FoodFutures, an exhibition addressing food production needs in the year 2050, melds the seemingly strange bedfellows of urban farming, machine learning, research engineering and design.
Its self-sustaining hydroponic and aquaponic farm modules use computer vision analysis to maximize efficient yield and crop health. The retro-futurist aesthetics nod to 2050 while remaining approachable and inspiring discussion about the challenges of feeding a world facing increasing climate change and urbanization.
“The project proves how a vision, guided by design, can bridge various technical and scientific disciplines to create solutions and showcase urgent issues like food security,” said Asta Roseway, principal research designer at Microsoft Research and co-founder of FoodFutures. “And the art infused throughout the project is what connects the technology back to the humanities in meaningful ways.”
In her Redmond, Washington, office stuffed with research white papers, mannequins in high-tech haute couture and a vintage Ms. Pac-Man mini-arcade, Roseway said, “We are entering an era of design-driven collaboration where the designer’s role will be to act as the ‘fusion’ between art, research, science and engineering.”
Roseway’s ability to think critically while collaborating across disciplines and combining their best aspects is not just the future of design careers. It will play a part in broader tech careers and, she believes, careers in general. She calls this new role “fusionism,” and, whether the modest Roseway will admit it or not, she is one of Microsoft’s foremost fusionists.
“The tech industry can be siloed in little groups and Asta brings together the right people with different talents to make a project work,” said Paul Johns, a senior developer at Microsoft Research. “She approaches projects by enhancing the human experience instead of just the tech experience, and that gives everyone involved a common point of reference.”
Helene Steiner, another fusionist who is currently a post-doctorate researcher at Microsoft Research Cambridge, added, “Asta is a conductor who enables relationships across fields and helps them to communicate with each other and articulate their visions. But it’s her emotional intelligence, empathy and social sensibility that make her such a great fusionist.”
Born into the hyper-progressive culture of 1970’s Oakland, California, Roseway grew up with artist parents, often working with them at the family pizzeria. Her youth was surrounded by a passion for art, music and food. She credits restaurant work with forcing her to develop the skills to interact with a diverse set of strangers at a young age.
At 20, she said goodbye to her tight-knit Bay Area community and headed to Paris to study fine art and art history. “I was scared out of my mind, but my heart was determined, and that decision changed me forever,” she said. Her four years in Paris became the foundation for her own sense of self-reliance, determination and “confidence to always jump into something new.”
As a graphic design student at Parsons School of Design, Roseway teetered between the traditional analog design of hand-set typography and emerging digital tools. The tipping point arrived in the form of Adobe Illustrator. “When I tried it, it was like the clouds parted and a ray of light hit the computer,” she said. “I knew then what my design path would be.”
For the first time, Roseway could generate designs on the computer at the speed of the ideas percolating within her brain. Stepping toward this digital horizon with a wide-open mind, she started experimenting with early, limited uses of interaction and multimedia to create CD-ROM experiences.
In 1996, a few short months after graduation, Roseway was recruited by Microsoft Research to work with a virtual reality team generating online 3D environments. The ambitious goal was to enable people to build and host their own 3D worlds with avatar capabilities, as if they were websites. She admitted that, for the first six months, she didn’t understand much of what her computer engineer colleagues were talking about.
“While I didn’t yet have the technical vocabulary to converse with my peers, I remember creating my first avatar, walking her across an open field and chatting with ‘virtual co-workers’ in various shades of fonts and colors,” she said.
“I knew I was never going back to what I had thought design was supposed to be, and that I was in for a crazy ride.”
Over the course of several years, Roseway learned about Microsoft, the tech industry and its acronym-laden jargon, while improvising to bring people together around her design ideas. From interactive TV to instant messaging applications to mobile experiences and advanced search, she took on new challenges and learned by doing.
Her concept of fusionism grew out of her own experience working across disciplines and solving for the ever-shifting unknowns in emerging technology, she said. “The truth is that change is happening so fast that you can never be fully prepared for what’s next. But you can be prepared for change itself.”
