Let there be light

Interaction design looks at facilitating interactions between artefacts and between humans through artefacts.

Or so I learnt last year in Making Things Interactive, a subject taught by Chuan as part of the Masters of Design Innovation and Technology at RMIT. The subject focused on using basic electronics to build interactive objects and installations and working with elements like sound, touch, light and movement as materials in the design of experiences.

Exploring capacitance and connection

Capacitance or touch sensing happens when one conductive surface comes into proximity of another conductive surface as long as it has a relative negative charge. Human beings have an innate positive charge touch, which means that capacitance sensing is a really simple way to trigger electrical events – this is how something like a smartphone works for example.

Original sketch of capacitance driven design ideas

For this subject we were tasked with developing interactive prototype in line own backgrounds on interests. I come from a background in social sciences, with an interest in visual art, technology and the role of urbanisation in changing social dynamics.  I thought capacitance sensing made a nice kind of analogy for connection, where human touch temporarily transforms the environment and creates a momentary shift that can be harnessed to make something new, like electricity or light.

This led to the first iteration of this project and the desire to create an object that emphasises human presence through light, ‘the lonely park bench’.

The idea was to install LED lighting on a park bench to emphasise human presence through light, leading to the first iteration of our current project: the lonely park bench.

Over 80% of Australians feel that loneliness is increasing (Lifeline Australia 2016) and research associates densely populated urban centres with an even heightened sense of isolation (UDHM 2015).

Parks, and the park benches that line their paths, are one of the few remaining collective environments in which any one could come along, sit down and be in the company of others, independent of whether they are alone or in a group. Parks play an incredibly important role in terms of the liveability of a city and the mental health of its inhabitants, enabling people to get away from the desk and the screen and into the environment.  The park bench started to act as a symbol for transience and belonging in the urban context.

The prototype

To build the first prototype of this idea, I went for a few walks to observe how public park benches and noted a variety of uses – people smoking, drinking coffee, resting, seniors with shopping bags and couples just sitting for a chat.

I came the rough conclusion that the average stay on a park bench was probably about 15- 20 minutes. I wanted to install LEDs that would slowly increase over the length of someone’s stay and then decrease at rate that is determined by the duration of their sit. So if someone stayed for 20 minutes the chair would take 10 minutes to fade out and if someone else was to come along then the brightness would start increasing from current value.

People take a while settle into position, so I decided to include a thresh-hold of 6 seconds until any effects were activated. The next step was to use these elements to create the software and a miniature park bench prototype to demonstrate this.

Arduino was the main tool we used to create the interactive designs. Arduino is an open-source electronics platform that is great for prototyping– kind of acts like a tiny computer. Many hours went into creating the code to help the Arduino to detect touch, account for natural movements and trigger a fade in and out effect.

Though this first prototype looked just a little perhaps a little tiny bit like an electric chair, it was great to learn how to visualise concepts based in experience. The effect was quite simple, but made it possible envision a park bench that showed traces of the people who used, attempting to start a conversation on concepts like presence, memory and connection.

I’m excited to say the park bench idea has evolved a lot since Chuan agreed to take the project further with me.. however I’m happy to have the prototype still hanging out with me on my bedroom shelf.

The original prototype was built with an Arduino Uno, a Sparkfun Capacitive Touch Board, Breadboard, THT, 3 x 15 mm White LEDs, 3 x 990 Ohm resisters, jumper wires, box board and conductive tape.

Thanks to everyone who helped in the process, particularly to Chuan for the intro to the world of interaction design.

– Charlotte

1 year ago

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