I’m currently in my second year of a two-year graduate program called Masters of Tangible Interaction Design (MTID) at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, PA. I’ll be spending this academic year working on a thesis towards the completion of the MTID degree, and in this research blog I’ll record my progress, publicize interesting/terrible mistakes that I make along the way, and share some of what I’ve been learning.

Primary intention

Over the course of this academic year, I intend to create a series of installations in public spaces that encourage people to learn, explore, and create in interesting ways.

The purpose of the work I do is to give people an opportunity for unexpected delight, to spark further interest and suggest further questions worth pursuing, and to enrich through surprise.

Here is the PDF of the thesis presentation proposal I gave in spring 2016.

How this is actually achieved

In simple terms, I intend to make a small number (2–5) of installations in public spaces in Pittsburgh. These installations may be in publicly owned spaces (such as parks), or in privately-owned but public-facing spaces (such as a museum or hardware store). The installations don’t have any predefined form factor, size, or scope. (I’ll note that I do want to use this year to improve my tough fabrication skills, so that unsupervised pieces don’t break through regular use.)

I intend to conceptualize, sketch, prototype, build, and revise pieces, with special attention to engaging in an iterative design process. I want to fail often and early rather than delaying public release of installations until it feels like every single aspect of pieces are perfect.

Work to date

I’ve conducted a few experiments to date which are worth noting:

Start the Stop

An interactive installation at at a high-volume bus stop in Pittsburgh. Essentially the machine is a large Etch-a-Sketch with its two control knobs broken out into remote-control knobs. In place of the typical Etch-a-Sketch drawing medium, this machine substitutes a crayon or colored pencil drawing on paper. The control knobs are placed on opposite columns of a bus shelter; since these columns are about 8’ apart, no one person can control the X and Y axes of the machine at the same time.

The design is intended, then, to encourage people to make collaborative drawings with strangers while they’re waiting at a bus stop.

As installed in the fall of 2015, some obvious flaws emerged that would need to be fixed prior to the next version being tested:

  1. Many people didn’t seem to notice the presence of the device at all; it was installed at a high point, above sight lines.
  2. The knobs I made were fashioned from very large steel hex bolts, and they didn’t look like things that were meant to be touched.
  3. Because the device was made entirely mechanically, there were flaws in mechanical execution that introduced friction and made it sometimes physically difficult to turn the knobs to operate.

The next iteration of Start the Stop could improve upon all of these factors like so:

  1. The cables connecting the controllers to the drawing surface should be more visible so the connection is obvious and one can follow the visual cues from the knobs (eye level) to the drawing machine (above eye level).
  2. The knobs need to really look like knobs.
  3. If the knobs are larger in diameter, it will give users more mechanical advantage and they’ll be better able to fight the friction in the system; and instead of metal cabling, perhaps the system could be restrung with strong nonstretch string (Dacron line comes to mind). The easier/smoother to operate, the better.

Telephones can provide a remarkable level of immediacy with strangers

A classmate and I found some old office telephones that were being discarded on campus. We connected them with about 30’ of telephone wire and I wired in a 9V battery to provide the needed electricity for the phones’ built-in amplification systems to work. Then we had a two-phone system that worked, albeit not with quite enough volume to be appropriate for loud public spaces.

We walked around the Unblurred art crawl with our two phones, improvising and trying a few things out:

  • handing the receiver to someone standing nearby in a gallery, saying, “oh, I think it’s for you”
  • setting the two phones down on the floor, so they were in a fixed position, and having people hand the receivers to each other (rather than having to hold the phone)
  • talking over the phone with each other as we walked down the street
  • placing one phone outside a gallery door and one inside so the two people conversing couldn’t see each other

Most interestingly, when my classmate had to leave, I set one phone down on the floor, moved as far away as the cord would allow me, and waited for the other to get picked up. As soon as somebody was on the line, I’d say “This is the life advice hotline. How can I help you?”

Of course some people weren’t interested, made a snide remark, and hung up. But other people were really ready to get some life advice. I got asked questions (and provided advice!) about what city someone should move to; whether or not they should start a business they were considering; if it makes sense to change their hair color and go naturally brunette after years of dying blond; and I had a few conversations about spiritual/religious matters, too.

Through this experiment, I’ve seen that telephones can provide remarkable entree between strangers to talk about serious and personal matters. With the right prompt to get things started, people can move from “hello?” to “I don’t know if I should be in this relationship” or the like in less than a minute.

I like bus stops as spaces for interventions for a few reasons, and I think that installing phones connecting one bus stop to another may be an interesting opportunity.

What I’ll share in this blog

There’s some lovely folksy wisdom about failures not being failures at all. Edison is (probably apocryphally) quoted: “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”

While of course ideally I’d only share stories of leaping from one great success to the next, that’s not usually how projects tend to go. There are many false starts, unforeseen opportunities and fabulously unsuccessful results along the way, and in the interest of honesty about my creative process, I intend to share failures as well as successes.