent Existence

As stated in the last chapter, it is compulsory to revise some of the hypothesis that Barad developed concerning nothingness, the void, and the interactions among beings and non-beings. These aspects will abet us to come up with a more consistent definition of these contemporary creatures that are materialized in a digital/virtual dimension.
I would like to start with a quote from The Measurement of Nothingness, which will open a door to further discussion into the matter of existence: “virtuality is not a speedy return, a popping into and out of existence with great rapidity, but rather the indeterminacy of being/non-being, a ghostly non/existence.” (Barad, 2012)
It is this duality immanent to render ghosts that is fascinating. When we see an image depicting a fictional space we think it is just a mere representation. However, what we are witnessing is a parallel world, filled with of (non) humans, performing common actions like talking casually to each other or using their smartphones, always unaware of our presence (Figure 2).
To comprehend better how the author came up with her proposal, it is necessary to branch out a bit and look into physics, for that is the discipline Barad chose to gave birth to her statements. In that sense, a critical aspect to grasp the duality of existence and non-existence is the concept of virtual particles.
In classical physics, the vacuum is the absence of matter, and therefore possesses zero energy. In contrast with that, the quantum field theory (QFT) considers that “the lowest energy state of all the systems could be called a vacuum state.” (Boyarkin, 2011) Although the vacuum, under this definition, does not contain physical particles, it is not empty as the classical model propagated. In direct connection with the quantum vacuum zero-point energy is the idea of vacuum fluctuations. Virtual particles are responsible for these fluctuations. In other words, “virtual particles are short-lived particles that cannot be directly detected, but that affect physical quantities -such as the mass of a particle or the electric force between two charged particles- in measurable ways.” (Dukes, 2009)
While it is true that these particles do not exist as regular particles, it is also important to notice that an electron intra-act (to use the author’s terminology) with these particles in the vacuum, because they cannot be isolated from the void. Moreover, according to Barad (2012): “(…) even the smallest bits of matter are an enormous multitude. Each ‘individual’ is made up of all possible histories of virtual intra-actions with all Others. Indeterminacy is an un/doing of identity that unsettles the very foundations of non/being.”
Render ghosts are indeterminate creatures. Ontologically speaking, they were born in our territory, but they were shifted to the virtual (Figure 3). To some extent, one can also relate indeterminacy to the concepts of speculative design and design thinking. The former because design becomes a tool in order to come up with what-if scenarios; in that regard the displacement of humans to the digital realm is one solution to evidence that these non-places will eventually be populated by regular people. The second insofar designers are responsible for conceive and plan what does not exist yet (Buchanan, 1992). With the risk of branching out a bit, lets say that in Buchanan’s paper the determinacy and indeterminacy dichotomy is a neural point of his discourse. In opposition to the classic “problem definition / problem solution” model for design, the wicked-problem (a term coined by Horst Rittel) approach acknowledges the following:

Design problems are ‘indeterminate’ and ‘wicked’ because design has no special subject matter of its own apart from what a designer conceives it to be. The subject matter of design is potentially universal in scope, because design thinking may be applied to any area of human experience. But in the process of application, the designer must discover or invent a particular subject out of the problems and issues of specific circumstances. (Buchanan, 1992)

In the next chapter we will revise a clever study of the render ghosts phenomenon by journalist-derived-into-media-artist James Bridle.

4.  Ghosts

The term render ghosts, coined by James Bridle, refers to those mysterious inhabitants of virtual sceneries: anonymous denizens, which are used to represent an idyllic, almost dreamy life style. They populate unreal universes, future places that still have not been erected (Figure 4).
In an evolutionary fashion, architectural representation shifted from traditional schemata and blueprints to physical plaster models, to digital representation, and now to hyperreal environments (Figure 5). Due to the increasing demand of project visualization, rendering ended in the hands of designers and visual artists. As James Bridle (2013) himself stated, “(…) visualizations are produced for a range of purposes, but it’s almost by accident that they surface in public.” From some time ago, architecture firms and building companies have decided to display these models on their websites as well as the urban scenery. Even though the final result can be faithful to the blueprints and 3D representation, render ghosts will not survive and will disappear without leaving traces. An empty space is waiting for us to occupy it. We will take their place.
The fact that nobody knows exactly who these persons are makes the issue more intriguing. They, in turn, do not realize that they have been photographed, cropped, and inserted in a hyperreal world. I cannot but surprise myself with the following assertion on the condition of these beings by Gillian Rose, Professor of Cultural Geography at The Open University in the United Kingdom: “(…) mostly they drift as isolated individuals. This impression that they’re atoms floating in a void is probably enhanced by the fact that I know they’ve been taken from other places and inserted into these scenes.” (Rose, 2013) It is not hard to encounter commonalities with the theories of Karen Barad (2012):

Virtual particles are not in the void but of the void. They are on the razor edge of non/being. The void is a lively tension, a desiring orientation toward being/becoming. The vacuum is flush with yearning, bursting with innumerable imaginings of what could be.

Even though they are non-beings, it is only a transitional momentum, a hibernating process… a waiting stage to become something/someone. With human libraries now sold as packages for architectural model software we have reached another level of absurdity; in the same way as furniture and objects are incorporated in mock-ups, men, women, and children can be included too. It only takes a couple of key words to find and download these human packages on any search engine.
James Bridle embarked on a journey to trace the origins and the identities of these render ghosts. Suffice it to say that he failed in his mission, but that trip allowed him to reflect on this subject and the ephemerality of Internet. But, how powerful can this new phenomenon be to make someone travel to the middle of nowhere?
Actually, Bridle is often accused of a lack of foundations on his thoughts. Using Tumblr as a platform to collect and show examples of the New Aesthetic phenomenon might be good to reach a broad audience, but it is not the best way to approach the academic and scientific community. His public speeches, although well documented, have less theory behind that one could expect. Despite that, there is no doubt that his opinions are accurate, and that he created a buzz around the topic. For better or worse, that aspect was the key to be worshipped and hated at the same time.

5.  Conclusion

To summarise, hyperreality is a condition sine qua non of post-modernity; we are no longer in the realm of authenticity, but of the simulacrum. Render ghosts are, like holograms, disturbing duplication of ourselves. Unlike holograms, it is not possible to touch them, to pass though them and see what is on the other side. But, alas, would that be necessary? Concerning their habitat, both Baudrillard and Augé noted the appearance of non-places in their respective works: spaces characterised by their indeterminacy, stripped of identity. These environments are the world in which render ghosts are frozen in time and space. To enter (or, more precisely, to be inserted) into these places is to enjoy a rapture state where one enjoys being disconnected, possessed by the joys of indistinctiveness and the pleasures of role-playing (Augé, 1995). The speediness in which technology is shaped, the surplus of information and occurrences, summed to our tolerance to hyperreal events and situations, makes difficult to question contemporary phenomena, because they have become an indivisible part of our time. We have developed a tolerance, and the bar will go higher with each new generation.
In this context, physics gives us a hand in order to comprehend the ontology and indeterminacy status of virtual beings. In the same way as virtual particles, render ghosts are non-beings, for they speak of something-to-come, of possibilities. They can be seen as speculative outcomes as well as a particular solution to a design problem.
Ontologically speaking, although these phantasmagorical appearances were created in a digital milieu, they are not entirely virtual. A model (Baudrillard would be tempted to say matrix) was used for that purpose, not always with their consent, as James Bridle sharply pointed out.
We recognise we live in a world in which the leakage of the digital onto the real is undeniable. The frontiers are open, enough of shuttled doors! Although one would be tempted to think of The New Aesthetic as a soon-to-be-gone fashion, it is true that design (in the broader scope of the term) sap from that source, for the good or the worse. Render ghosts are undeniable part of that trend. Real beings photographed, scaled, converted into props, and distributed like products. They are we… and not. Uncertainty. Indeterminacy. Future.


This paper would have not been finished without the help of Professor Dr. Andrea Sick from the “Hochschule für Künste Bremen,” whose suggestions allowed me to make this text more accurate and intelligible. I would also like to thanks Antoine Royer and Richard Murphy Architects for granting me permission to include their images in this document.


Augé, M. (1995). Non-places: Introduction to an anthropology of supermodernity. London: Verso.

Barad, K. (2012). Karen Barad: what is the measure of nothingness? Infinity, virtuality, justice = was ist wirklich das mass des Nichts? Unendlichkeit, Virtulität, Gerechtigkeit. Ostfildern: Hatje Cantz.

Baudrillard, J. (1994). Simulacra and simulation. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Boyarkin, O. M. (2011). Advanced Particle Physics. Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press / Taylor & Francis.

Bridle, J. (2013, February 27). Balloons and Render Ghosts. Domus. [31-12-2014]

Buchanan, R. (1992). Wicked Problems in Design Thinking. Design Issues, 8(2), 5-21.

Dukes, C. (2009, July 1). Explain it in 60 seconds: Virtual particles. Symmetry Magazine. [31-12-2014]

Rendering Vs. Reality. (n.d.). Curbed. Retrieved December 31, 2014, from

Rose, G. (2013, November 6). Rendered People: Ghosts, Omens or Atoms?. Visual / Method / Culture. Retrieved December 31, 2014, from

The New Aesthetic. (n.d.). The New Aesthetic. Retrieved January 26, 2014, from

The Render Ghosts – James Bridle. (n.d.). Electronic Voice Phenomena. Retrieved December 31, 2014, from

Weir, P. (Director). (1999). The Truman show [Motion picture]. USA: Paramount.

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The Post-digital era: towards a relational and sustainable approach


Multimedia technologies revolution has changed in the last years our ways of interface with the surrounding reality, transforming reality itself that is growing on a thin border with the virtual world. But, it still remain to understand which kind of technologies will be added (or probably substituted), to the other elements that constitute our living spaces, and consequently try to trace a evolution line of domestic interiors in the near future.
A direct consequence of the “mediatic flood” is the “fight for perception”. On one hand perception still belongs to human body as its most properly peculiarity, but on the other hand this flood of stimuli make it thinner and liquefied. In the specific feeling of nullity proper of the microelectronic age it is included to be deceived about “self-radiation”, and also about our “self-perception”. Therefore, the impulse to escape from the vacuum of the absence of perception drives us to know about our essence.

