Liǎn is an inflatable mask that uses artificial intelligence to mirror emotions

Inspired by Chinese face-changing opera art and online avatars, Liǎn, designed by Jann Choy, explores the relationship between our online personas and offline selves.

by Anmol AhujaPublished on : Dec 07, 2021

Immediately reminiscent of David Cronenberg’s highly divisive yet intriguing body of work, Liǎn operates on the very valid, urgent intersection of science, technology, the human body, and by extension, the range of human emotions manifested through it. It is perhaps owing to that intersection and precipical operation that Liǎn seems to have sprung out straight out of a science fiction film, admittedly a dystopian one. A similar manifestation of that concept, in spirit only, and sans the use of artificial intelligence, would be the usage of colour codes for enforcing COVID appropriate behaviour in workplaces, an immediate signifier of how ‘social’ one was feeling.

  • The mask and its design are meant to explore the dichotomous relationship between our online personas and our offline selves | Liǎn | Jann Choy | STIRworld
    The mask and its design are meant to explore the dichotomous relationship between our online personas and our offline selves Image: Courtesy of Jann Choy
  • The inflation is affected by sentiment analysis, a form of machine learning that studies our online social interactions to determine our mood | Liǎn | Jann Choy | STIRworld
    The inflation is affected by sentiment analysis, a form of machine learning that studies our online social interactions to determine our mood Image: Courtesy of Jann Choy

Furthermore, with the introduction of the Metaverse and an entirely virtual world with it, we move closer to a reality wherein the expression of emotions develops into a remote act. While innovative in function and form, and boasting the best that modern technology has to offer, Liǎn, by UK-based multidisciplinary designer and Central Saint Martins alumnus, Jann Choy, is meant as an important conversation starter masked as product design, and a physical manifestation of our online avatars.

Inspired from ‘biàn liǎn’, a form of traditional Chinese opera art, the mask inflates in specific places to reflect the user’s mood and emotions | Liǎn | Jann Choy | STIRworld
Inspired from ‘biàn liǎn’, a form of traditional Chinese opera art, the mask inflates in specific places to reflect the user’s mood and emotions Image: Courtesy of Jann Choy

Composed almost entirely of silicone in its materiality, Liǎn is designed to respond to the wearer’s emotions in real time using code and soft robotics. Using 'Sentiment Analysis', a form of machine learning that is applied to study your online interactions, Liǎn physically inflates in specific areas using code relayed to locally placed sensors, making for signatory representations of the user’s moods and state of mind. How this manifests is particularly interesting: if the wearer has liked or commented something positive on any of infinite virtual social edifices at our disposal, the sentiment analysis would return a positive score, inflating the part of the mask that represents a positive front. The opposite of this is true as well: a negative score would inflate the area of the mask corresponding with the gamut of negative emotions, leading to a constantly morphing mask in different, nearly performative formations.

  • The sentiment analysis yields a ‘positive’ or ‘negative’ score to make Liǎn reflect the user’s mood | Liǎn | Jann Choy | STIRworld
    The sentiment analysis yields a ‘positive’ or ‘negative’ score to make Liǎn reflect the user’s mood Image: Courtesy of Jann Choy
  • The mask is composed almost entirely of silicone | Liǎn | Jann Choy | STIRworld
    The mask is composed almost entirely of silicone Image: Courtesy of Jann Choy

While designed as a very tangible manifestation of our emotions, how Liǎn attempts to bridge the two ends of a spectrum isn’t entirely limited to our online and offline selves, but also extends to bridging technology and tradition. Choy states her immediate inspirations for the mask in 'biàn liǎn', a form of traditional Chinese opera art wherein performers don silk masks, and would perform by switching their facial accompaniment by a sweep of the hand or a quick turn of the head. While the sweeps and masks were representative of a shift in emotion for the performer, the overall emotions associated with the act would be suspense, intrigue, and mystery. Taking that as a succinct parallel to our online behaviours and personas, and the mask as a device for unreliable narration, Choy delves on her childhood fascination with the performative art to fuse an interpretation of tradition with modern technology.

  • Specific portions of the mask inflate to create patterns inspired by Chinese performative art | Liǎn | Jann Choy | STIRworld
    Specific portions of the mask inflate to create patterns inspired by Chinese performative art Image: Courtesy of Jann Choy
  • Liǎn achieves its desired result and expression by merging code with soft robotics | Liǎn | Jann Choy | STIRworld
    Liǎn achieves its desired result and expression by merging code with soft robotics Image: Courtesy of Jann Choy
  • A group of sensors relay the information on our moods to the mask | Liǎn | Jann Choy | STIRworld
    A group of sensors relay the information on our moods to the mask Image: Courtesy of Jann Choy

Explaining her intervention, Choy states, “As a digital native, I am familiar with this separation of online and offline self. The internet landscape is an opera and avatars are online personas,” yet again establishing a parallel between the more theatrical aspects of biàn liǎn, and how users literally tend to ‘mask’ their true selves online. The etymology of the word ‘Avatar’ also comes into play in the interpretation of the design; from the material representation of a Hindu deity, to an intangible virtual personification of the everyman. "Wearing this silicone mask displays the dichotomy between one’s real versus online facial expressions,” continues Choy through an official release, dwelling on the very irony-inducing, statement-like nature of her design. “Liǎn doesn’t act as a criticism – rather, it’s an inquiry into our online manifestations."

02 mins watch Video showcasing how Liǎn manifests the user’s online emotions in real-time | Liǎn | Jann Choy | STIRworld
Video showcasing how Liǎn manifests the user’s online emotions in real-time Video: Courtesy of Jann Choy

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