Investigation II - Ubiquitous Presence

Investigation II: Ubiquitous Presence

About this Investigation

Investigations are a series of small exercises designed to explore a conceptual space and culminates with a made artefact. The format is 3-week rapid explorations of a theme, idea or theory.

In the last module, we’ve spent time exploring explainability and the frictions that arise with everyday smart and connected technologies: how mental models break down around our current technology, what gives rise to spooky or haunting outcomes, and how we might reflect some of those concerns by producing critical and speculative technologies?

_“Devices whose computational capabilities exceed human comprehension have become our trusted companions, and yet we hardly know how they work.” - Betti Marenko

In this module, we’ll continue this exploration, explore this prompt, and ask questions about ubiquitous computing, by creating new and alternative smart home products that embody superstitions, rituals and belief systems.

Learning goals

This investigation will ask you to design an alternative IoT device and we’ll develop a body of knowledge that explores how we can leverage superstitions and practices like divination as a resource for design inquiry and the production of new forms of ubiquitous, physical and tangible computing. As part of this exercise, you will:

  • Develop an understanding of concepts like animism, ambiguity, counterfactuals, and material speculation and how they relate to the design of alternative devices;

  • Investigate the concerns and considerations that currently surround everyday technology and smart home devices;

  • Examine existing technologies and precedents to develop a critical position around issues such as predictability, privacy, or pervasive data;

  • Explore superstitions, rituals and practices like divination as a resource for critically informed design inquiry;

  • Speculate on how hybrid practices (blended physical digital rituals) might be produced and present alternatives to contemporary interactions with devices;

  • Work collaboratively in an applied investigation to tease-out the broader considerations, issues and requirements in building alternative belief-based or superstitious smart home products.

Context and Precedents

Believe it Yourself Automata Farm, 2018

BIY: Believe it Yourself

BIYTM is a recent project by, presents a set of three belief-based computing kits. Each is comprised of a Raspberry Pi, sensors, and outputs for machine learning processes. A critical but playful exploration is grounded in close work with experts in alternative belief systems like divination and fortune telling from different cultures to translate their knowledge authentically into digital forms. By digitizing divination practices, BIY empowers non-objective interpretation of the world through AI-powered microcontrollers; it offers a nuanced interchange between belief, explainability and systems. Not only does this suggest a process for critical production, but it highlights the broader potential for divination, superstition, and ritualistic practices to be embedded into new digital devices and critical prototypes.

BIY, taken with a lineage of work in rituals suggests the value of new material enactments that examine and support alternative, occult, otherworldly rituals and practices.


Ghost Bug and Wave Detectors. James Pierce and Carl DiSalvo. (2017)

Ghost Bug and Wave Detectors. James Pierce and Carl DiSalvo. (2017)

Ghost Bug and Wave Detectors James Pierce and Carl DiSalvo. (2017)

These are “a set of design packets that probe relationships between the paranormal, surveillance, and electro-pollution.” These prototypes and enactments suggest provocative ways to detect electronic ‘spirits’, reveal and perform Hertizan forces, or help to make visible the hidden systems and data we are entangled with avaiable for dialog.


  • Pierce, J. and Carl DiSalvo. (2017) Projecting Network Anxieties with Alternative Design Metaphors. In Proceedings of DIS Conference on Designing Interactive Systems, Edinburgh, UK. DIS ’17. ACM Press, New York, NY.

eGregor Christine Geeng & Anon, 2020

eGregor is based on ‘an eldritch privacy mental model’ and recasts voice assistants like Alexa and Google Home as malevolent actors in our homes. Geeng explains: “Using science fiction concepts in conjunction with visceral notice, a concept that eschews purely text-based privacy indicators, eGregor more clearly represents the data prac- tices of a hypothetical parent company. It has various aes- thetic and auditory indicators and an intuitive and terrifying persona.” This project suggests how re-interpretations of existing smart home products can be a valuable strategies to present issues of privacy and explainability

Ghosts in the Smart Home. Joseph Lindley, Adrian Gradinar, and Paul Coulton (2020)

Ghosts in the Smart Home

This experimental animistic performance casts smart home devices as the leads in a short film. This suggests other ways to prototype and perform critical encounters with alternative IoT devices and “to establish new ways to see, to be, and to know, which respond to the 21st century’s complex socio-technical systems.”


Content and Methods

To learn about the wide range of topics in designing tools and practice for forgetting; we’re going to learn from each other. Each of you will research a topic of interest to you as well as share a case study in the space and report back. This will help you build familiarity and give us as a group a catalog we can draw from in our explorations. The review of this catalog will provide groundwork to building an informed response to the creative project. Using your research, you’ll collaboratively develop a conceptual design and realize a ‘prototype’ of an alternative smart home product.

Specificially, this module will formally introduce themes surrounding beliefs and superstitions, and how they might intersect with ubiquitous computing. To do this, we’ll examine gnostic rituals and practices suited to “open-ended interpretation and orientation” around systems and processes. Case studies of research and practice will examine and suggests the value of new material enactments that examine and support alternative, occult, otherworldly rituals and practices. We’ll speculate on alternative design metaphors and embodiments that attend to the aesthetics, systems and cultures of these non-normative traditions and practices. In support this, we’ll continue to explore methods for designing provocative objects through making. Specifically, we’ll look at how methods of diegesis and material speculation can to craft experiential and critical objects.


