The project Responsive Environments focused on small interventions that change our interaction or perception in a certain moment or task in a specific space. The brief asked to identify a mundane moment and improve it or make it more interesting, using Arduino or a similar technology. The final prototype needed to be fully functional and therefore demonstrate the experience designed.
For this project we were divided in groups of two, and for our work, my colleague and I chose the moment when people walk through tunnels, how they can be intimidating or simply annoying, as they are nothing more than a passing area that generally does not stay in people’s thoughts for long after they crossed it. They also reinforce negative feelings, such as violence, fear or insecurity, often associated with dangerous places to be avoided.
With that in mind, our focus was to improve that moment; to get a person interested in crossing a specific tunnel, to make the individual excited about the possibility of taking that direction.
We started by thinking about daily activities, and for that we looked at how a typical Monday was in our lives. Whether if it is showering, cooking or commute from A to B, we all perform the similar tasks that become such a part of our routine that are almost ‘invisible’. We don’t walk thinking constantly that we are walking, or we don’t even notice the landscape around us on the train or the car.
After these initial thoughts, we found ourselves split between two potential projects: one that would pursue something related to role trees play in our daily urban lives, and another one that would focus on our shadows, that follow us around, but suddenly could have a life of their own thanks to technology.
Trees play a major role on our planet, not only as massive and dense forests but also performing more urban tasks in our cities. Recent studies suggest plants have their own signalling system, and may even possess memory and emotions, and we thought it could be interesting to remind people about those characteristics. One idea was to make a tree that would sneeze and shake a few branches when someone approaches it; another one was to make a set of trees equipped with interconnected sensors, thus replicating human-like reactions whenever people passed by.
The very nature of our shadow is to exist with us. It necessarily follows us around and yet we completely ignore it and only very rarely do we remember it exists. A shadow has no life on its own; it’s just a projection, but what if suddenly it gained life and interacted with us? Peter Pan had one, so why can’t we? Our idea was to simulate a playful shadow that would interact with us in unusual ways.
We decided to pursuit the idea of shadows, and while it would not be easily made outside, due to the light and technological constraints, it could possibly be done in sheltered spaces, like a tunnel where a lot of people pass. As we were further investigating our concept, we were becoming more aware that it would be very difficult to produce a shadow or an animated figure that would engage with us, as the time frame and resources were limited. We needed to come up with something that would reflect the same but simpler. How could we animate a tunnel?
We thought of the possibility of making use of the physical aspects of the tunnel, and then we realised we could use the tiles on the wall to animate the experience: a tile that lights up and walks along and interacts with the person; a playful friend living on the walls, hidden among the tiles.
Initially the product would be built with Arduino and motion sensors that would then connect to LED lights, however Arduino was very limited in terms of capability for what we needed. Instead we decided use Scratch, along with Makey Makey and project onto a transparent paper wall so we could walk on the side, while stepping on buttons on the ground, and experience it if it were a real wall.
One of the things we hadn’t figured out by then was what would happen to the interactive tiles when different people would cross each other in the tunnel. We knew that moment of two people passing through each other to be the critical point in most tunnels.
In the end, we focused on the stronger concept of tiles as individual pixels.
Whenever we think about pixelated images we think about retro games, in that sense we thought about using the walls to display little games whenever people cross. Such experience could be fun, yet fast enough for people to fully appreciate it without spending much time and visible to someone close enough to wall.