I am creating a speculative design piece for those interacting with it to visualize a future that evokes feelings of disgust and thoughts about their actions in the context of coexistence with the marine ecosystem.
How can human interactions with technological inputs and outputs be used to biomimic a jellyfish?
In their paper “Climate-related increases in jellyfish frequency suggest a more gelatinous future for the North Sea”, Martin Attril et al suggest that with current climate-change trends, jellyfish frequency will increase over the next 100 years. Taking from their research, my project is a speculative design piece of a gelatinous future wherein humans are dependent on jellyfish for energy, food and information.
The piece will be an installation that people can interact with to experience this future in the present. It will also have an introductory video that describes the story of the dystopian world where this piece is of importance to its inhabitants. The jellyfish act as a network for the people, providing information on the date, time, weather, food availability, power availability and news updates posted by reporters of the age. It’s a home installation device of a future that people can experience today through biomimicry.
The history of increasing jellyfish blooms is dated back to the 1980’s. Jellyfish frequency has been on the rise ever since, except for the year 2004. These increases are majorly attributed to human activities and commercialization of fisheries that lead to global warming, increased saltwater salinity, introduction of non-native species and so on. Today there are almost 1,400 species, some poisonous, some edible, some immortal even. The rises, however, have a negative impact on us, especially from the economic point of view. Jellyfish clog nuclear power plants and diamond mines, sting tourists and swimmers in the ocean, hampering fishing activities and so on. Thus, instead of focusing on the multiple uses of jellyfish, people are finding ways to remove jellyfish from the water bodies. Jellyfish uses have been limited to food, medicine and collage extracts.
I am using the newer researchers on jellyfish, including studies on “Voltage sensing in jellyfish shaker K+ channels” by N. G. Grigoriev et al and “Simulation of piezoelectric jellyfish power generator” by Yeong-Jen Wu and Wei-Hsiang Lai. Thus, my final prototype is an installation of a tank that looks contemporary but holds three large jellyfish. These jellyfish can move with a command from the phone. The movement depicts production of electricity and the bioluminescence, depicted by LEDs, shows completion of the process. It is aimed at explaining how jellyfish controls information flow in the future, as this flow is dependent on electricity, which is produced by jellyfish. However, the main control still remains in our hands. This is to show that we still hold the key to controlling the situation.
The purpose of the installation and video is to give people a sneak peek into the future we are headed towards. At the end of the video, they should feel like it is a world they do not want to live in and would not want to experience. Although, it is true that they will not be present any longer during that age, it should leave them appreciating the environment they have currently.
The physical iteration of the product will be attractive enough to catch attention, but when they learn more about the device, they should not want to own such a device willingly as it would be a world with exhausted natural resources and a disrupted environment wherein they will not be able to experience the luxuries of today.
Point of view
At first, the installation looks like a regular jellyfish tank, but on seeing the video and reading about the installation, they realize it to be a speculative design piece speaking of dystopian future with exhausted resources and a gelatinous ocean. It’s a take on how we will have to adapt to survive. It’s critiquing our current activities affecting the environment, research being done in these fields and how technology will be integrated with nature into our immediate environments for survival; how biomimicry and biotechnology will be our solution to current problems.
Speculative design is a tool of critical design I am using to provoke people to think about a future that may or may not be depending on our actions today. It is a mental challenge to get people to think about the today that affects the tomorrow. And I wish to do so by showing a video of the future and an installation of the device as if it were present today. They can interact with it and at the same time see how their future will be with jellyfish surrounding them.
The device represented is a jellyfish tank, which would look like a box that would be wall mounted. The outward color of the casing is black with the coral at the base being colorful, while the jellyfish are transparent and have color only when biomimicking bioluminescence. The device communicates through a screen interface.
The design of the interface is inspired from current takes of designers on futuristic interface screen designs. The color scheme used is inspired from the most commonly used blue and black or green and black color schemes used to depict futuristic screens and scientific technologies. However, since the same color trend has been used since the 1980’s, I want to show that our perception of the future has changed but still not completely from the trends that have continued for years. Thus, I am using dark gray and turquoise for representing the information display.
