mdp thesis

a cognitive mapping experience

Category: Design

In Progress Thesis Show


Navigating Altered Headspaces (in Altered Consciousness)

MDP In Progress Thesis Show

Wind Tunnel

There is much possibility for designing in a realm of new cognitive experiences and embodied technologies that bridge the gap between how the unconscious or seemingly unreal perceptions can blend and interact with that of a sober conscious reality. In context, my design exploration engages the areas of technology and cognition by breaking down stigmas of drug use, mind alteration and self-induced healing. As perceptions today are changing around such substance use, designs that call such a psycho-future into place is becoming increasingly possible and speculatively plausible.


At the close of the first semester of Thesis Year, I decided to go more exploratory in my prototyping and exhibition show that worked more like a prompt for the viewer into this world of designing with Altered Consciousness and specifically hallucinations in mind. This was a step back from the drug user App “AWE” that I done UX sketching and storyboards for. For the show I created a proposal and provoking questions around the nature of reality, hallucinatory states and how we can think about the “unreal” in our lives. Part of these questions and explorations came from testing my app experience and the insights that came from my observations.


The Hallucination Experiments are meant to delve into instances and moments when and where hallucinations might subtly displace onto our real and sober lives and the subversive patterns and hints of what such altered consciousness can bring under its specific affordances. I’m interested in designing more unassuming technologies that create embodiments of such states, revealing their triggers into what is hidden to us.



Jumping off from the more scientific aspects of the AWE app, I used Google’s DeepDream software to explore the realms of altered consciousness and cognition. This platform combined with aspects of the Guider from the app, have the possibility to inform our own cognition by breaking down how we actively create our visually based realities, thoughts and memories.

DeepIntent from Elaine Cheung on Vimeo.


This app was designed in response to the media’s sensationalistic coverage of rave culture and its use of drugs, where many young people today are using mostly adulterated and harmful substances sold on the black market, mostly unknowingly and irresponsibly due to the electronic music scene’s surge in popularity. This mock up is both a satirical play on the War on Drugs and a vessel to humanize the stereotype of the drug user, the raver and its niche world.



Moving Forward, Go Deep (Post-WIP review)

So don’t make an App… that was loud and clear. However being the embodiment of my methodology and research, I believe it was a good survey of the current foundational problems and assessment of the topic within reality right now. As drugs are approached by power or authoritarian forces, it meets resistance and control, which is where I approached it from the beginning, due to the nature of my own personal processing and creation. However in the long scheme of things, this resistance might just be a bump in the road right now so to put forth designs that use the affordance of an altered state of consciousness might be more fruitful for the future.

Possible Design Briefs to Tease Out:

1)  New States of Consciousness: How can the affordances of being in this particular state under the influence of drugs inspire new social moments, new relationships, new communication models, structures of Q+A testings or behavioral systems, or new empathy interactions? If a drugs brings out the particular nuances of certain cognitive functionalities that affect our senses, invoke mild hallucinations or warp our current sober or normal understanding of concepts like time and space, what kinds of new designs can be created to work within these mental imbalances? (From disability to superpower enhancing) …How can we use these drugs as cognitive tools with the aid of new kinds of technological tools that provide support? …What are the specific moments of interactions within these states?

2) Moment #1: The point of the Unreal within a Real Space – When does the unreal seemlessly interacts with the sober reality that we’ve come to know? When is that tipping point of hallucinating (from altered states to even the in between dream state of exemplified by sleep paralysis (with its symptoms of being fully conscious but hallucinating due to being asleep-in the in between state of awake and sleep, aka hypnogogia)? Usually these moments in normal healthy human beings cause fear, anxiety and confusion, but can also be a source of insight, awe and wonder in the other extreme. How can the ambiguity in what is real and unreal create new meanings and understandings? Can these unreal gestures superimposed or composited into the real world create ways to deal with our own human nature – like our past memories or our desires and intentions on a personal scale? Instead of overloading the senses like the psychedelia artists (projection artists, infinity machines and psy-clubs) of the sixties sought to convey to disrupt and drop out of reality, how can these experiences be moments of processing and assigned meaning? Symbology like that of Freud’s interpretation of dreams realized through design that creates an interpretation of unreal reality… what can designed experiences like this do for a user?

What if what you are experiencing is real?

Does it matter if it is real or not?

Why do you want to know if it is real?

What even is reality right now?

3) Moment #2: Guided Moments in Times of Fear – This aptly connects with moment 1, mostly as a precursor to that moment but more focused on mental moods and changes in sensations that lead to confusion and then fear or anxiety and the trappings that can happen within that state rather than visual or apparent hallucinations. How can you actively turn something negative into something positive or even expressive? Where and when and how do these switches happen? How can the Guide be developed and pushed further into an empowering tool or one set based on your intention and focus?

4) Moment #3: New forms of Social Media/Spaces & Expressive Communication – With the influence of an altered state, how can our current understandings of technology and social media change? If current technology makes us more individualized and secluded from each other, with interactions based on screens and in the digital realm, how can drugs bring out these needs to physically interact with each other or be connected in new ways? What are physically empathetic and connected ways to interact intimately on MDMA? How do we communicate when vibrating on similar frequencies, reading minds or activating “God mode” in suspended disbelief on LSD (or even at all with each other on a psychedelic when we are bombarded with sensory overload or traveling to other realities)? If taking such natural medicines make us more aware of ourselves in our body and in our society and how connected we are fundamentally to each other (like such of DMT), how can we create better social structures that house such states?

Analogous Inspiration:

  • Octopus’ Expressive & Telepathic Communication
  • Virtual Reality Technologies
  • The World of magic and fantasy (if everything has life and energy, technology has the power to breathe life into objects and things… part of the ideas within psychedelics that everything is living in a connected web)
  • DeepDream Algorithm, Pattern and Image Recognition and Learning
  • Tie In to Wearables and IoTh Tech somehow and throughout…