Designing Clay Technology
By Catherine Reyto
The title is a play on Designing Calm Technology, Mark Weiser and John Seely Brown:
“Calm technology or Calm design is a type of information technology where the interaction between the technology and its user is designed to occur in the user’s periphery rather than constantly at the center of attention.”
The concept for this experiment was deliberately minimalistic. The intention from the outset: a display that people could approach with intuitive grasp of what to do and how to do it in a way that might seem while seemingly obvious may be credited to an attuned set of motor skills ingrained from experiential play in childhood. It needed to be welcoming, malleable and to an extent, user-defined. The set up needed to be durable, tough, possessing no fragility or risking of breaking; something that could endure the abuse and wear-and-tear of many hands (including those of small children) without compromising an acute level of sensitive response in movement and touch. Though the idea seems derived from Tom Gerhardt’s Mud Tub, and indeed I was inspired by from watching this video and reading about the intent behind the work, it was mostly the result of coincidence. Directly following the first class of our Experiment 3 lab, I gave a lecture to film students about drawing the human form. In an analogy about expressing the volume of a human figure, I alluded to the very tangible sensation of dividing up slabs of clay with a wire thread, and how satisfying it felt. As I said it, a student agreed enthusiastically. I took that as evidence enough that it was a sensation that was both familiar and relatable- especially to a group of Design students. But I was also interested in exploring why I had thought to use that particular analogy at all, clay having nothing to do with the class I was teaching. I had searched for a mental association that they could reference from deep memory, and lock a new idea to it, giving it ground. It was these same steps that I had interpreted in Ishii’s TUI mandates, as well as in Mark Weizer’s view: “The more you can do by intuition the smarter you are; the computer should extend your unconscious.”
From the top: Tom Gerhardt: Mud Tub, Tangible Interface 2009, and Cutting Clay with Wire, Delon Visual Arts
The display needed to be both self-explanatory and inviting; not by means of decor but with visuals and objects that elicit feelings of calm creativity: playing with clay in art class. The table surface was covered with that classic plastic, red-and-white checkered table-cloth so associated with craft tables. The only items upon it was a black rolling pin and next to it, a big ball of clay. I am quick to respond to any chance to play with art materials in any setting, and that especially goes for a public setting within an at least somewhat professional context, where the act of craft-making can quell the anxious feelings. I guessed that within this class of like-minded artists and designers, there was a likelihood that others might gravitate to the ‘crafts’ table, where they could zone out on the medium (clay) and with a tool they’re familiar with in an ingrained way since childhood (rolling pin).
Above the table, a large-screen display provided visual feedback as they kneaded the clay with the rolling pin. With the Arduino nestled like a level in the exact centre of the pin, the user’s hand movements were being recorded by the built-in gyroscope, and passed to the Processing code. The angle values over time were translated into shapes moving across the screen, with graphics (shape, frame location, size and colour) altering with the pace and pressure of the user’s hands over the clay.
The initial concept involved cutting wire through clay, and capturing the satisfying feeling with direct visual feedback on the screen (sliding the wire slowly through the clay would slow down the changing colours, for instance). I faced a few too many challenges with this idea, the main one being that even if I did purchase or acquire a sensor small enough to fit comfortably in the handle of the wire cutter, it seemed to throw off the balance if it was only in one handle. It also would have meant using high-quality clay to achieve the appropriate sliding effect, and that’s difficult to acquire unless purchased in a large quantity. The rolling pin proved to be not only more practical but in fact a lot more tangible, taking direct pressure from the hands on the pin, instead of the indirect pull from holding handles of a cutting wire.
