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Machine I: An interview with Kayla Heffernan

Gerry Gaffney Interaction design, Internet of Things Leave a Comment

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Gerry Gaffney:

This is Gerry Gaffney with the User Experience podcast. My guest today is a user experience designer, currently working in Melbourne for job search company, Seek. She’s also currently completing a PhD at Melbourne University and her particular area of interest is insertables. She recently presented a fascinating paper at CHI in San Jose entitled “You Put What Where? Hobbyist use of insertable devices?”

Kayla Heffernan, welcome to the User Experience podcast.

Kayla Heffernan

Hi Gerry, thanks for having me.

Gerry:

I guess let’s start with the obvious question; what is an insertable?

Kayla:

Well, we coined the term insertable to refer to any device that goes in through or underneath the skin. So they’re voluntary devices which are chosen to be inserted out of a person’s free will and their own personal agency.

Gerry:

And when you say “we” you mean…

Kayla:

My supervisors and I, Frank Vetere and Shanton Chang, my PhD supervisors.

Gerry:

So we are talking specifically about non-medical use?

Kayla:

Yes. Everything that’s currently available is for is not a medical device. So there are devices that can be used for wellbeing purposes like the Looncup, which is a digital menstrual cup but it’s not a medical device and, unlike medical devices, they’re chosen. With a medical device you don’t often have a choice. You do it or you’re in big trouble basically, whereas these are totally optional, totally voluntary.

Gerry:

And I think, I had a preconceived idea that people who would use insertables would be kind of “out there,” you know they’d be pretty apparent when you met them on the street and in fact you mentioned Stelarc in the paper. Can you tell us a little bit about Stelarc because people may not know who he is?

Kayla:

Yes, Stelarc is a performance artist who probes and amplifies his body in weird and wonderful ways. So he’s famous for things like the third hand which was a mechanical arm attached to his body and controlled by EMG muscle stimulation. He’s done lots of body suspension performances where his body is physically suspended from the ceiling with hooks through the skin of his back. He’s done a stomach sculpture, which was inserted into his stomach cavity and then opened up and did a bit of a performance as an aesthetic addition. He didn’t have a medical need for this at all and probably he’s most famous for his third ear, which is constructed on his arm. This ear has had an audio sensor in the past so it could essentially hear. While that’s not currently in, it is a work in progress once the ear is a bit more fully formed, bit more of a proper ear structure, he’ll probably get it back in.

So that’s as close as Stelarc gets to an insertable. For him it’s about artistic expression and not these convenience-oriented solutions. When I spoke with him after OzCHI in Melbourne last year he actually said he probably wouldn’t get one of these devices because he doesn’t see the point, which is kind of interesting given all the things he is willing to do with his body.

Gerry:

Yeah, he’s an interesting character. But you focus, so he’s not somebody that’s of interest to you especially at all I guess, being on the extreme end of things? Is that fair to say?

Kayla:

Yeah, most people who have these wouldn’t go anywhere near as far as Stelarc has. I have had one participant who did a body suspension but he’s probably one of the more out-there ones.

Gerry:

Now in the paper you focused on 17, I think it was seventeen people in your research, many of them were very ordinary. Were you surprised by that?

Kayla:

I wasn’t entirely surprised that they were all sort of quote unquote “normal” because of what I’d seen from just Googling when learning this was a phenomenon. The early adopters and people who started the movement were mostly male Caucasian IT guys looking to hack a solution to a particular problem. And so while some of the 17, and it’s now getting up close to 20 as we continue interviews, do have tattoos and piercings, but not significantly more than the general population. And for most of them, well some of them anyway, they personally would never get a tattoo or a piercing. They don’t even see this is the same thing; one is aesthetic whereas what they have is functional.

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Gerry:

How did you yourself get interested in this area?

