Sensory design: blind in the electronic panopticon

Designing experiences that explore our sensory perception beyond sight in our technological landscape.

What is Experience & Environment?

Ephemeral moments, abstract concepts and feelings are difficult to communicate through purely visual means. The communication of intangible ideas often calls for the intersection of disciplines. As the demand for thought-provoking design grows, the role of the designer evolves. The “First Things First” (1964, Garland) manifesto initiated a revolution of the discipline by establishing its purpose as a powerful communication tool beyond marketing gimmicks. Consequently, it has become a survival necessity for new designers to be polymaths and generalists.

fig. 1 Ken Garland, fig. 2 “First Things First” Manifesto

The establishment of the Experience and Environment platform in Central Saint Martin’s Graphic Communication Design course was a progressive response in design education to meet new industry demands. The essence of the platform is: how do we design ideas in consideration of where they sit in a (tangible or intangible) space? This enables the exploration of experiential design, performance art, spatial design, as intersections of many interests. The platform’s ambiguity and freedom fosters the perfect environment to cultivate critical, inter-disciplinary designers. Moreover, the course’s acceptance of the radical has inspired my design process to similarly challenge conventions and to create work that invites an audience to question the world around us.


Why Experience & Environment?

Part I: Sensory Deprivation

Experience and Environment is important because it allows us to understand the world beyond sight. Now, more than ever, the need to question the visual in visual communication is essential. Our investigation of the senses originated from our first project, “Desaturating the Saturation. The project aspired to provide an interpretation of our dérive in Oxford Circus through smell, taste, touch and sound, to help distil the our visually saturated experience in the space. The interactive, sensory experimentation allowed us to explore an alternative way of ‘seeing’, that felt inexplicably wholesome and refreshing.

“Society of the Spectacle” Guy Debord

Our prioritisation of what we can see in society can be traced back to the 15th century Renaissance; Leonardo Da Vinci was one of the pioneers of the notion that “the sense of sight is the Lord and commander of the others.” (Jütte, 2005) Philosopher Samuel Taylor Coleridge coined the phrase “The Despotism of the Eye” (Perry, 1999) in the 1800’s as a development of a similar line of thinking: our eyes are the dictator in our body’s sensory autocracy. We were introduced to the idea that we have been conditioned to prioritise sight in Christian Metz’s book “Imaginary Signifier,” where he discusses “The Scopic Regime” (Metz, 2000). It is the idea that our vision is an oppressive sense taking up so much of our attention it obstructs our understanding of the others. However, Metz was discussing the idea as a response to our transition from the physicality of a theatre into the cinema — a visual, virtual performance.

The American cultural historian Martin Jay re-introduced the idea and brought it into mainstream intellectual discourse in his essay “The Scopic Regimes of Modernity”, where he speculated a future where we communicate through taste or touch (Jay, 1988). The authority of sight was further dissected in Guy Debord’s “The Society of the Spectacle,” where he asserts that the other senses have been neglected in the advancement of technology. He comments on “the decline of being” — experiencing a physical space in its entirety — into “having,” and “having into merely appearing” — as reconstructed, visual concepts.

“The Archive of Tactile Expression” monsoon

We began to explore this in another project “The Archive of Tactile Expression”. The archive is placed in a speculative future where we have forgotten the sense of touch. Following the ideas proposed by Metz and Jay, the project is a commentary on our relationship with visual-based technology and an analysis of my personal fixation on the physicality and audio-haptic response of “clunky”, push-buttons. The archive proposes a future when we will be so intimately intertwined with technology that it acts as our intermediary with the physical world. Our obsession with what we can see is why we are oversaturated with visual content today.

Writer Robert Jütte proposes in his analytical book “The History of the Senses,” that it began with the implementation of surveillance technology in retail spaces, the suggestion of surveillance culture in George Orwell’s novel ‘1984’ — leading up to Günther Ortmann’s suggestion of our intangible, virtual infrastructure as an omnipresent “Electronic Panopticon” (Ortmann, 2003).

“Panopticon” blueprint

His suggestion was a technological contextualisation of Jeremy Benthem and Michel Foucault’s surveillance structure that was introduced into mainstream thinking by an article published in the German newspaper, Die Ziet, in 1998: “Cameras on Every Corner in Every Room — The Future Has a Thousand Eyes.”

It is undeniable that society is migrating towards a merged space where the physical and virtual is intertwining. Debord, regarding virtual space, implies that “the concrete (physical) life of everyone has been degraded into a speculative universe” where we have abandoned our other senses. This is because virtual space has been designed predominantly with our vision in mind (Debord, 1964). Sound and touch are often considered as secondary to sight, however there is minimal discourse regarding the virtualisation of smell and taste.

