Rethink Immaterial Property

Yoann Pierre Douillet
Published in
11 min readJan 30, 2020

Rethinking how to capture and preserve immaterial property, the perspectives of six designers at EPFL+ECAL Lab

Chinerie by Romain Talou / EPFL+ECAL Lab

Challenging Immaterial Property

Today we live in a registration society; one in which we have the possibility to record almost everything. From what we publish on the internet, to all the data we generate via our connected objects, we can save and store just about anything. Sensors can even transform intangible data such as dreams into binary values. Technologies today allow us to keep a massive memory alive, not only because of recording technologies, but also because of the capacity to store a large amount of documents. What are the challenges raised by these emerging technologies that make it possible to create an inexhaustible record of the world? What are the future uses of all this data?

Six students investigated these ideas over the course of one semester during the MAS in Design Research for Digital Innovation at the EPFL+ECAL Lab. The project was led by Romain Collaud and Lara Défayes and engineering support was given by Delphine Ribes and Yves Kalberer. Pushing back the barriers of the definition of an intangible heritage, from Twitter posts to dreams, the six projects propose a reflection and exploration of different types of intangible heritage. Each student carried out his or her own exploratory work, resulting in 6 original proposals that try to rethink the way we envision the current or future use of immaterial property as heritage.



Chinerie by Romain Talou / EPFL+ECAL Lab

Romain Talou rethinks the digital access of “Les Chineurs”, an archive accumulated over the last 5 years by an amateur community that exchanges rare or forgotten musical works across social networks. Investigating the fields of everyday music discovering, this research focuses on how music aficionados have continually hijacked models of music broadcasting and distribution with the unique goal of discovering and sharing music with other passionate fans. More precisely, Romain observed how enthusiasts within online communities reappropriate the experience of discovering and sharing music through social networks.

The online community “Les Chineurs”, which shares links from differents online music platform (eg. Youtube, Soundcloud or Bandcamp) to Facebook, currently faces an interface challenge. The archive is so vast that it is easy to get lost within it. Facebook’s principle of gathered content in an infinite vertical scroll do not give the users any opportunity to properly access this curatorial musical heritage over time.

“Chinerie” is an interface promoting the current work of the community. Design principles have been developed to deal with sorting issues, giving the possibility of going back in time via a simple interface and, among other features, preventing the mortality of musical piece’s URLs by detecting and repairing broken links. In addition to a digital interface, a DIY object was designed to give the community a way to access “Chineurs” as a physical and analog object.


Smell of heritage

Smell of Heritage by Margaux Charvolin / EPFL+ECAL Lab

Today UNESCO is working to bring specific smells, such as those of old books or the perfumes of Grasse, into an intangible cultural heritage of humanity. Indeed, this collective heritage of scents is in perpetual evolution because new smells appear continuously with the creation of new materials, objects, perfumes, and at the same time, others disappear with the vanishing of objects, places or ecosystems. With this new intangible heritage comes the issue of conservation. And even more complex is the question of consultation and accessibility of these archives.

This topic of smells has been widely discussed in recent years. A few years ago, Ubisoft created the Nosulus Rift, a prop diffusing smells during a virtual reality experience. Indeed, the sense of smell has a strong immersive potential due to its special link with our emotions and memory. Who hasn’t experienced pleasure in smelling the perfume of a sweet cake from his or her childhood? The concept of Proust’s madeleine is very popular, but the relationship between olfaction and emotions had only recently been the subject of scientific research.

This project began with a long research to create a fragrant material that lasts over time. At the end of this experimentation, Margaux Charvolin wanted to design an object with emotional impact for the user through smell. Starting from an ordinary object, between a trinket and a lamp, and by integrating an exchangeable module, the object can produce different chosen effects. A soothing effect with floral scents, or stimulating with citrus fruits. The chosen smell would therefore have an impact on the use and location of this luminous object. The light underlines the emotional effect of the smell, and can be used a night light or a desk lamp.


