Update #6 Final blog post… Woo hoo!

12:52 AM in General by Inez Ang


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Artistic Statement
Over the next 20 years, the area around the Grid gallery will be a place in transition with land reclamation of the western edge of the city and the construction of Barangaroo. This re-engineering would further detach its inhabitants from an already transient space. Watering Hole is an attempt to nourish this void by providing permanence in impermanent times.

It is an oasis in the heart of the city. One that tries to recapture the spirit of a community through simple play. Using water as the portal to a school of virtual fish, senses are aroused and soothed by aesthetics which encourage calmness both in body and mind. Running one’s fingers through gentle bubbling water creates a generative soundscape while affecting the behaviour of the fish. In its full implementation, it is an ecosystem that lives and thrives according to the quality of its immediate environment and interaction with the community.

Through playful engagement and the calming aesthetic of the pond, it’s hoped some relief may be brought to a community fragmented by corporations and under siege by the promise of a future.

Design Process
Research and Ideation
The project began on the highways of cyberspace and byways of Sydney where grounding research on the proposed installation site, Grid Gallery, took place. As the context behind the space emerged through archival photos, Google Maps, news reports, street observation and interviews, one thing was certain – it’s a transitory space with disconnected inhabitants, and it was about to undergo a major and long-drawn overhaul. This inspired the idea to create an eco-system that would provide a sort of permanence throughout these impermanent times.

An interactive fish pond based on generative algorithms was conceived and its ‘quality of life’ would depend on its physical environment and interaction from passers-by. The screen would play on a mental model of a window into the underwater world while water becomes the user interface. Bubbles generated by an air pump and a submersible light in the water would not only provide visual and haptic feedback, but the tactile quality of water also stimulates the sense of touch and has been shown to have an intrinsic appeal to user’s memories.

Designing the Interaction

Drawing on research into the field of HCI, the interaction modalities were designed around “The Audience Funnel”. It attempts to draw the passer-by into direct interaction with its water interface by attracting attention and arousing curiosity through a combination of sound, graphical animation and physical responses.

Upon further reflection, a decision was made to remove the on-screen instructions to make the experience more immersive and encourage more exploratory behaviour from the users. This meant that users would be guided purely by feedback and it was our job to craft its responsiveness to establish the ‘virtual connection’.

The look-and-feel of the installation was inspired by Ommwriter and DoNothingFor2Minutes.com, both from the Calming Technology paradigm. Through design, they aim to reduce stress and encourage in their users ‘a restful state of alertness’. This mantra became the core of our user experience . We would use technology to create a fluid screen aesthetic, gentle bubbling and a generative soundscape to create an oasis of calm.

After a brain storm for graphical aesthetics, blues, greens and neutrals were chosen for our colour palette and we dove into creating an ambient swarm of small fish with realistic water ripples against a dreamy backdrop in Processing. However, we quickly learnt after our first screen test that large, low resolution displays work best with simple, solid shapes, non-gradated fills and minimal clutter. Working with large displays also means that the eye has more area to process hence visual feedback has to also call attention to itself for the user to register the feedback.

Testing and iterating though the design phase also helped us to refine the interaction. Our final design employs a more fluid form of interaction where natural actions are caught and rewarded. The feedback is quick and its effects taper off slowly, allowing visual aftereffects to linger and sound to build up in layers creating a meditative atmosphere. We also tried to give our fish a personality by making them skittish and sensitive to quick movements. This consistent response sends a strong signal to users to slow down.

Technical Development

We chose Processing as our development environment. Due to last minute hardware difficulties, the final setup was consisted of one computer doing the Kinect and screen component (Comp A) and another doing the Arduino component (Comp B),  connecting both via oscP5 library.

Hand movements above the water are captured in the depth image of the Kinect using the OpenKinect library, which is processed using OpenCV and custom algorithms in Comp A. Depending on the gesture performed, Processing would relay information either to the screen or via OSC to Comp B, which turns on the LED light and air pump via Arduino and SeeedStudio’s Relay Shield.

If movement is captured by the PIR sensor on Comp B, the LED light and air pump would momentarily turn on and a message would be sent via OSC to Comp A where a short stream of virtual bubbles would be released.

To implement the technicalities, we acquired skills both in software and hardware. Projects on OpenProcessing.org provided us with reference points and Daniel Shiffman’s blog and Kickstarter project “Nature of Code” equipped us with crucial knowledge on programming vectors, particle systems and steering behaviours. Going through the OpenCV API also helped us gain the skills to refine our blob tracking to filter out multiple hands over a small region-of-interest. We also researched into basic electronics (and acquired soldering skills to fix wrongly cut cables) in order to work with the Arduino and the other components.

Our main agendas for the project were to experiment with technology and understand the public design space. Selecting a simple concept to work with during the group ideation phase gave us a lot of latitude in the design space to craft and fine tune the user experience. We were able to make a simple concept better rather than a great idea work. With not more than a year of programming experience between us, we’ve certainly acquired a multitude of technical knowledge and are just beginning to understand how people behave in such spaces.

We were pleased to hear people comparing the slow hand movements to taiji on a few occasions and one even remarked the experience was meditative. This meant our design was, to some degree, successful in conveying the feeling/ idea of calm to our users. One thing we did underestimate is the appeal of the fish tank itself having heard “Oh look a fish tank!” more than a couple of times. This novelty item in the middle of a public space created a honey pot effect for us and probably got us more attention than the fish on the screen. People also tend to become a little self-conscious when they step up to interact and will usually stop after a try or two if they don’t get a response. It’s a fast, dynamic space where expectations are high and reactions are immediate. The difference between a positive and negative response, judging from facial expressions, is really a matter of seconds. However, they will make an effort to understand the interaction if the content/ experience is engaging enough.

On the downside, we didn’t notice anyone’s hand touching the water which meant we lost one of our most powerful feedback mechanisms, the tactile feel of the water bubbles. People also tended to be engrossed in the happenings on the screen while interacting and tended to miss the light and bubbles turning on and off. This was probably because the visual feedback in the physical tank was not in the natural line of sight. For future development, one of the major improvements would be to use a shallower water receptacle to eliminate the boundaries between the user and the water surface yet maintain the visual novelty that served us so well. We could also create more ‘bubble points’  in the water to to make the water seem more playful and enticing to touch. These are some things we took into consideration designing the Grid Gallery mockup.