It’s been a while since I last posted about the Vision Mixers project, not least because of two intervening lockdowns in England and general Covid-19 uncertainty. Despite all this and as well as a very busy start to this academic year, I have been progressing steadily with project development.
The good news is that the project, now known as ‘The Multitude’, has just been awarded an Arts Council England grant to support further development, testing and exhibition. This is obviously a welcome development and means that the work will be shown in both Cambridge, Norwich and potentially another city over the coming months.
So, the general aim of the project is to create a ‘playable experience’ for two, lasting 15-20 minutes, where the players step through a series of interactive scenarios. The experience is framed by a narrative construct that pits the players against ‘a demon’ that has recently cursed humanity, an act allegorical to the current pandemic crisis. Part of my interest in the narrative component comes from the idea of myth making, particularly in the face of danger and crisis. I was moved by the excellent Fairy-Tale Virus by Sabrina Orah Mark, published in the Paris Review, to think about how a modern fairy tale might be constructed to help mediate the current crisis.
The 1954 film Godzilla is an example of a modern fairy tale (they’re often violent and feature monsters!) that was developed in the aftermath of the atomic destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki less than a decade earlier.
In The Multitude, the players cannot defeat the evil demon directly and must instead enlist the help of the four ‘elementals’: Earth, Water, Fire and Air. By fulfilling a task for each of the elementals, which forms the basis of player interaction for each scene, the players hope to awaken a sleeping army of ancient warriors known as ‘the multitude’, hence the name.
The research aims of the project have now been tweaked slightly. They are to investigate:
the nature of agency and how this is mediated through performative interaction
the mechanics of co-interaction
non-contact interaction design, especially in the context of the current Covid-19 crisis
the use of narrative to frame interactive experience
The research methodology is essentially to make the initial version of the work, conduct a round of early stage usability testing, iterate and then conduct more extensive audience testing at each exhibition opportunity. Usability testing will cover the nuts and bolts of interaction design and hopefully identify any significant problem areas. Audience testing will gauge sentiment and reaction, looking at for example, the success or otherwise of the narrative-interaction mix.
The project is quite sizeable already and will ultimately amount to many thousand lines of code written. A significant research output will be a technical review, but this will be framed within the context of interaction design rather than the discipline of computer programming. Coding is a means to an end in this case! For information purposes: the platform is Unity and interaction is achieved through the Microsoft Kinect for Windows.
This video gives an overview of the development work completed until November 2020.
I am pleased to be working with Cambridge-based art tech producers, Collusion, on a new interactive installation to be exhibited in Cambridge in late 2020. The venue will hopefully be Sook Cambridge.
Sook is an ‘adaptive retail space’ that can be easily customised to suit typical retail media requirements and booked by the hour. They have also experimented with hosting more artsy events. Sook at the Grafton Centre, Cambridge, features a number of grouped screens and addressible lighting. It’s the perfect environment for immersive audio-visual content, but naturally there are issues of interoperability to be addressed when installing a bespoke system that features realtime interaction.
The original project elevator pitch was “a social distancing compatible, two-person installation that makes use of whole-body interaction to explore inter-personal energies and connections within a 360° audio-visual environment”.
Since acceptance of the initial proposal, this project has already come a long way with writer, artist and multi-talented creative person Anna Brownsted joining to help develop narrative elements. Anna, myself plus Rachel Drury and Rich Hall from Collusion, all took part in a socially-distanced residency at Cambridge Junction in early August in order to get things moving.
There is a significant creative concept, currently in development, that will drive all narrative components and frame the interactions. I’ll write some more about this in due course, but for now will focus on documenting the residency and discussing key intentions for the project. I should add that this project is part of my ongoing research inquiry into gestural and embodied interaction within public-facing art. Non-technical areas of knowledge that I seek to develop are:
the nature of agency within public space and how this is mediated through performative interaction
the mechanics of co-interaction, especially the compete-callaborate axis
non-contact interaction design, especially in the context of the current Covid-19 crisis
the use of narrative to frame interactive experience
The project involves a relatively complex technical set-up with a single Kinect and host computer driving multiple screens and eventually surround audio and lighting, via DMX. The Kinect (v2) runs through Unity and allows pretty robust skeleton tracking, therefore providing the foundation for full-body interactive gestures. I will cover technical aspects more fully at a later date, but of course, expect there to be much learning in this area.
