Sarah Homewood: The future of technology tracking
Originally trained as a contemporary dancer and choreographer, Sarah Homewood moved into the field of interaction design six years ago. Since then, she has used her expertise in movement, the body and performance to conduct research on intimate and bodily interactions with digital technologies. For example, she has explored how the digitalisation of contraceptive implants could impact the lives and relationships of users, and how our relationships with our technological devices change when they become wearable.
She recently finished her PhD in the IxD Lab at the IT University of Copenhagen where she is currently continuing as a Post-Doc. Her PhD thesis “The Body is Not a Neutral Design Space ‘’ focused on how the design of self-tracking technologies reflects societal norms and expectations of our bodies. She proposes that there are ethics and politics tied up in how we use technologies to track, measure and interact with our bodies. Through designing and prototyping alternative forms of self-tracking technologies, she proposes alternative, feminist perspectives on the body.
7 Questions with Sarah Homewood:
- What are you curious about in technology right now?
I’m curious about how new self-tracking technologies are changing how we experience our bodies and how these new types of healthcare devices are used in the home. I’m curious about how this is going to influence cultures around our bodies in the future. In the west, the body used to be seen as being owned by God, which influenced cultures in healthcare and health and was thought of being tied to morality. Cultures in modern medicine starting in the 1800s allowed for surgery and made the body into a machine to be fixed through medical intervention. Now that clinical tools are placed in the hands of users and the role of the doctor will be automated, or at least not physically present, who knows what the future cultures of the body will look like.
2. Why or how did you choose this path?
I started off as a professional contemporary dancer and choreographer in my early twenties. I was always really interested in self-representation and did lots of performances around how our culture shapes our movements. I did a lot of work around gender and sexuality and learned how gender influences how we move and is responsible for the fact that we have sexualized movements. I then started to work with technologies such as augmented reality in my performance work and had the chance to collaborate with interaction designers from CIID and Malmö University.
I was really excited by being able to look at how technologies such as AR were shaping how we understood the body and helping us to use the body and movement as a tool to design different types of technologies, essentially, embodied interaction design. I found myself moving away from working with movement and started the Masters in Interaction Design at Malmö University. After I graduated, I started my PhD “The Body is Not a Neutral Design Space ‘’ at the IT University of Copenhagen, where I focused on how the design of self-tracking technologies reflects societal norms and expectations of our bodies. I’m now a post-doc at ITU.
3. What has been your biggest failure in the past year, and what did you learn from that?
Probably trying to do too much at once. It’s hard in the last year of a PhD to keep your expectations of yourself realistic. You’re learning so much and discovering so many exciting avenues that it’s hard not to follow all of them at once.
4. What is your biggest daily challenge working with technology in this field?
In my projects developing self-tracking technologies there is always a tension between how digital technologies need binaries, patterns, norms and regularity to be able to function and how the body rarely fits into these things. The body is much more messy that digital technologies can account for. This is definitely a challenge when designing self-tracking technologies. I actually ended up deciding not to design self-tracking technologies for menopause a few years ago because I couldn’t find a way to do it without my design excluding a lot of bodies, or communicating that the menopause was a type of illness that needed clinical interventions to be able to control it (which it’s not!).
5. How do you see concretely, the next 5 years and this new decade in tech?
I’m not sure I see many huge developments coming in hardware, but rather the speeding up and improving of what we already have. New applications of existing technologies are probably going to be the biggest form of innovation. That’s what I’m interested in with digital healthcare and self-tracking. How the fact that self-tracking devices can do the same thing as machines typically used in the clinic, but are smaller and can be used without a doctor. This means that we can gather many different types of data about the body. This is both good and bad as there is a risk of a phenomenon called the “worried well”, which is a kind of hypochondria from having access to so much data about your body. The more you know, the more there is to worry about. On the other hand, understanding the body as it changes in all circumstances can help people prevent serious conditions and reduces unneeded medical intervention.
6. What has been your favourite project to date and why?
My most recent project is Ovum, which is a fertility tracking device that uses the sampling of saliva over the menstrual cycle to track when the user is fertile. This is a method to be used as a conception aid rather than for contraception. This is a scientifically validated method of fertility tracking that is not substantially marketed for. A saliva sample is placed on a glass plate, and this is magnified and projected from the device. Crystals appearing in the projected sample tell the user that they are fertile. The crystals increase until ovulation, then fade away again. Ovum is ceramic and has a rounded shape and very sculptural and Scandinavian aesthetic.
I also wanted to create a device that could be used to share the experience of fertility tracking. I noticed that most ovulation tracking devices were only marketed towards the person who would be getting pregnant. By projecting the crystals out into the room, Ovum makes it possible to share the experience of fertility tracking. It becomes a beautiful experience, rather than a process of just getting information. I loved this project because it started out as a speculative design project, and has now transformed into a device that we are looking to commercialise. It’s really exciting to think of Ovum being a product that could change what is available to people wanting to track their fertility.
7. What do you think is something we should be paying attention to?
One thing I see lacking is an awareness of the potential to create a whole range of experiences of digital technologies through changing how we design them as objects. For example, Ovum is basically a microscope, but by designing it to project out into the room, and by making it ceramic, the whole experience of using the device is changed. This is why I love interaction design; by focusing on designing to facilitate different experiences of technologies rather than approaching design from an engineering perspective, we can really play around with what technological devices mean to us. Our interactions with technologies don’t just have to be efficient and effective, they can also be beautiful, reflective and represent the type of culture we want to live in.
Follow Sarah’s work here:
Greater Spaces is written by Majken Overgaard and Vanessa Julia Carpenter where we work to expand the narrative of what technology is and who creates it. We speak with Danish and international female role models within technology and between these interviews we share what is most interesting to us, with a focus on diversity.