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Pespire – Rachael Colley

Rachael’s project was highly personal and based on combining her connection to nature and natural materials with her grieving the death of her partner and seeking some form of ongoingness [1][2].  With consideration for a medical condition that affects her moisture levels, her piece uses connected moisture sensors in two locations; her body through a jewellery artefact worn whilst exercising and the ground on which her partner’s ashes are scattered. These sensors seek some form of correspondence between one another – a correlation between moisture levels. When this occurs it triggers a second worn device to gently move creating something akin to goose bumps on the skin. This highly bespoke, emotionally resonant piece challenges assumptions we hold about the role and function of connected things as commercial products with predictable, desirable features.

As Rachael reflects; ‘I am not sure I want it to work and not sure what my reaction will be if it did.’

Through our discussions with Rachael we were able to revisit our ideas on how, at times, the value of a technology or internet connected ‘thing’ may be in the knowing that it is connected, rather than in the ‘function’ it performs. We spoke about the value in knowing the body moisture sensor and the moisture sensor placed in/on the ground where the ashes were scattered were constantly searching for correlated data between themselves. Even if no correlation occurred, they were trying to find it – and that there was a power – an emotional power for the owner in knowing that. There is a potential poetry here where IoT objects may enmesh in emotionally meaningful ways and what this could enable us to conceive of, beyond the instrumental performing of an act.

Gathering and using materials from nature are central to Rachael’s practice. Because of this, for Rachael, objects with sensors and digital feedback felt alien and hard to understand. An additional aspect of engaging with physical materials was the opportunity to feel grounded and calm. With this in mind, when tasked with creating an internet connected object, Rachael specifically sought to incorporate sensory aspects into her IoT project. Rachael’s completed artefact provides the possibility of connection while it also offers the grounding that Rachael finds in craft practice.

Rachael’s choice of moisture sensors for this project is not ground-breaking technologically and draws on Blossom, a piece of digital jewellery that was conceived to sense rain fall in one country and cause an object to blossom and open in another, like a flower[3]. The link between sweating and emotional states is also long established. Galvanic skin response (GSR) sensors record changes in sweat gland activity and have been proven to reflect the intensity of emotional arousal, though not the type of emotion.

This project is focused by Rachael’s real human need for connection with a loved one. This demonstrates an approach to IoT development that is human needs-driven rather than technology-driven. Unlike some other work showcased here Rachael’s work does not align easily to critiques of existing IoT, rather it emphasises an alternative way to think about and design for IoT. Instead of focusing only on the potential for devices to provide information that is of instrumental value, Rachael’s work is focused on the potential to have far less tangible and more emotive impact on users; to be affective rather than effective.

[1] Josh South, Jayne Wallace, Trevor Duncan, Luís P. Carvalho, Linnea Iris Groot, Nantia Koulidou, and Kyle Montague. 2021. Clustering and Unclustering: Understanding dialogic potential in design for Ongoingness. In Designing Interactive Systems Conference 2021, 832–845.

[2] Jayne Wallace, Kyle Montague, Trevor Duncan, Luís P. Carvalho, Nantia Koulidou, Jamie Mahoney, Kellie Morrissey, Claire Craig, Linnea Iris Groot, Shaun Lawson, Patrick Olivier, Julie Trueman, and Helen Fisher. 2020. ReFind: Design, Lived Experience and Ongoingness in Bereavement. In Proceedings of the 2020 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, 1–12.

[3] Peter Wright, Jayne Wallace, and John McCarthy. 2008. Aesthetics and experience-centered design. ACM Transactions on Computer-Human Interaction 15, 4: 18:1-18:21.