1. Rethink new-media technologies in everyday life

As technology changes so do society, the environment, and the practice of architecture. The globalizing “network society” has certainly forced architects to rethink the relationship of their work to new modes of production and construction, new patterns of movement and settlement, and new cultural priorities and above all a new kind of spaces and objects that will probably change radically our living environment. Through the twentieth century philosophers and historians have debated the nature of that relationship, leading in recent decades to a more nuanced view about their interaction and the degree to which technology itself is “socially constructed,” or at least culturally embedded and coevolving. The central question is the radical transformation of the space-time relation. On one hand space appears as a fluid, and on the other hand, time and its perception is compressed and extremely accelerated. This change has completely modified the rhythms of consumption, styles, and the way objects and lived spaces are used. Thus, in this context, design, as one of the most powerful aesthetic and socio-cultural expressions of the present civilization, has assumed different shapes, adapting and fragmenting itself to all the different components of society, and the global market. The diffusion of the idea of a “show-city”, together with the idea of a continuous moving city, due to the fluxes and the dynamic transformations more and more temporary and reversible, is creating a weave, and some times a very narrow union, between the forms and the practices of the exhibit and the forms and the practices of the spaces of entertainment and consumption. A fundamental element of this process are the different ways to stimulating the visual perception, that from static and Euclidean with classical proprieties of rational, uniform and long lasting order, becomes more and more dynamic and in some way non-euclidean, melting empathically, as observed by Marshal McLuhan in the 1973, with the most uncertain and extended spatial dimensions related to the sensorial proprieties of the touch, the taste and the hearing. As well, today everyday life flows over a background of a multitude of pictures and sounds, transmitted by millions of screens in a constant flux that could communicate endless quantities of information in a few minutes, also to all papers, journals, web sites, newsletters and blogs. Of course, this type of “bombing” goes over the domestic walls, in fact the use of “media facades” is more and more extended in cities, and this dimension of the (contemporary) domesticity continues in the public space, expressed paradoxically by the presence of the television screen.
Paul Virilio in his essay The Third Interval taken from the book Open Sky, originally published in 1997, claims that the new technologies of “telepresence” have created a new category of experience, one that transcends the limitations of the classical concepts of space and time. This new “interval” emerges from the illusion of simultaneity created by the latest digital communication technologies. The almost-instantaneous availability of “realtime” information challenges our conventional understanding of the experience of the here-and-now. At this point this thesis point out its fundamental questions: how new technologies changed, or will change the ways of inhabiting space, especially due to mutations of our customs? What doses it means inhabit today or in the near future, and how interior spaces will evolve? What kind of evolution had objects in our houses in the last fifty years? Is interiors space perception changed due to the digital revolution? What kind of technological approach could be more correct due to the actual environmental and social mutations? One of the answers could be that the perishable objects that surround us less and less incorporate today meanings and memories. The objects and so thus the technologies are designed to be easily replaced and not to last. In fact, in our world the objects landscape changes so quickly, and a new generation of objects is always ready to substitute the previous one: more elaborate computers transform all the computers built a few years before into obsolescent technology, the microwave oven takes the place of the home fireplace. Thus, “if technologies, demands and preferences are changing, why is it necessary to remain attached to the things and technology of the past? The reason is that, the things from the past reestablish the connections between the different segments of our and collective history: saving things from insignificance means understanding ourselves better.” (Bodei 2009, 60)
In his last book, Chaosmosis (originally published in French as Chaosmose in 1992), the French philosopher Félix Guattari insists that technology must be defined more broadly, that we must abandon the simplistic opposition between the technical and the natural – the distinction between the tool and its human operator. Instead we must try to grasp the “machinic” as a continuum of related elements, containing particular technical devices inseparably embedded within the vast networks of materials, processes, systems and infrastructure (both technical and sociopolitical) within which they must inevitably operate. Cities have always represented and projected images and fantasies of bodies, whether individual, collective, or political. (Grosz 2001, 48) In this sense, the city can be seen as a (collective) body-prosthesis or boundary that enframes, protects, and houses while at the same time taking its own forms and functions from the (imaginary) bodies it constitutes. Simultaneously, cities are loci that produce, regulate, and structure bodies. This relation is not a simple one of mutual determination nor a singular, abstract diagram of interaction: it depends on the types of bodies (racial, ethnic, class, sexual) and the types of cities (economic, geographic, political), and it is immensely complicated through various relations of intrication, specification, interpolation, and inscription that produce “identities” for both cities in their particularity and populations in their heterogeneity. This is a relation of both productive constraint and inherent unpredictability: neither relation is able to take place on the one plane or in a regulated form. While the relations between bodies and cities are highly complex and thoroughly saturated with behavioral, regulative, psychical, legal, and communitarian components, nonetheless the corporeality of cities and the materiality of bodies – the relations of exchange and production, habit, conformity, breakdown, and upheaval – have yet to be adequately thought as corporeal. The corporeality, or materiality, of the city is of the same order of complexity as that of bodies. (Grosz 2001, 49)

In the West, bodies and cities in their broad generality – and those discourses aimed at understanding them (cultural studies, urban studies, geography, as well as philosophy, psychology, and feminism) – are (as is always the case) undergoing major structural and pragmatic changes, changes necessitated and brought about by the complex linkage between global corporatism, the technological revolution in information storage and retrieval, and the transformation of global communications thereby effected. Since the introduction of the personal computer, since the computerization of economic transactions, since the advent of the Internet and instantaneous global communication through cellular phones, satellite networks, and the World Wide Web, transformations in how we understand ourselves, our bodies, our place in cities and communities, and our relation to the future have all been effected, transformations that are in the process of perhaps reconfiguring how we are in the world. (Grosz 2001, 50) Our simultaneous anxiety and joy reside in the extrapolated hopes and fears that an exponentially growing technology promises: its “gift” to us is an increasing edginess about what the future holds in store, whether it promotes our every fantasy to the status of the attainable or the real, or whether we and our hopes are transformed beyond recognition into something other than what we are now.

2. What about the “smart home”?

Since the Industrial Revolution and the rise of science fiction, the popular impulse has often been to regard technology as a socially derisive and potentially malign force. (Castle 2005, 4) In the 1990s, this was further exaggerated by the spectre of cyberspace with its promise of the domination of the virtual over the physical. It engendered visions of a horrific netherworld responded to by even the most subconscious of neuro twitches. Here, spatial design skills and adept application of digital technologies are pooled to aid interaction. This presents technology as a tool for exchange, cohesion and communication. Web and remote technologies may be the props of the contemporary world, but it is the underlying social forces of individualism and an unrelenting work culture that most often distance us from each other, rather than the gadgetry in our hands. Taking the form of installations and public art, interactive spaces and structures can offer a welcome respite. This is most often as an entertaining diversion, whether it relies on spectacle, wonder or unadulterated fun. The interaction between viewer and what is viewed can be physical or remote, whether the object responds to a bodily presence or an electronic device such as a mobile phone. At every level, it encourages us to leave our isolated self and interact with a greater social group, perhaps merely for the joy of seeing a chandelier reverberate with light in a gallery, or contributing to an interactive sculpture on an urban scale. Interaction is not just confined to the art world. It provides tenable and, very often, remarkable solutions for the work place, leisure sector, retail and the domestic. As Mike Weinstock acknowledges in his recollection of EM Forster’s refrain “Only connect!”, connection has to be consciously sought out and worked towards. He gives the example of UN Studio’s Möbius House, where the architecture enfolds the family in a continuous surface that takes in shared and separate living spaces, enabling the occupants to be simultaneously alone and together. (Castle 2005, 4)

This articles investigates the reality that the perceptual boundaries between the virtual and physical worlds have been broken, and asks how architecture and its tasks can creatively adopt a fourth dimension, that of digital technologies. Their time-based nature is increasingly producing socio-spatial effects that challenge architecture’s traditional identity.
What’s clear is that, independent of architecture, this fourth dimension is already inexorably transforming the previously understood identity of space, as a penumbra of new technologies – WiFi and other features of pervasive computing like Bluetooth, RFID tags and GPS – support the spatialisation of time. (Bullivant 2005, 5)
“Multi-mediated” interactive design is already entering every domain of public and private life as a spatial medium, revolutionizing and reinventing our work, leisure and domestic spaces. Social contexts are dominated by the blurring of boundaries between work and play, information retrieval and use. However, as Malcolm McCullough, author of Digital Ground published in 2004, points out, pervasive technology does not obviate the human need for place. (Bullivant 2005, 5)

3. “Fourth kingdom” objects and “Soft Technologies”

This transformation in technology – let us call it computerization for short- is not simply the creation of a new tool or device more sophisticated than the rest but fundamentally the same in nature. Rather, global computerization is a mode of transformation of the very notion of tool or technology itself. The space, time, logic, and materiality of computerization threaten to disrupt and refigure the very nature of information and communication, as well as the nature of space, time, community, and identity. (Bullivant 2005, 5)
These technologies make possible knowledge/sciences, modes of art and representation, forms of communication and interaction, that not only are reconfiguring social and personal life but are also, in a fundamental sense, beyond the knowledge and the control of individuals and communities. These technologies, whose limits are unknown by their designers and foremost researchers, have become Futures, Cities, Architecture subject to historical, perhaps even evolutionary processes or laws that we do not, and perhaps even cannot, know in advance. Computerization transcends the tool or mere cultural innovation, insofar as it has begun an inherently unforeseeable trajectory in global life. Such unforeseen trajectories are not new; they are the forces that shape global transformation, whether dictated by shifts in polar ice caps or the production of nuclear weapons. Technological transformation is not inherently different in its global effect. This is why it may be understood more in the long-term horizon of evolution rather than in the short-term horizon of development or historical change. (Grosz 2001, 51)
These technologies have served not to transform bodies in any significant way – at least not yet – but to fundamentally transform the way that bodies are conceived, their sphere of imaginary and lived representation. They promise (and for some they achieve) the fantasy of action, communication, and connectedness at-a-distance, the fantasy of an alternative or virtual existence that may bypass the gravity and weightiness of the body itself: they have mediated spatial relations through the compression of temporal relations, they have transformed interaction and communication through screen and virtual mediation, they have transformed the notion of community through selective global expansion. Bodies clearly are, and always have been, the objects of prosthetic transformation and supplementation, of virtual enhancement and technical mediation. Computerization does not transform this prosthetic hankering; rather, it transforms its degrees of intimacy with the body, the size and nature of prosthetic intervention: micromachines cleaning out veins and arteries, microcomputers pulsating as heart or lung enhancements. It transforms an imaginary anatomy well beyond its technological capacities, yielding the fantasy of the interchangeability, even transcendence, of the body and its corporeal configuration. (Grosz 2001, 51)

For instance, the discovery of the real identity of the single object becomes more pressing, where the fusion or the miniaturization canceled the same object. This back to the object is not already taking place, could not be realized for products that have just found their structuring, but will be applied to other sectors where there is already a possibility of a formal representation. In this manner, we assist and will assist in the future to a recovery of some kinds of crafts that are apparently dead or that have not found their right utilization. Therefore, to the preeminence of the industrial object, probably there will be a new crafts time, maybe more linked to the world of art or to the discovery of natural materials forgotten in the last years and now rediscovered. Not only, there will also be a rediscovery of symbolic factors that once were inherent to many objects. On the other hand, this last sentence can also be valid for many recently manufactured products; in fact it is impossible to not feel the symbolic value of objects like a telephone, or a personal computer, or of a Swatch clock and more over household appliances. (Turkle, 2007) We can say that we are in front of the origin of a “fourth kingdom” (Francalanci 2006, 22) of the objects, and it becomes impossible to image them as prophetic instruments, the extension of the human body (the “objects membres-humains” of Le Corbusier), and of the human mind, but as “others” from us, as partner-instruments: moreover they seem to be like autonomous organs, and the world of objects will be more and more similar to a fourth kingdom, beside the mineral, vegetable and animal kingdom. Eventually type object and emotional object, find a common interest in the same wish of surpassing technique in its banal manifestations, instead promoting a technological imaginarium, that will transform technology to human and vice versa.

In fact, saving objects from their insignificance or from their instrumental use means better understanding ourselves and the events into which we are involved because things set synapses of sense between the different segments of individual and collective histories, between human civilization and nature. “Super technology is going to ask for super tactility”, interiors and products will need more tactile designs as the use of computers and screens makes us crave a sense of touch, trend forecaster Li Edelkoort predicts in this last movie filmed at Dezeen Live.[1]
“The more screens we have the more our figures are afraid we’re going to disappear”, she says. “I feel it already in my fingers that they want me to touch lots of things so I don’t loose contact with touch”. Edelkoort therefore predicts that textiles will be increasingly important in interior design, supporting the increasingly nomadic lifestyle that mobile technology permits. One of the strongest long term trend of the future is probably the hybridization .We will navigate at the border of organic & digital, intuition & interface. A world where technology and human will be one. Here succeeding some representative case studies.

Rewriting Traces
FELD Studio, 2008
What would happen if cause and effect could be rearranged? Traces are left on or by objects whenever we use them. These traces tell us something about what has happened before. Some traces are more or less noticeable than others, some are intentional and some not, some we want and some we don’t. This reactive tablecloth communicates and interacts with the participant through its material and surface, the surface texture changing depending on the way we interact with it. The effect of pressure or heat through a cup or hand results in a change of colour. This change can happen either at the point of action or at an unexpected location of the tablecloth. The reaction to our actions runs through distances connecting the people that use it in unexpected ways. The textile of the tablecloth consists of three layers. The bottom layer registers the presence of objects on the tablecloth using pressure sensors. The middle layer is woven with high resistance conductive yarns that heat up individually when current flows through them. The upper layer was screen printed with thermochromic pigments to allow a colour change when it is heated.

To hear the grass growing
FELD Studio, 2008
Reactive environment which generates soundscapes according to the growth of grass. Feld is a German studio specialized in “digital crafts”, they design some digital objects connected to the physical world, or like here to the nature. We see more and more works that connect nature and technology, it’s like a will of find another way to the eternal debate digital vs craft/traditional. Both are necessary, and when both are connected, they can bring us great experiences. In this project, an arduino based computer is connected to the grass, for translate into a heart beat the growing phenomenon. An original way to realize when your plants need attention or when they’re in good mood. The continual process of growth is something which generally escapes our ordinary senses. It is something which can be recognised only over an extended period of time. If a person takes care of a plant, they recognise growth over a period of days or weeks, this application transfers the growth of the plant into a medium which we are always able to interpret, that of an ever changing soundscape. Through the installation, the growth of the grass generates different electrical pulses similar to heartbeats. The more advanced the growth of the plant, the slower and stronger the pulse develops. The application consists of three physical layers, the top layer is the growing grass and beneath it the root system, below these is the technology which measures the growth and generates the sound. Over time, and with care and attention, the roots grow more and more, creating a complex root-system. A microcontroller is able to measure the conductivity of the root system, the growing media and the solutions of nutrients which surround them and when coupled with an amplifier, generates clicks and pulses in different frequencies. Care, light, nutrients and water, as well as the sequence of connectivity between the growing elements of the grass are thus responsible for creating the ever changing and growing soundscape. This prototype tries to compare nature and technology to point out parallels. It allows us to pay attention to things which would seem unimportant or unperceivable to us without such a device.

