Making Friends With the Mechanical

With the push of a button, blenders allow us to "whip" and "pulverize," Dobson says. It's a machine that essentially makes very aggressive actions, but "we're so enculturated to not even pay attention to the fact that our cat is under the bed or that our baby is crying," she said.

On the other hand, loud, aggressive machines, such as jackhammers, can also give people opportunities for cathartic release, she said. While exploring Boston's Big Dig (the city's colossal transportation project), construction workers told her that, as they worked with the deafening machines, they would sing along, enjoying the "private" release afforded by the noise.

A similar encounter with a jackhammer of her own, led her to another invention: the ScreamBody. Walking by a jackhammer pummeling a city street, she started screaming herself, realizing that nobody could hear her and relishing the release.

A "wearable body organ" that slips over your head and covers your chest, ScreamBody is "portable space for screaming," Dobson said. When you need to scream but know it's not socially acceptable to do so, you can scream into the device. It silences the sound and records the scream so that you can release it later. Over time, Dobson said, she hopes that people will become more comfortable managing their emotions and will outgrow the machine.

At Pop! Tech, Dobson will also present Omo, an egg-shaped "machine" that also resembles an organ. As you hold it against your body, Omo senses your breathing patterns and matches its breathing to your own. It gradually soothes you by influencing your breathing, she says.

Omo is Dobson's response to android-like companion robots that express care and emotion in very human ways. Some, she said, are programmed to say, "I love you."

"I'm a little unsettled by what these machines might also be doing on the sides, that we're not aware of, in terms of teaching us what it is to care for someone and what it is to have an emotional response from something you don't earn the love of," she said.

As Dobson told Wired magazine earlier this week, Omo combines art, design and engineering to explore the idea of machines as companions to humans without replacing humans as friends.

Zolli, who has experimented with Dobson's inventions, said that as opposed to most modern technologies that engage only part of our attention, Dobson's machines focus the mind and actually have a calming effect.

"We live in this era when technology makes tremendous abundance available to us at the click of the button. … But one of the things that all of these technologies create is a condition that researchers call 'continuous partial attention,'" he said. "It's hard to be fully present in the moment when you're trying to pay attention to four or five different things."

"There's a new direction coming in technology as people begin to create technologies that are very tactile and tangible," Zolli said. "Their work is about eliciting very human dimensions in our relationship with technology."

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