Hybrid Body Craft: Convergence of Function, Culture, and Aesthetics on the Skin Surface

Cindy Hsin-Liu Kao, Cornell University


Sensor device miniaturization and breakthroughs in novel materials are allowing for the placement of technology increasingly close to our physical bodies. However, unlike all other media, the human body is not simply another surface for enhancement – it is the substance of life, one that encompasses the complexity of individual and social identity. The human body is inseparable from the cultural, the social, and the political, yet technologies for placement on the body have often been developed separately from these considerations, with an emphasis on engineering breakthroughs. My work investigates opportunities for cultural interventions in the development of technologies that move beyond wearable clothing and accessories, and that are purposefully designed to be placed directly on the skin surface. How can we design emerging on-body interfaces to reflect existing cultural practices of decorating the body, with the intent to expand the agency of self-expression? I examine this question through the development of a series of research artifacts, and the contextualization of a design space for culturally sensitive design.Body Craft is defined as existing cultural, historical, and fashion-driven practices and rituals associated with body decoration, ornamentation, and modification. As its name implies, Hybrid Body Craft (HBC) is an attempt to hybridize technology with body craft materials, form factors, and application rituals, with the intention of integrating existing cultural practices with new technological functions that have no prior relationships with the human body. With this grounding, HBC seeks to support the generation of future technologized customs in which technology is integrated into culturally meaningful body adornments.

In this talk, I will introduce six example artifacts which encompass the integration of technologies such as on-body robotics, flexible electronics, and bio-compatible materials into existing Body Craft customs. These artifacts contribute novel, culturally inspired form factors, and introduce unprecedented interaction modalities for on-body technologies. A design space is created in which to examine shifts in the communicative qualities of these Body Crafts due to the integration of technology, as well as new forms of self-expression that have emerged. The Hybrid Body Craft research practice contributes a culturally sensitive lens to the design of on-body technologies. The intention is to expand their lifetimes and purposes beyond mere novelty and into the realms of cultural customs and traditions.