Using technology to create new relationships offline.
Passing focused on critically examining the usefulness of technology by designing, programing, and building a playful experience meant to be meaningful, instead of a short lived novelty.
My Online Addiction
As I sat in front of my computer, the screen cast a bright glow lighting up my small apartment more than the Dutch midday sun. I was studying abroad at the Technical University Eindhoven (TU/e) during the fall semester of 2011. Sitting in the cinderblock room, the distance separating me from my friends couldn't have been more acute. Without a second thought, I opened a new browser tab and logged into my refuge, Facebook. However, I knew that my Facebook reliance came at a price - my digital life hindered creating new meaningful relationships the old fashioned way.
My digital life hindered creating new meaningful relationships the old fashioned offline way.
Could I design an experience in the physical world to create more meaningful interactions?
I became obsessed with the impact of technology on our social relationships. I began to critique how my social life revolved around such an intangible, ephemeral medium. I wondered how to design an experience in the real, physical world to create more meaningful interactions. How perhaps the spaces we walk through everyday could provide such an opportunity.
Transient spaces experienced high volume, but fleeting interactions
Upon observation of TU/e’s social spaces such as the cafeteria, ground floor of the main building, and studio spaces, two particular types of social spaces emerged: stationary and transient spaces. Stationary spaces, such as studio work areas, experienced low volume, high intensity interactions between students. In contrast, transient spaces experienced high volume fleeting interactions from students passing each other in the corridors during peak hours such as the start of the day or lunch. The high volume of interactions in transient spaces appeared to offer a unique opportunity. How could I turn these brief multiple interactions into something meaningful?
How could I turn these multiple brief interactions into something meaningful?
The main building and cafeteria on the TU/e campus were connected by a long and narrow sky bridge. Its purpose is to provide a covered walkway for hungry students and staff as they walk in-between the buildings. This expansive indoor space could be more than just a throughway connecting point A to point B. I searched for how could I make those passing interactions into something more...
F is for Fun
In any kind of new social scenario, play is often the means through which we get to know each other. Immediately, I jumped into brainstorming ideas of “fun” things to do.
However, taking a step back, I questioned whether any of these ideas were relevant, let alone meaningful. They offered novel but brief impact on the users. Needless to say, designing something of little importance could not be justified and a rethought of what “play” was needed.
Fortunately, I stumbled across an enlightening episode of Radiolab exploring the the topic of “Games”. Radio hosts, Jad and Robert, spoke to a child psychologist who studied how children’s play develops as they grow older: in the early years it’s about invention and imagination. As the child matures play centers around rules and restraints. In effect, play is the tension between these two themes: invention and imagination vs. rules and restraint. The conditions for a playful interaction was set. Now, how to make it meaningful?
I questioned whether any of these ideas were relevant, let alone meaningful.
To test my theories of "peak at the infinite" and "moment zero" I devised a series of public interventions.
The first intervention studied people's reactions to an unexpected change of a familiar environment. I wanted to see if they would treat the environment as a playful one. I set up a 50 meter long corridor of translucent plastic painter sheets. Interestingly, I noticed a novel passive physical effect: the turbulence from people walking through the corridor was enough to cause the curtains to ripple and move. It felt like the mere presence of people walking left a temporary impression on the environment. After interviewing some of the unknowing participants, I found that the novelty cool was, but short lived.
Fanagling ladders and two projectors from the university, I set up two intervention stations in front of the elevators on either side of the building. Above the doors of Elevator #1, I affixed a webcam pointing towards the waiting passengers. Capturing the video feed to a web-connected laptop, the live feed was piped to a projector in front of the doors of Elevator #2 and vice versa.
Technology could provide an active recurring play element.
What if I used technology to provide an active recurring play element. For example, instead of requiring people to take the step to interact with each other, perhaps technology could take that step for them. The plastic curtains were cool, I understood, but again it lacked lasting value. On the ground floor of the main building, I devised an intervention to encourage unknowing potential elevator passengers to interact with other passengers from the other side of the building.
I wanted to see if the passengers would literally interact with each other. An interesting exploration in theory, but due to technology inefficiencies (mainly Skype), the effect was not as seamless as I had hoped for. Presentation of technology, I learned, must not distract from creating the desired experience.
Criteria for Design
In transient spaces, physical interaction occurs primarily at the point of passing, or "passing moments".
To create a meaningful experience, I had to combine elements of what I had learned from my research and user interventions. The final design mixed the concepts of peaks of the infinite with moment zeroes and active play with passive play.
With transient spaces, physical interaction occurs primarily at the point of passing, which I called "passing moments". This physical moment, I realized, could offer an opportunity for a beautiful and possibly meaningful intervention. Marking this moment by visualizing this passing interactions could bring more opportunities for strangers to playfully interact with each other, possibly encouraging further interactions beyond the initial experience.
Structuring the intervention required combining the right amounts from the lessons and concepts I had learned from the previous explorations. The curtained environment provided a playful space and a natural surface to enhance with images from digital projectors. The movement of the curtains from the people walking through the corridor gave more life to flat projections, thus creating a richer sense of play.
Instead of a projected video feed like my previous intervention, I made a logical jump to a more metaphorical image: dye breaking through the surface water and mixing with its environment. I was enraptured with the idea of visualizing passing moments into a semi-permanent digital painting deriving its composition and color from the unknowing participants. This painting, I believed, would give more meaning to that passing moment and hopefully provide an opportunity to strike up a conversation. It would be something that only those two passerby’s would have in common.
This digital painting, would symbolize more than that passing moment.
In order to accomplish this task, I explored numerous tracking methods like OpenCV, blob tracking, and various attempts of background subtraction. Fortunately, the Microsoft Kinect had a blooming development community at the time. With hardware skeleton tracking and accurate blob detection, the Kinect provided the best set of technologies for my purpose. The Kinect provided the means to track and measure students and staff walking through the sky bridge. This data was piped into a program coded in Processing using a fluid library to simulate dye mixing. The following video documents the final effect.