Where the Sky Widens – the MA writing

It’s taken a while to get there, but I have now submitted for the MA course of which Where the Sky Widens was a part.

Several people have been asking if they can read the writing that accompanies the practical work, so here it is: my MA ‘evaluative document’ (like a dissertation, but different).

figure 7

Where the Sky Widens: An exploration of slow making and spatially-aware prototypes as methods for considering emotional connections to distant places

The practical component of this research project centred on the design and use of paper ‘pods’ supplemented with computational processing and electronics to make them react with movement and light to being pointed in a particular direction.

I ran workshops with different groups of people and we used the time it took
participants to make the pods to talk about the distant places to which we have strong emotional connections. We worked and talked at the pace of folded tabs and PVA glue—4 or 5 hours—giving us time to share stories; consider our relationships to our pasts, to people, and to places; and also to question the implications of crafting our own interfaces for digital technologies.

After having selected a location that was of significance to them, participants then had time to walk with the pod they had made, now programmed to signal when person and pod were facing towards that place.

The workshops were held with members of the public at Birmingham Open Media; Visual Sociology staff and students at Goldsmiths, University of London; and with staff and researchers connected to the Centre for Mobilities Research and Lancaster Institutite for the Contemporary Arts at Lancaster University. Two further
workshops had been planned, but were not realised.

Rather than describing the pods and workshops in detail, the following chapters are intended to complement the practical work through exploration of my practice, indicating relevant contextual frameworks and evaluation of the research project as a whole.

balloon

So, link to the .pdf file below. I’ve had to jibble it a bit so it makes sense away from the other things that were part of the MA submission: if it doesn’t quite make sense, or if I’ve messed up on figure numbers or anything like that then please let me know and I’ll fix it.

As ever with these things I see them as the start of a conversation, so I’m also happy to hear back about suggestions for where to go with this next.

Over to you:

Download: Where the Sky Widens v2.2 (.pdf)

There are some important “thank you”s I’d like to make too:

Thanks to Jen Southern, Kat Jungnickel and Anne Galloway for an intense month in 2014 which helped me to realise how things might slot together; gave me new ways of seeing my work and the beginnings of a vocabulary to express that; and also their support and challenges as I worked through everything after that.

Thanks also to Helen Kara for fielding so many research-related questions that, by various routes, always seemed to end up at her door.

To the ladies in the lasercutter suite: you’re awesome. Keep up the amazing work.
To my lovely proofreaders: your perfectionists. Keep up the amazing work.

Many, many thanks to the participants who took part in the workshops and gave so generously of their time and their stories. Thanks also to Jen and Kat (again!) and Karen Newman for hosting those workshops and for dealing with all the logistics of room bookings and spreading the word.

And finally, hugs and appreciation to all those who have contributed moral support and encouragement, cardboard tubes and sandpaper through the challenging times. THANK YOU!

(I think that’s everyone, but I’ll have inevitably forgotten someone crucial, so expect that list to be added to…)

Photos and video from Where the Sky Widens degree show

Where the Sky Widens: degree show

Where the Sky Widens: degree show

Where the Sky Widens: degree show

Where the Sky Widens: degree show

Where the Sky Widens: degree show

Where the Sky Widens: degree show

Where the Sky Widens: degree show

Where the Sky Widens - degree show

Where the Sky Widens - degree show

Where the Sky Widens - degree show

Where the Sky Widens pods in the dark

One of the questions I got asked a lot during the Where the Sky Widens workshops was “why did you choose to make them out of that material?”. That material being white cartridge paper.

This is the reason why:

glowing pods

Back in 2012 when I started doing the early work for what was later to become this project, the image in my mind’s eye – the one that compelled me to make these things happen in order to find out what it would be like – was of a group of people walking at a meditative pace around a public space at dusk. Each person would be carrying a pod and, against the blues and pinks and reds of the day’s end, these would also be adding their own gentle light.

Well, we didn’t nail the sunset, but at the end of the workshop at Lancaster University we did find ourselves in a black-out installation space with our completed pods. There was an examination taking place in the room next door, so this was all in silence: pods being regarded, carried, placed, held, offered and gathered together.

Jonathan Kemp took the following photos, capturing something of the experience:

glowing pod

glowing pod

glowing pods

glowing pod

glowing pod

glowing pods

Where the Sky Widens – Shropshire

Spending a few hours with a pod was all well and good, but what’s it like to spend a lengthy amount of time with one?

I took myself, a pod and a tent up into the hills of Shropshire to find out. (Click for the full wide-sky version of that image.)

Where the Sky Widens - Shropshire

These guys launching from a few tens of metres behind my newly-pitched tent helped to set the tone for a few days thinking about journeying, roots and …buttons.

Where the Sky Widens - Shropshire

I walked with the pod…

Where the Sky Widens - Shropshire

…paused with the pod…

Where the Sky Widens - Shropshire

…ventured forth with the pod…

Where the Sky Widens - Shropshire

…and shared a tent with the pod until its battery ran out on the 4th day.

Where the Sky Widens - Shropshire

All the time with it reminding me in which direction the place where I was born is.

I’m not sure what to write as a conclusion – as with most good experiments it raised as many new questions as it answered.

Lots more photos here.

Where the Sky Widens – a walk by the edge

The thing about the interactive devices I make for all these interactive workshops is that I rarely get to experience them for myself.

I took the first steps towards correcting that on a recent trip to the South coast, where I spent a few hours walking along a gravel spit that juts out into the Solent.

After experimenting with programming the pod with a few different locations to respond to, I eventually settled on the place where I was born. Here’s the pod doing its thing on a sweep of the horizon:

It was interesting observing how the pod changed in nature as the sun set and night fell. It’s fairly conspicuous in daylight – prompting a “What’s that?! A dinosaur egg?!” from one passer by – but in low or no light it becomes something of a beacon.

