An industrial designer inspired a social media backlash after developing an internet-connected “smart mirror” that only becomes reflective when a person smiles, and marketing it as a therapeutic device for cancer patients. Here’s five things to know about Berk Ilhan and his inventions:
1. Ilhan’s Masters’ Thesis Suggests Using Design to Improve Cancer Patients’ Quality of Life
In his online biography, Ilhan says he’s originally from Turkey, where his design work won him a scholarship to pursue a masters’ degree at New York’s School of Visual Arts Products of Design program.
The School of Visual Arts keeps an online record of students’ masters’ theses. It says that Ilhan’s thesis, Uplift, “addresses the quality of life of cancer patients—identifying opportunities that cultivate joy and happiness, and strengthening the support group around the patient” — an interest Ilhan developed as a teenaged asthma sufferer.
The basic idea is that being sick and requiring medical care is an unpleasantly emotional experience for most people, but perhaps certain design innovations could help alleviate these unpleasant emotions, especially in settings where people feel most vulnerable.
As an example of how design could reduce the emotional baggage of receiving medical care, Ilhan’s thesis offers (among other things) the “Squashy Syringe” as an example of “speculative design”:
Berk’s initial design-led research included several provocative speculative design concepts. Squashy Syringe reimagines the often-terrifying experience of receiving a needle injection. “What if the syringe wasn’t so scary looking?” he proposed, and designed an apparatus that hides the needle under a smooth and harmless-looking shield.
Other proposals in the thesis include a “Laughter Therapy Box,” a sort of virtual-reality headset showing humorous or “joyous videos” which patients could wear while sitting in doctors’ waiting rooms, “a newspaper that only delivers the good and happy news,” and an apparent prototype of the Smile Mirror, described as “a playful mirror that allows you [to] see yourself … only when you smile” (ellipses lifted from the original).
2. Smile Mirror Currently Costs up to $3,000, Though Ilhan Hopes a Kickstarter Campaign Will Lower the Price
The “SmartMirror” page on Ilhan’s website introduces his invention as “a magical mirror that allows you to see yourself when you smile … the patent pending invention will not only make it possible to ‘gift a smile’ to loved ones combatting [sic] a difficulty, but also will uplift people in private and public places such as homes, offices, hospitals, clinics, urban spaces, and any other place where smiling would brighten the spirit.””
The mirror first gained mainstream attention on Oct. 24, when CNN’s technology blog wrote about it. CNN mentioned that Ilhan is currently selling the mirror in limited quantities, at prices ranging from $2,000 to $3,000 apiece, though Ilhan supposedly intends to launch his product on Kickstarter. (As of Oct. 25, however, no such Kickstarter fundraiser can be found.)
Ordinary mirrors consist merely of a passively reflective surface showing reverse images of anything in the mirror’s line of sight (though folklore claims that vampires and other supernatural creatures can be identified by their inability to cast reflections in a mirror).
The Smile Mirror, in its passive state, looks like a rounded square of white plastic, though CNN says it actually consists of a particular “smart material triggered by proprietary software.” The mirror is also equipped with facial-recognition technology, and only when it recognizes the presence of not merely a human face, but a smiling one, will the opaque smart material change into something reflective.
3. Ilhan’s Previous History Includes Furniture Design and Home Security “Smart” Devices
The resume Ilhan posted on his website presumably hasn’t been updated in awhile; as of Oct. 25, the “Expected graduation” date for his Master of Fine Arts is still listed as May 2015.
The resume lists educational and professional accomplishments dating from 2011 through 2014, starting with a 2011 manufacturing internship with a Turkish furniture company where, Ilhan says, he “Designed iterations for one of the bestselling chairs” the company made. Other listed accomplishments include work on “Smart Home Monitoring Devices for Bathroom Safety,” and “Re-Designing the Newspaper” with “an innovative news app concept.”
In addition to the Smile Mirror, other projects on Ilhan’s website include the “Ropo,” a “self-balancing dustpan and broom duo that will never fall over,” and the “Wash-it,” described as “a sustainable washing unit concept which integrates the showering and clothes-washing activities in order to filter and reuse the water.”
