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Design Products and Innovation Design Engineering Research the Art and Science of Multisensory Perception

Crossing Over , the Royal College of Art-hosted public, one-day symposium with University of Oxford, explored the crossovers between knowledge in art and science that occur in multisensory perception. 

Research staff and students from the RCA and the University of Oxford have a common interest current and future approaches to multisensory perception. With three speakers from each institution presenting their work, with multisensory activities accompanying each presentation, the day offered fresh insights into the way the senses and human brain work, as well as providing practical examples of how this research can be put to use within a design context.

The event was part of a research initiative conceived and organised by research staff and students from Design Products and Innovation Design Engineering, in collaboration with the Crossmodal Research Laboratory at the University of Oxford. The event builds on Super Feelers, a 2014 collaborative exploration with the Crossmodal Research Laboratory, also hosted by the RCA.

Bruna Petreca, Design Products PhD candidate, opened the event by challenging the accepted binary positions established by the fields of art and science. She explained that throughout the day speakers would focus on the ‘&’ as the crossing over point between art and science. Bruna also read ‘Two metaphysical animals’ from Jorge Luis Borges’ The Book of Imaginary Beings (1967), raising important themes explored throughout the day.

Paris Selinas, a research associate in Design Products, presented his research into the way that people experience and reflect on flavour, within the context of human-computer interaction. His approach considered three types of human expression: verbal or written language, visual representation and embodiment. In addition to his presentation, Paris ran an interactive activity, which showcased the principles of embodied interaction to communicate a desired flavour over distance.

‘The most important thing, as the title suggests, was the crossing over; our talks focused on the overlap between science and design, showing that they are not opposite, but rather complimentary approaches, where the one can inform and inspire the other’ explained Paris who organised the event with Chang Hee Lee. ‘There is great potential in further exploring these synergies. At Design Products we have developed a food design project, where first-year students creatively use the scientific insights on multisensory perception to address problems relating to eating. Oxford's Crossmodal Research Laboratory is also involved, and we are all looking forward to the tangible outcomes of this ongoing collaboration.’

At the symposium Innovation Design Engineering PhD candidate Chang Hee Lee presented his research into synaesthesia. Chang’s research has identified three key properties of synaesthesia that are applicable in a design context, and he has created design artefacts to explore potential uses for each. These properties are: translation, for example the association of a colour with a place; narrative, as a way of sharing personal experiences; and creativity, which explores the creative potential of synaesthesia in a design context.

DPhil Candidate in Experimental Psychology at the University of Oxford Matt Tompkins explored the science of perception, visual attention and awareness. Matt described the human perception of light, as well as the role our brains play in producing continuous vision by compensating for blind spots, blinks, saccades (rapid movements of the eye) and out of focus areas.

A professional illusionist, Matt added tricks and optical illusions to explain these theories to the audience. Using playing cards, Matt explained the change blindness phenomenon, where a focus on one element within our field of vision has a consequent effect of causing us to ignore other elements. Using the Kanitza triangle, Matt extended the illusory contours phenomenon and ended his talk by demonstrating how we can manipulate the mind to create false memories.

A scientist, turned-musician, turned-psychologist, Clea Desebrock’s multidisciplinary interests were reflected in her talk. Clea, also a DPhil candidate in Experimental Psychology at the University of Oxford, discussed hearing and its relationship to product preference. Starting with audio and vision, Clea presented the Mcgurk effect, an illusion that occurs when the auditory component of one sound is paired with the visual component of another, creating the illusion of a third sound. Clea summarised her talk with two reflections: first, that integrated sensory inputs are richer experiences than the linear sum of their individual parts, and second, that the integration of inputs from different senses can enhance quality of life.

The final contribution to the symposium came from Alejandro Salgado Montejo, a University of Oxford DPhil student who is currently exploring the relationship between taste and other senses: vision, sound and to a lesser extent, touch. Alejandro explained that understanding how our senses work enables us to 'hack' them. For example a playlist can be created not only to enjoy with a meal, but also to influence how we perceive its flavour. With a quick activity Alejandro showed how tactile feedback from other stimuli, such as rubbing a piece of Velcro, can affect the taste perception of wine.