Here are a few photos and a video that illustrate the prototypes that were developed and tested during the residency.
The video shows the fireball mechanic being tested at Sook.
The residency was massively informative in terms of validating the core interactions and kick-starting the project, especially by forming the team. It was a refreshing novelty to work in the same room as others after lockdown, even if we were santising left, right and centre! We also established some key technical parameters. It’s a really exciting, although slightly daunting project, especially as it runs in parallel with my full-time teaching responsibilities! More updates soon.
I’m currently involved in a collaborative art-tech research project between NUA and Collusion in support of emerging artists in the Norwich and Norfolk area. One of the topics I have been looking into is the way that UX practices and concepts may be used in the context of developing and delivering arts projects. This will come as no surprise, as I am a sometime artist myself as well as being a User Experience Design lecturer at Norwich University of the Arts.
Let’s establish a working definition of UX design as:
A multidisciplinary practice that sets out to create positive experience in the consumption of digital products and services by matching users’ needs, capabilities and motivations with corresponding functionality, content and reward.
When considering the major areas of contributary practice that feed into UX design as it is commonly thought of, i.e. commercially oriented, it can be seen from the simplified diagram below that at least one or more of these disciplines is likely to be relevant to arts practice. The key questions here are whose art practice, what is the nature of that individual practice and therefore where are the natural synergies between that practice and the hybridised discipline that is UX Design?
The more digital the arts practice and the more it relies upon users, interfaces and content, the closer it comes to the natural territory of commercial UX Design.
Artists operating in the art-tech space would do well to consider where their practice can draw from UX Design and where it needs to be differentiated.
At the risk of stating the obvious:
The further away an arts practice is in nature from commercial UX Design, the more easily an artist can learn, borrow and steal from commercial UX Design.
The closer an arts practice is in nature to commercial UX Design, the harder an artist has to work to differentiate art works from commercial UX design-derived products and services.
Where well-designed user experience is intended to create delight in a commercial context, it can provoke a much wider range of emotional and intellectual responses in an artistic context.
Let’s consider user experience design as a wholistic term that can be applied to the design of both commercial and artistic experiences that involve some form of interface.
Compare the potential driving forces behind UX for commercial purpose vs. those for artistic endeavour.
If anything, artistic user experience design has more chance of creating delight; it can address whimsical, comedic, bizarre or otherwise engaging non-commercial themes as it is not driven by business objectives. However, delight is not always the response that an artist seeks to provoke. Artistic user experience may reasonably provoke a whole range of responses from shock to shame, anxiety to antipathy etc.
Understand and embrace the research continuum.
In the world of commercial UX, design is underpinned by substantive if not exhaustive research used to develop, evaluate and validate design strategy and implementation. UX research thinking identifies the shifting nature of research activity as a trajectory from formative to summative.
Research cannot be all things at all times, it has a role to play at a given point in a project cycle. Artists would do well to consider how and when they can use research in their projects. For example, thematic exploration at the formative stage of a project to user testing towards a final exhibition / installation.
The designer is not the user, the artist is not the audience.
‘The designer is not the user’ is a common maxim in UX design used to reiterate the importance of objective review and testing. Another well known supposition is that it’s only necessary to test with 5 users in order to identity design problems. This idea comes from an original article published by the grand-daddies of UX Design, the Nielsen-Norman Group.
The 5 user tests approach is based on research identifying that exponentially less new faults are disovered by a greater numbers of testers and therefore 5 testers alone will identify the most pertinent and immediate issues. In a sense, it is a form of cost benefit analysis; why pay for more testers when they will identify far fewer new faults than the first 5? There are many assumptions wrapped up in this assertion, not least that the scale of the project to be tested does not exceed the testing capabilities of 5 individuals. Although the original research is sometimes challenged, in my own opinion, it’s a sensible and achieveable approach to have at least 5 people test the core functionality of a project, be it commercial or artistic. The implication is to expect problems to be found and plan to resolve those problems before re-testing.
Artists woud do well to consider how, when and with how many people they can test their work
Respect the double diamond.
