Kate Reed's sonic invisibility cloak confronts issues surrounding privacy in the digital age and addresses the harm humans inflict on the natural environment. Photo: Kate Reed

Date July 9, 2020
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Kate Reed: Finding a niche in biomimetic design

The Brown-RISD dual degree student is pursuing several summer projects that use cutting-edge technology to connect people to the natural world and to each other.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — Summer 2020 is panning out differently than Kate Reed imagined just a few months ago.  

Reed, who is entering her fifth and final year in the Brown-RISD Dual Degree Program, planned to spend the summer making an installation for Burning Man — the well-chronicled art and community festival held annually in the Nevada desert.

Inspired in part by a Brown course she took in Fall 2019, Data Visceralization and Climate Change, Reed dreamed up and designed a work she called “Luna.”

“It was going to be this 12-foot dome covered in metal moths,” she said. “The entire dome was going to be connected to live tidal data and glow according to the tides. You would be able to go up to the dome, put your hand on it, and individual moths were going to pulse with your heartbeat. It was this idea of, how can I create this space where you can share your heartbeat with the heartbeat of the Earth?”

In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, Burning Man will take place only in cyberspace this year. But that doesn’t mean Reed is taking a creative hiatus this summer. Instead, she’s at work on three new biomimetic designs — tools or works of art that, like her proposed “Luna” project, use cutting-edge technology to draw people closer to their natural surroundings and to each other.

“ My work is focused on the question, how do we use design to eradicate social problems? How can we use design and design tools to give communities the things that they need to solve their own problems? ”

Kate Reed

With funding provided by a Cicada Art at a Distance grant, Reed is collaborating with Boston-based African drummer Cornell Coley on “Ritual Objects for a New World,” a project that seeks to reintroduce and enhance rituals in people’s everyday lives with music.

As part of an ongoing partnership between RISD and Hyundai, she is also building a “sonic invisibility cloak” that confronts issues surrounding privacy in the digital age and addresses the harm humans inflict on the natural environment. Reed’s invisibility cloak, which employs both the latest sound technology from Hyundai and the camouflaging techniques animals have used for millennia, will likely be exhibited in Seoul in late 2020, she said.

And she’s also employing her coding knowledge, data-gathering skills and design experience to create a “wearable pollution cloud” — a project sponsored by the electronics company Digitspace. Reed envisions this piece of wearable art functioning as a helpful yet beautiful air-pollution monitor.

“Right now, we are in a social emergency,” Reed said. “As a culture, we are just struggling so much. Our climate's changing. We're not talking to each other. We’re not connecting with others or with our environment. That's a huge problem. So what I really strive for is to create these ‘Holy cow!’ moments where people just turn to each other and they look and they talk.”

[W]hat I really strive for is to create these ‘Holy cow!’ moments where people just turn to each other and they look and they talk.

Kate Reed
Kate Reed wearing her breathing choker

These are just the latest in a years-long series of projects that Reed has undertaken since she was a teen — most of which transcend boundaries between art, engineering, social justice, environmental science and technology. Her projects integrate elements of the natural world into technologically innovative tools. They offer social commentary alongside utility. And some are as apt to confront major societal issues as they are to be exhibited in an art gallery or worn on a fashion runway.

“My work is focused on the question, how do we use design to eradicate social problems?” Reed said. “How can we use design and design tools to give communities the things that they need to solve their own problems?”

Reed’s education has always been a hands-on endeavor. As a homeschooled child, Reed said she “lived my textbooks” — she and her family traveled to Italy to study the European Renaissance, and they ventured to Greece to learn about classical civilizations. She attended high school at NuVu Studio, a project-based learning school founded by a Massachusetts Institute of Technology Ph.D. graduate. While there, Reed and some of her classmates developed an inexpensive, 3D-printed hand-drive wheelchair attachment — a tool that normally costs thousands of dollars to purchase. Reed and her classmates garnered national recognition for the project, even visiting the White House for a demonstration.

When it came time for Reed to apply to college, finding a university that offered a similar hands-on learning experiences was at the top of her list of criteria. The Brown-RISD Dual Degree Program had the flexible, socially conscious and experimental atmosphere she craved. As part of her independent concentration at Brown on social innovation and entrepreneurship, Reed has sampled courses spanning the entire University catalog, from music to engineering to computer science to modern culture and media.

She calls herself “the poster child for the Open Curriculum,” Brown’s singular approach to undergraduate education.

“What’s so cool about these classes is that it’s all these different people coming together from all these different departments,” Reed said. “One robotics class I took had concentrators in religious studies, engineering, computer science… and then me. The things that we were making were so interesting. The ways we were pushing each other to think differently were amazing. A group project at Brown is kind of a dream, because everyone does the work and everyone has weird, interesting ideas.

For Reed, her years at Brown and the Rhode Island School of Design have inspired dozens of projects — from a collection of exoskeleton-like musical prosthetics that convey the wearer’s emotion through sound, to storytelling crowns, which allow people to exchange intimate stories and share unique perspectives through headwear.

Lately, she has been most focused on creating biomimetic designs like those she is building this summer. With a 2019 project called “Botany Bots,” Reed mounted indoor plants on top of robotic casters, giving them agency to follow the sunlight, and each other, around a room. Her breathing choker, created in 2019, pulses along with the wearer’s heartbeat, encouraging emotional openness and inviting conversation.

Kate Reed’s course list

A typical semester for Reed involves three RISD classes and two Brown classes. Reed said she strives to take at least one robotics-focused or hands-on Brown course per semester. Here are just a few of the Brown courses she has taken and enjoyed.

MUSC 1240I Building Musical Instruments
CSCI 1951C Designing Humanity Centered Robotics
MCM 1701J Data Visceralization and Climate Change
PLCY 1910 Social Entrepreneurship

Reed believes it’s a mistake to look to science fiction for inspiration when developing new technology. Rather than attempting to recreate the fictional supercomputers, embeddable microchips and projected images that have been featured in books and on television since the 1950s, Reed has argued that it’s best to take technological cues from nature.

“The first submarines were designed to look like whales,” she said. “We took the hints from birds when trying to fly. But for some reason, computers are supposed to be like ‘Star Trek.’ It just doesn't make any sense! I think it's really important that designers use our skills and our abilities to create wearable technology that looks and feels like it's part of the human body.”

Someday, Reed said, she hopes to create her own design lab focused on creating a closer connection between people and computers. Whatever her career trajectory, Reed said she is grateful for the unfailing support and open-mindedness of Brown faculty.

“I feel like I can call any professor at any time of day and say, ‘I don't know what's happening — my project isn't working!’" she said. “And they will tell me: ‘We're going to get to the finish line. You have a vision. Here's how we get there.’

“I’ve learned that there’s no reason to be afraid to come in and have these conversations with professors,” she added. “It’s cheesy, but the Brown slogan is true: You really are the architect of your education.”