Kayla:

I actually a couple of winters ago I had Myki, my travel card from the Melbourne ticketing system, in my glove because I lose my Myki all the time and so I was putting it in my glove during winter and I touched off with the palm of my hand on the reader and I thought oh that’s actually quite a natural interaction and some people kind of looked at me like I was some weird cyborg freak somehow touching off with my hand, and then I thought “Oh I wonder if this is a thing?” and, you know, started to Google and oh, it is a thing, people are doing this, people are putting stuff in their bodies and they have actually been since 2005. So even though it’s been going on for eleven years there hasn’t been a lot of academic exploration into it.

Gerry:

And you said something about people doing it because it’s functional, I’m not sure that’s the word you used, but is that why people are using it, for function?

Kayla:

Yeah I see people as falling into three somewhat distinct but definitely overlapping categories. So the first is people who have a problem and are looking to solve it. The device is a means to an end. So they’re sick of forgetting their keys, so they’re going to get a little pinch and a chip and insert it in their hand so they never have to deal with it again. These people generally use an NFC or RFID chip for access and authentication.

And then the next group is the hobbyists, the makers and the hackers who will get a device, sometimes without a clear use for it and just see what they can do. And the third group are those who aren’t really satisfied with being human in a purely biological body and they want to extend their senses. Some of these people are trans-humanists who want to go above and beyond human capabilities, not just fix senses that aren’t working properly but be able to create new senses and transform the human condition.

Gerry:

To be honest with you Kayla, it seems a bit bland or a bit pedestrian to have, you know, an NFC device near the base of your thumb to open a door or something like that. But when you see the insertables enhancing your sensorium it becomes particularly interesting and you mentioned microwaves in your paper. Can you tell us about that?

Kayla:

Yeah absolutely. So for a lot of people the benefit of not having to carry keys isn’t really worth it. But there is, the more mainstream implant for sensorial extension is magnets. So what they do is they insert them near nerve endings which is generally in the tips of the fingers and when you come into contact with an electromagnetic field they vibrate, so it essentially means you can feel or sense electricity voltage and amperage and one of the easiest ways to feel this, and you can even do this at home, if you get a magnet and you tape it to your finger and you hold it near your microwave while it’s on you’ll feel it sort of hum and pull and that’s what they feel right on the nerve endings so it becomes a sense of their own.

Gerry:

So it’s kind of, it’s insertables for the timid, if you like.

Kayla:

[Laughs.] Yes, yeah you can definitely try it out without having to take the plunge.

Gerry:

So that’s just, it’s just vibration that you’re feeling because I was wondering about that when I read the paper and wondering what the stimulation was exactly, so it’s really a vibration?

Kayla:

Yes, yeah.

Gerry:

I wonder how somebody… one of the things that occurred to me was whether, and you do mention this in the paper but people in every other field people are worried about you know even buying something to have on their shelf because it’s going to be obsolete in six months. What about putting a chip in your body that’s going to be obsolete in six months?

Kayla:

Yeah definitely. That is a big issue that comes up so if you look at cats and dogs it’s the same technology that’s in them and so even if you have a 20-year old cat that goes missing the chip can still be read by the vet and because it’s a passive chip that just has an identifier all the intelligence is in matching that identifier with a database. So I’m sure the databases have updated over twenty years and have the latest security protocols and whatever else but the input mechanism, being the chip, can still work.

We have had some participants who have got new Android phones, for example, and we’re using that chip to unlock their phone and their chip no longer worked so there are some cases where it can become unread by the device you’re using and then it’s just a small incision to remove it so we’ve had a few participants upgrade, out of getting a new device.

Gerry:

So they upgraded into the same spot? They just, what, get the old one out by using a scalpel or something themselves or what do they do?

Kayla:

They usually go to a body modification artist or some people have used doctors or family friends who are doctors or nurses. So yeah it’s just a small hole incision with a scalpel and I don’t know if they just pop it out or if they have to use tweezers or something and then, yeah, put the new one in in the same hole.