In our modern context: Psychologist Willy Hellpach Mensch purports that “the senses have to make a much more conscious effort to open themselves up and are obliged to cope with a far more rapid succession of fleeting entities” (Jütte, 2005). As a result, “digital lethargy” is becoming a contemporary epidemic. The sensory imbalance and the trajectory of machine advancements has strained our relationship with technology. This makes Coleridge’s prior insistence on the need for a revaluation of the other senses essential. As Jütte summarised in his book The History of the Senses: our sensory perception has been displaced. Therefore, what and how do we design in our current state of sensory deprivation?


Part II: Techno-Optimism to Techno-Scepticism

Not only is our awareness of the senses diminishing as technology advances, our relationship with technology itself is deteriorating. The concept of “digital lethargy” highlights our frustration and growing scepticism of technology to the point where we identify ‘the machine’ as an unfamiliar entity that contradicts the human. This is evident when you compare the techno-optimism of the past to the techno-pessimism of the present.

The Romantic Age in the mid 18th century is recognised as “The Age of Wonder” for its celebration of the intersection where art and science meet. The late 18th centurysaw an increasingly positive reception of technology in early incarnations of European World Fairs. The fairs proposed that the investment of technological advancement was essential for socio-economic developments that “promised peace and prosperity for all” (Hollengreen, 2014).

However, a century later, wonderment turned sour. This is largely due to the complex historical and political context of the Western world in addition to the invention of mass broadcasting and the television in the 50’s. The 1969 Montreal Expo introduced a tentative stance towards the relationship between people and technology with the “Man the Producer” pavilion. The exhibit “progress” raised the question “Do you think Technology permits us to find new landscapes, or merely allows us to ignore old ones?” (Hollengreen, 2014). It acted as a prompt for the masses to think critically about its integration into our lives. Moreover, it introduced the idea of the digital realm as an isolating space and a form of escapism. Since the turn of the millennia, technology has developed rapidly — almost too quickly to cope. As established by the idea of the Scopic Regime, we inherently gravitated towards building a visual society. What followed was the invention and development of screen-based technologies: cameras, televisions, computers, smartphones and tablets.

“Cookie” Black Mirror

These technologies have now become embedded into of our daily lives. Visually-immersive devices — like the Occulus Rift VR, Google Glasses, Augmented Reality interfaces — that aspire to transport us to a virtual realm are also becoming the norm. The internet, television and the establishment of virtual space has transformed the world forever. Moreover, these digital spaces now house digital entities that have their own artificial “consciousness”. Artificial Intelligence and self-sufficient machines are slowly entering our homes through the introduction of Amazon Echo’s Alexa. The near future looks to accept driverless cars and minimal human-to-human interaction — which was once consider an exciting future. Yet now we are uneasy at the prospect.

Through the way we interact with technology, we are constantly looking, and simultaneously, constantly being watched.

In response to this, humans themselves are critical the society we’ve become. The Guardian proposed in a recent article that 2018 is the year of the “neo-luddite,” a collective of digital users that are beginning to renounce technology because we believe the consequences of our excessive exposure to it has reached destructive heights (Bartlett, 2018).

However, despite this, we are determined to explore how considered design can allow us to return to the techno-optimistic of the past. My personal stance is that there is little point in trying to abandoning technology or to view it as the enemy. Our interactions with technology is an essential aspect of our everyday lives because of how deeply embedded machines have become in our society. Above all else, it is important to remember that technology itself is not innately “evil” or “isolating” — it is merely how we put it to use as makers and users that enables it to be so.


Designing Solutions

“The more we’re plugged into the virtual world, the more we deeply appreciate the contrast — moments in our human experience… Intuitively, we realise that we are starved of certain sensations. With the rise of digital culture, society has, perhaps subliminally, become more interested in the missing sense.”

— Mindy Yang, Designer

How do we combat the technological Scopic Regime when we are so deeply reliant on machines and immersed in the virtual? We are interested in designing multi-sensory, physical spaces that foster positive human- technology interaction as solutions to digital lethargy.

We believe that the answer lies in creating wholesome human experiences — which requires an awareness of all the senses — to overcome the oppression of sight. Moreover, we feel that there is a need for them to occur in physical spaces, regardless of our migration to the virtual, purely because the tangibility of what we can feel with our hands is just so innately human.

Our current assessment of the industry is that there are two directions in which the senses have been applied to reduce digital lethargy:

I. The New Sublimity

Multi-sensory experiences designed for mindfulness.

II. Sensory Saturation

Heightening non-visual senses as alternative communication tools.


“Worry Will Vanish” Pipilotti Rist

Solution I: The New Sublimity

The initial solution we investigated was to curate more multi-sensory experiences that encourages mindfulness through “minimal” and “soft” technology use. LSN Global — the journalistic facet of the market strategy firm The Future Laboratory identified “The New Sublimity” as a design industry macro-trend in 2012. The trend is a response to people feeling, “disconnected and discombobulated in their digital lives”, who are “seeking escape from their busy lifestyles.” (LS:N Global, 2018) It references a transformation in the field of wellbeing, that does not fully abandon digital life but encourages “digital dieters” and detoxers.

