Why We Gave a Machine a Human Disease
“Innovation begins with strong creative ideas, then supporting those ideas with a careful balance between tech and craft,” says Geert Eichhorn, Innovation Director at MediaMonks. Having a great creative idea is one thing—and essential for differentiating oneself—but supporting it with the best possible execution is another matter.
However you choose to engage with consumers on an emotional or empathetic level, executing that narrative requires every aspect of the project to serve the story as best as possible. “It takes someone that can marry these three in service of telling the best story and that is an inherently creative process,” says Eichhorn.
Many brands like to leverage cutting-edge technology to make a splash while making a point. But when the technology fails to adequately support the idea, they end up missing the mark. MediaMonks Creative Technologist Samuel Snider-Held has discussed in the past how brands have used flashy, experimental interfaces like AR and VR to these ends, only to fail in the process.
But when provided with a task that might seem impossible, like translating the inherently intangible struggles of another’s disease into symbolic objects that give those experiences shape and weight, we knew we’d have to do something that’s never been done before: affect a machine with a human disease. Through a process that mixes innovative fabrication with fine art, a unique 3D printing approach wasn’t the star here; instead, we sought to highlight real-life stories through objects that couldn’t have existed through any other means.
Affecting the Machine
Made in collaboration between MediaMonks and Charité – Universitätsmedizin Berlin, one of the largest university hospitals in Europe, Printed by Parkinson’s is a unique art project that aims to raise awareness of Parkinson’s disease as well as funds to research a cure. It includes a series of six objects constructed by a machine affected by the disease.
You might wonder how that’s possible. After recording kinetic and neurological data from real-life patients living with the disease through EEG systems and accelerometers, we used it to influence the movement of a 3D printer as it constructed an object that for each patient had become unusable, demonstrating how the disease has impacted their everyday lives. One patient named Heinz enjoyed crafting handmade goods before acquiring the disease, for example. For him, the printer constructed a nutcracker—based on the ones Heinz used to make—whose distorted shape, informed by Heinz’s movement data, symbolizes its lack of usability.
Through documenting the stories behind the objects—and the lives of those who used them—the campaign seeks to dispel stereotypes about the disease. “Parkinson’s doesn’t manifest with only a tremor,” says Eichhorn. “There’s a lot of different ways it can affect someone, like muscle stiffness.” Eichhorn noted how the patients depicted in the campaign presently aren’t afflicted with the well-known tremor thanks to a treatment called deep brain stimulation.
Each patient featured in the project chose an everyday object that symbolizes how Parkinson's disease has affected them.
In this respect, the stories behind each object provides an opportunity for patients to explain symptoms and experiences that aren’t always visible—but executed in a way that viewers can’t turn away from. The objects themselves are arresting in their erratic, distorted shapes, beautifully rendering each subject’s story in a tangible way. “For some, these objects were a diary, or a means of having a legacy—a physical thing that tells your story and is documented for future generations,” said Eichhorn.
Roan Laenen, a Jr. Creative at MediaMonks who worked intimately on the project, echoes the sentiment: “The patients could share their own personal stories, which meant a lot to them and their families,” he said. The two noted how one patient’s grandchildren were present at the gallery opening where the objects were displayed. Perhaps too young to understand Parkinson’s disease when explained through words alone, they could clearly understand the message conveyed by each sculpture. “They tell such a powerful story,” says Eichhorn. “You don’t have to explain anything—you see immediately that something is off. In just a glance, it all clicks.”
Celebrating Imperfection without Sacrificing Quality
Finding the best technique to print the objects was no simple matter; there’s many techniques for 3D printing, not just one. Finding the right technique to construct each artwork was essential for doing the patients’ stories justice. “Our goal was to really justify how good the idea was—to print them in a way where it feels like an art-object,” says Eichhorn. “It needed to feel like a premium item, whereas standard 3D printing often looks and feels cheap.”
The team collaborated with 3D printing artist Joris van Tubergen, also known as RooieJoris, whose techniques in 3D printing are used in several international galleries and museums. In their experimentations with different printing methods, the team settled on one called fuse deposition modeling, one of the most common 3D printing techniques, in which the printer builds an object layer by layer.
While other techniques—like extracting the object from a liquid—could heighten visual or textural quality, using them would weaken the narrative potential of each object. “It was still important that we have those print lines, since that’s part of the story,” said Eichhorn, explaining how powerful it is to see how the Parkinson’s-affected printing arm built each object layer by layer. In this case, the imperfections inherent in the technique—a rougher and more jagged surface—helped to bring the story above each sculpture’s surface. “The lines of the object and the data used to build it shine through in a nice way, contained in a premium object,” says Eichhorn.
Our goal was to really justify how good the idea was.
In addition to printing technique, proper choice in material was essential to the quality. Originally, the team considered replicating each object so its 3D-printed version would have the same material as the original that inspired it. Thinking that it would be better to keep the series uniform, the team settled on bronze filament—a material that isn’t just good to look at, but nice to hold. “It presented a nice effect in that it looks and feels a bit old, tying it a bit to more historic sculptural pieces,” says Laenen. “Yet it’s made with a very modern technology and innovative technique.”
Telling the Story Creatively with Data
Translating patients’ neurological data into a machine-led printing technique isn’t a cut-and-dry task, despite its technical nature. “There’s a creative process there, too,” says Eichhorn. The patients’ movement data came in the form of line graphs, whose mountains and valleys determined whether the printing arm would be offset in one direction to another. This technique enabled each object’s distinct wavy shape. “We had to consider things like: how does this data look? What does it do to the object? How printable is it?” says Eichhorn.
Laenen experimented with devising how to best apply the data graphs for each sculpture. A long, slender kayak paddle, for example, has a subtler distortion that compliments its shape well. The boxy chainsaw, meanwhile, takes a much more jagged look to make its distortion immediately clear to viewers. “Based on the principles of printability, and how the data impacts the object’s construction, we chose what we thought told the story in the strongest, most visually clear way,” says Laenen.
The strength of the project lies in how different elements and people came together to tell an emotionally resonant story that clearly conveys patients’ everyday lived experiences. This included not only the fabrication of the artworks on display, but also supporting elements like video, photography, animation and even the website’s typeface.
“It was interesting to see how many people were involved in this process,” says Laenen. “I think with something like this, in which you instantly understand and feel passionate about it, you see the power of a strong, emotional idea executed to perfection.” Technology best serves these ideas when it becomes unobtrusive, if not unnoticeable. Eichhorn says only half-jokingly: “It should win the Oscar for best supporting role, not starring, so to speak.”
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