Workshop: Critique, Collaboration, Prototyping

workshop documentation from The Cornell Daily Sun

My workshop at Cornell was on processes of prototyping, collaboration, and critique for interactive art and design work. For the most part this was an application of techniques gleaned from outside my own disciplinary education. Through previous teaching and research collaborations, I learned just how poorly trained I am in constructing rich and critical interactive experiences. Like a good painter, I tended to start with the medium on these projects, pushing the tech around until it worked right. When the work involves programming, system-design, sensors and actuators, this tech-centered method will only work for virtuoso engineers. For some people, programming and system-design is like playing a musical instrument; for them, the experience of design and implementation are simultaneous, embodied.

This simply can’t be the case for everyone. So we look for other ways, quick ways to simulate interactive experience, to make it physical, sensed, and improvisational. On top of this, we want to make sure that collaborative work keeps critical goals and criteria present through the sometimes lengthy process of sketching and problem-solving. In group work, it’s all-too-easy to just surrender to whatever is working, or working for the most vocal person.

My hosts at Cornell asked me to run a brief workshop to kick off their new collab/fab space in the Art Department. I organized a three-hour experiment in designing site-based interactive experiences.

We divided the group into small groups of 3-4. Each group was charged with designing a working prototype for a sited interactive sonic experience, using amplified sound. We used a little summary sheet which you can find here.

STEP ONE: Setting Goals and Frames

Each team received three STORYCUBES – one for CONTEXT, one for FUNCTION, and one for AUDIENCE. They would have received one for PROCESS as well, but in this case I was determining their process for them. (The C.F.P.A. system is one I developed with Piotr Adamczyk, Simon Levin and Laurie Long.)

Each team then wrote/drew on their cubes, brainstorming six possible sites on Cornell’s campus for the CONTEXT cube, six possible FUNCTIONS for the project for the function cube, and six possible AUDIENCES for the third cube. I then asked the teams to use the cubes to develop, not unlike a scenario from the board game CLUE, a particular trinity to shoot for with their project. They used the cubes to dream up different possible combinations until they arrived at one particular configuration to explore – one audience for one site, to one function or end.

STEP TWO: Prototyping

I then introduced some low-fi tech for improvising using the Wizard-of-Oz technique. Each team had one sound generation device, preferably a laptop, and one sound amplification system – in this case, a bullhorn.

Each team needed to first collect a bunch of sounds they might want to introduce into their site (using sound effects database websites in this case, in order to keep things moving.)

I then sent each team to its chosen site, and asked them to devise a simple interactive system or algorithm. They needed to identify some data on the site that could trigger a sound event, even using made-up or impossibly complex sensors. Then the group members took turns acting as sensor, actuator, or test-user in the system. The Wizard was usually the sensor and the actuator, watching for the event to happen and then triggering sound on the bullhorn. One or more of the other team members got to play Dorothy (or the Scarecrow, I guess), living out the interactive system as if it was happening without the aid of a human Wizard. (Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.)

Each team could move quickly through different systems and sounds, trying out distinct interactive scenarios – “What event triggers which sound, and when?” – until they arrived at something that seemed promising, rich, or otherwise worth pursuing.

The last thing each team was to do was to videotape, editing wholly in camera, one or more sequences of a user or a “Dorothy” experiencing the faked system.

STEP THREE: Evaluation and Critique

The groups returned to our meeting location, and then played back their videos for presentation and discussion. If the sound didn’t pick up so well in the video, then we asked the group to re-create their “Wizard” scenario, triggering the appropriate sound on the bullhorn or stereo based on events in the video.

This gave us a few interesting things to talk about – we were able to critique and discuss the video simulations in relationship to each team’s initial CONTEXT-FUNCTION-process-AUDIENCE configuration. (Did they keep to their configuration, or not, and why not?) We were also able to decide whether or not the project NEEDED to be realized beyond a video prototype (if even through a better produced video). And for those projects deemed worth creating and realizing fully, we could begin to identify the necessary tech and research process for making it actually work – without the WIZARD.

The process worked fairly well, and was certainly fun. The bullhorns went a long way as catalysts to entry for skeptical parties. (I realized later that we could have used iphones or ipod touches with Freesound’s iphone app, skipping the laptops and allowing for easy on-site sound improvisation!) The bullhorn sound quality was of course crappy, but OK for quick work. (I would also be curious to try the bullhorns hooked up to mics – contact mics or shotgun mics – for amplification of existing sound into space as an interactive experience. I’ve investigated similar things in the past.)

Soon Proboscis’ Storycubes will be more easily customized and edited for such projects. (I downloaded one of their templates and edited it myself, in this case. You can find my template here, if you want to use it.) If the teams had been introduced to more than the Wizard-of-Oz technique – say, Paper Prototyping, Storyboarding, or Scenarios and Personas – then the fourth cube for Process would have been useful as well.

One last benefit was that in this case, the finished Storycubes contained brainstormed ideas for future projects – each team only used ONE scenario from their 3 cubes of 6 options each. So the cubes can go into the library at Cornell’s collab/fab lab for future workshops.

All in all the workshop worked well, even with a small group and a short timeframe. I love this model for a visiting artist visit, doing more than just a passive artist talk, risking a project as well. I hope this account is useful for you. (I think the folks at Cornell may post videos later.)

2 Responses to Workshop: Critique, Collaboration, Prototyping

  1. cool. Would love to see the videos. Long term, it seems like you could get a loop going, showing the videos on the site, layering the project further?

  2. I’d love to see an even bigger space used; perhaps across a couple of campuses.

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