Gerry:

You reminded me, just talking about cats, I really freaked out my dog last night I had RFID reader and I was trying to find out where its chip was, it didn’t know what was going on.

I also wondered about people who, if you had to go and get an MRI one of the things they ask you is if you’ve got any magnetic stuff or you know metal on your person. Has this come up in conversation at all?

Kayla:

Yeah, so this one’s slightly controversial because some people say no you could never do it, you’d have to take it out and you can imagine technicians being reluctant to let you in a machine, a multi-million dollar machine in case that you damaged it with a flying magnet let alone the damage to yourself. But there’s an interesting blog post by someone who has a chip and he tried three different machines and the technicians were really open to letting him try and have his MRI in his shoulder without having to take out the magnet. And the lower the power of the machine, the less he could feel it pull on it and then one of the technicians suggested to align the poles of the magnet with the poles of the, with the magnetic field of the MRI so it wouldn’t pull on the magnet and he successfully had an MRI. So seems like it can work but there are conflicting stories out there.

Gerry:

Yeah, that sounds a bit dubious to me because almost by definition the poles of the MRI are going to be changing I would have thought. I don’t know actually. An interesting one.

Tell us about, another magnetic one that you’ve mentioned in the paper is the lover’s magnets. I thought that was kind of cute. Tell us about that one.

Kayla:

Yeah so this is an interesting configuration where which one participant had with his then girlfriend. She’s apparently since had hers removed [Laughs] but they each had a magnet in the tip of their ring finger and one on the back of the hand so between the knuckles so you can imagine that when they hold hands their partner’s hand where their finger would be resting is now actually connecting with the magnet. So these are the only participants I’ve come across with that and I posted it in a magnet implanting group on Facebook and people thought it might be a bit painful and it might pull too much but these participants didn’t mention any of that.

Gerry:

I guess it’s a lot easier than getting a tattoo removed.

Kayla:

Yeah, exactly. [Laughs.]

Gerry:

Sci-fi of course has been dealing with the whole concept of insertables. I was very much reminded of William Gibson’s seminal short story “Burning Chrome”. There’s a quote that I’ll just read out here; “It was one of the nastiest pieces of elective surgery Case had ever seen. When Angelo smiled revealing the razor sharp canines of some large animal, Case was actually relieved. Tooth-bud transplants, he’d seen that before.”

That was from 1983. Do you think that the development of insertables is going to be, is it inevitable?

Kayla:

I think, well you mentioned sci-fi, I think it can be a really powerful tool for interaction design in general, you know by the time the iPad came around we kind of knew how to use them from Star Trek. With these insertable devices we’ve kind of had a negative impact, a lot of misconceptions about microchips, people think that the government’s going to track you from so many sci-fi films which is not how they work. They don’t have GPS capabilities. So I think that will slow down the movement, trying to deal with these misconceptions.

Gerry:

One could imagine, you know, a movement to promote fitting chips to your children and indeed having GPS trackers fitted at the same time.

Kayla:

Yeah, well funnily enough Gruen Transfer or Gruen Project, which is an Australian advertising satire I suppose, they get agencies to make ads, fake ads, and one week they did microchipping your children and one of them got it sort of factually correct where it would actually be, you would find a child, you’d have to scan the child, you know looking at realistically without the GPS capabilities and when you think about criminals who are under house arrest, they still have a big bulky deck of card size ankle reader which needs to be charged every few days. So the technology is just not there yet and it will take huge battery improvements to get there. It doesn’t mean we might, well we may get there one day.

Gerry:

I’m sure we will. You know GPS devices ten years ago were an awful lot bigger than they are now.

Kayla:

Definitely yeah. So I’ve seen people getting slowly more comfortable with insertables and as the functionality increases we’ll see more of them but I don’t ever see a day where everyone will have one just as not everyone has a piercing. I think that barrier is still going to be too big a leap for some people.

