5 days, 14 MFA Design & Technology students, 2 professors, 1 mentor from Audi, and 1 Parisian co-working space (NUMA). During the weeklong workshop Interaction Futures, graduate student teams developed speculative concepts around notions of the Metaverse, a term describing what the Internet and its related cultures and technologies will evolve into over the next 10-15 years. Visiting Art, Media and Technology Associate Professor David Carroll sat down with us to tell us how the project unfolded.
How did the workshop come about? Why Paris?
I was lucky enough to be appointed for a teaching stint at Parsons Paris this spring, “on loan” from the School of Art, Media, and Technology at Parsons in New York. One of the many perks of being at The New School, I guess. As a former director of the MFA Design and Technology program, I was eager to identify an opportunity to bring current masters candidates to our new campus. We came up with a week-long intensive workshop for the week after classes concluded on the topic of future interactions. It was important to establish experimental linkages between Paris and New York during this startup year and a workshop was an interesting venue to explore how an intercession could cultivate a new kind of graduate research collaboration.
We wanted to test a workshop model that would be voluntary: no tuition, no credit, no slush fund. Parsons Paris would lodge participants in the dorms gratuit and provide campus facilities and faculty. Students just had to get themselves to Paris. Our local hosts would donate their space and resources. Our mentor from industry would offer time and access pro bono. Faculty would take on the project as research into design methods and the practice thereof. This forms a kind of service to the institution and the field.
Because of this “share-alike” model, we had to pursue topics and outcomes of the collective rather than the pre-determined. Our process and concepts reflect this unique approach.
Who were the participants?
We invited program director at Parsons Paris, Benjamin Gaulon, to join me and our partner from Audi, Lorenz Bohrer, lead of Advanced User Interaction, to serve as mentors for the group of graduate students from Parsons in New York. I put out an open call to current students (and newly minted alumni) in the MFA Design and Technology program to apply for the workshop at Parsons Paris and we confirmed participation from Enrica Beccalli, Stephanie Burgess, Clarisa Diaz (thesis), Denah Emerson, Carl Jadaa, Alec McClure, Lucy Morcos, Birce Özkan, Soohyun Park, Niki Selken, Babar Suleman, Crystal Yee, Ezgi Uçar, all rising second-year graduate students, except for recent graduate, Clarisa Diaz ’14.
How was the workshop different from typical semester curriculum?
Academically speaking, this workshop was a radical departure from our regular curriculum in that it was a non-credit, voluntary activity exploring a broad and emergent topic without a clearly predetermined outcome. This gave us tremendous freedom to set our own agenda collectively and pursue open-ended research and experimentation with a high-tolerance for failure in a low-risk environment. Of course, working all-day, every-day for a work-week contrasts the drawn-out schedule of a 15-week, weekly-meeting semester. This compressed time-experience actually helped us substantially increase our productivity because the workshop structure gave us intensity, focus, and a new cultural context to disrupt our habits and preconceived ideas.
How did Audi get involved? What was Lorenz Bohrer’s role?
Back in the spring of 2013, Lorenz from Audi AG was in New York for Audi’s sponsorship of the The New Museum’s Ideas City Festival. He attended the spring thesis exhibition of the MFA Design and Technology program at Parsons The New School for Design in New York that year, and experienced the breadth and depth of our graduate work. He really liked what he saw and we began discussing potential collaborations. He described an innovative workshop format that he was leading in New York and Los Angeles where a group of designers and researchers intensively collaborate in an intensive residency on proposing design scenarios of the next decade and beyond. We both saw exciting potential to bring our graduate students and faculty into this working model.
Since I was slated to spend the spring semester in 2014 on a teaching assignment at the new Parsons Paris, we eagerly planned a short experimental workshop with graduate students from New York coming to Paris. I was keen on establishing both a graduate student research presence at our new branch campus in Europe while also starting to partner with a German automaker, renowned for excellence in design and industry-leading interiors and automotive interfaces.
