Let’s consider body

This text is one of my essays written during the “Embodied Interaction” course in Uppsala University. The text was updated.

Isn’t it interesting and even funny that it is in the age of virtual reality, e-mail and instant messages people become more and more concerned about their actual physical bodies? Somaesthetics, embodiment, personal informatics: all of them arose relatively recently. Computers invaded mass media, culture, and people’s’ minds heavily after the first mass marketed personal computers hit the ground in the late 1970s. The idea of bringing a person into a virtual world, which was already there, fascinated a lot of bright minds. They created numerous pieces of art, like books (e.g. “Neuromancer” by William Gibson, 1984) and movies (e.g. “Tron,” 1982 and “The Lawnmower Man,” 1992).

It appears that this idea faced an inevitable obstacle, which in fiction is usually solved by some fantastic device: how do you connect a human and a computer? Engineers designed computer interfaces, but not the human body. How does it (human body) work? How does it move? How can it vary in different aspects, besides obvious, e.g. weight and height? How do we consider answers to these question in the design? Embodied interaction as a discipline appeared just in time to try to provide answers.

One of the parts of this new phenomenon is a “quantified self” movement. People, for different reasons, measure various features of their bodies, accumulate and aggregate this information, process it and, presumably, apply this new knowledge about themselves, making changes to their lives. The reasons could be very different, from curiosity to medical recommendations. Collecting data about the own body is not a particularly new activity. For example, people with certain diseases, like diabetes, have to do it on a regular basis. What is new, is my opinion, is the hype. Watching your body is becoming a popular activity, a lot of applications, services and devices are there to those who want to get information on their pulse, breathing, nutrition habits, sleeping routing, etc.

What I would like to speculate about, is the future implications of personal informatics. Total self-awareness among people, years of records, “normal” values which are known by everybody, 24 hours body monitoring: we can imagine all of it happening, but what else? Let me presume. First, we will get a new sub-discipline in Data Science, related to Medical Data Mining, which will be dedicated to finding unusual and interesting patterns in gathered data. I guess, it would be a great opportunity for researchers and medics, who want to make life better, to find out non-trivial things about our bodies. This leads to another idea. Currently, there are some systems that gamify behavior that try to change habits and promote “healthier” way of living with gamification mechanics. However, the most powerful motivation is intrinsic and originates inside a human body, the very body under observation. Won’t then the better life experience provide a better motivation by itself? Is there a need in gamification in this area at all? Doesn’t body “know” what is better for it? I suggest, in some sense, it does. People are different, and sometimes a “norm” is not something you would like to apply to yourself. Personal Informatics systems should be aware of it, and it should be considered in their design. Probably, it will become possible to measure the “mood” or emotions, e.g. through hormone levels. These measurements could say, what type of behavior, what behavioral patterns are better for the body.

Speaking of a future and future implications of embodiment, I would like to share some thought on this topic, which I find particularly interesting, yet not relevant. Considering body becomes particularly important when designing for unusual settings, or even extreme settings. If you’re creating a mobile device that you know will be used outside in a very harsh and cold surroundings, for example, on the South Pole, it is not only materials, that change. The way of input, when a person can not take off a glove, or touch his ear with cold plastic, will be affected. One might say, that these are extreme conditions, which are not relevant for the majority of users. However, the world is becoming more and more interconnected and global, traveling, even to distant places, became common activity. Thus, we should consider the temperature, cold, heat, sunlight, different weather conditions, which affect the way we move and the way we interact with other people and devices.

In that sense, I think that the embodied interaction as a design paradigm is only at its dawn. If I’m allowed to dream and speculate on ideas, I would say, that the real significance of body-oriented disciplines we will witness, when traveling to Earth’s orbit (or even another planet) will become a somewhat common thing. Do we consider low or zero gravity, when creating a framework to describe body movements? Do we consider it in the design? Can one use computer mouse if there is no gravity, that keeps it on the surface? Can you press a button, if by pressing it, you are pushing yourself away? Even very common and old practices change. What about airless space? With what would you replace audio signals? In my opinion, these questions and related challenges are fascinating and worth discussing even now, even though an actual situation will not be possible to experience in nearest future.