Objects made from mind
FELD Studio, 2010
This work comprises a series of sculpted computer keyboards which have been sketched out by a series of colleagues and friends, who use computers for different reasons in their daily lives. The physical manifestations, as recreations of the freehand sketches show the blurriness of the mental representations of these devices with which we spend so much of our time. Testament to how much the ways we interact with the world govern our perception of it, the 3D milled perfection of the keyboards, with the utter lack of detail, demonstrates a stark contrast between the objects in our minds and those in reality “Objects made from mind” looks at the incompleteness of the internal representation of the external world.

Unter Strom
FELD Studio, 2010
With which senses do we perceive electric current? How does electric current influence our behaviour and physiological condition? This textile describes a wearable sensor to ‘feel’, detect and indicate electricity. I want to combine material behaviour with human condition to enable communication and to raise specific questions regarding increasing fields of electronic technology and our electrified behaviour. A woven textile uses electrical energy from its surrounding via influence – by human activity as well as electric fields nearby – and passes it in a comprehensible way to the user. For testing it, the textile is attached at the shoulder of the participant and has exposed yarns that represent hair. If he or she is acting fast, the textile hair stands higher and higher – it charges up until it wants to discharge in its surroundings. If the material received a huge quantity of electric energy, it gets more inflexible. After that it is able to give up its electricity and consequently can interrupt technical devices or give the wearer small electric shocks, after he charged it. This project demonstrates a possibility to enhance and sensitise materials to explore changing in perception. Figuratively the textile caricatures the fear of electric fields. The material probe describes electric current as something natural within different manifestation. This fabric could ask questions about cultural turns that will emerge from our constantly growing need for acceleration and energy.

Demain est un Autre Jour
Video weather station, Mathieu Lehanneur, 2011
Lehanneur provides food for thought regarding the permanence and impermanence of things, about the principles of uncertainty, ineluctability and spirituality, allowing everyone to be a day ahead of time itself… Originally intended for use in a hospital, this device eludes the course of time by offering everyone the opportunity to see tomorrow’s sky. Conceived from weather information gathered in real time on the Internet, the luminous image of the sky is diffused through a honeycomb network, appearing both like a sculpture and a celestial globe.

Water Light Graffiti
Antonin Fourneau, 2012.
Mixing water, technology, and public art, the Water Light Graffiti project is at once fluid and beautiful while at the same time transitory and digital. The project was conceived at Digitalarti, a lab dedicated to the digital art community at large. Welcoming artists, organizers, galleries, and collectors, the site and quarterly print magazine invites the public to share experiences, information and digital tools. An artist in residence at Digitalarti Artlab, Antonin Fourneau created the Water Light Graffiti project. As described by the artist, the project surface is designed of thousands of LED lights which are illuminated by contact with water. To activate the lights, one can use a paintbrush, spray bottle, sponge, or just about anything damp. The artist writes, “Water Light Graffiti is a wall for ephemeral messages in the urban space without deterioration. A wall to communicate and share magical in the city.”

The new domestic landscape is now strictly related to this “fourth kingdom”. The relation between space and the objects is now of a different nature, the same as the relation between humans and objects. Probably the most important mutation of the interiors world would not be in the changing of the space itself, but in the relation between humans, objects, spaces and new technologies. We can may conclude that the real challenge of designers and architects today will be to shift from a “multimedia” approach to a “multimodal” one. Try to stop an archetypical action and be able to supervise the future of the project; maybe we can talk about a historicization of the technological object.



Bodei, R. (2009). La vita delle cose. Roma-Bari: Laterza.

Bullivant, L. (2005, January/February). Introduction. Architectural Design, Special Issue 4dspace: Interactive Architecture, Vol. 75, 5.

Castle, H. (2005, January/February). Editorial. Architectural Design, Special Issue 4dspace: Interactive Architecture, Vol. 75, 4.

Francalanci, E. (2006). Estetica degli oggetti. Mulino.

Grosz, E. (2001). Architecture from the Outside. Essays on Virtual and Real Space. Foreword by Peter Eisenman. Cambridge, Massachusetts London, England: The MIT Press.

Guattari, F. (1995). Chaosmosis: An Ethico-Aesthetic Paradigm. Indiana University Press.

Lehanneur, M. (2009, May/June). Domestic Micro-Environments. Architectural Design, Special Issue: Energies, Vol. 79, Issue 3, 42-4.

O’Neill, S. (2009). Interactive Media: The Semiotics of Embodied Interaction. Springer.

Türcke, C. (2012). La società eccitata. Filosofia della sensazione. Milano: Bollati Boringhieri.

Turkle, S. (Edited by). (2007). Evocative objects: things we think with. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Virilio, P. (1997). Open Sky. London: Verso.


Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. Dezeen Live was a series of discussions between Dezeen editor-in-chief Marcus Fairs and a number of designers and critics that took place at design exhibition 100% Design during London Design Festival this September.

Sense of place: sense of tele-place?


I consider three meanings for a single place, a mid-twentieth century residential suburb at the time of development, the same neighborhood at present day, and an online representation of that constructed landscape. I thus explore both place and tele-place as materialized and understood then and now.  Thinking of the inter-relationships and memories created by each, I unfold a particularly localized story with international parallels.
The site of three interpretations – a Greensboro, North Carolina neighborhood – stands as a ubiquitous post-war American suburb with single-family of primarily Ranch and Classical Revival examples. In this context, Modern style residences stood as discourses of non-conformity to tradition and the white-columned mansions of the Piedmont South. The second place consists of alternative readings of the same neighborhood from the current century and its now-embedded Modern structures, once forms of civil disobedience, now quietly speak of a heritage to be preserved. The third place – a digital representation – draws on the physical sense of place, a memory aid to investigate identities all based on virtual “realities” of the materialization. Through this newer form of social discourse, the thoughts and insights of the past re-make the mid-century based on available pixels and bytes that shape artifacts encountered online.

Sense of place: sense of tele-place?

I offer here three readings of the same place, two experienced in person and one of the same place represented online.  This third reading results from the process of curating an actual place in making a tele-place where people come to know and understand a landscape without direct encounter.  By investigating three readings of the same place, I hypothesize that computers have impacted how we communicate, as Christian Norberg-Shulz coined, the special “spirit of place” or genius loci that informs about the particularities of human intervention in specifically sited and built works.(Norberg-Shulz, 1980) As we continue to re-define relationships of humans and machines, and shape corresponding digital identities for all manner of material and physical things, I posit that we organize our understandings of the past and present in an intertwined way, no longer able to separate place from tele-place.  I hypothesize that the juxtapositions possible in layering these modes of experience bring whole new insights for uncovering relationships and revealing identities.  Through this single example of three readings of the same place, I hope to demonstrate interconnections that call into question the distinctions between the virtual and physical.  In doing so, I hope to use the mid-century architecture of an American suburb as a framework to interpret three inter-related times of the same place, resonating with one another.  Fundamentally I ask: how do we come to know a place?  And I suggest that it is possible to know a place through a digital interface in addition to direct encounter.

Place 1: Mid-Century Suburban Neighborhoods

With a population of nearly 75,000 people, Greensboro, North Carolina in the 1950s was described by some as a “sleepy southern community,” a characterization that obscured the progressive spirit of the Quakers who settled the community in 1808 after the Revolutionary War, near the site of the battle of Guilford Courthouse.  The characterization of sleepiness also belied the importance of the community as a major crossroads in the rail transportation system, a location that brought together the Southern Railway (with routes north and south along the east coast) and the North Carolina Railroad (providing access to eastern North Carolina), resulting in train traffic at its peak of some 85 passenger and freight trains daily through its downtown.(Arnett, 1955) Too, the railroad attracted attention from northern industrialists to the sleepy southern community, including Moses and Ceasar Cone of Baltimore, who established large-scale textile plants, transforming Greensboro from a village to a city in the last decade of the nineteenth century.  By 1900, Greensboro stood with other places in a web of Southern textile industry towns, with workers producing denim, flannel, and overalls in large-scale factories.  At the outbreak of World War II, the United States government established an Overseas Replacement Depot at the edge of the sleepy city to process soldiers – again using the train lines – and send them onto military bases in the eastern part of the state and then into the world.(Fripp, 1982) All of these readings of progressive and busy place lay behind the appearance of the community as a city mired in Southern ways, with columned houses along stately streets, and a quiet understanding between classes and races of people in maintaining order and decorum.[1]

At the conclusion of World War II, like other communities in the nation, Greensboro found itself on a different kind of crossroads, one that had little to do with transportation or industry – one that was about sorting out identity for all of its citizens across the landscape.  Particularly with the influx of GIs returning home or settling for the first time in the community, Greensboro experienced a shortage in housing (again echoing the challenge in many places), one that architects, designers, and contractors labored to close within a decade.(Shanken, 2009)
By looking at this housing stock, though, we find the opportunity to better understand the mindsets, values, and hopes of thousands of its citizens.  This reading of place, then, centers on the suburban landscape and the ubiquitous ranch house found there. With Classical and Colonial Revival-style details and features, architects, designers, builders, and owners through these ranch houses tethered their visions of themselves to political and social leaders of the past – elite white men carrying out the American colonial experience.(Archer, 2005; Baxandall & Ewen, 2000; Beauregard, 2006)
In sharp contrast, the Modern house on an open lot with its fluid layout and its eclectic furnishings schemes suggested an alternative to suburban dwellings within a lexicon largely defined in the first 200 years of developing the American house – the traditional ranch house full of period antique reproductions in closed, paneled rooms surmounted with elaborate trim, casings, and decorative wallpaper.  In sweeping aside this architectural rhetoric with Modern structures, design professionals, builders, and owners forecast no less a stable world but one that borrowed on contemporary understandings of materials, spaces, and issues – houses “of the age.”(Isenstadt, 2006)
A house in between, the reality for many, suggested a structure perhaps with an open plan but a traditional exterior shell, or a house with a somber front facing the public thoroughfare but with expansive, fluid spaces at its rear, enclosed with glass to maximize the connection to the outdoors.  In either scenario the hybridization of architecture, interior design, furniture, and finishes represented the uncertainty of fitting in or standing out with one’s neighbors.  Often more easily or readily changed, house interiors and furnishings embodied an ephemeral way for homeowners to modify their near environment and thus their identity.  The landscape of buildings also could be readily modified, providing a truly outward sign to all passersby about values and identities of the residents.  Sitting between these two ever-changing zones in the human environment, the building’s more steady physicality and the relative high expense of alteration, suggested the semi-permanence of the structure, one mediating between old and new, past and present, inside and out, in a conversation about values expressed in the  “dream house” of the mid-century.(Spigel, 2001; Hayden, 2002)

