This week we exhibited the Lifecharm shells, datalogger and Lifestreams film at the Mosaic3DX conference, held at Microsoft Research in Cambridge. The exhibition was organised by Karen Jinks of Cambridge Creative Network and also featured Jenny Langley, Gareth Wild of Apropos, Nick Edwards, Jon Heras of Equinox Graphics and Circuit Cambridge.
Digital Alchemy – transforming data into poetry
“The real nature of matter was unknown to the alchemist: he knew it only in hints. In seeking to explore it he projected the unconscious into the darkness of matter in order to illuminate it.”
Carl Gustav Jung, Psychology and Alchemy
From the late Middle Ages alchemists were frequently depicted as seekers of eternal life and unending riches, a wholly materialist set of objectives that would be facilitated by discovering the philosopher’s stone and being able to transmute lead into gold. However, in the twentieth century, an entirely different interpretation of alchemy gained ascendance due, in large part, to the writings of the Swiss psychotherapist Carl Gustav Jung. Jung interpreted alchemy as a symbolic process that aimed at individuation, the psychological assimilation of opposites whilst retaining their separateness, leading to the psychological (or even spiritual) transformation of the alchemist. The use of symbols and materials in the alchemical process function as archetypes of mythological images that reside within an individual’s unconscious, triggering an internal transformation as they pursue the Work. This likening of alchemy to the esoteric and spiritual traditions of East Asia (such as yoga and meditation) as well as its own Western roots in Hermeticism places it clearly within a framework for reflection, revelation, transfiguration and enlightenment.
In January 2012 a team from Proboscis (Stefan Kueppers and Giles Lane) was invited to collaborate in a critical and creative dialogue with scientists (David Walker and Steffen Reymann) from Philips Research Laboratory in Cambridge as part of Anglia Ruskin University’s Visualise public art programme (commissioned by Andy Robinson of Futurecity with Dipak Mistry of Arts & Business Cambridge). Our collaboration was one of several initiated between artists and industry in Cambridge that were aimed at helping to communicate the benefits that could come from such partnerships. Philips proposed that the theme for our joint dialogue would focus on personal health monitoring. Specifically our colleagues at Philips were interested in exploring new ways to engage nominally healthy people in monitoring their own health and lifestyle as a preventative measure, rather than waiting for a medical condition to arise and then find themselves having to adopt biosensor monitoring as part of a recuperative regime. The aim would be to think of emerging biosensor systems as part of a continual, holistic process of healthy living and wellbeing, rather than just as technological aids for post hoc medical intervention. The problem was that the statistics concerning the use of commercial biosensor products and related smartphone apps demonstrated that the vast majority of users tended to abandon the devices and ignore the data visualisations within weeks of first using them, undermining any potential beneficial impact they could have.
Over the next six months through a series of intense monthly meetings, rapid conceptual development and iterative prototyping we developed an experimental response to the problem. Our project, Lifestreams, proposed a novel way of thinking about the nature of biosensor data and its relationship to how we live our lives. We sought to move beyond the simple graphs and number counting that pervades so much of the ‘quantified self’ meme towards the poetic and numinous; to capture something of the epic in everyday life. Our aim was to transform our relationships to digital data from the ephemeral of screens and interfaces into something that encompassed the tactile and material producing a more subconsciously emotive and emotional experience – an artefact or Lifecharm.
Having developed the basic concept we grappled with the form that such an artefact should take asking ourselves, “What physical form could be mathematically driven by data to create dynamic and interesting shapes that could also communicate some sense of the whole person?”. The answer was to reflect on and revisit nature for archetypal forms and generative principles. In listing the attributes that an artefact generated from information would likely have, we found ourselves describing the growth patterns and expressiveness of shells. The patterns in their growth are determined by the health of the creature (such as a mollusc or snail) making them; what they consume, stress factors and the environmental conditions they exist within. Shells have a near universal fascination so the idea took hold of using contemporary technologies to artificially allow a human to ‘grow’ their own shells from data generated by monitoring their own health and lifestyle patterns.
The lifecharms were created by capturing a range of personal biosensor data types (heart rate, body temperature, blood pressure, step count, sleep pattern, exposure to air pollution) and applying the data to a workflow using algorithms to extend the principles of the helico-spiral with time-based rules. These allow us to ‘grow’ the shell in the Groimp 3D modelling environment producing the initial 3D model surface which we then post-processed using Meshlab software for export as a stereolithographic file. The file can then be sent to a 3D printer to generate the physical artefact in a variety of different materials such as plastic, metals, glass, resin and ceramic. What makes the lifecharms unique is that they are not just parametric or formulaic transmogrifications of the raw data but generative because time as a key element informs the variations in the growth grammar that evolves the shells. Each of the biosensors’ time-series data drives one of the parameters governing the shell’s growth form. The data points are iterated through time intervals and become parameters altering the shell’s growth rules as more data is fed into the model. This gives each shell a non-deterministic morphology somewhat akin to the way a shell would be grown by a living creature.
Our own research into and experiences of using more common screen-based interfaces for visualising biosensor data had left us feeling that they were somehow inadequate. Their frankly mechanistic approach to relaying the data back to the user seemed to lack the kind of poetry that would allow someone to weave the process into the daily narrative that people construct about themselves. Unlike data visualisations the lifecharms are generated through a process of non-deterministic spatial data transformation. It does not confine them to such an instrumental purpose as merely relaying the original data back to us as information in a simplified and easy to comprehend manner. Instead, they are embodiments of the data, transformed from the abstract and ephemeral into the concrete and present. They establish the potential for uncommon insights to be perceived into the health conditions and lifestyle patterns in which the data was collected. Such insights are prompted by tactile and intuitive reflection.
Over the past decade Proboscis has been exploring tactile interfaces and tangible souvenirs as a key part of our research into the way people create and share knowledge, stories and experiences – what we call public authoring. An element of the handmade often features in the outputs we design, but here the imprint of the person about whom the data being shared is directly embodied in the object itself. A Lifecharm shell synthesises the intrinsic qualities of the data within its morphology; visualisations, on the other hand, make extrinsic interpretations of such data. It is, at one and the same time, both an informational object – representing a state gleaned from sensor data – and also a philosophical thing triggering intuitive reflection. It unites different traditions of investigation and meaning making: the scientific and the mythic, or magical, both being and becoming. However, a lifecharm is neither an icon nor iconic, nor yet an implement or tool – it embodies a state without representing it banally. What it exemplifies is not knowledge in the form of a ‘transactable’ commodity or product but a path to knowing that arises from an ongoing process of continuous interaction with and intervention within everyday habits, in this case practiced daily through touch.
