Employing Creative Practice as a Research Method in the Field of Wearable and Interactive Technologies
Abstract. With the emergence of relatively accessible programmable microcontrollers,
artistic use and designer application of wearable technologies have
increased significantly over the last decade. This paper suggests these creations
are more than a mere implementation of emerging technologies for creative
practitioners to extend their artistic expression, but a method applicable within
research and development. Creative practitioners generally approach their
subject matter intuitively and holistically and are therefore capable of
facilitating insights where rational approaches may not. Working on the
periphery of computer science has the advantage of an outsider perspective,
which can result in un-thought of solutions to previously unresolved problems.
In this paper we discuss the merits of this approach within wearable and
interactive research and describe one such procedure on the basis of a wearable
Keywords: Creative practice, alternative research methods, wearable
technologies, interactive technologies, Arts-Based Research, insight, outsiders
perception, Bamboo Whisper, perception of communication
Authors: Raune Frankjær 1) , Patricia Flanagan 2), Daniel Gilgen 1)
1. University of Applied Sciences Trier, Department of Design, Trier, Germany
2. Hong Kong Baptist University, Academy of Visual Arts, Hong Kong SAR, PRC
Please note: This material is subjected to copyright by Springer International. The original publication can be accessed here: http://link.springer.com/chapter/10.1007/978-3-642-39473-7_7
In recent years, technological development of relatively accessible programmable
microprocessors and programming platforms has seen a surge in artistic use and
designer application of wearable technologies. The results range from pragmatic
gadgetry, in some way augmenting its wearer, through to aesthetically enhanced
fashion and the more whimsical artistic creations, which to a greater or lesser extent
seem best described by their lack of usability.
Assuming research to be a process concerned with the creation of knowledge and of
knowing, we suggest these latter creations to be more than artistic expression of
emerging technologies by tech-savvy creative people, but also possessing an inherent
quality that is applicable as a method for research and development of interactive and
wearable technologies , .
Arts-based research is defined by Eliot W. Eisner as ‘an effort to extend beyond the
limiting constraints of discursive communication in order to express meanings that
would otherwise be ineffable’ .
Philosopher Michael Polanyi speaks of tacit knowledge, knowledge that exists beyond
the boundaries of language . Outside the limitations of linguistics, the creative
practitioner has an aesthetic awareness and a refined sense of perception combined
with an ability to find form articulated through the affordances of shapes, haptics,
lights and sounds to facilitate comprehension and knowledge transfer.
2 Applying Creative Strategies in Problem Solving
Problem solving generally involves one of the following strategies: analytical
processing: methodological and conscious search, or insight: sudden awareness of the
solution to a problem with little or no conscious access to the processing. Insight is a
key aspect of creative thought and associated with a propensity toward diffuse rather
than focused attention, resulting in ineffective filtering and enhanced awareness of
peripheral environmental stimuli, which trigger remote association .
Phenomena like serendipity, hunches and sudden insights play a considerable part in
scientific discovery. Often perceived as luck or coincidence, these occurrences are not
accidental but denote an ability to combine hitherto disparate parts and create an
environment fertile for the unexpected to manifest . This is a skill regularly taught
and developed as part of the curriculum in arts and design schools.
Creative practitioners have the liberty to explore new technologies in unanticipated
ways, uninhibited by the computer science tradition of Human Computer Interaction
(HCI) and free from market demands for profitable research . Experts operating on
the margin of their field are known to achieve great results by creating and engaging
in unique projects 1).
3 Research Focus
Wearable technology has traditionally been regarded as a subcategory to ubiquitous
computing and consequently the main concern within research has been on
technological development, work tasks and usability. However, wearables signify a
break away from the computer as a cognitive and rational device augmenting our
brains and constitute a convergence point of a multitude of disciplines. As such, our
concern is not with the technology itself but aims to deconstruct the narratives created
by market-oriented research into a humanistic and cultural perception of the agents
4 Applied Methods
Leaning on the principles of grounded theory, the research case study cited below
began without a preconceived hypothesis or anticipated results. Rather, the process is
more like one of reverse engineering a hypothesis that begins with a trial and error
method of praxis-based experiments; the results of which constitute primary data
collection that inform a second set of experiments. This process continues as
categories of interest become apparent, in this case a deeper understanding of human
communication and the effects of alteration and augmentation thereof. Key to this
methodology is an openness to embrace discovery and remain free of expectations of
what will be found or precisely how to get there . Furthermore, direct
1 In crowd-sourcing initiatives focusing on scientific problem-solving, a thirty per cent
resolution rate has been observed when handing over problems to experts outside their
respective fields .
experiences, being the emerging notions perceived whilst creating the project,
constitute inductive and deductive thinking through phenomenological experience of
materials and forms.
