Massaging, puppeteering and the development of wearables
An interview with Hannah Perner Wilson and Mika Satomi of Kobakant, about the development of their work, by Piem Wirtz and Arie Altena.
Hannah Perner Wilson and Mika Satomi together are Kobakant. They were invited by the V2_Lab to share their knowledge in the Fashionable Technology workshop that took place early May 2009. Their work is at the forefront of wearable technology, and they are a prime example of the DIY-scene in the technological arts, soldering and programming their own circuit-boards to make their concepts work. Arie Altena and Piem Wirtz of V2_ spoke with them in May 2009.
Piem Wirtz: What are your main interests at this point, is it primarily in artistic work or also in technological development?
Hannah Perner Wilson: I studied Industrial Design at the arts academy in Linz. There I became interested in Human Computer Interface-design. Creating interfaces led me to learn physical computing, so I could make my own prototypes. This made me discover that you can also make circuits with fabrics and I became aware of the whole textile electronics world. It fascinated me from a material perspective and also because it is wearable. I could image that I could work with those aspects as a designer. I am still mainly interested in textiles as an interface to use computational power. I met Mika at the University, she was studying new media art.
Mika Satomi: I studied in Austria, although I am from Japan. I guess that the slight difference between me and Hannah is that Hannah never calls herself an artist. She does not want to consider herself as an artist. I was a graphic designer before, for me it was a conscious decision to go into fine art. I call what I make art, although the works are not perfect. My interests lie more in the questions like what it means that we are surrounded by technologies, now that we can even wear them. How do we relate to them, and how do they relate to us, how do we perceive them, how do we use them, or how are we used by them? When I start a project, these are my main questions.
HW: We were friends, even from before we started to work together on projects like Massage Me. Massage Me came up by chance. We were both sitting in a lounge room at an exhibition, both being very tired. We started to joke about how to get a free massage. We talked about how people play computer games. They use these finger movements that are very much like massage movements, but they will never pay attention to you. That was how we started to work together.
Massaging: Massage Me
PW: Massage Me was you first project together?
HW: Yes. We started with a very clear concept. We knew exactly what we wanted to address, so when we started making it, the making was directed at fulfilling and expressing the concept. Although the concept of course also continued to develop in more detail after trying out and seeing how it worked. Since then we just continued working in wearable technology because it has so many interesting aspects.
PW: When did you become active on the instructables website (http://www.instructables.com/), you posted a lot there?
HW: That was even before Massage Me I think. But with Massage Me I became really active at posting, that was summer 2007. When we posted Massage Me to Instructables it was really a project with a beginning to end process and an outcome. Afterwards I posted more smaller things that haven't really got an implementation. I have received more feedback on the smaller postings, as other people can use them in their projects. It's not that people would go and recreate Massage Me.
MS: We did the instructables for Massage Me because it is a participatory work. That is why we made everything open. It is clear what is inside, there are no patents. If you want the Massage Me you will not find a company that sells it. You have to make it yourself. We wanted to address the issue that technology is becoming increasingly black-boxed. Or to be more precise: we think technology is a black box, whereas it is often fairly simple what is inside a box. At least that was the feeling we had. When we opened a gamepad for the first time, it was really like 'wow, is it that simple?' Massage Me is actually made in a very simple way, it is not high-tech. We wanted to share that with other people.
Arie Altena: Can you explain how Massage Me works?
HW: The concept is 'how to get a free massage from a game player'. It is a vest-type jacket made from neoprene, (so the colors are orange and grey). The buttons of the game controller are embedded at the back of the jacket. We created a patch that is inspired by the muscles and anatomical drawings of the back. We repeated the buttons more than once to encourage the players to make more various movements at different parts of the back with their fingers. As an installation the set-up is before a game-console in a living room type of space. People can lie on the floor or sit. It is a two jackets-kit, for a game played by two people. So in total you need four persons: two players and two people receiving a massage.
AA: This sets up a situation as well in which you are either giving or receiving a massage. You could have also made it in a way that one could give oneself a massage while playing a game, by using pressure-things in the jacket, couldn't you?
MS: But the point was that we wanted to get a free massage. We were complaining about boyfriends who only want to play games. We wanted to tease them too: 'If the controller was changed to the Massage Me, then you have to do the massage as you play. Then you can go on for two hours if you want, because then I get a nice two hours of massage.'
