Sean Ahlquist Sean Ahlquist, an assistant professor of architecture at the University of Michigan’s Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning, is focusing his materials research on developing new tools and spaces, like this interactive mesh hideaway, for children with autism spectrum disorder.

Advanced material fabrication has become increasingly popular in contemporary architectural research and development, as evidenced by the growing prominence of programs such as the University of Stuttgart’s Institute for Computational Design (ICD) and MIT Media Lab’s Mediated Matter Group, as well as the recent proliferation of technical post-professional degrees in architecture, such as the Master in Design Studies concentrations in Technology or Energy and Environments at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design. For example, the ICD’s annual pavilion project with the university’s Institute of Building Structures and Structural Design produces novel fiber-reinforced shelters inspired by biological structures and constructed using sophisticated robotic techniques (read more about the 2014-2015 version), resulting in new methods for fabricating lightweight, biomimetic building systems with a high degree of precision.

However, advanced material research typically lacks a focus on human behavior, guided instead by motivations such as technical performance, automated assembly, and ecological sustainability. But a recent example offers a promising approach to imbuing material research with a social purpose.

Sean Ahlquist is an assistant professor of architecture at the University of Michigan’s Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning, in Ann Arbor, Mich., with a focus on material systems. Ahlquist gained expertise in computationally designed textiles and composite materials while studying in the Architectural Association School of Architecture’s Emergent Design and Technologies program, in London, as well as at the ICD. Today, he trains students at the University of Michigan to use a large-scale CNC knitting machine to produce intricate fabric structures in collaboration with researchers from fields including aerospace, engineering, and computer science. Ahlquist’s early work consisted of lightweight fabric structures and textile-reinforced composites for architectural, aerospace, and automotive applications. More recently, however, personal circumstances motivated Ahlquist to pursue an entirely new and unexpected path.

Sean Ahlquist Stretch|Play

Ahlquist’s daughter is autistic. Now 6 years old, Ara is non-verbal and experiences challenges with proprioception and tactile interaction with people and objects. When given a mobile tablet, for example, she hits the surface forcefully, without recognizing that such glass-screen interfaces are designed for a specific amount of haptic pressure. In a moment of inspiration, Ahlquist decided to focus his material research on Ara and her challenges with autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

Recognizing that textile interfaces accept a much wider range of tactile pressure and interaction modes than glass screens, Ahlquist set out to create a new kind of digital tool for children with ASD. He sought the help of his students as well as colleagues David Chesney, a lecturer in computer science and engineering, and Sile O’Modhrain, an associate professor of performing arts technology, to create a prototype of what they call the Social Sensory Surface (shown in the video below). Their novel interface consists of a textile-based wall surface that doubles as an interactive video projection screen. Bold black-and-white drawings suggestive of children’s coloring books appear on the fabric. When users touch the surface, colors immediately fill the white spaces. The hue changes are based on the amount of pressure exerted, thus magnifying subtle differences in tactile approaches.

“[W]e can use that as a kind of gradation of input, so not just sensing when it’s touched, but sensing how much force is being applied with each individual touch,” Ahlquist told The Michigan Daily in August 2015. The team’s hope is that the interface will assist children like Ara in becoming more cognizant of appropriate pressure ranges while providing a more enjoyable play-based experience. “The students actually [looked] at some of the strengths and challenges that my daughter faces," he said. "She has a lot of sensory issues, so the use of a textile to interact and play and communicate is more ... satisfying than just a glass screen."

Ahlquist also recognized his daughter’s appreciation for certain types of spatial interaction. Ara loves being in cars and becomes joyfully animated while in the driver’s seat of Ahlquist’s Prius. He suspects that she gets satisfaction from occupying a spatial container of a particular size—smaller than a typical room yet larger than the body—that provides a sense of physical security and control. Teaming up with therapists from the PLAY Project (Play and Language for Autistic Youngsters), also in Ann Arbor, the researchers developed a standalone structure composed of lightweight circular framing elements and stretched fabric. The resulting environment, called Stretch|Play (shown in the video below) includes the use of responsive video and sound projections, inviting multimodal user interactions. The installation’s interior-focused geometry reinforces what Ahlquist terms “circles of communication” between the user and the interface, as well as social interactions among multiple users. The team discovered that children like to interact with the interface in unexpected ways, such as watching each other climb through its two tunnel-like spaces, intensifying the experience of physical immersion.

With these innovative installations, Ahlquist and his colleagues are striving to reinforce positive group communication and engagement for ASD children while improving upon the glass screen’s limited interface. “The idea with Social Sensory Surfaces is to try and reimagine an interface that can foster social interaction and can support the magnitude of sensory experience that is necessary to engage a child with autism,” Ahlquist told Detroit radio station WDET in August.

This research shows positive outcomes from the marriage of material research and social purpose—a connection rarely seen in contemporary material experimentation. Furthermore, Ahlquist’s idea to apply his knowledge about computationally designed textiles in the service of ASD therapy is as much a testament to skilled design thinking as it is to the craft embodied in the individual works. The Social Sensory Surface is still nascent, but its demonstrated potential suggests a productive future for this interdisciplinary pursuit—a fact reinforced by the exuberant smiles of Ara and her playmates.