The double diamond is a construct popularised by the Design Council in the mid 2000’s. It has now evolved somewhat and has been adapted to suit a growing number of contexts. It is often used to underpin UX design workflow.
At its heart, quite literally, the double diamond situates a defined design brief. To the left of the design question, the first diamond represents a divergent process that begins with the investigation of an orginal question, problem or proposition.
In the UX design workflow, an initial process of divergent investigation is used to thoroughly explore user needs, behaviours, motivations etc as well as to examine a whole raft of other important contexts such as stakeholder requirements, technological, legal and financial considerations. Through the process of user, stakeholder and domain knowledge discovery, the UX designer can begin to formulate and validate hypotheses and propositions through a convergent process of definition leading towards a validated design brief. The first diamond is often summarised as ‘design the right thing’ and exists to mitigate the risk of creating unnessary and/or unwanted products.
The second diamond is often summarised as ‘designing things right’. It too begins with a divergent phase, but this time the primary activity is to develop a range of designs in reponse to the validated brief. At some stage, the most suitable design is selected and the final approach to an actual solution is characterised as a convergent process of design validation including, of course, user testing.
The double diamond approach is exceptionanly versatile and can easily be adapted to the process of making tech-art, as shown below.
In this case, speculative investigation replaces the user / domain knowledge discovery phase, although of course, the artist will discover their own domains of knowledge through the art research process. Convergent ideation replaces design definition with the end result looking very similar – a defined proposition at the heart of the double diamond. The second diamond is perhaps closer to the UX version shown previously; divergent and then convergent processes are used to transform the defined concept into a resolved outcome.
There are a number of other UX design concepts and practices that can easily be appropriated by artists. Check out the following resources to form your own.
Arrango, J., Morville, P. and Rosenfield, L. (2015) Information Architecture, 4th Edition. Sebastopol, CA: O’Reilly Media
Cooper, A., Reimann, R., Cronin, D. & Noessel, C. (2014) About Face The Essentials of Interaction Design, 4th Edition. Indianapolis, Indiana: Wiley
The session began with an insightful discussion about museum display item descriptions in general and whether they are read. One opinion was that they are good to have on-hand but often may not actually be read in full. However, the group seemed to agree that it is generally better to have more detail than less.
This reminds me of the classic inverted pyramid (‘Inverted pyramid (journalism)’, 2019) writing technique where the reader delves into as much detail as they desire, assuming that the reach of the pyramid matches the reader’s expectation. Following this structure, the body of writing answers all the key questions in brief within the opening sentence(s) before moving on to incidental/secondary detail that may only be of interest to a particular audience.
The workshop proper began by asking participants to examine key texts and then devise keywords to act as labels for these. In the first pass completed as a group, participants came up with quite different keywords for the same text, perhaps unsurprisingly. A keyword in this context almost certainly denotes personal insight or individual significance to a greater extent than being constructed as a signpost for someone else. To construct signposting keywords for general usage, there would need to be a more systematic approach.
The story of the Queen of the Iceni has fascinated every age from Roman times to the modern day.
She was very tall and severe. Her gaze was penetrating and her voice was harsh. She grew long red hair that fell to her hips and wore a large golden torc and a vast patterned cloak with a thick plaid fastened over it.
A Roman writer
An example of a key text.
Participants continued to work through texts individually and associate keywords with chosen samples. They then chose one particular keyword and spent 20 mins developing a ‘creative outcome’ using paper, pre-printed typographic elements, pens, patterned paper etc. Some thoughtful and attractive versions of keywords were produced. This gave rise to a conversation about the typography of a keyword as an ‘affordance’ (Norman, 2013), although the actual term affordance wasn’t used directly, i.e. as a signifier of the nature of the respective content. This is an interesting area of discussion, as originally I had conceived the project as being a kind of test of textual interaction, and to see how much interest could be developed by just working with text as a user interface concept. The text-only constraint was conceived before I started working with the museum as a collaborative partner and was based on the premise of exploring texts that exist in their own right, not relating to a physical object as the museum texts generally are.
In any case, text must be rendered using a character set
which effectively establishes ‘typographic voice’, a widely known graphic
design principle. So, choice of font will always have some bearing on
perceptions of keyword affordance and of course, some fonts are highly embellished
with ornamentation and/or feature iconography to the point of being at least as
pictorial as they are typographic.
