Part of an ongoing series highlighting the amazing people in the Portland creative community.

Michael Baran is a “bioengineer turned interactive system designer”. His work and research focuses on stroke rehabilitation therapy and application of interactive visuals and audio. His design horoscope tweet from Kelsey Snook’s CMPDX talk last month caught our attention.

See Ashley Courter’s photos in all their glory on Flickr and check the interview below.


Your work involves interactive media / mixed reality environments covering areas of research such as neurorehabilitation, musical instruction and models for learning, human interaction with the workings and language of technology. What kind of results have you seen from this process and research?

One observation is the strength and necessity of interdisciplinary approaches.  Part of my work in neurorehabilitation was to think about how to craft interactive training sessions in order to maximize a patient’s recovery. Currently, a lot of research in stroke rehabilitation is looking towards automating the therapy process, so more patients can continue doing therapy at home with less intervention by a physical therapist. In order to do this, we really need to understand the tacit knowledge and approaches of physical therapists. My thinking, and argument presented to the physical therapy community, is to look towards other disciplines. There are numerous domains that have already played around in spaces such as instruction and audio and visual feedback that should not be overlooked just because the experience might seem apart. For example, both physical therapists and music instructors have an approach in progressing a person from point A to point B, helping a “student” achieve goals and provide feedback at the correct resolution along the way. Understanding what works with traditional music instruction models that have years and years of experience can help elucidate training in the other domain. I think that true innovation lies at the intersection of different fields of knowledge, because if you can properly incorporate those seemingly disparate experiences, you get past “reinventing the wheel” and have the opportunity to build real solutions in complex problem spaces.

The other observation is the need for modularity and flexibility in interactive system design. At the onset of designing a complex system you may not know all of the “right” design choices (especially in a research context where many times the whole point is to identify the more optimal designs).  Plus, technology is constantly changing (providing new or improved capabilities) and user needs will evolve.  Therefore my approach has been to modularize in the face of complexity. I like to utilize initial research to create an overall system architecture comprised of individual modules that are flexible enough to be context, technology or user specific while also anticipating new user needs that are around the corner.

What was your path to designing such a breadth of user experiences and functions?

My mindset has been to favor knowing a little bit of everything, possibly out of fear of intensely focusing in one particular area exclusively. (I know, I know…I wonder how I got into grad school sometimes too.)  In college, biomedical engineering attracted my attention because it combined my love of physics and mechanics with the complexities of the human body. I also developed an interest in rehabilitation engineering and building systems to help people with physical impairments.  That led to initially perusing a doctorate in biomedical engineering (where I even spent a bit of time working with CT scanners), but I quickly found that I had hit my own interest limits in pure neurology.  I was more interested in the technology and design of how these rehabilitation systems were being built.  Thankfully I found an eclectic group of artists and engineers that were combining interactive art and experiential learning with neurorehabilitation in the School of Arts, Media and Engineering. I switched over to their program and found a passion for interactive media and complex system design and all of the research, design and development it entails.  This training really inspired me to generalize my approaches to research and design across different projects.

One of my first graduate advisors called me “fickle” (with all the negative connotation that word can hold), but I have now come to wear that comment as a badge of honor.


Who out there is producing work and research that’s exciting to you?

While these two examples aren’t brand new, I like to reference them as examples of projects that I really love for particular reasons:

One is the work of Elio Caccavale and his piece “Utility Pets” which is a critical design fiction that imagines a future in which humans will benefit from xenotransplantation. The work features a series of artifacts that represent the many ways in which humans might empathize with animals that will ultimately help their survival. I love how this piece walks the fine line between a seemingly absurd and entirely relatable experience. As a result, the audience is encouraged to grapple with large ethical considerations in a very critical yet playful way. I am a strong proponent of using embodied play to provide new ways for people to think and reflect critically on their experiences.

Another favorite of mine is a piece called “Practices of Everyday Life: Cooking” by Navid Navab. The performance creates an audio and visual landscape generated by the process and movement of a chef creating a meal. I had the opportunity to engage with some of the underlying technology, which utilizes contact microphones and innovative audio processing. Through this design, common everyday objects can become instruments creating audio compositions. This work inspires me greatly because it frees the need to provide the user with one of a kind sensor-laden items. Rather, the technology allows all of us to compose through objects and tools with which we are already familiar.

Currently what other projects do you have queued up?

I am currently engaged in the adventure of exploring Portland and trying to find where the next career step might be for me (aka I am looking for a job). I have been incredibly grateful for the amazing tech and design community that has been so welcoming and willing to meet and talk with a wide-eyed former academic. It has been really enlightening to get an understanding of the landscape of design approaches and philosophies in Portland.

Besides that, my recent creative work has been in the world of creative coding. There is an excellent Meetup group here called PDX Creative Coders that celebrates and explores the world of artistic expression through technology. Recently, I participated in a project that played a game of Telephone with code. Everyone brought a starting visualization (built in Processing), which then randomly got passed to someone else, where that person had about 30 minutes to make some modification to the visual. Each piece went through about 4 cycles of this and culminated in a review of evolving digital art through iteration.

What’s one invention you wish was currently in existence?

The first thing that comes to mind is that I’ve always really wanted a Holodeck, which feels like too safe an answer (who doesn’t want one?), plus it feels like I’m betraying my Star Wars affinity. But I love immersive experiences and that would be the ultimate manner for creative embodied play. Who wouldn’t want to act out Luke’s trench run on the Death Star?  (There…balance has been restored!)