Experiencing Environments (2014)

Recently, I was kindly asked to participate in the first UNSW Art & Design (previously known as COFA) in the new UNSW Galleries on campus. This student exhibition, titled Mighty Healthy, explores Design work that addresses health and therapeutic issues, and takes in a wide range of mediums.

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First lighting test during build.

I used this exhibition as an opportunity to construct a ‘Technology Probe’ of my dome multi-sensory environment (MSE). Technology Probes (TP) are something I’ve been looking at in my PhD research; they are designed to uncover information or data about usage of a particular technology. Unlike William Gaver’s Cultural Probes, a TP is actually interested in real-world use of a technology, however, its design isn’t yet at the stage of prototyping – a TP is still open to challenging design assumptions and values.

So this work is by definition unfinished, and felt slightly strange to show in a gallery context. Based on the full-size dome I have been working on for behavioural research of children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), this design was created as a talking point for a neurotypical audience to discuss issues of sensory hyper and hypo-sensitivity.

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Internal lighting system.

The lighting system for this version was inverted (inside instead of outside), simply for practical reasons: setting up the full-scale lighting rig isn’t realistic inside a gallery. Aside from this structural setup, the only other change was the use of a set of headphones with a set of binaural microphones attached. By putting these headphones, the audience can get a (very, very primitive) sense of what it might be like to have auditory hyper-sensitivity; the microphones amplify the sound throughout the space, causing a variety of responses: overwhelmed; confused; excited; distracted – all behaviours commonly found in children with an ASD.

I can’t stress enough that this is not even close to what it’s like to have an ASD. This system is designed as a catalyst for debate and awareness. If someone were to have one of these behavioural responses whilst wearing the headphones, can the interaction with the dome help to focus their attention, or reduce their anxiety?

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Completed probe, ready for exhibition (sans trigger sensors).

Unfortunately, whilst finishing this probe, I discovered the processing limits of my laptop. The installation was plagued by system crashes throughout the exhibition and I didn’t get a great deal of feedback as a result. On reflection, the reasons for crashing were (a) a far too complex Ableton Live set, and (b) a very late decision to use pressure sensors as the interaction interface.

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Last minute addition of pressure sensors.

I had originally planned on using a Kinect sensor as the interface, but that completely overwhelmed my computer and it’s absence of a GPU. So at the last moment, I chose to use simple pressure sensors instead; these were frankensteined from other projects and the circuits were slap-happy at best. The data I was getting in Max (via an Arduino board) was very erratic and because I was using this to trigger changes in Ableton Live (via MIDI messages), the lighting/sound system was equally jumpy.

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The crashing aside (and the confusion many people had about interacting with art in a gallery – but that’s another story), as a process, it was a great opportunity to move away from the literary research, get this probe constructed and run an early test. I will rebuild the system – possibly with a new computer – and run the probe again over the next month or so.

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