Seeing Machine, 2017

+ Ethnographic Research
+ Exoticism 

+ Physical Prototyping

The project started with the question: How can we design tools to reveal certain aspect of community that has been previously invisible, significant but difficult to access?


The class project is to design a series of ‘Seeing Machines.’ These Seeing Machines should identify an aspect of a community that you think is significant, hidden in plane site or is not typically accessible ( – behind the counter, intimate moments, when someone lights up) or some inequality or issue (race, gender, access). These Seeing Machines should both expose you and document for others this unique dimension. Initial study includes identifying what issue/place/moment you would like to reveal then exploring what you would like to collect or exchange and how that will be possible. Consider both quantitative and qualitative aspects of these communities. Your design iterations and data collection should include a mix of both digital and physical assets.


Wish and Confess is 6-week long design prototype developed during the Seeing Machine project. The purpose of the design was to reveal the community’s fleeting hopes and desires that have been hidden and misunderstood with the surface of ‘exotic’ religious rituals in urban environment, especially, Thai Town and Little Armenia in Los Angeles.


What made me curious about the neighborhood was that different religious space such as the Armenian church, Russian Orthodox church, Thai temple and Scientology church are clustered in this particular area. When strolling around the neighborhood, I got the sense that there are invisible borders between people with different cultural beliefs. How can we design tools to investigate one’s emotional borders that have been enclosed with rituals?


I photographed unusual ritualistic spaces in both public and private settings, such as shrines, hanging next to CCTV camera in Thai food market, buddhist sculptures in global fast food restaurants, and the street decorated with colorful flowers and sculptures in front of the silom arcade. The practice to frame the certain scenes in the neighborhood made me think about the following questions: What is the role of the public space to represent one’s native religion in this cross-cultural environment? What do the immigrants in the Thai town think about their own religious practice, that is often framed with the tourists visiting the area?


My initial prototype, called Wish and Confess speaker, was made to capture one’s fleeting emotion through voice recordings and interview methods. In order to realize my concept, I built ‘ears’ to listen people’s inexplicable, private emotions that had not yet been verbally expressed. Inspired by the Buddhist philosophy, believing that wish and anxiety is the same emotion, (Anxieties are created from too much wishes that one cannot handle) I made two identical ‘ears’ in different position, that can either help one to confess or to pray. I installed a very small walkie talkie, LED light and proximity sensor in this machine to record their words in order to tangibilize emotions. And, I spray painted this props with silver colors that would assimilate with streetlight poles in the area.


Another thing I designed was people’s postures to interact with the Seeing Machine. When wishing and confessing, participants were asked to pose differently. For example, the one who want to ‘confess’ was asked to use a speaker(ear) that is connected to the bottom, which would naturally makes them stood up and speaking with one’s head down. And, the machine is design to make another, who want to ‘wish’, to use the ear that is heading towards the sky. And the user should kneel down to use these speaker, as if they are practicing pray postures.  


Many bypassers were curious about this prototype because of its’ distinctive form and color conspicuous in the Thai Town area. I asked people to talk about their current concerns and hopes at the machine. Their wishes and confessions were recorded in less than five minutes each, while I let them enjoy their own private moment through stepping back a little.  The machine was usually deployed in front of a Thai temple and public park, which are considered as a place for meditation. After the ‘interview’, participants were asked to provide written information about themselves.


The prototype was successfully evoke people’s curiosity about the project. People were willing to have conversation about the neighborhood’s history with me, and their personal stories through the machine. And, some participants were very serious about their interview and interact the machine with excitement.

Even though there was a positive result about my prototype, the machine mainly attracted tourist, not a local residents. And, I questioned myself why it was difficult to collect the data from my focus group, which could possibly help me figure out the next step for the prototype. There are some possible reason why it was difficult to appeal locals in my perspective.

Conspicuous color and form of the machine might be too foreign to local people, rather than invite them to talk about the story. Also, the questionnaire was too broad. They might have no reason to participate with this design, since buddhist shrine is already there for them to wish or confess. It is next step for me to consider about how can I make this more inviting, and what is the local’s interest through participating this design process. 

Here are some questionnaire to consider for my next iteration: What is the more specific focus group to interview among immigrants in the neighborhood (such as young female immigrant working for restaurant)? What would be the specific questions to ask rather than let them pray or confess anything they want to talk about?

1. Making Souvenir of wishes for the locals, not for the tourists

I’m planning to create mandara shape sculptures with collected wish data to provide emotional souvenirs to the interviewee - souvenir for the immigrant’s own wish, not for the tourists.

2. Collecting Quantitative data 

In order to make the data more measurable, I’m thinking what if I can measure the pace, intonation and word choices when one wishing or confessing.

Lab Core B+C: Interventions
Michael Manalo
2016 Fall