I am a human-computer interaction researcher and PhD student at the UC Berkeley School of Information. My work combines biosensing and textile technologies to explore representation, interpretation, and experiences with data in daily life.
Prevailing trends in biosensing promote individualistic, algorithmically defined emotions, wellness, and self-improvement. My stance is that this alone is far too limiting. Designs should embrace and explore a multiplicity of values, experiences, and interpretations. Interpretation, moreover, is inextricable from representation , and materiality shapes information representation . So, drawing from an alternative lens that foregrounds contextually situated interpretation [1,7], I design biosensing representations with properties unlike those of typical data visualizations or screens by leveraging the physical properties of dynamic materials, such as the slow, non-light-emitting color changes of thermochromic fabrics [3,8-11]. Embedding these displays in clothing brings in associations around personal style , self-presentation , and the body, which may further shift interpretations.
So far I have worked with thermochromic fabrics and display of skin conductance, and am exploring other materials and sensors. Over the course of my PhD, I hope to call out assumptions or unstated trends in biosensing and propose alternatives, with methods such as speculative prototyping and qualitative interviews. As an example, instead of promoting algorithmically defined wellness and self-improvement, designs could leverage comfortable clothing displays to prompt open-ended reflection or promote self-acceptance of one's current mental, emotional, and physical state.
This paper explores the social meaning of clothing-based displays of biosignals. How do friends make sense of their own and each other's skin conductance display in the context of a conversation? We developed Hint, a dynamic thermochromic t-shirt with ambiguous patterns that change color when its wearer's skin conductance increases, an indication of sudden arousal. We investigated how pairs of friends, each wearing the shirt, conversed and interpreted the display. Participants shared a broad range of interpretations, and emotions such as joy and embarrassment were associated with an increase in skin conductance. Additionally, participants expressed desires for their skin conductance displays to help validate their feelings and show emotional engagement with others. We explore ambiguity in the context of clothing-based information displays and discuss how skin conductance display became part of social performance in our study. From there, we suggest framing biosignals as social cues along with facial expression, gestures, etc., and begin to question what design territories this might uncover.
Noura Howell, Laura Devendorf, Rundong (Kevin) Tian, Tomás Vega, Nan-Wei Gong, Ivan Poupyrev, Eric Paulos, Kimiko Ryokai. 2016. Biosignals as social cues: Ambiguity and emotional interpretation in social displays of skin conductance. Designing Interactive Systems (DIS'16).
Doctoral consortium submission for DIS'16.
2015 - present
This paper explores the role dynamic textile displays play in relation to personal style: What does it mean to wear computationally responsive clothing and why would one be motivated to do so? We developed a novel textile display technology, called Ebb, and created several woven and crochet fabric swatches that explored clothing-specific design possibilities. We engaged fashion designers and non-designers in imagining how Ebb would integrate into their design practice or personal style of dressing. Participants evaluated the appeal and utility of clothing-based displays according to a very different set of criteria than traditional screen-based computational displays. Specifically, the slowness, low-resolution, and volatility of Ebb tended to be seen as assets as opposed to technical limitations in the context of personal style. Additionally, participants envisioned various ways that ambiguous, ambient, and abstract displays of information could prompt new experiences in their everyday lives. Our paper details the complex relationships between display and personal style and offers a new design metaphor and extension of Gaver et al.'s original descriptions of ambiguity in order to guide the design of clothing-based displays for everyday life.
Laura Devendorf, Joanne Lo, Noura Howell, Jung Lin Lee, Nan-Wei Gong, M. Emre Karagozler, Shiho Fukuhara, Ivan Poupyrev, Eric Paulos, Kimiko Ryokai. 2016. "I don't want to wear a screen": Probing perceptions of and possibilities for dynamic displays on clothing. Proceedings of the 34th Annual ACM Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (CHI'16 - Best Paper Award)
Every Friday afternoon, we mentor students making independent web apps. High school and middle school students come with any level of experience, and we help them find a project they are interested in, set goals, design the UI, and write code. Past projects have included an anime-inspired video game and a guide to getting into college.
2014 - ongoing
We made a wearable companion designed to calm and comfort kids. When Buddy senses that the child is getting upset, it curls up and makes unhappy noises. This helps the child become more self-aware of their own mood, and redirects the child's attention toward comforting Buddy. By petting Buddy along his back, the child can calm themself down and make Buddy feel better too. Then he uncurls and makes happy noises.
We made an audio effects controller for DJs using the Myo armband. Moving their arm instead of twisting a knob helps DJs multitask, be more performative, and have fun without sacrificing precise control--aspects of the experience which were important to our users. Through several iterations, we tested using Leap Motion or Myo for the best possible user experience.
Using C++, the application converts Myo input to MIDI output. The MIDI output goes to the GUI, written in Processing, and to whatever audio software the DJ prefers, such as Serato or Traktor.
The Intel Labs project ConnectAnyThing (release repo, development repo) makes it possible to use Intel's Galileo microcontroller without writing a line of code. It enables creative play and rapid prototyping. I worked on the client and server side code.
MakerNode (repo), a work in progress, will provide a simple workflow for node.js projects on Galileo.
WaaZam supports shared creative play at a distance. It was the doctoral research of Seth Hunter in the Fluid Interfaces Group at the MIT Media Lab. I helped conduct the user study, analyze those results, and adapt a few ofxUI components for our openFrameworks front end.
Another interactive curve visualizer, this time inspired by Meara O'Reilly's collaboration with Björk for the latter's Biophilia Tour. Chladni curves show how waves propagate across a flat, finite surface. Each point's acceleration is inversely proportional to the relative position of its neighbors, so higher points get pulled down and vice versa. Waves reflect against the edges of the surface, and the constructive and destructive interference creates beautiful patterns. I made this with Matt Tytel.