“Magic in its earliest form is often referred to as “the art”. I believe this is completely literal. I believe that magic is art and that art, whether it be writing, music, sculpture, or any other form is literally magic. Art is, like magic, the science of manipulating symbols, words, or images, to achieve changes in consciousness.”
The Lifecharms are not rational, functional objects, they are magical, irrational, indeed talismanic things by which, through tactile familiarity, we may come into knowledge or understanding by way of revelation. Like poetry, which is much more than the sum of words and their arrangement on a page, they are more than the sum of the data that drives their growth parameters.
Carrying a lifecharm and touching it everyday, both consciously and even as a displacement activity, causes you to develop a relationship with it over time. You become familiar with its materiality – the feel of the shape in your hand; the weight of the material it is made of, the textures of its surface. None of these reveal the patterns in the data that generated it directly, however this is precisely the point at which the lifecharm begins to operate in a mythic or magical capacity – as a performance of patterns of being and of behaviour embodied and reified into a talisman. Its magical power could be defined as the potential for revelation that it holds for you to come into an uncommon insight by handling it over time. In this way you might come to perceive new possibilities for change and adaptation in your own patterns and behaviours – triggering your own process of subjective transformation. The lifecharm is thus not just a thing of being but a thing of becoming. Their role in the personal narratives we construct around our daily lives is revealed as much through our continued interaction with them as by their thingness.
Like poetry, the lifecharms are also diachronic – meaning that we can experience and relate to them across time, whilst the meaning or data they embody is fixed in time (i.e. the shape of the shell or the words of the poem do not change). Dynamic data visualisations may often be synchronous – i.e. driven by live or recent data streams – but the way we experience and relate to them is likely to be mediated (through devices such as smartphones, tablets or computers) and determined by our behaviours and patterns of using those devices they are mediated through. This makes the lifecharms intrinsically different to screen-based visualisations of data. The information that we may glean from them is less to do with an instrumental replay in visual form and much more to do with how we begin to learn about the patterns they embody through a growing tactile familiarity with their physical form. This difference becomes an opportunity to augment our means of understanding the phenomena recorded in the biosensor data – an opportunity to explore meaning making through a relationship to complexity and intersubjectivity.
About six months after our initial three generations of shells were created and 3D fabbed I came into my own uncommon insight – that the shells were in fact, tactile poems. This happened partly as a result of my stay in Reite village in Papua New Guinea with anthropologist Professor James Leach (University of Western Australia/CNRS) during November 2012 and our conversations since, as well as those I have had about my experiences there with poet Hazem Tagiuri (a Proboscis associate). The villagers of Reite lead a traditional ‘kastom’ lifestyle in the jungle with a fairly minimal exposure to a ‘modern’ existence predicated on patterns of consumption and mediated sociality. (Although the modern world of industrially produced goods and telecommunications is slowly but surely encroaching and making an impact on their lives and culture). Reite people were traditionally non-literate and remain highly skilled makers, carving and weaving many of the things they use. Touch is a powerful sense through which they acquire information about their world, as indeed it could also be said to be with highly skilled artisans and craftspeople of our own society. However, the incredible sense of presentness in everyday Reite life and the intensity with which they conduct continuous social relations is vastly unlike our Western culture of discontinuous being, mediated as it is through patterns of dislocation, telecommunication and distraction. I felt that their physical knowledge of materials connects at a deeper level and is more attuned to detail and granularity than ours. Looking at our own society and culture, such physical, traditional knowledge has been debased as a lower form of skill and social standing – for instance in the negative way manual labour is contrasted with intellectual work, or how craft is ‘lesser’ than Art – for centuries.
Since returning from PNG my conversations with James have often focused on this intensity and presentness – a kind of radical continuity with being that life in the village feels like. This intensity has also been the subject of my many attempts to describe what life in the village feels like to others. An enduring memory I have, and which I described to Hazem, was watching a man ‘conjure’ fire from cold sticks in a firepit without using any form of tinder, or ember or fire-lighting materials. What seemed like magic or an illusion was an everyday demonstration of the uncanny power and knowledge this man possessed. He knew just how to feel for residual warmth within the sticks and arrange them in just the right way that would amplify the heat enough to stimulate combustion, a skill and power I have neither witnessed nor even previously heard of. The poem Hazem subsequently wrote helped me to connect the lifecharm’s talismanic nature to poetry. It helped kindle the spark of revelation that, like the way we come to know a thing through poetry, so the kind of knowing that resides within our hands and sense of touch is not just symbolic knowledge, but actual; that we may truly come to know something through touch alone. And that, like in poetry, the precise, elusive moment in which we come into the knowledge that the lifecharm offers us remains on the edge of conscious thought; a sensation we intuitively call revelation. Perhaps such a thing might also be described as the Work of digital alchemy.
Loch Ard, Scotland August 2013
This essay was first published in Tasting Notes, a book accompanying the exhibition, This New Nostalgia, curated and published by InspireConspireRetire, September 2013.
Last year we collaborated with the Possible Futures Lab of the Information Security Group at Royal Holloway University of London to assist local people in Pallion, Sunderland develop a way to come together and help each other map out the skills, knowledges, resources and capabilities for responding to and effecting change in their community. The outcome of this was the establishment of a regular group of people working out of the community centre Pallion Action Group. As part of our work with them we co-designed a series of simple ‘tools’ that could be used to help them do things like identify problem and solutions and share them online confidently and safely.
The tools use very simple paper-based formats – wall posters, postcards and notebooks – that can either be printed on standard home/office printers or cheaply printed at larger sizes at local copy shops. The notebooks are created with bookleteer and can be downloaded direct : http://bookleteer.com/collection.html?id=9
To make these tools available to anyone for use in their own communities, we have now designed generic versions and collected them into a Neighbourhood Ideas Exchange Toolkit. The toolkit is free to download and everything in it is free to adopt and adapt under a Creative Commons Attribution Non-commercial Share-Alike license.
