The itDf team will use this section to provide updates on the development of our working methods as the research progresses.
Because it is a collaborative project, itDf has always been conceived as much as an exercise in working methodologies as research that focuses on specific subjects. We want to ask many questions over the period of our work, and these include explorations of how the team, coming from different disciplinary backgrounds, works together and how we share and learn from the perspectives of others. Inter-, cross- and multi-disciplinary are common terms in contemporary research, but their use can mask the actual details of what happens when different approaches meet. Terminology can appear enabling and practice often involves the excitement that inevitably comes with shared intellectual spaces (the literary studies scholar in a robotics lab, the product designer in a philosophy workshop), but just because these occasions are made to happen doesn’t mean they will always work as participants wold want to.
Part of how itDf will progress is recognising that this will inevitably be the case. In their 2015 study Rethinking Interdisciplinarity across the Social Sciences and Neurosciences, Felicity Callard and Des Fitzgerald unpicked the language of collaborative work, noting how words such as inter, cross and multi appear to suggest a balanced outcome that will emerge from shared research activity. The prefix might work as a pivot or point on a matrix (inter and multi), or suggest a reach across equal areas (cross), but all signal a sense that the disciplines are somehow pre-existing and not themselves full of difference and dissonance. Our awareness of this means we know that even as we work on multiple topics, at different times different parts of the project with be highlighted, becoming central and the point of focus before moving into a different space. This is why – alongside the contributions we aim to make in our specific disciplines – we are drawn to the ideas of entanglement and risk that have become a central part of thinking in Critical Medical Humanities in recent years. Entanglement suggests complex, unpredictable interactions, even potentially mess and confusion, while we will seek out risk in our thinking and activities as we proceed. The luxury of five years’ generous funding gives us the opportunity to have this flexibility, to entangle and risk (but also to plot, design, plan, play and collect) as we develop the research.
We want to make sure that the points made above cross over to the ways we think about our work on disability. While people with disabilities remain under-represented and are not consulted in many areas of culture and society, they are at the same time – as more than one disabled person has noted wearily – among the most researched people on the planet. They are the objects of research from many disciplines, from sociology and engineering to health care and architecture, and this can often lead to invisibility at exactly the moment when it might be thought disability is at its most visual. We need to avoid this in itDf and it is important to us that the people with disabilities that we work with are not seen as merely research subjects to whom we pass on the outcomes of our work when it is finished. We aim to work with disabled participants as part of our research design and, extending this, see them as mentors who will guide and help structure our work. People with disabilities will be part of all our activities, from thinking about design, working in reading groups, and developing assistive technologies. Working with them will be one of the most exciting elements of the project.
We have organised itDf into three distinct work streams that address different ideas in the imagining of technologized disability futures. Each has its own trajectory but also interacts with the others
1: Imagining/Experiencing Disability, Care and Embodiment
This investigates the aesthetics and cultures of, and encounters with, disability, care and embodiment as they are experienced in everyday contexts. In order to do this, we will explore the cultural representations that reflect, shape, and create popular assumptions about augmented/enhanced bodies (as metaphors for humanness or visualisations of hyperability for example). Focusing on prostheses, haptics, and care/companionship, we will examine how new and emerging technologies (both real and imagined) are influencing conceptions and experiences of health, (dis)ability, care and embodiment.
Part of our plan here is to how investigate contemporary fiction, fiction and documentary film, and television depict the intersection between disability and technology [take a look at what we are reading]. We want especially to produce critical narratives and phenomenological accounts of experiencing these encounters with disability and technology. Placing this alongside ideas taken from theoretical contexts, we are interested in how new intersectional paradigms (posthumanist/feminist/material bodies/biopolitics) can provide critical frames that help us understand how embodiment, care, and experiences of technology and care function. This work will be undertaken mainly by Stuart Murray and Amelia DeFalco in Leeds and Luna Dolezal in Exeter, with PhD students at each location. The Leeds PhD project will involve an analysis of disability technologies in speculative and science fiction, while that at Exeter will investigate the phenomenology of telepresence in recent robotic technologies, especially in disability contexts. In addition, we will work with disability groups in Leeds who use different technologies on an everyday basis.
