27 November 2007

Tasty Science - Food for Design

Hungry to prepare molecular cuisine, but don't have the specialist knowledge to successfully pair beluga caviar with white chocolate souffle?

For you dabblers in the molecular science of taste, FoodPairings.be has done the chemistry for you. Launched today, visual displays of neuron-inspired food trees instantly reveal that pairing roast beef with grapefruit and licorice is an ideal flavor combination, and banana with mussels - a gastronomical treat.

The chemical engineering team's results are broken down into the categories of chemically resonant food 'pairings' and molecularly 'interchangable' foods.

"A food product has a specific flavour because of a combination of different flavours. Like basil tastes like basil because of the combination of linalool, estragol, …. So if I want to reconstruct the basil flavour without using any basil, you have to search for a combination of other food products where one contains linalool (like coriander), one contains estragol (like tarragon),... So I can reconstruct basil by combining coriander, tarragon, cloves, laurel."

Safe handling of blowtorches, pH meters and refractometers - determined only by your appetites.

via infosthetics.com

24 November 2007

Do You See What I See?

Try out the following online tests & experiments for synesthesia:

  • David Eagleman's 'Synesthesia Battery' is the most comprehensive synesthesia test I've found so far & excellent for synesthetes who want explore a possibly extended range of their gifts, especially as research is showing that 40% of synesthetes have more than one form of synesthesia. The site lists a wide range of possible synesthetic combinations for testing, including musical-instruments>color, sound>smell, Chinese grapheme>color and orgasm>color. Disappointingly, when I checked the box that applied to me, sound>taste, I was immediately directed to a Results page which thanked me for my participation. For me, took about 1 minute to complete.

  • The BBC's charmingly named Do you see what I see?, from which I appropriated the title of this post, hosts a single test for grapheme-color synesthesia and spatial-sequence (number form) synesthesia. About 10 minutes.

  • BU's Synesthesia Project has a great test for non-graphemic shapes>color synesthesia. The Project's research on grapheme-color synesthesia found that many synesthetes report having colored basic shapes, including triangles and squares, in addition to their colored letters and/or numbers. Are you one of them? Take the 'Non-Graphemic Shape Battery' here. About 20 minutes.

23 November 2007

Evolving Seaside Species

'Strandbeest', astonishingly beautiful kinetic sculptures which from a distance resemble giant insects or prehistoric skeletons come alive, are the progeny of artist, engineer and sculptor Theo Jansen.

For 16 years Jansen has been designing and refining consecutive generations of Strandbeest ("beach beasts") to survive autonomously in roaming flocks on local Dutch beaches. His creatures 'digest' fuel, walk by flapping their wings in response to the wind, perceive obstacles in their path through simple binary sensors and to protect themselves from harm in oncoming storms, hammer themselves into the sand.

"The beauty in these machines is their mechanical and conceptual simplicity. By copying the evolutionary process, the inventor has managed to create startlingly organic-looking machines, with a depth of creativity and beauty many of today’s electronics lack... He uses genetic algorithms to create artificial life, including a measure of “fitness” for his creations. The creations which are most successful at walking along the beach are bred together and regraded for future designs."

Constructed from the simplest of materials -- plastic tubing, adhesive tape and lemonade bottles -- the animaris' startlingly elegant walking motions evolved from trial and error. The key to their fluid movement lies in the proportions of the tubes - Jansen's 11-number 'holy code' - and on their axis of motion, which replicates the wheel.

"This may be where the future of design ought to be found. By looking more to nature around us, we can evolve creations of much greater complexity and more akin to naturally produced objects. This may be the direction we must head in to create cradle-to-cradle sustainability: rather than the clean-cut, single-function, straightforward inventions of the past, we may need to embrace the complexity inherent in nature."
In the meantime, it's not difficult to imagine these poetic beasts, many larger than elephants, as future artifacts in a post-human world, silent but for gusts of lonely winds on the shore and the hypnotic swarm-of-insects/wind-rustling-branches murmur of Strandbeests' whirring parts.

22 November 2007

Customizing Sensory Reality

At October's Simplicity Event, Philips demonstrated its concept Active Glass Dynamic Daylight Window, in the context of a simulated hotel room. This energy-efficient digital lifestyle product allows for guests to use sweeping intuitive gestures to create a personalized sensory environment.

"I like to think of Philips' Dynamic Daylight Window as a practical representation of a much different
future then we might be expecting. Where we live in increasingly
beautiful and interesting environments that keep us fully distracted
from reality. Much more practical then virtual reality. The over
whelming of the senses to create fully synthetic realities is totally
impractical for the near future, but customizing reality to overwhelm
the senses, perfect."