The video will begin with a view of the disastrous world in the future, with the following few screens describing the environment and will eventually zoom in from the universe to a small house on the globe with the device placed in there. It will then run through the functionality of the device while describing the environment it is placed in. The video is intended to show the audience why and how we reached the state wherein we need the device to survive.
More than making the decision, the user is thinking about this future presented before him/her. It is a provocative speculative design. The user is to question today’s actions leading to this devastative future. It’s an imperfect space. If this piece could get people to think of their actions and take a decision to change, it would be more than what I aim for.
The audience interacting with this installation would be people visiting it. However, the main target would be people between the ages of 16 to 30. The main reason being, these people hold capacity to bring about a change. Either they will live to see such a future or will develop measures to do something about it.
They are also the people who frequent museums for inspiration, exploration or educational purposes and would then have a chance to encounter this installation at a museum where it is set up.
I am hoping that at the end of the interaction, the audience is grossed out by the idea of a gelatinous ocean. They would not want jellyfish to surround them as much, even though the creatures are fascinating. They feel sad for the actions that have lead us to the point of imagining such a future. The idea is to provoke thought, which would then at some point lead to action.
Biomimicry is the imitation of models, systems and elements of nature for solving complex human problems. Biomimicry of jellyfish has received attention from Marine Scientists and Biomedical and Medical Researchers in the last two decades. There is extensive research on biomimicking propulsion techniques of jellyfish using memory shape alloy composites and ionic conducting polymer films. There is limited research in the biomimicry of jellyfish, besides its propulsion techniques. The study “Simulation of piezoelectric jellyfish power generator” by Yeong-Jen Wu and Wei-Hsiang Lai on biomimicking jellyfish tentacles to create electricity inspired my project of biomimicking jellyfish to create a futuristic device wherein jellyfish are capable of producing electricity for humans, in the absence of other natural resources.
Speculative design is a tool of critical design to challenge assumptions and conceptions about the role of objects play in everyday life. With the jellyfish blooms, the prediction is that the ocean could be gelatinous in a hundred years. Thus, I am using speculative design to imagine a dystopian gelatinous world wherein we are surrounded by jellyfish and have learned to use jellyfish to our benefit, contrary to the ongoing study by Anthony J. Richardson et al in ” The jellyfish joyride: Causes, consequences and management responses to a more gelatinous future”, which provides methods of eradicating jellyfish from the ocean.
Interactive design is a user-oriented field focusing on meaningful communication of media through cyclical and collaborative processes between people and technology. Christopher Crawford, in his book “The Art of Interactive Design”, says it is a process of listening, thinking and speaking alternatively between the actors; wherein actors represent people and technology. In the same manner, my installation is listening to a technological input, to then speak to the user through an interface, leaving the user thinking of a dystopian future as a result of their current actions. The interface screen acts as a communicator between the user and jellyfish, where the jellyfish sends information to the human and the user can use it to trigger movement of the jellyfish.
Human Centered Design
Human centered design is based on the physical and psychological needs of the human user, enabling the user to function at the highest level possible. The design has to enhance human abilities, overcome human limitations and foster human acceptance. And in a future, with a lack of any natural resources, when we are dependent on jellyfish, I am looking at how humans can use them to overcome power and communication issues to adapt and survive.
a. What are the specific questions you are attempting to answer in your prototypes?
In their paper “Climate-related increases in jellyfish frequency suggest a more gelatinous future for the North Sea”, Martin Attril et al suggest that with current climate-change trends, jellyfish frequency will increase over the next 100 years. And through further research, I realized that the focus on use of jellyfish is limited to medicine, food and collagen extracts. There is very little research on other ways of using jellyfish. In relation to the recent blooms, people are finding ways of eradicating jellyfish instead of finding ways of utilizing them.
Thus, my project is a speculative design piece to give the audience a disgusted feeling of the future and make them think about their current actions in relation to the marine ecosystems. The jellyfish, in the installation, act as a network for the people, providing information on the date, time, weather, food availability, power availability and news updates posted by reporters of the age. It’s a home installation device of a future that people can experience today through biomimicry.
b. What are the five strengths of your project?
