APPRENTICESHIP 2.0: Crafting with Hybrid Textiles in Virtual Reality
This paper will discuss the impetus, significance and context of my master’s thesis research centered on the idea of digital craft apprenticeship. It will elaborate on two prototypes at the end that support specific themes that ask: “How can digital apprenticeship fuel craft innovation while preserving material know-how?” In answering this question, this research puts human-machine symbiosis in the context of craft innovation, and analyses themes across multiple disciplines – namely fashion, critical craft, embodied cognition, human-computer interaction and dramatic theory – to arrive at two overarching values present in most craft work, that of time and material know-how.
As the culmination of this research, Apprenticeship 2.0 manifests in the form of both a digital tool and a series of hand-crafted virtual 3D textile objects. The virtual objects display the unique possibilities of practicing handcraft in virtual reality (VR) and highlight the emergent interdependencies between textile making and computation. The tool aims to accurately capture both the perfections and imperfections resulting from the human hands, while instilling in the apprentice intrinsic values associated with craftsmanship – the enduring, basic human impulse and desire to do a job well for its own sake. By enabling the apprentice to leverage the benefits of computation and at the same time the creative possibilities of making in VR, the project not only reimagines the concept of craft, it also aims to demonstrate the possibilities of a human-machine collaboration and highlight a way for human hand skills and technology to coexist in ways that preserve human cultural heritage and material know-how.
This paper is organized into four sections each providing a glimpse into the theoretical and/or practical significance of this body of research. Human and Machine provides a critical summary of our relationship with technology from the time of the industrial revolution to the present day and as situated within the context of the apparel and textile industries; Learning Through Making summarizes the significance of embodied learning, in particular the material know-how in handcraft – the tacit knowledge acquired through an embodied making experience; Digital Apprenticeship highlights opportunities to leverage computation and simulation-specific technologies in the crafting of embodied learning experiences and draws on Aristotle’s dramatic theory to support the use of VR in such experiences; and lastly Apprenticeship 2.0 introduces the aforementioned tool and the materiality of the digital craft experience envisaged for this thesis through brief analysis of two key prototypes created to date and an overview of the final working prototype.
HUMAN AND MACHINE
In 1996, author and architect Malcolm McCullough proclaimed in Abstracting Craft that “we have reached a point in the history of technology where it is especially important to take pride in human abilities.” He emphasized that “we must not only defend against further deskilling, but also direct inevitable technological change in a more human-centric direction.” Half a century before him in 1947, Karl Polanyi, economic historian, wrote in Our Obsolete Market Economy that the success of the first century of the Machine Age was due to the “willing, indeed the enthusiastic, subordination of man to the needs of the machine.” Polanyi explains that the sudden spike in the production potential of economies resulting from breakthrough technological developments required existing markets to readjust to allow scope for its use. Brooks et al wrote in Fashion, Sustainability and the Anthropocene that a prime example of this readjustment is the expansion of the clothing and textile industries starting with the first steam-powered cotton mill in Nottinghamshire in 1786. The immense transformations occurring inside clothing and textile factories during this period put Britain at the forefront of the industrial revolution.
Today, the apparel market is worth over $1.34 trillion in retail sales globally per year. The fashion retail sector alone – without including footwear or jewelry, is considered bigger than the Russian economy, or roughly equivalent to the combined gross domestic product of the world’s 126 poorest countries. The transformation of factories into high-speed machines, coupled with new material innovations – namely nylon and polyester – in the first half of the twentieth century, saw a surge in demand for cheap textile products. In coping with this demand, the industry has become notorious for underpaid work, physical abuse, unsafe work environments and the devastating impact it has on the environment. Although the industry is now trying to reinvent itself, collaborative and interdisciplinary efforts are of utmost importance – we are in dire need to redirect both current and future technological changes in a more human-centric direction.
