Sensory Experience Design Studio is a multidisciplinary Design Studio formed by Weichen Tang from Shanghai,
Kornbongkoch Harnpinijsak from Bangkok, and Nong Hua Lim from Malaysia.
They met at the UCL Interactive Architecture Lab in 2018, and then they formed a design team in 2019 and started working on experiential projects tackling the human-environment relationship.
Full credits for the pictures:
Chambre Fluide: Let’s talk about the Sensory Experience Design Studio you run. Who is behind it?
S.E. Design Studio: Weichen Tang from Shanghai, China. I'm experienced in UX design with a focus on the interaction between humans and various touchpoints from the physical environment to cyberspace.
Kornbongkoch Harnpinijsak from Bangkok, Thailand, has a background in interior architecture and has been exploring topics about sensory interaction in an exhibition context.
Nong Hua Lim from Malaysia. As an architectural designer researching auditory experience in the context of human perception, space, and time.
The three of us met at the UCL Interactive Architecture Lab in 2018. We formed a design team in 2019 and started working on experiential projects tackling the human-environment relationship.
CF: What does the task of design mean for you, as a multidisciplinary designer? How Art/Design can lead to scientific innovation?
S.E. Design Studio: Through reflecting on the way we exist and thinking about possible/better futures, we design.
This is especially true in the context of multidisciplinary collaboration, that we shape thoughts and share methods together, and the final proposal is spoken by a collective identity. In other words, as designers, we imagine the desirable experiences, which results in designs with comprehensive perspectives. This sometimes questions the validity of existing research, sometimes inspires innovators to think differently, sometimes even leads to the creation of new tools for new investigations. In fact, we think nothing could develop solely on its own, and crossing the boundaries of studies is indeed helpful for a more comprehensive evolution of human culture. Leonardo Da Vinci’s quote is rather relevant in this context:
“To develop a complete mind
Study the science of art
Study the art of science
Learn how to see
Realize that everything connects to everything else
Everything is connected, everything is divine ”
CF: How does your research develop? Where do you collect your inspiration from?
S.E. Design Studio: The flow is usually ‘think-make-experiment-analyze’ and loops back to ‘think’, which means our research develops through the design process.
Instead of solely diving into quantitative data collection, we have our focus on experiential elements, which is more the realm of artists rather than scientists, and we think that is what designers should do.
We need to be sensitive and sensible at the same time. When this attitude is being cultivated, you will naturally ask yourself a lot of questions, you will be interested in many things about the world, and you will be more easily touched by daily details. We think being mindful is the key, that there’s no particular way or aspect to search for inspiration, the richness is already in our lives, just deserves more consciousness to be discovered. We always say, love the life you live, live the life you love. Explore the world, try to understand different cultures, care about other living beings, think about our possible impacts… especially during this pandemic era, observe how people behave, react, perceive, interpret… It’s an attitude towards the world. With a motivation coming from within, you’ll see so many significant details around you, they are all sources of inspiration, and focusing on just one or a few of them could lead to a big idea.
CF: Tell us about your recent project "Translator".
S.E. Design Studio: The project emerges from a conversation within our design group about how we are influenced by our environment, particularly about how we are moved by the sound of the rain even when we do not visually see the rain.
We were all in London at that time, where the rain is much smaller than what we experienced in our homelands, and we found it quite difficult to describe verbally about how different they are. Then we came to this idea of designing a rain machine that could translate the sound of the rain from other places to London. As the concept got more mature, we pinned down a location, decided to elaborate on the perceptual feeling of the Bangkok rain (2 of our group mates are from Southeast Asia), and thus the "Translator" project began. "Translator" is designed as an instrument using different materials to translate the sound of the rain from Bangkok to London. Designed for an immersive experience, it was set up at Here East London to perform 2 minutes of Bangkok downpour. Instead of reproducing the sound of the rain, this project focuses on representing the sound perception of the rain from an author’s memory.
"Translator" consists of 5 layers of sounds, each generated by different mechanisms and daily materials such as container, foil, beans, papers, and plastic bags, corresponding to different sound perception of the rain from distinct tapping to complex shower. The mechanisms have separate controllers, allowing the customization of the rain combination.
CF: How does it relate with the perception in memory and the physical space?
S.E. Design Studio: So we are trying to recreate the feeling of a Bangkok rain. When you try to recollect a ‘rain’ moment, you are actually building a scene with details of different weights. In order to dig up these details, we had rather intimate and extended interviews within our group. Questions related to sound perception are asked in detail, such as:
1. Now you realize it rains, where do you picture yourself? What is the first sound you hear? Is it far or near?
2. Then you start paying attention to listening to the rain, what else do you hear? Where does it come from?
3. What are you doing at the moment? Describe your space.
4. Now you hear a very nice tapping sound, where does it come from? What is the material?
These questions are indeed helpful in determining the sound materials, the spatial location of each sound as well as the sound narrative. When everything comes together, it’s more than the sound itself, rather, the audiences are presented with a sonic scene in which they feel they are within it, and that’s where the sense of immersion comes in.
