More funology: design

XI.5 September + October 2004
Page: 61
Digital Citation

It felt like clown sparkles

Kristina Andersen

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A small group of children are playing in a theatre space. One of them, a four year old boy is carefully investigating a man's hat. The hat is making a singing sound that changes pitch when it is moved. He plays on his own for a long time turning the hat slowly or shaking it and listening to the different qualities of the sound. Then he gives the hat to another child and goes back to where he left his shoes and jacket when he first arrived. There he picks up first one shoe, and then the other. He turns them over and shakes them a bit—but they just don't make a noise like the hat.

The hat is part of a set of dress-up clothes made for a project called ensemble. The other garments are a dress, an umbrella, a bag, a pair of suspenders and two suit jackets. Each piece of clothing hides a sensor of a different type. The dress has an accelerometer at the hem. The hat houses two tilt switches reacting to any change in position from the horizontal plane. The suspenders hold two linear expansion sensors on each shoulder which are activated by pulling. The umbrella has a pressure sensor at its tip. The handbag has two small light sensors reacting to the light-levels inside the bag. The suit jackets share a sonar that measures the distance between their sleeves. All the sensors are modifying sound in real time.

Ensemble is a speculative project created to investigate how analogue sensors in tangible interfaces are perceived and understood through the emerging intuitions of children. For this purpose we created a workshop environment where the sensors/garments were made available to children and we observed how they played with them. The workshops focused on pre-school children because their understanding of the world is still being developed and they accept and learn new causalities quickly. The observations described here are from an initial set of workshops.

The framework is dressing up, and having fun is the main driver for the experience. Children know everything about dressing up, so they are already experts when they arrive. Paper and pens are available in the room and the children alternate between drawing and playing. This is a way to collect feedback but also to create some relative silence in which some children can experiment with a particular garment and sound while others draw. By using familiar objects and activities like dressing up and making drawings the children enter into the experience with a confidence that supports them when the objects respond in unexpected ways. They investigate the garments through informal social play and appear to remain in control as they modify and develop their intuitions about "how the things work." After a while the garments/sensors are redefined as sound controllers and the workshop becomes an exploration of their affordances and capabilities rather than the original game of dressing up.

By using the drawings as feedback the children get a chance to contemplate how they think the garments work. After the workshop they have the opportunity to explain the drawings to the adults if they feel like it. Children draw to make sense of the world and when drawing they have the opportunity to develop the intuitions they have about the experience. As the experience moves forward from discovering the sounds and testing the boundaries of their control, the drawings are often explorations of this control and the role of the garment as the controlling object.


The drawing above shows a picture of the bag. The girl who made it is seven and, as she explains afterwards, the bag works in the following way: Stuff (the crisscrossed lines) comes into the bag and then clown sparkles (the wavy lines) come out. On the drawing she has added in writing: "It felt like clown sparkles." All the sound from the garments came from two speakers mounted in the ceiling and the children were very aware of this. In the drawing however the bag remains the locus of the interaction and thus the bag must be where the sparkling sound is coming from. The two sources of the sound do not seem mutually exclusive; they simply coexist. The sound comes from both the bag and the speakers in the ceiling.

The bag is fitted with two light sensors. Through playing, the children have developed new interaction models and high levels of control. The bag was designed to be played by opening and closing it, but the children played it in two unexpected ways: Turning the open bag towards the light caused the sound to crescendo towards a high pitch or making shadows with your fingers over the open bag. The distance between hand and bag determines the density of the shadow and thus the quality of the "notes" being produced. In this way it is possible to "pick a specific note out of the air" with surprising precision.

By playing on the threshold between the ordinary and the unexpected, we find ourselves in a "make-believe" situation where we can explore and investigate the impact of prototypes and generate new insights in the design process. As the children's experience of the workshop spontaneously evolves from autonomous play through unexpected discoveries, to serious testing of interface and control, we can find inspiration and ideas in touchable interfaces that informs our use of analogue objects. Through their intuition and enthusiasm we are given the opportunity to rethink our instruments and hopefully create more intuitive and insightful sensor interfaces to sound. On the basis of our experience in these workshops we have decided to not only play with the children in an investigative role in workshops, but move one step further in the next stage and involve them as our co-developers within new playful frameworks.

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Kristina Andersen
Studio for Electro Instrumental Music (STEIM)

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©2004 ACM  1072-5220/04/0900  $5.00

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