Download the Neighbourhood Ideas Exchange Toolkit (zipped archive 48Mb)
We would love to hear of anyone’s experiences using or adapting these tools for their own purposes and keen to hear of suggestions for improvements or additions to the toolkit. One of the items we feel is currently missing is some form of simple self-evaluation tool for communities to use to determine how successful (or not) they are in achieving their aims and objectives. We are also working on a special set of StoryCubes designed to help both organisers and communities work through common issues and to devise solutions and activities that help them set up their own Neighbourhood Ideas Exchange.
Where possible (time and resources permitting) we are willing to develop new or customised versions of specific tools, such as the notebooks or worksheets. Please get in touch with us to discuss your ideas or suggestions.
Neighbourhood Ideas Exchange by Proboscis is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.
Since early December last year I’ve been carrying around one of the Lifecharm shells with me every day. It was generated from personal biosensor data gleaned not just from myself but from two other studio members last summer when we were capturing a range of experimental data sets to generate prototypes with. Using the data, Stefan generated this particular lifecharm as part of our third iteration of prototypes in late July. This shell was one of several that we later chose to have 3D printed in different materials at Shapeways – this one in sterling silver, the others in glass, ceramic, resin and steel.
I have been carrying it around to see how I feel about it, what it means to me and how I weave it into my everyday life. Our original concept for the lifecharms was that they might trigger an entirely novel way of developing meaningful relationships to the kinds of personal health data gathered by sensors (such as Fitbit, Fuelband etc) that people are now adopting as part of the ‘quantified self’ meme. Our colleagues at Philips Research, David & Steffen, told us that the statistics of use of these kinds of sensors by healthy people tended towards abandonment after just a few months as interest and engagement fades. Their interest was in exploring motivations that might make self-monitoring of wellbeing and healthy lifestyle a thing someone would choose to do before they discovered a health issue that required monitoring.
Our approach to this was to think about the way such sensor data is relayed back to users – most commonly in the form of screen-based visualisations. We wondered if perhaps these simply aren’t arresting enough to weave themselves into the narratives of everyday life that people construct for themselves. I’ve long been interested in touch as a form of knowing and sharing, and Proboscis have been exploring physical outputs from digital experiences for many years (such as tangible souvenirs) so we started out by thinking about how we might embody the data in a physical form that could be carried around and used like a charm or talisman. Stefan has written previously about our research methods and the journey that led us to devise the lifecharm and its inspiration from nature. His Lifestreams film also explains the various technical processes we adopted and adapted to create the results.
What’s so special about these ‘data objects’?
Unlike data visualisations the lifecharms are generated through a process of data transformation that does not confine them to an instrumental purpose such as relaying the original data back to us as information in a simplified and easy to comprehend manner. Instead, they are embodiments of the data, transformed from the abstract and ephemeral into the concrete and present. They establish the potential for uncommon insights to be perceived into the conditions from which the data was collected (i.e. someone’s health and lifestyle patterns), prompted through a process of tactile and intuitive reflection.
A Lifecharm shell synthesises the intrinsic qualities of the data within its morphology (visualisations, on the other hand, make extrinsic interpretations of such data). It is, at one and the same time, both an informational object – representing a state gleaned from sensor data – and also a philosophical thing triggering intuitive reflection. It unites different traditions of investigation and meaning making: the scientific and the mythic, or magical, both ‘being’ and ‘becoming’. However, a lifecharm is neither an ‘icon’ (nor iconic) nor an ‘implement’ (tool) – it embodies a state without representing it banally. What it exemplifies is not knowledge in the form of a ‘transactable’ commodity or product but a path to knowing that arises from an ongoing process of continuous interaction with and intervention within everyday habits, in this case practiced daily through touch.
The Lifecharms are not rational, functional objects, they are magical, irrational, indeed talismanic things by which, through tactile familiarity we may come into knowledge or understanding by way of revelation. Like poetry, which is much more than the sum of words and their arrangement on a page, they are more than the sum of the data that drives their growth parameters.
Carrying a lifecharm and touching it everyday, both consciously and even as a displacement activity, causes you to develop a relationship with it over time. You become familiar with its materiality – the feel of the shape in your hand; the weight of the material it is made of, the textures of its surface. None of these reveal the patterns in the data that generated it directly, however this is precisely the point at which the lifecharm begins to operate in a mythic or magical capacity – as a performance of patterns of being and behaviour embodied and reified into a talisman. Its ‘magical power’ could be defined as the potential for revelation that it holds for you to come into an uncommon insight by handling it over time. In this way you might come to perceive new possibilities for change and adaptation in your own patterns and behaviours – triggering your own process of subjective transformation. The lifecharm is thus not just a thing of being but an thing of becoming.
Like poetry, the lifecharms are also diachronic – we can experience and relate to them across time, whilst the meaning or data they embody is fixed in time (i.e. the shape of the shell or the words of the poem do not change). Dynamic data visualisations may often be synchronous – i.e. driven by live or recent data streams – but the way we experience and relate to them is more likely to be mediated (through devices such as smartphones, tablets or computers) and determined by our behaviours and patterns of using the devices they are mediated through. This makes the lifecharms intrinsically different to screen-based visualisations of data. The information that we may glean from them is less to do with an instrumental replay in visual form, and much more to do with how we begin to learn about the patterns they embody through a growing familiarity with their physical form. This difference becomes an opportunity to augment our means of understanding the phenomena recorded in the bio sensor data – an opportunity to explore meaning making through a relationship to complexity and intersubjectivity.
I came to my own uncommon insight – that the shells were in fact, tactile poems – partly as a result of my stay in Reite village in Papua New Guinea and the conversations I have had since with anthropologist James Leach, and also with poet Hazem Tagiuri. The villagers of Reite lead a traditional ‘kastom’ lifestyle in the jungle with a fairly minimal exposure to a ‘modern’ existence predicated on patterns of consumption and mediated sociality. (Although the modern world of industrially produced goods and telecommunications is slowly but surely encroaching and making an impact on their lives and culture). They were traditionally a non-literate people and remain highly skilled makers, carving and weaving many of the things they use. Touch is a powerful sense through which they acquire information, as it could be said to be with highly skilled artisans and craftspeople of our own society. But coupled with the incredible sense of presentness in everyday Reite life and the intensity with which they conduct social relations that is so unlike our own society of discontinuous being, I felt that their physical knowledge of materials connects at a deeper level and is more attuned to detail and granularity; whereas in our own western culture it has been debased as a lower form of skill and social standing – such as the negative way manual labour is contrasted with intellectual labour, or how craft is ‘lesser’ than art.