Many designers are currently working towards creating sensory sanctuaries as a response to this. Pipilotti Rist’s immersive exhibition “Worry Will Vanish” is an example that incorporates sight, sound (video installations) and touch to transport the audience into a fantasy cosmos. Her videos are kaleidoscopic installations placed within a soft, comfortable space that the audience can relax in (Rist, 2018). Collectives like Studio Harm Rensink and Loop.ph create experiences with a similar desire to promote wellness through the senses. Studio Harm Rensink initiated a series of projects following their first “Urban Spa” in Eindhoven, an indoor lake with an inflatable, tactile sauna placed in the heart of the city (Studio Harm Rensink, 2012). Loop.ph’s experiences “Osmo” and “Chronarium” were created as oases in urban public spaces that provide sanctuaries for smartphone detoxing and slumber respectively (Designboom, 2015).

“Urban Spa” Studio Harm Rensink

However, in these projects, there is the fear that the visual will still dominate. Particularly in “Worry Will Vanish”: how do you prevent the experience from turning into an “Instagram exhibit”? As this will only emphasis the visual interpretation of these multi-sensory spaces on a virtual, mass scale. The curators and designers of these mindfulness experiences are thereby required to place a lot of trust in their audience to respect the intention of these curated spaces. “Osmo” conceptually prohibits this from occurring by insisting that participants leave their phones and devices at the door. However, this will only continue to create a divide between man and machine — a cure for the symptoms of digital lethargy, but not a sustainable solution to the problem.

“Osmo” loop.ph

Moreover, there is the worry that these experiences may be presenting mindfulness as a reframed form of escapism. Is it ideal or healthy to promote a future where we are constantly trying to be somewhere else?

“Madeleine” Amy Radcliffe

Solution II: Sensory Saturation

Perhaps I should be exploring how to invigorate the other senses to battle sight for the dominant role? The alternative approach is to develop experiences that saturate the non-visual senses as a preventative, eliminating the need for a sanctuary. Digital lethargy could be combatted by fostering the environment for the creative collision of technology and the more neglected senses.

“Scents for Space” Ani Liu

It is essential that they collaborate with technology to help depict a more all-encompassing human, approach to machinery. Creative technologists like Amy Radcliffe and Ani Liu are leading pioneers of this type of exploration. Radcliffe was inspired by the Proustian phenomenon — which suggests that smells have the strongest ability to evoke memories — when she developed “Madeleine” in 2013, the first Scentography camera. As described on the Leibal catalog, the product is built to manipulate “our emotional wellbeing through prescribed nostalgia” (Leibal, 2018). Ani Liu’s project “Scents for Space” echoes a similar intent: to create olfactory memory capsules for astronauts leaving Earth in her pursuit to create “science for emotional ends.” (Liu, 2018)

“Seated Catalog of Feeling” Sosolimited

Humanising science and technology was also one of the key goals for the engineers and designers at Carnegie Mellon who developed “Skinput”, technology that aspires to turn “the body’s largest organ into a touch screen.” It was designed to be technologically non-invasive whilst providing us with a humane interface to sustain a tactile understanding of our bodies (Harrison, 2018).

Sosolimited’s “Seated Catalog of Feeling” — which is currently being featured at the Cooper Hewitt’s exhibition “Beyond Vision” — was also designed to highlight the importance of touch. It is a multi-sensory installation that uses tactile vibrations and sound to understand a plethora of tactile feelings from “a bag of microwave popcorn” to “making love to a snail on a bicycle seat”. (Kimmelman, 2018) In regards to taste, “Project Nourished” is an immersive dining project initiated by Kokiri Lab that merges “vision, gustation, olfaction, audition and touch” to democratise the fine dining experience and to introduce an exciting new method of experiencing food. (Project Nourished, 2018) As a collective, Kokiri’s aim to “reduce unnecessary fear towards technology” resonates with what I aspire to do, whilst integrating food technology into the mainstream in the most “ethical & human-centric way”. Food technologist Emilie Baltz similarly aspires to reinvent our relationship with taste and food beyond sustenance, into a narrative tool. Her interactive five course meal: “Circuit of the Senses”, is a techno-sensory playground that encourages us to reawaken our curiosity in the everyday (Baltz, 2018).

Much of our own sensory exploration has been inspired of the many aforementioned practitoners. Quite simply put, the desire to return to a world of wonderment and curiosity is at the heart of our practice.

Conclusion

Following the assement of the existing body of sensory work in the industry, relevant concerns, and our ownwork — wegravitate towards wanting to create work that saturates the senses. Wefeel very strongly and emotional about their importance, and being aware of their displacement from our everyday lives is a very surreal, and disheartening feeling.