The Ambient wood used a diversity of pervasive, hi-tech and mobile technologies to design a set o integrated, novel learning experiences, which took place outdoors in a wood. The aim was to augment the physical environment with various forms of ambient digital information, such that children’s interactions and perceptions of it were extended in surprising and unusual ways. In doing so, the goal was to get the children to take part in and learn more about scientific enquiry, through discovering, reflecting and experimenting in an ambient wood…
My contribution to the project consisted of providing overall design ideas and solutions during the final three months of development leading up to and including the filed trip, which took place in a wood in East Sussex, UK, in September 2002, and the coneption, design and construction of a fully functioning prototype of an interactive device which became known as the periscope (shown in situ)
The periscope is a stand-alone device designed to allow children access to information that would not necessarily be available to them within the context of a single field trip. Basically an information/navigation device, the periscope contains a Director movie showing a panorama of the woodland and a number of thumbnail images representing links to QuickTime movies. By navigating through the panorama and finding and choosing the links, users are able to view the lifecycles of woodlice; to see up close some of the tiny creatures who feed from the leaves and leaf-litter; to see the way the wood changes its character over a season, or a period of fifty years. They can also see time-delay footage of various stages of the bluebells’ lifecycle, and some of the interdependencies that are an inherent part of the woodland’s character. Additional information, in the form of Flash animations, can be accessed by adding or removing Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) tagged objects within range of the RFID tag reader aerial which is among the objects protruding from the Periscope’s stem. In the Ambient Wood Project this function was used during the final, experimentation, stage.
The Design Aesthetic
The underlying idea guiding the design aesthetic of the periscope was the intention to create a kind of hi-tech organic hybrid. The 12 year olds with whom we did initial testing seemed most impressed, interested in and intrigued by visible technology that seemed more advanced than that with which they were familiar. Initially conceived as more of a “portal” into the wood’s hidden life, the periscope became less and less hidden or pervasive and more of a visually and physically present piece of unfamiliar technology in the woodland habitat. The desire was to create a unique device that intrigued the children while challenging their assumptions about technology.
Physicality, Navigation, Interaction
The periscope consists of a 6.5” (diagonal) flat screen TV mounted onto an adjustable tubular stainless steel stem. The screen, a TFT LCD screen, is protected from light by a custom-made black rubber hood. Curved aluminium wires (reminiscent of insect antennae) maintain the hood’s distinctly organic, almost flower-like form. Extruding from either side of the rear of the hooded screen are two handles used for navigating through the onscreen panorama. To navigate horizontally, the user rotates the entire hooded screen on its axis. To navigate vertically the user turns the handles in place, forwards or backwards (up or down).
Two potentiometers are embedded into the Periscope – one into one of the protruding handles, the other into the top of the stem of the periscope connecting directly to the TV screen mounting. The two handles are physically joined preventing them from being turned independently. The potentiometers are connected by USB to the computer that runs the Periscope’s Director movie. This USB cable and the cables from the flat TV screen pass through the centre of the Periscope’s stem and exit through the bottom of its external, adjustable (upper), portion (see diagram, above).
The periscope’s stem was designed to be of adjustable height as the variance in height of 10 to 12 year-olds can be quite dramatic. The comfortable viewing height of the periscope’s screen is anywhere from three foot six inches through to five foot. The height is maintained with a simple grub screw. We found that it was best to chose an appropriate height for each group of users and lock it off – to avoid having them assume this to be a navigational function. In the case of a higher comfortable viewing height being necessary, the periscope itself could be installed on an appropriately raised platform or box (in which could be placed the necessary hardware). In the Ambient Wood trials the periscope was pegged into the ground using tent pegs and the base camouflaged with leaf-litter. The associated hardware was hidden at a close distance – except for the speakers which were left visible at the base of the periscope’s stem.
Radio Frequency Identification(RFID)
A number of curved items protrude from the stem of the periscope about two thirds of the way up from the ground. One of these is a circular copper aerial which is attached to an RFID tag reader – it can be seen, above right, with two tagged items, a fungi-filled Petri dish and a spider in its web, placed within its range. The resistors and capacitors which form part of the associated circuitry, and which protrude from the exterior of the aerial, are enclosed in a small transparent petri dish (see also above, right). This prevents the children from incidentally (or intentionally) touching the heat-conducting elements of the circuitry, while at the same time maintaining a kind of transparency of technology as can be seen elsewhere in the Ambient Wood Project, in the probes, for example. The aerial is attached to the periscope’s stem with curved, tubular (non-conductive), rigid plastic. The aerial itself is crisscrossed with a network of “invisible” nylon thread and has a petri-dish holder hovering just above it, within its reading range, suspended in place with the use of another curved piece of non-conductive plastic tubing. The Petri dish holder and the network of nylon thread guide the user to appropriate placement of tagged objects. It is not necessary that the objects be placed into the Petri dish holder, though they must be placed within approximately 5cm – the limited range – of the RFID tag reader aerial. The cable which connects the aerial to the RFID tag reader winds vine-like around and down the periscope’s stem, maintaining the organic metaphor which drives the design aesthetic of the Periscope.