Since returning from PNG my conversations with James have often turned on this intensity and presentness – the form of radical continuity with being that life in the village feels like. I have, in turn, attempted to convey my experiences to friends, to describe how utterly different I felt whilst in the village. During the course of one conversation with Hazem I described watching a man ‘conjure’ fire from cold sticks in a firepit without using any form of tinder, ember or fire-lighting materials. What seemed like magic was a demonstration of the uncanny power and knowledge this man had in knowing how to feel for residual warmth within the sticks, and arrange them in just the right way that would amplify the heat enough to stimulate combustion. A skill and power I have not witnessed nor even heard of before. Hazem wrote a poem about my description of this act which he sent me as I was grappling with writing about the lifecharms and what they are. His poem helped me to connect the lifecharm’s talismanic nature to poetry. It helped kindle the spark of revelation that, like the way we come to know a thing through poetry, so the kind of knowing that resides within our hands and sense of touch is not just symbolic knowledge, but practical; that we may truly come to know something through touch alone. And that, like in poetry, the precise, elusive moment in which we come into the knowledge that the lifecharm offers us remains on the edge of conscious thought; a sensation we intuitively call revelation.
Invoking Fire by Hazem Tagiuri
We talk of his time in the jungle.
He describes one marvel in particular:
how a fire was conjured from cold sticks,
as if heat swelled in their fingertips.
No tinder, hot coals; embers a day dead.
“It’s not that it seems like magic, it simply is.
Their magic. These are not illusions.”
No sleight of hand. Smoke, but no mirrors.
What we mimic through tools,
these men of power can summon,
with quiet majesty. No incantations;
they save their breath for the flames.
Our colleague at Philips R&D, David Walker, was kind enough to have some more shells 3D printed in metal for a small experiment we’re planning to run in the new year. Here are some photos he’s taken of them.
This post is one of several exploring the research and creative processes Giles and I have undertaken for our project Lifestreams, an Art+Tech collaboration with industry partner, Philips R&D in Cambridge as part of Anglia Ruskin University’s Visualise programme.
What I did not yet know – and have been discovering – is just incredible!
Our explorations for Lifestreams initiated further research into bio–mineralisation in animals such as bones and seas-hells. It has opened my eyes – even more widely – into the utter inventiveness of Nature.
I studied architecture and spend several years in design research working on the analysis of morphology and dynamics at urban and architectural scale; e.g. how streets and public spaces and their features are organised and how people move through them – so, naturally, I have an ongoing fascination with patterns large and small, both man made and natural, as inspiration and reference for design ideas.
From this basis and with previous personal explorations into biomimetics many years ago (screen sculpture), I thought that it would be good to connect the idea of lifecharms and our shell concepts with the actual processes of bio–mineralisation as they occur in living systems.
To do this, I would need to have a better understanding of the real thing. Extraordinarily the last 30 years or so can really be seen as a new dawn of human discovery of the nano-scale in nature: Many scientists have been uncovering the most amazing natural phenomena of biological fabrication, self-assembly and material composition at the micro-scale.
Knowledge and research into bio–mineralisation has been of huge area of interest in biophysics, chemistry, medical and biological science. It has opened up new routes in areas such as tissue engineering for bone healing, design and production of prosthetics (i.e. limbs etc) and insights into nano-technologies and materials. For instance, this has helped in identifying bio-ceramics for bone scaffolds that could be used in medical procedures. Research into bio-mineralisation has prompted many innovations and holds a further promise in others fields well beyond medical sciences.
So setting out with virtually no understanding of bio-mineralisation I have come to learn that most living systems – ourselves included – are in fact expert at producing hard mineral deposits by growing them in crystal form. Organisms mix living tissue structures with the creation of a variety of crystalline substructures in very deliberate (and often quite subtly different) ways.
These structures of interlacing soft tissues and crystals of different configurations act as composites which are employed within our bodies to do different things; so you could say that ‘growing’ is more than just about purely organic matter but incorporates and embraces the growing and connecting of crystalline structures in our bodies all the time. We effectively grow our own bio-material composites: we have a variety of patterns in our different tissues that make these crystals assemble in very particular structural ways to – for example – construct bones that act as structural internal support, exoskeletons, teeth, sea-shells, glass-spines, beaks, etc.
The mineral/ crystalline deposits that animals and plants can form vary incredibly and – to my great surprise – have even produced such strange objects such as up to 1 meter long glass rods (spicules)
Growth really encompasses quite complex interactions within cellular tissues where deeply integrated biological, chemical and physical processes result in layers of both living tissue and hard mineral deposits.
Human and animal bones, animal teeth and seashells alike are chemical compositions that are produced by cell tissue acting as templates and scaffolds. These provide the structure along which biologically controlled mineral deposits are formed. As well as the effect of many different chemical compositions, the patterning of these varies greatly depending on the functions they fulfil and what stresses they are under.
One extraordinary type of bio-mineral composite can be found in the teeth of chitons, a type of mollusc that even incorporates iron; in particular an iron oxide called magnetite which together with the organic components make them three times harder than human teeth.
So what good is this to our project research? Well, we are now exploring these phenomena to design a sculptural piece that will use aspects of this bio-mineral composite growth approach in nature. Our experiments are on the way so watch this space!
This post is one of several exploring the research and creative processes Giles and I have undertaken for our project Lifestreams, an Art+Tech collaboration with industry partner, Philips R&D in Cambridge as part of Anglia Ruskin University’s Visualise programme.
Our interest in using sea shells as the basis for making tangible lifecharms meant that I had to dive deeper into the maths, biology and development of shells to get a handle on how they grow and also to understand a bit more about what actually goes on at a physiological level. Fortunately there is a long history of the study of shell shapes and morphologies by different disciplines, biologists, mathematicians, artists et al to draw upon.
