One of our first basic insights was the experience of the artist Chuck Close, who applied an astonishingly focused artistic attention to faces, even breaking them up into small parts. He remains very interested in “decoding” faces, and has ended up opening all of our eyes to looking at faces in new ways, with new sensitivities.
Similarly, Oliver Sacks, who also has this condition, creates compelling “portraits” in his essays that heighten our own sensitivities to other people’s circumstances and choices.
One precedent is the data confirming that people process information better when they are using some sort of writing or drawing device (more than a keyboard). The activity, the physical engagement, of writing or sketching seems to enable more pathways of memory to be developed during an experience. Our sketch-pad object is an effort to enable people with face-blindness to freely draw, sketch, or take notes during an interaction. We do not imagine that this would fully compensate for or “cure” the recognition deficit, but rather would serve to change the nature of the conversation, allowing the work that the face-blind person is, in fact, doing to be “surfaced.”
The problem we are directly addressing may seem to be focused the face-blind person’s abilities and to compensate for or develop other abilities to cope, but in fact our intervention here is a social innovation, rather than a technological or therapeutic innovation. We are interested in changing the nature of the interaction.
If someone has chosen to learn to lip read as a way of adjusting to the hearing world, then it doesn’t make sense for me to cover my mouth during the entire conversation, right? We change our own behavior in how we construct our interaction with that person. In the same way, the structure of stigma, embarrassment, and social damage that is part of the prosopagnosia experience requires a change in the nature of our social and conversational interaction, as much as any therapeutic improvement in the people with the condition.
Our effort to create a mediating window that replicates, at least metaphorically, the experience of face blindness, is part of an effort, then, to further that social innovation, that change in the nature of our interaction toward a more mindful and open pattern of observing each other during a conversation. Many versions are possible.
We imagined an interactive dialog window which would turn the faces upside down. This is based on the available experiments which show that people have tremendous difficulty identifying an upside down face, even though all the visual data is there. For severely face-blind people, the gap is not as great, since the inversion does not essentially change their original experience.
We also explored other means of “scrambling” the face parts so as to disrupt the automatic “decoding” that normally takes place. This could be with a series of sliding panels or slots, or with rotating panels or boxes. The idea is that this would move, shifting to some with transparency so that portions of the face can be seen, some with mirrors, some with printed versions of face parts.
Hannah developed the idea of polarized screens, broken into sections at different orientations so that various parts would be obscured and then revealed in sequence. This seemed evoke the experience of disrupting the decoding, even though it is clearly apparent at all times that a face is present directly in view.