Visualising invisible patterns in human behaviours and environmental conditions
On Friday 1 November, in the Senior Common Room at the Royal College of Art, twenty students from twelve different courses presented the outcomes of their week-long Seeing Things projects to invited guests, including participants in other AcrossRCA projects run by Sustain and the Helen Hamlyn Centre for Design. AcrossRCA is a week-long programme of cross-disciplinary working at the RCA, bringing together students and staff with different expertise, interests and perspectives to collaborate on a wide range of briefs.
Seeing Things drew on insights from the first research phases in the SusLab project, which focuses on home energy use. One of the main issues raised from our ethnographic work with a range of householders was the difficulty of engaging with what is essentially an invisible, intangible, abstract concept—energy—which we experience only in mediated form, through its effects (and its costs).
Discussions with householders around mental models, metaphors, differences in understanding and parallels with other ‘hidden’ systems and patterns in everyday life, in both environmental conditions and human behaviour, led to the idea of a relatively broad scope for our AcrossRCA brief, enabling students with very different interests and expertise to collaborate and develop their own responses to the brief.
The week began with Flora Bowden and Dan Lockton introducing examples ranging from Jorge Otero-Pailos’s The Ethics of Dust to Gordon Pask’s ‘Ear’ to Katie Paterson’s Vatnajökull (the sound of) to Lepht Anonym’s biohacking, which all address, in one way or another, revealing hidden patterns or making them ‘experiential’, also drawing on Donella Meadows’ concept of new loops in information flows.
We were joined by Matthew Venn (Cursive Data), Dave Cranmer (Nervous Squirrel) and Fiddian Warman (Soda / Londonscape), designers/makers/artists whose work often involves making patterns in data and environmental and social phenomena visible, often translating information from one form to another. Matt demonstrated the Polargraph, while Dave’s Rave Kestrel performed; we then collectively discussed some of the issues around information, data privacy and the social impact of revealing hidden patterns. The students were also introduced to a variety of equipment for recording information and prototyping, including air quality, noise and electricity monitors kindly lent by Robin North and Sarah Noyé from Imperial College London, and given the broad brief of ‘visualising invisible patterns in human behaviours and environmental conditions’ to work on.
Over the course of the week, the students formed teams and collaborations, and explored what the brief meant to them: what phenomena they wanted to explore, and how best to investigate them in a very constrained period of time. Some went out to do fieldwork with the public; others interviewed experts; others took a more personal approach. Dagny Rewera (BornAnIdea)—whose Invisible Acoustics directly addresses this area—and Simon Kinneir (Helen Hamlyn Centre for Design), creator of the Subtle Sensory Feedback range, kindly gave guest tutorials.
Seeing Things produced a wide range of collaborative and individual projects, addressing visualising patterns in energy use and generation, atmospheric conditions, sound and noise quality, colour perception and associations, information processing and lunar cycles. Below are brief details of each, with links to further details where applicable.
Project details and images will be updated further over the next few days
Natalie Barton (Architecture, MA Year One), Vidhi Mehta (Innovation Design Engineering, MA Year One) and Alice Czarnowska (Information Experience Design, MA Year Two)
An educational app which interrupts the use of electricity sockets with questions probing a householder’s knowledge and understanding of the ‘upstream’ and ‘downstream’ environmental, political and social implications and effects of energy use.
Four Experiments in Materialising Home Energy Use: Visual, audio, kinesthetic and multi-sensory
“When you’re learning about people’s strategies to understand how they make a decision, you also need to know their main representational system so you can present your message in a way that actually gets through.”
Anthony Robbins, Author Unlimited Power / Awaken the Giant Within
The current representation systems used within the vast majority of home energy Smart Monitors are focused predominantly on ‘numerical’ cost based information display. Mankind’s relationship to numbers is a very recent development in our evolution however. Our relationship to our core senses of colour, sound and touch travel back to our primal selves, and form a much closer emotional relationship to our real world decision making strategies that the logic based relationship to numbers and cost.
The following experiments, created as hacks within 5 days for AcrossRCA, look to explore a more primal relationship to the representation of home energy use information. Basing themselves around the three existing tenets of understanding framed within Neuro-Linguistic Programming; Visual, Audio and Kinesthetic representation systems.
A research booklet exploring the potential opportunities for piezoelectric generation in future clothing, particularly activewear. Inspired by investigation into static electricity generation from clothes rubbing in normal use.
Breath with Contaminants
This project uses coloured food powders, in different quantities, to visualise a range of air contaminants (PM2.5, PM10, NO2, SO2 and O3) in three major cities: Beijing, Tokyo and London, with comparison to acceptable levels.
A set of water bottles with thermochromic labels, revealing the bacteria and viruses which thrive in different humidity levels, in the process highlighting the narrow 40-60% range for normal bacterial flora. More photos and videos of the development process.
A noise map of London, using handmade lollipops of different colours and flavours, to represent both noise levels (objective) and quality (subjective). The parallels between noise quality and lollipop flavour preserve the variety of the phenomena.
“I consider that a man’s brain originally is like a little empty attic, you have to stock it with such furniture as you choose. A fool takes in all the lumber that he comes across, so that the knowledge which is useful to him gets crowded out…”
Arthur Conan Doyle (as Sherlock Holmes)
This project, entitled Brain:Dump, was created to visualise the volume of data that our brains continually process, reputedly more so than ever in the current media age. It is an animatronic device that represents a human brain, swelling each time new information is added to it. In this case, incoming visual information is represented by movements of the head, which are detected by accelerometers. The brain grows gradually until it reaches its hypothetical limit, when it must release old information in order to shrink and make space for new.
An investigation into moon cycle calendars and clocks, particularly with reference to enabling a person to record his or her sleep quality and explore whether there are patterns relating to the moon cycle.
Two practical experiments with colour association, colour naming, and taste/colour synaesthesia, using commercial paint colour charts as probes.
The aim was to develop tools which could be employed in user research as part of a design process, particularly in the built environment.
Field research was carried out with both passers-by in Hyde Park, and visitors to the AcrossRCA drinks reception, exploring both taste/colour synaesthesia (and associations), and how directly ‘real’ foodstuffs matched perceptions of the paint colours named after them.
Simulating colour perception with ageing
On average, the crystals in our eyeballs get yellow blur at the age of 50 due to UV irradiation, which means the colours we see will gradually get more yellow than before and this procedure happens so slowly that most people won’t notice.
Using Processing, this project simulated colour perception with ageing, and provides a visual reference for design projects involving colour perceptions for the elderly.
Special thanks to Dr Brock Craft from IED and Mr Neil Parkinson from Colour Reference Library.
Thank you to everyone who helped bring the week together, including our guest speakers and tutors, our colleagues at Imperial for the loan of equipment, Ellen Delbourgo of the AcrossRCA programme, and the RCA catering, security, IT and AV staff who enabled everything to run well throughout the week. Most of all, thank you to the students for their enthusiasm and engagement.