Category Archives: Blog

Design, memories, and tension

A year ago I started my PhD project, and in some ways you do not know how deep the rabbit hole goes. During the year the ideas about design and memories have changed. Lately, one of the things circulating in my mind is the idea of designing for reminiscing, or in other words feeling good about yourself because of pleasant feelings about the past. It’s the foundation of our project really and, of course, there are psychology studies to back up the idea that thinking about the past can indeed help us today.

Despite those studies, showing highlights from the past isn’t like nibbling on a magic mushroom of happiness. It is not a straightforward relationship. Showing me a photo of a trip I took half a year ago does not suddenly make me happier, even though that trip may be regarded as a nice thing. Why would it make me happy? It is not very relevant to my current situation, although it may remind me to go on a trip again soon. Perhaps it’s too close to me still, and I don’t need nor have use for the reconfirmation of the experience. It still reflects me as I was half a year ago, by and large the same person with the same outlook on life. So if a photographic display of myself doesn’t get me to think of myself, what will?

“You’re thinking about something my dear, and that makes you forget to talk.”

Well, perhaps an explanation is that there is no conflict nor discrepancy nor uncovering of long forgotten viewpoints. Anyone who is a good writer or storyteller knows to get us interested is a source of conflict. Whether the conflict is some unknown dangling in the future (a story arc that doesn’t get resolved until the last moment), or a sudden twist (as with jokes), you’ll want to play with anticipation of the viewer. When designing for an audience who already know their own story, introducing anticipation is a challenge. The designed thing may need to know something that the viewer does not and aim for a time-strung release of tension.

How do we create tension in a design, especially when it concerns our own memories? It seems we already know the story! What a silly suggestion! Perhaps it will only work if we have forgotten some parts of our story first, or an unknown connection is made to reveal an unconsidered angle. Alice knew about rabbits, mice, and cats, and it was only when she forcibly considered a new angle that she did realise their world was vastly different.

Immersive storytelling, missed connections, and being present in everyday life to support serendipitous encounters with nibbles of happiness – it is quite a challenge. Will our designs be like a queen of hearts, or nothing but a mad hatter? To find out, we must follow the white rabbit…

Memories of Cockatoo Island

panorama photo MM blog
Last week the annual ‘design thinking’ camp for first-year design students at UTS took place on Cockatoo Island (a former convict area, later shipyard, and now tourist destination in the midst of Sydney Harbour). Besides our PhD research, ‘Materialising Memories’ team member Doménique and I work as a tutor in this interdisciplinary course. Around 500 students participated from various design disciplines, such as fashion, interior design, animation, integrated product design and visual communication. Elise (project leader Materialising Memories) was also involved as a lecturer in the ‘design thinking’ course and as a support staff member during the three-day camp.

The students worked in multidisciplinary teams and had to explore and map the island, and on the last day, some teams presented amazing results. Each team created three maps of self-chosen themes from very basic material, like pieces of carton, fabric, or wood in a very short period of time.

One of my favourites was a work made by a student group who wanted to map personal memories of Cockatoo Island. From the outside it showed an abstract representation of the island. The contours of the major buildings and objects on the island where nicely depicted by embroidered lines on the fabric. But that was not the interesting part. The map could be divided in small boxes, like a puzzle. The group had been asking rangers, tutors, students and other visitors on the island what would serve as a memory cue for them to remember their experience on Cockatoo Island. The students had created these memory cues and put them in the boxes.

photo memory box3Work created by Rekha, Jackie, Georgia, Sugih and Sylvia, Design Camp 2014

While presenting their work to their fellow students and me on the final day, one of the boxes was melting in the sun. It was the chocolate that served as a memory cue for their own experience of Cockatoo Island, relating to their most prominent food while working with each other on the three maps. From my own experience, chocolate seems to be a very unreliable cue as it often disappears all of a sudden. 😉

photo memory boxAnd my own memories of Cockatoo Island? I want to remember the enthusiasm of the students and their willingness to learn from each other; the lovely and inspiring conversations I had with other tutors and staff members; the long and very tasty dinner which was prepared by the head of school for the staff and tutors involved; the instruction told by fellow tutor Clare on how to fold the Sydney Opera House out of a serviette; and the walk with A/prof Bert Bongers and his projections of traces from the past on the Cockatoo Island buildings. I did no mapping myself during the camp, so I better write about my experiences.

