Interview With Karen Tanenbaum, Inventor Of The Wearable RFID-Enabled "Reading Glove"
Karen Tanenbaum uses wearable tech and sensors to explore the boundaries of storytelling.
By Suzanne Axtell (Technology Evangelist, O’Reilly)
I encountered Karen Tanenbaum (@ktanenbaum) through friends over on the Make side of O’Reilly Media. Thinking she might be a potential speaker for an upcoming edition of our Tools of Change for Publishing Conference, I contacted her for more information about the cool stuff she’s working on, particularly her Reading Glove project.
“The Reading Glove is a collaboration between myself and my husband, Josh Tanenbaum,” said Karen. “I have an interest in adaptive and intelligent systems, his research looks at storytelling and video games, and we both like to explore alternative interfaces: tangible, wearable, and ubiquitous computing environments.”
Read more about the Glove project as well as Karen’s take on design education, Steampunk culture and the Maker movement in the interview below.
Suzanne Axtell: How did the Reading Glove come about and what are your goals for the project?
Karen Tanenbaum: We wanted to see what happened when we gave people a story that was embedded on real, physical objects that could be played with and moved around. Our original vision was an entire room that told a story when you explored it, responding to objects you touched or moved via light and sound responses — sort of like a haunted house, but intended to tell a specific narrative rather than just be spooky. That was outside the scope and the budget of our dissertation work, so the Reading Glove was our first, more constrained exploration of that space.
We also wanted to explore wearable technology with the glove; the goal there was to invoke the idea of “psychometry,” or the psychic power of object reading. When you pick up the objects, you hear the echoes of the past, what these objects experienced, and then you use this power to piece the story back together.
I developed a guidance system that helped to navigate the non-linear narrative, adding an adaptive or intelligent component to the experience. We’ve gotten some really interesting results out of it, such as how people talk about a system that has intelligent components, how much they anthropomorphize it and how accurate their estimates of its “intelligence” are.
Suzanne Axtell: What role does data play in the project?
Karen Tanenbaum: We collected a ton of data for this project, and I’ve spent the last year trying to sort through it and make sense of it. It’s a real challenge with these kinds of novel systems to figure out what the most important thing is and to see how to correlate all these things together: how many objects they picked up, in what sequence, whether they interrupted pieces, whether or not they followed the system’s recommendations, etc.
The focus of my analysis was on how people talked about the system and their use of it, particularly the notion of “control” and “choice.” People would say that they really liked the freedom to choose any object and control how the story went, but would also say that since they never knew what story fragment they were going to get when they picked an object, they wished they had more control. It’s interesting how people use technology and feel like they are, or are not, in control of it.
There’s a problem with any simple measure of novel technology, which is that people in general tend to respond positively toward something new, especially if they know they are talking to the person who designed and built it. It’s hard to ask someone “Did you like X?” when X is a new experience, like wearing a glove and picking up objects to hear a story. Of course, they’re going to say “yes” because they don’t have much to compare it to and because it is a fun thing to do.
But there are innumerable design decisions that go into the whole experience, and it’s hard to disentangle them to see where a different choice might have led to a better experience. That’s why I think richer, more qualitative data is important to the field. It gets you beyond “I liked it, I thought it was easy to use, etc.,” and you see what aspects of the experience people are really responding to, or what was actually frustrating them but which they didn’t mention in the yes/no survey questions.
Suzanne Axtell: As well as being a PhD candidate, you teach interaction design at the university level. What trends are you seeing in design and technology education?
Karen Tanenbaum: I’ve taught interaction design at an art and design school and within a research university, and they are very different experiences. The art and design students were much more wary of the technology, but they had great intuition on how to use it to express their points of view. The students at the big university were more naturally technology-seeking, but they had to be pushed to really explore what it meant to say something with the technology. You really want the blend of both of those things: the technological expertise and the desire and ability to express something via technology rather than simply use it.
I teach Processing to as many people as I can — basic coding is an incredibly beneficial skill for people in all fields to learn. There are tools to help simplify and automate a lot of the routines of everyone’s work if you know how to write some basic code or search string parameters.
