Dr. Ali Mazalek on founding TMU’s Synaesthetic Media Lab and bridging the gap between the physical and digital

Dr. Ali Mazalek on founding TMU’s Synaesthetic Media Lab and bridging the gap between the physical and digital

Plus, how human-computer interaction design serves each and every one of us

Dr. Ali Mazalek considers herself an interdisciplinary thinker by nature. Even as a university student, she first declared a double major in Mathematics and History. She was introduced to the field of human-computer interaction during her studies and went on to hold research positions as a graduate student at MIT and a faculty member at Georgia Tech before joining The Creative School at Toronto Metropolitan University (TMU) as Canada Research Chair in Digital Media and Innovation.

The Creative School at TMU houses 26 media, communication, and design-related programs including journalism, performance, interior design, and film, among others. Renowned for its distinctive and vibrant culture of scholarly research and creative activities, its innovation hubs make up a dynamic ecosystem where faculty and students collaborate with community and industry partners to initiate meaningful change.

Mazalek is the founder and director of TMU’s Synaesthetic Media Lab (Synlab) housed in The Creative School, a research playground at the forefront of trends in computing and interaction design, where physical materials and digital media happily coexist. The lab’s approach combines theoretical study and scientific research with technological development and design practices. Here, Mazalek merges her interests in arts and design with science and technology in an environment driven by creativity and collaboration. In conversation with Toronto Life, Mazalek discusses the launch of Synlab, projects in the works and which industries are best at embracing technology to better our relationship with it.

How do your areas of expertise fall under one roof at the Synaesthetic Media Lab?

The vision of Synlab is to build new tools and experiences that enhance creativity, discovery, and learning in different fields. Essentially, we design, build, and test interactive prototypes that bridge the physical and digital worlds—bringing a tangible interaction approach to users, allowing them to use their bodies and minds together as they interact with digital media in discovery and learning contexts. We often talk about creative disciplines as solely art and design, but science, math, and engineering are no less creative. I’m interested in how to support and enhance creativity across both the arts and science domains. We work on applications in biological and medical sciences, as well as in the arts and humanities, using new tangible interaction techniques for platforms like augmented or virtual reality. The interdisciplinary and collaborative nature of the lab, which combines physical design and fabrication, electronics, computing, and digital media, makes it an ideal environment to experiment and build research prototypes. As a result, we’re able to explore how the technology and environment around us shape the way we’re able to think about the world. So, when we’re thinking about introducing systems that support creative practices, we can better understand how they impact our ways of thinking and doing.

Who does interaction design serve and how does this area of research better our relationship with technology?

I should start by saying that I have very mixed feelings about our relationship with technology, especially when it comes to children. Since interaction design aims to better understand and improve this relationship, I believe it serves each and every one of us. One of the reasons I became interested in tangible interaction during my time as an undergrad was that I saw an opportunity for computational media to escape the computer screen and to better integrate technology into our physical world. Rather than causing us to be glued to our screens, interaction design, in my mind, should seek ways to let us live in the real world, with all its physical, human aspects, but also with the added benefits that computational media and access to vast repositories of information can bring.

How has The Creative School at Toronto Metropolitan University been a supportive environment to foster this type of work?

The Creative School and Dean Charles Falzon are very supportive of my research and have been working hard in parallel to foster a research community. When I arrived, I was able to create a high-end research infrastructure together with colleagues from around TMU, bringing together software and hardware development with physical design and fabrication all within one interdisciplinary research space. I also have excellent students, research assistants, postdocs, and collaborators working with me here, which is essential to advancing a research program that is so interdisciplinary.

What are some of the current projects in development at the Synlab?

One example that resonates with me as a parent is our research on designing technology-based learning platforms for middle school science classrooms. Watching my own children, I can’t help but wonder whether the introduction of Chromebooks in the classroom and the removal of old-fashioned textbooks have really helped children. Children don’t often have the maturity and critical thinking skills to process and filter so much scattered information. Does adopting this new technology come at the expense of lost manual skills and the cognitive benefits that develop with traditional forms of instruction, like handwriting? We also have a lot of projects focusing on design for discovery. For example, we design new tangible tools to support sensemaking around large biological datasets, as well as tools to support cultural heritage research with collections of digitized ephemera. Finally, a fun project in the works is my collaboration with Paul Dietz and Fanny Chevalier from the University of Toronto. We are designing water-based autonomous drones for creating interactive fountain experiences. The Hydrones as we envision them are basically little portable fountains that can navigate on water, spray water like a fountain, light up, play sounds, and respond to audience interaction. They could be brought to any water public feature to perform an interactive show. We’re working on the platform for the drones themselves, as well as on tools for scripting a show – both pre-scripted and portions where the drones interact with the audience.

Are there certain industries that are more willing to adopt new technologies than others?

Digital technologies are pervasive and have been embraced across society at this point, though change has been faster in some areas than others. Certain industries are more willing and able to take big risks and be on the cutting edge, while others wait for technologies to become more mainstream. Gaming and entertainment in general is one area where technology is in constant motion and where the developments sometimes push the boundaries on how new technologies can be used. Technology has also become an important part of other industries, like food, travel, and retail—think about how we order food, hail rides, or pay for a purchase in a store with our phones. The pace of technological change is fast, and we can’t seem to escape new technologies in our day-to-day lives anymore.

How do you envision interaction design and the Synlab evolving in, say, 5 years?

I am hopeful that interaction design in the coming years will bring us closer to, rather than further from, our physical environment and our embodied, real-world, non-mediated selves. I think there is a need for this. From the perspective of the Synlab, what excites me most about the kind of research I do is the opportunity to make an impact in the areas we are designing for, like biology. I’m working with my colleague Sarah Sabatinos from the Faculty of Science at TMU and we’ve built a tangible multi-display environment for visualizing and analyzing her chromatin fibre data drawn from microscopy experiments. We ran a study and published a paper on the system design, but the exciting part is that now her students are using the system to work with new datasets they are collecting. I can’t wait to see how this goes in terms of the impact on their discovery process, and ultimately I aim to make the tools more widely accessible in the coming years. Needless to say, there’s a lot to look forward to.

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