Traditional Balinese architecture often uses bamboo blinds instead of exterior walls to maximize air circulation for cooling. During nice weather, they are raised, and during hot or rainy weather, they are lowered. If it starts raining while no one is home, then all the furniture will get soaked and probably start to mildew.
I prototyped a system whereby the bamboo blinds lower automatically when it starts to rain. A moisture sensor sends an electrical signal to the Galileo board, which triggers the motor.
I worked with Alam Santi, which blends traditional and modern technologies to create sustainable homes, and Intel Labs, which provided the ConnectAnyThing interface and Galileo used for this interconnected home system.
Many illiterate Moroccans use a mobile phone personally and professionally. They rely on friends or strangers to help them make calls and navigate the text based Arabic or French interface. Our goal was to help these people use the phones they already own independently. As project manager on a team of Olin design and engineering students, Babson business students, and Moroccan École Nationale de L'Industrie Minérale engineering students, I led the design process through user research, problem definition, prototype iteration, and pilot testing.
We interviewed numerous illiterate working Moroccan adults to understand how mobile phones fit into their lifestyles, including bicycle mechanics, produce vendors, bakers, maids, taxi cab drivers, and construction workers. Most own at least one mobile phone which they use for work and calling family and friends. Third hand Nokia bar phones are most common. Contacts are recorded on paper notebooks or scraps of cardboard.
They struggle to unlock their phone, find the contact's number, dial the number, add contacts, and add minutes. We focused on finding and dialing contacts because these needs are most time sensitive. We prototyped and pilot tested a transitional solution which accommodated current usage patterns and price constraints while augmenting the memory and learning abilities of illiterate users.
Tibetan women spend hours each day collecting yak dung fuel to burn inside their winter homes or summer tents for heating and cooking. This delivers bacteria via their hands into their food, creates dangerously smoky homes, and incurs difficult manual labor.
With One Earth Designs, I helped develop their parabolic solar cooker prototype through field testing, immersive user research, materials research, and simulation.
I am interested in exploring a myriad of possibilities for biosignals sharing. Heart beats, breathing, galvanic skin response, EEG, and other signals are becoming easier to collect and share. Applications in fitness, self-tracking, meditation, and closeness at a distance are emerging. By making a series of one-off prototypes, whether they are desirable, undesirable, or simply weird, I hope to broaden the design space for biosignal sharing.
Biosignals sharing is being used for emotional closeness and connection, such as with Apple Watch's heart beat sharing. Rather than seeking emotional closeness to build or maintain a relationship, in this experiment I try out using biosignal sharing as a way of expressing emotional distance after a breakup. In contrast to prevalent notions around sharing that favor easily understood expressions of happiness and connectivity, this piece shares a somewhat obscure expression of sadness and separation in the form of a distorted audio signal.
Galvanic skin response (GSR) recorded while listening to a personally significant song offers evidence of my emotional response. In lieu of an audio visualization, the time-synced GSR values are plotted on the left and used to distort the audio. Sometimes the GSR measurements rise and fall with the rising and falling tension or energy in the music, but most of the signal is idiosyncratic, creating a playback of the song that uniquely represents my emotion while listening.
Can biosignals augment our communication? Can they offer "proof" of feeling? How can they be used for self-expression?
As a software engineer at The Echo Nest, I worked on a variety of data-driven web applications, including a tool for creating generative radio station playlists and internal tools for verifying music data.
Data accuracy is of utmost importance to The Echo Nest because data is its primary product, and the continually growing database regularly rolls out to enterprise customers. The tools enabled anyone to view and edit dynamically structured data objects and helped create tasks, workflow, and performance tracking for quality assurance interns.
I. Quizzes WebsiteWorkers review sets of data by completing quizzes, and administrators create those quizzes and track worker progress. I made interactive progress graphs and embedded the views and actions from (IV).
IV. Quality Assurance WebsiteUsers find, view, and make add/remove actions on data objects. I made this, including views that dynamically match data structures and search queries.
II. Data Interface and ServerServes web pages for (I) and stores data in (III). I implemented a new question type, logged worker actions, and calculated work and quiz progress statistics.
III. Quizzes to Review Music DataThis database stores quizzes and responses. I defined the collection to store worker actions and queried that collection to calculate progress statistics.
VII. Music DataThis database stores the music data whose accuracy must be ensured. I did not work on this, but I worked closely with those who did to define how humans could best contribute to data accuracy.
The thumbnail picture is an Echo Nest t-shirt design.
2012 - 2013
Noura Howell, Laura Devendorf, Rundong (Kevin) Tian, Tomás Vega, Nan-Wei Gong, Ivan Poupyrev, Eric Paulos, Kimiko Ryokai. 2016. Biosignals as social cues: Ambiguity and emotional interpretation in social displays of skin conductance. Designing Interactive Systems.
Laura Devendorf, Joanne Lo, Noura Howell, Jung Lin Lee, Nan-Wei Gong, M. Emre Karagozler, Shiho Fukuhara, Ivan Poupyrev, Eric Paulos, Kimiko Ryoaki. (2016). "I don't want to wear a screen": Probing perceptions of and possibilities for dynamic displays on clothing. SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (CHI'16 - Best Paper Award),
Sarah Spence Adams, Noura Howell, Nathaniel Karst, Denise Sakai Troxell, Junjie Zhu. (2013). On the L(2,1)-labelings of amalgamations of graphs. Discrete Applied Mathematics, 161(7-8): 881-8.
Jian Shi, Ratna R. Sharma-Shivappa, Mari Chinn, Noura Howell. (2009). Effect of microbial pretreatment on enzymatic hydrolysis and fermentation of cotton stalks for ethanol production. Biomass and Bioenergy, 33(1): 88-96.