What? Project Background and Broad Context

Idea Development and Research

  • Taking the topic of self-augmentation as a starting point, this project explores how music and networked smart objects can help enhance human performance and brain function.
  • My research interests lie in methods of self-augmentation, with a particular interest in how sensory stimuli can enhance or shift perception to produce positive responses and behaviour changes.
  • Humans have sought to augment themselves throughout history. Examples of human augmentation span the physical, using tools, machines, exercise, nutrition and prosthetics; visual, using jewellery, cosmetics, dyes and clothing; mental, using language, philosophy and memory training, and spiritual, using prayer, meditation, dance, yoga and psychedelic experiences. Humans can also augment their image and reputation virtually, using communication media and the creative arts, such as storytelling, portraiture and printed biography, or through digital avatars, edited photographic images and image filters.
  • The interest in self-augmentation has developed to such an extent that there is now a dedicated movement called bodyhacking, which encompasses ancient and new techniques for mind and body modification, as well as cybernetics. While most people are yet to identify with the label of cyborg, being uncomfortable with the idea of integrating technology into their body, many of them could relate to the broader definition of bodyhacker, once it is outlined for them.
  • The contemporary interest in mindfulness and the use of awareness of thoughts as a means of controlling behaviour and emotion in the currently popular Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, are just two forms of how humans seek to hack the body or augment the mind. I attended a 4 session course in CBT, Mood Boost, and a 6 session mindfulness training course to give me first-hand experience of the techniques involved.
  • Mindfulness has its roots in Buddhism, and many branches of spirituality have their own practice of using prayer or meditation beads to keep focus on particular phrases, thoughts or deities. I documented some of my visual research into this subject on PinterestAttending a mantra workshop at the local Buddhist centre gave me the opportunity to witness people making use of mala beads.
  • The use of objects and jewellery for both visual enhancement of the body or environment, and as a talisman exists throughout history and across cultures. Humans use of something seen and tangible to signify the unseen and untouchable is a familiar concept with totems, dream catchers, memento mori and sentimental jewellery and keepsakes is well established. Visual research for this is captured on Pinterest.
  • With this in mind, I booked onto Smart Jewellery: A hands on study on the future of craft, wearables and IoT practical workshop at the V&A Museum, led by Elena Corchero, former MIT Researcher. In the two-day workshop, I explored the V&A jewellery collection, had an introduction to analogue electronics and Arduino, explored design methodologies and created design ideas for a smart wearable.
  • I was particularly interested in the role of objects in producing and creating memories – the relationship between emotional state, memory and objects. I was initially interested to create a digital only, object-free experience for this project before I realised the importance of objects in ritual and emotional transportation or transcendence. As a jewellery maker, I was excited to explore how I could make use of jewellery and the trend towards smart wearables to explore an aspect of invisible architecture.
  • However, another key aspect of ritual and transcendence is music, another passion of mine. After attending a lecture by Dr. Alexis Kirke at Plymouth University, I decided to explore how music rather than objects, could affect a change in person’s mind. By using an invisible entity rather than a physical object I felt I was closer to the brief, and in so doing, I shifted the emphasis from the object to the person’s mind and their resultant performance. The project still involved objects, but now they were actors that initiate a process, not a vehicle used to transport the mind or a thing which commands attention.

Music and the Mind

  • People have used music and drugs to transcend or alter their states for millennia. This project showcases a speculative product that provides a drug-free alternative to achieving desirable brain states.
  • The use of music to alter brain states has historically been a collective experience. More and more activity is now individualised, or done collectively but remotely. This product conforms to that method, providing an individually responsive process while making music playlists shareable to and by the populous. Customer forums/social media provide a platform for sharing and comparing experiences.
  • Music played at a certain tempo (beats per minute or bpm) can induce brain states. Brain states can be associated with successful performance of various activities. By matching music playlists of set bpm with activities, performance can be improved and the performer can both quickly assume the optimal brain state and verify he/she is in this state using EEG readings.
  • Psychological studies have determined the most effective bpm for different activities and also site volume, familiarity as either distraction or reward, lyrics or their absence and rhythm as factors in determining how music affects performance. Music has been shown to aid concentration, increase creativity and improve physical endurance.

Smart Health and Medicine

  • People are being asked to achieve more with no extra time and there is increased focus on and awareness of physical fitness and mindfulness and their impact on overall health.
  • Sleep is often neglected in a bid to complete more during the day. People consume sugar and stimulants to perform optimally which can impact negatively on ability to sleep. The physical and cognitive benefits of sleep are emphasised by health services and this product provides a means to get in a state ready for sleep once this time is identified by the user’s behaviour.
  • Attending the Plymouth live screen of the TEDMED 2016 conference, I gained understanding of the medical context in which we are and will be operating and gained inspiration in the short presentations from entrepreneurs presenting in The Hive. It was here I heard about the idea of genome editing which prompted me to seek a non-invasive and socially inclusive alternative for improving cognitive performance, as I was already aware of, and concerned about, nootropics or smart drugs creating inequality of opportunity.
  • I have discovered that people do not just seek cognitive performance enhancement by altering their brain chemistry. I discovered the practice of brain hacking or tDCS (transcranial direct-current stimulation) which involves passing electical current into the brain to stimulate it. The method is used by athletes to improve physical performance and hundreds of studies have been performed to explore its applications for treatment of depression, addiction and other psychological disorders. This approach has spawned DIYers and critics alike, and for me, is uncomfortably close to electro convulsive therapy.

Research Question and Context

  • In my research into Smart Health, I saw that there will be an increase in the requirement for patients to take personal responsibility for their health. In the workplace, the emphasis is always on the drive to work smarter.
  • In this context, a solution is required for improving performance during work and exercise which will not reduce the person’s ability to rest or be creative during leisure time. Is it possible to improve performance without negatively impacting health? Are there non-invasive and non-chemical methods of human augmentation that will have a genuine impact on performance?

Market

  • In examining the marketplace to see what products exist I have mainly found services which reflect the state of the user in order to enhance and extend that experience. Jog.fm and Spotify Running play music that matches the tempo a person is already exercising at. Uniform’s Emotional Radio detects a person’s emotion and matches music to it, while Deezer Flow predicts what music a person will like based on what they have previously listened to. These methods are limited in their aspirational quality, and there is a clear opportunity to use technology to positively manipulate and create favourable conditions.
  • MOTI, unlike many personal digital assistants (PDA), aims to motivate its human counterpart into taking actions, and provides rewards when they complete tasks. The user does not need to issue commands each time they want something, as with Alexa or Siri, and only needs to set the goals they want to achieve once. However, the PDA’s interactions are intrusive and employ Pavlovian psychology that many will find patronising. The Muse headset claims to help enhance the mediation experience but still requires interaction with a mobile app and the use of an expensive headset which will deter many practitioners.
  • Thync uses neurostimulation to change mood and anxiety levels by targetting nerves on the face that are involved in hormone responses, while various tDCS technologies stimulate the brain itself. I consider both of these approaches to be physically invasive and prefer to limit stimulation to some of the core 5 senses.
  • The closest idea to my concept is The Aware (found 19 April 2017, after project created). The end goal of the product is the same as mine, but unlike mine, The Aware requires an app to use it. The plus side to this is that the data is made available to the user. The downside is that the user must use a screen at any time they wish to make use of the product.
  • To conclude, there is a gap in the market for a product which will support a user to repeatedly engage in desired behaviours or brain states without having to instruct or control a device or be coerced by one. With the product I propose, the user engages in the desired activity and this action alone triggers supportive music, without any interaction with a user interface or controller. I am yet to find an equivalent product in the marketplace.
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