Brain Pickings

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01 JULY, 2009

The Human Face, Up Close and Personal

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What the CIA has to do narcissism, attractiveness and Autistic children.

The face, with its intricate lace of 33 different muscles, is a powerful gateway to human emotion and thus the subject of relentless research aiming to pin down how and why we express our inner selves on that living canvas. Here are 3 fascinating projects that probe what lies beneath.

RESPONSIVE FACE

NYU Media Research Lab professor Ken Perlin has the ambitious goal of isolating the minimal number of facial expression elements that capture our character and personality.

His project, Responsive Face, is a 3D animation demo that lets you play with various facial elements — brows, gaze, head tilt, mouth and more — to see how they change as they capture emotions like fear, anger, surprise, disappointment and happiness.

The eventual goal of this research is to give computer/human interfaces the ability to represent the subtleties we take for granted in face to face communication, so that they can function as agents for an emotional point of view.

The demo is based on the iconic Facial Action Coding System (FACS) developed by psychologist Paul Ekman, who pioneered the study of emotions through the taxonomy of all conceivable facial expressions and whose work is now being used by anyone from lawyers to actors to the CIA. (Ekman also collaborated with the BBC on the excellent series The Human Face, which we couldn’t recommend enough.)

Perlin’s work is also being implemented in helping children with Autism, teaching kids not only how to “read” other people’s expressions, but also how to manipulate their own faces to communicate their emotions.

FACE RESEARCH

If you’ve ever made a few beer bucks in college participating in paid psych experiments, you know those can be long, tedious, and possibly involving being stuck in a a big, noisy fMRI machine for an hour.

Enter Face Research, an online portal for psychology experiments about people’s preferences for faces and voices, where you can help the advance of science from the comfort of your own living room. The project invites users to take a series of personality questionnaires and participate in various experiments in exchange for a look at the findings once data is collected. Granted, that won’t pay for beer, but it does indulge the psych geeks among us.

Previous studies have investigated fascinating topics like the relationship between averageness and attractiveness, women’s preference for masculinity in men’s faces, and various other aspects of why we like what we like.

The project is a joint venture between the University of Aberdeen School of Psychology Face Research Lab and The Perception Lab at the University of St Andrews. Sign up and help coin the cultural definition of attractiveness.

THAT’S MY FACE

That’s My Face lives in that awkward limbo between the scientific and the bizarre, with one foot firmly planted in the questionable. Simply put, it’s a tool that lets you upload photos of yourself and explore your face in 3D as you manipulate age, race, gender and other attributes.

So far so good. But then comes the questionable — the site offers various souvenirs of narcissism, such as your own action figure, framed 3D portrait, and custom 3D crystal. There’s even an affiliate program, where the more, um, entrepreneurial can make a few bucks off of other people’s self-worship.

That’s My Face was founded by a grad student from University of Cambridge’s Computer Laboratory. We think it’s an interesting metaphor for the value of a PhD in today’s cultural environment — make what you will of that statement.

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30 JUNE, 2009

The Open_Sailing Project

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Drifting villages, or what the Apocalypse has to do with your social life.

Here’s a little-thought-about fact: Oceans cover 71% of Earth’s surface, yet 6.7 billion of us cram into the other 29%, elbowing our way through pollution, overpopulation and various other delights of contemporary civilization.

Enter Open_Sailing, a visionary initiative pioneering an entirely new form of marine architecture.

The project aims to reinvent our habitat by designing a sustainable, technologically sound sea-based lifestyle, shielded from potential natural and man-induced disasters. An “International Ocean Station” to the International Space Station, if you will.

In practical terms, this translates into a drifting, inflatable “village” of modular shelters surrounded by ocean farming units and energy pods. All components are fully flexible — fluid, pre-broken, reconfigurable, pluggable and intuitive — and powered by innovative technologies that maximize energy efficiency and ensure a sustainable, self-sufficient model.

Initiated by Royal College of Art designer Cesar Harada, the project has drawn an international, multidisciplinary team of 15 designers and engineers working under the mentorship of various marine experts.

We want to live at sea. And we want to do it well: comfortably, sustainably and safely. We want delicious food, a great social life, space to work and play. We’ve come together; a diverse team from all walks of life to design our future on the ocean. With our combined skills, we’re pioneering innovative architecture, navigation and sea farming techniques.

The first Open_Sailing prototype is 50 meters in diameter and fits 4 people. An inaugural test will set sail from London to Rotterdam, and results will be available in July.

While the project is very conceptual, the vision behind it is firmly grounded in reality (we’re underutilizing our natural habitat and overexploiting the parts we are using), urgency (where do we go next?) and visionary problem-solving — and that we can appreciate. With the right tools, thinkers and technologies, we think Open_Sailing can change the world — literally.

Thanks, Jake

29 JUNE, 2009

Data Visualization: The Colors of Democracy

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What dots and colors have to do with the war on political corruption.

You know data visualization is big when you see it on one of those 4 x 6 postcards distributed in bars. In Bulgaria.

Spotted recently: The Colors of Democracy, a flyer displaying voting results by party affiliation for Bulgarian Parliament elections since the fall of Communism.

The Colors of Democracy

The Colors of Democracy: Voter color preference in Bulgarian Parliament elections.

It's time to vote again on July 5. Don't act rashly. Think!

Each dot represents the official color of a specific Bulgarian party — the visualization clearly shows the declining grip of the conservative party (in red), the one most closely aligned with Communist ideology. More importantly, it shows the proliferation of alternative viewpoints and the diversification of the political landscape — a sign of hope in the dialogue on democracy.

