3 years post-doc — Coffee, Music, and Design that matters

21 November 2013

This article is part of the series 3 years of freedom — a report on my stay as a post-doctoral researcher at the Media Lab of Aalto Universiy.

In June 2012, I attended the Designing Interactive Systems conference in Newcastle with an interactive demonstration on Auditory Augmentation. Part of the conference was a keynote by Chris Csikszentmihályi, Professor of Media Design Matters at the Art Center College of Design Pasadena, CA. His talk (similar to the one he held at SHARE 2012 for which there is a video) was mainly about his work as the founder of MITs Computing Culture group, which worked to create unique media technologies for cultural and political applications. All the works (of his students) he showed were focused on design interventions that either made a political statement or that actually helped other people in doing so. It was an inspiring talk and I recommend to see Chris talking if you have the chance.


Schematic overview of the Coffee Dialogue study

In the same week, I attended the “web of things hackathon,” a workshop-like hackathon that accompanied the conference (actually, it was part of Pervasive 2012, held at the week after at which René Tünnermann presented our joint work on peripheral awareness). After a short introduction to the concept of the web of things and an initial brainstorm on possible projects for the day, we split up into two groups and we had to come up with a theme for working on the “web of things”. Inspired by Chris’ talk in which he encouraged (interaction) designers to do things that matter rather than abstract design studies, we came up with the idea to increase transparency of the coffee supply chain. But, instead of concentrating on the consumer, we thought it might be valuable to think of how to provide information about the coffee to the actual harvesters working at the coffee farms.

After this short inspirational interlude, I came back home and started to think on how I could use my skills to “Think of citizens rather than users”, as Chris put it in his keynote. The thoughts eventually resulted in the DEIND project, a design investigation to facilitate electronic digital music practice for neurodiverse people.


Participant S1 listening to the 3rd generation prototype of the DEIND project

This project was a collaboration with Julian Parker, Ramyah Gowrishankar, Mila Moisio, Jussi Mikkonen, Vesa Välimäki and Pirjo Kääriäinen. The project was partially funded by Aalto media factory.

The DEIND project was an attempt to connect neurodiverse people with the field of contemporary electronic and digital music practice. In pursuit of this, people with autistic spectrum disorders were invited to take part in the design process of electronic instruments. In difference to music therapy approaches, we focused on the design of tools and methods for artistic expression rather than therapeutic outcome. The close integration of target group members into the research process encouraged a bilateral learning process: on the one hand, we created an intense and fruitful experience for the participants; on the other hand, the involved researchers were able to identify design challenges specific to the target group and reveal new perspectives on their respective area of research.

Within the funding period, we realised three design iterations including field work sessions of one week each. The reception of our interventions was throughout positive; participants as well as carers reacted positive, sometimes even enthusiastic. It left a good feeling in me and supports my efforts to find further funding possibilities for this project. Some of the performances of the participants were published online.

As for dissemination, we published one paper on a DSP filter at SMC 2013 and released an open source filter suite (for the SuperCollider programming language) that contains implementations of five sound filters that were developed by Julian and me specifically for the DEIND project. The project was presented at various institutes such as PITLab, CIID, the Medialogy department of AAU and the Sound is Information symposium in Stockholm. An overview paper on the project is planned for NIME 2014. Furthermore, we showed the third prototype generation at the opening of the TAUKO studio shop where it was quite popular.

Design that matters

After 10 years of mainly dealing with basic research in tangible interfaces and sonification, I eventually discovered that I can apply my skills to make a difference to people’s everyday life and (at least minimally) change society. It is a good feeling.  The immense idealist support of people like Andrea Botero and Teemu Leinonen helped me and I am deeply grateful for their efforts. I plan to continue in this direction, so you can expect more musical interventions in the future.