Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Major Studio Interface : hexagonBrush postmortem



This paper is a synthesis of the design research addressing the theme of “Instruction sets for strangers” which had as result a site specific tool named hexagonBrush. It has been designed to encourage and enable playful collaboration between strangers aimed towards the recovery of a urban public space as a medium of free communication. The research and development of this concept is outlined.


The project started from the observation and documentation, over a period of twenty four hours, of the activities and interactions occurred in Union Square, a very famous and populated plaza located between 14th and 17th street at their intersection with University place, Broadway and 4th avenue in New York City.
This video shows the outcome of these observations

Based on this documentation, along with the live analysis of the space, a design strategy ,which had as foundations the core concepts of play, collaboration between strangers, creativity, communication and augmenting physical space, was outlined. It then led to the creation of five different interface proposals.

1.1 Concepts

The first of the five design proposals initially prototyped was Musical Swing, a musical interface embedded in a swing located in the north west children playground area. While children could still use it as a classical swing, a musical layer was added to the traditional swinging interaction allowing kids to produce musical notes on the fly based on their swinging movements. In our vision this could trigger an unconscious collaboration between children towards the creation of unplanned, unwilled musical patterns.

The second and third prototypes named respectively Imaginary Fountain and Text Fountain dealt with the “augmenting physical space” core concept trying to open up a virtual window on the concrete made base of George Washington statue located in the middle of Union Square south. The statue pedestal is actually like a wall tall approximately three meters which blocks the vision from one side of the central area of the square to the other and vice versa; the two designs take into account this problem and try to solve it to opening a window made of virtual water or flowing text onto the concrete. This prototype was also partly motivated by the fact that Union Square lacks a real fountain, and usually fountains are a very powerful meeting site in the economy of a public space.

The fourth idea proposed was the Conveyor Belt Screen, an interface designed to visualize textual and graphical information flowing around the square floor exploiting and digitally empowering an existing architectural feature of the plaza: a series of wide stones arranged as an half ellipse running from the west side to the opposite side of the square as an ideal belt. This vast and unusual space has been already used to visualize some text and graphics in form of stone and bronze engravings but its transformation into a digital array of networked screens could really boost up its communication power, possibly not in the direction of advertisement, a visual and perceptual plague in NYC panorama.

The last interface proposal is the “Union Square brush” which soon became the hexagonBrush, the prototype that was chosen to be the final idea to further work on as it was the only one, among the other four, which comprised all the aspects of the core ideas of the design strategy.
It was designed to be a tool to promote and empower playful collaboration between strangers aimed towards the recapture of Union Square as a communication space. Basically the interface is composed by three main parts: an hexagon shaped brush, a bucket containing some non permanent pigment and a visual reference which strangers can use to plan their drawings before applying them onto the floor. The idea was inspired by a random observation at the style of Union Square floor tiling.

A detail of Union Square hexagonal tiles

These hexagonal tiles are very peculiar to NYC parks as they are used to accommodate tree roots growth under the ground and Union Square really uses them also to delimit the range of its own spatial domain as they are spread on more than 80% of the square total area but absent in the areas located out of the plaza limits. I wanted to exploit this feature as I immediately saw a strong connection between the concept of tile on a physical surface and the idea of pixel on a virtual surface. As digital tools allow to draw using arrays of picture elements the hexagonBrush tool gives the user the power to fill up with one effortless movement one tile at time allowing him to create huge non permanent drawings on the square surface, enjoyable and readable even from large distances such as from the top of a building facing the square.
These five design proposals were motivated and deeply grounded on top of the design strategy core ideas.
This video documents all the five prototypes:

1.2 Methodology

I would like to point out the motivations that generated the core concepts of the design strategy:
the play and communication ideas emerge from the analysis of the square very architecture, which turned out to be strongly related to that of a stage for performances in fact, throughout the day, a variety of performers use the plaza to express their arts and skills especially in the southern part facing 14th street: musicians, actors, skateboarders, photographers can easily be found there. Another hint that support these two core ideas is that the curved shape of that particular portion of the square together with the tall buildings which surround it all around make it resemble a modern version of the ancient Greek theatres, where the audience was arranged in semi-circles on upper and upper levels and the actors played in the lowest level.
The motivations of the remaining three core ideas lay in Union Square history. In the past it has always been a place where people could go and express themselves without many limitations, but now, besides performers and traders, it’s very difficult to find strangers who freely use the square as a medium of communication. This is caused by the more and more severe restrictions that regulate the behaviours and activities that take place in the square: for example anyone drawing with a chalk on the ground can be theoretically considered and punished as a graffiti writer.

These are the fundamental motivations the core ideas were generated from but besides them it’s important to mention two precedents design project which strongly influenced my research:
the Bikes against Bush project by Joshua Kinberg and the Graffiti Writer by the Institute for Applied Autonomy; the first project sees a wireless Internet enabled bicycle outfitted with a custom-designed printing device which can print text messages sent from web users directly onto the streets of Manhattan in water-soluble chalk. While the implementation is somewhat similar to the hexagonBrush, as they both use chalk to draw visual messages onto the floor, the motivations of Bikes against Bush are explicitly directed towards politics and activism and this marks a profound difference between the two designs.

