Wednesday, April 27, 2011

D, I & E Intensive 2 Day 1

So begins the second intensive for Design, Interaction & Environment. The first intensive we were learning basic skills for Arduino and making some prototype critters that could sense, respond to and influence their environment. This social colony of things were able to interact with their neighbours and displayed some emergent behavior patterns. In this second intensive we are focusing on production of an installation, first for the foyer of Building 9 at the University of Canberra and then perhaps as part of an exhibition in July at the Belconnen Arts Centre.

We spent the morning discussing ideas for the installation and came to a first concept that everyone could develop an individual critter that received environmental input in different ways (laser beam broken, pressure pad in cushion, strokable grass, noise level, Theremin proximity sensor, helium balloons that pull flex sensors, Xbox Kinect movement sensor etc) but was tied together by producing a single note in a coherent soundscape in similar fashion to the ToneMatrix.

We visited the site and found that it was possible to hide things under the terrain/seat (we discovered spiders and dead mice) or behind the acoustic ceiling tiles, and that if we had things that were not too heavy we could velcro them to the green carpet roof/wall or hang them from the light fittings, but that there were not many other places we could safely attach critters. We discussed linking a visualisation on the tv screens and even broadcasting this or a camera feed voyeuristically to other tv screens around the building, and also determined that it would be possible to transmit data by the building's network and so keep our laptops if needed in the server room.

Ultimately however we decided to flip the first concept and make a unified input, as a tiled floor with pressure sensors and our critters under each tile, and have individual, divergent outputs in the form of light and sound. This will essentially be a tidier version of our social colony of things from the first intensive, with the critters still responding to neighbour states but with a more robust communication channel (better aligned, secured and calibrated LEDs and light sensors). The installation will behave and be structured much like a cellular automaton and will feel something like Dance Dance Revolution or the floor of the night club in Saturday Night Fever. As with the critters in the first intensive the light and sound outputs will probably be more of a cacophony than a symphony, but hopefully there will be coherent emergent patterns perceptible.

In the afternoon we set about designing the standard shared hardware and casings. Every tile will have the same case, the same pressure sensor, and the same neighbour communication channels (LED out, light sensor in) to ensure that they robustly fit together and can be tiled in different positions.

We visited the workshop and learnt about using the new fabrication facilities at the University of Canberra - how to set up drawings, that the CNC router can cut sheets up to 25mm deep and 1200mm wide, that routing paths can be set for inside or outside of shape edges and to any depths, and that the laser cutter can engrave by reducing the beam intensity but that depending on the material this will be to different depths.

Stephen Barrass workshopping the casing design
The casings will be 38cm square routed ply with acrylic tops. The hollowed ply will have spaces for the Arduino microprocessor, a battery (we might later try to hook up a power plug) and multiple bread boards (we want to keep the sensors and neighbour interface separate from the light and sound outputs), while maintaining structural support for the acrylic at the sides and centre.

We can get small piezo pressure sensors cheaply - they are a crystalline structure that produce a small current when pressed. The pressure sensor will be placed at the centre of the tile immediately below the acrylic where it will register even visually imperceptible bowing of the acrylic when stepped on.

We will probably use clear acrylic, meaning that individual design decisions in addition to how many LEDs to have, where to place them and how to program them also will include whether to frost or etch the acrylic or back it with translucent paper.

Tomorrow we will finalise the design of the casing and fabricate it. Hopefully we will have some time to design the content too, because the next day we plan to install!

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