HW: The interface is physical to physical, the thumb and fingers are massaging directly. That was also very important to us. It did not make sense to us to make a jacket that vibrates when the player pushes a button. We wanted to have the person-to-person thing.
MS: In a sense you ask if the jacket could have biofeedback technology. It has the best possible biofeedback if you have a good massage.
HW: Although we have observed that when people play it in the exhibition set-up, people who are receiving the massage mostly don't complain, it's the people punching their backs that do, they just take the work as an object.
PW: Does it feel like a massage?
HW: I enjoy it. Some people bang, but they can never bang so hard that it hurts.
MS: When someone comes to the exhibition alone, and likes to experience it, I often offer to be their partner and wear the jacket. Then a communication starts to happen. When you are massaging someone, there is an attachment. A strange intimate feeling happens for say the five minutes of gameplay. This is interesting. Sometimes they even give a good massage.
PW: A nice aspect of it is how it introduces touch, in a society where physical contact with others, and certainly with someone you do not know, is not a usual thing. Did you think about that? How it could 'improve' the use of touch in our society?
SM: It was not really the intention from the start. But we noticed it later. It is for others to analyse it in that way. It is not the main issue of the project.
Puppeteering The Perfect Human
PW: How about The Perfect Human. How did that start?
MS: It is a spin-off from Massage Me.
HW: It departs from things that we discovered while working on Massage Me.
MS: For Massage Me we make an on-off button. But we were also experimenting with pressure sensors made from the same fabrics. So we discovered that you can make pressure sensors and then we started to think about making a motion-capture suit. We were talking about it and just by chance a friend of ours wanted to make a theatre play.
HW: He wanted to make a real-time puppet-play with a performer puppeteering one of the characters. He asked us to make a capture-suit for his performance. We had one month to make it.
MS: Making the first version gave us a good feeling but we saw a lot of things we wanted to improve. Also we thought it would be nice if we could make a performance with it ourselves, from our side, instead of only making a technology for someone else to use. Actually The Perfect Human is the second version of this theme, there is another one with a musical instrument that we made before.
HW: That was the Language Game. We had a one month residence in New York at LEMUR: League of Electronic Musical Robots. They have a set up with little robot instruments that can play themselves. We just triggered them with MIDI signals. We had the idea to create a feedback loop with a performer-dancer who creates the music that she is actually moving to. It was nice that it is little robots making the music, that it was not just audio coming out of speakers.
AA: Can you explain how it worked? How do the signals go from the motion capture suit to the robots?
MS: The suit is sensing the bend of the limbs. Those sensed data go to the computer via a wireless connection. They are interpreted as MIDI. For the LEMUR version I am sending the MIDI signals to the robots that are already set up to read the MIDI-signals.
AA: Moving in the motion capture suit is then like playing an instrument?
MS: The performer was a ballroom dancer. We asked her to dance to the music. She created the rhythm herself, but then she is also moving to it. She created a feedback, and that was the concept. The Perfect Human is made after the same concept: what you create is what you react to, but then with words.
HW: We mapped the hands mostly to the guitar-robots, and the feet were mostly mapped to rhythm instruments, like drums and a bucket that was being hit. We worked a lot on the technology, and the rehearsals were quite short. We should have rehearsed more with the performer and the system, to get further into it. But it did work at that particular performance because the dancer was a ballroom dancer, who was trained to dance certain moves. The ballroom show dancing was a nice aesthetic to have, but I think she did not get quite to the point where she was listening to the sounds she was creating. She got into her routine and that made certain sounds happening. We were also interested to use poses, so she could record something by posing, and then play it back and dance to it. Movements were not constantly mapped to the robot orchestra.
MS: But that made it really crazy. For certain things it worked. When she stepped, a rhythm sound was heard; the more steps she made, the faster the sounds become, a rhythm develops, and becomes more complex. And at some point you cannot really move freely anymore.
HW: Or she makes a certain move, and a rhythm develops and she dances to it. But then as she stops, the rhythm stops as well. And that disrupted he, as she was forgetting that she was creating the rhythm she was dancing to herself.
The puppeteering suit, on technology
PW: You also wanted to show the suit.
