Meet Senongo Akpem, the Real Artist Behind the Fake (and Brilliant) HoloHalo

Now we really want holographic communication devices.

Meet Senongo Akpem's HoloHalo
Senongo Akpem

What if you could show off what you were feeling — akin to a mood ring, maybe, but with smarter technology? That’s part of the question that led Senongo Akpem, a digital designer who lives in New York City, to imagine the HoloHalo.

“HoloHalo is a holographic communication device that learns and adapts to you,” Akpem writes on the HoloHalo website, which reads like a press release from five years down the line. “Autonomously project colors and patterns that sync with your mood.”

Sure, it’s a conceptual technology, but like all good near-future science fiction it’s provocative while keeping one foot in the real-world. Researchers at universities like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology are working to find ways for machines to interpret and communicate our emotions. MIT unveiled one such system in 2014, called Affectiva, aimed at children with autism who may have difficulty recognizing the emotions of other people.

Akpem split his early years between the U.S. and Nigeria, and his Atlantic-spanning background shows in his work: Perhaps a future Apple will get close to HoloHalo, but Akpem’s designs have a distinctly African twist. Inverse recently caught up with Akpem to chat about what inspired the idea.

How do you describe your conceptual work like the HoloHalo?

A lot of my conceptual work and illustration deals with ideas of multiculturalism and science fiction. I grew up with a foot in two different cultures, with a Nigerian dad and an American mom. Being ‘between like that means that much of the work I create deals with what it means to be both part of and separate from cultures at the same time. I guess that is why sci-fi appeals to me so much, because it so often tries to address what being alien means.

For HoloHalo, I wanted to speculate on what futuristic technology would look like when used by the types of people that look like me. It’s a part of the world of Afro-futurism. I’m exploring a very specific idea, visualizing expressive communication through tech, and what that means (or could mean) for Africans and members of today’s African Diaspora. Kind of deep, but what sci-fi isn’t?

Senongo Akpem

What was the inspiration behind this project? What’s your design process like? Did you start with an artistic idea (in this case, for instance, a desire to make awesome GIFs) or the idea of speculative tech?

Years ago, I read the book Eon by Greg Bear. I’m horribly simplifying it, but the book is about a team of scientists that explore a mysterious asteroid that shows up in Earth’s orbit. They go inside, and end up visiting a futuristic city called Axis, where people have devices that allow them to “pict” or project additional contextual information while they talk. It got me thinking — what does this look like if we are projecting emotion and moods? In many ways, wearable tech and smartphones pull us inward, measuring and communicating in a very physically private way. Why not use Greg Bear’s idea to reverse this? That’s how HoloHalo got started.

My design process is quite similar to my other projects — lots of drawing and testing the limits of what I can do. There were a few technical challenges that really forced me to buckle down and work out what I wanted to design. It was important to use readily accessible web tech. That meant HTML, CSS, and SVG. I needed it to be animated, so I had to learn quite a bit about SMIL and CSS3 animation, finding a way to standardize all the halo movements in my code.

Finally, it needed to be proudly Black. I’m a Nigerian, born and raised, and it was important for me to show Africans and people of color front and center in this speculative future.

The GIFs were a great way to show off what HoloHalo looked like on Twitter, though, for sure.

You’ve asked people to discuss HoloHalo on Twitter — what has the feedback been like? Are people excited by the prospect of technology like this?

The response has been very positive, if a bit bewildered. The structure of the HoloHalo site was deliberately tongue-in-cheek, mocking (gently) those breathless marketing sites we see for new tech and devices. Those who know how dry my sense of humor is were “in” on the joke, but not everyone was, hence some surprise and light confusion.

Excitement is a tough one to measure. We see the graphs showing tech uptake globally as nearly instantaneous these days, and I wonder if it is true excitement driving it, or just part of our social fabric to “update” constantly now. I think if I had shown HoloHalo working in real life, with video of people in meetings and on dates, it would have sparked more excitement, but I was more interested in exploring how common web technology (CSS, HTML, and SVG) could be used to create the halos, so video was not in the cards this time. I guess side projects are all about what is possible now, with the tools you have now.

When you’re designing speculative technology, are you trying to envision unmet needs? Or spark conversation? (Or both?)

First and foremost, to spark conversation and create new narratives. I have been a science fiction fan for as long as I have been able to read, but I have been an African for longer. It is almost comical how little we see Africans and people of color in Western speculative technology and sci-fi, so these types of projects are a deliberate attempt to challenge our erasure from what is essentially our own future.

I was recently reading an article on io9 about world-building in fantasy and sci-fi. One of the points the author made was that sometimes, the worlds and futures we create should have incredibly confusing or idiosyncratic features — we never know how society will suddenly shift, organically, to accommodate new fads and discoveries. I like to think my projects fit squarely in that frame of thought, where black and brown bodies can take center stage in our visualizations of technology. [Designer] Sara Hendren noted in her article about improving the lives of disabled people, that “History shows that the availability of technology doesn’t actually make a more equitable world.”

Do you currently use any wearable technology? Would you use something like HoloHalo, if it became available?

If HoloHalo became available, I would definitely wear one! I don’t actually use any wearable tech (and I kind of hate that phrase anyway, but what can you do). People who work with embedded LEDs and other ‘broadcast’ methods are much more interesting to me than a step monitor or tethered watch.

Back home in Nigeria, people often wear amazingly colorful clothing, often made from wax print. For nice traditional clothes, it’s still very uncommon to buy off the rack — instead, if you want a new outfit, you choose some fabric and have something custom made. Those bright custom clothes that I grew up wearing and seeing feel like much better candidates for personalized wearable tech than the Dick Tracy wrist phones or Starfleet combadges we are selling currently.

What are you working on at the moment?

I’m working on a bunch of cool things right now, though nothing is ready for primetime. In terms of sci-fi, I’m continuing to develop more of the stories I wrote and illustrated for my side project Pixel Fable. They are Afro-futurist, and blend interactive narrative with illustration, code, and sci-fi. I’m also collaborating on another major digital storytelling project with my amazing sister Denenge Akpem — she is a professor, performance artist, and writer in Chicago, and focuses heavily on Afro-Futurism and Black speculative art. She talks often about that question of ‘Who controls the future?’ and the digital narrative we are working on explores that idea heavily. I’ll be sharing more about that in the coming months for sure.

Check out the rest of Akpem’s work at his portfolio.

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