The other side of the coin, which I’ve had less opportunity to teach directly, is developing a critical stance toward technology. Programming and technical skills are really important, but so are critical thinking and reflective analysis. I don’t believe technology is a neutral force; it is embedded and intertwined with a host of other cultural and societal forces, and we have both the ability and mandate to try to shape technical systems that are socially and ethically responsible. It’s hard to teach both detailed technical expertise and deep critical thinking at the same time, and it seems that most schools end up focusing on one to the detriment of the other.
Suzanne Axtell: How is technology changing the experience of art and reading?
Karen Tanenbaum: Despite making a wearable device called the Reading Glove, most of my reading processes are stuck firmly in the last century. The power of technology as applied to art and reading is the connectivity that it can bring about. You can connect to what other people think about the work or you can see related pieces that might lead you to new discoveries. The interesting thing would be to bring that connectivity to the physical books, not to make the books themselves digital.
Suzanne Axtell: What other projects are you working on?
Karen Tanenbaum: As I finish the dissertation, I’m also doing a year-long internship at Intel Lab’s Interaction and Experience Research Group, which is providing me with a fantastic opportunity to pursue some of the research work I’ve done since the Reading Glove.
My first project at Intel was to coordinate an exhibition of design fiction work called “Powered by Fiction,” which ran alongside Emerge, a conference at Arizona State University on designing the future. We explored how fiction inspires the creation of physical, tangible props, costumes, and artifacts. One of the characters in the show ”
The other related project that I’ve got going is an academic look at the subculture of <a
, picking apart what’s driving its increased popularity. I’m a co-author on a paper on Steampunk at CHI this year. That paper looks at some of the implications of the Steampunk movement: the way it re-imagines the Industrial Revolution, the historical story of technology development, and the drive toward customization and artisan craftsmanship in technology.
And finally, I am now working on Intel’s presence at Maker Faire. I had a booth at the Vancouver Mini Maker Faire this year with my husband to represent our fledging production company, Tanenbaum Fabrications. We’re putting together a joint booth with some other folks at the Bay Area Maker Faire this year called Steampunk Academy.
As with the Steampunk work, there’s something really interesting going on with the democratization of technology design and production that is represented in the Maker movement.
I’m hoping to spend time in the next year working more with the <a
href=”http://arduino.cc/en/Main/ArduinoBoardLilyPad”>LilyPad Arduino and other e-textile and soft circuitry components since I think that’s a really exciting area for open source, tinker-y innovation.
Suzanne Axtell: Who inspires you? Whose work do you follow?
Karen Tanenbaum: I’m most inspired by the people doing the kind of work I was talking about above in the question about education: critical thinking on technology and the fusing of philosophy with technology design practice. Material like Terry Winograd and Fernando Flores’ classic and incisive critique of artificial intelligence work in the mid ’80s, and Paul Dourish’s work merging Heideggerian philosophy with tangible computing and his collaboration with Genevieve Bell on science fiction and ubiquitous computing.
I’m also influenced by all of Daniel Fallman’s papers on what interaction design and design research is or could be. I’m also really enamored with some of the more recent work being done in merging “craft” and “design”: Leah Buechely’s Lilypad Arduino and High-Low Tech Lab at MIT, Daniela Rosner’s work applying craft knowledge from antiquarian book restoration and knitting to technology design, and Hannah Perner-Wilson’s amazing and beautiful textile sensors.
Watch a demonstration of the Reading Glove:
About the guest blogger: Suzanne Axtell is a Technology Evangelist at O’Reilly. She oversees marketing efforts for all O’Reilly conferences. Sue is on a mission to help bring more diverse speakers and participants to our events, particularly women, people of color, and other groups traditionally underrepresented at tech events. She is interested in media, publishing, social networks, marketing, SEO, location awareness, and open source. I’m also an avid writer, crafter, knitter, reader, and pet lover. Follow her on Twitter at @SueAxtell.