eco defenders, epilogue

3:50 AM in General by David

The Installation
eco defenders is an interactive installation aiming to associate the disposal of recyclable garbage with a pleasant playful experience, rewarding the viewer with a positive experience and enabling people to cooperate towards a preset goal.

The goal of such an installation is making use of a urban space to raise attention into a community issue (the amount of solid waste data represented as invaders of different colors destroying Sydney’s skyline) inviting passers-by to take action and rewarding their contribution to the cause with an enjoyable playful experience.

Intended Use
The installation consists of 3 main parts each one with a well-defined functionality:

The interactive sketch animation running on the screen, displays Sydney’s skyline being destroyed by a horde of invaders of different kinds and colors in its passive mode, this aims to trigger curiosity in passers-by from the same sidewalk, while at the same time the well-known iconography offers an interesting work of urban art to viewers from the other side of the street;

A huge invader-shaped trash bin serves as the physical  link with the virtual scene taking place inside of the screen and to introduce the association of each invader color with a certain kind of solid waste recyclable item, again the big three-dimensional representations of  pop culture icons as already are the 8bit characters from Taito stand as pieces of urban art in themselves, filling up with life an otherwise pretty empty space as is the intersection of Sussex with Erskine, the bin is also the physical interactive part of the installation translating the real world action of recycling an item into the virtual representation of destroying an invader, therefore creating reward for a physical action and involvement in the virtual world.

Finally, the building itself is part of the installation as information display and a giant metaphor of old arcade machines, the columns of lights at both sides of the building are used to represent the amount of garbage collected against a predefined target, versus the time left for the installation to be running, with this we are aiming to strength the immediate consequences of people’s actions and appeal to the sense of competitiveness to make the installation more playful and engaging.


Expected reactions and understanding
The setup of the installation is designed to convey the difficult message of associating such different concepts as garbage recycling and games, to do so we make strong use of iconography, Space Invaders is probably the most widely spread icon of video games and already a pop culture item, even for people with no experience with games whatsoever the image is easily identifiable (my mum used to refer “shooting UFO” to playing games), the big invader sat on top of a garbage container with a recycling sign on it builds up the physical association of both concepts and we expect it to be strong enough to trigger the main interaction expected in the installation.

The aggressive reaction of our invaders towards people approaching the screen acts as a metaphor of the solid waste issue as being something involving all of us that we can try to keep away but there’s only one effective way to fight against, at the same time is the most playful aspect of the installation, the invaders roam smoothly in front of passers-by and can be scared and shaken away by people’s body movements, this is expected to provide viewers with a projection tool to behave in a virtual world and alter their normal patterns of interaction with each other through the elements in the screen.


Observations and refining design
The system has been evaluated since the early stage of a PNG image, we were especially concerned about the technical aspects of the low resolution screen we had to deal with, the design had to be visually powerful in order to convey such a complicated message, big geometrical shapes and high contrast colors seem to work the best on identifying the elements of the animation even from close distance.
The responsiveness of the animation to viewer’s actions had to be natural, smooth and intuitive; the invaders had to give the feeling of being alive entities while at the same time preserve the square pattern movements characteristic of 8bit games. Involving sound effects were also key to engagement and a proper balance had to be found to avoid them being too disturbing for an urban space.

From the initial image we decided to make the background simpler and keeping the sky as a black background to increase the contrast, this added a better perception of the invaders roaming the city skyline and they could easily be seen flying in between buildings.

After the initial run on the screen there were two minor tweaks to the aesthetics of the animation, in the next design step the silhouettes of the buildings were highlighted with a thicker cartoonish stroke making the key landmarks of the city (tower, bridge, opera house…) more identifiable and Sydney easy recognizable. The invaders’ skin was also redesigned with bigger eyes to make them more visible when flying far in the background, this solution didn’t seem to look good when they approached to foreground so it was discarded, the initial design had a better look and even though some invaders might be reduced to a blob when flying far, this added more sense of depth plus the bright color and fast moving from foreground to background didn’t leave any room to mistake them with anything else.

The next test round covered the interactive elements of the installation, with the trash bin almost finished and the sensor in place, the responsiveness and timing from the moment the sensor is activated until the destruction of the invader was tested, the solution was pretty straightforward and didn’t require additional refining, just getting rid of one faulty USB extension cable.
Not so happy were the results from testing the animation: it came out slow, laggy and unresponsive, even after the threshold values had been modified to fit the outdoors environment it was easy to notice that the computer was overloaded with way too much processing, the solution was creating a separate thread in the code to handle all the motion sensor events while the main sketch was taking care of the animation. After modifying the sketch code the improvement in performance was so massive that we had to decrease the speed values of the invaders that were flying like crazy around the screen released from their computational ties.

At this stage in the project we still didn’t count with the proper hardware to make the blinkenlights boxes work, we estimated this as a secondary goal and focused more in the interactive elements, therefore we ran into the dry test without the lights.

