Wednesday, 16 December 2009

Philips Design Probes - Skin Tattoos

Tattoos and physical mutilation are amongst the oldest forms of personal expression and identity. Subcultures have used tattoos as a form of self representation; a visual language communicating personality and status. Philips Design examined the growing trend of extreme body adornment like tattoos, piercing, implants and scarring.

The Electronics Tattoo film expresses the visual power of sensitive technology applied to the human body. The film subtly leads the viewer through the simultaneous emotional and aesthetic transformations between two lovers.

Over the years those using cosmetics have attracted attention for all sorts of reasons - including ritualistic and honorific - but often, especially in modern times, the context has been sexual. But does the application of these products make any difference to the way other people behave? While makeup seems to work by increasing perceived attractivity, it can also signal a willingness to interact, status or even availability.

How does the crisis effect future lifestyle? Wherein lie the secrets of electronic tattoos?

Clive van Heerden, Senior Director of Design-Lead Innovation at Philips, presents a vision of the future of lifestyles.

One area you are working on, are dresses, that reveal the emotional state of its carrier. How do you at Philips imagine the use of such dresses? Why do you think people will want to express emotions through their dresses?
Yes, these were typical design probes. Our work on wearable electronics for performance sportswear and medical monitoring applications had taken us a long way down the road of biometric sensing – particularly the integration of sensing technology using soft (textile based) non-invasive techniques. It started to occur to us that by using combinations of sensors we could distinguish different emotional or mood states which struck us as extremely relevant to developing new interaction modalities and UI technology. We had been critical of the obsession to make intelligent products when almost no attention is paid to the sensitivity of machines – the ability to understand the emotional state of a person using the technology. Choosing to make dresses as the carrier for a suite of technical propositions based on these technologies came about because of the socio-cultural research we had been doing into youth fashion in Japan. We wanted to test the idea of emotional sensing without eliciting preconceived reactions which we believed would have been the case if we’d made a ‘sensitive’ DVD player or remote control.

Even more unsettling and intimate is the concept of electronic tattoos. How would patterns and colours be evoked? Will such tattoos be based on nanotechnology?
As with many probes, the underlying technical idea was not new – several people had proposed methods for creating sub-cuttaneous displays. We were testing reaction to the idea of the human body as a platform for electronic and bio-chemical technologies. Our research with the dresses had pointed to a distinction between role playing tendencies and fashion expression and we were very interested in how young people use technology to develop new forms of expression – SMS dialects being an example. As a company that makes medical equipment, we felt that the probe concept had to be far enough away from our regular business to ensure that the feedback was not clouded by reaction to existing technology or attitudes to our brand. Tattoos have become a universal form of youth expression and seemed the perfect carrier to test the idea of emotionally sensitive intra body technology driving displays under the skin in an application with no obvious utility. The reaction was very rapid and very intense – contrary to our expectation no one seemed to question the inevitability of it happening or any of the practical issues that seem very obvious – the overall response was about control and how people feel they are losing control in their lives.

Looking back at science fiction movies, nothing looks more outdated than visions of the past. Why?
Various people have said that visions of the future say more about the present in which they were made than they do about the future. That ‘present’ dates inevitably. We believe that the future has more to do with the past than the present – looking at long range historical trends, catalytic events and their knock on effects, cyclical reoccurrence and repetitive themes of human behaviour are more important than linear projections of existing technologies or social behaviours. In a way we need to try not to be predictive which is why we try to disassociate an idea as much as possible from any of the anchor points a consumer of person viewing it might turn to. We want as little association to a brand, product genre, geographical location, attitudes to gender, sexuality, religion and the like to prejudice the reaction. The best we can do is a cultural echo-sounding and see if it resonates. The greater the detail and contextualisation of an idea the more prejudiced the reaction which is why art does not date in the same way as technology, fashion or science fiction movies.

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