By working with Lorenz, we developed a new appreciation for the emerging challenge of automakers to keep up with the rapid pace of consumer technology advancements and how this increasingly sets consumer expectations. Given that automakers typically plan new models ten years in advance, this not only set our futuring timeframe, but also emphasized how a company like Audi collaborates (and may eventually compete) with a company like Google. They currently help supply the navigation systems for Audi but since Google announced their self-driving car prototype during the workshop, it dawned on us what the future may bring, perhaps sooner than anyone expects it.
The Metaverse was a useful encompassing concept that allowed us to refer to newly networked contexts, implicitly understanding that automobiles will increasingly interface with mixed-reality systems. We could explore the broader social implications of this idea while not explicitly addressing automotive design concerns.
Why did you choose to work out of NUMA?
Benjamin Gaulon recommended that we collaborate with NUMA for the workshop to expose our graduate students from New York to the tech community in Paris and vice versa. It was appealing to offer the workshop across multiple work-environments and neighborhoods in Paris to prompt inspiration and exploration. NUMA was a great place to work and their hospitality was really appreciated. I was impressed with NUMA in comparison to start-up spaces in New York. They’ve somehow managed to intertwingle the openness of a hacker space with the legitimacy of the investor class. The free and open ground floor (0 – Connect) is a brilliant concept, something New York and other cities would be smart to copy from the French. We used the Creativity Room on the top floor as our main base of collaborative work, but our teams ended up in breakouts on other floors, including the labs (2 – Experiment) and the open space with the lovely terrace (4 – Communicate & Meet). And there were walking meetings among subgroups in the Tuileries and café chats of course, as well. Thanks to NUMA hosting us, we were able to make the experience better situated into the context of Paris.
What was the process to develop the projects?
As I’ve emphasized, the workshop was not heavily pre-scripted. We wanted the serendipity of the interplay between our graduate students, our mentors, our partners, and the Parisien experience to work its magic. I wore Google Glass during the workshop and captured a lot of moments in POV. I put together a short summary of this #throughglass footage to show how a week of intensive collaboration can be squeezed into 1-minute. Indeed, the week went by in a blur.
What themes emerged?
We started the topic selection method by presenting the workshop with seven primary topics on the first morning gathered loosely from some of Audi’s own internal research that we re-articulated and reframed as Climate Change, Biologics, Metaverse, Social Robotics, Econopolitics, Urban Logics, and Smart Materials. Our public Post-It balloting technique quickly determined The Metaverse as the winning topic. The group seemed magnetized toward thinking about how the Internet and screen-based apps will evolve into an all-encompassing mixed-reality over the next decade. Blame Facebook’s acquisition of Oculus, a platform already embraced by the DT community in New York. Or the fact that I wore Google Glass during this process.
From there, we voted on sub-topics that included: living immersed in a mixed reality, digital psychology disorders, personal advancement, dataveillance and cybercrime, spiritual awakening, school of the future, and new networks. After debate and discussions between the participants and mentors, we settled on four subtopics: A Spiritual Awakening, Digital Pathologies, Dimensions of Presence in a Mixed Reality, and Wearable Sensorial Devices. All groups were asked to frame their research and practice through the idea of a “spectrum of involvement” where designers can better construct a mixed reality based on real-time context and situational awareness. Our groups were formed by connecting workshop participants to the elected topic and subtopics that best attracted their interest.
How was the week structured? What was the goal for the week?
The workshop was relatively loose in its structure and open-ended in its outcomes. This was part of the experimentation, or the prototyping of the workshop format itself. Our schedule was rather simple. On Monday, we collectively determined our shared topic and set up the four group subtopics to activate research and ideation. On Tuesday, we articulated the design questions we hoped to tackle using Warren Berger’s “A More Beautiful Question” method (Why? What If? How?). On Wednesday, we defined the proposed scenario for each group and watched “Sight” by Eran May-raz and Daniel Lazo. On Thursday, each group executed their outcome. We watched “Noah” by Walter Woodman and Patrick Cederberg. Both of these films were student projects at other art, design, and media schools. On Friday, we presented at NUMA on their ground floor. It was the first time even us mentors saw the final outcomes of the groups.
