For our first project, we were assigned to design a sensory experience, in order to think about questions such as what is an experience and how do we apprehend the world through our senses.
Field Exploration Research
One of the research methods for this project was a field exploration day, in which we went for a stroll in some specific locations of London in order to record sensory maps.
So we were divided into two groups. My group met in the morning at Royal Victoria DLR Station with Prof. Alistair, to visit the Emirate Airline. That would be our first sensory exploration, but first, the professor asked us to gather sensory data from the station itself. My exploration of the station consisted of a walk through it as a high fidelity point-of-view style video recording with high sound definition, in order to simulate personal experience and identify the most characteristic sounds of each specific location.
Then we got into the Emirate Airlines, which was really pleasant, apart from the consistently annoying institutional video that played throughout the flight. It was a lovely experience however, and this time I chose to map it by drawing my impressions on paper, using form and some key sentences as indicators of my perceptions, sensations and feelings.
Doodles of personal sensory map of the experience of flying the Emirates AirLines Source: personal collection
Then we headed to the Greenwich Market for lunch and meet with Group A. It was an interesting mix of colour from the many stalls of handmade art and smells of different world cuisines.
Source: personal collection
Queen Elizabeth I’s “Mask of Youth” (The Queen’s House Greenwich)
After that, we had the unique experience of being the first ones (after the press) to see the newest installation at the Queen’s House Grenwich Museum, titled “The Mask of Youth” by Mat Collishaw, depicting a 3D model of Queen Elizabeth I’s face, animated and programmed in order do blink, move her eyes and make discrete facial expressions.
The Greenwich Foot Tunnel
Then we explored the Greenwich foot tunnel. I decided to again explore the environment using sound, but this time sound only. So I went blindfolded, being guided by one of my classmates (Timmy). As he walked through the tunnel, I kept my hand on his shoulder and audio recorded the experience. Unfortunately, there was a crash on my phone and the audio was not saved.
Overall sensory impressions
“Perceiving and imagining an object in a conscious state is the basis of human cognitive activity. As a multi sensory process, this never occurs with the participation of only one modality.” (Haverkamp, 2012)
Based on that experience of the tunnel I can say that not only my perception of space was affected by being blindfolded, but also my perception of time.
The experience of the Queen’s death mask was another of with big impact on my perception of what is an experience. I could experience my brain transforming feelings into sensory stimuli that didn’t physically exist. For example, I smelled formol. Did that happen because it was triggered by memory of previous experiences in which the sight of something morbid or related to death was accompanied by the smell of formol?
That said, the real outcome of all those experiences is that I was left with more questions than answers. Is is possible to separate perception from feelings? Does every sensation come with an emotional response? Is it possible to focus on only one sense without the interference of the mind to “compensate” for the “missing” one(s)? What is the role of memory and imagination in sensing?
For the presentation of the results of the exploration we were divided in pairs. So me and Shen designed 3 part presentation.
1 — Introception
We started our presentation by doing a very quick breathing exercise, for two main reasons: not oxygen the brain of our colleagues and introduce the concept of introception (Harverkamp, 2012), the sense of being aware of your internal organs and overall body condition.
The exercise is very simple and it is based on yogic breathing exercises called pranayamas (I am a trained Yoga and meditation instructor). First I asked people to close their eyes and get a sense of how their bodies and mind felt at the moment. Then, I asked them to take a few deep breaths in and out. Then, to breath in slowly, through the nose, counting to 4; then to hold their breaths counting to 7 (or until uncomfortable); then to breath out through the mouth slowly counting to 8. This exercise is empirically known to reduce levels of stress and help sleep. After that, I asked people to observe again their overall body sensations and the pattern of the thoughts. Everyone who manifested themselves related feeling much calmer and more relaxed than before.
2 – Experiencing sound and sight… isolated
The second part of our presentation involved showing a video. We wanted to present the contrast of isolating our two most used senses: sight and hearing. It represents the tube ride experience of someone who is visually impaired. While they’re sitting on the carriage surrounded by the Bakerloo Line’s loud noises, they’re having glimpses of imagination about other non related experiences. In the video they are being represented by very short soundless footages, and although they’re visual, their ethereal nature are being used to represent emotional states: for example, the high speed footage of people walking represents mind agitation, while the slow motion ones symbolise happy memories.
3 – Sound and imagination. Can you guess what sound is this?
In this part, Shen wanted to do some sensory experiences with the audience, in which she played some sounds without visuals and asked our colleagues to guess what they were. This was to see how much imagination plays a part in the sensory experience when one of more senses aren’t being engaged.
It was an interesting and unexpected way to start the course. By asking myself what constitutes and experience and how much do each of my bodily entities – senses, body and mind – play a part on it, was a good way to put a foundation on my understanding of my role as an UX designer. Our bodies are the vehicle through which we experience the world as humans, and even though we are getting more involved with the digital experiences and excited about the latest technologies, we should be constantly reminding ourselves of what it is like to be a human in it’s rawest form.
Also, this first project was a great opportunity to reflect upon what might be the experience of those who are sensory impaired, and how do the senses work together in order to create an impression of the world.
HAVERKAMP, M. (2012). SYNESTHETIC DESIGN. [S.l.]: BIRKHAUSER VERLAG AG, pp.55-95.