Golan Levin: And wel­come back to the Saturday after­noon ses­sion of Art && Code: Homemade, our fes­ti­val about dig­i­tal tools and crafty approach­es. This is our after­noon ses­sion on our final day. We have one ses­sion after this in the evening. But for the after­noon ses­sion we’re going to have four pre­sen­ters: Katia Vega, Jorvon Moss, Tatyana Mustakos, and Daniela Rosner. We’re going to begin with Katia Vega. And if you’re just tun­ing in and would like to be part of the chats, go to artand​code​.com/​h​o​m​e​m​ade to reg­is­ter and you’ll be able to be a part of the Discord where we’re hav­ing our con­ver­sa­tions and chats about the speak­ers and their work. 

Katia Vega is a pro­fes­sor at the Department of Design at the University of California, Davis, where she directs the Interactive Organisms Lab. Her lab­o­ra­to­ry needs new explo­rations in nov­el inter­faces in areas such as beau­ty tech­nol­o­gy, body mod­i­fi­ca­tion tech­nolo­gies, and grow­able inter­faces. She’s also the author of Beauty Technology: Designing Seamless Interfaces for Wearable Computing. Katia Vega. 

Katia Vega: Hello every­one. I’m super excit­ed to be here and to be part of this great fes­ti­val and share also some of my pas­sions, some of my research projects. And I will be talk­ing a lit­tle bit more of what I was cre­at­ing in the last maybe ten years, and also kind of like behind the scenes of what I was cre­at­ing, too. So I’m super excit­ed to share what I was doing with you guys. 

So first, while talk­ing with the orga­niz­ers I was think­ing on what would be the most inter­est­ing thing to share, and how to go even beyond the tra­di­tion­al way that I present my work. And one of the rec­om­men­da­tions was to talk a lit­tle bit more about your pas­sion and about your­self. And so like oh yes, of course. I can talk about my favorite top­ic, myself. And I am excit­ed to talk about what dri­ves my cre­ation. And in that way you will see dif­fer­ent fields merg­ing togeth­er, and fields that maybe I was­n’t expect­ing to be explor­ing from before.

A lit­tle bit of my back­ground. I stud­ied com­put­er sci­ence. I am from Peru. And when I fin­ished my career, and maybe I don’t know if that hap­pened to you at some point or if you are as study­ing and you did­n’t know how to move for­ward, I was in that sit­u­a­tion. I did­n’t know what to do next. And unfor­tu­nate­ly in Peru there are not too many research labs, at least in HCI, in com­put­er sci­ence. And actu­al­ly that’s kind of a very priv­i­leged [indis­tinct] from oth­er coun­tries. And I did­n’t even know that being a researcher was a career. I was just like…do you actu­al­ly get paid for cre­at­ing, and to be a researcher. That was­n’t some­thing that was very com­mon in my environment. 

But I was very for­tu­nate to talk with some­one that was a researcher. A Peruvian researcher. And he said yes, you go apply to schol­ar­ships and study a Masters degree or a PhD degree, and become a researcher. And that’s what I did. I went to Brazil. I did my Master’s degree. It was more about vir­tu­al worlds. And then I moved into cre­at­ing oth­er devices. I start­ed learn­ing about wear­able devices. And I start­ed my PhD around that top­ic. And I was very for­tu­nate to move to Hong Kong for one year. I was over there in an arts depart­ment that was very dif­fer­ent from any of my col­leagues that were going to com­put­er sci­ence labs all over the world. 

And then I start­ed think­ing about how we in com­put­er sci­ence cre­ate. And we usu­al­ly cre­ate maybe just solv­ing a spe­cif­ic prob­lem. And when I was in art I was think­ing like okay, what’s the prob­lem? What’s the solu­tion? What are you cre­at­ing? And they were express­ing more their passion. 

So that’s kind of— I will show you some projects that show that cur­rent pas­sion and the pas­sion I had also at that time. And I think art gave me the pos­si­bil­i­ty to express this futur­is­tic tech­nol­o­gy and make it more avail­able for oth­er peo­ple to think about not just a pro­to­type on some paper or some­thing that you can­not see, but you could actu­al­ly see and touch and make in per­for­mances and all that. 