Torrent of memory

Torrent of memory by Hélène Portier / EPFL+ECAL Lab

Hélène Portier explores the potential of opinions published on social networks. The online publications on social networks of various users gather information about our contemporary society. These elements are, for historians, an extremely rich material to analyze the perceptions of an audience on various events, turning web documents into historical resources. In the past three decades many countries, institutions and initiatives have set up their own web and social network archiving systems (e.g. BNF, Internet Archive,, giving historians great opportunities for analysis as well as enormous technical challenges.

The research is based on writings, methods and tools developed by researchers and web archivists such as Ian Milligan, Nick Ruest, Niels Brügger or Valérie Schafer. “Torrent of Memory” is a public installation exploring the relationship between an archive in continuous creation and the wish to summarize opinions related to specific events. The project creates a poetic visualisation of public opinion from social networks implemented into public space.

Extracting all tweets mentioning #HKprotests from the beginning of the Hong Kong manifestations. This hybrid poster evolves in real-time depending on opinions posted on social networks. Overlapping printing and video projection, the algorithmic system allows an analysis of the mass of data based on politically oriented keywords. Each publication enriches the analysis of this event and gradually creates a historical trace transposed on paper.


Beyond the cave

Beyond the cave by Yoann Douillet / EPFL+ECAL Lab

Yoann Douillet focused on human behavior as an immaterial property. While behavior could be linked to rituals, social networks or nutrition, the project led to the postulation that communication, and the way humans are able to communicate with their environment, is the behavior that typifies each one of us. Inspired by Kielhofner’s Model of Human Occupation, the project questions these communication and interaction abilities regarding an environment; because an environment is perceived by one’s sensorial apparatus, the comprehension, interactions and communication abilities within this environment is due to its natural understanding. While it is impossible to know what it is like for a bat, to be a bat [1], the project aims to investigate how two people, with different perceptions of the same environment, could still manage to communicate and interact with each other within this shared environment.

The work draws its main inspiration from Plato’s allegory of the cave. It talks about sensory perception by depicting chained and immobilized men at the bottom of a cave, turning their backs from the entrance and only seeing the world through shadows cast on the wall facing them. The allegory projects itself on the release of one of them, who is accompanied towards the exit and faces the world as it really is, not as it was perceive before throughout cast shadows on a wall. The allegory ends on the return of this man to the cellar, to his family, with his new knowledge of the world, and to the discussion he will be able to have with those who have remained at the bottom of the cellar.

The result is a two player VR experience, offering one player the chance to embody the one who returns to the cave with new perceptions, and the other player to act as the one that stayed in the cave. VR allows one player to experience new space and sensory perceptions while the other one stays in the world as we are used to experience it. The game puts the players in opposition about the nature of a box that faces them. By using collaborative and communicative mechanics, they will have to resolve a sensorial enigma in order to prove their ability to communicate despite their divergent perceptions.


Offline, digital post-mortem archive

Offline by André Andrade / EPFL+ECAL Lab

During our lifetime, we create various types of digital content, Spotify playlists, Facebook posts, Instagram pictures and more. But what happens to these assets when we die? Can it become part of our legacy? According to a study published by the Oxford Internet Institute [2], the number of ghost accounts on Facebook, belonging to dead people, may exceed those of the living before the end of the century. In this case, who will own all that data and what should be done with it?

While proposing a solution to gather digital archives of a deceased person into a physical object, André Andrade aims to question the ownership, accessibility and value of our digital data after death.

The object could help to keep ownership and control of the property and prevent its disappearance. It also gives the choice to delete data permanently or donate it to research or a person.

Similar in form to a mourning urn or monument, this autonomous object works with a candle that is lit in someone’s memory. The candle’s heat is then transformed into enough electricity to create a wifi network. Once connected to the network, the user has access to the various media bequeathed by the deceased. As the candle’s life is limited in time, when it goes out, access to these data becomes impossible. This object will therefore be able to operate outside and without a battery. The data access becomes kind of a ritual that one makes at a specific moment, in a chosen place.