PVC pipe (rolling pin)
floral dry-foam (structural support for the Arduino)
Lady’s razor container (holding the Arduino in place)
Electrical tape (to seal the Arduidno and USB casing)
I had been inspired by the ideas presented in Tangible Bits: Beyond Pixels (Hiroshi Ishii), and the principles of Ubiquitous Computing (Mark Weiser) of “weaving digital technology into the fabric of a physical environment and making it invisible”. It was Ishii’s emphasis on the ‘meaningful’ and ‘comprehensive’ that spoke directly to me. I often feel torn between the future of digital technology and the not-so-distant past, before it was drastically altered. It dawned on me while reading Ishii’s paper that the goal of the DF program was to find that link through art created by and made for people. It renewed my appreciation for what what we were learning, but it also made me feel the need to go back to basics.
TUI Mandate as described in Tangible Bits: Beyond Pixels (Ishii).
That’s where clay came in to the picture. I had another reason for keeping the material assembly of the concept as simple as possible : to maximize the amount of time I could devote to learning / working with the code. I envisioned dynamic, acutely responsive imagery on the screen, comprised of a myriad of images that would behave similarly to custom brushes in Photoshop where you can paint with photos of your cat or sample a nice arrangement of paw prints to use as an abstract texture. After some experimenting though, I found the use of images was a bit constrictive and disconnected. The most direct response came from the employ of very basic shapes, and it makes sense: in traditional animation, there is a rule of thumb that no more than one character should be moving at a time, in the same way that nothing should compete for attention with the main focal point in film. The simple familiarity of the basic shapes led to a more immediate response, with far less distraction.
I have since college, worked with a Wacom tablet and not long after, began a decade of working as a demo artist for the brand itself. During that time I created courses in how to make the best use of the pressure sensitivity in order to obtain design project goals. Something that has always fascinated me was the range of people that enrolled in the Digital Painting course (Continuing Education, George Brown College). The greatest challenge and most interesting aspect of this class was whom it attracted: professionals who thought it might benefit their respected profession in some way. That comprised of, to name a small few : a pool table designer, a costume designer, interior designer, architects, film-makers, photographers small-business owners, and of course, graphic designers of all kinds. Thanks to this work with digital pressure sensitivity, I feel like I have inadvertently been subscribing to the Ubiquitous Computing ideology and the mandates of Tangible User Interfaces (Ishii) long before I read about them two weeks ago.
I have a personal history to lend to the context of this project. The house I grew up in was a bit of a technology paradox. There was a computer (assembled DIY style by my programmer dad, comprised of used parts) in almost every room, each one surrounded and often semi-buried under stacks of paper, files and books (belonging to my editor-mom, who hated computers). I’ve always felt my mother sits at one end of the extreme of the boomer generation and my dad at the other: the luddite and the technologist. My mom is an educational-writer and potter and a believer in hard, physical work. In her retirement I have persuaded her to adapt to ‘smart’ technology tools as a means of making her life easier. She wound up distrusting the “Ok Google” voice-operated remote to the extent that she returned it for the in-the-box basic model. My dad meanwhile, taught himself how to write code in the 80s because it was fun, recorded all his favourite classical music to MIDI files in the 90s and still writes his own apps as a hobby. As an adult, my friendships have divided between two mindsets, both of which I identify with. On one end there are developers, sci-fi aficionados and comic geeks, on the other, carpenters, classic literature, folk and rock music and carpenters. Sometimes there is an overlap (and I identify with those people the most), but it’s been rare.
With the influence that all things digital has had in recent decades, that spectrum has become murkier with each generation since. Through the murkiness come big questions about where we are heading and where we are coming from. We wonder what we’ll be able to take with us and what we are leaving behind, to make way for the onset of ever-changing ideals pertaining to innovation.
Until college, my art practice was a physical, tangible process. Since then it has been mostly digital, with massive pros and cons. I had held out as long as I could; Majoring in Film Animation, I drew everything by hand and only used the ancient (obsolete) cameras and editors (Oxberry and Leika). When I later spent a year in the Computer Animation lab at Sheridan college, compared to the drawing studio Concordia, the difference in energy in both spaces was shocking. So much so that after walking in one day and taking in the sea of zoned-out, green-lit faces, I knew I would never work in that industry. There is something wrong with how we have been adapting to our digital environments, and it’s got nothing to do with the tools themselves. It’s how we believe we need to use them. It’s not just the difference between a Graphic User Interface and a tangible one. But the philosophical problem is most easily demonstrated in their comparison, making it the best place to start. My personal spin on it is a rule-of-thumb that has become a theme in my teaching, educational and art-making endeavours: my mom (representing the spectrum of Leonard Cohen luddites out there) needs her curiosity to be sparked enough to ask ‘why’, while my dad and everyone else who makes a habit of looking under the hood is challenged enough to ask ‘how’. Between those two questions lies my take on Ubiquitous Computing – it just needs a friendlier name.
