Designing, building and testing prototype products is at the centre of the Interaction Research Studio’s research. We focus on crafting the most compelling designs that we can, and find that in the process new methods and concepts naturally emerge.
We do not use a fixed methodology, but improvise using a palette of design-led methods invented in previous projects, and to which we continue to add. These balance playfulness, ambiguity and confusion with precision and exactitude, depending on the stage of design. Projects are formed around particular situations for design, rather than particular forms of technology or styles of interaction. We build our prototype products to a very high level of finish and technical robustness, which allows them to be field-tested for long periods in everyday life, and to be shown in lengthy exhibitions with minimal maintenance. A balance of accuracy and evocation characterises our field tests. We use ethnographic observations and interviews with participants to capture rich descriptions of activities and ideas about our prototypes. This is complemented by the use of cultural commentators such as documentary filmmakers, journalists or fiction writers who capture more opinionated, personal and thought-provoking accounts.
Digital cultural probe tools: coming soon
ProbeTools are a collection of idiosyncratic cameras and audio recorders intended for use in Cultural Probe studies (see below). They are designed to be open-sourced and easy to make, allowing a wide range of designers and researchers to employ them in their own studies. Moreover, they will be adaptable for particular studies by repackaging them, resetting parameters, or modifying their hard and software. We anticipate releasing the first of a series of ProbeTools, along with supporting documentation and tutorials, in late 2016.
Datacatchers are custom-built, location-aware devices that stream messages about the area they are in. Derived from a large number of ‘big data’ sources, the messages simultaneously draw attention to the socio-political topology of the lived environment and to the nature of big data itself. The Studio produced 130 bespoke devices as part of our ongoing programme to explore how people appropriate and make sense of open-ended designs. They are research devices that are designed both to embody our conjectures about certain issues and to act as tools helping us to further investigate peoples’ orientations around those issues. We deployed the Datacatchers to volunteers recruited at local markets and car-boot sales, and commissioned filmmakers to produce short video documentaries of their experiences. The resulting films – over 2.5 hours in total – are available at vimeo.com/channels/datacatcher.
Indoor Weather Stations
The Indoor Weather Stations are small domestic appliances that we intended to draw attention to the microclimate of the home, both as an indirect means of pointing to the ways energy is used and as a kind of conceptual rhyme to the planet’s climate. They were designed to explore a less didactic approach to environmental reflection. Rather than nagging us about our responsibilities in terms of energy consumption, they balanced data and aesthetics, reminding us in subtle ways of the environments we construct. The weather stations were deployed to twenty volunteer households for six month periods. Each set consisted of three stations: The Wind Tunnel, The Temperature Tape and The Light Collector.
The Energy Babble was developed by the studio as part of the Energy and Co-Designing Communities project. It is a domestic appliance that broadcasts comments and sounds sent from a network of Babbles. Described as familiar, playful and ambiguous, it was designed to provoke debate within communities. The Babble was deployed to thirty homes as part of a project that explored the imaginative and emotional dimension of energy usage and the potential of people’s imaginative application of technologies.
The Prayer Companion
The Prayer Companion was developed by the studio and introduced into the lives of a group of Poor Clare nuns, living in an enclosed monastery, as a resource for prayers of intercession. Short sentences continuously scroll across the screen of the tabletop appliance, nicknamed Goldie by the nuns. The data is gathered from a wide range of global news sites as well as people’s posts to social media about their experiences and emotions. The nuns, who lived with the device for five years, said it was valuable in keeping their prayers pertinent. The Prayer Companion has been exhibited both in the UK and internationally. The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), New York, has one in its permanent collection.
The Photostroller shows a never-ending sequence of images drawn from the internet, like an electronic daydream. The device was designed to complement and enhance the daily lives of residents in a care home. Prior to its introduction, the research studio carefully studied the appropriate level of interaction for the elderly residents and this informed the design. Researchers from the studio, along with their collaborators from the University of Northumbria and Newcastle University, visited the home regularly during the Photostroller’s deployment and it was particularly interesting to see how the residents’ engagement with the device grew and changed over the months they had it.
The Drift Table allows people to drift slowly over the British landscape from their home. The weight of objects on the table controls the slow scroll of aerial photographs displayed on a central view-port. Adding weight causes the table to speed up and ‘descend’ towards the landscape below. The Drift Table isn’t just a reference tool, it also creates a “crack” in the enclosure of the home that can promote daydreaming and imagination. Its top rests on four load sensors that send data to a microprocessor system developed by the University of Lancaster. This microprocessor calculates the centre of gravity of objects left on the table and controls software developed by University College London, which stitches together and displays moving aerial photographs donated by GetMapping.com.
Cultural Probes are a design-led approach to engaging with settings aimed at producing inspiration rather than information. They involve presenting people with open-ended, even absurd tasks in the hope that their responses will provide fragmentary illumination of their lives, thoughts, hopes and fears. They are often designed to rely on photographs and drawings as well as short written responses, to minimise reliance on language and provide relatively direct glimpses of people’s situations. Invented by Tony Dunne, Bill Gaver and Elena Pacenti for a multi-country project, ingredients of Probes are not fixed but are tailor-made for projects and situations.
More detailed information about the work of the Interaction Research Studio can be found through the links on our Publications page.