Following an arts-based approach, the authors initiated the creation of Bamboo
Whisper, two wearable communication devices, each consisting of a felted garment
with a conical bamboo headdress. Both devices incorporate an electronic system and a
micro-processor, translating the voices into movement of the protruding bamboo
sticks and vibration in the other wearers’ device. The design of the headdress encloses
the head, thereby directing the wearer’s vision forward and limiting their peripheral
vision, amplifying somatic immediate proprioception and limiting distraction.
Unlike arts-based research, we consider the creative result a vehicle for approaching
our subject matter as opposed to it constituting the research in itself . For
example, this device generates patterns of information in the form of rhythmic
percussive structures which represent the source bio-data in new forms. Anomalies
can become apparent that were previously invisible. Another implication identified is
the user experience of haptic interfaces and their implications in HCI. The wealth of
experiential capacity of the body informs what the authors identify as ‘interface
Fig. 1. The Bamboo Whisper devices, powered by Arduino Lilypads. Integrated microphones capture the vocal input. The data is send via Xbee Radios to the other wearers device in realtime to drive the DC- and vibrating motors, causing the kinetic movement and haptic feedback.
The sensory system constitutes a fundamental source of cognition ; so when
working through the senses one gains an understanding of the affordances, properties
and limitations of a medium that are difficult to explain or learn by means other than
practical application. The occurrence of insight is inherent in the process. It is
probable that this effect can be attributed to the interplay between the brain entering a
resting or meditative state due to the monotonous work processes involved and the
associations evoked by the haptic feedback of the materials.
The entire project found its shape step-by-step within this process. The aural aspect
created by the movement only became apparent when testing revealed an unintended
delay in the code. This led to the discovery of the bonnet “talking back” like a rather
capricious creature. Subsequently the project was adapted to an initial prototype that
enabled the bonnet to “talk” directly to the public.
This approach sits in contrast to conducting experiments in controlled laboratory
environments that easily trigger preconceived cognitive patterns or reactions:
behavior is not the same as it would be in a natural setting. Therefore, presenting
Bamboo Whisper in a performative, public setting is a strategy and effective research
technique to gauge and observe underlying attitudes toward the design of wearables
When the prototype was exhibited, visitors usually suspected motion-detection was
triggering the hats’ movement and paced about in front of the mannequin wearing the
device. Unable to produce a controllable response, they disregarded the reaction as
being random and lost interest. They only continued to play if they established a
working relationship with the bamboo. Engagement in a “conversation” would cause
excitement. One observer associated the clacking sticks with human echolocation, a
technique applied by a minority of blind people to orient themselves within objects,
working similarly to the sonar of several animal species.
When applying creative practice in research, the process starts with the recognition of
an interesting aesthetic phenomenon and combines it with seemingly unrelated fields
of interest. In the case of Bamboo Whisper, the fascinating appearance and physical
properties of a traditionally woven basket is transformed into an instrument to explore
extended capacities of human communication.
The intuitive approach of the creative practitioner to a subject leads to unforeseen
results which do not need an interpretation as such. Instead the crafted product is
placed in a performative setting, opening up for the possibilities of spontaneous
interaction with the public. Observing reactions and evaluating interpretations can
facilitate new insights. Avoiding traditional methods such as representative user
groups and controlled settings, in combination with the strong presentation aesthetics,
allows for extreme and normally overlooked aspects to emerge. One example of this
is the association of echolocation with the clacking of the moving sticks.
Confidence in both the value of the process and that the means will ultimately lead to
the goal negates a concept of failure, a prerequisite to maintaining the receptive state
of mind paramount to achieving results.
7 Future Development
A congruent next step will be to expand the project to encompass a swarm of devices
in a large network, engaging the wearers in a collective experience shaping a bizarre
yet common space defined by new modes and parameters of interaction.
Likewise, introducing new testing devices which are controlled by the public and
enhance public engagement in the haptic experience will add another angle to the
Further, the responses to the audible aspect and potentials of Bamboo Whisper, are
encouraging development of evolutionary designs, catering directly for use as
echolocation devices, investigating the possibility of creating artificially induced
multi-modal transfer. In this regard selecting user-groups with abnormal sensory
development could provide new and extraordinary insights to the project.
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Acknowledgements. Bamboo Whisper was developed as part of Haptic InterFace
2012, with support from the Wearables Lab at the Academy of Visual Arts Hong Kong
Baptist University, Seeed Studios, Woolmark Company and the Media and Film Grant
of Rhineland-Palatinate (Medienförderung).
Patricia Flanagan was supported with funding from Hong Kong Baptist University
(HKBU) RC-NACADFLANAGAN PJ 38-40-006.
Raune Frankjaer received funding from the PROMOS program of the DAAD,
German Academic Exchange Service (Deutscher Akademischer Austausch Dienst).