Actor takes a playful approach to design

23 May 2014

Hilary O'Shaughnessy, actor and designer

Actor and designer Hilary O’Shaughnessy is encouraging a more immersive and playful approach to design and gaming, she tells Claire O’Connell.

Look around you. Everything you are using – including the device for reading this article – started as a thought in someone’s imagination. But, all too often, useful ideas stay inside our minds, so Hilary O’Shaughnessy is an advocate for bringing ideas to life physically early on in the design process to see whether and how they can work.

The Artek Circle event earlier this month in Dublin’s Temple Bar is a case in point – O’Shaughnessy was one of the organisers of the weekend ‘hackathon’ that saw artists, engineers and scientists work together to invent and build prototypes.

Art and science in the mix

“I think there is a really positive effect when groups mix – not in terms of skills, but ideas, collaborations and understanding each other better,” says O’Shaughnessy, who co-founded Artek Circle with Dr David McKeown, an engineer and well-known name in Irish maker circles.

The results of the Artek Circle weekend collaborations included a self-stirring spoon, a three-dimensional model of brain waves and a Kinect-based system to let you ‘kick’ leaves around a screen by moving your arms and legs.

“It was moving to see how technical skills could bring an artist’s idea to life,” says O’Shaughnessy. “And, even more, to articulate to a programmer how that creation could then be useful in, say, a theatrical performance or as part of an artistic installation to inspire them further and involve them creatively in the process.”

Games on the street

While Artek Circle involved collaborators working in close quarters in a room at The Fringe Lab in Dublin, O’Shaughnessy is also interested in how individuals can interact more expansively with cities by playing in them. She was recently involved in ‘Journey to the end of the night‘ in Dublin, a type of grown-up ‘kick the can‘ where players ran at night from one checkpoint to the next through Dublin, but at any point could be caught by ‘chasers’. If caught, a runner became a chaser and chased the remaining runners as they tried to reach the checkpoints.

Turning the city into a playground was a transformative experience for many of the players, she recalls. “It’s amazing, putting that framework onto something changes people’s experience of the city – they would have a heightened awareness of streets and structures and arrive at the end of the game exhausted but exhilarated.”

Get out of your head

For O’Shaughnessy, whose background is in languages and acting, getting involved in immersive games also made her curious about technology, and she completed a master’s degree in interactive media at the University of Limerick.

While there, she found that her acting skills could bring a new dimension to design, particularly when seeing what would work for users in real life.

“I would see people trying to design games sitting at a computer – but we don’t play games in our heads, so I thought it made more sense to act out how the user would use it, to be more aware of the user’s surroundings as they are playing the game,” she says. “I think lot of people are designing things for users who will be moving, and getting the designs to a really far point and only then bringing them for testing. I would prefer to mock things up really early on in the process, get people involved, mess around with ideas and eliminate things that don’t work.”

Don’t hold back

Currently artist in residence at Project Arts Centre in Dublin, O’Shaughnessy is involved with numerous projects that bubble art through engineering, technology and play. And one of her big pieces of advice to anyone with an idea is not to hold back and wait to be asked. “Don’t ask for permission, stop waiting for someone, put yourself forward,” she says.

She practises what she preaches too: O’Shaughnessy recently put herself forward as a speaker for the International Festival of Independent Games and got accepted, so she travelled to New York last January to talk and take part in the event.

Then in April, she brought a her movement-and-technology-based ‘Charge!‘ game to the Amaze festival in Berlin and she has plenty on the boil for the rest of this year too, including organising a festival called Prototype in Dublin in October: “It’s going to bring together lots that is playful – street games, playful engineering and design,” she says.

Women Invent Tomorrow is Silicon Republic’s campaign to champion the role of women in science, technology, engineering and maths. It has been running since March 2013, and is kindly supported by Accenture Ireland, Intel, the Irish Research Council, ESB, Twitter, CoderDojo and Science Foundation Ireland.

Dr Claire O’Connell is a scientist-turned-writer with a PhD in cell biology and a master’s in science communication