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Artist Explores The Relationship Between Wearable Technologies And Their Users

Do smart glasses, or similar products, really warp your perception?

by Christine Huang
03 December 2013, 4:07pm

How do the devices we wear to help us navigate, communicate, and remember change the way we experience our moment-to-moment reality?

This is the behemoth of a question that Ling Tan tackles in her work Reality Mediators, an exploration of the complex relationship between wearable technology and its wearer that was finished this past summer. Tan, a Singapore-born artist, designer, and researcher based at London's Bartlett UCL, BPro Interactive Architecture Lab, created Reality Mediators to spark a dialogue about the effects (positive and negative; intended and unintended; additive and disruptive) created by the everyday devices we carry, wear, and attach to our bodies.  

Reality Mediators

is a set of design experiments that challenges its subject to rely on non-visual inputs to mediate her environment - and examines how those cues beget new behaviors, understandings, and experiences in the physical world and individual body.

The experiments employ three types of sensors: a muscle sensor, a brainwave sensing device, and a GPS device paired separately with four different kinds of actuators: an electrical muscle stimulator, sound actuators, small heat-creating pads, and vibration motors, each placed on different parts of the wearer’s body, as shown above.

In one configuration, the GPS device is paired with vibration motors that are attached to strategic locations on the wearer--so that when the device instructs its wearer to go left, the motor on the left side of her body vibrates; if she is instructed to go right, the right side vibrates, and so on. This particular setup is meant to force the user to develop a new association between bodily perception and movement, so that she learns to navigate through space without relying on the usual visual cues.

Another setup pairs the brainwave reading device to the muscle electrical stimulation armband, the latter activating when the wearer’s brain wave activity falls below a certain threshold. The idea in this experiment is that the wearer can be kept at a constant state of vigilance--with the armband jolting her awake when her mental activity begins to slow so she “can stay constantly alert during working hours.”  

These sensor-actuator pairings are designed and worn like everyday wearable technologies, modelled by Tan to mimic consumer devices like headphones and augmented reality glasses. And like most common wearable devices, they are designed to be integrated into its user’s experience seamlessly and worn for extended periods of time (at least 3-4 hour spans).  By wearing these pairings for long time spans, Tan is also able to observe sustained changes in the wearer’s behavior and perception.

Reality Mediators

is an ongoing research project, but Tan has come to a few conclusions in her initial runs of the project:  

1) First, that users that have worn the devices for prolonged stretches of time begin adapting their activity with consideration to the presence of the technologies

2) The perception of the wearer’s body and her environment is affected by the extra layer of information provided by the devices

3)  This changed perception can be both beneficial and detrimental, depending on environmental conditions and other context

4. The wearer experiences a higher level of comfort with the devices the more she is (i) unaware of the effect (ii) feels the sense of control over the device (iii) unaware of the presence of the device

In these experiments, technology directs behavior: actuators tell the wearer’s body to react in certain ways--turn left; stay alert; etc. But how do these ‘reality mediators’ affect the wearer’s sense of agency, the world, and herself? How bidirectional is the relationship between technology and user, and what ethical issues does that raise? How much of our reality do (and can, and should) we define through technology?

These are the bigger philosophical questions at the heart of Reality Mediators, and while they aren’t concretely answered through the work, they are undoubtedly brought to close examination in an eye-opening way.

The project was presented during a conference called "FASCINATE: Thoughtful Technology & Beautiful Interfaces 2013." Tan will also be speaking about this project next week at an event called Wearable Futures

Google Glass
wearable technology
Ling Tan
Reality Mediators