Keywords: Binding problem, Reality, Soft Prosthesis, Spatial Awareness
My study so far has been focusing on how spatial awareness is formulated through the proceedure of binding spatial information in the body. I have therefore been working on the ideas of consciousness and wearability. There has been a lot of progress these days in the field of soft prosthesis. Soft smart materials are attached on the body for purposes related to medicine and communication. What role could soft prosthetic materials have in relation to spatial awareness?
Heinz von Foerster states that “when we perceive our environment, it is we who invent it” (von Foerster 2003, p. 211). He describes the environment (von Foerster 2003, p. 214) as a chaotic place that does not bear the characteristics of the world we actually perceive. Our sensory organs create a model of the environment that we live in. We perceive an option of the chaotic universe with our limited and unique sensory and computational organs, we create our own reality and we live in it. Consciousness creates one person’s environment, one person’s reality. Everyone constructs a reality of his their which is unique. The various layers of information perceived by our sensory organs engage various regions of the brains and are bound and integrated into special parts of it (Damasio 1989, p. 124). There is a lot of ongoing research about the process of binding (see Section 2.2) and until now its mechanisms are not fully decoded.
Stelarc alters the architecture of the body in order to “adjust and extend its awareness of the world” (Teyssot 2005, p. 77). Prosthesis so far involves hard materials in structures that incorporate special sensing equipment. These materials are hard and thus impede the devices’ functionality and the user’s adaptation to the prosthesis. Soft Wearable Prosthesis actuated by Soft Robotics is proposed so as to create an effect on skin that resembles that of human touch. It is better than vibration used currently by the majority of prosthetic devices and its elasticity provides the best fitting on the skin. The extension of spatial awareness can be achieved by a soft prosthetic device that mediates spatial information on the user’s skin.
“Sarotis” is a soft mediating prosthetic device that transmits selected layers of spatial information onto the body. This mediation is communicated through the inflation of the channels of “Sarotis” actuated by air. “Sarotis” informs the binding enquiry: this selected information binds itself with the other layers perceived by the subject’s sensory organs so as to form spatial awareness. Spatial awareness in this case is extended and amplified as for the mediated spatial information. This study is focused on a single way of information flow, the one towards the body.
“Sarotis” is the latest of a series of projects exploring the ideas of the binding problem, the mediation of information on the body, spatial awareness and the complexity of senses. The means used were soft materials, various input sensors, a virtual reality headset, filming, 3d visualizations, a 3d scanning device, various actuators. The projects that led to “Sarotis” are by chronological and semantic order: Soft Screen I, Soft Screen II, and Inflatable Jacket. Through these, “Sarotis” tries to fathom the key ideas presented in this thesis: binding new layers of information, amplifying spatial awareness and questioning of the body as a boundary between external and internal environment.
The remarks and conclusions we reached through our work gave shape to the design logic of our final project, “Sarotis”. It can be set in a future context of devices that make the user more aware of their surroundings irrespective of the existence of visual stimulus. Moreover, it demonstrates how the development of technology can intensify the attentiveness of the user towards their surroundings and or advance their spatial awareness to a subconscious level. This research is conducted through an experiment in two stages, as the final design work is still ongoing: at first, the pilot experiment, a designed experiment during which I wear the device and then a series of trials of “Sarotis” from a number of people.
2 The binding problem
This chapter is addressed to the binding problem, that is the body and brain perceive their reality, their position in the world, the situation they live in, and their future decisions.
2.1 What is reality?
A reality regarded from a perspective associated to naïve realism is constructed by binding the information captured by sensory inputs along with memories, previously acquired knowledge, imagination and future speculations together.