We achieved our goal of exploring a future-facing topic (The Metaverse) with a quick and intensive form of scenario building and pre-prototyping. We also succeeded at forming a meaningful connection between the campuses of New York and Paris. This first test taught me that we should try a two-week long format next occasion but keep the first Friday as a public presentation of work-in-progress and then conclude the second Friday with a final presentation. More time to iterate is needed. I’d also seek funding next time. The model proves it can produce outcomes worth paying for.
What were the outcomes?
Four projects, four scenarios, somewhere between a sketch, a proof-of-concept, a direction toward a prototype, according to our four subtopics were:
- A Spiritual Awakening
- Digital Pathologies
- Dimensions of Presence in a Mixed Reality
- Wearable Sensorial Diary
A Spiritual Awakening
This group spent a fair amount of the week enmeshed in some of the deepest, most profound philosophical discussions around religion, the soul, and whether Parisian robots will experience ennui. It’s impressive that they managed to come to a consensus about a Kurzweillian “Age of Spiritual Machines” and produce this short film and installation who’s POV might surprise you. If you blink, you’ll miss it.
Digital Pathologies: Clarisa Diaz, Alec McClure, Lucy Morcos (pictured)
This subgroup grappled with a near future in which our understandings of technology induced behavior disorders shift. An OCD yoga selfie addict sharing too much on social media becomes normative behavior. The withdrawn teen that spends the bulk of his waking hours on a massive online game is no longer considered such a recluse. What happens when digital pathologies evolve along with social technologies and impact our culture? What happens when living in The Metaverse is where we live and how will that reshape our own frameworks of normal behavior?
Dimensions of Presence in a Mixed Reality: Denah Emerson (not pictured), Carl Jadaa, Crystal Tong
Clearly influenced by the short film we screened during the workshop that depicted a contact-lens based augmented reality in a detailed futurescape, this subgroup developed a fictional product demo of a lens-based gesture-controlled mixed-reality platform. They stuck closest to the workshop topic agenda and carefully modelled out user interface scenarios in a few differentiated contexts. The highlight of this group’s work is when they film each other stroking interactions in mid-air during conversation. It’s a shocking moment until you consider how inevitable it probably is. Here’s a great example of how a few seconds of video can expose a whole big idea that was incubated in less than a week.
Wearable Sensorial Diary: Nikki Selken, Enrica Beccalli, Ezgi Uçar, Birce Özkan (all pictured, left to right)
Fashionable Technology is a hot topic and there was no better place perhaps than at Parsons Paris hosted by NUMA to explore a future of wearable devices that augment our memories with sensory sensors that can record sensations beyond sight. Call it Sensory Design. What if we could record our tastes and smells and save them for later to re-saveur? Look no further for a project that had to be born in Paris. It was the unmistakable taste of Proust’s madeleine in Swann’s Way that inspired this group to direct their practice toward this techno-literary object of futurism and futuring. A metaverse beyond sight and sound, this one illustrates new modes of emotional experience and encounter.
This fall marks the first time the MFA DT will be offered in Paris. How will it differ from the NYC program?
We’re thrilled to be launching the program in Paris this fall. It will be the first time a graduate program is offered across campuses. The curriculum is largely parallel but certain courses have been custom tailored for the context of Paris and the smaller scale of this campus cohort. About 100 masters candidates will matriculate at New York’s MFA Design and Technology this fall while the cohort in Paris will be closer to 12. This smaller size creates a certain intimacy, but will limit the breadth and scope of course offerings. Benjamin Gaulon has devised a series of master class workshops that will approach a range of skills and topics to equip first-years to measure up to the wealth of offerings in New York. Meanwhile, he’s developing a new orientation experience to introduce his cohort to the luminaries and institutions that make Paris such a rich and vibrant place to explore the intersection of design and technology as a social force in Europe.
Can we expect more projects like this?
Definitely. After the regular academic year ends, the summer offers a great opportunity for these kinds of intensive exchanges and collaborations across campuses, with and among partners like NUMA in Paris, and in collaboration with European-based companies like Audi AG. Working outside the academic year and across campus locations, expands what we can do with graduate students and partners and nurtures low-risk and high-reward experimentation.
The MFA in Design and Technology at Parsons Paris will launch in fall 2014. The program emphasizes the interchange between progressive scholarship and real-world projects, encouraging imaginative work in theory and grounded practice.