Gerry:

I was thinking about I guess the financing of insertables and where it would fit in economic terms. One of the issues of course is the sheer lack of visibility. For example, if Nike or Fitbit or Garmin or is selling an insertable, how can they promote brand visibility? Have people spoken about this or have you put any thought in to it yourself?

Kayla:

So I suppose it’s all about the experiences and word of mouth. If you think of the earlier Vivofits or even some that still exist that you might put on your belt or on your bra strap or in your shoe, it’s not entirely visible but it’s still the word of mouth, if you’re enjoying the experience or if you’ve lost weight from it and someone asks you “Oh how did you do that?” then you talk about the Fitbit. And even in the ads you see that they’re talking about all the things you can do, make your body better and then they just have you know an image of the different types of wearables at the end. So I think it’s just focusing more on the experience.

Gerry:

There’s something terrible narcissistic about all this, isn’t there? I mean not just insertables but the whole self-monitoring movement.

Kayla:

Yeah, I mean the quantified self-movement definitely overlaps with this and, yeah, knowing everything that your body’s doing and you can think with these devices inside you how much more you can know but then how useful is it really to know what your body temperature is every five seconds? So we might get overwhelmed with data that’s not necessarily useful.

Gerry:

Yeah there seems to be a real connection between insertables and the maker movement, is that fair to say? Or have you any thoughts on that?

Kayla:

Yeah, absolutely. There’s a lot of, they call themselves bio-hackers or grinders who are trading insertables or programming them to do new things. These are the people that have engendered the movement and they’re actually making markets and even professions where there were none before. There’s a few companies that sell these devices now. There’s at least one who is fully just, who solely works on implantable technologies, he doesn’t have a full time job anymore other than that.

Gerry:

What’s the legal situation? Have you looked into this? I mean obviously it would vary from state to state and country to country. Any interesting factors emerging there?

Kayla:

Yeah so as far as I know in Australia it’s completely legal if you’re over 18 to get it done at a body modification studio. However, they’re not allowed to numb you. This is the same case in America. Body modification artists aren’t allowed to use numbing devices as that’s practising medicine without a licence. [Laughs.] So you can get one in but it just you can’t have any numbing.

In America they have some laws which have been very, very pre-emptive to stop you from putting a microchip in someone against their will. So this means that the government would never be able to make it mandatory, unless they change the law, but you couldn’t chip grandma to stop her from leaving the home because that’s against her will.

And in the UK it probably would fall under the anti-mutilation laws. So they’re actually a lot stricter. So it’s not even entirely known if you do it yourself, is that legal in the UK. So a bit of a grey area in some places.

Gerry:

And of course a lot of, you know I don’t want to side-track us totally, but a lot of religions would have something to say on this matter as well.

Kayla:

Absolutely. That would be the number one thing we see just on social media as the backlash. There’s a passage in the Bible, in, I believe it’s in Revelations that says something about a mark on the hand or the head and you won’t be able to trade unless you have one and so some people see this as that’s that mark. This is the mark of the beast.

Gerry:

Oh yeah.

Kayla:

Which is interesting.

Gerry:

To consider insertables from a design perspective, what do you see as the, I guess well first of all what are the opportunities in this space?

Kayla:

Yeah, so this is the primary concern of my thesis; how do you design for the UX of insertables and what’s different about it? So for me it’s designing experiences without a single pixel which is new and it’s a truly ubiquitous device and we need to make a natural user interface somehow when you don’t have a screen for feedback so all of our usual arsenal sort of falls out the window. So we need to fall back on things like ergonomics and human factors when you look at the device and sensor placements and we also need to think about the supporting apps or whatever the bridge between programming it and having to do what you want it to do.

We’re very much constrained by the limits of the technologies at the moment. We need to manage user expectations. A lot of the setup is like a lot of Internet of Things devices where it’s very technical, it’s very program oriented, people think that it will solve all their problems but it actually only turns on the heater. [Laughs.] So we need to make sure that there are metaphors in place that make sense to normal people and that these devices aren’t over promising like some Internet of Things devices do.

