TEDxDerby Interview: Alyson Fielding

Alyson Fielding’s love for books goes beyond the printed word. She is drawn to them as physical objects for their character and mystery, for their ability to hold their own story.

Faced with the mundane dilemma of installing a bedside reading light you might think she would have obtained a mains extension lead and lamp, but Alyson is also a creative minded Arduino computing enthusiast. Her solution was quite literally, novel.

In a TEDxDerby talk entitled Remaking The Book she described the development of her “LightBook” – a motion activated reading light embedded into a hardback book that would illuminate when picked up.

I was keen to ask Alyson about the LightBook, her TEDx experience and her brush with the BAFTAs.

Remaking The Book

When you first conjured up the notion of a LightBook were you aiming for an imaginative but pragmatic solution to a lighting problem or was the project always more about the fun of creating something?

It was a response to a real problem. I had nowhere to plug in a lamp. I was thinking about what to do and I had been playing around with Arduino and wondered whether that might work. I quite liked the idea of trying that to see what would happen and I knew I wanted to involve the feel of that book.

Alyson speaking

You didn’t stop at illumination. First you fitted the book with a positional sensor and networked it to a phone which would speak out the book’s orientation as you rotated it. I loved what you did next – you got your phone to tweet what you were doing with the book. Did you experience any odd reactions from people who maybe didn’t understand why you were doing this?

The project was a bit weird but I’ve had lots of conversations with people who just get it. Then people suggest new ideas about what I could do or kit I could consider using. It challenges me to create better stuff.

It strikes me that if you jump right to the end result you think “wow, that’s great!” but it you know the story in-between you might think “What? Why did you use this?!”. When I was watching your talk it actually took me a while to understand what you were trying to achieve. It was only later I really got it.

When I pass the book to somebody not only do they have a reaction to it because it is a physical object – and we have all these emotions about a physical book – but when they see it working it makes sense. In the talk I didn’t show some of the incarnations of the book that didn’t work. I like that process of making something where it isn’t working and you have to leave it alone and come back later and try a different idea. The process is frustrating and exciting, curious and sparky.

A friend of yours said that it feels like the book knows her when she picks it up and it responds. How did that make you feel?

It was lovely. I made a version of the LightBook for a friend. We have a reaction to books. It’s the weight of it and the smell of it. Books do take you on journeys and we have these emotional responses to them. As she was reading the book it was responding and there’s something nice about getting a human-like response from a book.

Anyone who has grown up with printed books will understand your sentiments regarding their appealing physical attributes – feel, weight, smell etc. One of the reasons I love National Geographic is the addictive chemical smell of those beautiful glossy pages. I wonder, can your LightBook concept ever resonate with a younger generation of readers who may only have experienced reading via a screen?

I don’t think that reading on screen or reading on paper are incompatible. It just depends where you are. I would hope the two formats would carry on and that kids would get the best of both of them.

Alyson demonstrating book light

There are people now buying vinyl and experiencing the magic of album covers and sleeve design who were brought up on CDs and iTunes. Perhaps an idea like your LightBook has the power to lure digital users into an analogue world they never previously explored. Is there any reason why the past can’t be used to augment the future?

Definitely. I guess you see this with modern radios styled like old ones. Part of me thinks this is great although I also like the idea that people will take things apart and see how they work.

We hear the term “internet of things” bandied around a lot along with varying reports of how it will reshape our lives. Can you envision a time in which analogue objects like books and clothes routinely incorporate some digital functionality, and is that a good thing?

It depends what it does. Does it make peoples lives better? Does it excite people? I think it’s what we make of it. What I’m excited about at the moment are health developments. The idea of being able to wear something that monitors your heart rate inconspicuously and informs your doctor has huge potential. That feels really exciting. People can live a better life.

On your website you list instructions on how to create your own LightBook. By the way, there is something delightful about reading a set of instructions that jump from programming code to sewing instructions! Do you know if anybody else has tried to make your LightBook or similar?

I don’t know about that. I learnt by using online forums and by asking people and I decided that whatever I learn I want other people to be able to use and pull apart. I have had emails from other people and exchanges of code and ideas so that’s brilliant.

What are you curious about in the world?

A lot of creative people feel put off by the apparent complexity of computers. Is Arduino a technology that the non-technical could realistically get to grips with?

Totally. These things are getting cheaper. There’s a community out there who can help. You don’t have to code if you don’t want to. The important bit is about making something. I went through a stage of nervousness asking “am I doing the right thing?” and occasionally things don’t work but that’s how you learn. It’s a really nice thing to do with families and groups of people. It’s lovely to make something with other people or with kids. I would say “just do it”, it’s good fun.

You challenged the TEDxDerby audience to ask the questions: “What are you curious about in the world? What do you want to look at and remake?” Those are such simple yet powerful questions. Ideas are one thing but seeing them through is another. How do you keep an idea alive to the point of producing something?

It’s having that curiosity. I get stubborn and I want to know. Whenever I hit a dead end I think of another way and try again. It’s largely bloody mindedness! Also I do small things that draw confidence to remind myself that I can do this thing. Sometimes leaving it alone for a while and having time to think is the way forward.

You ended your talk by challenging the audience to ask “I wonder what happens if…” By asking yourself that question you not only created the LightBook but spoke at TEDxDerby. Looking back, how would you sum up your experience of speaking at TEDxDerby

It was a really friendly nice day. People were so interested and my brain was sparking from the day. I had so many good conversations with the other speakers. People from the audience shared ideas that have stuck with me.

I wonder what happens if?

I’ve taken a peak at your website. You lead a very busy and varied life. I see that you worked on the QI mobile app. Did you meet any of the QI elves?

Unfortunately I didn’t get to meet any of them but it was a fascinating project to work on.

You also worked on the Malcolm Tucker iPhone app which was the first mobile application to be nominated for a BAFTA . Was that as fun as it sounds?

Yes it was! I took some existing book content and worked out how the story could be structured for a mobile phone. To be involved with that was great fun. I did at one point have an entire wall mapped out with post-it notes to understand the timeline of the story in a way that would work on a mobile phone. It was basically an entire wall covered in swearing!

It’s clear you have an affinity with story telling. Are you going to write a book?

I have friends who have written books and I’m in awe of them. We mentioned bloody mindedness and you need this with books. It’s a big step to take. I would love to write a book but I’m aware how much work there is behind that. Stories are fun to write and especially when they are used to soften technology.