Flocking Masks

I grew up with a parrot. Over the course of my life, we taught one another how to communicate our feelings to each other using sounds, patterns of movement, and gesture. Now I have this rich private language with my bird.

This makes sense, after all, birds distinguish who is in their flock by the familiar sounds they call out and repeat back to one another over a given distance. Birds that know the same head bob and chirp must be from your zip code, and are therefore your familiars. Your family. Your flock.

Without noticing, over time I began enacting some of the mannerisms I’ve developed between me and my bird, with my human friends. I think most write off these acts as quirkiness, or ‘Sarah being Sarah’, but as I repeat them, invariably those who are closest to me begin mimicking these behaviors as well.

As my closest friends have rubbed off on me, I too have affected them as well. Proof that birds of a feather do in fact flock together… and at the end of the day, you are the company you keep.

The Masks

I’ve always been envious of my parrot’s ability to express himself so well using his feathers. If Mango (my bird) is happy and content, he fluffs up all of the tiny down feathers around his cheeks so his head looks three times its size. If he is startled or goes into the flight part of “fight or flight” mode, he will pull all of his feathers flush with his skin and shrink down into a sleek, flattened thing. Over all, you can tell exactly what Mango is feeling by paying attention to his feathers.

The point of this project is to create a special mask for each member of my flock that will accentuate and heighten the wearer’s more prominent means of expressing their mood; particularly facial expressions.

Sensors inside the mask which make contact with the face will key in on degrees of facial movement and trigger expressive actions on the outside of the mask.

What’s Involved

Of course there is going to be a process to this project. Likely, a circuit will be built and tested which will involve connecting cause to effect. There will be aesthetic design… and no small amount of mechanical prototyping and toil as well.  As it goes…

flocking masks wearables

Casting the wearer’s face. Plaster casting strip, more plaster, paint to finish. Each mask will be cast directly on the face of the recipient, and formed to cover an area from just above the nose to the peak of the head.

Installing the sensing ‘trigger circuit’. This involves placing capacitance pads in just the right place along the inside of the mask so that they only make contact with the wearer’s skin when the wearer moves their face in the desired way.

flocking masks wearables

Developing the active component. The trigger will cue some type of mechanical motion on the outside of the mask… but what and how will depend on the systems I test (and what ultimately creates the right look and feel for the wearer).

flocking masks spetku wearables

Meshing the three systems together. Once all three aspects work independently, I’ll need to integrate them together in the masks themselves.

Testing! I’m hoping to have the majority of the masks built by the middle of summer. The plan is that I test everything out in the social situation which inspired them: when my flock and I are together on a Friday night hanging out! I’m imagining doing this during our infamous kiddie pool nights in July =P


(from left to right: Mark, me, Matt, and Tony)

Just like most story-telling, my flock has one of each personality archetype. The mature grounded one, the loony space-cadette, the loud attention-scoring charismatic, and the brooding still waters run deep. In spite of our differences, we all manage to coexist at least one day a week (with the help of alcohol). I hope to hone in on each individual’s primary defining facial expression, and then translate that into something electronic or mechanical that will amplify and convey that emotion on the surface of the mask!

I don’t wish to copy the mannerisms of birds verbatim… rather, I’d like to think of them as a point of departure. From the concept of flocking and the vibrant physical expressions of the feathery ones, where can I go from here to personify my friends?

MARK: will be something blue and calming. Subtle, reserved, understated.

Myself: will probably react in some over-the-top manner… but otherwise be visually plain.

MATT: flamboyant. Like a bird of paradise. Very metallic, mesmerizing, colorful… lots of light and springy shapes that bop around when he moves… DISTRACTING.

TONY: something that you wouldn’t want to put in your mouth. Instead of responding in a welcoming way, the mask should recoil or come off as vaguely defensive in nature. May have spiky armored plates instead of light feathery pieces.

I have only just begun playing around with certain elements of this project. So far I have cast Tony’s face, tested one type of capacitance circuit, and made one fail mechanical actuator for a row of feathers and quills! You can track my progress on this project by fallowing this playlist on Youtube, which will automatically display the most recent development:

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