4. Smile Mirror Inspired an Almost Immediate Backlash
When CNN.com first introduced the Smile Mirror to its technology readers, it did so under the brief, neutral headline “High-tech mirror for cancer patients only works if you smile.”
But later reports (and especially blog posts and op-ed pieces) expressed open disapproval of Ilhan’s invention. Since Ilhan is a relative newcomer to America, it’s possible he did not know that for the past few years the country has seen growing awareness of the inherent problems when people (especially men) order other people (especially women) to “smile” (in other words, project a particular emotional state the person might or might not feel).
Indeed, on Twitter Ilhan responded graciously to what attention he received, saying to one person “my intention wasn’t to frame it as “you have to smile” but more of option, for those who choose and decide to smile.”
The Guardian reported the story under the tongue-in-cheek headline “Grin and bear it: mirror invented for cancer patients forces them to smile.” Columnist Vinay Menon of the Toronto Star wondered “Smile Mirror on the wall, what the heck were you thinking?” over a subheadline “If you are fighting cancer, a mirror that forces you to smile seems like a cruel and unnecessary burden.”
If mainstream news outlets were disapproving, new media sources were even harsher. Jezebel said “The mirror that forces people to smile is going to piss everyone off,” while the AV Club headlined their report “World’s most patronizing mirror thinks you’d be prettier if you smiled.”
Observers on Twitter were even more scathing. One person re-tweeted the initial CNN story and noted (without asterisks) “Someone figured out how to turn a dudebrah into a mirror,” while another said “I have random men telling me to smile & now this mirror is trying to pull this s**t too? F**k you mirror.”
But as Ilhan said on his own Twitter feed, none of this was his intention: “i feel terrible for making people feel offended. especially cancer survivors,” he tweeted in response to one cancer survivor who’d told him “I sure you mean well. But as a cancer survivor I need you to understand your mirror is vile.”
5. Enforced Positivity Actually Hurts Rather Than Helps People
Ilhan’s website and promotional materials for the Smile Mirror, plus the entire premise of his graduate thesis exploring design possibilities with medical benefits, make it clear that he does indeed want to “make” people smile from the belief that doing so will help them. His thesis states that after “primary and secondary research,” specifically “literature research, conversational interviews, field research, method acting as design research, user journeys, happiness and communication surveys, and co-creative design,” Ilhan “identified the two biggest factors that can positively affect a cancer patient’s experience: Morale, and Social Support.” Presumably, Ilhan’s created and proposed designs are all supposed to help the “morale” side of things.
But Ilhan’s ideas are not universally accepted. Several years ago, Barbara Ehrenreich (who had recently been diagnosed with cancer herself) wrote a specific deconstruction against “Smile!” demands, and indeed the entire “powers of positive thinking” mythology that demands cancer patients (and, indeed, anybody facing any type of misfortune) to be happy and upbeat about it, rather than express unhappy or negative emotions.
In a January 2010 column for the Guardian ironically titled “Smile! You’ve Got Cancer,” Ehrenreich decried such “Exhortations to think positively – to see the glass half full, even when it lies shattered on the floor” and noted that it is not merely restricted to cancer patients:
A few years after my treatment, I ventured out into another realm of personal calamity – the world of laid-off white-collar workers. At the networking groups, boot camps and motivational sessions available to the unemployed, I found unanimous advice to abjure anger and “negativity” in favour of an upbeat, even grateful approach to one’s immediate crisis. People who had been laid off from their jobs and were spiralling down toward poverty were told to see their condition as an “opportunity” to be embraced. Here, too, the promised outcome was a kind of “cure”: by being positive, a person might not only feel better during his or her job search, but actually bring it to a faster, happier conclusion.
In 2011, Scientific American asked “Can positive thinking be negative?” noting among other things that “positive thinking” can make it difficult to accept certain negative aspects of reality. That article ended with a paraphrase of something Ehrenreich published a few years before: the belief that people can “think our way out of” illnesses or cancer diagnoses can hurt people who fail to recover, because they’ll blame themselves for having had the wrong attitude.