The Entwined Petri Dishes
Echoing the form of the aerial and it’s petri dish holder are a number of aluminium wires which curve off from the periscope’s stem in various directions, and which end in circles, approximately the same size as the tag-reader aerial. “Entwined” in each of these circles with a network of “invisible” nylon thread (identical in form to the network of thread on the tag reader aerial) are various petri dishes which contain samples of flora and fauna taken from the woodland habitat. Each of these elements – bluebells, acorns, leaf-litter, critters, fungi, etc. – relates directly to the QuickTime movies which can be viewed on the periscope screen by navigating through the panorama of the wood. Clearly visible on the base of each of the petri dishes are RFID tags. Thus these items act as both a guide to what can be viewed in the periscope and as a guide for the children when they return to the periscope with their RFID tagged tangibles (the fungi-filled Petri dish and the Spider-in-Stasis) during the experimentation stage.
One unexpected result of this design element was that it affected the way the children first approached the periscope. Unlike the other technology used in the Ambient Wood project, the periscope was neither pervasive nor portable. It was a quite distinctly hi-tech “thing” which the children “discovered” during their journey through the woods. Often the children approached it almost warily, but with great interest – the form itself, and the different elements contained therein seemed to intrigue them. The children generally seemed to first approach the petri dishes which protruded like flowers or leaves from the stem of the, otherwise, shiny stainless steel and rubber object. The contents of the petri dishes stimulated discussion about what each element was and what kind of role it might play in the wood as well as where it could be found. The contents of the petri dishes also allowed the children to surmise whether or not they had accessed all of the information displayed within the periscope.
The Director Movie
When the user approaches the hooded screen of the periscope they can see a panorama of the woodland habitat in which the Ambient Wood trials took place. This panorama is filled with small red-bordered thumbnail images which relate directly to the elements trapped in the aforementioned petri dishes. Laid over the navigable panorama, within the movie, is a representation of crosshairs – like an aiming site in an actual periscope. When the user rotates the hooded screen on its axis or turns the handles up or down, the entire panorama and associated thumbnails move accordingly. When the thumbnails pass underneath the centre of the crosshairs, they expand in order to make their contents clearly visible. If the user continues to navigate through the panorama the thumbnail shrinks back to its original size. In the event that the user pauses over the enlarged thumbnail, the Director movie links to the corresponding QuickTime movie. Once the QuickTime movie has been viewed, the screen reverts to its previous iteration – with the enlarged thumbnail – and the possibility of navigating elsewhere and linking to other QuickTime movies.
The Experimenting Stage
After the users complete the exploring stage they return to the “den”, the central headquarters for the Ambient Wood trials. There they are encouraged to develop hypotheses about the repercussions of introducing certain flora or fauna into the woodland habitat. They are given two RFID tagged items – a bootlace fungi-filled petri dish (above, left) and a mock spider (above, right). The spider is enclosed in a ring-pull can, which the users open once they are out in the woodland habitat by the periscope.
The RFID Interaction
At the periscope the children place the RFID-tagged tangibles – the petri dish of fungi and the spider (now released from its can) – within range of the RFID tag reader aerial. Once a tagged item is placed within range, a Flash animation begins to play on the periscope’s screen. The animation shows the likely outcome of introducing either one or the other or both of the tagged items into the woodland environment. The children generally placed the petri dish of fungi onto the petri dish holder and the spider directly onto the web-like network of “invisible” nylon thread though this was not always the case, nor, as mentioned earlier, was it actually necessary – they served merely as a guide so that the tangibles would be placed within range of the aerial itself to affect the appropriate transformation of the Director movie. In this respect the overall design of the periscope can be considered to be effective. The children were able to deduce what was potentially possible with the device without needing to be led or instructed step-by-step by the accompanying adult supervisors.
A wireless Local Area Network (LAN) was created in the woodland for the Ambient Wood trials. The Periscope was connected to the LAN, sending out notifications of events as they happened, thus allowing progress and usage to be monitored and affected if necessary. Each time a QuickTime movie was viewed in the periscope a “whichMoviePlayed” notification was sent to the MUD (Lima/MUDOS – Multi User Dungeon software architecture). This allowed the MUD to trigger appropriate sound (and accompanying visual) information in a nearby location if several QuickTimes were viewed in quick succession. The intention was to momentarily entice the children away from the periscope and so diversify their sources of information. Numerous correspondences were made between the QuickTime movies within the periscope and the list of sounds available in order to avoid repetition in the case that certain sounds had already been triggered through alternate means (The sounds could also be triggered by the children as they passed within range of dedicated ultrasound proximity sensors). Overall, this system allowed a dynamic flexibility for the retrieval and triggering of information by the user so that the maximum amount of information would be accessed during any single field trip.
The LAN was also used by the Periscope to communicate with ELVIN – a content based notification and messaging service. The Periscope “subscribed” to ELVIN specifically to access information about the presence of tagged items within range of the RFID tag reader. Having ELVIN “listen” and notify Director of the presence of tagged items freed up the Director movie from continually checking for this event, thus substantially saving processing power.
The Periscope was created specifically for the Ambient Wood Project. It was originally conceived as a device through which the user could access additional information about the life-cycle of the wood. During user testing, the Periscope was also discovered to be an ideal device for making the macroscopic and the hidden visible and accessible to the casual user. The Periscope is basically a simple information/navigation device and could easily be adapted to other contexts with a number of minor alterations or adjustments. Ideally, given greater resources, the experience of the periscope – within any context – would be enriched through the use of specifically created content.