Most of you might know Hannah Perner-Wilson by her username Plusea. Hannah is a talented young artist and prolific maker whose work in electronic textiles and sensors has been inspirational to the DIY community. I met Hannah at last year's Maker Faire and was immediately impressed by her clever (not to mention beautiful) designs for novel wearable interfaces in projects like the Joy Slippers and Massage Me. In this past year alone, she has created (and shared) a profuse body of work that ranges from innovative material experiments to complete projects. I recently caught up with Hannah to learn more about the motivations behind her work and what she has planned for the near future.
Within the last few years alone you've created a prolific body of work that includes both material experiments in soft technologies and completed projects. Can you tell us a little about your process? How do your material experiments inform your larger projects and vice versa?
I’ve come to find it part of the process of making, that certain possibilities will arise and inspire absolutely different project ideas than the one I set out to solve. Apart from enjoying the act of making things, I also try to trace my motivations for making the things that I do. I think the main issue that influences all my work is the fact that I’m upset and unsatisfied with current human-computer interaction scenarios, yet fascinated by the power of computation.
Massage Me: a novel wearable interface to play video games
You also meticulously document your work and share it with the DIY community on your own personal site, Instructables and hold workshops internationally. Why is it important for you to teach and share your knowledge with a larger community?
Not everything I discover during my material experiments becomes part of a project, yet I would still like to share these little discoveries with whoever might be interested.
So I started to turn these things into quick little demonstrative objects, like the tilt and time sensing bracelets or the scroll-wheel hack.
Tilt Sensing Bracelet made from conductive fabric and beads
Instructables is a great platform for publishing such partial solutions. They almost always result in a wonderful stream of feedback in the comments section. Members will comment on their pointlessness, but also point out the problems they see, provide solutions and come up with endless ideas for applications. Through experiencing this reaction, I came to realize that this is also something I would like to address with my work. Not just expressing my own ideas about human-computer interaction, but also encouraging others to explore the possibilities too.
So it is not quite by chance that a lot of the demos I create are bizarre scenarios that intentionally lack a useful purpose. They automatically inspire a wide range of ideas, which is where I think the urge to make something starts.
Another reason for documenting and sharing my work is that I would like to promote the idea that making, modifying and repairing things can become a viable alternative to the consumption of mass produced human-computer interfaces.
With your projects like the Joy Slippers and Massage me you seem to be exploring new innovative ways of using the body as an input device. Do you see the body as an interface? What interests you in exploring the space of the body as a means of controlling electronics? What were some themes/ideas you were exploring with these artworks?
Massage me was driven by the want to get a free massage. We also wanted to traget and harvest the video game player and their excess button-pushing energy. Together with Mika Satomi (www.nerding.at), we developed the concept into a wearable jacket that had the controller buttons embedded on the back. This work was driven by the initial idea and the choice to create a wearable technology interface fell purely because we saw it as the best way to getting our free massage.
The JoySlippers were inspired by my desire for a hands-free way to interact with my computer. I was also interested in what possibilities lie beyond the initial learning of an interface. What does it mean to be a professional user of a pair of slippers with embedded pressure sensors?
So when I made the JoySlippers my initial objective was to wear them regularly and practice. But I got stuck in the loop of improving their design and making them wireless, rather than getting around to wearing them and refining my code for the simple drawing program I started out with. So this is a project and concept I’m still very much interested to pick up again and continue.
In my more recent works this clear divide between the initial idea and the process of making is less distinct. I’m having a hard time clarifying this while at the same time exploring so many different new materials and production techniques.
One of my works in progress that is bouncing between materiality and concept is a set of position sensing textiles, from which I would like to make a full body suit in order to explore relationships between body parts in terms of touch. This project idea is called “Everywhere I can touch myself” and came from the simple idea to be able to track where a selected body part is touching the rest of the body. Something about the possibility to be able to do this with wearable technology fascinated me and I would really like to develop a good solution. I’m trying not to compromise the initial idea because of what is not possible and also trying not to expand beyond the initial idea because of what is possible.
Currently you are a resident at the Distance Lab. Would you care to elaborate on the work and ideas that you are exploring there?
Yes, Mika and I are currently both based in the highlands of Scotland. We came here together to continue our collaboration as KOBAKANT. Our first aim has been to document all of the material and technical experiments and experiences we have gathered from working on wearable technology projects over the past three years. This kind of documentation work tends to inspire new ideas, which we are able to follow up on, documenting them as we go for incorporation in possible future projects and workshops.
The Distance Lab’s focus on the theme of distance is something we are trying to relate to through a certain perspective on our work. The type of distance we see ourselves addressing in our work is that between manufacturing and consumption. Positioning DIY and the sharing of documentation as a means to bridge the distance between the manufacturer and consumer. Turning it into a relationship of making and customizing, or making and using.
Mika and I are also using this opportunity to talk about where we would like to go as KOBAKANT. We are definitely interested in wearable technology, but also very skeptical about most applications we see and even the ones we imagine ourselves. Going back to the motivation behind creating massage me, we would like to inspire our future works by our concerns and concepts that are not inherently wearable or even technological.
Aside from the fact that the Distance Lab is a really great place to focus on your work, the lab also has a workshop full of wonderful equipment, that up until now we have never had the opportunity to use for our own purposes. A laser cutter, knitting machine, CNC machine and vacuum former. And for the first time we actually have a sewing machine in our office, plus we recently purchased a proper popper (American: snap fastener) machine that will drastically transform our lives!
What's next for you?
Next, this September I will be moving back to the USA to begin my masters at MIT. I’m super excited because the aim of Leah Buechley’s High-Low Tech research group is something I feel very strongly about. And there is so much I want to do.
One Last question — what is the story (if any) behing your username Plusea?
When in high school math we were taught integration, I was somehow fascinated by the constant (+c) that is put in place of the original displacement which can not be recreated. I picked up the "+c" and turned it into a logo and from there it became the written word "plus c". And then, because I like the sea, --> "plus sea" --> "plusea".
[The definition on my website]
+c stands for the act of trying to bring an object back to its original state and realizing that this is not possible. A placeholder for all that remains unknown and can not be recreated.