AniThings: Animism and Heterogeneous Multiplicity


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This is the presentation stack from CHI 2013, where we presented a paper of the same name. The paper advances something we call heterogeneous multiplicity, an ecology of digital objects with behaviors that evoke a perception that they have autonomy, intention, personality and an inner life. These “AniThings” are seen as collaborators, each with a distinct personality, that play a contributing role in creative activities. Unlike systems that try to provide “best” recommendations, the AniThings provide a rich information space from which to consider, select and pursue.

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AniThings: Animism and Heterogeneous Multiplicity

  1. 1. AniThings: Animism and Heterogeneous Multiplicity Philip van Allen Art Center College of Design Joshua McVeigh-Schultz University of Southern California
  2. 2. Since 2005 I’ve been teaching a class called The New Ecology of Things which explores Ubicomp and Animism. Many of the projects, like those shown here, use animistic cues to imply an inner-life, intention, and personality. And in particular, they explore how notions of animism can play out in a ubicomp setting where there are many autonomous systems. *  Andrew  Nagata’s  Internet  of  Tumbleweeds  -­‐  playful  communica<ve  systems *  Link  Huang’s  Wishing  Machine  -­‐  mythical  alter-­‐like  device *  Jed  Berk’s  Autonomous  Light  Air  Vehicles  -­‐  networked  blimps *  Bora  Shin’s  Curious  Mailbox  -­‐  monitors  and  reacts  to  your  email
  3. 3. So  at  USC,  I  work  in  the  Mobile  and  Environmental  Media  Lab  where  we   think  about objects and environments as entities that see the world through sensors. And we take the lifelog concept, which is usually associated with humans, and apply it to things. And we utilize storytelling as a way of shaping the relationship between objects and humans.
  4. 4. Before we get into describing our AniThings design fiction, a little theoretical context. We share ground with the interactionism movement in AI, and have affinities with approaches like affective computing and sociable robots-- like Kismet, shown here. In particular, we’re interested in leveraging the human capacity to make mental models. And we find that animism is a nice short hand to invoke a user’s mental model, putting them in touch with a system's designed intentions, affordances, status, history, and reliability. BUT... We’re not interested in human-like simulations. Instead we favor animistic models that feel familiar but still distinctly other. Unlike anthropomorphic design, animistic design can leverage components that are comparatively, simple (even “dumb”) while at the same time, more provocative, diverse, and stimulating. We draw inspiration here from Brenda Laurel’s writing on ‘designed animism’ - which our work adapts and extends into a methodological framework.
  5. 5. Technological Solutionism Divergent Thinking As further context, Evgeny Morozov very recently called out the perils of Technological Solutionism, where Silicon Valley sees everything as a nail, and the hammer is “There’s an app for that.” We’re interested in something different. Instead of solving a specific goal or task, the aim here is to facilitate divergent thinking, creative inquiry, and open-ended explorations. Donald Schön describes this reflective practice as an open-ended process of problem-setting rather than problem-solving.
  6. 6. Design Fiction: AniThings An Ecology of Six Tangible, Interactive Objects with Distinct Personalities To investigate our ideas of animism, we created a speculative design fiction called AniThings.
  7. 7. The AniThings are ecology of six tangible, interactive objects with distinct personalities, as you can see diagramed here.
  8. 8. Needy Seeks attention from people and other AniThings In our fictional scenario, we depict Stella, a product designer, who is brainstorming potential new medical devices. The AniThings live in her studio and draw on a range of digital material including Stella’s personal collections and the Web. The objects daydream, find references they’re interested in, do research on request, as well as collect and share their findings with each other and the designer through text, visuals, video, sound and networks. This is the core of the Heterogeneous Multiplicity. Each device behaves autonomously, with a distinct personality and approach, seemingly having its own intentions, history, interests, and moods. For example, in the upper left, you see the “NEEDY” AniThing, which always seeks a lot of attention.
  9. 9. Dwells on existing user information, methodical, focused, sometimes dreamy Nostalgic Here, the Nostalgic has found a magazine in Stella’s collection with an article on Tron, and the other objects have taken notice. Nostalgic dwells on existing user info, and is methodical, focused, and sometimes dreamy.
  10. 10. Proud of finding new information, fast, manic, short attention span Neophile Here, the Neophile is exploring the movie Tron, having picked it up from the Nostalgic. The Neophile’s personality is fast, manic, with a short attention span. So you can see here that we’ve taken the animism concept and applied it across multiple, heterogenous objects that are independent, yet communicate and act within an ecology. To think this through, we created a series of simple videos that explored our ideas through a design fiction approach. We’ll show a couple next.
  11. 11. See video at [beginning] Stella walks into here studio to find that the AniThings have been at work. [At end] Now that Stella has been inspired, she’s ready to move on to a more targeted phase of design where she works with the AniThings in doing specific research on wearables.
  12. 12. See video at So, now that Stella has some design ideas in the next part of the scenario she goes on to work in collaboration with another designer and the AniThings. Stella draws on the AniThings provocative, diverse, and stimulating range of perspectives. So by interacting with this animistic and serendipitous chorus of voices and actions, Stella starts to build serendipitous connections linking Tron, wearables, and the context of healthcare. Beside design, some potential contexts for this include Exploring Big Data, House Hunting, and Learning Contexts. This concept of Heterogeneous multiplicity fits the messy and divergent creative process that occupies a significant part of our lives.
  13. 13. In terms of the interactive context, what the video helped us understand is that there is an important area of innovation in the way that the different personas become spatially embodied. So what I mean is, Stella and the objects shift not only their attention but the orientation of their bodies as the context unfolds. And as Stella rejects, queries, imagines, and investigates - all of these interactions play out in physical space with Stella, herself, a key part of the active AniThings ecology. And this physicality becomes another layer of life within Stella’s mind, it’s as if “nostalgicness” as an entity is alive and it’s sitting is over there.
  14. 14. AniThings Animism: leverages mental models Heterogeneous Multiplicity: beyond proscription fosters divergent thinking Next steps: working prototypes So in conclusion, a few points we want to make Animism offers the chance to create digital ecologies that stimulate human intelligence and creativity rather than emulate or replace it. Heterogeneous Multiplicity offers a new methodology for designers to create beyond the frameworks of strict rationality, usability, and proscriptive experience design. Through animistic metaphors, designers can embrace and facilitate people’s intelligence and imagination. Here, predefined outcomes are subsumed and instead designers create systems where productive, open-ended exploration is foregrounded. Next steps: What we’ve shown today is a speculative design fiction. But we want to emphasize that a core aspect of the animism methodology (as seen in the projects we showed at the beginning) involves building (and making discoveries through) working prototypes, and that’s the next step of this project.
  15. 15. Thank you Philip van Allen Art Center College of Design Media Design Practices Department @philvanallen Joshua McVeigh-Schultz University of Southern California, School of Cinematic Arts, Media Arts and Practice @joshuams Research Assistants: Brooklyn Brown Hye Mi Kim Daniel Lara Thanks to Sean White at Nokia Research for partially funding this research Thank you