Foerster introduces the idea about reality and consciousness by stating that “The environment as we perceive it is our invention” (von Foerster 2003, p. 211). This quote can be examined by the “Blindspot” experiment (von Foerster 2003). On a paper with a dot and an asterisk sketched with some distance in between, when concentrating on the asterisk and when moving this paper close to the eye there is a point where the dot is not visible. The dot still exists as a sketch on the paper but it is not perceived. What really happens is that the eye’s capacity of seeing is not enough to capture the dot. According to this example the capacity of our sensory organs is limited. As a result the world is not perceived in its totality, but in small parts. This proves that we always perceive a smaller part of what actually exists. We sense and perceive our own small portion of the environment.
The environment does not exist as we perceive it. “Although surprising, this should not come as a surprise, for indeed “out there” there is no light and no color, there are only electro-magnetic waves; “out there” there is no sound and no music, there are only periodic variations of the air pressure; “out there” there is no heat and no cold, there are only moving molecules with more or less mean kinetic energy, and so on. Finally, for sure, “out there” there is no pain” (von Foerster 2003, p. 214). According to Hans von Foerster the world, our environment or “out there” (von Foerster 2003, p. 214) is just a chaotic place that doesn’t have the characteristics of the world as we know it. Our sensory organs, knowledge and experiences create a perception of the environment that we think we live in. So “when we perceive our environment, it is we who invent it” (von Foerster 2003, p. 211). Consciousness plays a big role in this procedure, since in my opinion is the tool that connects the wild, bizarre, real world to the self: body and mind. Consciousness creates one person’s environment, one person’s reality. Everyone constructs a reality of their own which is unique and different in comparison to the others’.
The world is an unknown terrain and despite living there we all construct our own unique reality in it. In order for us to formulate this reality special mechanisms are engaged. So what is the binding problem and it’s basic mechanisms?
2.2 What is the binding problem?
Reality in a naïve realism point of view is a personal unique construction. It is created, developed and composed when the layers of the perceived reality are bound so as to formulate this construction. Those layers consist of information about the space and time a person experiences. The information received is bound to the previous knowledge, experiences, future speculations, imagination. The procedure of combining the bits and pieces of information we collect is taking effect with the binding process.
The brain’s plasticity (von Foerster 2003) is an important feature that allows the binding process to take place. The statement that the brain is elastic is demonstrated by George Malcolm Stratton who studied perception in vision. His most famous experiment is “the upside down glasses” (Stratton 1896). During this experiment the subject wears a pair of goggles with which they see the world upside down. At first the subject cannot operate but in a few days’ time they can perform their everyday tasks such as writing or riding a bicycle. The subject states that although its environment is inverted his actions adjust to this situation. Moreover they would recall the existence of objects in their new inverted perception of the world (Stratton 1896, p. 3). In this experiment a new situation i.e. inverted vision was bound together with the other senses, experiences and knowledge of the subject and the elasticity of the brain allowed the adaptation of a new situation for the subject.
The brain understands different elements of reality and binds them together so as to form experiences and events. It is important for me so as to understand how new layers can be incorporated to human perception. There is a lot of research going on about the binding procedure and its mechanisms are not yet decoded. Its understanding is crucial for the apprehension of the self and if or how design can influence spatial behavior.
2.3 Binding process & mechanisms
The binding process is a rather complicated operation. The key task that takes place during the binding is integration. Features have to be integrated in entities and entities have to be bound in events (Damasio 1989, p. 123). Components relevant to sensing and to moving i.e. sensory and motor components have to be integrated in perception and recall. When a surface is touched a layer of tactile information is bound with the user’s other sensory inputs, knowledge, feelings, experience and imagination and updates their binding enquiry.
According to Damasio “patterns of neural activity in “higher” areas can trigger, enhance, or suppress patterns of activity in “lower” areas” (Damasio 1989, p. 124). This organization in higher and lower areas and their interaction develops in levels. The characteristic of the first one is the ability to recall and recognize knowledge. During the second, knowledge is recalled from level A and is organized in more complex entities. In the last level, recall and recognition of knowledge of unique entities, requires a more complex network of organization.