- The installation “Aurelia” is a speculative design, which asks the audience to imagine a dystopian future and aims to disgust them. According to Silvan Tomkins, ‘disgust’ is the last of the nine affects that humans share with animals. The affect of ‘disgust’ is supposed to be more discrete than complex and muddled human emotions. So, the installation is focusing on a particular feeling that is achievable through good story telling.
- The infomercial video supporting the installation establishes a storyline that well portrays the idea of a dystopian future that is not a rosy picture. It communicates the need for measuring current activities and research for a better future. It also supports the explanation of the need and importance of the design piece in such a future.
- The physical installation is a scaled model of this futuristic device that people can interact with. With the technological components functioning, it would be possible for people to use their mobile phones and interact. This would be a way bleeding fiction into reality.
- It highlights the fact that a problem can become its own solution. In this future the installation paints, jellyfish blooms are the problem. However, being able to use jellyfish instead of the currently used natural resources is creating a solution.
- The basis of this dystopian future is based on the assumption that we have a gelatinous ocean. And jellyfish become the focal point of the solution. Jellyfish are fascinating creatures that attract everyone alike but raise different feelings in different people. So it creates curiosity in people to at least know what the installation is about.
c. What are the five most critical issues for your project?
- The infomercial is a crucial part of the presentation. If it is not convincing enough, people will not be able to grasp the intensity of the dystopian future.
- The aesthetics of the final product and the interface need to appear futuristic but at the same time not feel alien. If the aesthetics and designs are not right, they will not impart the intended feeling.
- Conceptualizing the idea to be provocative and not preachy is difficult. But at the same time, it could become funny rather than critical. Thus, it is important to word the project and script the infomercial such that it discreetly highlights the dark humor hidden in the concept.
- The first prototype had only one jellyfish and not everyone could accept that it was enough to produce electricity. However, in the final project it is important to show multiple jellyfish so people can understand that the tank would hold a brood of jellyfish.
- Backing the project with substantial research is important to answer any related questions. Assuming jellyfish can produce electricity would hold no value unless there were supporting studies to prove that it is even remotely possible. In such a case, there would be no answer to questions raised by critics.
d. What can you do to address these issues, and to solidify the strengths?
To start with, all the research supporting the ideas represented needs to be in place. With proper understanding of the research, it is easier to prepare a presentation, content and concept for the idea.
The research needs to include not only studies done on related topics but also on the how similar ideas are represented by other designers. Besides precedents for the project, adequate design references are also required.
The script of the infomercial has to be such that is grasping but humorous. The audience should be interested in watching it but does not get bored. Only if the audience watches the entire video would they understand the intensity of the situation. If the installation works in favor of the idea, it automatically becomes a strong point for the project.
The aesthetics are not difficult to produce, but getting feedback during the process of designing would be important to make sure that the audience understands the message I am trying to convey by looking at the piece also. To ensure the design is appropriate I need the right color scheme, schematics for the interface and design the prototype in such a manner that it can tie the present to the future.
With adequate research, appropriate script, convincing infomercial and good aesthetics, it will be easy to convey the required message and play upon the crucial factors and solidify the strengths.
e. Can you intuitively ask some new questions?
Besides the questions the project is currently answering, some other questions could include:
- Whether the concept of electricity using jellyfish could be applied at mass level rather than individual level?
- Would jellyfish form the network spoken about in the project, as it would be interesting to see data flow through jellyfish?
- Could the design of the casing be more organic or should it remain more geometric?
f. What questions need to be answered in order to create a proof of concept prototype?
The following questions should be answered:
- Is there adequate research to back the idea of jellyfish producing electricity?
- Is the script of the infomercial convincing enough?
- Does the infomercial produce the intended feeling in the audience?
- Are the aesthetics of the prototype appealing to the audience?
g. Are you on the right path or do you need to change direction, and if so, how will you do that?
Based on feedback and user testing for the first prototype, I was able to ensure that the project creates the intended feeling of disgust in the audience. Following feedback on the first prototype, the second prototype requires to be a scaled model with more independent technological interactions, where it is not dependent on the human at all times. The concept is easily understandable by the users, but would require an explanatory video to convey the message better and in fewer words. There is not a need for change of direction in terms of the idea wanting to be presented. The only change required is the manner in which it is presented.
 According to Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby in their book “Speculative Everything”, speculative design is a tool for designing ideas to imagine possible futures.