The goal of combining urban thinking, media, art, and light display in the age of technology and information overload may seem ambitious. But Dietmar Offenhuber, an assistant professor at Northeastern University, and Susanne Seitinger, Color Kinetics Senior Technologist, saw the potential of a collaboration that moved beyond light for illumination towards light for information.
Information Design for Dynamic Media and Light is a course in Northeastern's Masters program in Information Design and Visualization, where students learn to translate and communicate information into visual, physical, and virtual forms. The final project for the class was an interactive urban light display on the façade of a campus building that visualized information relevant for the community.
Seitinger and Offenhuber decided that the course would build on the question of what constitutes a meaningful urban information display. "There was a convergence of interests on questions of information design for urban space using light as a medium," Offenhuber said. "Light guides attention and helps us navigate. For data, it is flexible and allows dynamic representations."
Color Kinetics and Northeastern have a pre-existing relationship through Northeastern's co-op program, in which the company hires between 10 and 15 students for six-month cycles. Therefore, it was a natural fit for Color Kinetics and Northeastern University to team up to help six graduate students create .vote.
The class arranged 18 strands of iColor Flex SLX (now specified with Flex Compact gen3, RGB) into a rectangular matrix installed behind the glass façade at a prominent location of Ryder Hall, a Northeastern academic building, home of the College of Arts, Media and Design. Seitinger and Offenhuber knew that Flex would provide a bigger canvas for the overall installation, and could provide a stimulating, low-resolution representation of data. The display creates a three-dimensional appearance behind the glass.
"We wanted to use a display medium that blends with the architecture, rather than attaches to it," Offenhuber said. The class created custom software, in Processing, to control the installation. Processing was developed as a programming language and environment for designers and artists. Today, it is widely used by professionals and hobbyists alike. The MFA at Northeastern recognizes the importance of these skills for future designers.
The goal for the final project was to take information about the campus, students, or a specific building and translate it into an information display. After initial ideas included showing the library's capacity or how many miles have been run at the gym, the group settled on asking a question about the mood on campus during finals week.
"We thought it could be nice to let people see their voice or to complain in a visual way," said Miriam Zisook, a Ph.D. student studying emotional displays in healthcare.
The poll, taken online, through a mobile app, or on wireless buttons in front of Ryder Hall, asks students if they are feeling anxious, relieved, determined, excited, or exhausted. Once a vote is tallied, an individual Flex node lights up in the installation. The more votes each emotion gets, the bigger the light cluster becomes. Scrolling text labels each cluster with an emotion. A bar chart then appears with percentages of each emotion. The students had to explore different modes of representation, including the limitations and opportunities engendered by a low-resolution display.
As finals week ended, the class considered new options for the installation. "The idea was to develop an infrastructure. Now we can continue with other kinds of content," Offenhuber said. Whether students ask a new question or create an entirely different interactive display, .vote holds the potential for future classes to learn and future students to see a new form of art and information on campus.
Dietmar Offenhuber, Esat Karaman, Rania Mona Masri, Lauren McCafferty, Vivian Liangchuan Sun, Miriam Zisook, Ashley Treni