The postcard — printed and distributed independently by Bulgarian designer Mihail Mihaylov — is part of a PSA campaign aiming to combat the vote-buying allegations plaguing the upcoming Parliament elections, encouraging people to vote based on judgment, not incentive. Political analysts have estimated that up to 12 million BGN, roughly $8.6 million, have been allocated to vote trade, a devastating slap in the face of democracy.

The back of the card reads, “Vote by conscience! Your vote is not for sale.”

This is important for two reasons. For one, it’s a timely dialogue to be had, in light of the recent unrest surrounding the Iranian elections — a gory example of vote fraud and the severely undemocratic ways in which protests against it were handled.

Secondly, it’s uplifting to see a thriving undercurrent of grassroots democracy activism among a nation slammed by The New York Times as a country whose entire political system is one big money-laundering machine for the mob.

The paradox, of course, is that the people this messaging is likely to resonate with are probably those already aligned with the very platform of the PSA campaign and thus least in need of an intervention. But that’s the fundamental folly of all cause marketing, so we’ll have to take it for what it is.

26 JUNE, 2009

More Than Form: Design for Disability

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What a microwavable monkey has to do with the MoMA and open social conversation.

THE BOEZELS

Mental disability — from neurodegenerative diseases to developmental disability — is a difficult subject, often shoved under the bed of social dialogue. But the reality is that it exists, and those affected by it have needs — physical, emotional, mental — dramatically different from the average.

Dutch designer Twan Verdonck address this head-on through The Boezels, a series of animal-like toys designed for mentally challenged people and elderly with Alzheimer’s as sensorial stimulation therapy (Snoezelen) tools to help the learning process and reduce anxiety.

My project is a metaphor and example for how we could deal with social care, industry, design and art

The Boezels come in several varieties, each with a distinct “personality” and function, stimulating one or more of the four senses — touch, smell, hearing, sight. From a microwavable monkey meant to warm up the user’s belly to a snake infused with a relaxing smell, the toys are designed with a meticulously balanced combination of material, weight and size in a way that induces a strong sense of physical contact, stimulating emotional response.

Even more fascinatingly, The Boezels are not only designed for, but also by the mentally challenged — they are produced in De Wisselstroom, a daycare center The Netherlands, where a small group of people with mental impairments are working in close collaboration with Verdonck.

In 2006, The Boezels were acquired by the MoMA’s permanent collection. They are currently being successfully used for therapy by a number of European health organizations.

PROAESTHETICS SUPPORTS

Physical disability can be an uncomfortable subject often veiled in a sense of taboo. Most people address it through a mix of denial, awkwardness and nervous self-derision. But it doesn’t have to be.

Italian designer Francesca Lanzavecchia‘s latest project, ProAesthetics Supports, explores the perception of disability through artifacts — crutches, corsets, braces and more.

Beyond the expected blend of form and function, her designs transform these vital body accessories into conversation pieces that make the discussion of disability easier, less judgmental and more open.

Marsupial: Functionally exhibitionistic. This neck brace stores life’s necessities beneath a stretchable semi-transparent rubber skin.

Neck Plinth: An exercise in lightness: the deletion of the image of a neck brace through reduction, while function is fully retained.

Back braces are the first representatives of bodily differences; molded and tailor-made around the body they are a cumbersome second skin. I reinterpreted them with the aim of transforming them objects of desire and representative skins.

Polly: A young girl’s brace where she stores her prized possessions. A colourful brace with sculpted-in pockets to store personal artifacts.

Brittle: This aid manifests the symptoms that afflict sufferers of brittle bone. A cane with a delicate-looking but at the same time strong enough to support body weight.

While we’re far from suggesting there’s such a thing as “celebrating” disability per se, we do believe there’s a way to honor our bodies and their idiosyncrasies without shame and stigma. Francesca Lanzavecchia takes something often perceived as — if we’re really honest with ourselves — ugly, and brings a bold sense of aestheticism and pride to it, a much-needed perspective in the cultural dialogue on disability.

SNIFF

Visual impairment is tough, but it’s particularly challenging in young kids — sight is just too integral to the process of exploring one’s surroundings, a strong developmental need for children.

Norwegian industrial designer Sarah Johansson aims to tackle this this through Sniff, an interactive, RFID-detecting soft toy for visually impaired children.

Every time an RFID-enabled object comes close to Sniff’s nose, the toy gives feedback through sound and vibration. Sniff can react to different stimuli with different behaviors, giving kids a richer, more tangible experience of their physical environment.

In 2008, Sniff won the prestigious Design for All prize from the Norwegian Design Council. Johansson is currently working on a more sophisticated and technologically advanced 2.0 version — you can follow the progress on Sniff’s prototypes here.

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25 JUNE, 2009

5:1 Student Design Show

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Untainted design thinking, or what 200 students have to do with the world of 100.

Here’s to spotting tomorrow’s great design thinkers today: The London College of Communication’s School of Graphic Design is holding its annual degree show this week, titled 5:1 — an exhibition showcasing work by the program’s 200 graduates.

Although the show is divided into five segments reflecting the program’s central pathways — Information Design, Advertising, Typo/graphic, Illustration and Interaction & Moving Image — it fosters interdisciplinary curiosity, featuring cross-pollinated, experimental work across all facets of design.

Creative, compelling, provocative — it’s all the things we want design to be, oozing the freshness of minds not yet tainted by industry expectation and artistic grandeur.

We couldn’t help noticing that some of the work in the Information Design focuses on the symbolic representation of the world as a 100 people — perhaps a course professor stumbled across Toby Ng’s brilliant World of 100 poster series we featured a while ago, and repurposed it as a brief to students? Regardless, some of the interpretations struck our fancy.

5:1 opens to the public tomorrow and closes July 3, so if you’re in the London area, stop by Elephant & Castle SE1 6SB for a burst of delightful design freshness.