Inevitably, this requires redesigning the relationship we have with our tools and the machines that surround us such that we can establish symbiotic relationships with them. One way to approach this is to think of technology as augmenting the human body and mind. In 1962, in the seminal work Augmenting Human Intellect: A Conceptual Framework, Douglas Engelbart listed four classes of “augmentation means” – artifacts, language, methodology and training. Around the same time, in another seminal work Man-Computer Symbiosis, Joseph C.R. Licklider described this relationship as a partnership in which human brains and computing machines will be coupled together very tightly, giving birth to an entity that will think as no human brain has ever thought. These works build on the underlying premise that man is an intellectual being and that machines can augment us in our intellectual pursuits. But this is only one of several possible ways to think of human augmentation. Over the centuries, the nature of the human species has been articulated by thinkers in a number of different ways: Homo ludens – the player, Homo socius – the social being, Homo sapiens – the wise or knowing one, Homo faber – the maker, and Homo religiosis – the religious one. Homo sapiens has long been recognized as the way we talk about ourselves, and it is no surprise then that we predominantly talk about augmenting the human intellect to make ourselves faster thinkers, better at memorization with more capacity to store information and so on. This current research, however, is more interested in understanding how Homo faber – the maker – could benefit from augmentation and, at the same time, how this way of seeing ourselves could inform the future direction of technological progress in support of human skills and, by extension, human culture which craft inevitably shapes.
To elaborate, Richard Sennett makes a compelling argument in the book The Craftsman about how the work of the hand informs the work of the mind. He defines craftsmanship as the “enduring, basic human impulse, the desire to do a job well for its own sake” and his definition does not distinguish between professions. He further explains that because “craftsmanship focuses on objective standards, on the thing in itself”, it instills in the craftsman values devoid of economic and social conditions. Broadly speaking, these values could be interpreted as self-motivation, patience, persistence, ability to navigate uncertainty and awareness of resource limitations. But over the years, as our relationship with our tools changed, it became increasingly difficult for us to understand our own capacity positively in light of automation and the social changes that have occurred since the industrial revolution. As workshops closed, we saw a “movement from hands-on knowledge to the dominant authority of explicit knowledge.” In this new socio-economic context of the nineteenth century, against the rigorous perfection of the machine, the craftsman began to be seen as “an enemy of the machine”, while at the same time becoming an emblem of human individuality with positive value placed on “variations, flaws, and irregularities in handwork.”
LEARNING THROUGH MAKING
In Number in Craft: Situated Numbering Practices in Do-It-Yourself Sensor Systems, craft is discussed by Nafus and Beckwith as “an incremental feeling one’s way through the world, stripped of grand plans.” The authors further describe craft as a perspective that acknowledges that building and making constitute “a material way of knowing, learning, and acting within the world.” In their writing the authors call for the questioning of the dominance of logocentric knowledge over material, or embodied, knowledge. Here, the idea of the incremental feeling one’s way through the world suggests the ability to withstand uncertainty, while it is being advocated that knowledge can be obtained through an embodied practice engaging with materiality.
In fact, research in embodied cognition – a branch of cognitive science – supports these claims. In Embodied Cognition, Lawrence Shapiro articulates that “cognition is embodied because it is the function of the complex processes of perceiving, acting, and remembering through interaction between body and world.” In the case of the Homo faber, man’s tool is a part of the world which he makes and interacts with and which determines him in return. It would not be unfounded to then say that the tool here is the teacher, and that man and his tool are in a continuous cycle of reciprocity. This emphasizes the opportunity to carefully design future tools that man may come to interact with to instill in him, and by extension in society, values devoid of economic and social conditions, as Richard Sennett put it – such values that support human culture, material know, as well as awareness of resource limitations. For this, understanding the overarching concept of craftsmanship and the qualities and values often associated with the hand-crafted artifact is vital.
In academic research craft has been regularly studied as a purposeful product that results from an activity taken up by motivated, skilled individuals. Here, it is assumed that the craftsperson is not only skilled in what they do, they are also able to maintain their motivation towards the project until the project is completed. To support this argument, in Japan, the word Takumi, Japanese for ‘artisan’, is used to refer to master craftsman/woman who has an uncompromising commitment to their work. The Takumi spend decades honing their craft to achieve “unparalleled dexterity and skill”, and it is said that it takes 60,000 hours of training to become a true Takumi. To achieve this level of commitment, the Takumi embrace mindful repetition where crafting becomes intuitive and second nature, and the result is an artifact that transcends functionality to be appreciated for its beauty and emotional power. It appears then that it is precisely this slow, repetitive journey to becoming a Takumi that eventually instills in the maker patience, persistence and material know-how. In fact, these appear to be a recurring characteristic of most traditional apprenticeships where a master craftsperson builds a personal relationship with an apprentice to whom he/she passes on their skill and wisdom.