Enter the architect.  Chicago native Edward Loewenstein (1913-1970) moved to Greensboro in 1945 with his wife, Frances Stern, following Army service in World War II and modernist architectural training at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.(Lucas, 2013)
Frances, a native of the Greensboro area and stepdaughter of Julius Cone, local businessman of the textiles magnate family, provided access to a large social network of contacts within and outside of the Jewish community.  Through this web of relations, Loewenstein secured design commissions for residential projects that redefined Greensboro in the post-World War II period.  As the only Modernist practicing in the community – and because of his family connections – Loewenstein said something different with particularly his residential structures.  They stood in non-conformity with their traditional counterparts in a Southern community that, in the same time period, saw the beginning of the sit-in movement in the downtown Woolworth’s store, less than two miles from the residences designed in Loewenstein’s firm.
Celebrating his Modern approach to design, several magazines published Loewenstein’s own work as well as that of his firm: Architectural Record, McCall’s Magazine, Bride’s Magazine, House and Garden, and Southern Architect.  The North Carolina American Institute of Architects bestowed an award for Loewenstein’s Martha and Wilbur Carter House (1950-1951), 1012 Country Club Drive, the community’s first Modern dwelling.  In that vein, Loewenstein brought to the landscape nearly two dozen houses following the Modernist idiom, mostly located within the Irving Park and Starmount neighborhoods of Greensboro, but spread further afield in Sedgefield, Summerfield, Pinehurst, Alamance County, and in southern Virginia (Danville and Martinsville).
Committed to the community, the firm hired the first African-American architects and design professionals in Greensboro, among them the late William Street (Loewenstein’s MIT classmate who eventually joined North Carolina A&T’s faculty), the late W. Edward Jenkins, and Clinton E. Gravely, all of whom went on to establish prolific architectural careers in North Carolina and beyond.  He mentored hundreds of students in the office as interns, many of whom continued with success, going on to design award-winning buildings and interiors throughout the United States.   Loewenstein also taught history of architecture lecture courses and studios at the Woman’s College of the University of North Carolina from 1958 through the late 1960s, where he offered design studios in three years resulting in the development of a student-designed structure dubbed the “Commencement House” in each of those studios – a story that we pick up later in history and in this account.
Because of Loewenstein’s active community engagement, the firm completed buildings for the greater good of Greensboro.  These public structures – schools, hospitals, and religious institutions, as well as buildings for industry and commerce – included the development of the master plan and the completion of twelve buildings for Bennett College, a traditionally African-American women’s campus.  Beyond Bennett College, Loewenstein embraced the African-American community and some of the inequities in facilities existent among segments of the population. Before his death, Loewenstein completed the design for the YWCA Building (1971) to bring together membership from the black and white branches that had existed through the 1960s.   In the more tumultuous 1960s, Loewenstein remained true to his open-minded spirit and sense of civic engagement as he forged additional avenues for commercially based work. The Greensboro Public Library (1964), the most lasting community building and the symbol for the progress of the town, demonstrated that the building emblematically remained an important landmark and anchored the civic pride of the community in troubling times.
As significant as this commercial work was to understanding the power of design and the presence of Modernism in traditional Greensboro, Loewenstein’s greatest contribution to the emerging contemporary architectural lexicon of the Piedmont is best represented by his residential commissions where he created livable houses that mediated between the crisp high style Modernism of his training and the traditional buildings on the local landscape.  Working with a diverse clientele, including some of the chief leaders of the Jewish community, Loewenstein said something different with these innovative buildings in a community that valued the tried and true, starting with his own home, the Frances and Edward Loewenstein Residence (1954), 2104 Granville Drive, featuring slanted exterior walls, curving interior fieldstone walls, and broadly reaching horizontal overhangs in antithesis to conservative, upright Colonial Revival neighbors.  With the Eleanor and Marion Bertling Residence (1953-1954), 2312 Princess Anne Street, Loewenstein found unsolicited support from the neighbors to the property, all of whom signed a petition to the Greensboro Zoning Commission to allow a Modern building to be constructed in the Kirkwood neighborhood, comprised almost exclusively of Cape Cod-style houses.  Through homes like these, Loewenstein’s clients brought an avant garde cultural and social agenda to the community attempting to redefine itself in the 1950s and 1960s.  Alongside the Modern structures, Loewenstein-Atkinson designed numerous Ranch and and Colonial-inspired structures with more traditional details.  More than two-dozen residential commissions incorporate both Modern and traditional spatial organizations, details, and landscape relationships, blending the two different approaches to design within the same buildings, as in the Joan and Herbert S. Falk, Jr. Residence (1964-1965), 2044 Marston Road, and the Bettie S. and Robert S. Chandgie Residence (1958), 401 Kimberly Drive, a building that features a curved fieldstone full height wall to define the dining room space, lurking behind a middle-of-the-road Ranch-style façade.

In stating difference through his buildings, Loewenstein designed mid-century Modernist homes deep within their lots achieving unity with the landscape.  Unifying residences under low slanting horizontal roofs, Loewenstein successfully tied them to the land with large, over-hanging eaves that created visual and physical transition zones from interior to exterior.  Screened rooms and covered porches, often located adjacent to living rooms and dining rooms, served as extensions of living space outdoors, particularly at the rear of each structure.  Glass walls and well-placed windows created the sensation of being simultaneously projected into the landscape as the outside areas of each site were simultaneously pulled into the houses. Large-scale windows provided additional light to public areas in most houses, including provision for many clerestory openings. Such open fenestration made for very little privacy, yet Loewenstein embraced this approach and did not provide for significant interior window treatments, rather relying on landscape elements and plantings to screen interiors from public view.
Loewenstein separated public and private spaces within residential commissions through the development of L-shaped plans, with the confluence of the ells often containing the public entrance to each building.  Self-contained maid’s rooms, a regular feature in Loewenstein’s residential commissions, spoke to the economic level of homeowners and provided evidence of two separate worlds coming together in these mid-century Modern residences.  Large central chimneys served as focal points in living and dining rooms and provided vertical punctuations in strongly horizontal floor plans.  Built-in features, shelving and drawer units, storage closets, dressing rooms, bars, and the like lessened the number of furnishings required in these houses, in turn reducing the need for larger rooms, most particularly bedrooms. In his use of indigenous building materials, Loewenstein brought together natural finishes and exposed materials in the construction of mid-century Modern residences.  He incorporated Carolina fieldstone, brick, slate, and pecky cypress paneling, and juxtaposed these indigenous materials to expanses of clear glass and steel structural frames, the latter more in keeping with purely Modern buildings.

Place 2: In and Around the Present-Day City

The architectural legacy of Edward Loewenstein, cut short by his untimely death in 1970 and inherited by two subsequent generations of Greensboro residents, experienced some significant losses, with two major houses demolished to make way for cul-de-sac developments on their large lots.  Other than these losses, by the first years of the current century, many had come to appreciate the timelessness and utility of the Loewenstein designs, and continued caring for – or in some cases meticulously rescuing and restoring – the two dozen buildings.  As an initiative of the modern art museum in town – the Weatherspoon – the university’s Department of Interior Architecture in 2005 was asked to organize a symposium and tour of homes.  The idea here was to celebrate the terrific qualities of the houses and their neighborhood contexts. Over the course of two days, property owners graciously shared their well-loved residences as more than 525 Modernism enthusiasts toured eight houses in the community…and an additional 380 people attended the symposium on the subject.  Clearly, there was interest in the community about the mid-century time period and the buildings that expressed, alongside their traditional counterparts, something a bit more progressive about the community than typically is recognized.
So great was the success of the symposium and tour that an exhibit on Modernism took form in the fall semester 2007. Credited with bringing Modernism to the community, Loewenstein stood as the exhibit’s focus as students explored the discourse of non-conformity that mid-century Modernism represented.  Encountering Loewenstein’s designs as reflections of community aspirations and challenges, students examined buildings as conscious shapers of values and as containers for social discourse and action – but importantly removed from the landscape they attempted to interpret. Designers faced the challenges of making this story come alive in two separate exhibit spaces, working within a large design team (18 students) mediated by a design review group and a team of advisors to the project. Because the network involved in producing the exhibit spread far and wide, crossing off of the university campus, the exhibit served as a form of conversation itself, reaching out from university to community, in the interpretation offered by the students.
An exhibit on architecture presents particular challenges to designers and viewers as the very artifacts interpreted represent the subject through mediated images.  The designer does not have the actual buildings, spaces, and materials at hand but instead relies on a leap of faith by the visitor to set aside a real world experience for an artfully managed view of the subject matter.  In the case of one exhibit on mid-century Modern architecture, the designers – in this instance, a team of eighteen students and their professor – undertook an exploration of one local designer’s work in two very different exhibition spaces as well as in various mini-sites throughout the community.
Throughout the design and fabrication process, students explored in several forms contemporary practices surrounding the interpretation of Loewenstein’s own work as an explicit built environment within its historical and ideological contexts. Together students examined issues of sited-ness, representation, story telling, and the accommodation of physical artifacts ranging in size and complexity from photographs and drawings to entire neighborhoods.  Each step in the design process allowed the group to examine place and context as they amassed material, proposed design work, and created experience.  In the schematic phase, students modeled proposals for internal studio review, selected three to move forward with for further development, and presented these refined models to the design review panel in the second week of the semester.  Following this meeting, the teams again addressed suggestions from the panel and refined the schematic to a single scheme.

Concept : datum + moment

Two ideas offered by the students repetitively arose throughout the schematic development for the exhibits.  In absence of the actual architecture but in an attempt to classify it and to elicit an emotional reaction to it, students kept coming back to the horizontal as a direction of emphasis in Loewenstein’s architecture – and in Modernist architecture of the mid-century.  As expressed by a broad, sweeping gesture, this horizontal tied all components of the exhibit into a single mark on each space considered for their designs.  In addition, the datum helped provide a structural manifestation of the long legacy of Modernism to the Greensboro scene.  The horizontal line also linked the various sub-themes of the exhibit (Modernism in Greensboro, Residential Design, Loewenstein’s Design Approaches, Collaboration, and the Commencement Houses) into the overall expression of Modernism outside the style centers in the United States and abroad.  The second recurring idea – a moment – materialized by the students began with a conceptual notion of a de-centralized exhibit spread throughout the community.  Just as a moment of understanding comes from the discussion of ideas in a variety of settings, the architectural moment explains something about Modernism in a textural as well as experiential way.  Since this was a key concept for the development of the exhibit in the community, the students turned the idea inward on their own thinking for the exhibit, resulting in a [mod]moment as the core to the gallery space.

Installation : challenges + opportunities

With the exhibit, students elucidated conceptual and practical approaches to curating architecture and design in two interior galleries separate from the city’s physical context. The first of the gallery spaces (one in the studio building on campus) allowed students a huge volume in which to interpret the historical data and contemporary responses to mid-century Modernism as borne out through the work of students in three undergraduate art studios.  The second space, an 80” wide, 72-foot-long hallway (in a building downtown), challenged students to think about how the carefully crafted volumetric and information experience of the gallery could be translated into a linear encounter while still relating back to the look and feel of the whole.  Both of these spaces afforded their own particular challenges and opportunities, and to mediate some of the dis-connects between the two major installations, students designed a dozen [mod]moments, information kiosks placed throughout Greensboro at significant buildings and spaces to aid the broader citizenry in understanding the impact of Modernism in a community that valued the tried and true.  These kiosks served as three dimensional, experiential signs for the exhibit and spread the ideas generated by the students into the community.  This deconstructed, multi-sited exhibit thus helped to ask questions about the social impact of artifacts both situated within and removed from the community, about how novice exhibit designers responded differently to the blank canvases of gallery spaces and highly contextual mini-sites, and about the strategies for curating urbanism and architecture in particular, sited installations.
From the physical realties of the exhibit and each [mod]moment, students carried forward the assessment of Modernism through [mod]haus, an exhibit cyberspace that manifested a whole new sort of virtual place, delocalized and decontextualized, existing in mediated form and entirely removed from the realities of the buildings it represented. This tele-place afforded an investigation of mediated images, information, and ideas alongside material manifestations and representations to question the validity of staged reconstructions of the mid-century work in both physical and digital realms.  The decision made by the students to make parallel the content of the physical exhibit alongside that of the digital experience provided much rich comparison between the transfer of ideas to users and visitors.
Despite the success of the exhibition (well over 2,000 people in one month at all locations), developers eyed yet another property on which sat a structure designed by Loewenstein – and in this instance, 23 women from the university’s design studios in the form of their beloved 1958 Commencement House.  As with many preservation stories, this one has a sad ending and the house was demolished late in 2010, despite a number of efforts to purchase it, renovate it, or move it.  Thus the chapter on the current day physical city comes to a close.

Place 3: The Digital Realm

But our story of mid-century place does not end there.  With a team of student collaborators and support from the Graham Foundation, Loewenstein’s work took form in a new kind of space – a permanent website which served as a forum to bring together all of the information generated from the symposium, tour, exhibit, and an ongoing research agenda.[2] This latest iteration of Loewenstein’s buildings, located even further from their physical realities in a mid-century community, distant from their evolved characters over the last fifty years, and un-moored from the physical setting of the exhibit – still continue to shed new light on our understanding of his story – and that of mid-century modern architecture and design.   Abstracted further into pixel form, admittedly with many layers, this web presence allows people to encounter the suburban milieu from which it sprung in a non-physical way.  This mediated space brings as many answers as it does new questions, not so much about the mid-century work at its core but in the ways that we negotiate a digital world to understand the one around us.  In a landscape now populated by mobile phone users and digital apps, we tend to forget the physical one in front of our noses.  In exchanging a walk in the neighborhood for a digital stroll through space, we trade place for tele-place and risk disconnection with each other, our homes, our neighborhoods, and our communities. By relying on the digital place to tell our story, we communicate to others that the tangible, physical links we have in our environments can be translated, packaged, and squeezed onto a computer monitor, thus making it possible for developers to sweep aside social meaning and cultural exchange for two other ubiquitous architectural forms in today’s suburbs – the snout house and the town home.