Thx to Oliver for the submission.

21 November 2007

Fusiform Gyrus Sounds Good

While I’m not a synesthete myself, 'fusiform gyrus' has got to be one of the yummiest phrases around. It takes the mouth so many places, & sounds like an onomatopoeic compression of Goldfrapp’s Strict Machine.

To neuroscientist Vilayanur Ramachandran, the fusiform gyrus section of the brain may be the key to the ‘linked senses’ phenomenon of synesthesia. The fusiform gyrus is part of the temporal lobe and houses the areas responsible for color and number perception, which happen to be next to one another. Noting the hereditary nature of the condition, Ramachandran posits that in synesthetes there is cross-wiring between these two areas resulting in simultaneous perception of sensory input and very often, enhanced creativity.

Ramachandran is a dynamic and entertaining speaker. In the TED Talk below he expands on this theory. The section on synesthesia starts at 17:53.

Molecular Cuisine - Alchemy of the Senses

When Oliver Hess of Silverlake's Materials & Applications described bacon lard ice cream as incredible, I was dubious. Of course, like so many things in life, it's about the context.

Molecular cuisine is the end product of molecular gastronomy. Since the 80s, chefs & scientists have been collaborating to experiment with breaking foods down into their most basic components – molecules – seeking scientific explanations to age-old culinary mysteries -- how do our brains interpret signals from the five senses to tell us the “flavor” of food; why is that some foods combine well, while others don’t -- and applying that knowledge to creating new tastes and textures.

Molecular gastronomy is intricately tied to how the human body interprets sensory input. Try chef and researcher Paul Barham's ice cream experiment: Most of us find that a spoonful of ice cream tastes good. Now, close your eyes eating the same ice cream while stroking a piece of velvet, and you'll find that it tastes much creamier. Repeat the same experiment with sandpaper & the ice cream's texture will be grittier.

A watershed moment for molecular cuisine came in 1999, when Heston Blumenthal, chef at the Fat Duck restaurant at Bray-on-Thames in England, shocked the dining world with his fusion of white chocolate and caviar, a combination whose success was explained by the surprisingly similar chemical compositions of the two foods.

Restaurants in New York, Toronto and Tokyo are popularizing the cuisine. Most famous is Ferran Adrià's El Bulli in Barcelona. In the unlikely event of getting a table, look forward to sampling cocoa butter with crispy ears of rabbit; Kellogg’s paella, which consists of Rice Krispies, shrimp heads and vanilla-flavored mashed potatoes; white garlic and almond sorbet; and tobacco-flavored blackberry crushed ice. And for that added dimension, don't forget your fabric swatches.

19 November 2007

Killer Threads - Clothing That Harms

Having recently been hospitalized due to an unfortunate incident with a waspie, my thoughts turned to harmful clothing.

Most bewitching were Gordon Savicic's 'Constraint City - The Pain of Everyday Life' and Stahl Stenslie's 'Walker'. Stahl references suicide bombers and a culture in which death is aestheticized while Savicic focuses on (painfully) mapping digital technology's new arenas and interactive spaces on the body. Both projects fetishistically engage and update the tropes of clothing as shelter for the body and of corsetry immobilizing the wearer.

The Walker, a "suicide corset", is a corset placed around the waist that tightens itself a little bit for every step you take - until it is so tight that the wearer suffocates.

'Constraint City' is an urban project, in which a subject dons a corset equipped with servo motors. As the wearer walks about, the corset picks up digital signals in the environment, which reveal their strength by proportionally tightening in the chest of the wearer. Wireless networks spread all over the urban territory are then mapped onto the wearer's own body.

Clothing typically functions as protection for the wearer, and influences how the wearer experiences movement and expresses identity in her personal, social and political environments. These themes have been explored in Comme des Garcons' "Body Meets Dress" at LA MOCA's 2006 'Skin + Bones: Parallel Practices in Fashion and Architecture' and Mauro Taliani's titanium weave men's shirt "Oricalco" at New York Cooper Hewitt's 2002 Skin: Surface, Substance and Design.

With the advent of feminism the constricting buckles and laces of corsetry came to be vilified. Corsets were accused of sexually objectifying the female wearer and rendering her immobile, thus restricting her from the public spheres of politics, religion and business.

