Technologies of human waste

With the increasing prevalence of data informing and revealing what humans do and how they do it, the boundaries of where data-driven technologies could and should participate in everyday lives are challenged. One such domain is intimate practices of bodily care, such as human excretion, in which designerly concerns extend from how intimate and somatic data can be put to use in responsible ways to how it can even be usable for interaction designers to consider and shape.

To explore this, I have designed three provocations referred to as pee-ometers that predict when and how badly one has to urinate as objects of utility and critique. While I am not necessarily advocating that there should be pee-ometers, the possibility of such devices simultaneously reveals and exasperates social tensions, relational frictions, and interactional loops with smart technology.

Three Provocations

Each provocation is grounded in a theme from a critique of over one hundred market products available for purchase to manage bodily excretion. The three themes are: a scheduled procedure, a gendered performance, and a dirty behavior.

Truth and Dial is a watch that explores a scheduled procedure and is helpful in thinking about the interpersonal relationship between a carer and the cared-for. The watch is designed to be worn by a guardian to manage the urinary urge of a child. The yellow sections of the interface gradually fill up as a predicted urge to urinate increases. A black dial on the interface is used to set an “urgency threshold” to notify the guardian via an audio alarm when the urge reaches a particular level. The alarm is turned off by pushing a “peed” button, which indicates to the system that the child has urinated. The watch is meant to be provocative by highlighting interpersonal power imbalances and the social exposure of care-taking.

Clip and Snip is a garment clip that explores a gendered performance and is helpful in thinking about how agency can be displaced between a person and technology through data-driven actuation. The clip is designed to be attached to the bottom of a hem. Magnetic wheels secure it to the fabric and sensors form a representation of the urinary urge of the wearer. As the detected urge increases, the magnetic wheels gradually move up the garment, causing the hem to rise and thus making it easier to urinate. If the hem is pulled down to correct the prediction too many times or if an urge is not addressed in a healthy timeframe, the system uses a fabric razor to clip off the bottom of the garment. The clip is meant to be provocative by foregrounding experiential dilemmas and challenges of agency with technology that is meant to assist vulnerable users.

Survey and Shoot is a camera network that explores a dirty behavior and is helpful in thinking beyond a predetermined number of participants and instead strangers interacting with a public system. The camera network uses computer vision to form representations of urinary urges of people in a public space to democratically grant facility access. When a toilet stall is available, the system notifies the chosen person by shooting him or her with an air haptic, also known as a “poof”. The amount of time an individual has in a stall is dependent upon their detected urge. The camera network is meant to be provocative regarding the use of data-driven technology at scale to govern access in the prevention of deviant behavior.

This work is a part of the Implicit Interaction project at KTH Royal Institute of Technology in the Department of Media Technology and Interaction Design.

Publications & Creative Outputs

Karey Helms. 2019. Do you have to pee? A Design Space for Intimate and Somatic Data. ACM Conference on Designing Interactive Systems (DIS 2019), San Diego, California, USA. (Best Paper Honorable Mention Award, top 2% of papers)

Featured on SpeculativeEdu as an exemplary practice of Speculative Design.