The mid-century world is safe, though, encased in digital amber only a keyboard away.  Sealed hermetically in its curated space, the legacy of architecture and design – and the attendant social and cultural messages attached to it – remain for others to study, all around the world. Fortunately, the vibrancy of Loewenstein’s designs continue to provide a means to allow us to critically question the interpretation of architecture and design in contemporary curatorial practices – and to learn something about mid-century Modernism and its currency today.



Arnett, E. (1955).  Greensboro, North Carolina: The County Seat of Guilford.  Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 171-174.

Archer, j. (2005). Architecture and Suburbia: From English Villa to American Dream House. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Baxandall, R. & Ewen, E. (2000). Picture Windows: How the Suburbs Happened. New York: Basic Books.

Beauregard, R. (2006). When America Became Suburban. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Chafe, W. (1980). Civilities and Civil Rights: Greensboro, North Carolina and the Black Struggle for Freedom.  New York: Oxford University Press.

Fripp, G. (1982).  Greensboro: A Chosen Center.  Woodland Hills, CA: American Historical Press, 59.

Hayden, D. (2002). Redesigning the American Dream: Gender Housing, and Family Life (2nd ed.). New York: Norton.

Isenstadt, S. (2006).  The Modern American House: Spaciousness and Middle Class Identity.  Cambridge: Yale University Press.

Lucas, P. (2013). Modernism at Home: Edward Loewenstein’s Mid-Century Architectural Innovation in the Civil Rights Era.  Greensboro: Weatherspoon Art Museum.

Norberg-Shulz, C. (1980). Genius Loci, Towards a Phenomenology of Architecture. New York: Rizzoli.

Shanken, A. (2009). 194X: Architecture, Planning, and Consumer Culture on the American Home Front.  Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Spigel, L. (2001). Welcome to the Dream House: Popular Media and Postwar Suburbs. Durham: Duke University Press.


Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. This is a theme taken up in Chafe, W. (1980). Civilities and Civil Rights: Greensboro, North Carolina and the Black Struggle for Freedom.  New York: Oxford University Press.

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Smart materials based research for tangible user interfaces


This article proposes an overview on the evolution of interaction design concepts considering smart materials based research. A series of design projects and experimentations, realized within recent years, are here presented with a specific focus on materials performances. Going through design experimentation on chromogenic and kinetic smart materials, the article would try to define three emerging visions that prefigure the creation of physical object used as interactive interfaces with physical users and or responsive systems to environment conditions.
Toward these new design visions disciplinary contributions hybridize with interdisciplinary ones: product design methods work together with interaction design in the Smart Material Interface scenario.
The article investigates on these recent advancements and its correlation with human habitat.

1.   Introduction

The term interaction means a mutual influence between two or more persons, objects, materials, systems, phenomena, etc. The concept of interaction is inherent to the idea of a bidirectional action between the agents who maintain a relationship. Thus the interaction differs from the ratio of unique needs cause and effect.
Commonly used in social and psychological sciences, with interaction we define the sequence of dynamic and changing, direct or mediated relationships that are the basis of social relations among individuals, groups, communities, through processes of communication (verbal, written, graphic or gestural, communication).
Within project disciplines, as design and architecture, interaction usually means a dialogue which the user sets with a given object, work, device, space, environment or system.

In the digital Era this concept has been taken on the crucial importance by design discipline, as a result of the widespread use of personal computers and software, programmable machines, and GUIs, objects that are able to act and react, devices that allow a complex interaction between man and machine (HCI – Human-Computer Interaction). The set of interaction and interface became an element of the project itself. Firstly it happens in the specific computational field, then in design field in order to facilitate the use of the software and improve user interaction-product. In particular the interface, defined as the scene where interactions take place (Anceschi, 1993), has attracted the interest of visual designers, ranging from the simple exchange of information to more complex relationships.
According to G. Anceschi (1993), designing the interface consists primarily in shaping the “metaphorical osmotic membrane separating object and user”: ideating surfaces, atmospheres adaptations between man’s body and the equipment, in order to open “perceptual doors” and “ergonomic bridges toward the action”. This includes the design of communication codes with devices, made of textual or gestural or oral languages. Interfaces research hence the concept of “natural interaction”, emphasizing how articulations of user requests can be very similar to actions performed spontaneously in the physical world.
In the late 80s the debate on the issues of interface design scholars put in opposition the IT approach and the design one. The IT approach supports the issue of usability, functionality and ergonomics computational of technical artifacts (now regulated by EN ISO 9241). The design approach promoted visual design aspects of interaction, in order to define the interaction and interface aesthetic dimension. In the same period Bill Moggridge and Bill Verplank[1] coined the term Interaction Design to indicate the human-centered approach to experience design, resulting in the relationship between user and interactive digital instruments (user experience).
With Interaction Design term it was defined a branch of industrial design that deals with the design of the interactions, identified as the ratio between the user of devices, and the environment.
The first official academic program of Interaction Design was established in 1994 at the Carnegie Mellon University (Pittsburg, Pensilvenia, USA). In 1990 Gillian Crampton Smith founded in London the Design MA Computers connected to the Royal College of Art (RCA). In 2005 Anthony Dunne changed this title in Design Interactions. In 2001 it was established in Italy the Interaction Design Institute in Ivrea, exclusively devoted to interaction design, included a specific course of Building Interface. In 2007 the Institute of Interaction Design of Copenhagen (CIID) was founded. In 1998 was founded the Interactive Institute, a Swedish research organization sponsored by the Swedish Foundation for Strategic Research. Today almost all design schools have a course of Interaction Design.

2. Evolutions of Interaction Design fundamentals

The short history of Interaction Design as a specific field is living a process of continuous skills upgrading (computer science, cognitive psychology, visual communication design, ergonomics, semiotics, etc.). Many studies helped to define Interaction Design methods and purposes. Most of the studies agree with the position saying that the usability of an interface is not enough by itself to determine user’s likings. Usability can be high, because it meets the standards already defined, but does not give sufficient “sensory gratification”, or it does not completely perform the tasks that user expects from the application. Due to the increasing complexity that society is facing in the digital age, it is desirable that the relationship between users and “active” technological products should be complete, understandable, enjoyable, engaging and manageable (Norman, 2005). Many scholars have addressed the issue and expressed their views on a possible theory about interaction design, like J. Maeda (2006) whose approach is based on the principle of simplicity, or D. Norman (2005), whose approach is based on emotionality.
In order to define the “quality of interaction”, a lot of interdisciplinary researches analyzed phenomena that occur when a user interacts with an interface. The studies have been using physiological measures like skin conductance, electroencephalogram, electromyography, etc. to understand, using experimental psychology methods, which interface or user’s profile variables influence the different aspects of the interaction.
The design approach seems to be the most highly user-oriented one. The design approach is based on the awareness that the quality of the interaction concerned with its expressive result. This depends on a number of fundamental choices that have their profound aesthetic nature. The interactive experience of a specific user with a technical device, depends on the involvement of all human senses, as on the evolution of values and meaning of use, within an holistic view of social, material and cultural phenomena (Battarbee, 2007).
Some studies intend to enhance sensory experience with interfaces through the physicality of interactive objects. This is the case of some researches that show the physical and emotional dialogue between an interface and its user. This dialogue is expressed by the dynamic interplay between form, function, and technology (Kolko, 2011). Hallnäs and Redström (2006) stated that interaction design could no longer being considered only as a subfield of computer science, but a real link between basic research in computer science and product applications for new expressive design materials.
Experience design encompasses the design of interaction through the involvement of all the senses and, to include the quality of interaction, also involves many disciplines such as perceptive and cognitive psychology, cognitive sciences (neuropsychology), linguistics, and semiotics. This complex methodological approach has been developed within software design, web applications, and digital devices. Today, experience design is one of the new focal points of research in product design.

3. Smart Materials for Interaction design

The contemporary technological transformations together with the newly developed smart materials are changing the way of thinking and design the interaction between objects and users.
Smart Materials are radically different from traditional ones (Ferrara, Bengisu 2013 p). They are active, sensitive and reactive to various stimuli, like the modifications of external conditions around them (temperature, humidity, light, electricity, magnetism, pressure, chemical substances, etc.), to which they respond until the stimulus persists. Therefore they are inherently interactive. They act within a predefined behavior with kinetic effects changing the visual aspects of their physicality. They are in motion without using electrical mechanisms. Their interactivity depends on physical and chemical reaction processes that occur at a molecular level.
The interactivity of smart materials has been applied from long time to build 2D human-computer interfaces (as flat screens surfaces). User interacts through remote controls (mouse, keyboard, etc.), or touch screens, with graphical user interfaces (GUI so-called in computer language) that show digital information.
Some recent developments researches focus on the exploration of smart materials correlating digital science with material science and design. Smart materials are used in combination with conventional ones, in order to move the interactive behavior from conventional 2D interfaces to new 3D ones. Based on the characteristic behavior of smart materials (more liable to implementation) you can design objects that serve as tangible interactive interfaces (TUI), capable of changing appearance dynamically reconfigurable as the pixels of a screen, so as to give a physical manifestation of data, to “incorporate” digital information in physical space.
Design a TUI depends on our ability to use the materials to “incorporate” digital information in a physical space. The advantage of a TUI than a GUI is to benefit from the way we perceive intuitively through the senses. The TUI can therefore provide an alternative to the graphical interface and the vision of ubiquitous computing Mark Weiser (H. Ishii, D. Lakatos, Bonanni, Labrune, 2012).
With increasing design potential of physical computational technology, tactile/sensory qualities can be further explored in a way to build intimate relationship between user and object. Physical properties of materials – how they invite user engagement – can provide meaningful insights to interaction design, especially to explore diverse form properties of computational materials. Design exploration with new smart materials can eventually contribute to stimulate the senses and intuitive understanding, so as to make the interaction more enjoyable experience and user-centered. So the project have the challenge of use new materials faced this question: How smart materials can transform product and user experience?
If design will incorporate the potential of these materials in everyday actions, our reality will be much richer and powerful enabler for social interaction. On this subject Iroshi Ishii, director of the Tangible Media Group of the Boston MIT, argues that it is necessary to think “beyond the screen”, and find a way to let people interact with technology in a more efficient and direct way: it is a way to involve the body and sensory testing. The screen information was seen as at the bottom of the sea: you can see it, but not touch it. Instead the work of Ishii focuses on bringing information “on and over the surface of the water”, making them tangible (H. Ishii, D. Lakatos, Bonanni, Labrune, 2012).

Therefore design is facing the challenge of the use of new materials and the question: How digital artifacts designed with new smart materials could transform product and user experience design?
If design will be able to incorporate the potentiality of these materials in everyday actions, our reality could be richer, powerful and qualifying also for social interaction.

4. “Materials that move” in Design Experimentation

Smart materials performances are a powerful stimulus for the project, and they are also promising in relation to current paradigms based on the new sustainability goals, implementation of communication, interaction and human experience. They are great innovative tools to design radically new objects that respond to new   consumers needs.
On this assumption, a considerable increase of design research focused on the applications of smart materials. They are opening “a turning point in the methods of design” and “new opportunities for research of design and perception”. “The intrinsic dynamics of these materials, the capacity of continuous adaptation, and an harmonic transition make them extraordinary collectors of experience” (Ferrara & Bengisu 2013, pp. 84-86). Most of the design experiments, even if conducted at the level of crafts and do-it-yourself, are useful to develop a series of reflections in order to start new creative challenges combining technology research and experience inspired design.
Their technical complexity referred to a knowledge gap about them in the design field, means that the most successful experiments are those that involve multidisciplinary teams, with different specific tasks (electronic engineers, product or fashion designers, interaction designers, programmers, etc.).
Here reassumed an analysis related to most preferred materials used for experimentation, based on an overview of the last ten years scientific publications:
– Materials that change color, scientifically defined chromogenic, skilled in the change of the visual aspects related to the color and transparency, due to different stimuli;
– Materials that change shape, also called kinetic, disabled to modify their shape and size for response to different types of stimuli.

