Digital Incense Sticks for the Deceased

Made by Denise Nguyen

How do you give more presence to a cherished memory of the deceased? This project encodes digital audio memories memories of the decease into incense sticks.

Created: February 1st, 2018


Proposal/Conceptual Design: 

Describe your vision. What is the driving idea behind your design? What kind of solution are you trying to create and why? How does it enhance/augment/extend memory? What are your goals and motivations? How would it work in practice? Etc

My idea is inspired by the incense burning ritual of Vietnamese culture to celebrate death. Incense sticks are burnt at funerals, at grave sites, or on a daily basis on home altars. I wanted to digitize the incense ritual to include sounds or memories. In terms of a memory of the deceased, we don’t want to forget about things like the way their voice sounds or a song that reminds us of them or the way they laugh, but sometimes thinkings about theses things are painful so we push these memories aside, but if we don't engage with them, we start to forget or worst augment a memory we have of them. This is why people keep voicemails, pictures, and old tapes of the decease locked away in shoe boxes. I want my piece to take that burden off of someone.

I don't see it as a replacement for the actual incense sticks because there’s that quality of smoke and burning that is beautiful in that ritual. I see it as a supplement to an existing ecosystem. I kept the design simple because it should noticeable, but not intrusive.

The vase can hold as many incense sticks as possible (i.e. you can just keep adding more). The difference is now they hold digital memories that you curated and they can even be duplicated. You can curate a variety of incense sticks for yourself or for someone else.

When you first get the incense sticks, they are empty and you start off with three and are encourage to put in: (1) a memory with the decease's voice, (2) a song or sound that reminds you of them and (3) a memory that you verbally saying a story about them. Then you can gift this to someone else or just leave it in your bedroom for yourself. I say the bed room because it’s a private place and usually altars are not in bedroom because they’re a bit messy should be in a communal area for a shared experience. Mine is a bit more personal, and the curated memories I put together might be just for me. You can also gift this to someone else with pre-filled memories that they can delete and put their own in or trade with you. You can hear them all at once or separately, as well. You can put the incense stills on a gravestone so that others who visit can get a better sense of the person, since gravestones are such a cold, impersonal place sometimes.



Describe your experience/working prototype: What did you create, how, etc.? What tools and technologies were involved? Include appropriate content and illustration (e.g. a concept video, a video of the device in operation, diagrams, code, etc.)

I really enjoy making and although I initially sketched out the concept. I quickly went to making because I think through making. I initially wanted to create a lightbulb with LEDs that lit up, but then had an epiphany to mimic the form of an incense stick when I was thinking about the death rituals in my family tradition.

I created the incense sticks using conductive tap, soldering wires, and insulating it using heat shrinks. I used a Makey Makey, as well, and mapped 3 of the keys each to an mp3 file.



Describe theory, concepts, and research you have performed. Describe the prior work, ideas and projects that influenced your design. What work informed this idea.

I actually have never seen any digitized version of incense sticks, but this projects has inspirations from the Pensive and memory extraction spell from Harry Potter - just more realistic.


I was also inspired by the final form of the Necropolis project, which takes in your Facebook digital data and lights up LEDs based on your digital data (

After my presentation, I was also asked to look at Will Odum’s work, specifically: and .

I was also inspired to embed voicemails into the incense sticks by listening to this podcast:



Describe how you arrived out the outcome. What iterations, refinements, design decisions and changes were made?

Initially, I wanted it to be so that when they write or record a memory, an LED will light up. I’m envisioning that the LEDs will light up in a jar of LEDs or maybe there’s just one led that’s own by everyone involved in this community and that LED will light up when a memory is posted. In the first option, the mourner can visually see all the memories they recorded and in the second option, all the mourners can see when someone else has posted and maybe respond to it or feel better through commiserating or relating to the memory.

Eventually, that evolved into incense sticks because I was thinking about death rituals in my Vietnamese family tradition. 

Initially, I only want to add voicemails from the deceased, but eventually opened it up into any audio that helped reminded one of the deceased (e.g. recounts of stories and songs that trigger a memory of the deceased).

I initially had an idea to make it more high-fidelity, but my professor told me that the prototype got the idea across. I wanted to trigger visuals, too, but ultimately kept it simple.


Open Questions and Challenges:

What questions remain to be addressed or questions about memory did this exploration raise for you. What are the things we should pay attention to/discuss in class for future explorations?

Some suggestions after my presentation were:

  1. "I think there also could be something interesting if the incense candles somehow are transient (similar to real incense candles that burn) and thus these memories also fade occasionally but also come back maybe in a month or so - to discourage wallowing in the memory but still having it for the future."
  2. Think about the gate keepers or "who curates the memories of someone's legacy today? Who takes on this role? How does this integrate with practices in this space?"
  3. "You mentioned the graveyard towards the end. Interesting shift in site. What would the implications for interaction with it be by moving it from an intimate familial context to a public-ish space?"


Reflect on making this project. What did you learn? What would you do differently? Did you get where you wanted to? If not, why not? What do you need to get there, etc?

For the presentation, I dim the lights and set it up to be as realistic as I could since I want to take people into the space of reflection. I loved working on this project because it though an area I really cared about. I feel as though death and memory are things that aren't often designed for and I don't think this will be the last project.


Attribution and References:

Reference any sources or materials used in the documentation or composition.


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The theme for 2018 will be the exploration of human memory and how digital and connected technology can support, augment, enhance, effect and alter the ways in which we remember, recount and reflec...more


How do you give more presence to a cherished memory of the deceased?
This project encodes digital audio memories memories of the decease into incense sticks.