Gerry:

And the whole Internet of Things, I mean it’s very exciting on the one hand but it’s also a complete disaster, you know no two internet things seem to be compatible with each other and you know you see it with sound systems and all sorts of things where you’re addressing particular machines. We just don’t have the, we don’t have a suite of standards or anything approaching it in place for having these devices work together in a sensible and seamless fashion. Are people working on that at the moment? Are you interested in that area?

Kayla:

: Yeah, I mean it’s definitely an issue that we’re going to come up against, without standards how do these devices talk to each other? Inherent in the maker movement is a lot of open source culture. So at least everything is open sourced and not proprietary so hopefully people can come to these standards. But at the moment it’s using, if you’ve got an RFID chip or an NFC chip at least those chips are relatively standard frequencies so you can find a device to work with that.

Gerry:

Do you see yourself working in this space? I mean you’re at Seek, which, for those who don’t know, is an online job company, job search company, are you looking at this as commercial, having commercial implications for you and your career? Just as curiosity.

Kayla:

Yeah, definitely not at Seek. Seek is not micro chipping people, I can guarantee that although I do have a few people at work now interested in this instead of using their dongles since I’ve spoken about it. I don’t know where the commercial aspects lie yet. I guess we’re sort of just, we’re in the maker space at the moment and I think it would be good to get UX in at the ground floor so that it’s designed well from the start instead of things just made for programmers by programmers and that will really help the movement kick off because at the moment it is mostly technical people. We’re seeing mostly men and again that’s probably a technical barrier, whereas if we make it a bit more easy to get in to then we may see it take off and there may actually be you know a UX designer of insertables or an interaction designer but at the moment these don’t really exist.

Gerry:

If there’s anyone listening who’s interested in getting into designing insertables or designing an ecosystem around insertables, whether that’s for themselves or their peers or as a commercial opportunity or a social opportunity, any thoughts on how they should begin? What should they be reading, for example?

Kayla:

Yeah, well I’d definitely say get in touch because we’re developing principles of how people currently make these devices, how people should, and we want to work with industry on that because there’s just not a lot of industry. But as it’s such an emerging area, we’re sort of creating it as we go. So we look back on work on internal medical devices, on novel input technologies on ubiquitous devices but there’s not a huge body of literature on this yet. There are some single case studies of how people are using RFID or NFC on magnets but there’s just not a huge body of literature yet.

Gerry:

So we’ll include a pointer to your group at Melbourne Uni, I guess that would be a good starting point for most people would it, to get in touch?

Kayla:

Yeah and also just on my website – kaylaheffernan.com – there’s a Contact Us, Contact Me form on there.

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Gerry:

And your paper, the paper you gave at CHI, I mean you’ve done a few papers, the one you gave at CHI is available at the ACM digital library but how can people who are not members of ACM get their hands on it?

Kayla:

Yeah, I have a copy on my website so again kaylaheffernan.com/insertables has all the media I’ve done around this, all our papers, a link to the talk I gave at CHI so that’s a good starting place.

Gerry:

Are there any books on this topic yet?

Kayla:

Not that I’ve come across. So there is a book about implantable medical technologies which is on my massive “to read” list and I’m sure that’s going to be invaluable but I haven’t seen anything on people doing this voluntarily. There was a book which I think is now out of print on how to hack these things, how to do your RFID door, for example, which was on amal.net and he’s the gentleman who owns Dangerous Things which sells a lot of these devices. He’s also published a bit talking about why people are doing this. He’s mainly in IEEE though so less the computer interaction side, more the actual technical details.

Gerry:

Certainly a fascinating topic and I’m sure it’s something that people will be looking at, I mean I guess many of us will probably find ourselves working in that kind of space in the next five or ten years.

Kayla Heffernan, thanks so much for joining me today on the User Experience podcast.

Kayla:

Thank you Gerry.

Gerry GaffneyMachine I: An interview with Kayla Heffernan

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