Critical objects: Final proposal

Team: Arnab Chakravarty, Gilad Dor.


For our final, we are working the topic of more-than-human centered design. As we collectively face environmental degradation in the context of the Anthropocene, the question we are asking ourselves is whether we can build systems that include non-human voices and agendas. Can we design everyday technologies to amplify our connection with the non-human instead of hiding them away? Is there any space for designing objects of technology with principles of empathy and kindness instead of efficiency and usability? Here, we would like to anchor our project in the principles of Para-functionality as defined by Anthony Dunne in the book “Hertzian tales“ and the idea of eccentric engineering by Tega-brain.

The form of our final project is tentatively titled ‘Plant radio‘ where the functionality of a radio and a plant is intertwined into its form and function. The plant is embedded with moisture, light and humidity sensors and the users have a big dial with which they can change the radio station. The radio station plays as expected when the plant is being kept well. However, if the plant is not being taken care of it will randomly change the radio station to another station that is close to it’s mood (sadness, hurt, melancholy). The user and the plant engage in a subtle tug of war which doesn’t have a fix apart from taking care of the plant. The aim is to make the viewers and users think about the nature of out computationally mediated interfaces.


  • Soil/moisture/light sensors -> Arduino -> VS0153 mp3 board -> FM transmitter


  • Attribute: Household object

  • Device: Transmission

  • Mood: Eccentric


  • Tabletop object with 1 to 1 interaction between the user and the device.

  • No acrylic

This land is your land

For the body politics assignment for critical objects, I and Sukanya teamed up to work on it together. Our initial impulse was to work with the notion of body, movement and permission in geographical spaces. We came up with a few concepts which revolved around:

  • Lack of free movement across geographical areas for people based on the country they come from.

  • Race, income levels, gender, sexual orientation and other parameters as barriers for access in these spaces.

We initially brainstormed ideas where we thought of combining a wearable device that allows you movement only in areas that you can go to but after presenting these ideas to other people and hearing their critiques, we decided to focus on working with the idea of movement based on where you are born. While the issue of movement is intersectional and spans both the global and the local, the passport is the universal method of encompassing control on individual movement that we have all collectively agreed upon. It’s also interesting to observe that while passports were introduced in its current form during World War 1 for security reasons, they were quickly assimilated as standard procedure. The passport is such a pervasive document that most of us take it for granted and have never questioned it’s existence in our daily lives.

Also, one of the first things that struck us while we moved to a western country is the absolute lack of awareness of people who have American/ EU passports about the sheer difficulty of getting visas and being able to move if you do not have the passport of the right country. One other thing that we observed was the conflation of travel with self-care, personal development and self actualization and how it presents a very privileged narrative as a universal truth.

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To investigate this further, Sukanya wrote a script that would compile the dataset of all countries each nation had access to without a visa/prior permission and then rank them. Instead of directly looking at the number of countries, the script calculated the land mass of these countries and then created a ranking of them. Comparing biomass was more interesting as the number of countries could be misleading and hey, aren’t boundaries artificial constructs anyways? For the final form, we finalized on the following as our framework:

Attributes: Wearable

Device: deadpan, dry

Mood: Mundane everyday

We centered on using an eyepiece as the object of focus. The metaphor of being limited in seeing the world resonated very strongly with us and we were decided to use that in our form. We did a few tests to see the kind of blocking we wanted from our object.

Blocking the lens in a circular pattern made the image sharper. Totally opposite to what we were going for.

Blocking the lens in a circular pattern made the image sharper. Totally opposite to what we were going for.

Blocking the sunglass from the bottom was better than the top as the head instinctively moved down to focus the eye on the transparent part.

Blocking the sunglass from the bottom was better than the top as the head instinctively moved down to focus the eye on the transparent part.

For the form of the final object, we went back and forth on it. Our initial instinct was to make something sculptural inspired by the images below:

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We tried sketching variations of this theme but our framework helped us reorient us. We decided to make the frame into a mundane, everyday sunglass which mirrors the acceptance of the passport in our day to day lives. To make the frame, we tried 2 approaches:

Approach 1) 3D print the frame.