In my research I have come across many descriptions and models of shells, ranging from mathematical descriptions to those exploring the more complex biological processes involved in their genesis: these for example incorporate the growth of so called cellular templates which then undergo bio-mineralisation solidifying a soft scaffold of tissue into a rigid structural extension of the shell.
Essentially shells represent a geometric pattern that nature embraces and uses repeatedly in many biological structural systems such as the cochlea in our ears. sunflower blossoms and pine tree kernels. It is the the logarithmic helico-spiral. Imagine a flat logarithmic spiral that is then dropped from its centre on to the top of a cone and the spiral path then successively drops and drapes itself onto the surface of the cone.
This results in the 3-dimensional spiral that provides the growth direction for a generating curve which deposits different types of cellular tissue in sequence. The generating curve moves in three dimensions twisting, turning and changing dimension and rotation, at times even (depending on the shell species) changing its edge shape along the route. This then creates the intermittent bulges and outgrowths and sometimes sinusoidal waves along the shell edge.
Different types of shells come to being from a variety of generating curves and shapes that expand along the length of this spiral path as the shell grows. The height or flatness of the cone determines the compression of the helico-spiral on its central axis. As the shell grows the leading edge can vary in shape following rhythmic patterns or sporadic outgrowths. This has equivalents in natural growth phenomena in plants and becomes visible for example as growth rings in trees.
As a shell grows in volume it simultaneously adds variable patterning on the exterior surface of the shell affecting growth based both on environmental and health factors. The surface colouring of the shell is patterned through a diffusion reaction process taking place just at the outward facing shell edge. The mollusc itself is never in direct control of this external pattern as it grows and even within the same species these patterns can vary dramatically.
What has been interesting in taking the formulas as a departure point into a series of parametric and other model variants is that the math evidently only is an approximation of the sea shell form. Some nuances are missed in the pure formula generated shell approach and this became evident when I changed the way I was modelling my shells in different systems and moved away from using straight functional geometric models to more iterative and generative types.
This post is one of several exploring the research and creative processes Giles and I have undertaken for our project Lifestreams, an Art+Tech collaboration with industry partner, Philips R&D in Cambridge as part of Anglia Ruskin University’s Visualise programme.
I have talked in a previous post on lifecharms to shells about talismanic, engaging and tangible transfigurations of lifestyle and health data in the form of sea shells. I now needed to explore the real thing. Off I went on another little spree of discovery both on-line and the real world, picking up a variety of ‘snails’ trails if you will.
I had been making some initial sketches of shells whilst looking at some of the mathematical models that have been around for shells (more of this in a later post) and got deeper into the strange and wonderful world of shell forms to pick p ideas for forms and processes that I could draw on in the making of our own shells.
Aside from producing a large haul of images from various on-line searches I wanted to make sure I would see a broad variety of the ‘real thing’. So being in London I went on to do take some pictures of ancient and contemporary shells in the wonderful and inspiring Natural History Museum within its fossil and invertebrate collections.
From these I made a lot of sketches for our life-streams shells so that I could get a deeper taste and sense of the kind of shell shape variations that exist. To me these sketches helped me to gain a clearer more visual understanding of some of the various archetypes and key differences in different shell structures that I came across. It got me to think about routes for the shell modelling process I have been evolving alongside on the computer and the 3d printers.
I had looked at both ancient fossils which had lost any of their external pigmentation as well as contemporary shells that still retained all their wonderful colour and detail. I am continuously amazed at the range and expressiveness of shapes and colours pigmentation of shells that are out there.
From its beginning our collaboration with Philips R&D had a focus on lifestyle and health as the two key subject areas so they have formed an integral part of our dialogue and explorations. We’ve spent time in our discussions making and reflecting on the cross-connections between the two; how they intersect and influence each other. As our discussions evolved, we became more interested in some of the challenges for expressing and documenting personal and collective lifestyle choices visibly or invisibly affecting personal health and quality of life.
Stimulating personal motivation for change or reinforcement of positive activities through new means of reflection emerged as goal worth exploring further. Our primary purpose has been driven by thinking of ways and means to make lifestyle choices visible as a means for reflection and possible behaviour change.
We debated what the possible scale and scope of factors affecting our lifestyles were that could be points of reflection; what the nature is of the need for both individuals and groups to see and reflect on the impact of their own and collective choices on health, well-being and quality of life. Our enquiry ranged from evolving ways to make visible and re-enforce positive patterns to ways of making bigger changes to negative patterns. Our aim is to be able to engage people both through individual and collective reflection and debate.
For instance, what could be vehicles for change that have broad reach spanning young and old without requiring great depth of knowledge to ‘read’ complex information? What could be more emotive, accessible, tangible and shareable? That could indeed inspire a visceral and instinctual form of personal and public reflection? What would form could this take?
Our response to these questions was to take totemic objects as emotive points of reference – iconic and tactile tools for ongoing reflection. We began planning to evolve talismans of self-health, personal pieces that could be carried around on a keyring or as jewelery to remind ourselves of what matters to us. The might be like the charms of old, bracelets embellished with objects, tracing key events and people in our lives but extended to become markers for health and quality of life.
From these ideas of the charm we searched for physical forms that could act as personal objects attached to life, as symbols that are already in the public mind. We arrived at the seashell.
Our collaborator at Philips R&D in Cambridge, David Walker, was generous enough to have some of the Lifecharm shells fabbed in a range of more exotic materials than our initial prototypes using Shapeways (a 3D printing firm spun-out of Royal Philips Electronics). The materials used range from metal/silver, ceramic and frosted and transparent glass.
Many thanks also to Dipak Mistry, our collaborator on Visualise Lifestreams at Arts & Business Cambridge who dropped them by the studio this morning.
This morning we are off to Cambridge for our final meeting with our collaboration partners at Philips R&D, where we will be presenting the lifecharm shells we have generated from our health data and talking about where we will be taking the project next.
As part of our quest to explore making health data tangible we began to research means of experiencing larger volumes of collective health data as a complementary experience to the ‘lifecharms‘ illustrating individual data streams. We imagined these different strands operating in tandem to provide micro and macro perspectives on how we can forge new relationships to health and wellbeing.
The question immediately arose of how we could achieve meaningful translations of complex health data. Our initial solution was to turn public health data (derived from Network of Public Health Observatories) into varied surface expressions on a larger installation work, allowing a degree of participation from direct public interaction to inform manipulations of the public data sets. To achieve this we thought about the production of manipulated stacking surfaces that would aggregate into a communal structure.