The wide use of these materials depends on their commercial availability and ease of retrieval.
The trial of chromogenic materials, widely available in the world market, is driven by fashion design study. Photochromic, thermochromic and chemocromic pigments can be fixed on fabrics with traditional techniques, without need to resort to sophisticated technology and industrial processes. From fashion and textile design experimentation they are spreading in other areas of design, especially product and interior design, but is more manufacturing difficulties for the preparation of composites. For a discussion of the results of experiments with these materials, please refer to the publication Materials That Change Color (Ferrara & Bengisu, 2013) which contains a number of case studies related to experiences of experimentation conducted with different types of chromogenic materials for a variety of design.

Regarding “materials that change shape” the currently testing is driven by the research in architecture, although experiments abound within the product and fashion design.
Within this class of materials are the Shape Memory Materials (also Magnetic Alloys and Polymers), Electroactive Polymers (EAP), Electrostrictive materials, Dielectric elastomers, Piezoelectric ceramic, Magnetostrictive (Terfenol-D) and Magnetic Fluids.

Nitinol is the most applied shape memory alloy[2]. It is available on the market in semi-finished components of various sizes for various fields: medial devices, artificial implants, surgery, dental implants as biocompatible material. Nitinol alloys has a property that allows the material to undergo deformation at one temperature, then recover its original, undeformed shape upon heating above its transformation temperature. Nitinol Wire (also known as Muscle Wire or Memory Wire) is a thin strand of Nitinol of small size, light weight, low power, a very high strength-to-weight ratio, precise control, long life, and direct linear action. Easy to use, it can lift thousands of times their own weight and it returns to its original length when it cools. The direct linear motion of Muscle Wires offers experimenters a source of motion that is very similar to that of a human muscle, providing possibilities not available with motors or solenoids. Nitinol Wire may be heated by any means, air temperature, hot water, or most commonly by running electric current through it.  Its activation or transition temperature is 70°C (158 °F).
Fabrics incorporating memory wire have the ability to return to some previously defined shape or size when subjected to an appropriate thermal procedure. The temperature at which the material changes in form can be programmed precisely at any desired temperature between -50° and + 100°C. When a similar heating process is applied to Moving Textiles, a material that features shape memory wire, the fabric reacts to later changes in temperature (of more than 2.5°C) by shrinking, creasing, changing structure or rolling up. Normal fluctuations in body temperature, therefore, cause no reaction. But clothing made of Moving Textiles can be programmed to respond to the transition from outdoor temperatures to heated indoor spaces. Examples are sleeves that automatically roll up and down, a jacket that opens and closes on its own, and a shirt that expands and contracts in both length and circumference. Other possibilities are blinds that descend when exposed to warm sunlight and roll back up when the temperature drops, moving lampshades, etc.
Thermobimetals are a combination of two metals with different thermal expansion coefficient, laminated together. They are available in sheets or strips, disks or spirals. It is commonly used in thermostats as a measurement and control system and in electrical controls as components in mechatronic systems. As the temperature change and rises, one side of the laminated sheet will expand more than the other. The result will be a curved or curled piece of sheet metal.
Reacting with outside temperatures, this smart material has the potential to develop self-actuating intake or exhaust for facades. Some applications in architecture have been documented. Automatically opening and closing ventilation flaps have been developed and installed in greenhouses and also for use as self-closing fire protection flaps, but nothing has been published on the development of this material for building.

Electro-active polymers (EAP) are actuator that converts electrical power into mechanical force. They move in response to electrical stimuli, with the ability to change shape without the need for mechanical actuators. They contract and expand significantly in length or volume. They also react to a few Volts. Are good conductors, with very lightweight, low density, flexibility, but their strength is rather poor, although much higher than the rigid and fragile electro active ceramics. The EAP, have been used in recent decades in application fields such as aerospace evolved in inflatable structures (like the balloons that act as cushions cushioning the blow when a aero-robot lands). Thanks to their flexibility, are used for the realization of Artificial Muscle Incorporated (SRI International, a research non-profit in California that launched a company) that emulate natural muscle in bionic systems and biomedical sector.

Finally there are the Magnetic Fluids[3], underused at present in design experimentation given their prevailing liquid state difficult to manage. A magnetic iron fluid is a colloidal suspension made of nanoparticles[4] of iron suspended in the fluid. It becomes highly in the presence of a magnetic field. Due to this unique propriety, it can be defined as a material with characteristics of more than one state of matter, the magnetized highly one and the not magnetized and fluid one. Very interesting to understand the quality of these materials are trials of Wakita for Blobs and works by Sachiko Kodama.
Experiments carried out by designers through practical workshop, provide an interesting scenario for basic research that tends to fill the gap of practical knowledge about these new tools in order to understand the technical potential and aesthetic qualities that smart materials can offer during the interaction.
Initially, the trial does not arise an application problem, but it is aimed to understanding the behavior of the material. Free from the search for application solutions, experimentation can reach the performance limits of a material to understand how it works, how can be manipulate for manage its formal, visual and tactile characteristics for his behavior before finally reaching a hypothesis of functionality and interactivity. The experimentations proceed in the following general steps:

1. Know what it has been already done;

2. Understand what you can manipulate by design;

3. Master manipulation of shaping attribute to model the interactions.

Thus, during the trial, the material is revealed to the senses, it informs on its behavior and inspires new applications.
Another step of the experiment is the project of interaction that firstly must establish codes of communication between material-object and user.

5. New Design Visions and Cases Study

Researchers like Dunne, N. Oxman, M. Coelho, A. Minuto, M. Kretzer, Akira Wakita and many others who work in the field of interaction design or computing sciences try to recompose the two aspects, namely computational and operational, designing two dimensions of materials in unison: the physical and the digital. Their objective is encoding information into materiality and to give life to objects and space whose electronic operation becomes tangible and capable to generate a rich, easy understanding, aesthetic and satisfying interaction experiences. As Dunne (2005) states, such an approach intends to retrieve the materiality of the object, reducing the gap between the analog and the digital world since materials used at the micro or nano scale started to be used to construct transistors inside sealed boxes, which gave these objects technical consistency, although they made their operation incomprehensible from that point on. The current approach could improve the affordance of the objects, recovering the material richness, which was lost during the passage from atoms to pixels (Coelho et al. 2007).
Using smart materials, interface design grows with tangible interface that can improve the interaction quality through the physicality, and tray to overcome some of the limitations that digital interfaces have.
The use of smart materials into objects and systems can improve the understanding of the objects during their operation (Ferrara & Bengisu, p.), and it makes pleasant interaction by direct experiences of users using the human senses. It can counter some of the limitations imposed by digital interfaces such as akinesis.
Here we will deal with three visions that emerge from design experiments who are placed at a certain distance from the vision of ubicomp (ubiquity computing) that search a indirect and mediated experiences where material and the computation are seen detached from each other.

5.1. Smart Material Interfaces (SMIs)
SMIs is a product design vision between computing technologies, material engineering and design that aims to overcome the conventional model of digital human-computer interaction to arrive at a new model of Tangible User Interfaces. By integrating the digital logic to the physical world of objects, Smart Material Interface becomes a way to create a more “natural” interaction and a rich sensorial satisfaction for user. SMIs vision can implement the user-object interaction by new expressive languages and communication channels.
This view was put forth by a team of researchers[5] at the University of Twente, in partnership with Interaction Design Organization. In these organizations considerable efforts have been made to explore the possibilities of applying smart materials in physical interfaces.

Marcello Coelho, researcher of Research Group Human Media Interaction (HMI) of the University of Twente, during his PhD conducted a series of experiments about coupling between smart materials and conventional ones, to creating high-performance composites. Some of his projects have allowed the creation of working prototypes like Superflex, a new composite material for a deformable and programmable surface that integrates Nitinol muscle wires in a poliuretanic shape memory foam. The experiment is aimed at the development of a new composite material capable of assuming different configurations for physical computer-aided design. M. Coelho was inspired by the work of Robert Thompson, who explores how human interaction can be the primary force that leads to the transformation of the forms, and to bring to the physical world the same versatility that we find in the digital world, but also support new ways of interaction and communication. The concept of Superflex is very reminiscent of the material developed by Bruno Munari for the Pirelli’s collection of toys from the 50s. But, in contrast to that of Munari, Superflex’s surface can be electronically controlled to deform and gain new shapes without the need of direct manipulation with hands, but it work by external actuators. The material has been designed as a shape-changing interfaces, also be applied as a device used to record and replay messages by physically manipulating ITS SpeakCup shape to achieve, in the form of computer-aided design.

Another prototypes is Sprout I/O, an haptic interface for tactile and visual communication composed of an array of soft and kinetic textile strands which can sense touch and move to display images and animations. It is built from a seamless textile and SMA composite to render a dynamic texture, which is responsible for actuation and sensing, as well as the surface’s visual and tactile qualities. Sprout I/O uses a shape changing texture to explore how small shape deformations on a surface can be perceived as a whole and used to communicate. As consequence, this exploration also sheds light on the relationship between the overall shape of an object and its changing surface properties.

This example demonstrate that the application of smart materials can improve the user-object interaction because it confers to the objects a communicative capacity related to their state or to other external information (environmental).

Akira Wakita[6]
The project Blob Mobility, from the Wakita Laboratoray at Keio University, uses a fluid, pastel-colored, programmable matter (magnetic liquid named pBlob, i.e. programmable blob) as interface for a physical actuated shape display. The liquid display is manipulated by hardware made of electromagnets and their control circuits, and provides newfound abilities to govern the unpredictable movements of fluids, that responds to the magnetic field, changing shape in response. The designers describe the method of Blob creation, details of the mechanism and the language for transformation control.
This enables the designer to experience organic shape changes geometrically and topologically in real space. According to Wakita, the device “enables us to experience organic shape changes in real space.” (xx) If virtual environments have incessantly mimicked real ones, Blob Motility marks an intriguing reversal in which reality begins to emulate virtual space. Some applications are being develop.

Another but more complex design example, which declares to adopt smart materials to build a user interface, is the project of a smart vacuum cleaner by de Bruijn (2011). Describing the applied methodology during design, de Bruijn emphasizes the importance of designing the user experience, which anticipates the full involvement of senses to facilitate the understanding of the functioning of the object and the design of user-product interaction, based on the model of human–human interactions made of reciprocal communication and reactions to render the experience more satisfactory.
This and other examples of product design demonstrate that the application of smart materials permit the improvement of communication with the product. Through the modification of color, light and shapes induced by stimulus and without the need for screens, since the material itself acts as an interface, it is possible to convey messages and information to the users, for example communicating what is occurring inside the product or how to use it. Smart materials, like chromogenic and kinetic ones, open new windows of opportunity for augmenting the reality of interaction, making it more continuous, persistent, and coherent to feedback (Minuto et al. 2011).

5.2. Responsive Environment
This design vision inspires architecture and landscape concept that enhance users sensory experience and lifestyle.
Architectural product concepts, that include responsive skin, are designed to facilitate well-being through surprise, movement, natural noise management, air movement and natural light dispersion. The interaction happens between environments thought a skin responsive mediation. That can transform to change the interior characteristics of a space in response to people and the atmospheric/lighting conditions outside.
Investigations show the Building with responsive skin as biomimetic of the human or other biological life skin must be designed as a “huge receptor field”, capable of indicating, controlling and reacting to the aggression of the surrounding space. This field has to form suitable values of the components that influence the living comfort in the architectural spaces. It should be composed of smart materials (thermo-chromic glasses, thermo-bimetal elements, memory shape materials, piezo elements, etc.)
With responsive building skin as the outside (or inside) temperature rises, it is intended that the skin will physically peel open, allowing the building to ventilate automatically. With further development, an active method of air intake and exhaust can be developed.
From the many design investigation stands out the Metamorphosis design concepts, by Philips. That have been created viewing the home as a filter to limit air pollution, electromagnetic smog, and industrial noise penetrating our living and working space while letting in natural light, air and sound. The concepts work as a filter between people and the natural world from which, over time, people have become detached.

Phototropia is the name of the thesis project of Edyta Augustynowicz, Sofia Georgakopulou, Dino Rossi and Stefanie Sixt, supervised by Manuel Kretzer of ETH Zürich. It was realized in September 2010 in cooperation with the Laboratories for Material Science (EMPA), in Dübendorf.
Phototropia is a façade that contributes significant reduction in energy consumption by regulating the incoming sunlight into the interior of a residential building. Electrochromic and liquid crystal technologies allow the modification of thermal transmittance and view, which are controlled by a model-based plan executive. Except from operating as climate moderator the façade functions as an interface mediating the dynamics between inside and outside, public and private. The interaction design challenge is how to renew the role of the façade to provide new ways of association between the private environment of the house and the public environment of the street, the residents among themselves and their neighbors, and ultimately the house and its urban context.

