Research Critique 4 – Uncomfortable Interactions

Breathless (2010) is an interactive ride experiment created by Thrill Laboratory. It was intentionally designed to inject a new element of fear and discomfort into amusement rides. (Benford, et al., 2012)

Breakdown of motor and pulley system of swing

WiFi gas mask respirators were specially designed for this project, collecting breathing data from the participants and transmitting it to a computer which would then translate this data into powering the swing – when the user inhaled, the swing moved backwards, and when they exhaled, the swing moved forward. The more in sync their breathing was with the swing’s system, the higher the swing would go.

Rider on swing being controlled by Controller in the background

Participants would join a queue for this ride and the first person would be fitted with a gas mask, then led to a specific viewpoint to take on the role of the Spectator. They would watch another participant with the gas mask riding the swing. After a period of time, the Spectator would have to go forward and take on the role of the Rider. This Rider would get off the swing and take on the role of the Controller, who would be sitting at the side facing the swing. The Controller would control the swing with their breathing for a certain period of time before control is passed over to the Rider, while they are still on the swing.

Breathless is an example of an uncomfortable interaction design experience. Uncomfortable interactions are invented to cause various degrees of suffering to its participants, but this can be useful and result in many benefits if done carefully. Such benefits can be grouped into 3 different types: entertainment, enlightenment, and sociality.

Breathless centres on entertainment and sociality due to its amusement ride setting. Entertainment can be enhanced using uncomfortable interactions, as we “crave stimulation, arousal and excitement” (Benford, et al., 2012). The fearful anticipation created from queueing for and viewing the ride is heightened. The physical and mental discomfort caused by the gas masks will lead to a sense of relief after the ride is over, revealing an intricate relationship between pain & pleasure.

Sociality is another benefit through which shared uncomfortable experiences make for better social bonds, best exemplified through various types of rites of passage. This extends to Breathless letting its audience observe the discomfort of the participants taking on the 3 roles.

There are four forms of tactics to create discomfort: “visceral discomfort, cultural discomfort, discomfort through control, and discomfort through intimacy” (Benford, et al., 2012).

Gas Masks

Breathless utilises visceral discomfort in the design of the gas masks, which are physically unpleasant to wear due to the tight fit and bad smell. It also heats up easily from the inside, causing the visor to fog up and obscure the participant’s vision, as well as fill with sweat that will drip down the face. The aforementioned claustrophobic disposition of the mask can also generate a fear in the participants of having their breathing cut off.

This ride also invokes cultural discomfort in that the usage of the gas masks – material that is “adult, difficult or vulgar”(Benford, et al., 2012) – evokes certain associations with war or even erotic practices like BDSM, raising the levels of discomfort for the participants.

Discomfort through control refers to tipping the balance between how much control the participants usually have and the control of the interface. Participants of Breathless have to relinquish control to the machine as they are strapped in and cannot get off until the time is up. They also have to give up their control to other people as is evident in the role of the Controller. On this note, they are also required to take greater control of the swing and another participant which may cause feelings of responsibility, power or even mischief (Benford, et al., 2012).

In conclusion, uncomfortable interactions can be useful for various benefits, but they need to be meticulously designed to be effective.





Benford, S., Greenhalgh, C., Giannachi, G., Walker, B., Marshall, J., & Rodden, T. (2012). Uncomfortable Interactions. Uncomfortable Interactions, 2005-2014.

Aerial07. (2017, October 19). Breathless. Retrieved from