PSFK Talks To Emily Fischer Of Haptic Lab

PSFK talks with architect and designer Emily Fisher to get insight on the future of art and technology.

PSFK has been talking with artists and innovators that we have covered over the last year to get their insight on the future of art and technology.

Architect and designer Emily Fisher of Haptic Lab began her experiment with Soft-Maps in 2002; these are quilted maps of cities and neighborhoods that can act as a tactile mnemonic tool for learning one’s way through a neighborhood over time.

What projects or ideas are currently inspiring your work?

I am obsessed with Micronesian stick-maps, strangely patterned bundles of sticks tied together. My understanding is that Pacific Islanders in this particular region would use the maps to navigate thousands of miles of open water, pinpointing tiny, far-flung islands. By canoe. Without the use of stars, written instruction, or any other navigational tool. The stick-maps indicated ocean swells- patterns in wave movement on the surface of the water. The traveler would lie down in their canoe with the sitck-map on their chest and use it to interpret the way the waves felt.

The human body is hardwired for this kind of haptic orientation; we’re thinking animals, but we’re still animals who feel and rationalize our world through touch. Complex satellites and GPS systems are fallible; the human body isn’t. I would love to see devices begin to interface with our natural ability to interpret our surroundings.

What has been the most interesting response or reaction to your project? Have there been any surprising uses of your quilted maps?

I am amazed that Soft-Maps became a commercial success… They began as an academic exercise seven years ago in graduate school; it never occurred to me that I was developing the ultimate wedding gift (as they almost always are- I even found them linked on a Bloomingdales bridal registry.) The market appeal of the quilts makes sense now. People have an emotional connection to place and the quilts represent a unique way to express that connection.  The quilts lock in a certain set of experiences that carry an enormous sentimental value.

In terms of uses, I’ve commissioned Hannahlie Beise and Caleb Beyers of CASTE to create a child’s educational game using the quilts as a playing board: kids will have a set of felt or wooden toys that correlate to real places within their own city or neighborhood. We also have plans to make a sexy adult game.

What is something you look forward to being able to do in the future with emerging technologies?

I love apps like Foursquare (I just became the mayor of my favorite coffee shop!) that include location-based information provided by users. Years ago while working on a grant project at the University of Michigan I met some Comp-Sci kids that basically had the same program developed, but got shut down because of personal safety and privacy issues. Times change. I really want to start making haptic wayfinding tools that might interface with location-based apps and mobile devices. I’m also an avid user of openstreetmap.org: the poor man’s GIS.

What do you see as the best and worst technology-driven trends emerging in art and design?

In 10 years or less all the data we create will be online; our devices will simply access that information and most of it will probably be publicly accessible. (I think it was Richard Dawkins who made the prediction we’d be uploading our consciousness before too long.) What makes me nervous is how disembodied we become from what we create.  People are becoming split down the middle. We have two bodies:  a body of information and a physical body- one that could still paddle a canoe to the proverbial next island.

I’m interested in how the primitive, basic meaning of what it is to be human can interface with the technologies we create. A few years ago I met some of the founders of the “slow food” movement in Italy… and I saw a corollary in the design world via Carolyn Strauss of slowLab. This is the sweet spot in emerging design practice. I don’t associate myself with the craft/DIY community but with designers who are interested in producing things that express a certain human tenderness.

What is your take on how people are using technology and art to better connect with either each other or their environments?

Technology can augment our experiences but it can’t make the most important connections for us.  I once gave a friend directions to a restaurant that was four blocks from his own apartment… an iPhone can’t replace the pleasure of getting lost and of fortuitous discovery.

Thanks Emily!

Haptic Lab

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