Dream catcher

Dream catcher by Valentin Calame / EPFL+ECAL Lab

Valentin Calame conducted a research on an instant, ephemeral and almost uncontrollable immaterial property; our dreams. This property is co-influenced by our daily behavior and dreams themselves, meaning that a dream will influence our daily life, while our daily life also influences our dreams. The research focused on the paradoxical phase of sleep (Rapid Eye Movement sleep), in which the dreams we remember happen. This sleep phase is characterized by the inhibition of the body’s homeostatic functions. In response, the brainstem has to paralyze the organism, preventing the subject to move and live the dreams. Valentin challenged these instinctive primary functions so the subject is more able to set an aware state of mind during the paradoxical phase of sleep, avoiding nightmares and taking control of his own dreams. The developed system engages, traps and monitors lucid dreams.

While inducing lucid dreams is tricky, the first challenge of this project resides in designing a system that would be able to recognize the paradoxical sleep phase that produce them. When such a paradoxical phase is spotted, the system has to be stimulative enough so that the user is aware of the situation, without affecting his sleep quality. Also, such a project questions the aftermath of a dream, and has to provide solutions for the user to be able to remember in some ways his dreamt experience.

With a haptic stimulation device attached to the user’s hand, Valentin’s solution uses biofeedback sensors to detect a paradoxical phase during the sleep (using a BPM sensor) and characteristic stress moments during this phase (using GSR sensors). Stress indicates that the user is in an anxious state, and needs a light haptic stimulation to regain awareness of his condition, thus allowing redirection of his dreams. Such an autonomous system allows the user not to be disturbed by technology, and to connect the gathered data to a smartphone app, a personal journal providing data visualisation of each dream. This smart dream catcher then encourages the user to improve his dreams over time and to be more aware of his state of mind during paradoxical sleep.


What’s next ?

The proposals imagined by the six designers consider different types of immaterial property, from shared documents on social networks, to smells, dreams and human behavior. Having experimented and researched around these properties, what are the challenges related to the use of this material?

Having today the possibility to extensively record the world, a massive amount of numerical data has been created and is still in development. Indeed, we have developed the possibility to keep ancient historical documents without degradation by digitizing them. Thanks to today’s technology, we also have the possibility to trace periods of history and to generate new information related to the past. At the same time, technologies have been developed to digitize information such as dance or music, which are basically intangible. In addition, more and more data is being created directly by our digital and portable tools. This heritage is summarized into three categories: digitized heritage [3], intangible heritage [4] and born-digital heritage [5].

This infinity of data is a challenge for scientists, historians and designers who must develop tools to ensure the sustainability of this data. The storage and exploitation of this material are the two primary aspects related to this issue.

Even if the six propositions developed by EPFL+ECAL Lab students offer specific interpretations and points of view, there is still a huge amount of solutions to exploit and enhance this massive quantity of information which is not about to decrease. What these projects show, is that all this data can be used in a variety of ways and contexts. Even more complex than the data’s use, the need of selection is questionable at the time server farms consume more and more energy. What is really relevant to keep and what do we really want to pass on?


Article written collaboratively by Margaux Charvolin, Yoann Douillet and Hélène Portier


Photography made collaboratively by André Andrade, Valentin Calame and Romain Talou



[1] T. Nagel, « What Is It Like to Be a Bat? », Philos. Rev., vol. 83, no 4, p. 435, oct. 1974.

[2] C. J. Öhman et D. Watson, « Are the dead taking over Facebook? A Big Data approach to the future of death online », Big Data Soc., vol. 6, no 1, janv. 2019.

[3] « Digitising our cultural heritage », Digital Single Market — European Commission, 30-mai-2012.

[4] « UNESCO — What is Intangible Cultural Heritage? ».

[5] « Digital Heritage », UNESCO, 28-mars-2019.