Tuesday, December 1, 2015

A Day in the Life...

This has been an amazing autumn. I am doing some of the most creative work I have ever done in my career, and at the same time it has been a highly productive period, generating six full peer-reviewed papers over the past year, with three-plus more in the works. So, a typical day :

1. Designing erotic accessories for people with disabilities : This is a two-year project funded by Quebec's Fonds de recherche québécois en société et culture (FQRSC), led by my collaborator Dr Ernesto Morales and involving, in addition to myself, our sexologist collaborator Dr Frédérique Courtois. We organized a series with people with a range of disabilities, both men and women, to discuss their masturbation practices and the difficulties and challenges they face. Based on these interviews, we have elaborated some preliminary designs. Most of these are of the "handle" type, that is, extensions that connect to existing sex toys that allow people with a range of disabilities to use these more effectively. In addition, some actual sex toys are also under development where there don't appear to be any commercial ones available. The work is inspiring in the sense that we are clearly serving a need that exists and for which little work has been done in the past. Our work in this area will probably provide a kind of basis for encouraging other projects in this area over the coming years. Furthermore, the designs we are producing can be either 3d printed directly, or one can 3d print molds that are used to construct the object from non 3d-printed materials such as silicone gels.

2. Understanding how children with and without disability move together : This is a three-year project funded by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research under the leadership of my collaborator Dr Coralee McLaren and involving, in addition to myself, Dr Tom Chau and Dr Barbara Gibson from Holland-Blooview Kids Rehab and Dr Cheryl Missiuna from the University of Waterloo. The project involves bringing a group of children, both with and without disabilities, together within a dance exercise that encompasses both structured and unstructured movement exercises. We will be monitoring the children's neurological responses via their own movements, but especially as they observe and respond to the movements of other children. Although we have not yet begin the full data analysis phase, we have used the EEG cap to study one child's responses to the movements of others, and the results, even for this one individual, are fascinating. Certain observed movements trigger "motor imagery" related to those movements, but not all movements have this effect. It seems that children "feel" certain movements of their peers more than others, and these "felt movements" trigger them to move in similar ways (a kind of mimicking). These observations are changing how we understand the way children play together. There will be much more to come, but even these preliminary results are intriguing.

3. Designing interactive and immersive installations for people with disabilities : Artists across the world are designing and implementing immersive and interactive installations that provide unusual experiences to participants. These installations are often not accessible to people with disabilities. In addition, the experience of disability can itself generate new possibilities for unusual experiences for those without disability, and unusual experiences of the body can lead to new insights for people with disabilities about their own interactions with the environment. A Ph.D. student, Ms. Afnen Arfaoui, has taken on the challenge of developing a design methodology for creating interactive and immersive installations that address issues of disability. She is drawing on Alfred North Whitehead's "process philosophy" in order to structure this design process. This is leading to a novel approach to design of these unusual installations, an approach which integrates both scientific preoccupations and artistic sensitivities.

4. Designing a participative, interactive opera : Given today's technology and the possibilities offered by social networking, it seems obvious that the traditional presentation formats of performance art - theatre, music, opera, dance - should evolve. Modifying the formats of public presentations of these art forms is not easy, however - these have settled into "ways of doing" that are normative and generally accepted by the public. We propose to open up the opera form to new forms of interaction with the audience. To do this, we are working with an unpublished manuscript (see the discussion of the opera project below), a science fiction story still under development. The manuscript is part of a "vast narrative" type project, that is to say, the story is told across 15 books in over 2500 pages, and parts of the story are finding their way into a variety of formats, including game environments and visual art (paintings). Furthermore, the story draws inspiration from the Greek myths and legends of gods and heroes, in particular the stories of Agamemnon Atreus and his family (the Oresteia), of Jason and Medea, of Odysseus and his compatriots and family, and of Orpheus and his family. The Greeks "invented" dramatic presentations, but in their day the public played an active role in the presentation of theatre. We propose to restore this participation. Right now, the issue we are struggling with is how to "segment" the story (in essence, the libretto) into short pieces which can be recombined in different ways through audience choices. The segments have to work not just as text, but also musically and choreographically. You can't just take an arbitrary piece of music and move it around, the result will be incoherent. Choreography also imposes constraints on the process. So as a team we are working on finding a kind of "basic unit" that incorporates the constraints on music, dance and text recombination.

5. Ongoing projects in other areas : Beyond these main challenges, which tend to be present every day in one form or another, several other projects are also ongoing. As part of the effort of developing smart garments and intelligent environments, I am drawing on ecoscience theory to develop a new understanding of complex sensor systems to assist the design process, and to recognize the need to address issues of personal vulnerability as these systems encroach on the highly personal spaces of the body. Another project under development focusses on designing techniques to test and enhance the combined effect of viewing and feeling the body, as a means to improve movement retraining following stroke, for example. In a third area we are looking at how to recruit adolescents with disabilities for a study of virtual reality as a tool for skill development for eventual employment. And this work excludes my ongoing writing initiatives and my work on fashion design...

