Final Project Proposal — kǔkǒu box

J M
6 min readOct 30, 2021

Alex Gao, Joanne Ma, Jessie Mindel, Julia Wang, Clarissa Wu. Professor Kimiko Ryokai. INFO C262, Fall 2021

Summary

We propose kǔkǒu box (苦口), an interactive and slow technology that allows people to periodically re-experience the accumulated emotions and semantics of their past words through the taste of chocolate. Once a week, we invite users to literally eat their words and reflect on the flavor notes representative of their outward expression. In this process, the user will resynthesize how they’ve experienced the past week, consider how they might express themselves over the next few days, and enjoy a tasty (or not!) treat.

Motivations

Our midterm project was of a rather large scope: it sought to serve as a comprehensive system for sense-making through the re-synthesis of memory. To simplify and operationalize our design, we considered what fundamental design question was at the core of our interest in memory, and landed back at our roots in reflective and slow technologies.

In particular, we discussed the notion of technology as a distorted mirror, and how easy it is to fall into routines, moods, or funks of which we might not be aware for weeks at a time. We targeted this specific experience through an exploration of edible interfaces and language:

How we might process our often un-captured or mundane modes of verbal expression to invite reflection and re-synthesis in the form of a flavorful wake-up call.

Part 1 — Why might we want to reflect more slowly and ambiguously?

Modern mirrors work quickly and superficially: they enable deliberate formation of one’s image or brand, and instantaneous, aesthetically driven feedback that yields either gratification or guilt. We opt to instead focus on slower, more ambiguous, and more healing reflections of the self.

Part 2 — Why try to capture verbal expressions?

Our lives have become increasingly saturated with varying modes of communication, many of which demand our immediate attention and response. Everyday, we express ourselves through conversation, texts, tweets, posts, emails, journal entries, and the like. It is estimated that most people speak around 16,000 words a day [1] and send thousands more through digital means. adults 18–29 years old send/receive around 87.7 texts per day [2]. We throw out so much verbal laughter, sadness, anger, and happiness into the world through these passing comments and texts.

However, as the traces of our thoughts amass over time on various platforms, it becomes more difficult to take the time to reflect on what and how we express. These verbal expressions reveal so much about how you process emotions, interact with others, and move through the world — but they are gone as soon as you send them, scattered and separated across platforms. As more platforms and modes of communication develop, how will we be able to look back at the way we express ourselves over time? How can we capture the often un-captured and forgotten words we speak and write? How can we process them in a way that invites reflection and re-synthesis rather than rote re-reading?

Part 3 — Why capture verbal expressions with flavor?

We choose flavor as our medium because we naturally connect taste with life, memory (close connections with smell through taste between the hippocampus and olfactory bulb!), and experience, in almost every language. Goodbyes are bittersweet, disputes turn sour, drama is spicy, lovers are sweet; fall invites the smell of cinnamon and spice, and summer calls forth the taste of berries and cream.

Design

The kǔkǒu box is a networked box that crafts one piece of chocolate per week based on the analysis of an owner’s written, typed, and spoken words throughout that given week. As the owner expresses themselves throughout the week, kǔkǒu box will passively collect each word, gathering insight on patterns of emotions and words. The most prominent patterns of emotions (discovered using sentiment analysis and topic modeling) get translated into the flavors of the chocolate piece. For instance, a large fight with your significant other may increase the bitterness of the chocolate while hints of loving messages to friends would add cozy notes of cinnamon or nut butters.

At the end of each week, owners can open the box to find a piece of chocolate, with their most frequent or emotionally-charged words for that week printed on the wrapper. We hope to make the experience of opening the box as conducive to ritual as possible, already supported by the time interval of chocolate production: upon opening the box, a soft glow of light comes through the frosted acrylic and fills up the room, with possibly a simple, soothing sonification to accompany it. We hope to make the interaction with the box as analog and intimate as possible, e.g., using a latch, lever, or crank to reveal the chocolate, or making the artifact feel antique or bespoke.

We’ve begun to explore how such a chocolate curation/fabrication mechanism might work. While a chocolate 3D printer or CNC-based engraver would be exciting, due to cost and complexity, we are instead considering the use of simple linear actuators and pumps to assemble thin layers of chocolate, fillings (e.g., jams, nut butters, herbal spreads like mint paste, and edible glue), and powders (e.g., cocoa powder and matcha). As a basic MVP, we’ve considered a chocolate sorting machine to choose one of a handful of curated chocolates made by chocolatiers, and plan to iterate from there to move from a more discrete solution (a choice between unmodifiable chocolates) to something more continuous, ambiguous, and analog (e.g., layers of chocolate of variable flavor to create one unexpected combination, or mixing and extruding chocolate with interesting blends of flavors if we were to opt for a 3D printed solution).

Potential Use Cases

  1. Self Reflective: Suppose someone’s had a rough week, but doesn’t know why, or hasn’t had a moment to slow down and just breathe. Come the week’s end, their KuKou Box glows to invite them to open it, and upon flipping the latch, reading the words on the wrapper, and sampling the curated chocolate square, made bitter and warm by their sadness (flavor metaphors + mappings in the works!), realize that their week has been more difficult than they remembered. KuKou Box fills their room with warm light to offer comfort, and they take a moment to savor the flavor, hoping to spend more time on self-care the next week.
    Users might hold onto wrappers as part of their journaling, if they’re already interested in collage. We’re considering still as a stretch goal how the wrappers might feedback into the KuKou Box ecosystem, and whether they might be actuated or otherwise technologically augmented.
  2. Social: In a friend group setting, the chocolate box can receive input from a group chat and print out a box label of most common words mentioned and create a chocolate box for friends to share

Next Steps

We will be meeting with small-batch chocolatiers and industrial chocolate manufacters to understand how to work with chocolate in our proposed tangible user interface. Some challenges we foresee is conching chocolate over an extended period of time, size of the interface, temperature control, tempering, and flavor expressions.

What’s with the name?

The Chinese idiom 良药苦口 (liángyào kǔkǒu), which translates to “good medicine tastes bitter,” is a playful metaphor that claims that healing comes through experiencing what is bitter.

Bitterness is cooling (in Traditional Chinese Medicine), is healing, and helps us reflect on the bitter and difficult to swallow things that lead to the sweet (outcomes, etc). Not all that is bitter is unbearable — some of the most coveted foods like chocolates is an interplay between bitter and sweet.

Coincidentally, kukou sounds quite similar to cacao — tying together our chocolate theme nicely.

https://unsplash.com/photos/jF3zJ1EFuNM

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J M

Grad student @ UC Berkeley’s School of Information. Interests include social computing, usable security, Being Online™️ and reflective tech.