On October the 20th, 2021, I presented my preliminary research findings from The Multitude project at Beyond 21, ‘a conference where thinkers, makers, investors and researchers across the creative industries come together to explore the relationship between creative research and business innovation’. The event was physically held in Belfast with many elements presented online.
Here is the research poster that I submitted (select to enlarge):
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.
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.