Knowledge enters the system in fragments. These fragments are organized in entities that form events and can be reactivated when combined properly. Local binding records are created in level B. In level C information is created and stored about “spatial and temporal relationships assumed by varied entities within an event” (Damasio 1989, p. 127). In the latter procedure contextually more complex events can be re-enacted.
- “spatial grouping of visual features”: Apprehension of the spatial characteristics of objects: size, scale, similarity etc. in a visual context.
- “feature integration or property binding”: Comprehension of the shape and contour of objects through color, material etc. perception.
- ”part binding”: Understanding that an object can be composed by various different parts
- “semantic-conceptual binding”: Categorization into contextually coherent groups
- “location binding”: Awareness of the spatial location relatively to the body and other objects.
- “serial or event binding spatial locations”: The ability to understand that objects maintain their special characteristics through time and when their location is changed.
The apprehension of the fact that the perception of our surrounding environment is a unified experience is crucial and it is realized through the binding process. The phenomenal experience takes place through the binding of visual features and location of objects, the comprehension of their similar contextual qualities and their understanding as groups of larger entities that maintain their special features though time and space.
2.4 Binding locus
Juhani Pallasmaa could not have described better the carriage of the binding procedure. “My body is truly the navel of my world, not in the sense of the viewing point of the central perspective, but as the very locus of reference, memory, imagination and integration” (Pallasmaa 1996, p. 11).
It is crucial to understand that we construct our own reality through the binding procedure, which is feasible because of the brain’s elasticity and adaptability. Moreover the locus of such a procedure is equally important. The special terrain where the binding takes place is the body. The body includes all the sensory inputs, the special systems in charge for moving, sensing and maintaining a stable and living system. All the systems and bodily parts are supervised and controlled by the brain like the diverse musical instruments of an orchestra are conducted by the principal.
3 Body and Prosthesis
3.1 The Body as a connector and the notion of Prosthetics
According to Wigley “the prosthesis is always structural, establishing the place it appears to be added to” (Wigley 1991, p. 8). Prosthesis is structurally creating a connection between the body that carries it and the environment.
The first use of prosthesis, involved mechanical parts attached to the body used as replacement tools for missing limbs. These devices that were hard, difficult to operate and heavy were helping the user to perform the activities of daily life in a limited way. They were structural and they were replacing missing limbs (Fig. 3). Nowadays prosthesis with hi-tech devices which include sensors, mechanical applications and gadgets, are said to transcend the capacities of the replaced human limbs (Fig. 4).
James Young has a hard prosthetic arm that includes “phone, charger, torch, even a drone” (Paton 2016). This artificial limb not only replaces his hand, lost in an accident, but is also supposed to give him more capabilities that a conventional limb would. However, he states that he is not happy with this, as was in his previous state because it is less useful as the one he was born with (Kobie 2016). He finally adds that the prosthetic limb breaks frequently and has to be replaced often.
The Body receives information from the environment, binds it together with its unique ways and constructs a unique reality. Prosthetic devices can replace the function of missing body parts and hence imitate its features as a connector to the environment. Their material in some cases is limiting their capacities and the need for other types of materials is critical importance.
3.2 Soft Bodies | Soft Prosthesis
Soft robotics according to Pfeifer “utilise pneumatic actuation in combination with morphological design, sensing and control for ‘soft bodies composed of soft materials, soft actuators and sensors [that] will be capable of soft movements and soft and safe interaction with humans” (Pfeifer et al. 2012). Prosthesis based to this technology feels more human i.e. pneumatic actuation of soft materials puts pressure on the skin.
There is a series of soft robotic devices that deal with the notion of tactile feedback actuated by inflation. “Poke” (Park et al. 2010) is a device connected to a mobile phone and it communicates emotions between users in a tactile way. This device is an inflatable attached to a phone. It transfers the pressure that one user poses on the device to the device connected to the other user’s phone. So the two persons can communicate via tactile feedback.