Memories in 2D and 3D

In the Netherlands one of the well-known photo print services is operated by HEMA, a famous Dutch retail store. Besides regular prints and photo albums their collection includes several photo-gifts: they print photos on mugs, T-shirts, calendars or puzzles. In a sense these are examples of ways to “materialise memories”. The items are still photo-based mementos, but with a three-dimensional aspect that makes the photos tangible and more visible in the home.


Recently HEMA added a new service to their online store which could take the materialisation of memories in 3D forms to a whole new level: HEMA now offers a 3D-printing service. Of course HEMA isn’t the first to offer 3D printing to consumers. Shapeways, for instance, has been doing this for years. Their website offers an enormous collection ranging from gadgets and gimmicks to cutlery and jewellery. Designing an object from scratch for 3D-printing requires quite some expertise but their collection also includes designs that can be easily personalised with names or patterns. This is also the approach HEMA takes. You could therefore argue that HEMA’s service is not very novel; however, the fact that HEMA is such a well-known and mainstream store could make a big difference in making 3D printing more visible and available to the general public. At the moment the service is limited to the personalisation of bracelets and phone-covers. But as 3D printing is evolving fast, what could this service offer in the future to create mementos of our favourite memories?

Marathon Trophy
The trophy of the Eindhoven Marathon in print. Click for a report on the process (in Dutch only).

During the Eindhoven Marathon a unique memento was created for one athlete: the winner received a printed trophy which might help him remember his achievement.  The beautiful trophy is based on the marathon route and made by Eindhoven based designers of “Van Alles wat ontwerp” a group of TU/e Industrial Design alumni. 3D printing takes time; but rather than a downside  the designers made this time the strength of their process. The trophy was designed to be finished in the time of last year’s marathon making it a race against the fastest runner of this year.


Replica of Marit Bjorgen
Printing mementos to remember recent events

You may never win such a trophy as memento yourself, but you may wish to materilise athletes who do. On you can order a replica of some of the gold medalists of the winter Olympics in Sochi. The miniatures are designed with care and closely resemble the athletes.

Having a miniature athlete is fun, but creating a mini-replica of yourself must be even better.
That is what a group of designers in Spain must have thought. They designed an installation allowing tourists on the Ramblas to print a souvenir of themselves. In between the many street artists on Barcelona’s famous street was a pedestal on which people could strike a pose, be scanned and, with the combination of a Kinect and a CNC 3D printer, take home a miniature representation of themselves. The figurines are quicker, cheaper and a bit more abstract than the athletes but make great and original souvenirs.

Replica Embryo
Technological advancements enable creating replicas of the invisible.

It is not even necessary to limit this process to adults who can pose for a scan. Fasotec, a company in Japan, creates 3D representations of unborn babies based on MRI scans. For a little under a thousand euro, parents-to-be can order a transparent belly-shaped object with a floating white foetus in it. These mementos look rather surreal and might become even creepier the closer the technique can resemble reality in the future. Creating mementos on a more abstract level could lead to more elegant results.

Loci create sculptures based on your travels. You can input airports, or they can be retrieved from your foursquare logins, to create a sculpture of how you traveled the world. Placed on a map, it precisely shows where you’ve been. But I especially like how they are such elegant sculptures when looked at without the map. This shows how a materialised memento could take a shape that only has meaning for its creator. In this case the translation from data to sculpture is done through an app; making sure people don’t require any advanced modelling skills to create their 3D printed mementos. Easy to use apps combined with the accessibility of 3D printing through general stores such as HEMA could be the start of many new ways to create mementos of our favourite memories, going far beyond printing a funny picture on a coffee mug.

Abstract representations of memories can create elegant sculptures.

How do athletes remember their achievements?

Today I would like to talk about speed skating. Not only because the Dutch are amazingly good at it, but also because I like to speed skate a bit myself. I have even entered a few races, with proper skates, and a tight suit. Having a memory like mine requires careful documentation, though, because when I see a picture of myself on skates it is hard to tell at which race it was taken, or which personal record I was trying to crush. So I solved it by making a spreadsheet to keep track of the dates, the personal records, and the pictures of those memorable races.

After our Dutch speed skating champions returned from the Sochi Winter Olympics, I started thinking about how they would deal with this problem: How to remember a race? Is winning the answer? Do they remember a race better if they won? Or do they remember it better when they almost won, but finished in second place? And races where they made a terrible mistake, will those be remembered?