There was some discussion about the information hierarchy relating to museum displays and one suggestion was that it would be great to move from one item to another ‘like using the internet’ which I interpret as the idea of there being an organic-like information structure behind a given keyword. This structure might be more shallow and wide than deep and constrained. This idea chimes with my original concept of being able to traverse an information hierarchy by using a keyword alone. But this scenario requires information design of far greater scope than the current prototype.
Although the workshop participants were quite interested in the LEAP controller, it seemed that this was more of a secondary attraction to the discussion and practical investigation of keywords and associated texts. I did manage to get a number of passers-by to try out the prototype and altogether I gleaned some useful insights. One woman managed to really get the hang of the interaction scheme. Initially the controller didn’t pick up her hands and I suggested that she either roll her sleeves up or take off her coat, which she did, showing good commitment! (I have noticed in previous situations that even slightly overhanging sleeves can affect the LEAP controller’s ability to recognise hand position.) It took her a couple of minutes, but then she was navigating, selecting and closing content quite fluidly. She commented that it was a bit like ‘learning to drive’ and that once you got the hang of it, ‘the muscle memory’ took over. She was the success story of the session and her words resonated with me.
Other participants struggled to lesser or greater extent to master control. A younger child (my son) had a go, but also struggled somewhat and this may be to do with the fact that smaller hands do not seem to register well with the LEAP.
In general, the collaborating partners agreed the Being
Human 2019 project was a positive experience that helped to develop a new
creative partnership and conduct preliminary investigation into the design of
gestural interactive experience with textual elements of the museum collection.
Although only one of the two planned workshops actually took place, valuable
insights were gained:
Consideration of place – the nature of a
workshop is affected by the physical space it takes place in, particularly if
this an art gallery.
The relationship between text and object – where text is derived from an object, especially one that is close by, text accompanied by visual reference to the object makes more sense. Conversely, it makes less sense when the visual reference is missing.
The power of preliminary discussion – there was
profound and informative discussion about experience design and female
gaze within the museum at the beginning of the workshop.
The challenge of establishing meaningful workshop outcomes – the hybrid format of the workshop, physical and virtual, worked to a certain extent but could be developed to guide participants towards achieving a more tangible outcome(s) potentially over a longer period of time.
The inherent challenges of gestural interaction –
some participants found the interaction tricky. It may be that gestural
interaction is more suited to a gamified experience where there is a more
distinct and fun ‘pay-off’ as a consequence of ‘mastering the moves’. In
general, it probably needs to be made simpler for a public-facing experience.
The likely benefit of a longer collaborative cycle – with new technology, the first point of contact is effectively an introduction. Subsequent sessions would be beneficial for participants to have more meaningful input into experience design, including potentially testing work in progress with members of the public.
After conversations with a number of potential partners, I ended
up submitting a proposal to the Being Human Festival 2019 in collaboration with
Norfolk Castle Museum and Art Gallery. The idea is to develop an experimental interactive
experience, using the LEAP Motion Controller (LMC), that can be used to explore
hitherto overlooked texts in the museum archive. ‘Touching the Past’ will
initially be run as a closed workshop and then at a follow-up event at Norwich
Castle during the week commencing the 18th of November.
“’Touching the Past’ is a series of workshops that encourages young people to explore overlooked stories in Norfolk Museums’ collection through digital experience and gestural interaction.”
The picture is purely for promotional purposes as is often the case with events where the promotion takes place before the work has actually been made.
From a production perspective – I chose Unity over Unreal Engine as a Leap-friendly development platform. This is partly due to some prior familiarity with Unity, which I used to make Play Table, and a greater working knowledge of programming with C# over C++. It was relatively easy to get the LEAP sensor up and running with Unity although there are a few gotchas, like LEAP currently requiring an older version of Unity to work. Most of the LEAP examples in the latest version of the Unity Orion library are geared towards VR with a head-mounted sensor. Some adaption is required to work with a table-mounted sensor.
The visual metaphor I have chosen for this early work is that of post-it notes. The idea being that the user selects a post-it note containing a single word which then reveals a more detailed item of text. The detailed view can then be reverted back to its original brief form and another keyword chosen for investigation, by rotating through all available post-it notes.
