MIT Media Lab's Tangible Media Group has a project called InFORM that I have been long fascinated by. Fueled by the vision of Radical Atoms and Tangible Bits (more here), the project fuses the two worlds of bits and atoms. The below image shows an equation visualized in real life that a person can touch and feel with their hands. Their system uses modular design whereby tangible 'bits' are controlled by physical computing to take nearly any form a person desires it to.
Here can be seen a project a version that enables a user to seamlessly transition from the digital to the physical.
One can design an object or a structure in real life on a monitor as well as in the real world, simultaneously.
My fascination with this project led me to investigate ways that textiles can add to the experience and ideally make the experience more realistic. Could the texture and anisotropy of textiles be used to design more intuitive interfaces similar to InFORM?
With my first prototype I initially explored this through a malleable woven scaffold.
When a user touches it, the woven scaffold would react and morph under their hand.
Using soft aluminium rods as a support, I wove a loose scaffold that can change shape based on how the aluminium rods supporting it move. If a rod moves up, the loosely woven cloth sitting on top of it will show a bump where the rod is, but will sink down if the rod moves down.
Prototype 2 investigated a different way that textiles could inform my work. For Major Studio 1 last year, I designed a toy, which essentially is a circular loom, that I call the Base Converter. It enables children to learn about base conversion through weaving. It's both a game and a learning tool. But it is also a data visualization tool and a making tool.
For this prototype I wanted to explore digital weaving whereby the weaving required for Base Converter is done digitally.
Below is the first prototype of a circular loom with some weaving done on it already. Using LineRenderer in Unity, the game essentially draws the line that looks as though it is weaving on the circular loom. The player would input the number they would like to convert (a base ten number) and the base they would like to convert to which can be any number. As well, the WEAVE button sets up the loom with the right number of sticks (the same number as the new base). Once the loom is ready, the user uses the arrow keys on the keyboard to weave and also do undo any weaving they have already done. Once they are done weaving, they can check the answer by clicking on CHECK ANSWER. If the weaving is correct, the prototype logs to the console a message that says "CORRECT". If wrong, the message will be "INCORRECT". If at any point the weaver (player) struggles, they can click on SHOW ANSWER button to see the correct answer (the original number converted to the new base) displayed in the console.
The user interface for this prototype was done quite roughly, but I was in general going for the more 'tangible' feel using 3D objects as buttons instead of simple, flat buttons and dials. Below you can see the Start button as a cube rotating in the air. While a sphere with question mark on it is where the player would find the game's instructions.
Below is a rough mockup of a level selection scene with 3 levels.
Once a scene is selected, an empty loom area is shown with input fields for the player to input the number to be converted and the base to convert to.
USER TESTING FEEDBACK
The initial user testing session was carried out in a way that allowed me to test the intuitiveness of the game: what it does, how the interface works and what the game rules are. The game was started on my laptop with the start scene (with floating START and ? button-cubes) displayed.
Below are the feedback/comments I received based on what people thought the game is and where they would encounter the project:
WHAT: A game to help people understand how weaving works virtually.
LOCATION: Game show exhibition; gaming device
WHAT: Digitized version of physical experience of weaving
LOCATION: Seems like it could be shown at an exhibition about disability and design
WHAT: Sorry, didn't quite understand how the game works initially. Is this part of your plan to let us figure out how the game works? If not, maybe make the rules simpler to understand?
LOCATION: I think it would be nice for the people to play in museums and at home.
WHAT: An indie game show
WHAT: An interactive digital loom that functions as a tool for teaching weaving.
LOCATION: Could be at interactive showcase.
WHAT: A simulation of base number conversion using basket weaving.
LOCATION: I see this being a type of steam game or on an education website.
WHAT: PT 1 Geometry - 1. Math game to explore physics; 2. Rope weaving with coordinates (textiles? - knitting)
LOCATION: Would find this in an ED TECH setting.
WHAT: Your modular arithmetic weaving demo
LOCATION: It would make sense in a primary school. Unity seems extremely antithetical to the concept, which is inherently physical.
From the comments it is clear that WHAT it is needs to be clearer. Only after the audience were given some instructions on how to navigate the interface, they were able to see the weaving happen on the screen which enabled them to comment on where they imagine to encounter the project. It is clear that further work needs to be done to make the interface more intuitive and the instructions clearer. These are more implementation related concerns that I did not target to address with this prototype so the comments are expected.
However, the role that this kind of game can play in people's lives, and where this kind of project can be found has been interesting to explore through the above comments. My supervisor's question to the class: "Can this process create something in the physical world as well?" highlighted one of the things that I have been interested in pursuing which is "what kind of embodied experience or physical outcome will yield from making in the virtual world". For this, the process of making should not just be a press on a button and instead should be more embodied, using the body as a tool. I received valuable feedback in this regard and would like to pursue the concept of making in the real world and making in the virtual world simultaneously.