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What if we could pick at the seams that separate the physical and digital universes, creating rifts for the digital to intrude upon and affect the properties of the physical?

I write about thesis for the first time in a long time.

My last writing effort was towards my Alumni Scholarship Awards proposal, submitted in December. The proposal captured my thesis thinking at the time, about Baubles—avatars, in the form of ubiquitous networked tangible devices, that represent our embodied selves and remotely sense the world.

I made the decision to abandon Baubles days after the submission deadline, for many reasons, my nagging designer’s intuition mostly, that warned the ideas and forms I proposed was better suited for a PhD. in Design dissertation, or hardware/software prototyping at the MIT Media Lab. Despite the months spent developing Bauble-ideas, the decision to veer was easy. I was grappling with new, adjacent, ideas: the quantified self and data-visualized-by-the-manipulation-of-an-object’s-physical-properties.

[Scene: Winter break, between the Fall '11 and Spring '12 semesters. Niu Miao—RISD MFA candidate in Digital+Media—and I are seated side-by-side in the front seat of my truck, travelling southbound on I-95 towards Raleigh, NC. We have just spent the previous three hours comparing notes on our respective programs (mine: design; his: art) and experiences during the Fall semester.]

Miao: So, Michael, tell me about your thesis project.

Yap: Yes. To tell you about my thesis project, I must tell you first about tomatoes and the “quantified self.”

First: the “quantified self” as it relates to health. I spent alot of time last semester thinking about health and data, specifically, how certain thresholds of data of everyday health, can yield more effective conversations between a patient and health provider. Kate McCurdy’s personal data visualizations charting the progress of a disease that affects her auto-immune system is an early-days example. The recent explosion of wearable personal health tracking devices, such as the Nike+ or FitBit, allow us to achieve meaningful data thresholds, opening up possibilities and challenges. Also, for two independent health-focused semester long projects I created last semester, the research phases yielded the same insight: meaningful visualizations of our health are few-and-far between.

[Miao nods]

Second: tomatoes and the artificial ripening process. The tomatoes that we buy from the grocery store are grown in Florida.

Miao: In Florida?

Yap: Yes, the tip of the southeastern United States.

Miao: Yes.

Yap: When tomatoes are harvested, they are green.

Miao: When they are not ripe?

Yap: Yes, so that they will survive the transport, in tractor trailers, to New England. When they arrive here, they are artificially ripened by exposure to ethylene gas.

Miao: They turn from green to red?

Yap: Yes, in a very short period of time.

[A smile spreads across Miao's face]

Yap: So you can see where I am heading. What if we could modulate the ripening rate of a tomato with health data tracked by a device like the FitBit?

[Miao furrows his brow]

Miao: Yes, Michael this is very interesting.

[Silence; over twenty minutes.]

Miao: Michael, this is more of an artwork than a design.

Yap: Yes. Perhaps.

Miao: Michael, this is a work that would be made in my program: a fine art program.

Yap: Yes.

Miao: This is very interesting.

[Silence; several minutes pass.]

Miao: Michael, this could be an installation.

Yap: Yes.

Miao: How you make it, will be very important.

Yap: Yes.

Niu and I spent the following week together, visiting with friends and exploring North Carolina over the new year, exchanging ideas and fortifying ourselves through friendship in preparation for our final semester of study.

Insights emerged and intentions were stated.

We inhabit, and designers create for, two parallel universes: the physical and digital. Traditionally, the digital references the physical: our software refers to “obsolete technologies” ranging from “baskets to magnetic compasses to bubble levels,” what Bruce Tognazzini refers to as “user illusions.” 1.

What if we could pick at the seams that separate universes, creating rifts for the digital to intrude upon and affect the properties of the physical?

  1. Gage, Stephan 2011. “Parallel Universe.” Volume 28: 8–9.

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