The interaction metaphor is not fixed completely but I am currently experimenting with the following control scheme:
These are a couple of screen shots of the work as it currently stands.
After engaging in a period of early ideation, and thinking about the application of gestural interaction within an information discovery experience, I had a look round a couple of museums to take stock of existing interaction design in context. Of particular note was the Museum of London, visited on the 11th of July 2019, which has a large number of interactive displays incorporating touch. I was particularly interested in the touch experience about disease in London, which had some game-like mechanics. It was well designed, with a bespoke screen and appealing interactive elements, however, for one reason or another it was not working properly. Users were becoming frustrated with the lack of responsiveness to touch, which may have been the result of a dirty or misaligned sensor. On my journey back to Norwich, I reflected upon the maturity and ubiquity of touch screen design for museums. This led me to consider gestural interaction though motion tracking as an emergent form of interaction design, specifically the LEAP Motion Controller, or LMC.
This is a small USB device designed to face upwards on a desktop or outwards on the front of a VR headset. It makes use of two infrared cameras and three infrared LEDs to track hand position and movement in 3D space
A useful primer on the topic of LMC within the context of 3D HCI is the review by Bachmann, Weichert & Rinkenauer (2018) which notes
the use of touchless interaction in medical fields for rehabilitation purposes
the suitability of LMC for use in games and gamification
the use by children with motor disabilities
textual character recognition (‘air-writing’)
sign language recognition
as a controller for musical performance and composition.
A common concern is the lack of haptic feedback offered by the LMC: “the lack of hardware-based physical feedback when interacting with the Leap Motion … results in a different affordance that has to be considered in future physics-based game design using mid-air gestures.” Moser C., & Tscheligi M., (2015). Seeing as LEAP has recently (May 2019) been acquired by Ultrahaptics, a specialist in the creation of the sensation of touch in mid-air, this situation is likely to change.
About the design of intuitive 3D gesture for differing contexts, Cabreira & Hwang (2016) note that differing gestures are reportedly easier to learn for older or younger users, that visual feedback is particularly important so that the user knows when their hand is being successfully tracked and that clear instruction is imperative to assist learning.
Shao (2015) provides a comprehensive technically oriented introduction to the LMC, including a catalogue of gesture types and associated programmatic techniques.
Shao also notes the problem of self-occlusion, where one part of the user’s hand obscures another part, resulting in misinterpretation of hand position by the LMC. (2015).
In Bachmann, Weichert, & Rinkenauer (2015), the authors use Fitts’ law to compare the efficiency of using the LMC as a pointing device vs. using a mouse. The LMC comes out worse in this context, exhibiting an error rate of 7.8% vs 2.8% for the mouse. Reflecting upon this issue led me to a report concerning the use of expanding interaction targets (McGuffin & Balakrishnan, 2005) and the general idea of making an interaction easier to achieve by temporarily manipulating the size of the target. In fact, an approach I have subsequently adopted is to make a pointing gesture select the nearest valid target, akin to gaze interaction in VR where the viewing direction of the headset is always known and can be used to manage interaction. In VR, this is often signified by an interactive item changing colour when intersected by a crosshair or target rendered in the middle of the user’s field of vision.
Bachmann, D., Weichert, F. & Rinkenauer, G. (2015) Evaluation
of the Leap Motion Controller as a New Contact-Free Pointing Device. Sensors 2015, 15, 214-233..
Bachmann, D., Weichert, F. & Rinkenauer, G. (2018)
Review of Three-Dimensional Human-Computer Interaction with Focus on the Leap
Motion Controller. Sensors 2018, 18,
Cabreira, A., and Hwang, F. (2016) How Do Novice Older Users Evaluate and Perform Mid-Air Gesture
Interaction for the First Time? In Proceedings of the 9th Nordic Conference
on Human-Computer Interaction (NordiCHI ’16).
McGuffin, M. & Balakrishnan, R., (2005) Fitts’ Law and
Expanding Targets: Experimental Studies and Designs for User Interfaces. ACM Transactions on Computer-Human
Interaction, Vol. 12, No. 4.
Moser C., & Tscheligi M., (2015) Physics-based gaming:
exploring touch vs. mid-air gesture input. IDC 2015.