But there are other ways to specifically cue the sporting memory: in my Career-On-Ice I have changed my outfit often enough to distinguish between races: usually it holds that a faster looking suit matches a better Personal Record. Can that be one of the reasons sports teams change their outfit every year?

I bet the best cue for remembering an achievement is a medal. Look how happy they are! These tangible, generative memory cues will make sure that, for example, Sven Kramer remembers not only those 6:10,76 minutes of his 5000M race, but also the rest of his Olympic adventure. A picture says more than a thousand words, but for cuing your memory I think nothing beats a piece of well-deserved gold.

Mendel on Ice
Here I am trying to break my record in Eindhoven on the 500M, December 7 2010.
Some of the Dutch speed skate winners pose with their Olympic medals.
Some of the Dutch speed skate winners pose with their Olympic medals.


Sven Kramer receives a gold medal from King Willem-Alexander of the Netherlands for his achievement on the 5000M.
Sven Kramer receives a gold medal from King Willem-Alexander of the Netherlands for his achievement on the 5000M.


A slice of moving photography

Most of us are happy snapping digital photos several times a week. Whether we look back at this prolific evidence of our everyday lives is another thing. I sometimes glance at the thumbnails on my phone’s photo roll, for the digital traces of what caught my attention. I tend to overlook videos I’ve shot and – not surprisingly – I hardly use that functionality. Flipping through a set of pictures is easy, but glancing at videos takes patience. Is waiting a few seconds for a video to reveal itself worth it for my brain? Often not, as it breaks the flow of glancing over thumbnails. Luckily there is something in between, the moving still.

The moving still image, sometimes called 2.5D imagery, precedes video and photography. From the 17th century on, predecessors to our modern projectors – magic lanterns – were used to project imagery onto a wall, supporting stories told in theatres and other venues. Soon people realised that introducing movement to the images had a great effect on the audience, and so-called phantasmagorias made ample use of scary imagery of skeletons, devils and other frightening creatures that appeared to draw near. A precursor to the modern day horror movies, phantasmagorias based on handpainted images became popular and paved the way towards cinema in later times. When photography and quickly alternating stills (video) became technically viable, the moving still image lost some of its appeal.

Scaring people like it’s 1699 – Scène de fantasmagorie XVIIIe siècle, by Arthur Pougin in Dictionnaire historique et pittoresque du théâtre et des arts (1885; via Wikipedia).

In our age, there are a few ways to get an easily digestible but not entirely still image. Far from gone, the internet’s most beloved technology – GIF images – powers social media with everything from cats doing silly things, to people hurting themselves and (generally) capturing the most salient part of a longer video. It works very well to convey emotional expression and is fairly able to summarise an event. See for a search engine specifically aimed at finding that one gif that will thaw your heart today. Making them yourself is not as easy as just capturing a still photo or a video, because it needs editing. Distilling the essence of a moment into just a few frames requires rigorously taking everything else out. We all know it hasn’t stopped the internet from doing it, but it is not standard fare for most people.

A simple GIF image telling a short moment in just a few frames. (taken from Girls tv show, via

A much more stylized variation on this theme is the Cinemagraph, which is essentially a still photo with only some elements moving. Jamie Beck and Kevin Burg, who worked out this concept for their photography practice, call it an “image that contains within itself a living moment that allows a glimpse of time to be experienced and preserved endlessly.” The subtle use of animation gives each image a little extra without the commonly jerkier appearance of GIF images from videos.

Cinemagraph named “She’s glamourous” by Jamie Beck and Kevin Burg.

A cinemagraph may be stylised after the fact by careful editing, but that need not stop us on our quest for a little swing in a photo. Enter the fauxtograph. The idea is simple: pretend to take a still photo of someone (who will pose) but take a short video instead. While some of these tricked subjects of attention will devolve into a weirdly forced smile, the longer recording may very well capture a little personality and the dynamics of any shot. It’s easy to do and worth a try (and remember, it’s better when people do not realise it).

Audiophotography (as described in Audiophotography: Bringing photos to life with sounds by David Frohlich, 2004) takes another approach. Instead of compacting a short video into a looping animation, audiophotographs take one photo and add a short sound clip. The sound recording is what captures the temporal quality, such as waves rolling in to complement a beach picture. Such auditory augmentation helps to bring back the moment. Unfortunately, there is no standard format to share this kind of media other than a video file.

