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Monthly Archives: September 2012

MELBOURNE – Imagine you could take a pill that lets you sweat perfume; have an electronic tattoo that could be augmented by touch; or wear a dress that blushes and shivers with your emotions. No, this isn’t the stuff of sci-fi dreams, it’s the far-future designs of Melbourne body architect Lucy McRae.

McRae imagines new ways to merge biology and technology in our own bodies, and her visualizations are fascinating, often unnerving, possibilities of what our bodies might look like in the future.

A current TED Fellow, McRae regards the body as a blank canvas for her investigations, a core in which she builds layers and concepts on top of. She is driven by an insatiable curiosity and a desire to change the way we think about our bodies.
“As a body architect, I find ways of extending the body beyond its physical and biological edge, manipulating the natural silhouette with materials that are draped, injected, or bathed over the skin,” McRae explains.“The outcome can sometimes be surprisingly morbid, imperfect or grotesque, each time I’m never anticipating the final result.”

But what exactly is a body architect? McRae says she is the first and only ‘body architect’ in the world. She gave herself the title to convince the human resources manager at Philips FutureLab to hire her. And it worked.

This elusiveness of an understandable job title has allowed her to create a unique specialization based on her diverse background and training.

As a teenager McRae was an athlete, competing in 100-meter hurdle events at State level. She also trained in classical ballet from the age of four until the time she left high school.

“The more projects I complete, the more I understand the influence my ballet training has. I developed a conscious awareness and periphery of understanding people’s body movements and behavior,” she says.

McRae quit ballet because she knew a career in dance was going to be short lived. She went on to design school, and later worked in architecture firms, with a brief stint in the fashion industry.

Today she is based in Amsterdam, returning home to Melbourne on occasion to work on commissioned works. Within the Philips Design Probes team, she examines how technology could impact the human body in 15 to 20 years (known in the industry as ‘far-future’ design).

“Most projects are motivated by the relationship technology has with the human body, inventing and speculating ways of merging the two closer together,” she says.

She has explored this concept in a number of projects, including her low-fi but confronting experiments with friend and Dutch artist Bart Hess, working under the moniker LucyandBart.

McRae’s commissioned works has also produced some curious results. Probably the most well known is the liquid textile dress she made for Swedish pop star Robyn on the ‘Indestructible’ music video clip.

More recently, McRae unveiled the film Morphe – a collaboration with the Melbourne skincare brand Aesop.

Morphe is set in a future laboratory in which a scientist administers an assortment of gels, liquids and other beauty treatments to a sleeping muse.

“My work is seeded from instinct. My process is primitive, driven and inspired by my immediate surroundings. I think Aesop has subliminal effects on people. I feel we are both creating alternate worlds which are sincere and unafraid,” she says.

The film has obvious references to both Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Charles Perrault’s Sleeping Beauty. But McRae says that the inspiration for the narrative came from the nineteenth-century physicist and philosopher Hermann Ludwig Helmholtz and his observation on human perception, that “Everything is an event on the skin.”

She has also finished directing a film for an Australian art patron and restaurant owner which links food and the body in a macabre setting.

“In the film I create an alternative world where we see a lone woman meticulously concocting substances in a morgue-type laboratory. Reproducing ‘life’; as she is cloning humans, mixing genders, fusing man and woman, like a chef composes food.”

“Each clone has slightly different sensory enhancements in taste or sight which she makes according to her mathematical matrix.”

“I use film as a way of experimenting and testing these ideas, creating alternative worlds where science, technology, architecture and fashion co-exist.

McRae also cites gene mutations as a source of inspiration. And she enthuses over the work of Professor Gregory Sporton, who has developed a vibrating suit used for training elite Olympic gymnasts.

“I like thinking about how this perfecting technology could affect fashion or dance. Imagine having people walking down the street performing obscured alien movements while wearing this vibrational suit,” she says.

It is this ‘what if?’ exploration of the crossover between technology and the body that continues to inform her work.

“The body is soaked in information and I find ways of harnessing that knowledge to innovate and evolve the body, blurring and disrupting the physical edges of the human silhouette and its effects on behaviour and communication.”

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DNA can survive for hundreds of thousands of years in a box in your garage.

MIT is leading an ambitious new project to reinvent how robots are designed and produced. Funded by a $10 million grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF), the project will aim to develop a desktop technology that would make it possible for the average person to design, customize and print a specialized robot in a matter of hours.

“This research envisions a whole new way of thinking about the design and manufacturing of robots, and could have a profound impact on society,” says MIT Professor Daniela Rus, leader of the project and a principal investigator at the MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL). “We believe that it has the potential to transform manufacturing and to democratize access to robots.”

“Our goal is to develop technology that enables anyone to manufacture their own customized robot. This is truly a game changer,” says Professor Vijay Kumar, who is leading the team from the University of Pennsylvania. “It could allow for the rapid design and manufacture of customized goods, and change the way we teach science and technology in high schools.”

The five-year project, called “An Expedition in Computing for Compiling Printable Programmable Machines,” brings together a team of researchers from MIT, the University of Pennsylvania and Harvard University, and is funded as part of the NSF’s “Expeditions in Computing” program.

It currently takes years to produce, program and design a functioning robot, and is an extremely expensive process, involving hardware and software design, machine learning and vision, and advanced programming techniques. The new project would automate the process of producing functional 3-D devices and allow individuals to design and build functional robots from materials as easily accessible as a sheet of paper.

“Our vision is to develop an end-to-end process; specifically, a compiler for building physical machines that starts with a high level of specification of function, and delivers a programmable machine for that function using simple printing processes,” Rus says.

Researchers hope to create a platform that would allow an individual to identify a household problem that needs assistance; then head to a local printing store to select a blueprint, from a library of robotic designs; and then customize an easy-to-use robotic device that could solve the problem. Within 24 hours, the robot would be printed, assembled, fully programmed and ready for action.

By altering the way in which machines can be produced, designed and built, the project could have far reaching implications for a variety of fields.

“This project aims to dramatically reduce the development time for a variety of useful robots, opening the doors to potential applications in manufacturing, education, personalized health care and even disaster relief,” says Rob Wood, an associate professor at Harvard University.

Currently, project researchers are focusing their research in several areas: developing an application programming interface for simple function specification and design; writing algorithms that would allow for control of the assembly of a device and its operations; creating an easy-to-use programming language environment; and designing new, programmable materials that would allow for automatic fabrication of robots.

Thus far, the research team has prototyped two machines for designing, printing and programming, including an insect-like robot that could be used for exploring a contaminated area and a gripper that could be used by people with limited mobility.

“It’s really exciting to think about the kind of impact this work could have on the general population — beyond just a few select people who work in robotics,” says Associate Professor Wojciech Matusik, also a principal investigator at CSAIL.

In addition to Rus, other research collaborators from CSAIL include Visiting Scientist Martin Demaine, Associate Professor Wojciech Matusik, Professor Martin Rinard, and Assistant Professor Sangbae Kim of MIT’s Department of Mechanical Engineering. Besides Wood and Kumar, the team also includes Associate Professor Andre DeHon, Professor Sanjeev Khanna and Professor Insup Lee, all from UPenn.