2: Prototyping Ordinary Communication Futures
This research will continue the stress on the everyday and ordinary through its exploration of the design of augmentative and alternative communications (AAC) speech technology. The design of speech-generating devices raises questions both of individual identity (complete with consequent issues of embodiment and visibility) and of reciprocity and control. Conversations through speech technologies are always co-creations involving partners. As a result, the imagining of such technologies exhibits more of a dialogue between disabled and nondisabled than in most assistive mechanisms. It enacts a complex display of function; voice technologies exhibit both telepresence (although physically present) and teleoperation (albeit through speech acts). The work will be disability-led in two complementary ways: First, the design undertaken will be directed by a ‘No triumph, no tragedy’ approach that celebrates the unremarkable and ordinary future nature of these technologies; and second, we will foreground disabled people as research designers and owners. Working with participant users/wearers/owners, we will build ‘experience prototypes’ of voice communication devices, initially exploring topics through design ethnography before piloting, building and deploying the experience prototypes that are at the heart of the research. We will also study how these design processes and the prototypes themselves interact with new work in contemporary disability, particularly its focus on matter and materiality.
Our aim is for the prototypes to be adopted and used by recruited individuals into their own everyday environments, so we can see how they are experienced: a documentary film will record the reflections of the users and their families. Subsequently, we aim to exhibit them at the National Museum of Scotland.
This work will take place mainly in Dundee, led by Graham Pullin with Stuart Murray, postdoctoral research assistant Katie Brown and a PhD student also as part of the team. The PhD will focus on the lived experiences of augmentative communication.
3: Exploring Human-Robot Futures through Participatory Design
In this strand, the project will incorporate the work on design and narrative imaginations (especially of care) from the two above research areas into the building of robot technologies used by people with disabilities. This will then be further developed through processes of participatory design and interaction with disability user groups. We will focus on two specific elements:
(1) Companion robots that offer social and psychological support for children with conditions that affect movement/co-ordination, as well as older adults with cognitive impairments. We will use the MiRo animal-like companion robot developed at Sheffield (miro-e.com), and work with users and carers to create and evaluate a modified version (both software and hardware) of MiRo that is suited to the two target user groups.
(2) Teleoperation and telepresence machines that allow the extension/projection of the self in addressing questions of disability embodiment in everyday situations. Telepresence allows users to become virtually-embodied and to act remotely, while multimodal interfaces can increase experiences of presence and help overcome communication and movement challenges faced by people with disabilities. The research team will develop and evaluate novel interfaces for telepresence and teleoperation, including the teleoperation of humanoid robots using visual, auditory, and haptic interfaces. Our aim is to understand the impact of telepresence on the experience of selfhood in both natural and projected robotic/virtual bodies.
This research will connect to the ideas of embodiment in the other areas of itDf.
Our research in this area will incorporate ideas of interactive design as it develops across the broader project. The team at Sheffield will focus on the design and delivery of participatory design workshops and preparation of demonstration material using existing VR and MiRo robot platforms. The Sheffield PhD will help develop and plan the workshops, with a specific focus on disability and participatory design. Staff in Engineering at Leeds will focus on developing a toolkit to extend the capabilities of these platforms to include haptic inputs (stroking, tapping, grasping) and delivering haptic feedback (pressure, temperature, vibration), to use in prototyping experiences. The Leeds postdoctoral research assistant will lead on this, initially working to demonstrate the capabilities of companion robots and telepresence as a way of introducing them to participants, then developing the capabilities of the toolkit specifically towards the topics arising from subsequent participatory design workshops. Our plan for the toolkit as that it will incorporate the project’s wider focus on embodiment and care through its emphasis on adaptability and modularity. We aim to generate devices that can capture and communicate haptic information in augmenting telepresence experience, rather than build ‘consumer ready’ products.
The focus of this work will be in Sheffield and Leeds, led by Tony Prescott and Raymond Holt, with postdoctoral research assistant Michael Szollosy and Sheffield Robotics as part of a team that also includes another research assistant at Leeds and a PhD student in Sheffield.