There are more complicated tricks one could use to spice up a still photo for later viewing, such animating it after the fact or using it in a moving slideshow. I haven’t touched the short video social media such as Vine and Instagram, which aim for clips just a few seconds in length. It is a fine line to walk for 2.5D imagery, balancing between still shots and movies. Those fully animated ideas slip towards revealing over time similar to video; while I tried to look at the boundaries of the still photograph, which bares all in one mere glance.

An honest online post

Let me be honest with you: for the biggest part of last week I had no idea what to write this blog about. But sometimes a theme simply emerges; that’s why I write about honesty today.

Last week, Mendel shared a great collection of honest Instagram images. In the blog, Drew Hoolhorst explains that Instagram didn’t suddenly change us all into photographers who see the beauty in simple things but rather into giant liars. His collection of honest Instagrams nicely shows how pictures without context can easily be misinterpreted. We think somebody is making a beautiful beach walk but in stead feels lonely and cold.

Honest Instragram

However, this contrast between reality and images is not caused by accident; people often intentionally display an unrealistic positive image of themselves online. As a survey by the Huffington Post showed we feel pressured to portray our ideal selves online for everyone to see. 40 percent of social media users admitted they often post things to improve their image.

Trigger - Stijn Zoontjens
Still from the concept video of ‘Trigger’

This missing link between our offline and online identities was also seen by one of Industrial Design’s bachelor students, Stijn Zoontjens, he proposes an alternative social network concept: Trigger. The concept focusses on capturing and sharing more everyday aspects of our life, being open  and honest to a small network to share how we are really doing. This could result in a social network that better completes our “offline-self”.

Postcard Secrets
An innocent postcard secret

Wether online or offline, everybody has secrets. I spotted a great offline representation of these secrets at a coffee table in our faculty: the book Briefgeheimen: postcard secrets. I’ve loved this project every since I saw it in the newspaper NRC years ago: a project to give people the opportunity to send in their secrets on a postcard. Over the years thousands of secrets have been collected. Some are shocking, very serious or downright disgusting but some display the smallest, innocent secrets. I love to find these little revelations, such as the person who admits to walk up the stairs on “all-fours” occasionally, and see which part of themselves people never display but finally share, anonymously.

While looking through the book, I suddenly connected the dots: all these concepts show the way we struggle with reflecting our identities. The concepts raise the question how honest we are or want to be on our social networks. Of course this is not unique to online social interactions; in our everyday conversations we say the same three words each time “I am fine”, even if we don’t always mean them. But somehow the online variation of social interactions seems to emphasise exactly this aspect of our interaction; it is a one-to-many interaction and therefor often not honest in showing our everyday lives.

This might not only effect the way others see us, or the way others remember us, but also the way we remember ourself. What will the effect of (dis)honesty in our media be on our own memories?

TwoSidedFacebookI once commented on my own Facebook post about an awesome week to explain the down-sides of the same week; trying to slightly break this unrealistic stream of positivism I saw on my own wall as well. Although I say in the post “I’ll probably forget about these negative aspects due to selective memory”, the post has had the opposite effect: I now remember these aspects as well. I remember the small annoying things about that week that I most often forget.

But do we want to remember both sides of the story? How honest do we want our memories to be? Do we prefer remembering the good times? Should we capture our daily experiences through rose-tinted glasses and make sure our media reflect only the best of our lives? Or do we prefer a more honest archive for ourselves while displaying the positive collection to the public?

Having a guest in Sydney: Connie Golsteijn

photo othford

After a busy November, with several ‘Materialising Memories’ team members and professor David Frohlich visiting us in Sydney, it was a bit quiet in the office in December. But not for long, because in early January we had the pleasure of welcoming Connie Golsteijn from the UK who came to visit us for three weeks.

Connie is a PhD student at the University of Surrey and nearing completion of her doctoral thesis. Her PhD work is on physical and digital craft, and how these crafts can be integrated into hybrid craft. She is co-supervised by Materialising Memories project leader dr. Elise van den Hoven.

Of particular interest concerning ‘Materialising Memories’ is Connie’s paper about cherishable objects . We often keep objects because memories are attached to them. However, digital objects are often less valued than their physical counterparts, and in this study she investigated how they are perceived differently and the various advantages and disadvantages of digital, physical and hybrid objects.

Interestingly, she found that digital objects were often valued because they were self-created by the owner. This finding led to several other studies investigating digital, physical and hybrid craft, about which she gave a presentation at our faculty for a mixed audience of scholars in Sydney.

