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Speaking at my first TEDx conference was a challenge. It was not just because it was a great platform for ideas, but because of the timing, design, and execution needed to pull off four interactive talks in one day.

TEDxNewHaven: The Art and Science of Happiness. Photo by Chris Randall

The theme for TEDxNewHaven was The Art and Science of Happiness. My goal for the talks was two-fold: to engage the audience in something interactive in the course of the day, and to enable them to view their senses as tools by which to achieve happiness. To achieve these, I had to produce 200 “sense kits” that contained physical, non-digital formats of my projects: HugPrints, Rorsketch, Smellbound, and EatPoetry.

Round One. Photo by Liz Danzico

First Talk: Touch

My first talk was about using our sense of touch. I presented HugPrints, my project where I am attempting to hug everyone in the world and getting visual feedback through a specially designed thermochromic vest. I asked volunteers to come up the stage to hug me.

Hugging on stage. Don’t you just love it? Photo by Chris Randall

Afterwards, I asked the rest of the audience to pull out the HugPrints cards in their sense kits, which contained hugging instructions so they can hug each other (if they wished).

Are you getting enough hugs a day? Photo by Chris Randall

Second Talk: Sight

For the second talk, I explained Rorsketch and first engaged the audience in a guessing game of what clouds looked like and then revealed what drawings I made. After doing this project for a while, I wasn’t surprised about how some people were calling out the same things, while other clouds had very different interpretations.

You know what my favorite Pixar movie is! Photo by Ruoxi Yu.

Yes, it’s a dragon! Photo by Chris Randall

I then asked the audience to pull out the blue Rorsketch cards and the Sharpies in their kits, and they drew their own interpretations on the clouds printed on their cards. To encourage them to draw, I did a live drawing session on a big cloud on stage.

Drawing on a cloud. The cloud I sketched on was taken by Nikki Sylianteng. Photo by Liz Danzico

One of my fellow speakers, Nima Tshering, sent me his cloud drawing. (Thanks, Nima!)

A fairy grandma with a baby by Nima Tshering

Third Talk: Smell, Hearing and Taste

I explained two projects for this post-lunch session: Smellbound and EatPoetry. First, I explained the connection between smell and memory and had the audience remove the Smellbound postcard which contained a printed smell. I showed them the book I made, An Olfactory Memoir of Three Cities. Afterwards, I read them After Apple-Picking by Robert Frost while they ate the apple lollipop inside their kits.

“Now please remove another envelope from your kits…” Photo by Chris Randall

Fourth Talk: Happiness and the Senses

For my fourth talk at the end of the conference, I summarized how we can use our senses to be happy. The key points were that we are all equipped with these tools; i.e. we all had the capacity to hug our loved ones, to interpret a cloud, to smell a memory, and to connect poetry with food, and that if we paid more attention to the world around us, it would promote our feelings of well-being and optimism. I also explained my own explorations with happiness by showing submissions from DrawHappy, as well as what I’ve learned from the project so far.

Photo by Liz Danzico

What Worked, and What I Would Do Differently Next Time

All the sleepless nights making sure all 200 kits had the right contents were definitely called for. So much craft and attention were given to every single detail—each postcard had to be sealed in an envelope so people can only view them as instructed, the envelopes had to match the main color of each project’s logo for easy recall, each postcard had to be branded and oriented in a specific direction, each kit had to contain envelopes in a particular order and needed both a Sharpie and a lollipop. Anything less would have taken away from the experience or would have confused people. Doing something onstage so that people can mirror my actions was also important, and getting all the props together also was something I had to keep in mind in addition to the actual slides.

