Tattoos are Permanent, Your Memory is Not
Made by Erin Fuller
Created: February 3rd, 2019
In 50 First Dates with Adam Sandler, his love interest, played by Drew Barrymore, has anterograde amnesia caused by a car accident which inhibits her ability to form new memories from that day moving forward. At the end of the movie, Lucy wakes up and plays a videotape marked "Good Morning Lucy". During the video, she is informed of her accident and her condition, and then shows clips of her life post-accident that she could not remember, up to the present day.
I am interested in the memory of self, and how to create and augment an identity when a user is subject to a condition where they are not aware of themselves. Focusing on those who have Alzheimer's, other dementias, or amnesias (like in the movie above). I would like to incorporate embedded technologies, such as “smart tattoos”. Imagine having a digitized image of you, your memories and personality, attached to you at all times, activated by some sort of smart hub or smartphone to be displayed on whatever screens we have in the future. The current technology would require for data to be input in, but you could foresee a future where the information is drawn from the network of sensors and data collecting devices we use daily.
My prototype, though defective, was made using Particle Photon and RFID hardware. The Particle Photon was connected to an MFRC522 RFID Reader and ideally, a speaker, DFPlayer Mini and some LED lights as well. Below is some of the code that I was not able to successfully run to read the serial numbers of the (many) tags I attempted. A user would have an RFID, I envision it being embedded under the skin, that would trigger the object when held or touched, as long as the signal was within range. The object would read who is interacting with it and use that person's unique ID to play a song or audio file of significance to the user. For example, for me, it would play some audio of the beach, in relation to my childhood in Florida. But if two used it together it would play a shared memory, such as a song loved by both or audio from a sporting event both users attended together. I thought this could be a useful feature because Alzheimer's causes you to lose your semantic memory (facts) before autobiographical (events), so if a user couldn't remember the name or relation of who they were with but the object sparked a shared memory it could bring some peace and joy to the user.
I have been doing a lot of background research into Alzheimer's disease, as well as other dementias, amnesias and cognitive disorders related to memory. In my research, I found countless examples of sensory stimulation kits on Pinterest. Described by words like sensory, activities, and fidget in forms of pillows, stuffed animals, quilts and boards, these kits are commonplace in the caregivers world. Sensory stimulation has been proven to ease symptoms of Alzheimer's by decreasing agitation, increasing mood, helping with restlessness and improving sleep quality. This type of therapy can also, the key thing I will focus on, allows patients to trigger emotions and memories in patients who have lost their ability to connect with the world around them.
I am also really interested in the idea of embedded tech. There have been steady trends towards wearables like smartwatches so I am wondering if this will continue into the future. I think embedded tech could have many applications, and encoding memory is just one. I found a project called Project Underskin by New Deal Design, the creators of the Fitbit. They were asked by Fast Company to look forward five years and answer where are personal electronics headed? What is the near future of wearable technology and interface as they begin to integrate more fully into our work, health, and personal lives? NewDealDesign envisioned tech to be seamlessly integrated into our lives by being placed under the skin - there when we need it, hidden when we don't.
The technology behind RFID is really hard, in hindsight probably out of my skill range. I was not able to fully implement the code, there was the first try, then the second, then the third... so I ended up faking the demo. The covering was just a rectangular box made of corrugated plastic to allow me to show the "guts" of the hardware but present as a tangible product.
The space I was operating within is a very delicate topic as the disease is very detrimental to both the loved ones of and the affected person. Many questions came up relating to, is this right? will it help? would people with Alzheimer's know what to do? would they be scared with it? what are the relationships with technology that these patients have now? In regards to the "tech tattoo", the embedded RFID, would they know what it is? would they be scared of this foreign object?
Post presentation and demo of the work, I am wondering if this project should be limited to those with Alzheimer's. I can also imagine this in a space as a group therapy sort to heal trauma. I was inspired by my classmate who did the project related to the audio of trauma playing only when the room is very quiet. Because healing is often much more successful when done with others, could a group of survivors interact with this to play sounds of the 9/11 attacks or similarly traumatic experience to come together and be resilient?
Even though I had to stimulate the user experience with the project, I think this project created a really nice interaction. If I were to continue to refine this project, I would first and foremost get the program to run. I also would want to do some user studies/interviews with suffers of Alzheimer's, as well as loved ones and caregivers.
I would also love an what shapes would afford someone with cognitive disorders to understand that the object was meant to be interacted with. Should it be made of a natural material like wood or a felt, or an artificial like a 3D printed plastic? Should it light up? Or wiggle-wobble on the table like a Mexican Jumping Bean?