The Wired Woods – an adventure in interactivity

In 2002 the Woods project began one of several stages of evolution when part of the original exhibition provided the basis for a collaborative research project with HP Labs in Bristol. This was to explore how computer technologies could be applied to deliver different, and augmented forms of experience for users that could be applied within, for example, museum settings.

wds4I was invited to work with the team at HP labs along with musician Armin Elsaesser to develop a series of soundscapes that would be delivered to discrete and specific locations by what at that time was pioneering technology – WiFi. In the original exhibition one of my aims, which I felt I’d achieved within a visual context, was to try to recreate the sense of walking through the woods. The process we worked through at HP was a revelation and led to our producing some great sound and musical additions that (according to those who visited) helped to further enhance the experience by adding another sensory dimension.

Visitors to the exhibition wore specially adapted headphones and when they approached the photographs the sound related to that image was delivered through the headphones. The sounds that accompanied each large image were montages of natural sounds we’d recorded in the woods that were later mixed in the studio. The smaller images each triggered a short musical composition mixed by Armin from the natural sounds and from samples. These pieces reflected the more abstract qualities of the smaller photographs.

Here are two examples of sounds and their associated images from the exhibition.

TW-0u06

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In addition we recreated a version of the stream that runs through the woods by making photographic floor tiles depicting parts of the stream’s surface. These acted as stepping stones, each tile triggering a spoken word extract. There were 7 tiles and the content of the first few related to environmental and ecological facts and figures about the woodland environment, and as the walker entered further ‘into the woods’ by stepping on the subsequent tiles, the content became more lyrical, even metaphysical, with readings of woodland themed prose and poetry. However, the content associated with the final stepping stone  –  philosophical observations on woods – could only be heard if the walker had visited all the previous tiles in the right order.

Inspiration from folk tales also informed the interactivity through the common motif of not straying from the path through the wood. Amongst the sounds we’d recorded in the woods was a large growling dog and a blackbird’s alarm call. We worked with the technical team to programme the ‘auras’ (see diagram below) so that if anyone wearing the special headphones began to stray out of the area of the exhibition and try to leave the path through the woods, they would be warned by hearing a growling ‘wolf’ or a screeching blackbird.

The reconfigured exhibition was installed at the HP Labs in Bristol and became part of the Mobile Bristol conference in January 2002, a paper I gave on the background to the project can be found here TWds paper for mobile Bristol HP labs.

Aura layoutwoods1+2Below are extracts from a paper written by Richard Hull and Jo Reid at HP about the project.

Extracts from “Designing Engaging Experiences with Children and Artists”

Richard Hull, Jo Reid Mobile and Media Systems Laboratory HP Laboratories Bristol HPL-2002-337 December 18th , 2002

The belief motivating the 4D Experience research programme is that the experience evoked by a computer system can be (at least) as important as the ostensible functionality of the system.

What constitutes a compelling consumer experience?
How can we deliver such experiences through emerging computer technologies
Our research methodology combines technology development, experimental prototype deployments, and user research. In this chapter, we will sketch … attempts to develop systems that evoke engaging experiences in their users, review those exercises in the light of an underlying model of experience, and discuss the positive involvement of users and artists in the design process.

A Walk in the Wired Woods
A Walk in the Wired Woods is an art installation in which an exhibition of woodland photographs is augmented by a digital soundscape. Equipped with headphones connected to a small shoulder bag, visitors typically spend around twenty minutes wandering around the exhibition, viewing the photographs and listening to audio pieces chosen to enhance the images (see figure 3). The particular sounds heard by a visitor at any point are determined automatically by a small computer system in the bag that monitors the visitor’s location within the exhibition space [4, 5]. For example, when standing close to certain photographs, a visitor might hear atmospheric music fitting the scenes depicted. As she moves on to other images, the music might be replaced by natural woodland sounds, or by a spoken fragment of woodland mythology. The overall effect is of a situated soundscape that might be characterized as “what you hear is where you are”.

The content for the installation was developed in parallel with the underlying wearable computing technology with the deliberate intention of allowing each to influence the other. We formed a multi-disciplinary design team with artist Liz Milner and musician Armin Elsaesser to explore both what might be done with this new technology and how it might be achieved. This resulted in a number of possible technology enhancements, some of which were incorporated into the installation. For example, as it became clear that different soundscapes would require different audio characteristics such as mixing, looping, and fading with distance, we developed a HTML-like mark up language for specifying the behaviour of the visitor’s wearable client with respect to particular content.

The completed installation, incorporating around thirty pieces of situated audio, was deployed in the atrium of the Hewlett-Packard Laboratories building in Bristol in the early part of 2002 [6]. During it’s residency it was visited by several hundred people from a variety of backgrounds whose responses were overwhelmingly positive. Of course, the high quality of the photographs and music contributed significantly to this outcome, However, most visitors reported that the extra dimension added by the contextual juxtaposition of the two media adds significant further value. A simple ranking exercise revealed that more visitors likened the exhibition to a walk in the woods (something that it attempts to evoke but really is not) than to a museum tour (something that it really is). This reinforces our belief that it is possible to create a convincing and compelling experience with the kind of mobile technology that we can expect to become pervasive over the next ten years. Moreover, our own experience of the design process confirms our belief in the power of collaboration with artists to drive innovation in both technology and content.

The Walk in the Wired Woods exercise was motivated by a desire to discover what artists would make of and with wearable computing technology. We work with artists because they tend to be imaginative, creative, demanding, meticulous, and extreme users of technology who are used to asking what-if questions. Given this perspective, we encouraged the artists to act as full design partners of both the experience and the underlying technology. Naturally, the artists tended to have more influence on the content, and the technical team on the technology, but both elements of the design clearly benefited from the collaboration. The participation of the artists ensured that the resulting installation was fascinating and that the technology evolved appropriately.

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