Behind glass, a shimmering purple creature begins to move. Hooked up to air pumps, the creature wriggles and bends, like an underwater shrimp. But this creature isn’t a living thing: it’s a gelatinous robot, part of our squishy future, and a canvas for designer Erika Marthins to play with our food.
Marthins an Interaction Designer from Sweden, building creating between food, technology, memories, and social networks. After spending most of her life in Stockholm, her hometown, she moved to Switzerland in 2012 and studied Interaction Design at the Ecole Cantonal d’art de Lausanne (ECAL). You can find her on Instagram at @emarthins and @augmented_food, or see her portfolio at augmentedfood.space.
Now visiting San Francisco as a DART resident, Marthins will be presenting several of her projects at our Pier 17 Science Studio event, “Bite-Sized Science,” including a playable chocolate record and a lollipop that can produce an image through a spotlight. We talked to Marthins about designing for food and working with interdisciplinary teams.
Our Gelatinous Future
ES: Why create an edible robot?
EM: The idea is to have this small living creature on your plate that has a small performance — a bit alive — but you can eat it. My part as a designer is to bring different technologies out of the white papers and reports and make it come out in a playful manner, to spread the knowledge in another way.
Soft robotics can difficult to understand if they’re explained out loud, but somehow I can understand it much better when I imagine pushing my tongue into a gelatin chamber, and realize that it’s connected to another chamber, and so on. It’s a surprising venue for science communication.
As an interaction designer, putting something in your mouth and swallowing it is the strongest thing you could ever do, because you actually put it inside of your body. It’s almost like a ritual, to eat something — there’s a cultural aspect, even a religious aspect to it, “sharing the bread.”
To do that with technology can be beautiful, and can help us to understand technology in another way. Because what is technology? What is robotics? Here, it’s just gelatin and air. If you can change the interaction, you can change perspectives too.
But I’m also interested in the future of food. Food is also medicine, it’s what fuels us. You can seperate the experience and the nutrition of food. Human decisions aren’t always the best ones, but maybe we can create some AI chefs that automatically manage our nutritional needs, and then we can create some kind of augmented food where you can still share a real experience.
We can already put all of our nutritional needs into a bottle we drink and be done with food that day. But it seems important to balance that with the pleasures of food.
Yes. We can improve people’s health with things like AI, but eating is really the center of humanity. It brings people together, there’s no language barriers, and I think that’s beautiful. That moment where everyone is coming to the dinner table, that kind of religious thing, is very important, but we can still evolve what a plate looks like. Food on a plate hasn’t evolved with technology, but there are really no limits.
How do people react to the idea of eating this soft, moving thing?
People have such strong reactions! I was looking at the comments on the Seeker video, and people were saying they would never eat it, that it looks like a living creature. But it’s not meat — there’s some animal product in the gelatin — but it’s not like having a fish on the plate, which people eat. Just because something moves doesn’t mean it’s alive!
Life on Venus
I’m curious about the chocolate record. What does it play?
“Life on Venus,” by the Tornados, this 1960’s sci-fi music. Venus and chocolate seemed very feminine, and I liked this sci-fi idea of life on Venus and a dessert that talks for itself. I liked the idea of eating sound and having a small conversation with what you eat.
For all of the projects, I think about how so much of what we eat is based on memories. Unconsciously, we eat what we remember, a link we make through smell or appearance. Maybe it reminds you of something your grandmother made, so you go in.
What if we could bake that memory into the food? What if we can share a great moment with someone, share the sound and the visuals and the full experience? It’s richer, more multi-sensory than a photograph.
You have a lollipop that projects a visual onto the wall when it’s exposed to light. How does it work?
I wanted to insert a photograph into food, but I had no idea how to do it. I came across Raylab’s work at the EPFL Artlab. They’re an early startup, using algorithms to texture glass so that light passes through and creates a clear image in the shadow. It’s layered into glass, but can also be done with sugar, which was a learning experience for all of us.
The Right Number of Cooks
What did you learn by bringing together all of these different mindsets?
When you work with all these different people, everyone is super excited at the beginning. Then the deadlines come quickly, and you realize you didn’t understand each other! You can completely misunderstand each other, but it’s good training: always be as clear as possible, different backgrounds or not. You can never be too clear. You have to put yourself into the perspective of the other person, and think about what they’re going to hear and what you see.
Also, though engineers and chefs are not at all the same domain, if you look at the laboratories where they were working, they had the same equipment just in different designs — hot plates, gas burners. You heat things up and pour it into different molds. You both wear the same white robes. In the lab sometimes it feels like you’re doing a small barbecue. Both are about chemistry and temperature.
Did working with all these teams change the project at all?
I had a clear vision of how I wanted to do things. It was a collaboration in the sense of using our combined knowledge to build it, but the concept was really my own. When you have a lot of different ideas, a concept can become very nice from all of the input, but it can also go in very different directions.
Working in a multi-disciplinary team, speaking different languages with different methods and approaches, you need someone to take a clear lead with a clear concept. I would advise people working on similar projects to decide early on if the “process is the project” — that’s one way of going. But you might also have a very strong vision. You just have to be clear.
Play With Your Food
What appeals to you, as a designer, about food as a medium?
Food is so good as a material. You have so many colors and textures. It’s sensitive to work with, which is hard, but it’s so rich. There’s a cultural aspect, and then of course you can eat it, which is so unique for a material. I like doing projects that are kind of playful. A lot of people think you shouldn’t be playing with your food, but I think we should be.
In contrast, I’ve done a lot of projects in virtual reality, and I don’t like that it’s so closed off. I don’t want to embrace that future. Technology is becoming more invisible, so we won’t have these screens blocking us from each other. It’s not improving us as humans if it’s blocking us from interacting with each other. So if technology can become invisible, we can eat it, as well.
And you can’t really have “virtual food.”
Fire was the first technology, and eating is the essence of life. It all comes back to food. Now you can be forced to choose between experiencing an experience, or losing it. We often live in between the digital world and the real one, doing everything but doing nothing “really.”
Food forces you to be present. Instead of technology mediating experiences, I want to understand how food and technology can help create experiences.
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Feature image courtesy Erika Marthins/ECAL.