Where the Sky Widens - a walk at the edge

Where the Sky Widens - a walk at the edge

Where the Sky Widens - a walk at the edge

Where the Sky Widens - a walk at the edge

On the drive back home my Mum tried to predict which corners would make the pod wobble. She got quite good at it!

You can see more photos here.

Where the Sky Widens workshop at BOM

A few weeks back I ran the first of a series of particpatory workshops for my research project Where the Sky Widens. This one was kindly hosted by Birmingham Open Media and participants cam from a public invitation.

DSCN0538

Being the first workshop I was quite hands-off at letting the discussion and pace find their own equilibrium. It was hard at first to encourage people to talk as they first got to grips with the paper templates, but as people found their groove there were some nice meaty topics.

A recurring theme in the feedback has been about the strength of feeling people felt towards their completed pods after crafting it by their own hand rather than just being handed a pre-made object. No wonder really when you look back at the making process:

Where the Sky Widens workshop at BOM

DSCN0555

Where the Sky Widens workshop at BOM

Where the Sky Widens workshop at BOM

DSCN0564

Where the Sky Widens workshop at BOM

Where the Sky Widens workshop at BOM

There were some really interesting places selected for people’s pods to respond to, and it was great to see the reactions when the pods first kicked into life and started waggling. Walks were made.

Where the Sky Widens workshop at BOM

Where the Sky Widens workshop at BOM

Where the Sky Widens workshop at BOM

Where the Sky Widens workshop at BOM

…and interactions were had:

Where the Sky Widens workshop at BOM

One person declined to take their work home with them and I’m curious to learn the fate of the others. There has been talk of naming, nesting and re-surfacing…

Making templates to make things from

Having arrived at a design for the Where the Sky Widens pods, I’ve been developing it into a template form from which workshop participants can assemble their own pods.

I went back to the 3D design software and re-worked the layout of the parts to try and minimise some awkward and fragile sections. There are lots of steps and software jumps in this, so I had to laser cut the results and assemble them again to check that everything was as it should be.

It wasn’t quite, but those details were easy to fix. (I think they’re fixed, anyway!)

One thing that worked really well was the dumb-bells. I want to transport the templates still attached to the A1 sheet of paper they’re cut into. This means we’ll have to finish cutting out parts of the outlines at the workshops and the dumb-bells make getting scissors right up to the cut line a lot easier.

I also experimented with engraving the assembly instructions onto the same sheets, but this made the cut time waaay tooooo loooooong (time == money and I’ll be lasering a lot of these things!)

Twitter has declared the pods also look like tribolites. It’s not wrong.

Pod evolution

As I iterate through different designs for the pods that will be used for the Where the Sky Widens workshops, I’m gradually becoming surrounded by more and more prototypes and I thought it might be useful to chart their evolution so far…

Here’s where it started, two years ago:

Wax pod: difficult to photograph, but very touchable

Wax shells cast in plaster of Paris moulds. Wonderfully fragile, lovely translucency, warm to the touch and, well, utterly impractical for housing battery-operated electronics.

Cutting the wax pods in half proved to be somewhat tricky

Different blends of wax were tried, but this was going to be a fundamental challenge…

[time passes…]

After deciding to use the pods in a new guise as part of a workshop series, I had to find corresponding new construction method and materials. The design brief is now to design something that can be assembled from (flat) kit form by a participant over the course of a couple of hours. The pods need to be in two halves to allow access for placing the electronics inside them …and also strong enough to carry the weight of those electronics. Ideally they’d also retain something of the fragility and the translucency.

Time to learn 3D CAD.

The original plan was to design a (curved) two-part clam armature. Participants would then fill in the gaps in the lattice work. Unfortunately a series of delays meant I had to shift the game plan again.

Plan C: folded and glued paper nets:

Working first in Rhino and then the papercraft software Pepakura Designer I (with a lot of help!) modelled a sort of crystalline version of the pod and then converted this into an opened-out net.

Unfolded

Here’s the first test print done onto several sheets of A4 copier paper:

First test printout of paper pod

… and a laser-cut version out of heavier stock:

The double wall gives it a nice thickness and also increases the strength

I really liked the double wall, however it was taking far too long to glue it together, so I had to revert back to a single wall. I kept the edge around the parting line, though, and that gave enough strength for it to do what it had to do.

The single-walled version

I increased the size a little too, to give more room for the circuitry. Shame I couldn’t get my brain around the software and three dimensions though – nice design, just the two halves didn’t match each other at the seam!

That’s better!

Phew! The next version was large enough, strong enough and both halves fitted together! Some tactical paperclips also did a nice job of keeping both halves together…

Putting a few LEDs underneath the top part also suggests it’s going to work well with internal illumination, too.

Two white LEDs, one red LED and the blue power LED on the Arduino

Here are all the versions together:

Next I have to refine the assembly process: focussing on construction instructions for the participants and how I’m going to present the pod in kit form. Fortunately no allen keys required…

Introducing Where the Sky Widens

Over the next few months I’m going to be working on a series of workshops as part of the final module of an MA I’ve been studying for.

Where the Sky Widens centres around use of paper pods that are aware of where they are in relation to a specific place – somewhere you have a strong emotional connection to – and they will shift their weight in your hands as you walk in the direction of that place, no matter how distant it is.

I’m currently at the stage where I’m prototyping the design of the pods so that they work as things that participants can construct within a few hours. This is involving much learning with 3D CAD software, paper nets and laser-cutting different types of paper and card.

A paper net about to be folded and glued

…and the results!

There’s a bit of refining to be done to the design of the pods, but we’re getting there. Meanwhile I’m also underway with the positional processing and haptic feedback. Yes this involves gluing nuts onto welding rods.



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