Interview by Marija Butkovic @MarijaButkovic
Ling Tan is a designer, maker and coder based in London interested in how people interact with the built environment and wearable technology. Trained as an architect, she enjoys building physical machines and prototypes ranging from urban scale to wearable scale to explore different modes of interaction between people and their surrounding spaces. Her work falls somewhere within the genre of wearable technology, Internet of Things(IoT) and citizen participation.
She is currently working at Umbrellium in London to understand social wearables through community participation where she leads and produces projects such as WearON, an open source prototyping platform for wearables and WearAQ, a series of wearable tools for exploring air quality issues through people’s subjective perception. She participated as artist resident in various festivals such as Fak’ugesi African Digital Innovation Festival 2015 where she engaged with residents of Johannesburg to map out their perception of safety through using wearables as an expressive and social interface. Through the work she explores the complex issues surrounding the safety of the city, touching on demographics, race, gender and the subjective experience of the city through people.
As an artist, she is currently supported by FutureEverything‘s FAULT LINES programme and Barbican and The Trampery‘s alt.barbican programme. She has worked with museums such as Wits Art Museum, South Africa and Watermans Art Centre, UK. Her works have been exhibited in shows such as Utopian Bodies: Fashion Looks Forward (2015) and featured in magazines and websites across the globe such as Dezeen, Wired and Fast Company.
How did you get into wearable tech?
Getting into wearable technology was quite accidental for me, I was originally trained as an architect and started dabbling with wearable technology while doing my architecture masters degree at UCL Bartlett Interactive Architecture Lab. It then became a medium I use to understand the interaction between people and the built environment.
What projects are you working on at the moment?
I am currently working on 2 projects, one of them is an EU-funded project; Pollution Explorers, a participatory project exploring air quality issues through people’s subjective perception and wearable technology. I will be working with hackAIR’s community to co-create a series of wearable devices that enable users to measure situated air quality while being mobile in the city and at the same time, record their subjective perception of the quality of air in their environment, creating a layer of “perceptual air quality data” that could help further the air quality conversation. I was also recently commissioned by FutureEverything to create an outdoor public artwork in Manchester for March 2018.
You worked on Co-Scriptable Bodies project, which explores understanding the environment around us through wearable tech. Can you tell us little bit more about that?
Co-Scriptable Bodies is a body of works of mine that explores our personal agency and responsibility as a citizens and as an individual in our complex interactions with our cities. Using wearables as an expressive interface, participants co-create body gesture sensing wearables that enable them to record their bodily interaction with the city. The project encourages citizens to make sense of the complex relationship they have with their city and aims to empower them to play an active role in deciding as a community, as a group and as individuals about what matters to them about their environment.
The core of the project is not the technology but the connection and the decisions made between participants and the public in this participatory process. By making large gestures in public space, it draws the attention of viewers and give people who have never spoken to each other before an excuse to talk and discuss about issues regarding their city. Through actively recording their bodily interaction with their environment in the form of body gestures and remotely sharing with each other through haptic sensors, participants connect on a bodily level that evokes a sense of togetherness.Past deployments ranges from mapping quality of air in Tower Hamlets, London, cultural diversity and wheelchair accessibility in Finsbury Park, Londonto perception of safety in Johannesburg, South Africa.
How has your career progressed since your degree? Has it been an easy industry to get into or have you had many challenges?
I was very fortunate to be working in Umbrellium immediately after I graduate and with an amazing bunch of architects and software developers that taught me not only designing and coding, but also interfacing with clients and the administrative side to design. That was where I started to gain more experience and exposure through working on other projects. It was also where I begin to carve out a career of mine, focusing on projects within wearable technology, Internet of Things and community engagement, I then lead on all the wearable projects in Umbrellium ranging from participatory projects such as Transformer and WearAQ, to developing an open source platform for quick wearable prototyping such as WearON.
How long did it take you to be where you are now? What was the biggest obstacle?
I started working in the wearable technology field about 5 years ago. Having come from a design background with limited coding skills, it was definitely a struggle at the beginning, especially making that big jump from working in an architecture firm to working in the technology field. There are definitely a lot of mental barriers that I created for myself such as the issue of self-confidence, e.g I find myself having to choose between focusing on design or focusing on honing my coding and electronics skills as I think I am lacking in that area, seeing them as two separate entities rather as one.
What are your biggest achievements to date?
Hosting workshops involving participants with limited coding skills (e.g children, women with physical disability etc), encouraging them to remove the mental barrier they have with technology and learning to design wearable technology that can help them understand their complex relationship with their cities.
What does the #WomenInTech movement mean to you? What are the challenges of being a woman in wearable tech / STEM?
To me its a great platform to tell other women especially young women or girls that they can achieve as much as they want to, that the sky's the limit!
Main challenge I see is us breaking away from the preconceived norms of what we should be. Be more confident of what we are doing and what we are interested in, and it does not only apply to this field.
In your opinion, what will be the key trends in the wearable tech industry in the next 5 years and where do you see it heading?
Hopefully heading to somewhere with stronger focus on designing for people to socially connected on a community level or creating certain opportunities for citizens to affect a change in the city.
Who are your 3 inspirational women in wearable tech?
A lot of women from other industries inspires me in wearable technology, such as Rebecca Horn, Zaha Hadid and Rei Kawakubo.
Linkedin: Ling Tan
This interview was conducted by Marija Butkovic, Digital Marketing and PR strategist, founder and CEO of Women of Wearables and Kisha Smart Umbrella. She regularly writes and speaks on topics of wearable tech, fashion tech, IoT, entrepreneurship and diversity. Visit marijabutkovic.co.uk or follow Marija on Twitter @MarijaButkovic @Women_Wearables @GetKisha.