So I will show you a lit­tle bit about that, my jour­ney. I put some pic­tures of me over here. And you can see that I was very involved in learn­ing about the tools, and using a tat­too gun. It was kind of an amaz­ing expe­ri­ence because it has a motor, it moves, and you have that feel­ing. But also I was using biosen­sors, biotech­nol­o­gy, things that change col­or. And that was a very dif­fer­ent for me. I was going to chem­i­cal labs to try to met­al­ize dif­fer­ent com­po­nents. And even though I was a com­put­er sci­en­tist, which usu­al­ly don’t wear these white coats. And I had that expe­ri­ence to become a sci­en­tist” using that the white coat and going to the lab and cre­at­ing kind of like a recipe through chem­istry and also cre­at­ing dif­fer­ent kinds of objects. 

I was intro­duced also to elec­tron­ic and cir­cuits. And I mixed all that togeth­er for not just cre­at­ing all this research and papers and projects, as I men­tioned, but also art exhi­bi­tions to show­case what I was feeling. 

What is the meaning of your skin?

And in this idea of what I was feel­ing, I was always think­ing about, and I con­tin­ue think­ing about, this ques­tion: what is the mean­ing of your skin? And I’m sure if I ask you this ques­tion you will come up with dif­fer­ent ideas. The pro­tec­tion lay­er of your body, or the skin’s kind of also a sen­sor. You could touch and know if some­thing’s too cold, too hot, and the tex­ture of the object. And you could also think about if some­thing is too soft— You could under­stand your envi­ron­ment just by touch­ing it. 

And your skin, and that’s what I want to talk to you about today, is also a way that we express our­selves. We express our­selves in many ways. We mod­i­fy our body, we mod­i­fy our skin, our skin can be a can­vas that we could be rep­re­sent­ing dif­fer­ent ways that we want to be seen. 

A timeline spanning 900 BC to today, with photos above showing several women: Egyptian and Victorian queens, a geisha, Marilyn Monroe, and Angelina Jolie, all wearing bright red lipstick

And in that way I want to talk about cos­met­ics. And if you think about cos­met­ics over time, they did­n’t change very much. So even right now I have a red lip­stick. My mom has a red lip­stick. My grand­moth­er has a red lip­stick. The func­tion­al­i­ty of the cos­met­ics did­n’t change that much. So I was think­ing if we are already using this prod­uct for high­light­ing or hid­ing some of our appear­ance, how could we embed technology? 

So I cre­at­ed this con­cept called beau­ty tech­nol­o­gy. This was actu­al­ly my PhD project. I was using cos­met­ics or beau­ty prod­ucts and embed­ding cir­cuits into them. So our skin, this two meters square of skin that we have, it could be an inter­ac­tive platform. 

I was think­ing for a long time what could be a good way to intro­duce to you guys these con­cepts and these ideas. And one of my main moti­va­tions on the projects that you will be see­ing is how to make my pro­to­types invis­i­ble. How to make an eye­lash that could become a cir­cuit to look like an eye­lash. And if you see in my video, I’m hold­ing an eye­lash right now. And this is a con­duc­tive eye­lash. But you see over the cam­era, and maybe if you see it in per­son in some oth­er oppor­tu­ni­ty, you could check that it looks like a nor­mal fake eye­lash, the one that you could buy in a drug store. So I will show you some of how I cre­at­ed this pro­to­type, and how to make them to be seam­less so you could still be your­self but wear­ing technology. 

So you can see over here these pro­to­types. I call it con­duc­tive make­up. I was again wear­ing this white coat and going to a chem­istry lab and using all these dif­fer­ent mate­ri­als. So I was able to cre­ate these eye­lash­es that now are con­duc­tive. I worked a lot with artists for these first projects that you will see over here. In this first video you can see that we apply these eye­lash­es one on the top of the eye­lid, the oth­er one on the bot­tom part of the eye­lid. And it works like a switch. When she blinks, the dif­fer­ent light pat­terns turn on and off. 

