Crafting our Digital Future

As part of V&A Digital Design Weekend 2015

A Connected Sense Of Place

Martin Skelly

In June 2015 we took a whirlwind trip to explore open collaborative making with designers and makers in Mexico City. The prototyping marathon brought people together from a wide variety of backgrounds. Creatives working with engineers, makers with anthropologists and researchers with programmers. The brief was simple: to design and prototype ideas for improving cities across the UK and Mexico.

We set out to explore how connected objects could allow cities to become more playful, to give people living or travelling through them a better experience. To create not just any digital futures, but playful digital futures, that could let places become more memorable, and improve the experience of places through design and technology.

We had a simple idea at the start of the weekend, to link Mexico and the UK through an abstract physical object that communicated with light. Although the UK and Mexico are over 5000 miles apart, when you think about the sun being over 95 million miles above us all, we’re actually pretty close. We thought light could be a powerful way to connect across timezones and continents. If you imagine yourself orbiting in the International Space Station for a moment, you would literally see sunrise and sunset falling across different parts of the earth. We were intrigued to explore how we could visualise connections between places when you aren’t not orbiting planet earth.

Over the 48-hour prototyping marathon at the Centro de Cultura Digital we created concept prototypes that communicated some contextual information from a place through light. One of the concepts was a prototype that could measure light levels in a place in the UK and visualise them in a compelling, stimulating way in Mexico City.

We created a pair of objects that could measure light levels in one place and output them on another object connected over Wi-Fi. The next step was to create an amazing output for the light level data. Centro de Cultura Digital has an installation space called Memorial Room, an incredible sound and light installation surrounded by RGB LED’s. Entering the space, makes you feel like you’re standing in an immersive, interactive pixel cloud. We worked with Francisco and Salvador at the Centro de Cultura Digital to connect this room to our simple light sensor prototype. They built a protocol that allowed our concept prototype to talk remotely to the arrays of controllers that could turn the room any colour imaginable.

To demonstrate the prototype, we put the light sensor in a small cardboard box. Standing inside Memorial Room and covering the opening in the box turned the lights out completely, plunging the room into total darkness. Removing your hand from the top of the box brought the red light levels up gradually, and the whole room could burn bright red by shining a torch into the box.

The next step for our thinking is to create two objects that link places together with the inputs and outputs built into the same object. We’ll also be exploring adding other sensors and interactions into the concept objects. Possibly temperature sensors, proximity sensors, weather data or physical inputs, such as knocking or tapping the device to send a message.

This was just the start of our exploration into connecting communities and understanding how connected experiences can help express what a city stands for. Our recently published research paper explores in more detail the important connection between the Internet of things and placemaking.