Interview with Chris Sugrue, part 1: Tangible Interfaces

by deborah on 09/24/2011

Chris Sugrue is an interaction designer, artist, programer and lecturer. She took part in the team which created one of the most intriguing and awarded wearable technology project in 2010 – The EyeWriter.

It’s a low-cost eye controlled drawing tool for ALS patients (Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis also known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease), a degenerative neuromuscular disorder that causes paralysis, initially created for cult LA graffiti artist and activist  Tempt1.

Chris spent this spring / summer as artist-in-residence in Ljudmila (Ljubljana, Slovenia), presenting her work also in Kibla (Maribor,) and netclub MaMa in Zagreb (Croatia). Her visit to Zagreb was organized by Center for Synergy of Digital and Visual Arts and Upgrade Zagreb! (both founded by Maja Kalogera).

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Chris Sugrue: Delicate Boundaries (cc)


Sugrue holds a Masters of Fine Arts in Design and Technology from Parsons School of Design. She has worked as a creative engineer at the Ars Electronica Futurelab where she was the lead interaction developer for a stereoscopic interactive dance performance with artist and choreographer Klaus Obermaier.

Sugrue was the recipient of a year-long fellowship at the Eyebeam Art and Technology Center in New York, and has held artist residencies with Hangar in Barcelona, La Casa De Velázquez in Madrid and Harvestworks in New York. She has taught courses in the Design and Technology department at Parsons School of Design, the Interface Culture program at the KunstUniversität in Linz, Austria, and numerous workshops on visual and creative programming.

She has exhibited internationally in such festivals and galleries as Ars Electronica, Sónar Festival, Pixel Gallery, Medialab-Prado, Matadero Madrid, La Noche En Blanco Madrid, Ljudmila Ljubljana, Kibla Maribor.

Delicate Boundaries by Chris Sugrue (cc)

Sugrue’s interactive installation, Delicate Boundaries received an honorary mention from Vida Art and Artificial Life Awards and first prize from Share Festival. The EyeWriter was honored with Design of the Year award for interactive category, the Future Everything Award, and a Golden Nica from Ars Electronica.

From your artworks, it seems like you had a natural path to the EyeWriter, because all of your projects are visually based and they started with sketches, and you developed it through different phases into something very complex, like The EyeWriter. I know, it’s a team work, but still…

CS: Yes! In fact when I was a student at Parsons School of Design my thesis was about using eye tracking. This was actually one of the reasons that Evan first thought I should be involved in the project. At the time I was exploring an artistic way…  thinking about creating an installation where you would move things with your eyes and things could form and deform based on the way you look.

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A Cable Plays by Chris Sugrue (cc)

In my artistic carrier, I’ve always been very interested in questions about interface and how we interact with something, and thinking about alternative ways to visualize or play with space or with the virtual world.

So, yes! I think in that regard my works are related to the project. Although I feel like the Eye Writer is somewhat separated from the other works that I do. It was more of an interaction design challenge, a challenge to create a tool. We were working as artists making a tool for other artists, which is something I’m very interested in, although it’s not always a part of my works.

A Cable Play by Chris Sugrue (cc)

But you are very interested in this tangibility… How did you get to this, through the media itself or some other life experiences are involved?

CS: I think that came from some of my very first experiments. When I was a student I began working with computer vision, and this was something I’d never encountered before. Now it’s a bit more common and more people understand what it means to track somebody in space or detect movements. From the start, I thought that was really a fascinating and different way to create a interactivity.

As I started developing my these I was looking for this type of experience… something different, or an experience that technology could create that we don’t have in any other form. Therefore, that led me to explore the materiality of things that are digital. Because in a way it’s all real… if it’s a projection or something on an LCD, it’s digital and virtual, but also real in the sense that it’s something we are seeing or experiencing…

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Chris Sugrue: Waves to Waves to Waves (cc)

Touch/ability is occupying you, this kind of embodiment and sense of touching… Something we are touching…

CS: Yes, something we are touching that is physical and playing with that experience, with touching something that is only there as a digital point.

So, you are getting back to the body. What do you think about the ways we are transforming ourselves through different media? At the beginning of this massive use we were all fascinated, now we are all getting back to the body, trying to get rid of bad habits and postures…

CS: Yes, there was a theorist, I forgot who, that used to talk about how computer interfaces forgot that we have two hands… and now everybody is obsessed with multitouch, we have multitouch tables and we have iPhones. I think in my work I am thinking about how the hands work and how we relate to the body. And I think that’s a really fascinating area, and that technology – playing with technology – in this way can teach us a lot about how we relate to ourselves or how we relate to spaces…

But then you also had experiences working with the choreographer in dance and new media…

CS: I did, yes! This was really interesting, and I think quite influential. After finishing my Masters, I was working in the FutureLab at Ars Electronica developing this project Le Sacre du Printemps with Klaus Obermeiner. This was a large scale dance piece where we placed the live image of a dancer into a virtual space and then created deformations of her image, as well as elements that reacted in 3D space around her. This was a really great project to work on and it was fascinating to work with the dancer.

Le Sacre du Printemps by Klaus Obermaier

Do you follow what’s happening now on this scene – dance & technology? Because low budget projects are now getting more space and opportunities…

CS: I think this is very inspiring and I think we will find more of this as the tools are beaching more affordable and available, like the Kinect that everybody talks about. There is a lot of buzz about it now, everyone using Kinect, but I mean it’s true. It’s a really an amazing device allows you to do a lot of things that used to be really, really expensive. So, the fact that this tool like others are cheap and easily accessible is great for anybody working with interactivity.

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Decrypted Reflections by Chris Sugrue (cc)

What tools do you use?

CS: I write a lot of software. The hardware I use tend to be cameras, lights, or other types of materials like glass, plexiglas, yarn, the body. But I don’t create a lot of hardware… I did one piece that we were doing more electronics with sensors, but I tend to be more on the software side, then on the physical computing side. I enjoy that type of work, but haven’t developed as much in that area.

Jump here into the second part of the interview with Chris Sugrue: The EyeWriter