And for me it was very excit­ing. You can see over here on the right side. This is me also wear­ing these eye­lash­es. I was a super­hero and just by blink­ing I was able to turn on this drone and make it fly. And like in my free time I’m a super­hero, and just by blink­ing I can make things levitate. 

And again, I try to make things invis­i­ble. Conductive mate­ri­als that could be embed­ded into make­up. And you could have these micro­move­ments that we have, like blink­ing, but now we could inter­act with our world. 

Other ways I was work­ing on this kind of project, I was work­ing with Felipe. Felipe was a six-time cham­pi­on in jiu-jitsu. And unfor­tu­nate­ly dur­ing a training…now he can­not move his body. So instead of being a super­hero for con­trol­ling a drone he want­ed to con­trol the TV and have that inde­pen­dence. And inspired by Felipe, I cre­at­ed this oth­er project I will be show­ing to you. And this project, I call it Kinisi. That means move­ment” in Greek. It is an art project that I exhib­it in dif­fer­ent places, and I work with dif­fer­ent video pro­fes­sion­als to show this pos­si­bil­i­ty that your skin could be an inter­face. And you’ll see in the video how dif­fer­ent light pat­terns turn on just blink­ing, rais­ing an eye­brow, smil­ing, and clos­ing the lips. 

And of course our body is also our hair. So I was work­ing with hair exten­sions in a very sim­i­lar way with the eye­lash­es. So met­al­iz­ing them with a chem­i­cal process. And the chem­i­cals I was using I was actu­al­ly using them to look like my hair, kind of brown. And con­nect­ing that fake eye­lash that now is con­duct­ed but looks like hair to a micro­con­troller, I could send that infor­ma­tion to a device. And in this you could think of record­ing a con­ver­sa­tions, send­ing a mes­sage, or imag­ine if you’re in a risky sit­u­a­tion and you can’t take out your phone, you could send your loca­tion to the police, for example.

Our body’s also our nails. And I cre­at­ed this oth­er project called Tech Nails that embed a small chip inside of the fin­ger­nails. And my main moti­va­tion also was to inter­act with devices with these RFIDs. And if you think about for exam­ple when you want to pay the metro, you need all these cards so you have to touch that or approx­i­mate your card to that read­er to know who you are so you can go and pay the metro. So imag­ine all of these RFIDs we would have in our fin­ger­tips, so each of our fin­gers could be one for pay­ing the metro, anoth­er one for pay­ing Starbucks, anoth­er one for open­ing the door of your office. 

And one thing I was inter­est­ed in— This device, you don’t need to touch any­thing for [indis­tinct] the interaction. 

So I cre­at­ed this AquaDjing project. A DJ con­troller in water. So the DJ puts her fin­ger­nails into the water, changes tracks, and adds sound effects. 

And just for show­ing you also how I do cre­ate, I use tra­di­tion­al beau­ty prod­ucts. Like for exam­ple you can see over here, my fin­ger­nails, that I was even going to a salon, using gel nails, fake nails, and embed­ding these microchips or these RFIDs in that nail. You can see this is my very first pro­to­type, the very first time I did it. My nails look very bulky and big. But then I start­ed to do small­er and small­er, and also going through this pas­sion to have more seam­less devices. 

Again we share all these con­cepts in the design­ing seam­less inter­faces for wear­able com­put­ing Beauty Technology book.

And one thing I notice is that the right you can see some star­tups that are try­ing to do this idea of the fin­ger­nails for pay­ing the metro in London, in China, in Hong Kong. 

I already shared with you how we could have an inter­ac­tive body. An inter­ac­tive body through cos­met­ics like make­up where you blink and turn on the lights. Or fin­ger­nails that you could pay the metro with your fin­ger­nail. Or just by touch­ing your hair you send a mes­sage to the police. So your body could become an inter­face in that way. 

