Dear and Professor Ishii 
+ the rest of the Tangible Media Group,

Almost precisely a decade ago, upon returning home from my first semester of undergraduate school intimidated by the vocabulary of my peers, I asked my mother what she did when she did not know the meaning of a word. She answered without hesitation, 
“the answer to that is perhaps the greatest lesson I learned from my own father,
‘ask when you have a question, you might get your answer.’
Which is to say, prizing curiosity is a generational family value. My mother, a psychologist, was driven by questions about human connection.  Her father, a doctoral alum and associate professor at MIT, was driven by questions about material engineering.  And, for as long as I can remember, I have been driven by questions about how human experience can be supported by mechanized spatial augmentation; questions I hope to continue asking as a Ph.D. candidate within MIT’s Media Lab.

Over the last decade, my work in industry and academia has centered on spatial computing (Scomp). Therein, I have increasingly focused on “human-machine configurations”  occurring in real Euclidean space through augmented reality (AR) and ambient intelligent (AmI) interventions. Much like Media Lab’s Prof. Pattie Maes, I fundamentally believe that “door technologie dichter bij ons te halen, zullen we er net minder mee bezig zijn” (“by bringing technology closer to us, we become less entangled in it”).  However, I am also quite sensitive to the alignment problems (AP)  such inclusion of technology can create; i.e. the misalignment between algorithms and humans’ values, intentions, instructions, preferences. It is therefore my aim as a doctoral candidate to understand alignment problems unique to SComp. 

Inspired by Fei Fei Li’s ImageNet,  a research goal for my time at the Media Lab is to create a training database, called “SpatialNet,” that enumerates correlations between spaces and physio-social human outcomes. Leveraging SpatialNet, I hope to collaborate with and across relevant Media Lab groups to perform a systematic evaluation of what is appropriate, reasonable, just, and ethical when leveraging SComp; e.g. address what I call the Spatial Alignment Problem (SAP). At the end of my doctoral work, my ambition is to credibly answer questions such as: how does ceiling height affect stress-reduction, and under what conditions is it reasonable to intervene by changing the ceiling height in order to change the user/s stress-levels? 

It was in the context of a Liberal Arts undergraduate education at Bennington College that I began systematically exploring the domain of SComp. There, I conducted independent research at the intersection of (architectural) design and social psychology including a social network analysis which informed my thesis. The thesis, Compounding the Academic Landscape: A Case Study and Speculative Physical-Digital Architecture Proposal, was realized across the computer science, architecture, and social psychology departments. The work proposed a digital platform and campus building aimed at facilitating interdisciplinary academic dialogue. Thereafter, during my six years in consulting, I focused on creating and analyzing testing environments for user-centric rapid prototyping. These environments were used to vet new product and service concepts by clients including Nike, Cisco, Bacardi, and Wells Fargo. My time in industry integrating both internal and external stakeholders gave me expertise in centering end-users in order to make impactful commercial decisions that furthered strategic business objectives.

In 2020, I returned to get my M.Sc. in Industrial Design-Engineering after my time in industry revealed a lack of consensus about how to approach adding SComp to as-of-yet SComp-void spaces. When there was consensus, the focus was on solutions for an outlier end-user, an urban-dweller with “disposable” income. This has long been the foremost speculative target persona of SComp. But now the technology is sophisticated enough that these once-speculative visions are actualities, and as the Media Lab knows well, SComp is increasingly regarded as a notably precarious computing type. My research examining this precarity led to one of very few papers documenting industry processes for SComp creation.  By way of that research, I also identified a lack of comprehensive understanding about how users are affected by exteroceptive computing triggering spatio-environmental changes. Findings that highlighted how SAPs are to be expected based on the current state of SComp. And yet, being reticent in the face of this challenge is not an option. As chaos theory critics note, “research that concludes simply that ‘everything is complex,’” is not a sufficient theoretical frame.  Instead, while the future can’t be predicted, “it can be envisioned and brought lovingly into being…[systems] can be designed and redesigned.”  Therefore, whether within or across Prof. Pattie Maes’ Fluid Interfaces or Prof. Hiroshi Ishii’s Tangible Media groups, I will tackle these inherently complex SAPs (lovingly) head-on.

Let me briefly address why I believe my ambition to not only identify how to mitigate SAPs, but also identify (and celebrate) yet-unidentified spatial alignments would be well-housed in both groups: 
 __________ Tangible Media Group 
“I try to make tangible, physical worlds.”
- Prof. Hiroshi Ishii, 2018 

Dear Prof. Ishii, 
My mother gifted me an abacus in high school when it became clear that I not only had a natural aptitude for mathematics, but also enjoyed it. Something about its size, however, made my brain feel cramped. So even though it was a symbolic gift, I admitted to my mother I would not use it to complete my homework. Still eager to gift me a tool for making complexity tangible, my mother came in with an even more rudimentary solution: big paper. Big paper is a media I now rely on daily to codify. So, you can imagine my delight when I saw you present the abacus as an analog for your efforts towards tangibility of digital information. I share your appreciation for viscerally embodied computing as both a lever to support sense making of information, but also, (remote-)human-connection. Which is why believe, working in your group would provide a meaningful theoretical backdrop to the work I hope to produce while at the Media Lab. 
 __________ PURPOSE
I have always felt that the built environment affects how people interact and feel. In my teens, I learned that my spatial attunement was likely linked to a neurological condition called temporal synesthesia, where time and space are perceived as a physical form for synesthetes like me. My upbringing also played a strong role in my interest in the socio-spatial. Growing up as a young girl presumed to be straight in 1990s-San Francisco as it became one of the most stratified socio-economic areas in the US, made me sensitive to how quality-of-life associated with environmental conditions is inextricably tied to class, sexuality, and gender. As a survivor of childhood homelessness and daughter of an undocumented immigrant from Colombia, I also lived through the environmental precarity of poverty and witnessed the effects of privilege associated with race firsthand. It is this lived experience, which I do not share with many of my colleagues in the world of technology, that motivates me to pursue research in support of a SComp future that centralizes conceptions of justice, diversity, equity. These experiences also motivate my professional aspiration to assume a place of scholastic and industry leadership in the field of SComp. 

Post Ph.D., I intend on pursuing industry-post-doctoral-work into the application of SpatialNet. This will invariably keep me connected to both industry and academia, as I am now. In this capacity, I will continue to leverage my innate passion to inspire curiosity in the domain by simply and impactfully communicating the complex. In addition to discovering spatial alignments and mitigating SAPs, my biggest career dream is supporting this burgeoning field in being integrally multi-disciplinary and inclusive of identity-diversity. Ultimately, my intention is that my work continues to surface best practices for design-engineers, users, legislators to not only create, but also advocate for value-aligned SComp.

I am confident the rest of my materials will continue to paint a portrait of someone eager, curious about interdisciplinary thought, academically and professionally capable, social and community-oriented, and seeking an academic venue to be both changed by and to in turn inform. I hope in sharing my personal story you have gained a sense that my commitment to this topic is innate, making me ready to not only thrive in your program, but also dynamically contribute to our academic community, as such. 

Thank you kindly for your consideration. 
I look forward to the opportunity to share my motivation with you personally.
 

Yours Sincerely,
Caseysimone Ballestas