Phantom Physicalizations: Machines that make dreams physical

VINCENT OLISLAGERS just graduated from the Interaction Design Masters Programme at K3, Malmö University. His thesis Phantom Physicalizations, Reinterpreting Dreams Through Physical Representation (download) investigates how dreams can inspire waking life and design and explores how we can value them in new ways using digital tools through two prototypes that make dreams physical.

Phantom Physicalizations exhibited at Medea
Phantom Physicalizations exhibited at Medea

Why should we explore dreams further?

Dreams allow us to experience life in a different manner than during waking life. In dreams, the spatio-temporal rules of physical reality do not apply, allowing us to experience flight or time travel. Our body’s senses also work differently resulting in alternate modes of perception. For instance, in most people’s dreams sight and sound are dominant while smell and taste are latent. Experiences resulting from this altered state of consciousness give us inspiration in waking life. In my thesis project I wanted to explore how I could make part of the dream accessible to experience during wakefulness to challenge the ways in which we respect, perceive, interpret and remember dreams.

You have designed two devices which make dreams physical in different ways. Could you describe in more detail how this happens?

In essence there are two parts to it. One is the reading of the dream using sensors, the other is the physical representation of that reading. I made a sensor waistband that is able to ‘read’ the dream while the wearer is sleeping. The waistband contains four sensors that measure heart rate, respiration rate, body temperature and body movement. Data from the sensors is collected during the night and is wirelessly sent to one of two devices that use that data to generate physical output.

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One of the devices that makes dreams physical is a coffee grinder. It produces a unique blend of coffee based of the four body signals recorded by the sensor waistband. On top of the grinder are four storage compartments that contain coffee beans of different roastings and different parts of the world. Added to them are extra ingredients like cinnamon, vanilla, cacao and dried orange peel to further distinguish their taste. The machine grinds a different mixture of ground coffee based on the fluctuations in the readings from the body signals during REM sleep, resulting in a different flavor every time the sensor waistband is used.

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The other works a bit like a lava lamp, except that instead of heat it uses ‘non-newtonian fluid’, low frequency sound and color changing lights to make a liquid swirl and change shape and color. The patterns emerging in the liquid are based of the recorded heart rate fluctuations and body motions. The color of the lights depends on changes in body temperature and respiration rate.

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Why should dreams be made physical, and why make two devices?

Dreams have had a profound impact on our lives throughout history. They have been the inspiration and the subject of many poems, paintings, books and movies and have even led to scientific discoveries. In a way dreams have already become physical through these works, but I wanted to go one step further and see if waking dream representation could lead people to value their dreams in new ways.

While conducting my research I learned that, aside from brain activity, dreams affect the body in other ways. There are even connections between dreams, REM sleep and distinct physiological changes in the human body. For example, during REM sleep people become cold-blooded, meaning that your body adopts the temperature of the space you’re sleeping in. Your muscles also relax (atonia) and heart rate and respiration rate become irregular. I realized that I could map these changes and represent the data in physical form.

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The two devices which make the dream physical address different senses and qualities identified in my empirical research. The Coffee Grinder embodies smell and taste by preparing a unique blend of coffee every time the user has dreamt. It stimulates the senses, demarks a transition between sleep and wakefulness and integrates into most people’s breakfast rituals. The Phantoliquefier embodies sight and sound. The audiovisual output is abstract, engaging and discrete, enabling dream interpretation to become a social activity.

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Left: Coffee ground from a participants dream and labeled for later use. Right: A visitor of the project exhibition looks through inquiry form book comprising the dream survey.

Could you tell something more about your research?

I video recorded myself sleeping to discover how the body reacts during sleep and dreams. I then conducted a survey at two of Malmö Högskola’s university buildings and another location to discover what the general sentiment on dreams and dream interpretation is, which yielded 143 responses. Although most people have a quite rational outlook on dreams they do influence their lives to a large extent. 58 people (41 %) said dreams affect their creativity noticeably and 44 (31 %) even expressed that dreams help them solve waking problems. I then conducted a cultural probe study with 8 of the survey respondents. Cultural probes, are small informal assignments carried out by the participant without the researcher having to be present, that yield inspirational material and prepare the participant for a depth interview on the researched topic. The interviews uncovered that the participants had different dreams and attributed them vastly different meanings. It also gave insights into how which elements of the dream they would like to revisit and in which context this should take place. For instance the participants expressed a need for a kind of representation that is not too literal, but leaves enough room for subjectivity and saw dream interpretation as something that happens spontaneously and momentary but is also constituted by the long term memory.

Dream diorama’s constructed by the informants. The diorama’s represent vivid and lifechanging dreams the informants have had.
Dream diorama’s constructed by the informants. The diorama’s represent vivid and lifechanging dreams the informants have had.
Dream object cards were used by the participants to imagine using domestic objects to manipulate their dreams.
Dream object cards were used by the participants to imagine using domestic objects to manipulate their dreams.

What are your plans for the future?

I’d like to continue working on user centered design projects that involve the body and tangible interfaces. I’ve also developed a fondness for experience oriented design disciplines like ludic design and critical design. These disciplines focus on the design of objects that go beyond mere aesthetic beauty and user friendliness to instead ask questions on how and why we include certain objects as part of our everyday day routine.

You can find Vincent’s portfolio at vincentolislagers.com.

Download Vincent’s master’s thesis: Phantom Physicalizations, Reinterpreting Dreams Through Physical Representation.

Images credit: Vincent Olislagers