Seams and Superpowers

July 19, 2015

by Philip van Allen, Core Faculty

Radical Sensing – Replacing the nose with a neuroprosthetic


I recently taught an intensive four week course called Seams and Superpowers, part of the MDP Lab track curriculum. Inspired by our department’s participation in the 2015 Microsoft Design Expo challenge, we took an experimental, future oriented approach to wearables and how they could impact disability. As noted in the Design Expo description, the understanding of disability has evolved recently and is now seen as being “context dependent rather than as an attribute of a person.” Further, designers should:

Consider the things that are common to all human beings as we interact with the world around us. We all are motivated to achieve something greater than our momentary tasks. We all build relationships that change over time. We all have limits to our abilities – physical, social, emotional and cognitive. How can we design to embrace these universal things that make us human, but also create solutions that are highly adaptive to an individual person?

The student projects were an exciting and wide ranging take on the potentials of wearables and the temporary and contextual disabilities that each of us experience. In this article, I want to focus on the broader themes drawn from the work of the students. How can wearables evolve? What kinds of interactions are appropriate in different contexts? How can we invert preconceptions of disability and turn them into superpowers? How can designers make wearable affordances have highly nuanced interactional seams that subtly and appropriately fit each context?



Course Brief and Approach

Explore how the ecologies formed by wearables and the Internet of Things can create superpowers for people, overcoming their contextual and temporary disabilities. The designs must also investigate how interactions with wearables form important seams between people and their digital life, and how seamful or seamless these interactions should be.

For the class, students were challenged to create provocative speculations around these themes rather than limiting their ideas to practical product proposals. At the same time, the student projects had to include working prototypes to ground the ideas and provide experiential feedback. Our MFA program’s approach is to use the design process as an opportunity to “think through making” and actively investigate new territories for design through the prototyping process.



To get at the more nuanced design issues of disability and technology’s role in it, our students addressed the context dependent disabilities that everyone experiences instead of conventional notions of disability. For example, The CUE project looks at group situations (e.g. work teams, extended families, the classroom) where group members are temporarily disabled from expressing due to power relationships and social conventions. The Radical Sensing project explores how the context of human anatomy creates the “disability” of not being able to accurately tell where a smell is originating from, something that dog anatomy enables through stereo olfactory organs.

Themes and Insights

When working in this mode of experimental, inquiry driven design, the goal is to explore a design space in search of insights, novel approaches and new opportunities. Rather than solving problems, it’s a divergent process of problem setting, where the potentials for design are not fully explored. In this article, we’re looking at the promising problems and potentials that emerged from the group’s work. Follow the project links (summarized at the end of the article) for a more in-depth understanding of each team’s investigation.

Gestures and Superpowers Instead of Devices

The Seams and Superpowers projects tended to focus more on outcomes and interactions than highlighting the wearable device itself (many did not even have a device display.) For example, the App Couture project imagines fashionable clothing with embedded sensors that enable simple gestures like snapping your fingers to bring up a holographic sketchbook. Similarly, the CUE project allows people in a group to indicate mood (e.g. positive or frustrated) to the group leader through a subtle rub of a tie-clip or felt keychain. And the Heeling project invites peripheral, out-of-conversation movement of the feet to, for example, place a call to oneself to get out of a conversation.


App Couture


In these projects, the device itself is either hidden or turned into a fashion item, and uses very different materials and aesthetics than is typical of the plastic and metal objects that typify current wearables. The design is focused on subtle gestural seams that empower the person to overcome certain situational disabilities with new kinds of superpowers. As the CUE team describes the use of their system, “Simple. Light. Easy.”





heeling process1_1000


This fashionable, personally curated, truly wearable approach is contrary to the precious, single device model adopted by consumer electronics companies for products like the Apple Watch or Fitbit. Instead, the student projects argue for collections of bespoke connected devices that, through a range of gestures, allow a person to invoke special powers in ways that fit with their moment-to-moment context. The projects use interactional seams that are carefully tuned for that context – smoother than pulling out a phone, but not completely seamless, automated and invisible.

Social Context and Communication



A significant theme in these projects is the role of wearable technology in a social context. The potential for social failure is high, as Google Glass has demonstrated, but even a poorly timed glance at an Apple Watch notification can create annoyance or misunderstanding in a group. Rather than intruding on social conventions, it’s possible for wearables to augment them. The IntraVoice project addresses the social and political constraints/disabilities in large protest events, allowing protesters to communicate and share common feelings and messages as a group, even if the government has shut down cell phone service.