In 2010, a new wave of microprocessors and sensors increasingly made technology agnostic of the PC and even the smartphone, opening new opportunities in the world of “wearables.” Roseway saw that if technology was to be ubiquitous and on (or in) our bodies, the fusionist approach could help ensure the products are more thoughtful, more personal and beneficial for us all.
Her breakthrough piece was 2011’s “The Printing Dress,” co-created with user experience designer Sheridan Martin Small. The dress explored wearable text and its potential impact on the future of fashion. Built almost entirely of paper, the dress enables the wearer to tweet “thoughts” into the dress and showcase them as public art. It combines the hand-set typography that Roseway studied at Parsons with the contemporary world of social media.
“It was first and foremost an art piece that invoked questions around privacy, social networks and wearable technology,” said Roseway. “People could map their own answers and speculations of the future to it. That’s what art does: It bridges to everyone. And that’s what counts.”
The Printing Dress was the first fashion technology piece ever created at Microsoft. It went on to win Best in Show at the International Symposium on Wearable Computers and was featured at CES, New York Fashion Week and SXSW later that year.
Since then, Roseway’s career has vaulted between science fiction and reality with an emphasis on emotional wellness, wearables, sustainability and imagination. She helped create a blue light therapy wearable for Seasonal Affective Disorder that would be more at home on the shelves of Bergdorf than Best Buy, explored early concepts for smart makeup that changes color with pollution and UV exposure and, of course, helped orchestrate FoodFutures.
DuoSkin, a recent collaboration with Cindy Hsin-Liu Kao of MIT Media Lab, is an interactive temporary tattoo that can control devices from your skin. Using gold leaf as the conductive agent, these tattoos can be personalized to match the aesthetics of the wearer and can be as expressive as traditional ink tattoos. The project was nominated for the SciFi No Longer Award at the upcoming SXSW festival and was featured in Time Magazine.
“Sometimes you just have to laugh when you find yourself working with chemists or material scientists and wonder ‘How did I get here?’” she said. “But if you want to be on the bleeding edge, you have to be willing to step outside your core areas and always welcome in other ideas.”
She recently founded Microsoft’s first ever artist-in-residence program, called studio99. This grassroots effort, driven by employees, invites unconventional thinkers and artists to collaborate with researchers on the next wave of technologies.
Project Florence which grew out of studio99, enables people to converse with a plant by translating text sentiment into a light frequency the plant can recognize and respond to in order to promote a two-way conversational experience. Inspired by then-Artist-in-Residence Helene Steiner, Project Florence is a fusionist’s cornucopia of biology, natural language research, design and engineering. It was recently showcased at Ars Electronica and was an inspiration for much of the core work in FoodFutures.
Roseway has long worked to promote human diversity and inclusion. She knows what it feels like to be on the outside and also sees that “outside” is where the next great ideas could be born. Ten years ago, she co-founded DigiGirlz, a tech camp for high school girls. The DigiGirlz camp continues to afford high school girls exposure to professional women across Microsoft’s global footprint, while also offering hands-on workshops and classes.
Roseway is optimistic about the potential of the incoming generation of talent. “College graduates these days desire and even expect to do something monumental – to change to world,” she said. “And they intuit that they will have to work across disciplines and use art and design to make it relatable and successful.”
Through her work at Microsoft, Roseway tries to provide the next generation with a platform they can use to cross-collaborate, thrive in blended environments and feel supported at the company.
“There are so many dimensions to people and life that you can’t go about finding solutions with one broad brush stroke. And it is the inclusion of art that gets people thinking and asking the deeper questions,” she said.
At this stage of her career, Roseway has made peace with being an outlier. “I’ve always felt like I’m a bit different from my peers; I’ve never been in a room full of other Astas,” she said. “But I embrace it. I know now that it’s my biggest asset.”
Roseway and her colleagues are currently working on submitting a “Unicorn Panel” for the upcoming Grace Hopper Conference in fall 2017, in which female fusionists will gather to discuss the future of their careers and how to tackle the big challenges of tomorrow.
Maybe she will find that room full of other Astas, after all.
– By Thomas Kohnstamm