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


1 Introduction

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 [1], [2].

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’ [3].

Philosopher Michael Polanyi speaks of tacit knowledge, knowledge that exists beyond

the boundaries of language [4]. 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 [5].

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 [6]. 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 [7]. 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

involved [9].


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 [10]. 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 [8].

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 [11]. 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

aesthetics’ [12].


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.


5 Observations

The sensory system constitutes a fundamental source of cognition [13]; 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.


6 Discussion/Results

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


Raune Frankjaer received funding from the PROMOS program of the DAAD,

German Academic Exchange Service (Deutscher Akademischer Austausch Dienst).