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...

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