In these examples it was concluded that the users could communicate some of their feelings expressed by their gestures. Some feelings were communicated more efficiently than others. Moreover, the new tactile layer of information binds with their other senses and informs their binding enquiry.
Bodies are soft, responsive, perishable and conscious. “The body image is informed fundamentally from haptic and orienting experiences early in life” (Pallasmaa 1996, p. 40). Body and skin as Wihart points out “relates to architecture through the sense of nearness” (Wihart 2015, p. 256). Tactile feedback can be another way of sensing architectural space.
There is a need to extend our consciousness and construct our realities with new intuitive ways when sensing space. On the other hand architecture needs to embody information as expressed by Alberto Perez-Gomez (Perez-Gomez 1987). At first architecture embodies the knowledge, aspiration and ideas of the architect and then it can potentially integrate, organise and give shape to information. Soft prosthesis is a step towards this direction.
3.3 The Body as an interface
According to Zizek we are heavily related to prosthetics: “I rely less and less on my proper body, my bodily activity is more and more reduced to giving signals to machines which do the work for me” (Zizek 1995, p. 2). This is true: we are inseparable from mobile phones, gadgets that measure our bodily functions and connect us to the others, signal us and perform actions instead of us.
The relationship between those prosthetic devices and the body is so tight that “outside is always inside” (Zizek 1995, p.3). Prosthetics are becoming so inseparable to the body that today “we are dealing with the loss of the surface which separates inside from outside” (Zizek 1995, p. 3). Prosthetic devices are bound to our consciousness and inseparable to the Body.
In this path was created the first prototype “Soft Screen I & II”, through which the human body was studied as an interface, through the use of soft wearable prosthesis actuated by inflation.
“Soft Screen I” is the first prototype in the process of working with prosthesis, tactile and visual feedback, various sensing techniques and soft robotics. It is the outcome of the “Soft robotics Workshop” held on February 2016 in The Bartlett and it was the last workshop in a total of three during my study in RC3. After getting familiar with soft robotics and the special requirements of silicone casting, we designed and fabricated a hand piece which inflates according to breath rate. It has 7 integrated LED lights and is activated by touch through a light sensor. Through this prototype the human body is attempted to be used as a screen. The match of inflation rate to breathing pace is a characteristic that binds the tactile sensation of “Soft Screen I” onto the hand, whereas the sensory controlled light is a means of communication with an external observer. In this prototype the ideas of tactility, wearability and binding were explored in small depth. It is yet the first working attempt towards this direction.
“Soft Screen II” is the second version of “Soft Screen” towards the effort of viewing the body as an interface. It is a hand piece made of silicone, actuated by inflation and connected to a virtual reality headset. The hand piece is a soft prosthetic part and its inflation is controlled by a pneumatic system consisting of twelve relays and a central pump. The hand piece has an integrated electro-luminescent sheet. The pneumatic system is programmed to inflate separately each one of the six channels of the hand piece. The virtual reality headset loops a series of three animations.
Three behaviors are designed for “Soft Screen II”. When the user wears the soft prosthetic hand piece and the headset, he realizes that the tactile sensation received on the skin by the hand piece is analogous to the animated shapes that are projected in the VR headset. The shape, velocity and transformation of these shapes match the inflation patterns.
The material of “Soft Screen II” is opaque silicone. When a channel is inflated the reduction of the material’s opacity allows light from the integrated Electro-luminescent sheet to emit. This feature is an attempt towards communicating the experience of the wearer of the device to an observer. When one of the channels inflates they lighten up, turning the body to a screen.
This prototype explores the idea of binding visual stimuli on the body in the form of a layer of tactile information. It is a way of amplifying the user’s visual sensation and communicating the procedure to an outside observer. The use of EL sheet as a way of communicating information was satisfying as for the quality of light emission through the silicone. However the focus was shifted more on the user of this device.
The next prototype uses the body not as an interface but as a locus that mediates information on the body. The Body integrates, binds together data received by its sensory organs and a prosthetic device.
