Divider: A Speculative Project with Thermochromic Paint


Our communication with each other is increasingly isolated. Instead of meeting face to face, we are expressing ourselves through texting, messaging, and avatars. We are creating new barriers between people every day: instead of caring for each other one-on-one, we get anxious about our profiles on social media, protect our delicately crafted appearances on instagram. Moreover, we use these technologies to fall into social cliques and hierarchies where communication with the out-group is discouraged and reprimanded (Ted radio hour talk). These artificial barriers make interpersonal communication increasingly intricate and isolating. In future generations, we will have increasingly elaborate filters and modifiers of experience, digital enhancements or artificial protection over our own true selves, artificial intelligences that control what we can see or experience because we handed our customization preferences to them. What will happen to face-to-face communication?

We created a speculative world where face-to-face contact is regulated by predetermined artificial intelligences that determine who we can talk to and how, engendering a dystopia where command over our social lives are given over to smart digital technology, because it is more convenient and less taxing on us mentally.

The way people in our world figure out who they can and can not talk to in the AI-determined social hierarchy is by an indicator color on their masks. Inspired by the masked culture of Japan, we extrapolate that people will increasingly isolate themselves in public, and tag themselves using their AI as to their availability. We implement this idea using thermochromic paint which changes color when heated or connected in a circuit.

User Research

We began by surveying our cohort (young people in their 20s) which colors would best convey the idea of inclusion and exclusion. They gave us feedback indicating that red and green are the most logical colors, for they contain metaphors of “go” and “stop.” Some also suggested that when they don’t want to talk, they simply put headphones on, but that they wished there was something more salient than these, since Apple EarPods have made cords unnecessary, and makes this indicator of status much more ambiguous. We decided that a mask would best serve the message of “incommunication,” taking precedence from Japanese society where wearing masks are ways of hiding personality, hiding facial features like lack of makeup, and also indicating that one does not want to be disturbed.

We then tried different thermochromic paints on different fabric to see their level of contrast when heat is applied. We found the red paint to be especially salient, and the speed with which they change colors when electricity is applied is also quite quick if used on muslin. We had to add a heat-control circuit when applying electricity to the painted swatch. When painted with the red ink, applied electricity turned the paint off, returning it to the natural fabric color. We noticed that if acrylic paint and thermochromic paint are mixed and painted together, we can reveal the acrylic paint underneath when electricity is applied. Thus, we can for example paint in red plus green (a brownish color), which when heated reveals green.

The heavy fabric appears to be difficult to perceive and slow to change in relation to heated color changes, so we settled for our first prototype on a white cotton-based material with a circle design. The outer right of the circle would serve start brown and the inner circle would be red, indicating the “no communication” state. When the circuit is connected, the inner circle goes clear and the outer circle goes green, because the red ink component is made invisible. In order to activate all parts of the circles, we connected the circuit with conductive thread that zig-zags through the circular shape. To protect the paint against changing colors due to human breathing, we had to contrive a layer between the paint and the lining that touches the skin, but even then, a small amount of heat is delivered merely by wearing the masking, causing a slight color change. Thus we have created a digital “no communication” sign.


Using conductive thread to heat up a fabric is not optimal, for it only heats up nearby elements, needing an unnatural zig-zag shape to achieve this. Users found this pattern to be evocative of strawberries, and 2 of the 5 people didn’t recognize as the idea for “stop.” Thus, we decided to use a high conductivity heater fabric to uniformly heat the fabric with thermochromic paint instead of relying on electrical wires. Users as a group told us that the circle metaphor for stop sign was not well understood, preferring arrows to show whether access is granted. Thus for the next prototype, we used tape to seal off fabric and use thermochromic paint to color only the area of arrows. We then cut the heater fabric to the same size and shape and applied it to the other side of the paint. When the heater fabric is connected to the circuit, it causes the thermochromic paint color to disappear, revealing the acrylic color underneath. Using the red and black thermochromic paint along with green and yellow acrylics, we made a thermochromic version of red, yellow, and green lights. This would enable the AI social assistant to turn an arrow symbol red, green, yellow, or clear depending on the social group that the user is in, providing an expressive method for converting the directions of a machine agent to color changes on fabric indicating access or lack thereof. The heating fabric is more uniform, but slightly slower in color change. It enables pure shapes to be expressed thermochromatically.

Thus we have developed a world whose social interactions amongst people are governed by social AIs. Extrapolating from today’s reliance on social media and non-direct forms of online communication, we suggested a world where color changes on clothing driven by a hard-to-understand personal AI social assistant can be used to indicate whether communication between these digitally-enhanced cohorts are possible. The world becomes a “divider” where the hassles of social communications are taken care of by indecipherable artificially intelligent agents.

This work is featured on Future Life gallery in 2020, and exhibited at the Age of Super Sensing Conference at Japan Society in NYC in 2018.

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