Having someone in the office who is way ahead in her PhD process is a great advantage for discussing all kinds of PhD-related topics. But there is also an important informal benefit of having a guest; that is, accompanying the guest to explore Sydney and surrounding areas, and Australian life. Several weekends have been spent on outings together and last weekend’s Australia Day holiday was celebrated with a barbecue (I mean ‘barbie’) in the park.

Doménique ended his blog with a cute baby wallaby. I will end with a photo of a Water Dragon we met on our walk from The Spit to Manly. This beautiful animal had no fear of the camera, so he is clearly a candidate for a successful career as a top model.

water dragon

Daily randomised “Kodak-moment”

A Friday in October: I just took my first random Kodak-moment from the most uninteresting part of my bedroom floor. I realised too late that my new iPhone app automatically made a picture after the countdown. “ROOM for Thought”, created by Studio ROOM in the Netherlands, is a mobile app which alerts you every day at a random moment to take a picture. It first shows you a pointless few-second animation, and then you get three seconds to point the camera and wait for the picture to be taken.

I am usually too slow, resulting in blurred photographs of mundane nonsense. But the random pictures still provide a nice overall overview of the last few months: In the example-screenshot taken from the app you can see 4 days during my visit to Sydney last November. Although it seemed random at the time, it is actually all I need to remember the whole visit.

I never ignore the alert, which makes it a powerful conversation starter: I will take the photo, while explaining how enslaved I am by both this app and my PhD research. Next thing you know everyone in the room is sliding through the still images of my everyday life and asking questions about it. For me the power of this application lies in talking about it, because without my story none of it makes sense.

January 16 2014, 14:56 while riding my bicycle – quickly point at something! 3…2…1… Snap! Photo Nr. 94 has been added to my collection of 34.175.

Will I remember today?


In chronological order: the rainy car ride to Hunter Valley, breakfast at the StudyHouse, our nice office space, and the daily stop at the local coffee corner.
In chronological order: the rainy car ride to Hunter Valley, breakfast at the StudyHouse, our nice office space, and the daily stop at the local coffee corner.


First project blog: OzCHI 2013

From this post on, we will semi-regularly write blogs on things related to our project, interesting articles or designs we’ve come across, or a conference one of us visited. The idea is to give people visiting this website a flavour for the things we do in our projects and related work. I have the honour to kick-off by (belatedly) telling you a bit about my visit to the 2013 Australian edition of the CHI conference, named OzCHI.

Held in Adelaide, OzCHI 2013 started early for me with a presentation at its doctoral consortium, a forum for doctoral students to present their progress and receive feedback from peers and seasoned academics. For me it was the first time I presented my plans for this project in a formal session, and in fact it was my first time presenting at a conference. Of course, I had prepared well by not completely finishing my presentation slides until the previous evening. This is a very bad idea mainly because getting food afterwards is difficult in Adelaide. The more relaxed and quiet attitude of Adelaide (compared to Sydney) extends to its opening hours, or rather, those are not extended at all. Slightly worried I might have to go to bed without dinner, I was lucky to get some fastfood just before closing time.

Next morning I arrived early at the city centre conference venue, thanks to hostel neighbours who consider 6am a perfectly fine waking hour. My presentation was up before lunch and gave me plenty of comments and interesting feedback. Just getting a response from people outside of the project who know what should be in a PhD project is valuable in itself, so I would encourage everyone considering to join a doctoral consortium to do so. Similarly, it helps to see others present and voice their issues.

The rest of the conference was easier for me, as I had no paper to present. I could sample the topics and discussions to spot developments of interest. Popular topics this year included gestural interfaces (e.g., using a Microsoft Kinect or Leap Motion for input), health and fitness interactions, and of course the internet of things is surely becoming ubiquitous at HCI conferences. This year’s edition will take place here at UTS in Sydney, and will be organised by the Faculty of Engineering and IT (we are actually in the Design faculty, located nearby).

Finally, I should make note of Adelaide as a city. Maybe it is because I’m Dutch and culturally predisposed to like places which are mostly flat and give ample room to bikes, but I really did enjoy the place. Go twenty minutes to the West from the center and you can sit on the beach, and even from the center you can spot the hills to the East of the city. It is quite a nice view and I wouldn’t mind going back there. To end my first blog’s on a high I should mention this baby Wallaby:

At a wildlife park nearby Adelaide I fed this young Wallaby.
At a wildlife park nearby Adelaide I fed this young Wallaby. Pure cuteness.