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Art

The Making Of Touchy: A Wearable Human Camera Activated By Touch

<p>New media artist Eric Siu&#8217;s creation deprives rather than augments.</p>

Kevin Holmes

The merging of human and camera has finally happened, conceptually at least, with a wearable camera called Touchy. Hong Kong artist Eric Siu has come up with a device that goes over the user’s head like a helmet, rendering the wearer blind by having closed shutters over the eyes. The only way they can alleviate this predicament is through human touch—once human contact is made for 10 seconds, the camera is activated, the shutters opens, and a picture taken.

The project looks at how technology can distance us from each other when it becomes the only means of communication—human contact is replaced with the virtual, the touch of human skin replaced with keyboards and touchscreens. It also re-imagines the idea of the camera, so instead of being a machine that just coldly and distantly captures different environments through its mechanical eye, it becomes humanized.

We fired off some questions to Siu over email to get some background on the project and find out what inspired him to make a human camera.

Firstly, you created the Eeyee, which lets users see separately with both eyes. Now you’ve created Touchy, which also plays with a user's sight. What is it about experimenting with vision that intrigues you?
Eric Siu:
I see these two projects as having a close connection, as a series of works. As a video artist, my first intention for moving into new media art and interactivity was my appreciation that this media can alter one’s perception in a physical way. No other media, except a performative art form like dance, can have such a relationship with our body. Nevertheless, the body’s experience of dance is exclusive to the dancer, yet absent to the audience. Technology allows us to interpret devices for humans and generate an alternative kind of perception open to whoever’s encountering the device. These characteristics of new media art intrigue me and inspire me to pursue body-related artwork—I think generating new experiences for the body is a very important direction for art.

In different works of mine, I experiment with various sorts of body experiences, like Body Hack and Face Hack. In Eeyee and Touchy, they have an obvious focus on vision because I’m investigating the different perspectives of this sense so as to provide alternative experiences. In Eeyee, a fundamental question is: we have two eyes, but why do we only see one image? What if we use them separately since they’re actually an individual organ? Human vision is born locked in the skull with a set perspective. Eeyee uses simple technology that allows us to free the vision from the skull and employ the mobility of your limbs to yield a different dimension for seeing. The project does not attempt to simulate vision from any species, but instead looks at how we could re-learn and re-discover our body under such a setting. The project encourages you to think with and be creative with your body.

Touchy early prototype

On top of the bodily exploration that Touchy wants to approach—such as the anxiety of disabled vision, the need to rely on others, and the exaggeration of one’s dependency of vision—the project is more concerned with the rhetoric and poetic means of sight and aims at generating association from such a situation. Vision, in a sense, is the most important channel for us to connect to the world. As the project raises attention to our current social condition, I want to employ this sense to trigger thought on the “virtual” communication models. It’s a long way of saying that I want to encourage discussions on today’s communication models with the immediate sensuous response of the audience.

Touchy application: hanging out with user

You've stated that Touchy is aimed at "healing social anxiety"—do you think that we're becoming increasingly anxious?
Yes and my intention was to explore that. This methodology of approaching my art has unconsciously happened several times in my practice. Metaphorically, great humour is always generated from the most miserable tragedy. Like when we find it funny when Mr. Bean slips on a banana skin, yet no one remembers how painful it is to hit a concrete floor. The Touchy helmet intends to exaggerate the anxiety and remind one of their isolation to the world, so every single touch becomes extra meaningful. I hope this contrast is where I can generate a dialogue with the audience.

Touchy: the finished product

Is part of the Touchy project also looking at how we can humanize technology by making it wearable?
To me, there is an interesting dimension of combining body with technology and in Touchy‘s case, body as technology. Wearable technology allows creativity towards the body and I am interested in how it could generate critical thought and what cultural responses it will derive. As an artist, I find it’s a great medium for my curiosity, inquiry, and expression, though I do not celebrate technology in this project. On the contrary, I take a critical approach to question the overwhelming phenomenon of technological development. My approach is to produce a gadget that suggests a certain critical (but somewhat fun) discourse. As technology is getting closer and closer to being human, we see an obvious tendency towards how wearable technology will influence our lives. I hesitate to see how the influence would elevate to an unimaginable level. We are living in an interesting era, neither low-tech nor sci-fi, we are in the transition period and can see the tendency of the future. Therefore in this age many of us—artists, novelists, or critics—try to draw attention to the discussion of current and future technology.

Touchy application: taking group photo

Do you think the ubiquity of camera devices is detaching us from the world? For instance, instead of just looking or experiencing something we feel we need to photograph in order to validate it?
Not only do you have to take the photos, but you also have to post them on Facbook or Instagram for validation—and it’s true that certain qualities of your connection to reality become distanced. In Hong Kong people go to see a concert as a camera person rather than as an audience. While they’re looking at the iPhone screen, they forget the real singer is standing right in front of them. The pervasion of photographic technology and its connection to social networking has changed the culture of photo taking: from a somewhat ritual process to documentary practice. More importantly for this question is how we now see photography. It’s great in this information-driven era that we can share and record more conveniently now that cameras have become more portable—many things that weren’t possible to record and share in the past are now at your fingertips. But this creates a lot of junk photos that are overwhelming our perception, so it's more about quantity than quality and people tend to think a good quantity of validations is good enough to relate themselves to reality, which is debatable.

Touchy CAD drawing

Touchy design sketches

Touchy shutter mechanics

With the advent of social media, do you think social isolation is a big risk for people? Or is it overplayed by the media?
I am not against the existence of social media, I use Facebook and Twitter too, which I think are good tools to archive and centralize your network. Of course, I believe there is a risk for social isolation otherwise there would be no Touchy. It’s true that people are connected widely in the virtual world but disconnected in the real world and people tend to adopt the mediated communication more than the physical communication. You feel it’s easier to talk to someone virtually and check someone’s photos distantly, yet you still think you've communicated. So as long as the connection is mediated it's okay, which doesn't mean you can do the same in the real world. The bitter part is that you believe you are already socially capable with the glorifying number of friends on your profile, which is just a figure. These cultivate social laziness and dependency and to a certain extend it just creates more social bubbles. More so, I think the influence of social media has generated unnecessary pressure and anxiety for people: how many "likes" did I gain from the concert photo that I posted? Does my ex realize I changed my relationship status? Etc… There are advantages we should enjoy from social networking technology, but we should also respect our human qualities.

Touchy experiment

For more info visit Touchtouchy.com

@stewart23rd