Our idea for manifesting this health data was to take each data set, determine its dimensions (i.e. which and how many data ranges does it have, what do they represent? e.g. mortality rates, obesity, etc.) and take each of these to be the driving parameters of a set number of ways to cut, punch, emboss or bend thin sheets of material, either paper, card or metal. We would then create one layer of material for each data dimension, apply the parameter controlled action for it (ie, print, cut, punch, bend; where and by how much) and do this for each of the data dimensions.
For each dataset (by ward or time span) we would end up with a stack of screens which together would define a unique surface or mask that would be specific in both tactile and visual effect. These stacked screens would make up the facets to be collated into a larger physical structure that would evolve out of the geometry of the base shape and be assembled by members of the audience to ‘collectively grow’ the public health data installation piece.
We proposed to use Buckminster Fuller‘s fly-eye dome as the base for a slightly larger than human size dome structure which would rest on a tripod-like support structure under which visitors could move to look up and in. The fly-eye dome is a design variation on Bucky’s earlier geodesic dome structures lending itself well as a projection structure. We planned to use it to present transformed public health datasets which become layered and patterned masks to produce alternating light and shadows from within the dome surface. Each facet, or mask, would be representative of a specific grouping of public health data, either by time interval or by geographic proximity.
In thinking about how this would work as an installation, we came up with two different projection approaches creating two types of experiences:
- Outward facing masks with switch-able internal illumination creating projections that are cast on the gallery wall interiors and,
- Inward facing masks with with external illumination where the audience steps inside the dome structure manipulating an exterior light source (or ‘sun’) around the dome structure by hand.
A very attractive benefit of collaborating with Philips is their expertise and product range in professional lighting. In particular, Philips has developed a product series and related technologies called LivingColours which we considered to be a good option for the illumination in our fly-eye domes.
Despite developing this concept quite far, we eventually moved away from it as we felt it didn’t encompass enough of a sense of the living and organic processes which we want to engage people in. In many ways we felt it was moving back towards static data visualisations that are too readily ‘readable’ and which soon cease to have the power to engage people in an ongoing and reflective relationship with how public data can be seen as part of the environment in which we exist.
Our third round of shells fresh out of fabrication is here!
I am excited that we now have shells that are more organic and life-like coming through. To drive this additional complexity I’ve been experimenting with mixing the combinations of data and exploring how these generate more ‘organic’ forms as they are fed into different parameters of the growth grammar.
In my last post I described how I’ve developed a bespoke shell model by programming in JAVA with growth grammars which start out with mathematical principles. These project a spiral onto the surface of a cone in 3D for the primary growth curve. Then I begin to tweak and subvert the surface shape as it grows, adjusting the rhythms and patterning of the data to add a degree of interpretation.
This is very interpretive and not hard science; it is not classic data-visualisation or information graphics. I take sets of health and lifestyle data and make deliberate decisions in how I interpret what kind of ‘expression’ they generate. It is highly designed and crafted process which I am evolving to achieve both an aesthetic outcome, but also one where the data plays a key role that may not be transparent or simply ‘readable’ like a graph, but rather becomes emotive.
This is important and different in that we are trying to produce a sense of meaning that is not read through classic symbols but rather through a tactile and visual experience. The tangible form of the shells embodies rhythm, resonance or dissonance; attraction or repulsion.
What we are attempting is not just a ‘transduction’ of health data into physical form, but a transformation of how we develop relationships with that data and what it means for us. The data is captured and transfigured into the physical form of the shells – producing something which is magical, transformative and which cannot be easily read but is heavy with the potential for meaning. The shells become more like talismans than just static instantiations of data.
This is very different to a technique that just takes data and processes it into a visual or physical form. It is not about numbers but about a model of generating shells that are qualitative, meaning producing and change making. It is about how a person could pick up a shell and begin to read their own meanings into it, knowing that it is generated from their own health data. Knowing that the subtle but strange variations in each shell indicate something to be explored in our lifestyles and behaviours.
This third generation of shells are moving further towards acquiring a ‘life’ of their own, becoming objects of meaning in the world. They are shaped by ‘lived constraints’ in the growth model and are getting expressions that go beyond pure mathematics.
I’m now working on a fourth generation of shells, this time using data posted on the internet using social media.
Its been over a year since we sent out our last newsletter – not that we haven’t been busy, in fact we’ve been absorbed in a whole range of projects and activities :
Storyweir at Exlab, Hive Beach, Dorset
We have been commissioned by Exlab to create a new project at Hive Beach, Dorset as part of the Cultural Olympiad. The work opens on Saturday 28th July and will remain on site until 9th September. We have 3 days of free talks and 2 nighttime events (projections with live cello) on Friday 3rd to Sunday 5th August – all welcome.
This October sees the launch of our new monthly publication – each month we will crowdsource, print and post out an eBook to subscribers created and shared on http://bookleteer.com sharing the most beautiful, experimental, thought-provoking and inspirational eBooks people have created to inspire and provoke others into creating more of their own.
SUBSCRIBE HERE : http://bookleteer.com/blog/2012/07/introducing-the-periodical/
We’re also introducing a whole range of new features to http://bookleteer.com this year – public sharing, library pages as well as some exciting new developments later this year. Follow our progress here :
We’ve also dropped the minimum print run for our Short Run printing service to just 25 copies per eBook and the prices for printing A6 eBooks have dropped between 30-50%. Check the prices with our estimator tool here:
Proboscis have been collaborating with Royal Holloway’s Information Security Group (as part of the their EPSRC/ESRC/TSB research project Vome – http://www.vome.org.uk) to work with a local community in Pallion, Sunderland to create a sustainable knowledge and support network for local people to help each other cope and deal with benefit changes. We have developed a set of simple tools and processes to assist this “Ideas Exchange” – co-designed with the local community and are helping them integrate and adopt them into their ways of getting things done.
This Autumn we will be releasing a “Neighbourhood Ideas Exchange” package with versions of the tools that any community will be able to adopt and adapt for their own uses. Look out for announcements in September/October.