In other words, we are using the perceptual details of an ‘author’ to create a physical experience of the Bangkok rain.
Some people suggested we compare the spectrograms of the real rain and our ‘rain’ to see how similar they are (which they think determines how successful the daily sound materials are), but in fact, it turned out that they are very different, which is even more interesting as it shows how our perceptual memories are remembered, that since we focus on a particular detail, it is perceptually amplified, resulting in a clearer/louder memory of that detail.
It is also very fascinating to know that despite such obvious differences in spectrograms, Southeast Asian audiences nevertheless effortlessly recognized it as a ‘rain’ experience, and this installation has translated them to another space and time constructed from bits and pieces of their memories.
CF: In your performances, there is an intention to get the audience involved and to participate in it at 360 degrees.
You said: “The author, as a crucial role behind the scene, is important as a basis to study how people perceive and recall sounds”. Can you elaborate more on this topic, about the role of the public and the human-technology interaction?
S.E. Design Studio: In the "Translator" performance, the ‘rain’ script is built from an ‘author’ (which is one of our groupmates, KH), and that is her perceptual narrative. The role of the public is to experience, not to observe from afar, but to go through a journey from the first-person perspective. In fact, the concept of rain has multiple layers, that everyone has some general understanding yet the perceptual feeling and relevant memories can differ rather vastly. We are mainly providing a perceptual narrative through technological means, immersing the audiences in a Bangkok rain, but the story and interpretation are unique to every audience, as it depends on how the inner experience evolves. In other words, we are using the technology to build up a scene for the audiences to interact with themselves, they are being translated to space and time uniquely constructed by themselves, and in there, they experience an intimate 2-minute Bangkok rain.
CF: Could you talk about how you choose the materials you used in "Sounds and Sweet airs"? Is it an encouragement to rethink our relationship with the environment?
S.E. Design Studio: The success of "Translator" encouraged us to further explore the sonic potential of daily materials. We started from scratching, bending, hitting, and blowing different kinds of discarded materials, trying to find any sounds that inspire us.
Sometime around April (is it April?) in 2020, when we were collecting materials at UCL Here East, we bumped into Chris Watson preparing for a workshop there. Without any hesitation, we joined the group for a listening activity and explored the soundscape at the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park. The experience was indeed inspiring, and the passion Chris Watson possessed for nature soundscape was very impactful. In the meantime, we came across some articles about environmental pollution, landscape change, and animals being killed by human-made materials.
When we thought more deeply about all these encounters and experiences, things came together and the project quickly evolved.
We are very much inspired by the human-environment relationship, about how the environment shapes us perceptually that we could immediately recognize certain sound patterns, about how we change our built environment, about how we build technologies that later influence us back, etc. These are all big questions, but the theme is there -- human-environment relationship -- and yes we want to encourage people to think more about it, not just about how we affect each other, but also to discover how we shape each other.
It is indeed inspiring to know that having lived in concrete jungles for years, we still remember our childhood memories of natural soundscapes. It is really beautiful to realize that our connection with mother nature is deeply embedded in our perceptual memories, but this also makes us wonder, what will the next generations remember? What will be the experiences/moments intimately remembered? And when we talk about a new nature (that embraces human impacts and technology development), what would be the elements they want to further pass on?
These are really complex topics, thus instead of asking some particular questions or giving our answers, we would like to use this experiential project to evoke deep reflections and conversations.
The sound ‘creatures’ are the products of our collective perceptual memories, recycled materials, built environment, and human technologies. By presenting this synthetic ecology, we want to invite the public to collectively imagine and build our environment.
CF: What importance does the study of soundscape ecology have for you?
S.E. Design Studio: In order to create a sonic sense of soundscape, besides researching from perceptual and phenomenological perspectives, we also studied the soundscape ecology to design a more persuasive experience.
It is especially useful while determining the species’ types, behaviors, and characteristics. In fact, quite some existing projects have tackled soundscape ecology but with different focuses, some study about scientific phenomena, some explore musical possibilities, some encourage environmental protection, etc.
To us, our main concern is the perceptual appreciation and behavioral interaction with an environment, we want to explore ways of coexisting. Again, it goes back to the topic of the human-environment relationship, and studying soundscape ecology is indeed inspiring.
When you have a more thorough understanding of the structure and complexity, you have a better grip on designing the system (synthetic ecosystem in S&SA case). Through all the exploration and study, We become more grateful for whatever we perceive (whether a harmonic or chaotic world), which has its significance in both our design attitude and personal values. It is a feeling of contentment in our personal existence, and this worth further sharing.