4 Sarotis: transforming perception
Spatial data transform into tactile data through ‘Sarotis’ mediation device.
4.1 “Sarotis” components and basic functions
“Sarotis” is a soft prosthetic device actuated by soft robotics, which mediates real-time spatial data on the body. Its name comes from the Greek word “σαρωτής” that means gathering information. It consists of one wearable neck piece (Fig. 9), two wearable leg pieces (Fig. 10), a scanning device and a belt (Fig. 8, 11). The neck piece and leg pieces are inflatables made of silicone. The neckpiece features five air channels and each of the leg pieces features four. Nine pumps in total are used to actuate the inflation.
The scanning device is Google’s latest prototype, Project Tango that integrates Simultaneous Localisation and Mapping (SLAM) feature. Project Tango can offer real-time scanning, object tracking and depth sensing. The belt holds electronics and pumps necessary for the inflation of the silicone pieces.
“Sarotis” scans spatial data and inflates the channels of the inflatable devices according to object proximity. More specifically an application was designed in Unity, a game development platform, and uploaded to Project Tango. In this app the virtual space is divided in parts and each part is activated through proximity by Tango. The application updates the Arduino in the belt and the corresponding pump actuates the relevant channel.
“Sarotis” is updated in real-time and its function is explored by a series of experiments. The goal of these experiments is to explore how spatial information is bound onto the body.
4.2 Testing perception
A series of experiments was conducted in order to study further the effect of this device on consciousness. More specifically, the experiments conducted are used to study how the new layer of information, applied by the device is bound with the other senses on the body.
Two series of experiments are conducted. In the first one the author familiarizes with the device by wearing it for 36 hours (Fig. 12). The observations that were recorded during the testing of the device summarize in the following points:
- After removing the device and walking in the same space, the user remembers the moment when the silicone pieces are actuated. The user is experienced of the use of the device and can estimate in which proximity to objects the silicone pieces inflate.
- The pressure received by each channel is not the same.
- The sound produced by the pumps makes the user aware of wearing the belt and in some cases shifts the attention from sensing space.
- The user has to move slowly because the pumps inflate the silicone pieces with some delay.
- The user was able bind the spatial information received by the device to their senses. The user could understand which part of the space was actuating the device.
- The leg pieces provide a stronger signal in comparison to the neck piece.
- The neck piece provides weaker signal than the leg pieces because of the shape of the channels.
During the second phase of the experiment six participants are using the device at first in order to construct a reality. A digital space was designed and an application was uploaded in Project Tango. The participants wear “Sarotis” and freely navigate in an empty room blindfolded. The instruction given to them is to try to find and understand that virtual space according to the inflation patterns they receive from “Sarotis”. They stroll freely in the empty room for 3 minutes and then they are asked to sketch how this space looks like. They also provide any thoughts relevant to the experiment. More specifically:
The first participant (Fig. 13) perceived the space as a narrow passage with a corner towards the end. The inflation signals they perceived are translated into dashed and continuous lines so as to express the continuity of the virtual walls that were situated on their left and right. The separate spatial layer they perceived as inflation pattern on their skin was bound in the form of a corridor with non-continuous walls. They discovered the first and last part of the virtual space that was designed.
The second participant (Fig. 13) perceived the inflations they received as a zig zag and their orientation changed for five times. They sensed the change of direction according to the inflation, but did not perceive the proportions of the virtual space correctly. It is really interesting that the layer of tactile information they perceived is bound with the rest of their senses and gave them at least an idea about how to orient in this virtual space.
The third participant (Fig. 13) represented the virtual space as an area enclosed in a continuous boundary with curvy extensions. It is the first participant that senses the space as a closed space.
The next participant (Fig. 13) sketched the path they followed, and some structural elements of the invisible space. This sketch features five basic changes of direction which is not far from the designed virtual space. Its basic design principles are a lot alike the provided virtual space: they are both corridor like spaces with many turns.
