Innovation

XC90 presents… the art of human tech

Using sustainable innovation as her overriding focus, inventor Xin Liu is joining the dots between design, engineering and artistic statement.

WORDS: STEPHEN WORTHY | PHOTOS: ANDREW SHAYLOR

Voice control means you can spend more time focusing on the road ahead

It’s no bigger than the palm of her hand, but the device that Xin Liu is holding – the Orbit Weaver – is a personal mobility solution that could be the catalyst for revolutionising the way astronauts and space travellers negotiate microgravity (the state of near weightlessness you encounter in space).

The effects of microgravity make moving around in space notoriously difficult. So Xin, inspired by the way spiders build their webs, invented a device that shoots out a set of magnetic-tipped ‘threads’ that act as a tether with a solid object, enabling you to move around microgravity environments more easily.

“I began by thinking about these physically capable astronauts or athletes and how that ‘out there’ [in space] your body doesn’t work in the way it should do any more,” says Xin. “I continued by thinking about navigation and the desire to anchor yourself when you’re detached from gravity. Because in space, you have this beautiful dilemma between freedom and loss of control.”

Originally from Xinjiang in western China, Xin studied engineering in her homeland. She then switched to fine art, graduating from MIT, one of the world’s leading educational establishments. She’s now Arts Curator at the MIT Media Lab’s Space Exploration Initiative. Staffed by a team of 50-odd students and faculty researchers – including biologists, computer scientists, mechanical engineers and even musicians – the Space Exploration Initiative was set up two years ago to, in Xin’s words, “democratise access to and revolutionise the future of space exploration”.

Xin sees her primary role as encouraging students, especially those with an engineering focus, to work in a more creative, imaginative and artistic way. You can see that in Xin’s own creations, which blur the lines between tech and art – part invention, part exhibition piece. Technology that has beauty and a humancentric focus intertwined.

“My work is about enhancing humanity with the power of technology”

“We tend to look at technology as dehumanising people. We worry that one day machines are going to replace us, but my work is about enhancing humanity with the power of technology,” explains Xin. “Art and science is the ultimate combination.”

Xin is interested in technology that has longevity – not for profitable reasons, but more because it evolves with the person using it. And it’s this notion that became the jump-off point for another of her creations. The use of personal monitoring devices is widespread nowadays, whether through wearables, like your watch, or monitors you wear on your body, particularly when you are undertaking a physical activity. But Xin is concerned that we’re heading towards an over-reliance on such devices. The big danger, she suggests, is that they detach you from your personal responsibility to look after yourself.

Enter DermalAbyss, a wearable ‘tattoo’ which gives you information about your health by changing colour based on the state of your body’s interstitial fluid – the solution that surrounds the space between your skin and your organs.

“In the morning, when you wake up, you will look at your skin and say, ‘Oh, I look great today, I had a great sleep’ or sometimes you’ll wake up and there will be a black circle, which indicates you need to take care of yourself a little bit more,” says Xin. “I want to develop that kind of sensitivity. That's sustainable because through time you’re going to understand yourself much better. You’re going to be more and more interested in what’s going on with yourself, rather than relying on the technology.”

“I think about sustainability in broad terms,” adds Xin. “For example, in my work I try to think ‘Is this going to cause any addiction? Is this taking away part of their thinking or their creative process? Or is it actually empowering individuals?’

“For me, that’s sustainability.”

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