Computers for crafting?

September 13, 2012

Gillian Smith joins the College of Arts, Media and Design and the College of Computer and Information Science as an assistant professor this fall.

Com­puters were designed to do com­plex math­e­mat­ical cal­cu­la­tions, like map­ping the tra­jec­tory of a bullet. But according to new fac­ulty member Gillian Smith, it’s not so easy for a com­puter to under­stand con­cepts like fun, friend­ship and love.

“We don’t find games that are about those topics because we don’t know how to model them,” she explains.

Smith, an assis­tant pro­fessor with joint appoint­ments in the Col­lege of Arts, Media and Design and the Col­lege of Com­puter and Infor­ma­tion Sci­ence, hopes to change that. “I am inter­ested in fig­uring out how com­puters can help people be a little bit more cre­ative and how com­puters could be cre­ative them­selves,” she says.

Smith is exploring ways to bring crafting and com­puters together with both dig­ital tools and games. A startup com­pany called Play Crafts, which Smith co-founded with two friends she met at the Uni­ver­sity of Cal­i­fornia, Santa Cruz, gives tech-based design tools to quil­ters, sewers and other crafters.

One tool, for example, auto­mat­i­cally gen­er­ates a color palette from a user-uploaded photo. “Dif­ferent people love doing dif­ferent parts of craft,” Smith says. “We want to make it so a com­puter can help with the parts you’re less expe­ri­enced with or find less enjoy­able, so we can make it more fun.”

In her aca­d­emic work, Smith is also pur­suing plat­forms where com­puters and crafts inter­sect. She is inter­ested in designing games, or “playable expe­ri­ences,” which present users with tasks and design lim­i­ta­tions to guide their actual quilting, embroi­dering or sewing.

The idea calls to mind an impor­tant ques­tion regarding the nature of gaming and cre­ativity: What, exactly, is a game? And more specif­i­cally, if a user is required to sew a button where he wouldn’t have oth­er­wise planned to, would that inhibit his own nat­ural cre­ative process?

“I find that where I feel the most cre­ative comes from a con­straint I’ve been given that I may not nec­es­sarily know about ahead of time,” Smith says.

Per­haps unsur­pris­ingly, Smith uses con­straints to teach game design, which, she says, “forces you to think in a direc­tion you might not have thought before.”

If all of this sounds rel­a­tively out of the box, that’s because it is. The com­puter sci­ence field is still dom­i­nated by men, whereas the crafting pop­u­la­tion is mainly made up of women. It’s no wonder, then, that the two areas haven’t tra­di­tion­ally over­lapped much, but, as Smith explained, “I’m inter­ested in finding ways to use com­puters to diver­sify com­puter science.”

Photo by Brooks Canaday