On thesis presentation, models-vs-prototypes, and freedom from constraint
My thesis has a user—those engaged with a speculative device—, distinct from its audience—designers in conversation about desired futures. Thus, the presentation of my thesis must operate on two levels: narration and conversation. On a narrative level (Fig. 1), I aim to illustrate how the device I’ve created might fit into someone’s life.
On a meta-level, a conversational level (Fig. 2), I aim to discuss a range of topics, such as, how data might be visualized in the future and the use of biological age as an alternative metric to Nike+ Fuel.
Last week, we participated in group critiques with faculty members: Frank Chimero, Paul Pangaro, and Amit Pitaru. Each student had a few minutes to present and faculty had the same amount of time to provide critique. Pitaru was concerned about the “mapping” of health data to the aging of a tomato; Pangaro had a similar concern. Since then, I’ve changed the design so that instead of a single tomato representing biological age, the display will be a comparison between biological and chronological ages. One tomato represents a person’s chronological age: it ages, withers, and dies as normal. The other represents a person’s biological age. If a person has a biological age greater than their chronological age, so too will the tomato. For example, a 30 year old, with a biological age of 40, and a life expectancy of 60 is 33% “biologically older.” A mature green tomato will age, wither, and die over thirty five days. Mapping the biological age of the person to the tomato embodiment equates to aging the tomato thirty-three percent, or eleven and a half days.
The algorithm to calculate how much time (TIME) a tomato must be aged to reflect a person’s biological age is detailed thusly.
Avatar Life Remaining (ALR) = Avatar Biological Age − Avatar Chronological Age.
∆ Human Age (HA) = Human Biological Age − Human Chronological Age
Human Life Remaining (HLR) = Human Life Expectancy − Human Chronological Age
TIME = ALR(∆ HA/HLR)
The other critique I receive from Pitaru and Pangaro is that I must convey the emotional experience. A conundrum: all I have in hand is a model of a feedback loop, an Arduino circuit, and a rendering. Until now, my goal has been to create a working device—I believed the power of its existence in the world would be enough to convey emotion. I was wrong. In my weekly meeting with thesis advisors Jen Sutton and Martin Sullivan, I shifted our goals from creating a working device to a model for exhibition and a user experience video prop. This equated to removing components and features that would be unnoticed by the viewer, such as the accommodation of sensors or multiple voltage circuits. (Fig. 3) Although I felt as though I made a major concession in terms of vision for the project, I didn’t get the same sense from Sutton and Sullivan. I suspect because so much of what they do as industrial engineers is prototype parts that are later manufactured at a large scale, this pivot was standard operating procedure. Later on in the week, they sent an updated rendering with the following notes.
1) We made the tunnel [the tunnel the power cord will be routed through] .1875″ in diameter. If you can measure the diameter of the cord you’ll be using we’ll adjust the tunnel to correctly accommodate it (not all USB cords are the same diameter).
2) The tube itself is 5″ OD, .25″ thick wall, 12″ tall. I ordered one off of MMC and will get it in tomorrow to see how it looks and how close actual dimensions are to nominal.
3) Right now no, they’ll [the hose fittings leading from the gas cylinders] stick out quite a bit. We can change that though. We can make through holes on the outside surface of the cylinder and move the fitting to the inside of the assembly threaded directly into the underside of the floor of the base. That would actually be easier to fabricate if that’s the direction you like.
4) The fiberoptic rod for the LED is .125″ in diameter. That’s the smallest we’ll physically be able to go. I know some devices get smaller than that but they employ some fab tricks I can explain over the phone that we won’t be able to do on this. —Martin Sullivan
Now that I decided to create model, I’m much more free to speculate on how the system might work without certain constraints. First, I began rethinking the sensor. Thesis advisor Jackie Steck and I had been working with the Fitbit API to pull down my personal data for use with the working prototype. Now, I was able to consider the ideal sensor. My main criteria was that the sensor be small to the point before one might consider an implant—about coin-sized. (Fig. 4) I provided the dimensions of the sensor to Sutton and Sullivan for fabrication. For finishing, I began a conversation with Tim Daly of Dalymade, to have the sensors painted, along with half-a-dozen ethylene gas cylinders. Finally, I began designing the exhibition leave behind: a biological age test, self-administered by the user to initially calibrate the system. The goal of giving away an artifact-from-the-future is to make the system all the more real in the mind of the viewer.