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Synthetic affective touch by soft robotics, Exploring and negotiating a novel design space

My practice-led PhD research explores how wearable technology and the aesthetics of materiality could be reconciled for technological artefacts to foster emotionally rich sensory experience and emotionally engaging properties. Emerging from a lack of connection with current “emotionally intelligent” artefacts, and drawing from my background in fashion design and material making, I investigate emotional qualities by exploring materiality and corporeal relations. My practice focuses on exploring the affective qualities of materials and modes of interaction that facilitate users’ subjective, personalisable experience.

The methods used for investigations are studio practice, toolkits design and co-design workshops. My practice works with the chosen medium of soft robotics and involves design and control of soft actuators. Specifically, I investigate the affective qualities of tactile sensations enabled by soft robotic interfaces and how affective relation is formed through a mutual learning process between the artefact and the user. The research also suggests the disruptive social implications when physical sensations are reproducible and redistributable.

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More about Yan

Caroline Yan Zheng is a designer and researcher at the intersection of fashion, soft robotics, human-computer interaction(HCI) and experience design.

Her design practice explores how wearable technology and the aesthetics of materiality could be reconciled for technological artefacts to foster emotionally rich sensory experience. She integrates creative and fashion practices with the design and realisation of affective interactions. She is passionate in creating personalisable, emotionally intelligent robotics and sentimental machines. Using co-design and speculative design she also investigates the social impact of affective technologies. 

Trained in ESMOD Paris for fashion design and pattern cutting, she holds an MA in Fashion Futures from London College of Fashion. She is currently a PhD candidate at the Royal College of Art, in Information Experience Design (IED) and Fashion. She designs simulated affective touch and novel tactile sensations using soft robotic interfaces and creates soft, wearable solutions that could be applied to immersive experience design, therapeutic treatment for mental health, human-robotic interaction and affective communication via the tactile channel.

Her entrepreneurial experience includes developing a successful ahead-of-the-curve cultural service between 2005-2010 in China and a recently awarded grant from MedTech Super Connector (Research England) to translate her research prototype into commercially viable product and service. The applications include mental health and improving patient comfort in cancer treatment.

She has also initiated Affective Futures, a cross-disciplinary space exploring human-machine relationships mediated by affective technology and robotics. Her work and workshops have been at the V&A Museum, Vogue and Vice media, London Design Festival, STATE of Emotion Festival Berlin, Athens Digital Art Festival, and Manchester Science Festival, the International Conference on Robotics and Automation (ICRA), The ACM CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, among others.