18 November 2007

Hearing Colors, Tasting Shapes

Synesthesia is a perceptual phenomenon whereby otherwise normal people have 'tangled' senses. The real information gathered by one sense (e.g. sight) is accompanied by a perception in another sense (e.g. touch or sound).

Imagine that every time you saw the number 4, it would be eggshell blue; or every time you heard an F tone you saw a crisp purple arc half a foot in front of you.

Synesthetic perception can occur between any 2 senses. Probably the most common type of synesthesia is grapheme—color (chromatographemic) synesthesia. For the life of the synesthete, letters and numbers are tinged with a particular shade or color. Attending a cocktail party a few years ago, I was chatting about the subject when a handsome stranger suddenly blurted: ”4 is Green! Lettuce is 4!” In his 40s, this eavesdropping attorney had never known there was a name for this peculiarity in his perception. Like most synesthetes, he assumed everyone saw the way he did until an experience at school had him realize he was ‘different’, & he had never mentioned it to anyone until the day we spoke. He later discovered that his father also saw certain letters and numbers shaded. Research does indicate that synesthesia is to some extent hereditary.

Synesthesia usually doesn’t interfere with day to day life. There are 8 times as many synesthetes working in the creative professions – artists, poets, writers, musicians – than in the general population.

Many synesthetes find that having linked senses assists them in tasks of memorization. Musician Noriko Nagata who sees colors in sounds (chromestesia – colored-hearing synesthesia) reports, “As I was receiving professional education in music (I also have a sense of perfect pitch), the resonance of a sound and the image of a color have always been deeply connected. When it came to composing music, I would think, "I will make blue colored music", or think, "What were these codes I remembered in pink and beige?" during a test on guessing the right code names of tension codes. It has been my habit since I was small to feel colors and memorize things in colors using this way.”

Examples of some more elaborate forms of synesthesia follow:

Some synesthetes taste shapes: ergo the statement, ‘There aren’t enough points in the chicken.’ The taste of roast chicken made this synesthete feel a round shape in his hands, as if he were rubbing a bowling ball instead of feeling the prickly shape he expected. (Cytowic, “The Man who Tasted Shapes”, MIT Press p.11)

Others upon hearing a sound see light, color and identifiable images. ‘Presented with a tone pitched @ 250Hz amplitude 64db, S saw a velvet cord with fibres jutting out on all sides. The cord was tinged with a delicate, pleasant pink-orange hue… Presented with a tone pitched @ 3000Hz amplitude 113db, he saw a whisk broom that was of a fiery color, while the rod attached to the whisks seemed to be scattering off into fiery points. The experiments were repeated during several days and invariably the same stimuli produced identical experiences.” (Baron-Cohen & Harrison, "Synaesthesia: Classic and Contemporary Readings", Blackwell Publishers, Cambridge, MA, p.102)

MIT's 'The Synesthetic Experience' has a couple of on-line demos simulating synesthetic experience, and accounts of first-hand experiences of synesthesia.

17 November 2007

Designing Sound Furniture

As more scientific research focuses on the perception of sound, sound as an area of artistic & cultural inquiry is gaining credibility.

The UK’s first exhibition on sound art, Sonic Boom was held in 2000 at London’s Hayward Gallery. Curated by David Toop, it featured 23 sound innovators including delicate sound sculptures by Max Eastley and an electromagnetic noise installation by Disinformation. The intention was to lift sound beyond the club and rave scene into the realm of artistic inquiry.
"Sonic Boom fills the Hayward with a series of sound installations in which the visitor encounters the mechanical and the organic, the electronic and the acoustic, the sculptural and the intangible. The exhibition creates both subtle and intense sensory experiences, offering a soundscape for the imagination."

Seven years later, the 'soundscape for the imagination' is literally translated into the tangible and a new sensory event emerges. Matthew Plummer Fernandez has created the Sound/Chair, in which electronic music exists simultaneously as design in a project that explores the translation of furniture into sound and sound into furniture. The Sound/Chair is an exact replica of a soundwave graph produced by Sean Shreeve. An experiment in mapping soundwaves materially, the piece was launched at the London Design Festival in September.
"When sound is presented in this manner, the beautiful and unexplored aesthetic of sound is discovered; a landscape of spikes and shapes that vary accordingly to the type of sound... The end result is a chair that carries the inherited aesthetic of sound and also a chair that can be heard as a sound."

Current debates on sound as art are expanded upon in Alan Licht's 'Sound Art: Beyond Music, Between Catagories (2007) and Brandon Labelle's 'Background Noise: Perspectives on Sound Art (2006).