In the 2013 documentary Men of the Cloth, director Vicki Vasilopoulos follows three master tailors. One of these master tailors is Joseph Centofanti, a nonagenarian working in the suburbs of Philadelphia, and we also see his apprentice Joe Genuardi in the film. Joe earned a degree in industrial design from Carnegie Mellon University; yet having been ‘haunted’ by tailoring, he explains that he decided to pursue it full-time as Joseph’s apprentice. Initially very reluctant and knowing how immensely difficult his craft is, Joseph refused Joe’s offer to become his apprentice. But eventually he was won over by Joe’s persistence and decided that passing on his knowledge and skills would be a good investment given his old age. At the time of filming, Joe Genuardi had already trained under Joseph for two and a half years.
“I’ve been here about two and a half years, and I’ve been doing cutting probably about maybe a year and a half… There is definitely something to be said about doing things over and over. You can know how to do it, but it’s not until you do it hundreds of thousands of times that you really feel yourself master it.”
– Joe Genuardi
This theme of time as an important element in learning is discussed by Adriaan de Groot, a Dutch chess master and psychologist. Groot wrote that world-class chess masters are consistently able to out-think their opponents due to the recognition of meaningful patterns of information acquired over tens of thousands of hours of chess playing. Recognizing meaningful chess configurations and realizing the strategic implications of these situations allowed master players “to consider sets of possible moves that were superior to others.” These meaningful patterns seemed readily apparent to the masters, while less experienced but still extremely good players struggled to see the pattern.
Another commonality between traditional craft apprenticeships is the emphasis put on becoming acquainted with the working material as the first step to improving a skill. Different materials have different properties, some easier to tame than others, and some even exhibit different characteristics as time passes, transforming in the hands of the maker. Wool gets stiffer with repeated beating, while wood gets softer as the warmth and moisture from the hands soften its fibers. These emergent properties of materials, the delight in their discovery and the ultimate reward of learning to manage the emergent behaviors of materials form the very essence of what makes crafting a valuable experience. Thus, this entails that the sensory experiences of working with materials is an important determinant of how craft values are passed to the apprentice.
As technology progresses at unprecedented rates, scholars and practitioners are now more than ever interested in the intersection between craft and technology. Craft research and its distinct methodologies continue to be adopted in more widespread fashion, and various new journals and research initiatives have been launched in the last decade to foster dialogue between disciplines. Additionally, of particular importance to this thesis research are technological developments that are enabling human-machine symbiosis creating the conditions under which human hand skills and technology can coexist in ways that support human culture and material know-how. Situated within this context, virtual reality (VR), and the underlying simulation-specific technologies, is investigated through this research as a possible technology partner in the envisioned symbiotic relationship.
VR is a medium that lends itself well to the creation of delightful, embodied experiences. Aristotle wrote in Poetics, one of the earliest surviving works of dramatic theory, that “to be learning something is the greatest of pleasures not only to the philosopher but also to the rest of mankind, however small their capacity for it” (as quoted in Laurel 2014). He spoke of this experiential learning in relation to how comedy and tragedy work; “the reason of delight… is that one is at the same time learning – gathering the meaning of things…”. The same interpretation can be also applied to virtual reality. With a vast number of technological advancements now available to create near-theatrical experiences in VR, the medium presents opportunities to design experiential, and more specifically embodied, learning moments based on spontaneity and delight. VR, itself made possible by powerful computer hardware, also presents opportunities to leverage computation in the process of crafting. With whole new areas of research emerging in the field of smart materials, or programmable matter, we are seeing increasing collaboration between traditional textile craft people and creative technologists. Oftentimes combining extended hours of hand-making with computer simulation, designers and material researchers are looking to understand the emergent behaviors of traditional materials in order to design novel material behaviors for application in a wide range of fields.
Apprenticeship 2.0 is the result of this master’s thesis research, manifesting in the form of a series of hand-crafted virtual 3D textile objects. The goal is to create a craft apprenticeship environment in VR where the apprentice can learn through making. Much of the learning implied here is referring to the instilling of Takumi craft values where one engages in the repetitive task of manipulating a material and by learning its nuanced properties revealed over time, begins to see the form-finding process through objective standards focusing on the thing in itself, thus developing personal values devoid of external conditions. In this context, the tool is both the medium – which enables the apprentice to manipulate a digital material, and the master – whose persistence and gentle nudges guide the apprentice’s journey.
