Cubesicle is a modular kit of interactive cubic components that enhance our creative spaces. They aim to reveal our hyperpersonal tendencies through a playful, architectural medium.
My prototype is a cube which responds to gmail and Twitter through light.
Let me take you back to the beginning of this process. My interest in this project began out of a curiosity surrounding responsive environments. Our environment increasingly seems static relative to the activity within our networks. Once accommodated by architecture, this activity has found a virtual arena in which to grow, and subsequently pushed our tendencies towards the hyperpersonal and computer mediated communication.
New experiments involving architecture and robotics have challenged this trend, creating systems of interaction that not only evoke curiosity but convey intelligence. Take Oribotics by Matthew Gardiner for example… proximity, touch, light… and robotic origami instantly generate new potential for interaction not just between people but between people and their environment.
Another great example of this interaction comes from Studio Roosegaarde. Their project Dune (wrongly named in my opinion) uses light and sound to create a responsive architecture.
These projects are simple yet engaging… and only respond to physical stimulus. ECloud on the other hand, by Aaron Koblin, uses digital stimulus to create an amazing installation. Weather in various cities change the behavior of a suspended array of smart tiles which alternate between opaque and transparent based on current. This allows unique configurations to emerge as it responds to various weather patterns.
The idea of using digital stimulus is especially appealing to me because it begins to reflect the invisible. Our world is rapidly undergoing a transformation spurred in part by the proliferation of the internet… yet this energy is confined in an online space. How can we make it more tangible? Projects like ECloud provide an excellent solution although these projects often emerge as experiments or installations. How can this become more visible. How can we push all our environments to accommodate our online presence and become responsive to our shifting tendencies towards the hyperpersonal? Hyperpersonal does not have to be confined to the screen.
Constant Niewenhuys started exploring this reality back in the 1950's although he probably did not picture the world we are in today. New Babylon, a collection of work surrounding an evolved conceptual urbanity, was an architectural response to the changing social behavior post war technologies were fueling. Constant recognized that as people became more mobile and physical space became more crowded, a new architecture would have to emerge to accommodate them. This architecture would liberate people from labor and provide infinitely reconfigurable spaces for play that were responsive not only to needs of the inhabitants but to their emotional condition.
“They wander through the sectors of New Babylon seeking new experiences, as yet unknown ambiances. Without the passivity of tourists, but fully aware of the power they have to act upon the world, to transform it, recreate it. They dispose of a whole arsenal of technical implements for doing this, thanks to which they can make the desired changes without delay. Just like the painter, who with a mere handful of colors creates an infinite variety of forms, contrasts and styles, the New Babylonians can endlessly vary their environment, renew and vary it by using their technical implements.” (Constant, 1974)
As the years went on, New Babylon became less and less a reality but rather "a symbol for the integration of creative and social activity." New Babylon responded to it's time. Today, it may look very different but simply because the creative and social carry so much more weight.
So where does this lead me?
I had two goals. With these precedents and research as a foundation, how could I make a space more dynamic be revealing hidden interactions? Secondly, how could I make a space more playful through the activation of its architecture?
My toolkit was simple. Using Arduino, I began exploring light, sound, and the internet.
Hooking up the LED's didn't take too much time but getting their behavior to change based on internet triggers was tough. I'm new to Arduino and it took a lot of help and a bit of helping to get the hardware working correctly. I tried using XBee in the beginning but for some reason couldn't keep a consistent connection to the gateway. After wasting way too much time, I got ahold of a WiFly module. It was much easier to get connected although I began having trouble with other aspects of the code. In the end, however, and I believe I describe the details a bit more in the DIY and code sections of this webpage, it worked.
As I got the hardware up and running, I tried to keep my goals in mind. Lighting has an amazing affect on occupied space. Color shifts or color vibrancy can have subtle affects on our behavior… stimulating creativity, promoting social activity, or maintaining peace and quiet… I figured it was the perfect characteristic to play with in the lab. Color and light would certainly create a more dynamic space in the lab but its connection to the internet could make the invisible tangible. An email or a Tweet could generate changes in the environment… it wouldn't be a notification system though… just a way to express these interactions with tangible shifts.
My second goal though was to somehow activate the architecture… I had the trigger in place, I just needed a system of interaction. I began exploring a number of ideas using columns in the lab. What if each trigger corresponded not only to changes in the light but to the physical architecture. Could I make a column breathe? Could I make it appear sentient and responsive?
The more I played with these concepts, and there were a number of great precedents, the more I realized how difficult prototyping would be… and my deadline was sneaking up on me. I didn't have the resources or technical savvy to engineer these systems. Then I thought of Legos. Legos are modular and interactive in their ability to engage a user. You construct your own space.
What if I could create an object with this same sort of interaction? The architecture is not necessarily responsive on it's own but rather responsive to what the user demands of it. It's modularity allows infinite reconfiguration. As I toyed with this idea, a vision emerged: a patchwork of cubes littering the lab, breathing and shifting colors respond to digital interactions as they fly from person to person. Our online activity revealed by our creative space to reinforce and perpetuate the creative process. I began prototyping.
The prototypes evolved pretty quickly in size… these cubes had to be big afterall… they needed to function as furniture by themselves yet modular enough to construct new configurations. For this particular prototype I stuck with a Twitter and gMail trigger. Every time a list serve email arrived, or someone mentioned @mfadt on Twitter, subtle shifts in hue would begin. These shifts were not drastic.. a slight change from a very pleasant Blue to green and back… enough to become recognizable as a pattern but not drastic enough to distract a user from their work. I generally found people enjoyed these colors most and some of my research suggested blue and green are the most effective colors at stimulating creativity.
Check the Code section for details on how it works.
Looking back across my entire process, I'm almost shocked how simple the project was. I'm not sure this is good or bad but I really struggled connecting my interests in physical computation and responsive environments to a tangible object that could realistically be deployed. Perhaps its simplicity is its strength. With each future cube I build, I will be one step closer to reaching my vision. I definitely need to think more about how these cubes are managed… while I have started to explore OAuth to allow a user to input their own information… perhaps the web-side of this tool needs to be fleshed out a bit more. How is that we interact with these objects outside of using them to assemble our surroundings. How do we customize the color changes to reflect what we need in our space. This customization will take this project even further and I'd love to revisit it moving forward.
A few days after critiquing my project, Douglas Rushkoff mentioned he had told his 7-year-old daughter about my project. Her response was:"So what?" It's a valid point. Why do we need to see these interactions? During the critique it was also noted that perhaps there needed to be more meaning behind these choices. On a date, an object on the table begins glowing redder and redder as my emails and mentions stack up… yet it becomes clear to my date that I'm respectfully ignoring all these digital interactions to focus on our time at the table. This was a funny example but illustrated a good point… what kind of meaning is generated? What kind of meaning is there to a 7-year-old?
I've thought a bit more about these questions and have since realized I had no good answer. I'm not entirely sure there needs to be the same meaning for everyone… for those who understand the mechanics behind the cubes, they may extract different meaning than those who don't… to others they are simply big Legos to assemble dynamic "Cubesicles" within a creative space. For Google it may be a way to reinforce a culture of communication and visualize just how active their world has become… to an outside it may just look really neat. For a child raised in a web connected world, maybe it's not so novel… it's not a practical notification system… it's not a practical tool for engaging an online world. In the end it just attempts to express our hyperpersonal tendencies using a playful architectural medium.