Category Archives: art tech

Vision Mixers >> The Multitude

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.

Godzilla in a scene from the film. © Toho Co. Ltd. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

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.

Introducing Vision Mixers

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”.

Early mock-up.

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.

Simple visualisation of users and movement of hands.
When the hands move faster, fireballs are produced!
Lots of fireballs produced by lots of movement.
Testing a user duplication routine.
Picking up ‘leaves’, testing in Sook.

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.

An Intro to UX for Artists

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.

Observation #1

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.

Observation #2

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.

Observation #3

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.

Observation #4

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

Observation #5

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 

Morville, P. (2004) User Experience Design [website]

Schlatter, T. & Levinson, D. (2013) Visual Usability: Principles and Practices for Designing Digital Applications. Burlington, MA: Morgan Kaufmann.