Depth of field: Film in design research

We’ve just had a new article (pdf) published as part of a Research by design issue at Form Akademisk. What follows is a summary of some of the key points, alongside the embedded videos that form the central arguments in the research.

10 September, 18.47

The article is called Depth of field: discursive design research through film written by Timo Arnall and Einar Sneve Martinussen. It is about the role of film in interaction and product design research, and the use of film in exploring and explaining emerging technologies.

In the last decade, interaction design has found itself in a rather unique position. As an interdisciplinary field, drawing upon many domains such as Human Computer Interaction (HCI), product and graphic design, informatics, art, engineering and critical practice, it has grown the potential to situate itself in a critical position between emerging technologies and culture. In particular, there are emerging modes of doing exploratory design research that result from the newfound relations between product, interaction and communications design.
In this article we discuss our design research activities that use film as a material for exploring, conceptualising and communicating with emerging technology. We analyse this through existing framings of audiovisual media in HCI, technology, and interaction design research. The central research question we address is how does audiovisual media enable new kinds of practice-based design research with emerging technology?

The relations between scientific advance and cinema are extremely close. Kirby proposes that film establishes achievability of scientific and technical discourses, and ‘cinematic depictions of future technologies demonstrate to large public audiences a technology’s need, viability and benevolence’. Historically, film has been a central part of the communication of new technology with interfaces mediated through film or video demonstrators. From televised events showing off household robotics at the 1939 New York World Fair to the invention of modern computing paradigms such as the mouse – in Engelbart’s ‘Mother of all demos’. Products too are often initially experienced through cinematic forms, from lifestyle commercials for Sony televisions, to explanatory ‘how to’ informercials for the Apple iPhone, to user-generated ‘unboxing’ videos on YouTube. The commercial film for the Polaroid SX-70 camera, directed by Charles and Ray Eames in 1972 is a fine example from design practice of new technology explained to the masses through a product commercial, conveying technology and experience combined into one sequence.

In this research we have used graphical, audiovisual, and time-based media as a tool, a material and a communicative artefact that enables us to approach complex, obscure and often invisible emerging technologies such as RFID. We give an account of how film has played an intricate role in the design research practice, from revealing the materiality of invisible wireless technology, to exploring prototypes in real-world settings, to communicating to a wide public audience.

In the article we propose that this kind of research with technology constitutes what we could call a ‘discursive design’ approach. The films below demonstrate design research approaches to RFID where film reveals and articulates complex subjects, through multiple genres, and for multiple audiences. By approaching design research in this way we may be able to explore emerging technologies through play, invention, imitation and parody in ways that are able to reveal and translate across many socio-cultural contexts.

Exploring materiality

The first films show a research approach that explores the materiality of RFID in experimental and highly aestheticised ways. These films emerged out of probing at the technology with the visual tools of photography and animation.

RFID is a largely immaterial technology, it is literally ‘black boxed’ into packaged components, and the qualities of its invisible radio fields are badly understood. The spatial and material aspects of RFID are important for design, in order to be able to create interactions and products that take advantage of the spatial and gestural properties of the technology.

In this film we use long-exposure photographs, light painting, layering and animation. These techniques support particularly expressive modes of explanation, the visualisations occupy a ‘real’ space and are sequenced in a way that provides an immediately graspable view into the spatial qualities of RFID. The use of documentary film form allows for the visual evidence to be laid out in sequences that contextualise, reveal and explain, the film is a highly communicative package for the methods and results.

This was originally written up here and here

In this related film, we show that the readable volume of an RFID tag can be shaped by actually manipulating the size and shape of the physical antenna. This demonstrates that the fundamental technology is not static and constant, and can be shaped through design. When taken together, these films are intended to build material knowledge of RFID, but also through their form, show how designers might begin to take some control over the technical materials, for aesthetic, interactional or functional purposes.

These creative deconstructions of RFID through film techniques point towards what might call a discursive design approach. Drawing on methods from critical design that unpack and re-conceptualise the technological material, combined with narrative and communicative approaches, we may begin to challenge some of the expectations and dominant understandings of RFID.

Communicating products and prototypes

The following product-focused films show technology in context through experiential and explanatory sequences, such as the use of motion diagrams and narrative ‘vignettes’ which convey experiences of using technological products in specific contexts.

Skål (Norwegian for Bowl) explores RFID interactions in a domestic media context, where it broadens the activity of television-based media consumption towards playful, physical engagement. Here film is used to communicate a functioning product prototype, while at the same time highlighting playful and tangible perspectives on RFID in use.

In Sniff we see the potential for reframing RFID technology through explanation and experiential representation of use and activities, and not by focusing on the technology itself. Here the use of cinematic qualities such as short depth-of-field and other stylistic devices such as quick-cut montages enable jumps in time and action that strongly reinforce the playful, exploratory perspectives on the technology.

Films as discursive objects

In this last set of films we wanted to create culturally relevant objects that could communicate to a broad audience.

This iPhone RFID film was created to engage with a large online discussion around Apple’s relatively new iPhone. We wanted to question the largely screen-based modes of interaction that the iPhone encouraged, and to subtly reframe the discussion around RFID to include media, toys, play and direct manipulation of objects in the world. The film was a speculative object from which to see the possibilities for the rich, playful interaction between mobile devices and the world.

Nearness offers a particular view of RFID and proximity interaction that playfully resonates with a history of the chain reaction film genre. It is designed to reach beyond a research or design community in order to provoke discussion and to increase awareness of the technological implications. It does this by parodying an existing popular cultural form in a way that inherently embeds the quality of the technology into the narrative. Originally this film was described here and here.

The making of

These films constitute more than documentation of the design research in Touch, they were the medium in which invention and reflection occurred. Audio-visual media allowed for the creation of products, spaces, objects, gestures and environments that supported our internal and external discussion and development around RFID.

This film shows some of the experiments, processes and film techniques behind the creation of the other films in the article. It shows that these design processes work within the material of film, where the analysis and reflection emerged through the design activity of filmmaking. As well as being highly communicative, film sequences provide a space to gather and articulate a set of ideas, providing a relatively stable outcome and further motivation within the design activity.


This is a body of design research work that demonstrates the communicative qualities of film, that represent physical objects and their interactive, tangible behaviours over time. Time-based, audiovisual media can combine both explanatory and experiential and contextualising power, and this opens up for prototypes, products and processes being externalised within a practice-based design research activity. We see the potentials for a kind of practice where the emphasis of design research is on communication and participation in public discourse.

We have shown how practice-based design research has the ability to create representations and communicative artefacts, as opposed to technological development or mass production. A communicative approach to interaction design is central to this research. It embodies the idea that the communication of ideas, concepts and arguments through mediated design artefacts is essential to both creating effective interactive products, and to provoking discourse in and around technology-centric research. The form of film – that embodies both a highly reflective design activity and communicative qualities – is an ideal medium for interaction design research, where it can coalesce knowledge around practices and processes and project towards potential futures. Film allows for a degree of probing, explanation and reflexive understanding of emerging technologies, but through its communicative qualities, also opens up for participation in broad social and cultural discourses around technology.

We have shown some perspectives on the role that film can play in exploring, conceptualising and communicating about emerging technology. Film can be used for cinematic explorations and enactments that enable speculation in practice-based design research, but we have also pointed towards the use of online mediation to support public discourse around ubiquitous technologies and materials. 

Read the full article here (pdf) which is published as part of a Research by design issue which also includes articles about designing mobile social software and investigations of motion sketching from our colleagues at AHO.

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