Summer Research Dispatch: Molly Nicholas & Wearable Tech in Hospitals

19 Sep, 2017

Summer Research Dispatch: Molly Nicholas & Wearable Tech in Hospitals

We were thrilled to offer six BCNM graduate students stipends to pursue their research over the summer of 2017. Below, Molly Nicholas shares her work on customizing interactive devices for the Medical Clown Project's therapeutic hospital performances.

This summer I had the opportunity to mix my new media focus, computer science skills, and performing background to explore custom wearable electronic devices for clowns in a hospital setting.

The Medical Clown Project provides therapeutic clowning as part of in-hospital care for adults and children at a variety of hospitals around the Bay Area. The clowns typically use a variety of props, musical instruments, and physical skills to engage and delight patients, staff, and medical personnel. It was truly a magical experience to walk through what is normally a business-like, sterile environment, and feel the effect the clowns have on nearly everyone in the hospital. We were greeted enthusiastically by every person we passed. We had patients following us down hallways in their wheelchairs, and doctors expressing surprise that their patients were not only awake and responding, but smiling and happy. Through the generosity of the Berkeley Center for New Media, I was able to spend a number of days with the clowns, traveling with them on their hospital rounds, and developing custom electronics for them to incorporate into their practice. I observed their work in the pedatric unit, the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU), and with many elderly patients. Getting the chance to travel with the clowns, spend the day with them, and observe their interactions in the hospital setting was absolutely invaluable.

Throughout the summer, I collaborated with the clowns and developed some custom interactive devices that fit the unique challenges of hospital performance. Because they meet with a variety of patients with a huge range of medical concerns, everything needs to be sterilizable. Clowns also tend to be extremely physical, doing handstands and backflips, so anything they wear needs to be sturdy, reliable, and wireless. In terms of interactions, I wanted to stay true to the clown identity, but also empower patients. They spend nearly all of their day living on the hospital's terms, and it was important to me to give power back to them in some way. Clowns are adept improvisors, and accustomed to looking "stupid", so I knew I could rely on them to turn any situation into a chance for laughter.

To that end, I designed a variety of interactive devices for the clowns to play around with, including:

1. A resistive touch sensor system that can plug into a variety of output devices, allowing the performers to easily customize their interactions.

2. A variety of output devices, triggered by the resistive touch sensor mentioned above. Built exemplars include a spinning pinwheel (reminiscent of an old-fashioned doctor's head lamp), and an enormous moustache that can be molded into any shape, but then unfolds into a straight shape when triggered.

3. I also designed a remote-control fart machine combined with a ukulele, a flower that unfolds and glows when held by warm hands for a few moments, and a variety of light-based projects, including LEDs suspended inside a balloon that change color depending on how many people are touching it, or how much it is moving.

The clowns positively responded to the idea of being able to control the interactions with patients, but in a subtle, natural way. In particular, they highly valued the ability to use gestures to trigger movements, since clowns are highly physical performers. The clowns immediately responded to the shape-changing mustache, but were unable to test it in the hospital environment because it was not waterproof or sterilizable. They also loved all of the movement-based interactions. Both sound and light were more challenging, due to the noisy and bright hospital setting, but they pointed out that in certain circumstances (a darker, more private room), the silent, LED-based projects would have greater impact. The clowns gave the remote for the fart machine to a patient, and everyone enjoyed watching the clowns struggle as the patient hit the button over and over again.

Overall, working with clowns in a hospital setting allowed me to explore issues of control, identity, and humor using wearable technical devices. The unique constraints involved in working with clowns, and the opportunities afforded by the performative mindset, as well as the particular challenge of designing for the hospital setting produced interesting artifacts. Next steps include more of a co-design process where I work directly with the clowns to understand how and where technology can fit into their performances. Looking forward, I expect this work to extend beyond the hospital setting. Interactive, engaging, spectacular wearables may have a place in daily life, and I look forward to expanding on these findings.