Co-Presense Network


Co-Presense Network

The Wearables Co-Presense Network project makes it possible for people to share presence, experience, and even cognitive load from different locations, for example by seeing and hearing what another person is experiencing and helping them accomplish a task while they attend to their primary role as the driver of a car.

CUE how_to_use_sketches-01_4168


The CUE project creates a new, more comfortable channel of communication in groups. In these situations, many things go un-communicated due to power relationships and social conventions, yet the group would benefit from them if acknowledged.  CUE allows the voicing of these alternate feelings and ideas in a parallel, anonymized back-channel. For example, at a dinner with extended family discussing a difficult topic, the unnoticed rubbing of your bracelet can allow the expression of affection and trust with a background cue, even during a heated argument.

Interestingly, these projects are intentionally not following the common Internet of Things design pattern that tries to automate everything. These systems avoid figuring out people’s needs or attempting to automatically address them. Instead, they are tools that enable new kinds of communications that work well in specific contexts. The tools become part of how a person acts, and don’t subvert their agency or sensitivity to their own moment by moment context and needs. Instead, they enhance agency.

What are the Boundaries of Superpowers?

New technologies can create disruptions and changes in behavior, and one aspect of design research is to explore and anticipate the limits of these interventions. What would people do to get the perceived benefits? Can something that seems weird and magical initially eventually become normal or even aspirational? What are the social boundaries of wearable superpowers?


Wearable Privacy Device

Two projects in particular explore these issues. The first, Wearable Privacy Device, pokes fun at facial recognition and Internet commenting practice by imagining a speculative device that could instantly provide anonymity for a person wearing it in public. Like IntraVoice, this system could be beneficial in the context of protests and surveillance. But this anonymity could also enable in-person trolling and intrusive photo bombing. In this system, people are physically present, but anonymous and untraceable. Seem impossible? What if living through avatars in VR worlds becomes common? What will the rules be for identity and power in these contexts?

Radical Sensing – Prosthetic Noses

Radical Sensing takes body augmentation to a completely new place, proposing a future where people would have their noses surgically removed so that they could have access to different smelling neuroprosthetics. These wearables would plug into the brain and provide olfactory superpowers like stereo smelling or wine super sensing. Would people do this? The transition of cosmetic surgery and tattooing from unusual to everyday has certainly taught us to question our assumptions about “normal.”

But beyond the cultural and ethical issues around identity, body modification and prosthetics, the superpowers that wearables give us raise many new and specific design challenges around the personal and social character of superpowers. When, how, or should I indicate that I’m using a superpower? What cultural adaptions are needed for these new powers? What economic class  issues are raised by cost and other access constraints? How do I touch things on my body? What gestures are appropriate to myself and to others?

Responding to Digital Disabilities


Physical Service Network

As with any new technology, solving one problem often creates other problems. Cars made personal transportation fast, but they also created traffic and smog. Two student projects address recently developed digital disabilities. The Physical Service Network (PNS) contemplates the existing superpower of instant communication and decision making exemplified by “likes” and other social networking behaviors. This superpower makes action so quick that our thoughtful decision making ability is disabled. PNS tries to restore and enhance this ability by moving the decision making process back to the in-person social world, requiring friends nearby to confirm your “likes” by using certain gestures like an actual “thumb’s up”.



The Pocket project seeks to get people untethered from their devices and out of the house by gamifying physical contact. The user has a hidden pocket device that rewards them with virtual coins through interaction with others outside the home and office. Pocket’s team also did some interesting scenario work (see below video) in their design research by demonstrating how multiple wearables might drive us crazy because they have different goals.

By pointing out digital disabilities, these projects help us recognize the unintended consequences of new superpowers. Can a superpower be designed well in the first place, or will there need to be another superpower to manage the original power? And more generally are we doomed to create layer after layer of digital systems, each new one compensating for the last?


As a group, these nine projects argue for a bespoke approach to wearables that enables people to subtly turn their individually unique disabilities into special capabilities that fit specific contexts. Disabilities, whether temporary or permanent, are seen as opportunities for new behaviors, adjustments in social and cultural practices, and the grounded application of IoT and wearables with tangible, gestural interactions. These experiments show some of the potentials for bridging the gaps between people, abilities, and aspirations.

Credits and Links