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Pinnacle - A One Act, Massively Participatory Opera

The participatory opera project is such an interesting effort it deserves a blog entry of its own. The convergence of several completely separate initiatives, three under my direct purview and one from another team, the project integrates these into one unifying initiative. Hence, over the past five years, in addition to my ongoing research at the intersection of the geomatics and rehabilitation sciences, on the one hand, and performance and media arts on the other, I have undertaken an ambitious writing effort as well as developed and brought to market two fashion collections based on my own designs.

The writing project consists of developing a "vast narrative" of some 2500 pages, involving hundreds of characters, planets, and habitats and more than 250 years of "future history) - about 65% of this project has been completed. The story is inspired by several of the Greek myths - the stories of Orestes and Elektra (immortalized in Euripedes' Orestia), of Orpheus and Eurydice, of Ulysses and Penelope, and of Jason, Medea and the Argonauts are the main narratives involved. The opera focusses on the first 100 pages of this story, essentially the youth of its central character, Oreph Sodenheim (based on both Orestes and Orpheus).

In addition to the scenario (from which the opera's libretto is derived), we propose to provide opportunities for large sectors of the public to participate both in the development of the opera and in its final delivery on stage, via an online web access we will create for the project. Opportunities to influence the scenario, the music, the choreography and parts of the staging will be provided. In addition, we are developing a smart garment that will incorporate movement sensors and which will serve as a specialized interface for the opera development - the garment will be provided to targeted audience members. The project involves several researcher-artists from Université Laval's Department of Music (Jocelyne Kiss, Serge Lacasse, Sophie Stévance) as well as collaborators from outside the university. An innovate project which will act as a showcase for innovation for related research at Laval University.

Friday, July 3, 2015

Research Nirvana?

Have I died and gone to researcher heaven? The set of projects on which I and my collaborators are currently working feels very much like that could be the case. Here is a brief overview :

1. The Winter Project : This project is the brain child of my colleague, Dr. Ernesto Morales. Essentially, we are working in collaboration with the city council for Quebec City and a range of organisations for people with disability, to redesign city policies, including snow removal practices, to make the city more "disability friendly" during winter conditions. Early results from the project include a redesign of pavement ramps to include a drainage system allowing snow to be melted and removed - pavement ramps are of key importance for people in wheelchairs and are often the site of an accumulation of snow and ice ; the development of a wheelchair-adapted snow-mobile device ; and discussions concerning changes to snow removal practices.

2. Pro(x)thèse : This project, under my oversight, seeks to create an interactive smart garment that is embedded within an active, immersive environment, to facilitate the exploration of self image in relation to sensuality and sexuality and disability. A prototype poncho has been developed which incorporates 12 pressure sensors, interface software has been completed, and photography of people with disability has been acquired. The project includes collaborators Dr. Frédérique Courtois, Dr. Ernesto Morales and Ms. Nancy Dubé.

3. Sex toys : Another collaborative project with Dr. Ernesto Morales, in this project we are designing aids that can be combined with existing sex toys, as well as developing new ones, that provide masturbation ability to people with disability who are often unable to use existing sex aids. The designs can be printed on a 3d printer, ensuring privacy and customizability.

4. ProBE : ProBE (Proximal Body Environments) seeks to develop a diagnostic tool for clinics to assess the presence of brain trauma, both mild and more severe, in patients. The project is predicated on the observation, tested across decades of research on obstacle avoidance strategies, that people who have even mild brain trauma move differently in space and in proximity to other objects (or people) than do healthy individuals. ProBE involves researchers from Quebec City (Drs Brad McFadyen, the leader of the project and Denis Laurendeau) and Toronto (Dr Karl Zabjek) as well as clinicians from both cities.

5. Participatory Opera : The crown of my ongoing research program, developing a massively participative one-act opera based on my own science fiction opus. The concept is to develop the opera itself in parallel with a range of tools that allow active participation by diverse publics in all stages of development as well as the final real-time performance of the opera - input concerning the music, the choreography and the story line itself. These tools include virtual and social environments and specially designed smart garments. The opera project, led by myself, involves musicians Jocelyn Kiss, Serge Lacasse and Sophie Stévance from the Department of Music at Laval University, Marie Louise Bourbeau, a lyrical singer in private practice, Dr Adel Elmaghraby, a computer scientist and dancer-researchers Erin Manning and Cora McLaren. Both myself and Dr. Manning are also fashion designers - we will also be developing the costumes for the opera.