Various digital material ideas were explored as a part of this research, and this paper will focus on two key prototypes.
Simulated Colcha Embroidery in 3D Space
Colcha embroidery is a Spanish colonial form of art considered by some to be endangered. The name “colcha” refers to the Spanish word for bedspread. The technique is characterized by its long, overlapping stitch, which in English embroidery is referred to as “couching”. However, the difference with colcha is that colcha embroidery work uses only that one stitch, while English embroidery work typically uses a combination of stitches. Moreover, colcha can be used to decorate bedspreads, shawls, floor coverings, garments and so on. But over the years, its use has become increasingly rare, and historical artifacts using the technique seldom survived.
Taking inspiration from this technique, an early proof of concept prototype simulated an embroidery experience in VR. In the experience, the apprentice creates embroidery stitches using a tool shaped like a needle. With the tool the user is able to point at where they would like to form a stitch, and by pressing a button, they are able to create that stitch as a vector line in 3D space. The shape of these vector lines is controlled by control spheres and control cubes that manipulate line vertices and line curvature, respectively. The apprentice’s hands are tracked using Leap Motion hand tracking technology so there are no gloves or haptic interface. The apprentice can grab the control spheres and cubes with their fingers and move them around in 3D space to create three dimensional forms.
A visual feedback in the form of a colored sphere was added to the experience to indicate to the apprentice how parallel their last two stitches were to each other and holds potential to be used as a guide f or straight stitches. In this prototype the sphere followed the user’s gaze and appeared in the bottom right corner of the screen. Bright teal green indicated the stitches are perfectly parallel to each other, purple indicated the opposite, and a transparent sphere indicated no stitches.
As this was mostly an implementation prototype (60%), minimal thought went into look and feel (10%) and role testing (30%). The main feedback received was that the material manipulation felt real in the tester’s hands. Although there was no physical hand controller/haptic glove used, testers commented that seeing the objects in VR they almost felt the tactile feedback from the objects they were moving. Additionally, one comment that rang very true and highlighted the importance of look and feel was that because the embroidery scene was set up as an open scene with a skybox, it gave the impression that users had a lot of creative freedom and thus could create the stitches anywhere in the scene. This resulted in many users creating large 3D structures in the middle of the scene, and not necessarily on the virtual embroidery hoop that was placed in front of them.
Further user testing with three craft people two textile designers who incorporate computational elements in their work an d one zero waste fashion designer who also enjoys embroidery revealed interesting insights. All three testers, in general, reacted positively to the project. One tester commented on the significance of the project in terms craft preservation. Although sh e saw the prototype more as a prototyping tool than a preservation tool, she later emphasized that prototyping is itself also an act of preservation. She also suggested having the option to incorporate artists’ own tools into the experience as every artist has a special
relationship with their tool. This was a very interesting suggestion as being able to craft with one’s own tools with which they have worked with for years could help make the transition to VR more seamless. In this sense, the prototype test ed was not seen as replacing an existing tool but could be an augmentation of that tool.
Moreover, all three testers commented on the collaborative making possibilities in VR. They all expressed that the experience felt a lot more tangible and embodied as a design experience as opposed to drafting a design on Adobe Illustrator with a computer mouse. All three also acknowledged the potential contribution to textile waste minimization and natural resource preservation should this platform get adopted more widely and replace the need to use physical materials to test a design idea. One of the testers expressed, “With more time, it feels like I would be able to get a good handle on what the potential and little nuances are that I can leverage.” Interestingly, this highlighted the significance of time in learning a new craft technique and further emphasized the need to incorporate time based elements in the experience that will enable users to feel that they are progressing in their craft with passing of time. Additionally, the same tester also inquired about the potential to implement this kind of technology in a developing country, “Would this be accessible to someone in a developing country to use, or practice?” Currently, the average cost of setup f or the entire system is around US$500 and the price will likely go down in the years to come. There is also potential for more affordable iterations of the project in the future, specifically for preserving certain endangered craft techniques in different parts of the world.