After the first two group projects, I was looking forward to the opportunity to work alone so that I could prioritize my focus on learning about what was going on behind the scenes, in the gyroscope and accelerometer themselves, their inputs in Arduino, how the serial communication was being sent to Processing. I very much wanted to create some stunning animated visuals, but I allowed myself to go down the rabbit holes that group work had been preventing me from (and wisely, it turns out). I watched the class videos about the gyroscope and accelerometer several times, pausing and looking everything up that I didn’t immediately comprehend (including how G force works), I researched different types of sensors, I built my own class of objects after watching and reading Shiffman tutorials. The biggest rabbit hole was my determination to use inputs from both the accelerometer as well as the gyroscope. It seemed vital that the beauty of the rolling pin be in its level of sensitivity, and I had a hard time accepting that my lack of experience and knowledge pushed this goal out of scope. But it was a good lesson for the remaining experiments in this course, and could serve as an invaluable reminder in my thesis work. I did manage to acquire nicely organized reads from both, but everything seemed to fall apart with the map function. Even once I had resigned to just using the gyroscope inputs with the map function seemingly well-implemented, there was still more of a hike in the value incrementation than I could pass off as drift.
The result from all that determination, was that although I did probably learn a lot more than I realized, I became overwhelmed by the amount of new information coming in from so many areas and with the deadline quickly closing in, I was losing my sense of comprehension. This was nowhere more the case than in the Processing code, where I was continuously distracted by all the visual possibilities while not being able to write them cohesively. I had planned to write an elegant class of animation functions, but wound up with two rect shapes that took gyroscope X, Y, and Z angle values and a few basic animation functions. It was enough to demonstrate the concept in presentation, but I should have allotted more time to the visuals and perhaps requested help with the map function.
As a self-observation I found that I get easily fixated on one route to the goal. Discussions with Manisha helped me out of this mental quicksand more than once. It was talking with her that the idea evolved from a clay cutting wire to rolling pin. I am however, finding confidence in my resourcefulness in these projects: Engineering the problem-solving how to hang the mobile with limited resources and major restraints (experiment 2) and how to turn an Arduino into a level (razor container fits it perfectly!) in a fixed way (floral foam from Dollarama) within a DIY rolling pin (PVC pipe). I had fun exploring my home, scanning everything in sight in an abstract way, reinterpreting its potential use. Or just sitting back and exploring this process mentally, recalling in 5th-element style the encyclopedic reference of tools and objects from memory, until something stands out and is moved to the category of candidates for potential use, awaiting comparison against other objects with a similar potential purpose with a different set of offerings, to see how it holds up.
Gerhardt, Tom, February 19, 2010. Mud Tub, Tangible Interface 2009 [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4kb0u2jPotU
Cutting Clay with Wire,
Delon Visual Arts, November 5 2014. Cutting Clay with Wire [Video file]. Retrieved from https://youtu.be/CE1RngUukjk
Ishii, Hiroshi, Tangible Media Group, 2008. Tangible Bits: Beyond Pixels. MIT Media Laboratory.
Weiser, Mark, 1999. The Computer for the 21st Century. Palo Alto Research Center, Xerox, CA
Weiser, Mark and Brown, John Seely, December 21, 1995. Designing Calm Technology. Xerox PARC, CA
Shiffman, Daniel, 2008. Learning Processing: A Beginner’s Guide to Programming Images, Animation and Interaction. Elsevier Inc. Burlington, MA