The fifth participant’s sketch (Fig. 13) proves that they imagined navigating in a space enclosed in a thick boundary. This space is divided in smaller parts with thinner walls connected to each other with a central corridor. They translated the inflation signals on their skin in thinner and thicker structural elements. They also understood that the digital space had turns so they included 90-degree turns to their sketch.
The last participant (Fig. 13) designed a space they thought was corresponding to the inflation signals that they received from the devices on their neck and legs. Three things have to be noted in this case: the sketch they presented was the most similar to the designed virtual space, they were the only participant who was never taught architecture or anything relevant to design and they did not finish the experiment. They stressed and stopped towards the end of the procedure.
In Fig. 13 there is an evaluation of each participant’s sketch in comparison to the basic types of binding they achieved to the participant’s body (see Section 2.3).
The most successful sessions were the first one and the last one, even only the last one was closer to feeling the model of the virtual space. They both understood that it is about a path with turns and that it consists of many parts connected together locally and do not change through time. The layer of spatial information applied on their body was closely bound up in their other senses and constructed a reality that includes an applied known layer of spatial information.
5 Spatial information bound through soft wearable prosthetics
5.1 Binding new senses
“Sarotis” was tested with a series of experiments to prove if new information could be bound onto human Body and consciousness. This new information is relevant to spatial data and what is new about it is that is introduced through a device and not through the typical sensory receptors.
“Sarotis” was transmitting spatial information through inflation and deflation and was tested in two different contexts by seven people At first during the long familiarisation no blindfold period the user’s binding enquiry was informed with tactile feedback about thier surroundings. After removing it they could still feel pressure on their skin when they wandered in the same space, proving that their spatial awareness was dictated by prolonged usage. And secondly the six participants were blindfolded and asked to discover a virtual space by the way “Sarotis’” channels were inflating. The majority of them sensed the scale and size of the space, maintained sense of orientation in there, approached its composing parts and its semantic frame in architectural terms. They were able to feel this virtual space through inflation patterns and thus this type of stimuli was bound into their binding inquiry. They could actually construct their versions of a space according to their knowledge, experience and imagination.
On the other hand, technical weaknesses incommoded the participants during the experimental procedure. These weaknesses caused distractions and influenced the outcome of the exercise. Hopefully, a revised and more optimized version of “Sarotis” could be tested again in the future, so as to study its influence to the user in a more precise way.
5.2 Designing a Boundary
“Sarotis” explores the idea of challenging body boundaries, since the limit between the body and the environment is vague (see Section 3). “Sarotis” as a device and a design proposal explores the ideas of softness and tactility. The outcome of the experiment in terms of materiality is that users were comfortable wearing the silicone parts. The patterns of pressure they received on their bodies were enough for them to create their unique reality.
“Sarotis” is attached on the body and located between the body and the environment. It is a communicator of information and an actuator of spatial sensation. “Sarotis” connects in simple terms the environment with the body, binds them through its attachment and embodiment on the body.
5.3 Is the use of soft wearable prosthesis in binding spatial information, a leap towards an amplified awareness of space?
Soft prosthesis is used in the case of “Sarotis” as a way to amplify spatial awareness. As it was investigated by experiments users could become more aware of their surroundings and could also translate inflation patterns into spatial data. This proves that despite the manufacturing weaknesses if the device the user could not only bind a separate layer of spatial information to their body, but they could intensify their spatial experience or even construct a spatial reality without the need to be in a physical space.
Many questions arise for future investigation at this point concerning the binding of spatial information and consequently spatial awareness. The type of information mediated by this device could have a different impact on their spatial awareness. The scale and density of tactile signals they perceive could also have different impact on them.
The issues raised in this article are a part of a greater discussion about the locus of architecture, the understanding of the special functions and limits of the human body & mind and the role of prosthesis in architecture and design. Since prosthetic devices are used in our everyday practice shaping our experiences it is important that architecture has a forward-looking attitude regarding these design practices.
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