Materiality in VR: Simulated Rope Manipulation Prototype
The next VR prototype is another implementation prototype focused on emergent material behavior. Using a rope simulation, the goal was to create a dynamic material with properties that can be adjusted to mimic a physical rope, and the behavior of which can be learned by the apprentice. The digital rope collides with other virtual objects, is affected by gravity and has adjustable stretchiness. This digital prototype was accompanied by a compression-glove-style wearable that enabled the tester to control two features with the press of two very small buttons hidden in the glove thumb. A tester commented on the similarity between this glove and the compression glove used by some embroiderers and expressed that it added to the authenticity of the craft experience and therefore the physical interface did not feel like it was taking away from the overall experience. Further testing over an extended period of several weeks, or months, needs to be done to fully assess all aspects of the experience. Such extensive testing would validate the feasibility of a simulated craft experience with a rope or yarn like material in conveying and instilling in the apprentice the specific craft values discussed in previous sections.
Final Apprenticeship 2.0 Experience
Based on the insights gathered through user testing and further analysis of all previous iterations, the final experience was designed to emphasize the significance of time, material know how and the benefits made possible by leveraging computation. In line with the overarching theme of human machine symbiosis and the necessity to design a seamless hand augmentation experience, the final iteration of this project, unlike most mainstream devices that boast impressive number of features, was intentionally designed to have very few features. These features reveal themselves over time as t he apprentice spends more time crafting inside the experience. This also supports the notion that the final output of this project is in fact an experience (as well as a tool and a series of virtual objects).
The experience was designed as a textile making experience in VR. The virtual material used in the experience can be adjusted to be as thick as a rope or as thin as a yarn. The material’s weight and stiffness can be adjusted, and it behaves realistically, reacting to gravity while wrapping around objects. Taking inspiration from the dramatic theory of whole action, there are intervals with varying lengths built into the experience that are also ‘ actions in and of themselves. These are cycles of day and night as well as
seasonal cycles. As the apprentice enters the experience, at any point during the day, they are welcomed by a morning scene inside a calm, well maintained garden surrounded by mountains and valleys. The garden design was loosely inspired by Japanese tea gardens. As the apprentice takes up the craft, their progress is calculated from a combination of how much material they use up and how fast they do so. As more progress is made, the morning scene slowly transitions to an afternoon scene, an evening scene and a night scene eventually. In addition to this, bigger pieces will see the weather transition from summer, to fall, then to winter and finally spring when the piece nears its completion. These natural cycles were built into the experience as gentle nudges to encourage the apprentice to continue making progress in their craft, while also indicating that they are indeed making progress with passing of time. At the same time, the seasonal and other clues designed into experience suggest to the apprentice that their journey is never really complete as there is always tomorrow and always next spring giving them the chance to continue honing their skills.
In this specific scene, various basketry techniques can be practiced by the apprentice. Coiling is one example technique commonly used by Native Americans across North America. It is characterized by stitches wrapping around a coiled frame inter locking the coils. In the middle of this scene, the apprentice can place their chosen frame design on which they can practice coiling or other similar techniques. Given the expansive possibilities in VR, a vast number of variations on the frame design can be made, but in this particular example, an elaborately formed wooden frame has been prepared for the apprentice. In addition to the frame and the changing day/night and seasonal cycles, there is a stone sundial placed in the scene that gives the apprentice a slightly more definitive indication of time. However, there are no markings on the sundial and the design of it is minimal reflecting a large stone simply cut in half.
The final output from this experience is the finished basketry piece all done by hand in the experience. For the piece shown below, as used in the previous prototypes, Leap Motion was used to track the hands inside the experience. In addition, the apprentice can save their progress and come back to the project the next day; or if desired, they can start a new project. Their design will, in the meantime, be saved as a set of x, y, z coordinates as a text file.
This paper discussed the impetus, significance and context of Apprenticeship 2.0 – a tool currently being further developed and imagined as a platform that accurately captures both the perfections and imperfections resulting from the human hands enabling not only the creation of virtual 3D textile objects, but also embodying intrinsic values associated with craftsmanship – the enduring, basic human impulse and desire to do a job well for its own sake. Apprenticeship 2.0 aims to highlight the emergent interdependencies between textile making and computation, and through that demonstrate the possibilities of a human-machine symbiosis where human hand skills and technology coexist in ways that support human culture and material know-how. In this digitally mediated hand crafting experience, a master-apprentice relationship with the tool is established, with unique material behaviors emerging to enable the apprentice to always strive forward to progress in their craft.
I would like to thank the American Association of University Women for partially funding this project through a fellowship and making it possible to carry out research to develop Apprenticeship 2.0.
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