Skin as a display

But then I was inter­est­ed in kin­da like maybe going deep­er into the skin and mak­ing kind of a deep­er con­nec­tion, and to read infor­ma­tion that you usu­al­ly don’t have access to. If you think about the skin as we go back to my first ques­tion, the skin could also be a dis­play. And you could think about that when you get ner­vous or when some­thing is going on to your body, you could get red, you could have acne. Your skin itself is giv­ing infor­ma­tion for you maybe tak­ing action, or even some kind of psy­cho­log­i­cal or phys­i­cal behav­iors could be exposed in your skin. 

So I was think­ing about tat­toos. And this is a col­lab­o­ra­tion project when I was a post-doc at MIT Media Lab. And we were think­ing of a col­lab­o­ra­tion with Harvard Medical School. And we were think­ing about the skin and how we could reveal infor­ma­tion that you usu­al­ly don’t have access to. Instead of mak­ing a blood test, it could be a tool that we could replace these inks, tra­di­tion­al inks, with biosen­sors and they change col­or and react and give infor­ma­tion from your body. So you could think about for exam­ple glu­cose lev­els for peo­ple that have dia­betes, it goes up and down. So you could see your tat­too could be chang­ing and giv­ing you that infor­ma­tion when you will need more insulin. 

We’re doing some pro­to­types that show­case that idea. And we were also using dif­fer­ent biosen­sors for pH, glu­cose, sodium. 

When tattoos and biotechnology meet

And of course I can­not do a tat­too right now for you guys. We’re also work­ing with tat­too artists because they know about the skin, they know about design and our own can­vas that is our skin. So that con­nec­tion with the artist itself gives us that pos­si­bil­i­ty, but we were show­ing that as a proof of con­cept of a futur­is­tic idea that hope­ful­ly— Right now, actu­al­ly, there are more biotech labs work­ing on prov­ing that those biosen­sors [indis­tinct] using that as tattoos. 

Similar to that, I’m think­ing about okay, how could we have a deep­er con­nec­tion to our body. We could also think about these den­tal lig­a­tures that go around these braces. And we devel­oped them with hydro­gel and also biosen­sors so they are inter­act­ing with your own sali­va. So you could think about a device, and when it goes clos­er to that lig­a­ture, you could iden­ti­fy by the col­or of it. And then you will save that as a his­to­ry on your phone. We were work­ing with biosen­sors for nitric oxide, pH, uric acid. And this will also give you a lot of infor­ma­tion about your body. 

And for me all this pas­sion that I’m talk­ing is a way that we mod­i­fy the body. And you could think about make­up, and we could think about plas­tic surg­eries, scar­i­fi­ca­tion, tat­toos. And I did­n’t invent these dif­fer­ent body mod­i­fi­ca­tion tech­niques. I use them and embed tech­nol­o­gy into them so we could have a deep­er con­nec­tion to our body and under­stand our­selves more, but also com­mu­ni­cat­ing more information. 

Is the con­nec­tion between wear­able tech­nol­o­gy— Our body flu­ids. Like you could think about tears, when you sweat, your sali­va, your inter­sti­tial flu­ids, and how those flu­ids could be con­nect­ed with mate­r­i­al design and also biotech. 

And just final­ly I want to men­tion some­thing that is also inter­est­ing from my lab that Eldy Lazaro, my stu­dent, was work­ing on that is grow­able inter­faces. So if you think about, as design­ers we have a prob­lem. We cre­ate all these devices. And then we put that on a shelf, or maybe we just put that in a land­fill. And we are not very con­scious of what our role in cre­ation, but also if we are cre­at­ing prod­ucts that could be used sustainably.

So she cre­at­ed these ideas called grow­able inter­faces. So by using myceli­um that is heat-resistant, water-resistant, you could embed elec­tron­ics into them. In this case she was prepar­ing that as a small lay­er, a very thin lay­er, so it could be flex­i­ble too. And we could put elec­tron­ics around that and we could cre­ate these wearables. 