The Graffiti Writer interface is composed by a remote controlled programmable robot equipped with a custom built array of spray cans to write linear text messages on the ground. Here both the motivations and the implementation of the project are far from those of hexagonBrush in fact instead of chalk the Graffiti Writer uses paint and interface was designed to allow and test remote defacement and vandalism.

From a technical point of view the following prototyping stages were quite simple but it’s useful to explore more in depth the technology which permitted to create the powerful “Digitally assisted reference” solution part of the second hexagonBrush prototype. The name of the environment is Processing, it wraps around the Java programming language making it a perfect rapid prototyping tool. It allowed me to easily create the application who takes an image as the input and translate it into an hexagon map extremely useful as a reference to draw complex visuals.


The hexagonBrush prototype passed through two iterations, during the first one the efforts were focused on the building of the physical tool. Initially the dimensions of one hexagon tile were taken and then transposed on paper to be used as a reference to make the point of the brush out of a thick yellow 3M sponge and cheap pine wood; a wooden pole was then attached to the hexagonal point as an handle. I wanted the tool to be cheap, robust but still light and enjoyable with a fun aesthetic, as it had just jumped out of a comic book. Other two elements were chosen be part of the interface: A transparent plastic bucket was used in order to carry the pigment and some paper sheets printed with a hexagonal pattern identical to that used to lay down Union Square tiles. This last element played a major role in the prototyping economy as enabled the users to plan and collectively organize their drawings before rendering them on the floor.

Assembling the hexagonal brush

The first prototype was tested in Union Square during a pleasant sunny day in the ending of September, this video documents the results of this initial prototyping phase:

The results of this first intervention were astonishing as many design flaws and consequent improvements emerged explicitly from the abundant interactions. First of all the problem of the initial interaction was highlighted: who starts the first interaction with a strange looking object left alone in a public space? I resolved this issue starting it on my own without using any sign or text to explain what I was doing, then more and more people became curious about my activity and started to come closer and closer suddenly approaching me asking for more information and finishing to use the tool on their own. Many other issues and opportunities of improvement , which later led to the second prototype iteration, emerged from people interactions:

Empowered mobility: It was observed that people tend to move from place to place if their drawing is very big or to find an appropriate spot.

Enable simultaneous drawings: The ideal setup would be having two brushes so simultaneous collaboration can be achieved.

Add Colors as they supply another layer of expression and are a very powerful communication tool.

Liquid instead of powder: Mixing a bit of water to powder would improve the printing detail of the brush on the tile avoiding the chalk to fly away.

Make it tougher but still light and fun: People enjoyed the playful look of the interface, but they also broke it, so we have to reinforce it while refining its aesthetic.

A very powerful and not totally expected interaction pattern emerged as people jumped on the brush, resulting in both more fun and more chalk left on the tile.

Enable the rotation of the brush: This feature was not planned in the beginning but came after one strong interaction by a young kid who started jumping on the brush. The screw that was keeping the brush attached to the pole got loose allowing the brush to rotate. This enriched the output allowing to trace big circles standing fixed as a pivot point and rolling the brush around.

Digitally assisted reference: What if a user wants to make a complex drawing but it's not skilled enough? He can use a digital reference output by an application which takes an input image and translate it into an hexagons made version of it.

The second prototype iteration was built on top of these insights, not all the changes and improvements were applied but enough to take the interface on an higher level of both interaction and building quality.
Battery Park was chosen as the location of the second prototyping round because of a problem arisen during the first prototype iteration in Union Square when the park supervisor blocked the intervention considering it graffiti and defacement menacing to emit a fine; this video shows the results of the second iteration:

The changes applied to the first prototype were more successful than expected, first of all the fact of adding water to the chalk highly increased both the precision and the overall look and feel of the tool, taking away the effort to leave the pigment on the ground, adding also a felt tip pen feeling to it.
The second major improvement of adding a mobile bucket really eased the whole drawing process as the user could move around, look at the drawing from different positions without having to search for the bucket to refill the brush with the pigment.

Finally the digitally assisted reference made available to everyone the opportunity to create huge, complex drawings transforming the brush in a real powerful communication tool.


Considering the initial motivations the project was successful. Strangers were, even from the first early prototype stage, very attracted and fascinated by the tool both from its aesthetic qualities and expecially from the power it gave to them.


Above all I consider particularly striking the tension that exist between people desire to express themselves in public spaces and the implicit and explicit rules that deny them to. I find this project appropriate both for the physical context where it has been designed to be used into and for the metaphorical context of New York City, an environment built on top of two cardinal concepts: freedom and communication.
A tool like this can seem to be very limited but in my vision it has the power to make people open their eyes on the current status of their freedom of expression and how it could be wonderfully mixed with that of the others to collectively shape the communication environment we all live in.

Digitally assisted reference output



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