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Assignment 0: Prototypes

Updated: Dec 8, 2020

To recap, my thesis pitch is:

  1. Topic: I am studying empathy in nonverbal human communication. 

  2. Question: because I want to find out how is human understanding and misunderstanding the world and each other.

  3. Significance: in order to help my participant experience the power of understanding/misunderstanding critically in a situation of nonverbal communication.

Following that, these are the more specific research questions I'm asking:

  1. How do people communicate effectively without words?

  2. Is it possible to create empathy across culture?

  3. How to engage people in nonverbal communication?

To me, nonverbal communication has always been so powerful. Language has made us so efficient and intelligent, but on the other hand it divides us and creates confusions. By studying nonverbal communication, I hope to create empathy across culture, nation, social class, skin color... to create a moment in which we understand each other as human. If that goal is not achieved at last, it would be also interesting to reflect how communication fails, and hopefully make some art of misunderstanding.

Prototype 1

Before diving into nonverbal communication, I would like to talk about a type of verbal communication: slogan. It's very powerful both in its form and content. Slogans are usually made under specific historical or political context which gives it more profound meanings. Barbara Kruger's work is a good example, and below is a typical 1960-1980 style Chinese slogan on the wall. Because they're cultural crafts, it loses its power if you're out of context, and what's worse, it means nothing if the viewer doesn't know the language.

To reverse this into something interesting, my approach is to keep the layout and overall style of the slogan, and turn it into a more universal visual language as shown in the image below. It might have some psychological impact on people when you're expecting something but see something else instead. This approach contrasts verbal and nonverbal communication, and aims to explore possibilities in nonverbal communication.

Prototype 2

My second inspiration is telephone. The affordance of this product is so clear to everyone: you hear the ringtone, you pick it up, listen and speak. It's also a tool for verbal communication. But what if I create a telephone that delivers:

  • smell

  • warmth / coldness

  • laughter / cry

  • noise

  • ...

By transforming the verbal conversation into nonverbal information, it creates communication that is more subtle, emotional and might trigger unexpected feedback.

When I think of the form of this installation, a toy from childhood popped up: paper cup phone. This seems to be a perfect symbol of communication who has the signifier of a telephone(verbal) but also works as nonverbal communication: it transmits sound through the vibration of the string and this process invites more physical nonverbal communications like touching and eye contact. Besides that, the simplicity of the form opens up more opportunities for me to explore.


The third one is inspired by this beautiful scene from the movie The Last Emperor. The young emperor and a couple of boys are touching each other from both sides of a piece of huge translucent fabric. The shadow and light, the stretching of the fabric, the carefree laughter have all made the moment so indescribably dreamy and sensational. What a charm of nonverbal communication.

There are also art installations made of elastic, inflatable or sensory materials that allows the participants to touch and feel. From a similar approach, I'm proposing an installation that amplifies human contact. By touching, stretching, pressing or other types of interaction with the material, participants perceive the existence of each other, therefore communicate by their bodies. The installation initiates the interaction, and becomes the medium of communication.

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