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Creativity & Culture

Our relationship with technology is about to become much more personal — and that’s a good thing

Harnessing technology for a better future

Creativity & Culture

Our relationship with technology is about to become much more personal — and that’s a good thing

Individually and collectively, we rely on an increasing number of interactions with machines, devices and platforms to perform tasks, connect with others and create as never before.

At the same time, the sophistication, scope and constant newness of those interactions can be bewildering and difficult for us to manage and process. And yet, our approaches to handling that complexity can take control further away from us, by handing it over to powerful but unseen algorithms, data streams and circuits that sense, process, suggest or decide on our behalf — often poorly or in ways that fall short of their full potential.

It doesn’t have to be that way. As researchers and innovators at Ryerson are demonstrating, there are opportunities to reshape our thinking around the complex digital landscape we inhabit, even as we continue to push the boundaries of what’s possible through the creative use of technology.

A new way to think about problems — and solutions

For decades, the field of study known as Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) has focused on what we can do using graphical user interfaces and standardized input devices, such as keyboards, trackpads, mice and so on. But there’s a problem with those conventional methods of presenting and manipulating digital information. As ubiquitous and familiar as they are, they fail to take advantage of the full spectrum of our physical, sensory and cognitive capabilities.

a hand holding a futuristic device on a digital surface
A user performs a filtering operation on a large biological dataset by stacking two active tangible objects on an interactive tabletop display

Exploring approaches to HCI in ways that capitalize on our human strengths is what drives Alexandra (Ali) Mazalek, Canada Research Chair in Digital Media and Innovation at Ryerson’s RTA School of Media in the Faculty of Communication and Design.

Her work seeks to reap more of the potential benefits of our digital interactions, while ensuring that they can also have positive influences on our lived experience — from our health and wellbeing to our ability to learn, create and discover.

“My research focuses on designing interactive systems that enable us to effectively use our bodies and minds, working in partnership with information and algorithms,” Mazalek explains. “It draws on the opportunities within emerging sensing and interaction technologies to better bridge our physical and digital world experiences — an area of research called Tangible and Embodied Interaction (TEI), which is a subset of HCI.”

a man holding a futuristic device surrounded by digital screens
A researcher visualizes and compares different gene regulatory networks using a cross-device interaction system called Tangible BioNets

An example of what she’s talking about is the gesture-based interface that is a highlight of the Steven Spielberg science-fiction film Minority Report. By moving holographic-like images, the character portrayed by Tom Cruise is able to sort through data — an embodied interaction — to “pre-visualize” capital crimes, so they can be stopped.

My research focuses on designing interactive systems that enable us to effectively use our bodies and minds, working in partnership with information and algorithms.
Ali Mazalek, Canada Research Chair in Digital Media and Innovation at Ryerson’s RTA School of Media

TEI is now a staple of science fiction in the creative arts, but there are many real-world applications, such as computer consoles with remote cameras and linked devices that enable users to interact with a range of scenarios for entertainment.

Mazalek wants to go way beyond that. She’s trying to better understand how our physical interactions with digital information can enhance our ability to think about complex data and problems in even more novel ways.

“That means designing real-time tangible interfaces that can serve as both representations and controls for complex information and processes, and can give our sensory and motor systems the materials they need to tinker, explore, question and form insights,” she says.

Changing the representation of information and our interaction with it opens the possibility of finding solutions to problems that currently seem too difficult for humans to fully comprehend. That could be a game-changer in areas such as computational biology and bioinformatics, for example, inasmuch as it re-imagines the way that algorithmic approaches are applied in discovery and opens those techniques to embodied manipulation and coupling with human visual-spatial skills.

Indeed, the same techniques could be used in other areas of discovery and scholarship, as tangible and embodied interactions help us rethink the way we access and manipulate large information repositories, look at problems and find solutions.

Harnessing technology to save lives and create art

What if within, say, a decade, we could create living body parts using 3D printing and implant the organs in someone in need of a life-saving transplant?

The notion is not so far-fetched. Manufacturing capabilities are evolving rapidly and already starting to produce work that challenges conventional uses of technology.

“Technology, if applied with a creative lens, is a tool that enhances the development of new frontiers, not just in entertainment and artistic expression, but in many other fields as well and often in unexpected ways,” explains Charles Falzon, dean of Ryerson’s Faculty of Communication and Design (FCAD).

The university’s Creative Technology Lab is an example of where such research and development can occur. Falzon likens it to a “state-of-the-art sandbox” — albeit one that covers 650 square metres in the university’s new Daphne Cockwell Health Sciences Complex — that enables the FCAD community to push traditional boundaries and harness technology in dynamic and inspired new ways.

Technology, if applied with a creative lens, is a tool that enhances the development of new frontiers, not just in entertainment and artistic expression, but in many other fields as well.
Charles Falzon, Dean of Ryerson’s Faculty of Communication and Design (FCAD)

“This is much more than a fabrication space,” adds Jonathon Anderson, the lab’s director and an associate professor in the faculty’s School of Interior Design. “One of our primary goals is to create an environment that provides hands-on training for FCAD researchers and students and enables them to experiment with advanced equipment such as robotic arms, projection mapping, motion tracking, 3D printing and CNC equipment. We’re working to disrupt traditional views that are commonly associated with this type of facility.”

That focus on disruptive innovation can encompass more than two dozen projects at any time. They span unexpected fields ranging from interior design and fashion to new media, image arts, performance, graphic communications management and journalism.

a man wearing a mask and face protector
FCAD student making masks for Covid-19. Photo by: Peter Bregg C.M.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the lab sprung to action as a dedicated micro-factory designed to address a national shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE). Making use of its broad range of process capabilities, Anderson and his team were able to prototype hundreds of face shield designs, ultimately coming up with an origami-inspired design using a laser cutter, which reduced typical production time from hours to 40 seconds.

With an innovative design in place, the lab partnered with Glia, Toronto General Hospital, Unity Health Toronto, and St. Michael’s Hospital to ensure that the face shields made it to frontline health workers. Over 12,500 shields were manufactured to St. Michael’s Hospital alone, which can be sanitized and reused by hospital staff.

40
seconds it takes to produce face shield using a laser cutter at the Creative Technology Lab

Beyond pandemic response, many of the lab’s activities are pushing the limits of how robotics can be used creatively. For example, the Uncanny Robots Project led by assistant professor Michael Bergmann of the faculty’s School of Performance is investigating how robotic arms and humans can perform together. And, for her part, Linda Zhang, an assistant professor of interior design, is investigating digital heritage through drone scanning, photogrammetry and the reproduction of artifacts using the robotic arm.

Those and other efforts are gaining global attention and helping to position the lab as a premier creative technology facility. At the same time, cultivating relationships with industry and community partners adds immense value and creates additional opportunities for students and researchers.

“We’re eager to nurture those relationships and the potential they bring, and to see creative applications across more and more sectors as a result,” Anderson says.

For good reason, too. It’s clear that as our relationship with technology continues to evolve, even more opportunities to explore how we interact with it — and to what ends — will arise.

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