HW: We used a lot of traditional elements, like poppers. The technology is all in the collar, and that can come off, so you can wash the suit without having to unstitch all the wires and sensors. We used stretch conductor fabrics to make traces, they go all to the collar. Everything is buzzing to the collar, it's buzzing the sensor data. The sensors are in different places in the suit, like the bend sensors in the arms. First the sensors were on the outside, which is better because the wearer doesn't feel them, but putting them on the inside gives better values, better data, so they are in the inside now.
MS: First we wanted to make everything from fabric, using conducive thread. But that broke too soon, so now it's almost all cables, which is a bit sad. We would like to make a suit completely out of fabric again.
PW: Is conductive thread too fragile?
SM: No, it is high resistance, and as we use batteries, sometimes too much current goes from the battery to the Lilypad-Arduino, and then it sometimes breaks. Also because the thread tends to loosen up, the connections become worse. That is why you see a lot of people soldering the Lilypad. Such things are not really documented very well yet.
PW: Is there no other version available that is only made from textile, apart form the Lilypad, another circuit board that you can sew onto?
HW: There is another version, but it is not for sale.
MS: The wireless also is always a problem, especially the battery of it. We are using old cellphone batteries. They are rechargeable and they are readily available. They are much stronger than for instance 9V batteries. Usually the battery failing is the main problem of all wearable-projects. Yet you would think batteries might be the least problematic.
HW: You can get so many cheap cellphones nowadays, that many people have old cellphones that they do not use anymore, and they even come with a charger.
AA: Is this not in a sense a multi-purpose suit?
HW: The design was intended for use with The Perfect Human, but the computer readable sensor data you can of course use for anything.
MS: You have to be aware that it is really a hand-made suit. I would not use it for let's say medical die-or-not situations. It is too fragile for that, and it is not that accurate.
AA: Did you ever get across a situation that a performer was using it, but found out it wasn't accurate enough for their needs?
MS: The first Perfect Human performer really had a hard time. She was frustrated because it wasn't always working as she thought it would. That was also because it was the first version. But during the rehearsal this morning the performer, Rita Vilhena, had the feeling that she really got an accurate feedback to what she was doing. It is not perfect yet, but it is developing in the right direction.
HW: The human is perfect, the technology isn't.
AA: In that way The Perfect Human becomes a play on how we are disciplined by technology, or how we adapt to technology?
HW: For instance the performer we worked with today, Rita, feels that she is being puppeteered, that she is forced to move in a certain way in order to trigger certain sounds. On the other hand: it is still she who is triggering the sounds.
PW: That's funny because the performer has in fact the free will to move any way she wants.
SM: We call it the puppeteer suit, but you are a puppet when you're in it.
Developing wearables, on art and technology
PW: Your first project was made out of curiosity, the second was an assignment, what you make now is very much your own concepts. In that respect you are artists. How are you proceeding from here?
HW: I have no problem with being put in an arts context. It's just that I never think of what I do as being art. When I am working on something I approach it from a design perspective, with a lot of problem solving going on. I define a concept and I think about how to convey that concept. It is mostly about looking for the right solution. Expressing the message.
MS: For me the challenge is always that there is a message or question that I have in my mind, which is often quite hard to translate into a project. I feel that I am so not fluent in this medium or in the arts in general. I have often the feeling that I want to say ten things, and probably only get one thing across. Or I will say too much so everyone is only overwhelmed and doesn't like to watch it anymore. Hopefully one day I will get to the point where I can express what I would like to say.
PW: Is wearable technology the medium that you would like to continue working with?
MS: Wearables are a nice medium but on the other hand I do not want to limit myself to it. When I notice that a certain concept does not need technology I want to be free to not use any technology. On the other hand the technology has a very interesting aspect, or texture as a medium. For me it is interesting also because it is not practiced enough yet, it is still a very new medium for art. Because it is new, you can experiment a lot. I would like to experiment more.
PW: What is the ideal situation in wearables for you? What do you miss to be able to express what you would like to express? As you say, the field is still very much in a nascent stage. There is a lot of DIY, but it's not fully there yet. Do you have any idea on how it can develop?