I’ve also been onstage on different occasions and it was interesting to feel these variegations of audience contact. When performing for the Poetry Brothel in Barcelona, I had to inhabit a certain character and, depending on the piece we were doing, had to maintain a certain mystique. When doing poetry readings just as myself, there was a bit of conversation with the audience when I talk about the process of writing, but during the reading of the actual poem, it was just myself and the text. I felt this while reading the Frost poem to the TEDx crowd—the entire hall was dead silent in contrast to all the other times I was up there. (That was quite fun, actually.) But doing a talk that involved not just a Keynote presentation but an actual creative activity was another world altogether—it’s difficult to assess if everyone was enjoying the activity, although what was great about having a particularly open audience such as this one was that they weren’t afraid of trying new things.

For the next time I do something of this nature, I would have a card that had explicit instructions not to use the objects inside the kit unless asked. Although I anticipated this by making sure the envelopes were sealed, I did catch at least one person eating their candy before lunch. (We were running a bit late, and I suppose he was hungry.) One thing about having a sealed and long candy stick was that it affords a long eating session; they wouldn’t have finished it to begin with and they could just put the candy back in the plastic and in the kit. Hard candy was definitely the way to go.

Also, I would have split the third talk (Smellbound and EatPoetry) into two and let each project have its own 10 minutes. Thus, I would have placed EatPoetry for the fourth talk and followed it with a short summary of the senses. When I went up for the last talk and said that “Ok, I’m not going to make you do anything now,” I could swear I felt the disappointment of some people. If the schedule allowed it, giving each project its own time in the spotlight would have allowed the audience to absorb the concept more fully, instead of rushing to the next project right away. I can’t wait until I develop these projects more and more, and see what I will ask people to do the next time.

Finally

I have to say, I love this format of getting the audience to actually do something creative in a talk, instead of me just standing there telling them about myself. Thanks again to the audience for being open to these ideas, my friends and colleagues for helping me pull this off, and to the wonderful team at TEDxNewHaven who worked tireless to make it all happen!

Thanks to Kate Russell and Liz Danzico, my plus two!

Hello. My name is Catherine and I would like to give everyone in the world a hug.

I’m a hugger. I can’t help it. When I see someone I know, I just go for it as a greeting with barely a thought.

There are perfectly good explanations for this. I was raised in the Philippines, land of extremely happy and friendly people. I also grew up with a lot of stuffed animals. I still sleep with a pillow I’ve had with me from the crib—it’s the only material possession that has been with me forever. And dang it, it feels good. Hugging releases oxytocin, the hormone that promotes love and trust. In fact, studies have shown that a lack of human interaction, such as touching, is detrimental to growth and development. Touch ranks up there with food and water as a basic need.

But I do realize that not all people like to hug others. The idea of touching as a greeting is largely cultural, and I’ve had to adapt accordingly, depending on where I’ve lived and whom I was interacting with. In the Philippines, I hugged. In Spain, I kissed (both cheeks). Here in America, I shake hands. It is especially in the latter that I’ve felt that people respond the least positively to hugs. Many people, I’ve observed, have an invisible “wall” that illustrates their personal space. Touch may be considered as an intrusion, an interruption, or a threat. On the other hand, a hug can also be a sign of great physical intimacy that is only reserved for one’s closest family and friends.

I wanted to investigate our perception of touch. Moreover, I want this project to be a personal reminder of being physically connected to people.

Thus comes HugPrints. I designed a thermochromic (temperature-sensitive, color-changing) vest, so that it was possible to see evidence of the hug. The purple fabric temporarily turns to blue when touched. Right after each hug, photos of the front and the back of the vest are taken, showing where I was touched and how warm (literally) the person is. The patterns people intentionally and unintentionally make have been an interesting exploration of human contact.

I also record the ambient temperature of the environment. Hugging people indoors versus outdoors would give different intensities of color change.

I would love to give you (yes, you!) a hug. But hey, I would love it more if you give your loved ones and perhaps that sad-looking stranger next to you one, too! Visit the project site for more details.

Ready? Go!

I’m thinking deeply about who I want to use the Hug Vest that I’m designing, and while I can always wear it to hug friends and strangers alike (which I will do eventually), one specific audience I am looking at would be parents and their young children (roughly aged 3 to 7). The reason is that the desire to hug varies drastically among adults; witness the reactions I got with prototyping the vest. There were those who readily hugged, those who refused to, and those who reluctantly did it for the sake of helping the project.