Approach 2) Use frames that have been bought previously.

We did not fix on an approach as we wanted to use resin for our glasses. We spent a lot of time experimenting to get the mold to set without leaking.

However, the end result was very unsatisfactory. So, we decided to do the lens cut out of acrylic in a 3D printed body. Sukanya wrote another script that calculated the precise area of the lens so that we could divide them in accurate percentages based on the country’s access to landmass. For the first batch, we made a set of 3 countries that covered the spectrum of the ranking. We faced some issues with the 3D printer but nothing that sand paper and files could not solve. Some images on our process below:

FInal frame 3d print

FInal frame 3d print

Testing the fit of the lens

Testing the fit of the lens

Trying out variations for perfect fit

Trying out variations for perfect fit

Gluing and sticking the frames

Gluing and sticking the frames

After multiple trials and errors, we could finally nail down the fit and size for the final set of sunglasses below. Can you guess the countries?


Disobedient electronics

The theme for our second assignment was to create an object that exemplifies the ethos of disobedient electronics. I teamed up with Winnie Yoe and in our first discussion, we decided to make a few learning objectives for ourselves. Our initial list was: 1) Learn how to use ESP32 2) Learn how to fetch and display real time data 3) Use data to work with a mundane regular object that we see day to day.

Initially, we looked at the NYC open data sets and we found some interesting data around maternal health, mental health and the drug crisis. We were interested to use the data set for the opioid crisis but we realised that none of the datasets we had was not real-time and had no granularity beyond a district zone. Working with such large data-sets was proving to be challenging and we gave up on the approach.

During the discussion, we started talking about how mundane objects are basically fronts for corporations inside our homes in the name of ‘Smartness‘. That struck a chord and we refined the idea into a simple ‘smart‘bulb that is free to use but it won’t light up if the latest stock market price of the company was lower than the previous day. Going through stock market prices api, we found one which was easy to use but only gave daily stock prices. We wanted one which was hourly but in the interest of time, we went ahead with the one we found to build the proof of concept. We used the ESP32 HUZZAH to control the light bulb.

The final interaction was as follows: The bulb lights up if it detects the presence of the user and then checks for the stock price of the company (*cough* Facebook *cough*) and if the price of the company was lower, it starts blinking annoyingly. The user then has to mash the ‘like‘ button which leaves gratuitous comments on social media (not prototyped) and the bulb is ready for use again. You can watch the interaction in the video below.

I was quite happy about getting the APIs to work with the chip. I realise that there are conceptual gaps in our prototype but a lot of it was pared down in the interest of time. I believe that there is enough depth in the concept to take it further and I would like to see if I can do the same project in a more refined manner later.

Apology as a Service (AAAS)

For our first assignment for critical objects, I teamed up Winnie Yoe to work on a critical object. The shop was shut for the week and we started talking about how we should write an apology for not doing the assignment. This led us to a further discussion of how apologies are manufactured and it’s as if they are a formula.

We went down the rabbit-hole of digging up apologies from Kevin Spacey to facebook to Uber and many others and we came up with the formula as follows:

[Inspirational title] → [Demonstrate passion] → [Play the Victim] → [Feign innocence of events] → [Cautiously appreciate the victims] → [Ask for time]→ [Recognise role of company without any direct acceptance of wrong-doing]→ [Promise indeterminate actions in the future]→ [Promise that it won’t happen again]→ [salutations]→ [Actual signature].

While analysing the responses, we are realised that the formula also caters to institutional anxieties and are about protecting the organisation rather than the aggrieved ones. We came up with the idea of a service for CEOs in the future which is a voice driven interface for generating apologies. We name it Bernays after Edward Bernays, the father of modern PR quite extensively documented in The century of the self.

The hypothetical device sits on the desk of the CEO and talks to him/her about the current issue and uses advanced AI to understand the situation. It asks the CEO for ‘uncomputable‘ information which helps it create a more nuanced approach to a situation and generates an apology and a strategy for handling the situation.

You can scroll through the UI below. A sister post on the project can be found here.