5.3. Warning signals or Communicative Clothes
Although any clothing can be construed as an expression of personality or identity, certain garments are more explicit when it comes to communicating something about the wearer. With the incorporation of electronics into clothing, modes of communication through fashion are extended further.
Lorna Ross’s models for telephone gloves allow explicit communication through actual conversation.

The MIT Media Laboratory’s MEME tags transmit information about the wearer to other tags. Cell phones and beepers themselves have entered the realm of fashion: in Japan, an incredible array of cartoon-character pendants, flashing antennae, and sleek pouches are available for embellishing cell phones, while both cell phone and beeper manufacturers strive to design attractive and trendy cases for the devices. Traditional fashion allows people to express themselves and communicate personal information to the general public; electronics allow targeted communication of specific data to specific people. Wearer can transform or customize a garment.
Reactivity input how many stimuli a garment responds to. Any physical object is inherently responsive to ambient physical stimuli: wind, collision, gravity, and wear and tear. However, electronics allow computational garments to respond to any number of specific stimuli as well, physical or intangible, from motion (via accelerometers) to sound (via microphones) to transmit digital data (via infrared or serial receivers). The number of inputs can range from zero (no explicit inputs; for example a wool sweater) to one (on/off; for example a light-up LED ring) to many.

6. Conclusion

In the essay, we introduced the evolution of interaction design affected by the emerging smart materials. Our survey about recent material and interface technologies described specific vision design examples in order to conceptualize the emerging material quality of digital artifacts in term of their material effect in use. As an overall observation based on this survey, we found that there is a need for interaction design and HCI research to pay more attention to the on going rapid and dynamic development of new physical materials. It is clear that these new material bring potential for new form of interaction where the physical is merged and blended with the digital.
Questions in how tangible or physical computing interfaces would transform the relationship between users and digital artifacts from longitudinal and socio-ecological perspective, how they could achieve or would lose certain design qualities compared to the interaction with non-digital artifacts, and how designers could strategize design with physical enhanced computational technology to promote sustainable interaction and good experiences.
Based on the review of specific example and design scenarios, we have described three different visions – smart material interfaces, responsive environment and communicative clothes. The design visions are not mutually exclusive but closely related to each other. Each of vision suggests a corresponding design implications and research directions in functional behaviours, performances and aesthetic quality. A suitable interaction design and a frame of meaning.

Both the objects we use in everyday life, both architectures in which we live, from “passive” and “immutable” (as in appearance, shape, size, color, etc.) are transformed into “active” and “changing” due to the materials acts as an interface. Their appearance and texture will change with the same ease and speed with which digital forms change on our computer screens.
In architecture, building surfaces may lose their stiffness, rigidity and immobility, changing their way of being and appearance in relation to the interaction with users and with the characteristics of the external environment, in automatic or intuitive ways; environments will gain sensitivity, becoming “flexible” and “adaptable” to respond easily to change throughout their lifetime. 
Objects and architecture, incorporating the digital logic and the open source programming processing, thanks to platforms like Arduino, will integrate their behavior depending on specific customer.
Incorporating a composite entity in both hardware and software, the interaction may be rich in expressive potential and serve new functions that we will be able to imagine.

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Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. Bill Verplank worked for Xeros, for Interval Research and Stanford. In 1991 he with Bill Moggridge co-founded the IDEO company.
  2. This shape memory alloy is composed primarily of Nickel (Ni) and Titanium (Ti). The name Nitinol was derived from its place of discovery (Nickel Titanium Naval Ordinance Laboratory). Nitinol alloys exhibit are shape memory, superelasticity and the ability to undergo deformation at one temperature, then recover its original, undeformed shape upon heating above its transformation temperature.
  3. Ferrofluids were initially discovered in the 1960s at the NASA Research Center, where scientists were investigating different possible methods of controlling liquids in space.
  4. The particles are suspensions of larger, and usually non-stable, magnetic particles. “The ferrofluid actually contain tiny particles (~10 nm diameter) of a magnetic solid suspended in a liquid medium.”
  5. The team is composed by M. Coelho, A. Minuto, Nijholt, Kretzer, Poelman e Vyas and others.
  6. A researcher of interactive textiles with a PhD in computer-aided design from Japan’s Keio University. He works for making stronger connections between the analog and digital realms.

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From screen readers to tactons: vision-independent technologies for accessible products

Vision-independent technologies and interfaces are an important topic in interaction design. Such technologies are of interest for visually impaired users and for elderly people who have difficulty in reading. Furthermore, they offer new pathways for communication in cases where visual overload is a problem, where the user needs to use vision for a more critical task, or where vision-free interaction could be more convenient for the user. Commonly used alternatives to vision are audio and tactile communication. A more direct means of communication involves brain computer technologies that involve the user’s brain activity to control devices. Interaction designers play a critical role in the realization of products, devices, and systems that involve vision-independent technologies reviewed in this paper. Their efforts will include a seamless adaptation of these technologies into easy to use products, as well as exploration and integration of the sociocultural context into such innovations.

1. Breaking loose from vision-dependent interfaces
Most of the consumer electronic products in the market involve touch screen or flat panel interfaces that require some kind of visual interaction. For example, while using a smart phone, the user needs to read a text message, choose an item from a menu, press an icon, make a specific finger gesture to open a different screen, or interpret a graphic display such as a map. Such products are almost impossible to use by visually impaired people (VIP) without any modification, additional technology, or some help from a person with adequate vision. Why? Because a flat screen has no topography that can be discovered by touch, unlike a pushbutton on a conventional phone. There is no difference between two points on a screen. Thanks to researchers, designers, and engineers, there are already various solutions available to overcome this problem (Bengisu, 2010; Brewster et al., 2003; Jayant et al., 2010; Qian et al., 2011). The general strategy is to make use of sensorial feedback other than vision such as sound. For example, screen readers are an established technology that aid VIP to read aloud the information represented on the device screen. Vision-independent technologies and products are not solely developed for VIP. They also offer the following benefits:

• increased accessibility for people with motor disabilities,
• increased accessibility for elderly users,
• improved security (by not displaying confidential information on the screen),
• easier and more accurate data input since the user is not limited by a small screen size.

Here, motor disabilities refer to various disabilities that may prevent or impair access to the interface of a device such as the keyboard or smart screen. The development of voice recognition and voice command has already become a useful alternative for people with motor disabilities. For example distal muscular dystrophy may affect the muscles of hands or arms, limiting the ability to use fingers for any data input into a device. However, most of the patients with such impairment can talk (Emery, 2008) and thus use a voice-based interface. In many adults, aging causes at least minor impairment in vision, hearing, or dexterity. Arthritis or tremor can make fine motor movements difficult to control (Fisk et al. 2005). Inclusive design or universal design philosophies aim to take into account the needs of the largest possible number of users in product, service, and system design. Thus, problems of vision loss or impaired dexterity need to be addressed by designers who design products such as tablet computers or, say, digital blood pressure monitors that will be used by senior adults, in addition to younger users. New ways of communication with such products gives designers fresh opportunities to consider during the design phase. Furthermore, the increased number of data input modes will make many products more accessible, increase accuracy of data input and output, and provide the user different alternatives, thereby increasing convenience and efficiency. Take, for example, data input for computers. Today, there are various alternatives to enter text, numbers, or other type of data into a computer, including keyboards, mouse, voice-input, touchscreen, light pen, trackball, and joystick (Wickens et al., 2004). Each of these technologies offers a different degree of cognitive, perceptual, and motor load as well as fatigue. A user who wants to omit stress or disease due to repetitive movements or prolonged static postures may benefit from the use of two or three alternative interfaces used at different times. For instance, instead of using the mouse continuously, it would be healthier to use the touch pad and mouse alternatively. Therefore, it is conceivable that the inclusion of new ways of communication with electronic devices will be beneficial for all types of customers, regardless of age, sex, nationality, or the presence of disability. “Interaction design is making technology fit people” according to David Kelley, one of the pioneers of this field. In this simple definition, technology represents software, hardware, screen graphics, displays, and input devices. Kelley believes that interaction design should make technology useful for people, delight them, and excite them (Moggridge, 2007). Following this definition, one could say that interaction design is at the core of vision-independent devices and applications. The role of interaction designers would be to adapt vision-independent technologies, develop easy to easy to use devices, and create pleasurable experiences. Examples to vision-independent devices are voice-activated mobile phones and tactile computer screens. Designers and design researchers could contribute to this emerging field through the exploration of the social and cultural environment of potential users of vision-free devices. A simple example would be helpful to clarify this point. For instance, Söderström and Ytterhus’s research (2010) on the use of assistive technologies by young people demonstrated that many disabled teenagers don’t want to be different from their friends and they don’t want to be seen as dependent on assistive technologies. Therefore, some of them prefer not to use an assistive device if it is something obvious, restrictive, slow, or if the assistive technology overtly exposes their impairment. In other words, they don’t prefer to use an assistive device if they do not seem as ordinary as their peers while they use it. Such information would obviously be very useful for interaction designers during the development of a device for young disabled users.

2. Vision-independent technologies
Various technologies are under development, aiming to offer reliable alternatives for vision-guided manual input and vision-based data output. Currently voice-based technologies are the most developed of such technologies, already offered as alternatives in many devices, although their owners may be unaware of it. Speech recognition became available for consumers in the 1990s. One of the first commercial products was Dragon’s speech recognition software, launched in 1990. An improved version was introduced in 1997 at a much lower price ($695 instead of the initial $9000) recognizing about 100 words per minute (Pinola, 2011). The Windows Speech Recognition software was released with the new Windows Vista in 2006. Unfortunately, the software failed to function correctly during a demonstration at a Microsoft financial analysis meeting, causing much embarrassment and loss of public trust in this technology (Wikipedia, 2013). Today, speech recognition and voice command are standard in certain Windows and Mac systems. Furthermore, Google introduced a free application for iPhone in 2008 that uses voice recognition technology for web search engines. A similar application is now available for other smart phones. Although speech recognition technology is rapidly diffusing in various platforms, this is not necessarily a vision-independent technology since the user still needs to see the screen and read the results of a web search or speech to text transformation. An additional program is needed to completely bypass vision. This is a text to speech software which synthesizes speech and reads the text aloud. Such software are known as screen readers. Common commercial software for mobile phones include TALKS for Symbian 3 operating system (OS), Mobile Speak for Symbian and Windows Mobile OS, and TalkBack and Spiel for Android OS (Bengisu, 2010).

