Kelly Dobson, Head of RISD's Digital+Media Department speaking at CreativeMornings. All photos taken by David O'Connor.
When you first meet Kelly Dobson, you might underestimate the soft-spoken Media Lab Alumna, but don't let her quiet persona fool you—Kelly is a monster.
Beneath that cheerful, bubbly exterior lies a being, half-human, half-monster (self-proclaimed), with the capacity to communicate with machines on a level far more sophisticated and intelligent than the rest of us. Just check out Blendie, a voice controlled blender she created with a mind all of its own.
June marks the first ever themed CreativeMornings internationally across all 32 chapters.
An artist and engineer, Dobson dabbles in the fields of technology, medicine, and culture. Melding the worlds of art and technology together, Dobson lives in that little sweet spot called "magic" by Tina Roth Eisenberg, head of swissmiss, an impeccably well-curated design blog, and founder of CreativeMornings, a monthly lecture series.
Described recently as "TED for Design Wonks," CreativeMornings promises free breakfast and engaging discourse on Friday mornings once a month in over 32 locations around the globe. Dobson's ability to work in the overlap of design, art, engineering, and psychotherapy made her an ideal speaker for CreativeMornings' themed month, a partnership with the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), which looks at the intersection between art and technology.
The unified theme month was the first of its kind for the breakfast lecture series, which will hopefully be setting a standard for more to come. Last Friday, RISD kicked off the first ever CreativeMornings "PopUp!" event with Dobson speaking at the college in Providence, Rhode Island. Most recently hailing from Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Media lab, Dobson currently serves as the department head of the Digital+Media program at RISD, with a background at Cornell.
Growing up in a junkyard, Dobson often found herself doing odd jobs from smashing windows to hauling machine parts from one area of the yard to the other. Finding a rapport with the machines littering the lot, she made that the focus of her PhD at the Media Lab. Dobson developed new approaches to humans and their interactions with machines, creating a method aptly named "Machine Therapy." Challenging the stereotype of machines as cold, metal, objects without feelings, Dobson builds empathetic machines that allow people to develop new ways of engaging with the appliances that surround them.
While much of her work is an investigation into people's relationship with machines, Dobson's work has had an unexpected impact in several fields. Dobson's "Omo" is an oblong green sac that expands and contracts, matching its users' breathing patterns. Part of Dobson's Machine Therapy thesis, Omo allows the person holding it to elicit emotional responses and has practical applications in the realm of obstetrics. Playing the video before the CreativeMornings audience, an audible "Oooh" could be heard as people found themselves unexpectedly empathizing with the watermelon-esque object.
Speaking at the CreativeMornings/PopUp! at RISD, Dobson urged the audience to go to their local pharmacy and observe how many products were being sold to them under the guise or advertisement of 'care.' "I'm pretty sure my deodorant doesn't care about me," she told the audience, but she assured us that that's what it told her. "Creative making in the world is the key to authentic care," she told the crowd of artists, designers, makers, and doers. From Machine Therapy to Wearable Body Organs, Dobson's work explores interrelationships between humans and machines in ways that some describe as "care."
Dobson said that by drawing upon her STEM education in the Media Lab, she could combine it with new techniques of making gleaned at RISD and improve upon her previous designs. By learning how to weave with a jacquard loom, Dobson can now use her knowledge of conductive threads to create fabrics that are their own circuits. She plans on implementing this into future sculptural pieces.
Rhode Island School of Design President John Maeda speaking at CreativeMornings.
"No one is behind the wheel of technology," Dobson told the CreativeMornings audience. While that idea can be a little frightening, it's also fairly exciting and promises a limitless future stemming from the intersection of arts and technology.
Contributor Carly Ayres (RISD ’13) is currently an intern at CreativeMornings.