Proboscis has been commissioned by Futurecity and Arts&Business Cambridge to collaborate with Philips R&D in Cambridge as part of Anglia Ruskin University’s Visualise Public Art programme. We are exploring new forms for motivating people to incorporate health monitoring into their lifestyles by linking personal health data to systems that create tangible outputs. Starting with 3D printed ‘shells’ whose growth and shape is determined by data sets collected from ourselves, we plan to move on to feeding data to affect the growth of crystals and eventually towards ‘growing’ a shell organically through tissue engineering.
Professor Starling’s Thetford-London-Oxford Expedition
by Lisa Hirmer, Andrew Hunter, Josephine Mills, Leila Armstrong, Giles Lane and Hazem Tagiuri
Download Free : http://diffusion.org.uk/?p=2587
Buy a limited edition set : http://proboscis.org.uk/store.html#profstarling
by Active Ingredient, Desperate Optimists, Jane Prophet, Janet Owen Driggs & Jules Rochielle, Karla Brunet, London Fieldworks, Ruth Maclennan, Sarah Butler
Download Free : http://diffusion.org.uk/?cat=1043
Buy a limited edition set : http://proboscis.org.uk/store.html#materialconditions
City As Material : London
Contributions by Tim Wright, Simon Pope, Ben Eastop & Alexandra Deschamps-Sonsino
Download Free : http://diffusion.org.uk/?cat=976
Buy a limited edition set : http://proboscis.org.uk/store.html#cityasmaterial1
I have just come back from the Digital Manufacturing Centre 3D printing lab at UCL where we just had our second round of shells made for us.
This time around you can see shells which are beginning to have some life (or data to be exact) put in to them. They are ‘grown’ by using the health data we have previously collected from the body sensors and data logger which we are beginning to use to evolve different types, shapes and sizes of shell.
We captured the initial data over a week back in May which consisted of blood pressure, step counts, length of sleep, body temperature, exposure to air pollution and alcohol intake. These were gathered to provide a range of values we could use to make the shells change the way they are evolved over time.
These different dimensions of data are used in our growth model as parameters that influence where and how much the shell grows and in which particular way. Each set of data values contribute to determining how much it grows, how smooth or jagged the surfaces are and whether or not there are other outgrowths. All together this results in a very personalised and specific shape that is unique to each data set.
We are planning to fabricate two further sets of shells, one with more extensive data sets informing the shell growth pattern, and the second experimenting with different data sources. More posts to come!
Our growth model as mentioned before is using variants of ‘parametric design’ via L-Systems and Growth Grammars. Here is a very quick explanation of what these do in principle:
In a parametric design different numerical values – called parameters – are put into a set of related mathematical formulas or rules. These are able to generate variations of shapes or objects based on different input values. It is for example possible to create a parametric definition of a basic chair that when combining the height and leg length of a person – can generate a chair with proportions that make it comfortable for that person to sit on. So a parametric design in this case captures the idea of a chair that can be made to fit different bodies – i.e. how many legs the chair has, the way the legs are connected to the seat area, the seat sitting area and the height position of the backrest.
These were invented by a man called Aristid Lindenmayer and are type of formal language that uses sequences of letters that define how something grows over several time periods. They can for example express how a tree expands from its trunk into branches and then into leaves or how a flower’s petals are arranged.
These are more complicated variations on L-Systems that have a richer set of features that can be used to describe growth models such as plant models. Growth Grammars are used in not just modelling the structure of plants i.e. how it is put together and its parts but also how it functions and its parts interact with each other.
After what has been a broad exploratory research and foraging phase into shell morphology and modelling systems for our Visualise project, I have just picked up the first round of 3d printed shells which we had done at the Digital Manufacturing Centre @ UCL. Thanks to Martin and Richard for their assistance with the 3d printing process!
What you see here is a twist on classic plain formula driven generative shells that you may have seen before. We are experimenting with ways of adapting shell formation of our 3d shells based on data capture we have started in previous experiments in lifestyle and health data monitoring. I have been looking into a variety of generative modelling systems anywhere from those originating in the CAD world to those for plant modelling in the bio and agricultural sciences.
Now I have settled on using a growth grammar platform called XL (it builds on ideas of l-systems but with much more flexibility and dynamic rewriting of growth rules). The XL grammar is interesting as its been developed for plant morphological and systemic modelling, allowing the generative growth rules to be switched based on time variant environmental factors throughout growth cycles.
This offers some exciting possibilities of mimicking real-world feedback patterns of environmental constraints on living entities such as plants or other living systems giving rise to different possible ‘expressions’ based on the ‘quality of life’ over time they experience in their environment (e.g. through droughts, wet seasons, sparse or rich nutrition, pollution factors, over-shading, etc.).
The shells you see here are a variations of an evolving shell model that can be infused with our previous and ongoing environmental and personal data capture data sets (e.g. with readings such as daily step-count, blood pressure, sleep pattern regularity) to determine the evolving form.
Look out for further variations on these shells shortly!
In one of our current (and I feel, pretty exciting) commissioned projects that is part of the Visualise Programme, we are looking at new ways of making accessible interpretations and translations of information in a physical series of objects instead of another classic information visualization.
Although there are many beautiful data visualisation examples out there, the big challenge they often face is that they are very frequently inaccessible to larger audiences. We are really interested in finding ways of creating something very emotive and tactile, giving a more intuitive insightful access to understanding content such as personal health information which really matters to people. We want to overcome it often being hard to decipher with current approaches and tools without being a health expert.
Some interesting ideas are swirling around and en route I could reconnect with some ‘old friends’ that I got to know while still an architecture student many years ago: I have been revisiting D’Arcy Thompson‘s On Growth and Form and his in depth study of shell formation as an inspiration of how we might produce our own little evolving artefacts out of re-interpreted data spaces.
We have just been in the process of carrying out our own personal health data-capture with some off-the shelf kit (e.g. pedometer, blood-pressure, temperature) as well as environmental sensing via a couple of custom build Arduino data-loggers; the results of which we are now using for sketching out a variety of generative models for our new artefacts.
Watch this space for our first sketches of growing data!
This week I have been putting together a little Arduino data logger for our current research collaboration with Philips in our Art & Tech commission project.
We are exploring the translation of health and lifestyle data into new forms of tangible artefacts and for this we revisited mobile data-capture using Arduino boards to inform our early prototypes.