Date Type Description
Tues, Mar 9 Intro Networked Anxieties and Alternative IoTs
Tech Talk: Sensor Smoothing
Thurs, Mar 11 Cases Ubiquitous Presence: Augmented Rituals and Practices
Tech Talk: Interfacing with I2C and SDA
Tues, Mar 16 Methods Debrief on Warmup and Think pieces. Group work.
Tech Talk: Accelerometers + Serial
Thurs, Mar 18 Methods Project Introduction and Group Discussion onDiagetic Prototypes + Material Speculation
Guest Talk: Haider Ali Akmal, Joe Lindley and Paul Coulton - Tarot of Things
Tues, Mar 23 Tech Tech Talk: Building Alexa Skills; Feedback on creative project proposal refinement;
20 mins per person + office hours
Thurs, Mar 25 Tech Tech Talk: Building Alexa Skills (continued). Discussion on proposal.
Tues, Mar 30 Desk Crits Feedback on creative project development;
20 mins per group + office hours
Thurs, Apr 1 Review Crit of creative project.
Prepare a lightning Demo - 10 mins per group; 20 mins discussion

Deliverables and Deadlines

Due Date Deliverable Details
Thur, Mar 11 Case Identify and describe a case study to support your project. Share on Slack in #cases.
Tues, Mar 16 Think Piece Research a think piece on ubiquitous computing and alternative beliefs on Slack in #thinkpieces.
Tues, Mar 16 Warmup Share your Building Gnosis on Slack in #projects.
Tues, Mar 23 Proposal Create a proposal for your creative project (200 words + illustrations) and share on the Slack
Tues, Mar 30 Project Develop a rough cut to discuss during desk crits
Thur, Apr 1 Project Present your prototype in class.
Thur, Apr 1 Digital Crit Give feedback projects in class
Fri, Apr 2, midnight Documentation Deliver documentation of your creative project

Warm up Exercise

Building Gnosis: Examine a ritual, practice, belief or superstition by experiencing it for yourself. (e.g. have a Tarot reading, pay attention to your horoscopes for day, etc.). Document your experiences; pay close attention to and critically reflect on the systems and structures that support belief. Alternative: Research and create a system map or diagram for an alternative belief or practice. Time Limit: 2 hours

Read the full description.

Think Piece

Ubiquitous computing and alternative beliefs: Research and write a topical essay that raises an interesting question or perspective related to the themes of the module: relationship between material artefacts, superstitions, alternative belief systems, embodied rituals and practices, and ubiquitous computing, etc. Read the full description.

Case Study

Identify and critically review a case study on designing technology around alternative beliefs, rituals and practices. The focus here is on a product or project that presents an interesting approach, method or strategy that can be leveraged in your own work. Report your discoveries. Read the full description.

Creative Project

Imagine a world where IoT devices are haunted by supernatural beings; where specters, familiars, or gremlins are fundamental components of of smart devices. Realize a plausible but alternative IoT product or service that builds in the supernatural, the mystical or on superstitions. Read the full brief.


Review For Class

Tuesday, Mar 9 Pierce, James, and Carl DiSalvo. “Addressing network anxieties with alternative design metaphors.” In Proceedings of the 2018 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, pp. 1-13. 2018. DOI:
Thursday, Mar 11 Excerpts from Spooky Technology
Tuesday, Mar 16 Wakkary, Ron, William Odom, Sabrina Hauser, Garnet Hertz, and Henry Lin. “A short guide to material speculation: Actual artifacts for critical inquiry.” Interactions 23, no. 2 (2016): 44-48. DOI:
Recommended Chapter 5. A Methodological Playground: Fictional Worlds and Thought Experiments. Dunne, Anthony, and Fiona Raby. Speculative everything: design, fiction, and social dreaming. MIT press, 2013.


Below is a list of additional online material that relates to the module and provides a starting point for your explorations. This is by no means exhaustive i.e. you should read/research beyond it.


Prototyping Technologies & Tools



  • Addressing network anxieties with alternative design metaphors - Carl DiSalvo, James Pierce (2018)

    Pierce, J., & DiSalvo, C. (2018, April). Addressing network anxieties with alternative design metaphors. In Proceedings of the 2018 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (pp. 1-13).
  • A short guide to material speculation: Actual artifacts for critical inquiry - Garnet Hertz, Henry Lin, Ron Wakkary, Sabrina Hauser, Will Odom (2016)

    Wakkary, R., Odom, W., Hauser, S., Hertz, G., & Lin, H. (2016). A short guide to material speculation: Actual artifacts for critical inquiry. Interactions, 23(2), 44-48.
  • Animist User Expectations in a Ubicomp World: A Position paper for ‘Lost in Ambient Intelligence - Mike Kuniavsky (2007)

    Kuniavsky, M. (2007). Animist User Expectations in a Ubicomp World: A position paper for ‘Lost in Ambient Intelligence.’. San Francisco.
  • Witchcraft and HCI: Morality, modernity, and postcolonial computing in rural Bangladesh - Sharifa Sultana, Syed Ishtiaque Ahmed (2019)

    Sultana, S., & Ahmed, S. I. (2019, May). Witchcraft and hci: Morality, modernity, and postcolonial computing in rural bangladesh. In Proceedings of the 2019 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (pp. 1-15).
  • Ghosts in the Smart Home - Adrian Gradinar, Joseph Lindley, Paul Coulton (2020)

    Lindley, J., Gradinar, A., & Coulton, P. (2020, July). Ghosts in the Smart Home. In Companion Publication of the 2020 ACM Designing Interactive Systems Conference (pp. 465-468).
  • IoT Data in the Home: Observing Entanglements and Drawing New Encounters - Audrey Desjardins, Cayla Key, Heidi R. Biggs, Jeremy E. Viny

    Desjardins, A., Biggs, H. R., Key, C., & Viny, J. E. (2020, April). IoT data in the home: Observing entanglements and drawing new encounters. In Proceedings of the 2020 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (pp. 1-13).