MS: At the moment we are starting to do more performances. The problem with wearables is that you cannot just ask anybody to wear a piece. It is the same problem that fashion has: you make the clothes for the catwalk, because you cannot manufacture all the sizes for everyone. We are now at a stage where we design a piece for a particular person to wear, a perfect user, and through this user the public can experience the work. But it would be nice if there were another way of doing it, with an audience that becomes really involved. Or where the work is available 'on the shelves'.
PW: Now it is a good medium for dance, theatre and performances, but it is not something for everyday life. The question is: would we really like wearables to become something of everyday life?
MS: Wearables in performance, that is an interesting field, and there could be much more discussion about that. There is only a small amount of productions, and those few examples seem to be the only way of doing wearables. But I think there are many more possibilities for wearables. What is lacking is a good theory and a good understanding of what this medium can do, even in only the specific field of wearables and performance. It is important to try and understand the medium itself. There is the issue of creating a broader knowledge of the medium, and a discussion about it. It is important to create good questions concerning the medium of wearable technology. You as a lab at V2_ play a role in that. I am interested in formulating good questions, although that often fails.
AA: But you are also interested in making technology that works well, Hannah?
HW: I get caught up in that and I enjoy focussing on that to some extent. I can get carried away with it too. I think that at the moment a lot of interesting technological developments are happening, like thin speakers for instance. And just as in any field when some cool new technology comes along, people start using it without thinking about it. They use it just because it is there, just because it is nice to use, just because you can. Wearables have now reached a stage where a lot of electronic devices are readily available to anyone, and not just to companies, and are easily embeddable. This means more people might get into making work with it. Once the newness of the technology is exhausted, it can become more interesting to think about the concept. If wearables do get implemented into daily life scenarios – when they are embedded in jackets and so on – then using them in performances can also become a comment on how we use these things in daily life. But you can of course also comment on a future situation that you see developing.
AA: And you can also comment on the future technological and daily life scenarios that are developed by scientific labs, like that of MIT. How do you position yourself in the hi-tech versus DIY scene – made possible by the availability of embeddable devices and easy to program boards like the Arduino. Is it that the DIY scene might comment exactly on future scenarios proposed by hi-tech, and come up with alternative ideas and scenario's?
HW: One choice we consciously made is that even though we have funding for a project which would allow us to buy more expensive technologies that are ready to use, we still prefer to try to make our own technologies. Because we like the challenge of it. But also because it gives us the opportunity to share the technology with other people, to show them that they can make it themselves, and that you do not necessarily need a lot of money to do it. Another reason to develop your own technology is that you can customize much more. You rely less on the solutions that other people have made.
PW: "Also there are not so many solutions ready to buy yet.
MS: Most of the things are possible to make yourselves. I like to think that if I have a magic wand. What am I going to do if I have? Then there is a thing that I want to do, like create a certain artwork, and you find out that some of the things you can do, and others you can do in a bit a different way than you first envisioned. But you can almost always realize the concept itself by not using hi-tech. Often you can even do without any technology. There is rarely ever a case in which you really need hi-tech. Maybe it was different in the eighties, but is not true for contemporary art projects.
HW: Well, you could say that you'd like to work with this new invisible material. I do not know what concept is exactly behind it, but they are working on it. I have learned that even with the really hi-tech stuff you can almost always contact the company or lab that develops it and ask them if they would like to support you.
MS: Or if you would like to work with that invisible material, you could also work with something else and pretend it is invisible. It might work the same way.
HW: You can always do without a certain technology of course. But you can also try to get your hands on it.
PW: It depends if you approach it from a conceptual perspective or from a more technological side. I am also interested in the question what a lab like that of V2_ could contribute?
HW: The residency program makes a lot of sense. Because you can support projects that come out of it. The documentation of what you develop is also very valuable, and of course there is the venue for performances and exhibitions. There is not a festival for wearable technology yet.
MS: Wearables are now mostly an industrial field. But when it becomes something in daily life the question what wearables are as a medium will become more important, and that is a question that a lab like V2_ could approach and tackle. Discussions on how wearables function or might function, what they mean in life, could start now. We need a good overview and a theory of what it means, next to just how it works. It would be nice to start such a discussion now. There is a discussion now about social clothing in fashion, that could be brought much more into the field of wearables: what does it mean to wear, and what does it mean to wear technology. There is more than just the monitoring of your heart beat. If you make shoes for a prostitute that measures stress levels, or gives off an alarm when she is in danger, then you address really different issues.