The Being Human Festival 2019 first came to my attention in January. The festival is an umbrella organisation led by the School of Advanced Study, University of London in partnership with the Arts and Humanities Research Council and the British Academy. It has a national remit of promoting public engagement with humanities research and over the last few years has seen a sharp rise in participating academic organisations.
The festival consists of single events and ‘hubs’ hosting multiple events. As an artist-turned academic myself, only just recovering from the baptism of fire of getting a new course up and running, I saw the festival call-out as a good cue to re-establish my neglected practice-based research interests. Having considered the remit of public engagement with humanities research and the Being Human 2019 theme of Discoveries and Secrets, I began thinking about connecting a text-based interactive experience, building on previous works Data Flow and Journey Words, with a hitherto overlooked archival resource.
I started to develop ideas about forms of interaction, initially thinking about touch, while considering a suitable underlying information architecture, knowing that it would be difficult to connect an interactive experience with an existing archive ‘as-is’. I conceived of a simple two-level structure consisting of individual items of content each with one or more associated keywords. The keywords being used to traverse the information hierarchy and ‘discover’ one or more items of content.
As for the interaction design, I was originally thinking about touch screen and how multiple touches might be used to discover and combine keywords.
I was quite pleased with the results but decided to pause development until conducting a round of research, more of next.
Speaking at the recent Plugin Symposium hosted by Signals Media of Colchester, has given me a reason to reflect upon my own creative practice and in particular my urge to investigate the collaborative potential of digital art.
Professional self-reflection is a great activity, particularly when enhanced by the perspective of time: not just a little so that events are still fresh and perhaps too recent to view holistically, but neither too much so that memory is impinged upon by the distance of age! Of course, regular self-reflection is often portrayed as the saviour of creative professionals but ocassional, yet timely, self-reflection is certainly better than none!
Recently, in reflecting upon my own practice, I began by reclaiming the personal manifesto of seeking to create artistic works that are public, participatory and playful – the 3 p’s I set out to explore and draw connections between but a few years ago. I realised that my developing interest in collaborative art can essentially be articulated by a series of questions and corresponding creative responses.
Question: “How do I construct interactive experiences that are a pleasure to interact with and encourage co-interaction?”
For the sake of a more meaningful presentation at Plugin – I tried to pull together some of the elements that have shown themselves to be of special importance in the process of creating collaborative digital art. So here they are in slightly jumbled form, I hope they may be of some use to you, dear reader…
T is for Technology.
There is a seemingly insatiable appetite for new tech. It’s like a magnet that draws people in… so lets use it to do just that. Like the pathological urge to open Pandora’s Box. As an artist, one must position one’s box of tricks strategically with the metaphorical lid slighty ajar…
P is for the Phenomenon of Play.
Play is a magic circle entirely of our own making. Rules can be made, rules can be broken. Transgressions can be made in perfect safety. The willingness to participate is all it takes…therefore the invitation to play is of particular importance.
F is for Facilitation.
An Artist often plays the role of Facilitator. Collaborative digital art in itself is a facilitation. Some people very much like to be shown what to do – helping them understand how to get involved is an important aspect of facilitation. In certain situations, participants exiting an art experience themselves can become ambassadors to the next group of participants. Facilitation can go viral!
D is for Design.
If Art is about asking questions and opening up possibilities… design in the service of art solves problems and brings the art to life. From tech to user experience, there are many dimensions of design. It is an iterative process and can always be improved – so improve it!
A is for Audience.
Who is the collaborative experience aimed at? If its ‘aimed at everyone’ – that’s a tough call to get right, reword: that’s impossible! By figuring out who collaborative experiences are for, we can make them better, just the same as for any other service or product design – know thy user!
C is for Collaboration.
A truly multi-faceted word. Generally a force for good within the arts. But let’s consider what we mean by it when we use the word. For me it implies creating something new or finding new ways of working together where agency and creativity are bounced around the court of collective imagination. It can be question and response, it can synchronised, multilateral creativity. Whatever form it takes, collaboration can produce amazing results is to be recommended.
R is for Risk
Perhaps a certain amount of risk is inherent in collaboration and maybe that’s why it might feel unsafe and uncertain at times. It won’t work everytime either! One thing is for sure: the best creativity does not occur within a nice padded comfort zone!