Studio Pi-a Combining science and design to make an immersive breathing app

WordsLouise Benson

Breathing is all the rage right now, whether it’s connected to mindfulness or stress relief, and NHS doctor Luke Hale has seen the need for deeper breaths first hand over recent years, as patients in his hospital came off ventilators during the pandemic. His latest invention—an app named Lungy—is designed to guide people visually as they breathe. He tells writer Louise Benson about his venture, Studio Pi-a, and about his mission to combine his passions for science and design to bring the technological possibilities of the future into peoples’ everyday lives.

Art, science, technology and medicine. These varied disciplines are often seen in opposition to one another, and the freedom of the artist’s studio is rarely associated with the rigour of the laboratory. For British doctor, designer and inventor Luke Hale, these seemingly fractured starting points are the fundamental principles that underpin his creative practice. Under the moniker of Studio Pi-a (named after the Pia Mater, the innermost covering of the brain), Hale sits at the crossroads between the many varied ways in which we understand and interact with our surroundings. 

“People draw boundaries around fields, but it's not helpful,” Hale says. Studio Pi-a serves as an umbrella for Hale’s varied projects, and was established to bring together scientists, engineers, and architects as a collective. His own background is one that is difficult to categorize. A surgical trainee by day at Homerton Hospital, he’s maintained additional creative projects throughout his career.

Hale is fascinated by the many ways in which art and science may overlap and merge. “Any exciting creative work in design or art is really about pushing the boundaries as far as they can go, and that's what all exciting developments in science and medicine do,” he argues. “You're going into the unknown when you work in these areas, which I think is what all artists really do. They're exploring unknown territory and putting their stamp on the world.” 

We are meeting at Somerset House Studios, where resident artists and designers from fields that cross music, performance, sculpture, technology, fashion and photography come together in a space established to encourage cross-collaboration. Hale works here regularly when not on duty at the hospital, keeping a foot firmly in each world. “It's always a balancing act between doing these projects and then also working as a doctor,” he admits. What might a job that combines both disciplines look like? “Innovation doctor: that would be the job of the future. It doesn't exist yet,” he laughs.

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Studio Pi-a’s latest project, “Lungy,” released at the end of 2022, is a beautifully designed app to aid users with their breathing. Through interactive visuals that respond directly to each user’s inhales and exhales, it focuses on one of the most fundamental elements of being alive. The idea for “Lungy” first came to Hale while working intensively in hospital during the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020, a period when many patients were coming off ventilators. “They were given breathing exercises to do to try and strengthen their muscles using this little plastic box called an incentive spirometer,” he explains. 

The design of the box dated back to Victorian times, and Hale found that many patients preferred to browse their phone while the spirometer sat at their bedside unused. “It really feels like it's from a different age but they are still used in routine clinical practice today,” he says, and he began to wonder what it might mean for patients if even their breathing exercises were contained within the single device they use the most. “The smartphone is incredibly powerful and has all these sensors, but we use it for things that aren't particularly useful, like social media.” 

“I created ‘Lungy’ as my dream project,” he reflects. “It combines everything I ever learned.” After two years in development with a team of eight, the app has launched initially as a support tool for people with stress and anxiety, but Hale has plans to extend it for those with breathing problems. Its musical engine uses a sequencer to select notes from a scale, looping synth melodies respond as you blow into it. The custom visuals react to breathing in real time, with odes to the quiet beauty of science and nature woven throughout, and there’s even an interface designed to look like a branching bronchial tree.

 “As a child, I was really into nature and science and used to collect bugs in my room,” he says, “but I was also very interested in art and music.” After a visit to his grandfather in the hospital at the age of five (“I liked the hospital atmosphere for some reason. I remember thinking it was a really exciting place to be”), he decided that he wanted to be a doctor when he grew up. 

Yet his interest in art, music and design did not diminish. To pursue his dream of entering the medical profession, he studied chemistry and maths before entering med school. “I realised that you choose one subject at university and then you can't deviate from it.” Instead, Hale worked outside of his medical studies as a designer and animator with studios including UVA and, where they combined new technologies with traditional media such as sculpture, performance and site-specific installation.

A combination of 3D scanning, procedural design and 3D printing were explored by Hale to create a neck brace for a patient, with a form derived from an algorithm that mimics the structure of bone in order to ensure it is light and strong. And his research in the field of tissue engineering saw him develop alternative structures to replace or repair the body’s native tissue: “I was looking at how you can bring ideas from architecture and design into the design of these very tiny scaffolds that the cells live upon.”

Uniting each of Studio Pi-a’s design projects is a way of seeing that is rooted in the principles found in science and nature. From quantum mechanics to the interaction of molecules, it’s a visual language that’s too often overlooked. Hale is out to change that, drawing upon the technological possibilities of the future in order to allow the here-and-now to come into sharper focus. As he concludes: “Science can feel very far removed from our daily experience yet it affects our lives every single day. I want to create a sense of wonder about the everyday world.”