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Friday, June 9 • 1:30pm - 1:50pm
Engineering Interactive Devices that Enable Alternative Relations Among Humans, Devices, and Other Organisms

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As interactive devices have become increasingly interwoven and necessary in our daily lives, we are primed to expect them to be fast, small, and ubiquitous, catering to our every need. These values also drive many of the latest innovations in the field of Human-Computer Interaction. In fact, when we think about our relationship to interactive devices, we primarily think of ourselves as consumers—this encourages an extractive relationship, in which we use devices without reflecting on the impacts of our use, such as the environmental impact interactive computing has on our ecosystem.

Some research efforts have aimed to lessen the ecological impact of interactive devices by developing biodegradable materials or reducing our dependency on batteries. While these efforts are essential for a more sustainable future, we also need to explore new user-device relationships that promote more reflection, care, and responsibility for our devices rather than just relationships built on consumption and careless disposal. This is especially important for the tons of consumer devices that end up as electronic waste yearly—the world’s fastest-growing waste stream.
In my research, I explore approaches in engineering and designing interactive devices that foster alternative user-device relationships. To do so, I engineer interactive artifacts that encourage people to be more than just users or consumers of electronic devices and instead, engage also as caretakers and maintainers of their devices. Through these artifacts, I explore how we might design the future of interactive devices to encourage more ecologically minded engagements between human users, devices, and even other organisms. My approach builds off recent advancements in biological circuits (Adamatsky et. al 2016, Pataranutaporn et. al 2020), critical making (Ratto 2011), and theories in more than human design (Wakkary 2021, Karana et. al 2020). I motivate my work through speculative futures while also grounding it in engineering, design, and research contributions.

To explore caretaking of an interactive device, I engineered a wearable smartwatch that works based around the user’s care of the living organism inside the device. When healthy from the user’s provided water and food, the organism (a slime mold, Physarum Polycephalum) participates in the device’s functionality by acting as a physical living wire that enables power to the watch’s heart rate sensor. As such, caring for the device is intrinsic to its interaction design —with the user’s care, the slime mold becomes conductive and enables the sensor; conversely, without care, the slime mold dries and disables the sensor, and resuming care resuscitates the slime mold. In addition to engineering this device, I also conducted a user study where participants wore our slime mold-integrated smartwatch for 9-14 days. In this study, participants developed a unique connection towards their slime mold-integrated device, with many feeling a sense of responsibility and/or reciprocity.

Rather than a user-device relationship built on extractive use, this approach explores how devices can be designed to encourage the user to take on a caretaking role. By presenting this project and other works in progress, I hope to foster discussion of how we might design future technologies to center care and maintenance and rethink our user-device relationship.

avatar for Jasmine Lu

Jasmine Lu

PhD Student, University of Chicago

Friday June 9, 2023 1:30pm - 1:50pm EDT
ARC E-13