Faculty of Communication, Art and Technology

Research Profile: Karen Tanenbaum, Interactive Arts and Technology (SIAT)

February 03, 2012

Karen Tanenbaum took a long and winding road through academia. Her undergraduate degree in Philosophy and Celtic Studies included a year studying in Ireland. That opened up questions around how society is shaped by historical context, and led her to do her graduate work in linguistics and cognitive science, specifically computational linguistics. And that led her to her PhD research into artificial intelligence and understanding technology’s role in our lives. 

She says, "And then I ended up at SFU’s School of Interactive Arts + Technology (SIAT), where I’ve done work on intelligent and adaptive systems as well as new interaction paradigms like tangible and ubiquitous computing."

"My dissertation research looks at three different systems that use intelligent techniques along with novel interaction methods to create entertaining and engaging experiences. One of the systems is the Reading Glove, a collaborative project between myself and my husband, Josh Tanenbaum. It’s a wearable interactive storytelling system using antique objects to tell a non-linear narrative. We really wanted to see what happened when we gave people a story that was embedded on real, physical objects: things that had a heft and a history to them, that could be opened and played with and moved around.  And we wanted to explore wearable technology with the glove; the goal there was to invoke the idea of "psychometry" or the psychic power of object reading.  When you pick up the objects, you hear the echoes of the past, of what these objects experienced, and then you use this power to piece the story back together."

Reading Glove v2.0

As part of working on her PhD, Karen participated in a number of student competitions. She says, "My favorite memory from my time at SIAT is entering the superhero themed student design competition at the 2011 Tangible, Embedded and Embodied Interaction Conference. Working with Josh and fellow graduate student Allen Bevans, we developed the character of Captain Chronomek, a time-traveling, Steampunk superhero. The project was a lot of fun to work on, and we took first place in the Inventiveness category at the competition. We also took the costume and character to the Vancouver Mini-Maker Faire, where we took first place in the pre-party costume context and attracted some fans at our booth."

She's finishing up her dissertation and defense this semester, as well as starting an internship at Intel Lab's Interaction & Experience Research Group. While there, she'll be continuing some research work that follows up on the Reading Glove.She's also helping to coordinate an exhibition of design fiction work for a conference in March at Arizona State University, which will feature a number of different people who have created unique design fictions and artifacts or costumes to go with them, including Captain Chronomek. 

And that's not all. She adds, "The other, related project that I’m current engaged in is an academic look at the subculture of steampunk to try and pick apart what is driving its increased popularity and visibility at this particular point of time. The Tomorrow Project at Intel is doing a documentary and book on the subject of steampunk culture, and I'm hoping to be involved in that work. I'm also a co-author on a paper on steampunk at CHI this year, which looks at some of the implications of the movement: the way it re-imagines the industrial revolution and the historical story of technology development and the drive towards customization and artisan craftsmanship in technology that it highlights. This also ties into the Maker and DIY movements, another community that I want to continue to research and participate in."

Her parting words to her program: "I have really enjoyed my time here at SIAT: It’s a unique program that brings together a lot of important and vital research areas in arts, technology, and design. I was able to get involved in some really interesting research, publish a number of papers, and meet many intelligent and exciting colleagues and collaborators. I’m looking forward to transitioning into industry research, and I think SIAT has prepared me well for my career going forward."

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