3. Vision-independent brain computer interfaces
Brain computer interfaces (BCIs) are devices that translate brain signals into commands that are used to control equipment or computer devices (van Erp & Brouwer, 2014; Kim et al., 2011). In principle, any brain mapping technique such as functional magnetic resonance imaging, near infrared spectroscopy, or electroencephalography (EEG) can be used for this purpose. EEG, which reflects electrical activity of neuron ensembles, is the most popular mode because it is noninvasive, affordable, harmless, and well developed for practical applications (Kim et al., 2011). Three types of BCI approaches exist, namely active, reactive, and passive. Active BCIs rely on the active generation of brain patterns. For example, the user imagines a left hand movement to move a cursor to the left on a screen or vice versa. In the reactive mode, the brain reacts to specific stimuli. For example, different environmental sounds are created and the user is required to concentrate on a certain one and ignore the others. Passive BCIs detect the cognitive or emotional state such as workload, frustration, attention, and drowsiness. This information can be used to improve human-machine interaction but the user has no direct control on the output in this case (van Erp & Brouwer, 2014). Most of BCI research and product development has been focusing on vision-based active or reactive brain signals until now. This approach uses visual stimuli or visual feedback. For example, the visual P300 speller uses a 6 x 6 symbol matrix that contains letters and symbols within rows and columns. The user is asked to focus on the desired symbol and mentally count the number of times it flashes. The computer identifies the symbol attended by the user as the intersection of a row and a column (Riccio, 2012). Vision-free BCI recently became a subject of research in order to explore alternative modes of communication for disabled users that have difficulty fixing their gaze on specific visual stimuli or patients with vision impairment. BCI technology is also interesting for non-medical applications such as the game industry. There are already commercially available games such as Uncle Milton’s Force Trainer and Mattel’s Mindflex that use EEG caps (Fig.1) as the sole interface to control the game (van Erp & Brouwer, 2014). Such products rely on visual feedback but vision-free BCI could be used as additional means of control in such applications. Two vision-free BCI technologies being studied are auditory and tactile BCIs. Studies on auditory BCIs mostly use event-related potentials (ERPs). Participants are subjected to acoustic signals that are termed events. Some of these events are target events and the rest are non-target events. Both of these events can be tones, words, or environmental sounds. Participants are asked to focus on target events. Auditory streams are presented with changes in position, frequency, sequence, pitch, or loudness of tones. The target event is rare, while non-target events are frequently encountered. This approach in ERP based BCI is called an oddball paradigm and the target stimuli are called oddball sequences (Riccio et al., 2012). Based on such methodologies, auditory spellers have been developed. These interfaces are used for basic communication with the user. Simple words or sentences are communicated just by concentrating on oddball events. For example, participants are asked to select a letter or a whole word such as yes, no, stop, or pass, corresponding to the location of one of the six loudspeakers surrounding them. The average accuracy with healthy participants was in the range of 65-75% during various trials (Riccio et al., 2012). Tactile BCIs employ the sensation of touch for communication. At the moment, research is focused on tactile interfaces as a route for stimulation but studies in other fields (not related to BCI research) also use it for feedback. Tactile stimulation can include Braille letters, vibration directly delivered to fingertips, vibration delivered to other parts of the body through vibrating elements (tactors), and vibration delivered to fingers through a flat screen. In one experiment, tactors were placed on a vest in order to deliver vibration through the torso (van Erp & Brouwer, 2014). The user was required to focus on one of these tactors while ignoring others. This system is an interesting alternative for VIP or in situations where visual overload creates a risk.

4. Vision-independent interfaces for mobile interfaces
Another frontier of research is in the field of mobile assistive technologies for VIP. Portable devices such as mobile phones, digital music players, organizers, and handheld computers represent an important market both for people with good vision and VIP. There are many product development opportunities related to vision-independent technologies that may interest designers, engineers, and R&D managers. As mentioned before, any research aiming to solve problems faced by VIP could actually also benefit the whole sector. A recent review describes current research in the field of mobile assistive technologies for VIP (Hakobyan et al., 2013). Here only some of the more interesting and relevant studies are highlighted. As it is the case for BCI technologies, two alternative sensorial paths are considered in mobile devices in order to substitute vision. These are auditory and tactile paths, which are sometimes used together as well. One example of an auditory solution is the gesture-driven 3D audio wearable computer developed by Brewster et al. (2003). The aim of this research team was to create interfaces that use as little of users’ visual attention as possible and to be independent of the limited screen space causing input/output problems. Such an interface could be useful, for instance, when someone is trying to take an important note in his electronic organizer or handheld computer while walking, or switching from one song to another in the menu of a digital music player, while jogging. Brewster el al.’s wearable device uses a spatial audio interface for data input. The system interprets head gestures to choose items from menus. The user nods in the direction of sound or speech that surrounds the head like a pie in order to choose the desired item. An evaluation of this device with and without audio feedback indicated that dynamic guidance by audio feedback results in more accurate interaction. The efficiency of such a system depends on cognitive load (Vazquez-Alvarez & Brewster, 2011) but in general, it seems to be a very promising alternative to current vision-based devices. Tactile icons or tactons are tactile stimulations with various dimensions such as intensity, rhythm, and spatial location. Qian et al. (2011) used pairs of tactons in order to test and explore new tactile feedback mechanisms. For example, one tacton involved a pulse duration of 200 ms and an interval between pulses of 500 ms. Another tacton consisted of a pulse duration of 400 ms and an interval of 2000 ms. These tactons were tested under a set of distracting conditions showing that music and street noise reduces the chance of tactile recognition. Some guidelines were developed for interface designers who will use tactile feedback for mobile devices. Various possibilities exist for tactile input. Braille has been used directly on mobile phones for tactile input. Spice Braille Phone (Fig. 2) is a low cost mobile phone produced for VIP by the Indian company Spice, introduced in 2008. It is a simple phone without a screen. The keypad provides audio feedback to inform the user about the number being dialed. Other means of tactile input include talking touch sensitive interfaces such as the Slide Rule and vibration-based Braille script on a touch screen such as the V-Braille. Slide Rule is an interface that uses touch input and speech as output. As the user navigates through the screen, a list of on-screen objects appear. The user listens to the items on the menu while she brushes her fingers down and uses certain gestures such as tapping in order to select the desired item (Hakobyan et al., 2013). V-Braille is a free application for smart phones. It converts the mobile phone screen into a screen with six dots (Fig. 3). These dots correspond to Braille letters made of six raised dots on paper or other materials. Dots on the screen vibrate when touched and the rest of the dots remain still. The user can identify the letter through this interface. Both input (through the VBWriter application) and output (through VBReader) are possible (Jayant et al., 2010).

5. Conclusion and future research
Vision is an essential element of communication with electronic devices. However, there are many situations that necessitate the use of new modes of interaction. The major driving force behind research in the field of vision-independent technologies is loss of vision. VIP and elderly people who commonly develop certain problems with vision may benefit from new ways of communication with devices and their environment. Furthermore, research in vision-independent interaction design will also help to develop new, easier to use, and pleasurable interfaces and devices. Auditory and tactile paths are being studied as alternatives to visual communication. An interesting possibility is to make use of brain computer interfaces. In certain cases, the remaining two senses, smell and taste, could also be used to replace vision. New fields of research, design, and product development include, but are not limited with, the following:

• vision-free interfaces for devices with very small screens or with no screens at all,
• vision-free technologies for products that have to be used in the dark (for example for military applications),
• alternative paths of communication in situations where visual overload becomes a problem (for example in complex tasks or multitasking such as walking/driving/jogging and interacting with a device at the same time),
• alternative paths of communication that allow one to switch off the screen (for example for security reasons),
• exploration of the social and cultural context of users and the integration of this information into new products.


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Editorial #12: Bodies of interaction

A collaborative project realized by Jan M. Sieber and Ralph Kistler
The documentary film was made by Susann Maria Hempel

In the last decades, since the computers became portable and ubiquitous, the everyday life of people changed drastically. How we communicate and socialize, the way we gather for fun or work, the concepts of entertainments and occupations changed and are still mutating. The continual introduction of innovative interfaces as experiment or as product in the market impact thoughts and actions. The relations between the human and the non-human bodies are in a constant dialogue, re-discussion and contradiction. The facts and actions in the virtual world regulate and organize in a different manner the actions in the physical world. The digital appendices alter the life in the city and its fluxes. The control of the electronic extensions of our body increasingly involve the gestures of the natural body and cause its modification.

The fact is that these digital artifacts influence our behaviors and a critique of the trigger factors must be encouraged and increased. The focus of the 12 issue of Pad journal is on the interactions between digital artifacts and human behaviors. In specific on the relations, influences, modifications between these devices and the human body viewed as physical, virtual and/or social. The body of human relate with and through artifacts in a continuous extension of their potentialities, those abilities, possibilities of action, faculties of actualization[1]. The potentiality of the human-artifacts belongs to the two individuals as well as to their relation. The potentiality of talk to someone farther than our voice can reach, the potentiality of see farther than we otherwise could, the potentiality of recall to memory and so on; as much as the potentiality of functioning in mobility, the potentiality of being carried in a pocket, the potentiality of recognizing human movements. These that we can call technical potentiality can support greater potentiality for human-artifacts activities interfering in the social and cultural context as well as the identity of the now redefined individual. The technological innovations offer a constant expansion of tools to be applied for the creation of these potentialities and the role of the designer is to understand the how of the affection of these new tools on the potentiality of our bodies, being them physical, virtual or social.

The limits of the human physical body are challenged by artifacts and redefined. As an example the race of the Natural User Interface (NUI) or Tangible User Interface (TUI) or as we can say better today the touch and gestures based interfaces, brought great innovation in the daily technologies in the form of smartphones and tablets. Although defined for their use of tactility these interface rely richly on the vision and are in many cases bare of other feedback. The topic of vision-independent technologies is addressed by M. Bengisu “From screen readers to tactons: vision-independent technologies for accessible products”. A path that start from extended accessibility conditions can be proved fruitful in specific context of use (for example complex tasks, or sport activities) as well as in more generics daily applications. The use of auditory and brain interfaces, a technology today in vast growth and daily more accessible, is a step towards the critiques of consumer electronic standards in which the issue is not yet tackled. The negative potentiality of a not-to-see open to the many potentialities of hearing, touching and feeling.

The physical body and the concept of tactons, the tactile icons, meet with the materiality of artifacts that are becoming “active” and “changing”. The research on new materials with dynamic and interactive potentialities is explored by M. Ferrara in her “Smart materials based research for tangible user interfaces”. Smart material interfaces, responsive environment and communicative clothes are the three core topic discussed in the article. The body and its physicality is a crucial perspective on the actual turn in interaction design towards materiality. Materials are getting dynamic, changing, somehow computational, the next interfaces will be physical and tangible in a totally renewed and yet to define way.

The body digitized become virtual and so the space around it. How our surrounding affect us and how can we describe them using the tools of vision of memory, and of digital representation? P. Lee Lucas sets a three perspective picture on describing a place and its alterations in “Sense of place: sense of tele-place?”. In a google-map-mediated-world where a place it is because it can be digitally reached, leaving tracks of its past in the digital world is an increasingly interesting subject that sits next to the digital archives and digital museums and galleries that are populating the Internet. Can our architectural past be digitized? What will survive now the book, the architecture or the digital representation?

The world of past digitized places can be considered a world of abandoned realities that can be inhabited only by ghosts. Virtual ghosts of people that really existed in the place and that now are not there anymore, people that didn’t survive their digital representation, or at least the representation of their spaces. These ghosts of the past can lean next to other digital ghost: the render ghosts. The concept of render ghost presented by Antonio Palacios in “An Ontology of Render Ghosts” is that of people inhabiting render spaces. The render ghosts, defined by James Bridle, are unknowns citizens of places yet to come. In opposition of the ghosts of a past city these are ghost of the future, a future that does not exist other than in the virtual representation. They are potentialities of citizens, users of a digital space that if realized will enable physical people to act inside it replacing the rendered ghost. This short circuit define ghosts from a present registered in the blueprints of a potential future. People will realize their machine dreams, will substitute their avatars, citizens will replace their own props and reiterate their representations. The virtual lose its virtuality or shows its never-virtual-purity mixing with realities of different times.

The body of social interaction is a body that relate itself through and with technologies. The time is in fact the dimension of dynamism that more affect the computational objects and their different realities. The concept of “fourth dimension” is addressed by Chiara Lecce, starting from the work of Lucy Bullivant and her 4dspace, in “The Post-digital era: towards a relational and sustainable approach”. The so called dimension of digital technologies shapes our everyday life through the object we use or as we should say the objects we live with. This population of computational artifacts is growing exponentially in experiments and installations having a wide affection on our visions but still a limited impact on our houses.

For the cover of this issue we present the project “Monkey Business” by Ralph Kistler and Jan M. Sieber. The awarded project is constituted by a toy monkey that reacts to the movement of the person in front of it. The mechanical animal duplicates the human body creating a physical dialogue that start with a greetings and doesn’t finish in a dull imitation. As the designers state “In a subtle way, the monkey asks for another move, you have never ever performed before. Playing the game, you will lose control unconsciously”. The bodies of monkey and human start replicating each other and influencing each other to the point of reaching a seamless interaction and choreographed performance. The bodies becomes one, the machine becomes human and the human becomes a monkey.

The door of contemporary is open to computational things, ghosts and shape-shifters; a world of potentialities is ready and waiting, it’s time to make things that help us to think, it’s time to make things that make us do, it’s time to make things that make us, better.


Agamben, G. (1995) Homo sacer: Il potere sovrano e la nuda vita. Torino, Giulio Einaudi.

Bridle, J. (2013, February 27). Balloons and Render Ghosts. Domus. [1-12-2014]

Bullivant, L. (2005). Architectural Design, Special Issue 4dspace: Interactive Architecture. Academy Press.

Sieber, JM. and Kristler, R. (2011) Monkey Business in:

Turkle, S. (2011). Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other. New York, Basic Books.

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. The concept of potentialities refers to the notion proposed by Giorgio Agamben in Homo Sacer.