Ah, but parents and kids! According to American psychologist and educator Virginia Satir, we need four hugs a day for survival, eight a day for maintenance, and twelve a day for growth. But for working parents, it may be difficult to find the time to hug their child, let alone get a young one to sit still to receive or to give a hug.

I wanted to find out how parents and children will interact with the thermochromic vest. I loaned the vest over the weekend to my friend and studio seatmate, Chris Cannon, who has a son, Alex, who is almost four. The vest was ill-fitting for both father and son; it was designed to fit a well-endowed girl or a large man, and neither of them fit these descriptions. I was interested specifically in how the material would affect their interaction. Chris, who has been in the clutches of graduate school for two years, says that he has made hugging important:

“Hugs are very important to us, especially since I don’t see much of him these days. I ask him for hugs everyday. We also bond in countless other ways: singing silly songs, making fart jokes, playing with his toys, sitting on my shoulders when we go out for walks, riding the subway together (he loves the G train), bedtime reading, etc.”

I doubted that Chris and his family would be the ideal audience for the vest. They already hug a lot, and I’ve seen Alex on many a day or event in school enough not to doubt that Chris and his wife, Yong, put family first in spite of how busy life can get. I was curious about how Alex would interact with the reactive material and how this can affect his manner of touching, as I knew his attention span was short based on what Chris has told me over the years.

As many of my friends with children have told me, the thing about hugging and young children is that they don’t hug the way adults do. The “standard” hug I’ve observed is putting one arm over the receiver’s shoulder and the other one around the waist. Or both arms over the shoulder or around the waist, depending on the height difference of the hugger and the huggee. But kids are less structured in how they hug or touch. Chris tells me about how Alex hugs him:

“It depends on whether I’m sitting or standing. I guess he hugs me in anyway imaginable, including head butts to the groin (hey, it counts as a hug!) and climbing up my back and putting me in a chokehold.”

The good thing about the thermochromic vest is that the entire vest is reactive. Thus, it didn’t matter how Alex hugged or touched the vest because it would change color despite what type of touch he gave it.
Below are the results, and further proof that I should always get my friends involved in my project. (So great!)

Chris Cannon and son, Alex

Hug Daddy, come on!

When I asked Chris if Alex enjoyed it, he says:

“He liked it. He didn’t want to hug me as much as just slap my back with his hand repeatedly to see his handprints. I enjoyed watching him experience something new, even if it was just for a few seconds before he got bored and moved on. He liked wearing it, probably because he likes wearing our clothes in general.”

Alex wearing (or perhaps a better term would be 'swimming in') the Hug Vest.

The bit that struck me was how Alex played with the material. Why he didn’t necessarily see the vest as a way to hug his Dad, he paid more attention to what the vest could do.

I liked how in the middle of playing and touching the vest, Alex ultimately plays with Chris, who is wearing it.
I loved this interaction, though I am mindful of who this vest is primarily for. As I said earlier, a well-bonded family like the Cannons wouldn’t have as much use for something like this. When I asked Chris frankly about whether he would buy one, he said:
“No, because we hug enough as it is (or at least I threaten to take away all of his toys until he hugs me!). Besides, then it’s a hug motivated by something other than enjoying a hug for its own sake. I’m sure he’d enjoy lights and sound added to it since a lot of his toys have that effect when he interacts with them.” [Note: italics mine]
I would be interested to see how this can play out in families where hugging is a chore. What about working parents who can’t squeeze time for a hug? Or children who need a sensorial “hook” to be sufficiently engaged in human contact? I am mindful of children’s short attention spans, especially in this video where Alex throws the vest on the couch and runs away when asked by his parents to show them how the handprints worked:
More to come, and soon.
A HUGE thank you to the Cannon family for agreeing to participate in this! Especially to Chris, who is repetitively awesome.