Alongside some Arduino boards we still had in the office I picked up a current crop of useful bits and pieces from Cool Components and RS (OpenLog SD logger + TGS2620 gas sensor) to make a quick, small and simple data-logger for simple capture of volatile gas proximity and basic galvanic skin response indicating anxiety levels.
We need to capture long time periods of this sort of data on the move and thus were looking for a non-PC based data-logging set-up we could build ourselves. The Openlog board from Sparkfun is pretty convenient as it hooks up directly to the Arduino and can take micro-flash cards of large sizes so I got some 8GB cards for our logging exercises which will last for some good amount of data-capture time.
The Openlog board is tiny (literally a bit smaller than a 50 pence coin) and pretty straight forward to work with: It just hooks to the Arduino board in soft-serial mode. The galvanic skin response is better to be redone with an op-amp but a rudimentary approach will do for now for initial sketch-testing as we can always improve on the circuit later.
I will post some more feedback when I have played around with it some more.
Taking part in the 2012 NASA Space Apps Challenge
Within the Public Goods Lab here at Proboscis we have been exploring a number of themes we are tying together, one of which is a strong interest in the practice and production of ‘citizen science’. We like getting hands on and are always keen to learn from exitisting models and projects to understand the issues and possible modes and obstacles to production and delivery and so it makes a lot of sense for us to participate in projects that we can learn from.
To this end in late April I spent a fun weekend with my friend James from Imaginals and other space-fanatics at ISIC, the International Space Innovation Centre in Harwell, Oxford which played host to an extraordinary and fun challenge:
We joined the Oxford group of the NASA Space Apps Challenge; a brilliant event that was hosted in 25 cities around the globe (e.g. San Francisco, Tokyo, Melbourne, Canberra, Jakarta, Exeter; Nairobi, Sao Paulo, Santo Domingo and McMurdo Station, Antarctica….) drawing a crowd of 2000+ participants interested in creating ‘Apps’ relating to NASA space science under a number of possible themes; e.g. Software, Open Hardware, Citizen Science and Data Visualization.
The NASA Space Apps challenge was conceived as part of a much larger and very interesting ongoing US and global agenda in open government via the Open Government Partnership. The US Open Government Initiative is translating directly into Open Government activities at NASA; a programme to generate more interest in, access to and popularise ideas around NASA’s space science programme and enhance public visibility.
Our impromptu team (primarily assembled on the workshop weekend itself) consisted -Emal, Peter, James and myself – joined up because of our mutual interest in the theme of “Mobile Environment Capture”. We clubbed together with a hope of coming up with something that would relate it to citizen science and in particular exploring participatory models and ideas.
With lots of ideas being thrown around the table on the Saturday – for while we were joined by from ESA scientists who gave us some great insights – we decided to produce an idea that is looking to capture the excitement of engaging with space science from the ground by connecting citizen scientists through to the professional science community via our concept ‘StrangeDesk’. It’s our way to capture, share and aggregate odd, out of the ordinary and potentially important environmental events and connect them through the social web with the wider world including the professional science community to use and elaborate upon.
Excitingly, in the weekend competition we must have hit some kind of nerve with the concept as we were lucky enough to win second prize in the local Oxford selections and are now moving into the second round with our idea.
Please check out our promo video we produced with the great help from Izzy Way at Imaginals for the second round of the competition on vimeo: StrangeDesk Promo
Support us by voting for it on the Talenthouse competion web site! and watch this space for any further news on this initiative!
You can also check out the twitter feed on the SpaceApps challlenge on twitter under #SpaceApps…
Back in February Proboscis was commissioned by Andy Robinson of Futurecity, with the assistance of Dipak Mistry of Arts & Business Cambridge, to undertake an Art+Tech collaboration with a local industry partner in Cambridge as part of Anglia Ruskin University’s Visualise programme. This strand seeks to engage “leading Cambridge technology companies to collaborate with contemporary artists on the creative use of technology in public life.”
Over the past few months Stefan and I have been meeting with David Walker and Steffen Reymann of Philips R&D (based in the Cambridge Science Park) to establish a creative dialogue. The initial topics for our creative exploration were suggested by Philips based on research subjects being explored in their lab – Near Field Communications and health monitoring technologies. Our discussions quickly began to revolve around personal motivations for monitoring health and lifestyle –
- Why do people routinely lose abandon using health monitoring technologies?
- What might inspire new habits that actively involve monitoring?
- How could we create delightful ways for people to make connections between personal data and Quality of Life?
- How could we rethink the nature of data collection away from the purely rational towards the realm of the numinous and speculative?
Our initial thinking suggested that perhaps the problem with data collection is that it is often too crude and reductive – trying to make impossibly simple connections between phenomena in a complex system. Data visualisations are often barely more than pretty graphs – but our lives, our environments and the ways we live are so much more than that. How might we make tangible souvenirs from the data generated by our bodies and habits that could help us discern the longer term, harder to perceive patterns?
As our discussions have continued we have begun to explore how we might generate talismanic objects – lifecharms – from personal monitoring data using 3D fabbing. Things which could act as everyday reminders about patterns the data suggests, which are at once both formed of the data and yet do not offer literal readings of the data. Objects which are allusive, interpretative and perceptible, but still mysterious. What would it feel like to have an object in one’s pocket that was generated from data gleaned from one’s own body and behaviours? How might this help us maintain a peripheral awareness of the things we eat, how much we exercise, our general state of happiness and perceive the subtle changes and shifts over time?
Stefan is writing elsewhere how we have been inspired by shells – excretions produced by creatures that tell (in a non-literal way) the story of the creature’s life – what minerals it ingested, what environmental factors affected it. For the lifecharms we’re experimenting with using personal data to drive 3D morphogenetic algorithms that can generate unique shell-like forms which we’ll then render into tangible souvenirs.
As a more macro counterpoint to the micro of the personal lifecharms we have also been considering how local public health data could be translated into forms which could be experienced as a group in a public setting – we’re investigating making a ‘fly eye’ geodesic dome with a light source to throw light upon the patterns in the data.
We’ll be continuing our discussions with Philips for another 3 months or so, gathering some test data (from ourselves) then making some prototypes and maquettes of our ideas for an event in Cambridge in the Autumn where we’ll present our work.