And not just wear­able devices like that, but oth­er inter­ac­tive objects. And then you could imag­ine all the objects that you even have right now in your labs, what hap­pens with that device if you reuse for exam­ple the elec­tron­ics. You could take out your Flora or your Arduino and just com­post the material. 

So this is what I want­ed to share with you guys, is this whole idea of think­ing about our dif­fer­ent kinds of organ­isms that we could see. Thinking about your body and your­self, how your flu­ids are inter­act­ing and also chang­ing all the time in response to your metab­o­lism And I want you to kind of move fur­ther from just think­ing about maybe a bot­tle or a switch, but as your whole self that could be inter­act­ing and chang­ing its behav­ior. And you could see it, or you could kind of express it in a dif­fer­ent way. 

I just wan­na thank my lab. I’m very hap­py that they are stu­dents that come from all over the world, but also I’m very hap­py to have women in tech­nol­o­gy that are inter­est­ed in this top­ic. We have some appli­ca­tions open in the MFA if you also want­ed to apply. You could also write me an email. 

And yes, this is what I want­ed to share with you. Thank you so much, and please if you have any ques­tions just put that in Discord. I will go back and check them. And yeah, so Golan if you also have any questions. 

Golan Levin: Yeah, we’ve got a lot, Katia. You have a bunch of fans. There’s a lot of real­ly great respons­es in Discord. And we have maybe three min­utes or so, so I wan­na kind of hit some ques­tions with you. One ques­tion comes from Kate Hartman, who asks, You’re work in beau­ty tech­nol­o­gy is beau­ti­ful. Is the use of the term beau­ty’ for you meant more to refer to the cos­met­ic aspects and sort of the cul­tur­al slot, or rather to the finesse of the wear­ing and inte­gra­tion tech­niques that are employed?” And also she says, Have you devel­oped any ideas for ugly technology?”

Katia Vega: That’s fan­tas­tic. Yeah, so when I was com­ing up with the name I actu­al­ly was think­ing more of the prod­uct itself. For me it was…like, usu­al­ly woman them­selves, they are an inspi­ra­tion for me. Because as I men­tioned I was in Hong Kong, and I was look­ing at how amaz­ing those tech­niques could be. Like, plac­ing an eye­lash in the metro is not a sim­ple task. And going to a salon like every two weeks and spend­ing maybe two or three hours to have these gel nails, it was also kind of like this moti­va­tion and this mix­ture between these fin­ger­nails with Hello Kitty and crys­tals that is kind of like a deep­er cul­tur­al con­nec­tion, a deep­er con­nec­tion through the prod­uct itself. And if I think about the beau­ty prod­uct itself, yes, for that name I was think­ing about that par­tic­u­lar prod­uct name. 

And about ugly tech­nol­o­gy, I did­n’t think about that actu­al­ly. Like I did­n’t know that there’s an ugly tech­nol­o­gy. I usu­al­ly think about the way we mod­i­fy our body and it could be beau­ti­ful in many ways. So I’m kind of inspired by many things, even the scar­i­fi­ca­tion and as you can see also tat­toos, but that’s also a real­ly cool idea. I’ll def­i­nite­ly go deep­er into that. 

But one one more thing maybe I would like to share about these prod­ucts. After I was cre­at­ing them, I noticed that it’s not just for a par­tic­u­lar group of peo­ple. For exam­ple you could think about the tat­toos. You could think there is a spe­cif­ic group of pop­u­la­tion that could be using the tat­toos. But, after we released the pro­to­type we had hun­dreds of emails, main­ly from peo­ple that have dia­betes. And this per­son that had a two-year-old kid that can­not com­mu­ni­cate too much with his par­ent yet and who would like to have a tat­too to know what’s going on with his kid. Or this oth­er per­son that his [indis­tinct] has been forty years of his life pinch­ing him­self like ten times a day. And he thinks that hav­ing a tat­too could give that pos­si­bil­i­ty. So, I just thought that these prod­ucts open the pos­si­bil­i­ties that users users or the audi­ence tra­di­tion­al­ly has.

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