When Unstable Technology is a Good Thing

Life is messy, and mostly we use technology to keep it tidy. But is there a place for technology that embraces messiness and unpredictability? It’s a question that fascinates Assistant Professor Laura Devendorf, who came to CU this spring, joining the ATLAS Institute with a tenure home in the Department of Information Science in the College of Media Communication and Information. 

Electronic calendars keep us on schedule; apps keep us exercising; there’s even an app that tracks your baby’s vital signs, Devendorf points out. She doesn’t have a problem with electronic calendars—her life is more wired than most—but as a mother of two girls, the implications of some childcare apps trouble her.

“Parents will eventually be able to know a lot about their babies through their cell phones—maybe even whether they are hungry or tired. They could end up just monitoring their babies,” she says. “I’m not really interested in building more technology that tracks things. I am curious about technologies that help us be more present, and I think there’s a place for technology that embraces unpredictability and messiness.”

The Unstable Design Lab
This is what Devendorf plans to explore in her newly-launched “Unstable Design Lab,” which will be fully up and running in the fall. “We’ll be investigating how technology designers can use the instability of everyday life as a design resource, as opposed to something technology seeks to eliminate,” she says.

She envisions the lab as a place where engineering and computer science majors rub elbows with art and anthropology majors, and where students can “find value in things that don’t work the way we expect technology to work,” she says.

Along with digital fabrication tools, the lab will stock clay, art supplies and food. And it will also have a sink, because, she says, “No one is going to get messy if you don’t have a sink.”

Mindfulness, Making and the 3D Printer
While at UC Berkeley, Devendorf worked on a project she calls “Being the Machine.” Based on 3D printing technology, it replaces part of the mechanical fabrication process with a human component. In 3D printing, a user designs and uploads a 3D model, presses a button and the product is made, often from plastic. In Devendorf’s variation, 3D models are uploaded to a guidance mechanism connected to a laser pointer. The pointer indicates where the 3D printer would place material, but it’s actually put there by hand. What material? You name it: pancake batter, Cheez Whiz, wet sand, icing, chocolate syrup, clay…

Obviously, the results are not as precise as a 3D printed object, but that’s not the point; with the ability to make digital models of almost anything, technology can be used to access what Devendorf describes as the “joy and labor of making things physically.”

“I believe making can be a little like yoga; it trains you to be more present,” she says.

Artists and designers like Devendorf’s setup because there’s room for the unexpected. And because the apparatus is portable, her quirky digital-human fabrication system can go to unlikely places—city sidewalks, public parks, forests, beaches—where others can watch and engage. “Those interactions lead to conversations and new possibilities,” she says.

Her projects are often messy and sometimes fall apart, like the Stanford bunny she made from balloons and the cat she made from Cheez Whiz. But that’s all part of the process. “Failing is good. We learn from failure,” she says.

Dynamic Textile Displays
Last year, Devendorf led a collaboration with Google Advanced Technology and Projects, augmenting the company’s “smart” threads so they would slowly and subtly change color in response to electrical inputs.  Working with collaborators at the University of California Berkeley, Devendorf coated conductive threads with thermochromic pigments that were woven into fabrics. In response to small changes in electrical current, calming animations moved across the fabric.

In contrast to LED screens and phones that demand your attention, Devendorf says the color changes are subtle. Many wouldn’t even notice them, she says, and she finds these types of subtle changes make them more playful and attractive.

“I believe that beautiful experiences emerge when we lose control and let ourselves be affected rather than affect,” says Devendorf. “I’ve found that building technologies that shift away from a strict user-in-control model create poetic and enchanting moments in everyday life.”