An opportunity came along in November that led Chuan and I to team up and see if we could bring original concept behind the when echoes find light project to life. Imagine if the lonely bench was hosted somewhere in Melbourne!
Yet when bringing any design into a real world context there is going to be a number of steps to take around making that idea feasible… and making things feasible can open a whole can of worms. Very useful and helpful worms, but worms none the less.
Here are some of the key phases and decisions involved in developing the lonely park bench for the public realm.
Widening the scope
We wanted to build an interactive park bench that explored concepts like loneliness and community, but not where or really how to do it. Before we could drill down, we decided broaden the scope and explode some ideas.
The framework of psychogeography made it’s way into the planning at this stage, which is the ‘study of the effects of the geographic environment on the emotions and behaviour of individuals’ (Debord/Pinder 2005).
We looked at breaking down people’s experience of a city into certain elements like choice, say, of what particular street to walk down, and chance, like coming across an illuminated park bench with couple of possums playing tug of war on top of it.
Looking at the components that make up interactions between people and place helped us conceptualise potential future reactions to an unexpected installation transforming a typical park bench.
Hunting for benches
In order to receive funding for the project, we decided that we needed to engage in the sites around Melbourne and try to discover a likely bench.
After touring Carlton and the CBD taking many pench pics, Lincoln Square was chosen as the initial site for the installation due to a nice blend of foot traffic and people remaining for longer stays. We wanted to strike a balance of the installation being too crowded for meaningful interactions, or too empty for anyone to notice it being there.
Walking around the park led us both to feel that two benches would work better than one in terms of the aesthetics of the space as well as open up the possibility of using the idea of telepresence in our interactions (eg. having bench number 1 react to the presences of sitters in bench number 2).
We used copper tape to test whether the we could detect touch through wooden bench slats, and completed some preliminary LED testing. This meant heading to Lincoln square at 9.00pm taking photos of an LED strip, which definitely earnt a few puzzled looks.
Electricity was (and still is) a major question, should we use solar power, battery power or would it be possible to access the council’s electric pits?
Designing dynamic interactions
We tackled this by observing park bench behaviours and coming up with a range of user stories. As the chosen benches could fit three across, we decided to have 6 different sensing zones which could detect certain sitting behaviours, 3 on the backrest and 3 on the seat.
It was helpful to think of the bench as a character who wanted to convey certain moods and ideas through light. We wanted the overall effect to be subtle, soothing and playful. Take a look at the sketches below to see some of the stories and interactions planned.
We received some advice about rethinking this project’s focus on loneliness and ensuring our messaging avoids targeting this installation as exclusively to serve disenfranchised groups, which led to a pivot toward connection and a change in the project name.
It was never our intention to focus this bench exclusively on socially isolated people, however the framing around loneliness could possibly exclude the other many social ways in which people experience parks and park benches. Loneliness and spending time alone is still a big part of thinking behind the design, but the larger focus is to compliment the relationships between people, place and society.
The hope is to spark people to feel more connected – whether or not we can achieve that through interactive street furniture remains to be seen.