The sketch has been designed to be versatile and easily modifiable to fit different installation environments, almost all the values are parameterized: amount of invaders, movement, attack and explosion speeds, chance of shooting, regeneration time, depth and movement thresholds…
During the demonstration night the installation would be running for a time of 10 minutes, the location is a dark yard with most likely a large audience placed around the screen, so most of the action would take place frontwards and not along the screen as in the Grid gallery.
With a crowd around the screen the possibility of the screen getting into idle mode was almost null so the depth threshold was set to a close distance to the screen to avoid invaders tracking the audience in the background, this also allowed us to reduce the size of the minimum tracked blob to make the interaction smoother
Due to the installation time of 10 minutes and the reduced size of the screen (if compared with the Grid gallery) we estimated a safe amount of 15 invaders, not too many to saturate the screen and enough to recycle a fair amount of bottles without quickly running out of invaders and interrupting the action. The regeneration time was set to 180 seconds, after that time a destroyed invader would be “resurrected”.
In order for viewers to appreciate the degradation of the city also the invaders had to be more aggressive, we increased the chances for an invader to bomb the city.

After the dry test we observed some points that still needed further refinement: the sound effects’ volume levels were not the proper ones, high frequency sounds were way more audible than low frequency ones, the invader explosion was supposed to be an epic moment of light and thunder and the thunder was being ridiculed under the strong sharp noise of invaders bombing the city, also the missile launching sound triggered when inserting a bottle in the bin wasn’t strong and long enough for the user to notice she was causing it.
The next changes were little aesthetical tweaks, the red flashing color for the invader explosion was decreased in saturation due to the high brightness of the screen, in the same way the LEDs behind the trash bin eyes were enhanced with an additional couple of LEDs to increase luminosity.

In the last minute, the very morning of the demonstration night we managed to make the blinkenlights box work, the design was already decided long time ago and the location and setup for the demonstration had been already planned previously so it was just a matter of time to set everything up.
The design had to change due to the amount of lights to use (only 8) and the location we decided to display the lights which forced them to be in a two joint columns layout, we decided to give them different color to mark them as two separate items. The data representation was also tailored to the time frame of 10 minutes; we estimated that with a target of 20 bottles for the 10 minutes, the energy saving recycling them would cover the energy spent by the installation making it even.

Observed reactions and behaviors

During the dry test and especially the during the demonstration night we could observe how users interacted with our installation.
It’s worth to remember that the setup for the demonstration was pretty different than the location for which the installation is intended, the Grid Gallery. During the demonstration night we had already a crowd gathered around the screen and the audience was aware that it was an interactive installation so they were expecting to interact with the screen in one way or another, we wouldn’t have counted with such a luxury in the Grid gallery, where passers-by have to realize by themselves that they are confronting an interactive piece and find their time to figure out how does it work.
There were some interesting findings while observing people interact and have fun with our toy. One of our more ambitious goals to achieve with this installation was triggering diverse ways of behavior, linking audience, screen and trash bin, giving the user a certain degree of freedom to interact with our work.
Probably the most remarkable observation was the way people were behaving in front of the screen, the way the invaders were flying towards the viewers and the way they flew away when scared was intended to look alive and natural, this made people relate them to birds and they started to scare them as they would do with pigeons at the street. Another interesting observation is that due to the way the animation is programmed the invaders react to the amount of movement detected in the screen, this movement is more remarkable in the upper body when moving forwards making the invaders flee mainly upwards, this made some users interpret that the way to scare them was pushing them up with their arms and they found that they were actually responding to the movements of their waving.

It wasn’t straightforward for the users to figure out that the big green thingy in front of the screen was in fact a recycling bin, initially users thought they could destroy invaders by waving them away, even when the first invader was exploding the users in front of the screen were so immerse that they thought they destroyed it somehow.
Users tended to get closer and closer to the screen during their interaction; this was even more evident once they figured out the location of the motion sensor.
It was especially gratifying to observe people teaming up and cooperating on their fight against the invaders since this was one of the intended goals. Although the location of the bin didn’t facilitate the cooperation between the people interacting with the screen and the person recycling.
The understanding of the lights and its role as part of the installation varied and was somehow confusing; the design was made deliberately abstract to arise curiosity and motivate people to find more information about the project online. Still it was associated with a score or a progress bar by most of the audience asked during the installation.

Unintended uses
Something already expected due to the design of the bin is that once people figured out the mechanism that triggered the explosion cheating became common practice, not inserting a bottle and just pushing the lid in, good still, the long sound of the missile shot  generated from the bin was making it more interesting for people when they inserted a bottle instead of when they just pushed the lid, in a way it was behaving like the world’s deepest bin work, which was one of our inspirations.

Another unintended but expected use was placing the hand in front of the motion sensor to see what happened. This is actually the beauty of interactive installations, audience spend some time to figure out how the system works and experimenting how to hack it.

We were specially curious about the reaction the system would generate on children, the research study of the location was targeting families with children as a big chunk of our audience due to the proximity of King’s Wharf to Darling Harbor and the Wildlife Park, we had only one infant subject during the demonstration night, she was running and jumping following the bright colors of the explosions, and, at a certain point, she kissed the screen, probably the most unexpected, yet the most beautiful of all the reactions we could have ever imagined.