Written by Emma Konrad.
Team Spark is comprised of Annie Shen, Basel Alnashashibi, Emma Konrad, Mika Chang, Pranay Jain, Silver Xu, and Stephanie Wu, with guidance from faculty advisor Yangos Hadjiyannis. This was a project done in conjunction with an MDM alumni, Christine Clark from Thinkingbox.
If I sat you down in front of a bunch of colourful, wooden blocks, what would you do? Chances are, you’d play.
You’d build up and build out, you’d try to balance and brace. Some of you might even start playing with counterweights or foundations. And, most likely, you’d do most of it without thinking.
Building seems to be a fundamentally human action. Sure, not all of us could be architects or engineers, but the urge to create a whole from pieces exists in most of us. So, when my team and I were tasked with taking this simple, universal action and melding it with the virtual world, we didn’t quite understand what that would entail.
Let me start from the beginning. Back in May, Team Spark met with our client, creative agency Thinkingbox, to receive more details on what we would be creating this semester. We were in for quite the surprise. More accustomed to receiving specific briefs from clients, we were both excited and nervous to learn that we would be pitching our own ideas to Thinkingbox.
We were given some suggestions, but no tight parameters. The biggest note: be bold, be creative, be big (I’m paraphrasing to be sure but, to us, it sounded just as inspiring).
With the world our digital oyster, we embarked on a 4-week research and brainstorming session. As a team, we came up with 60 different ideas for installations and digital activations. There was talk of AR, VR, projection mapping, sound installations, facial recognition, light activations – nothing was too big (at least for now).
We dialed these 60 ideas down to our 14 best and presented them to Thinkingbox. Those 14 were further refined to a top three, which eventually became one: could we create an experience in which people could play with buildings blocks, creating their own city, and a virtual version of what they were building would appear on a screen before them?
At first glance, half of the project seemed fairly simple: let people play with blocks. But we quickly learned that was far from the truth. First of all, we had to discover a technology that would allow us to translate the physical to the virtual. Our immediate thought was augmented reality. This seemed to be the perfect use for it, until we discovered that the two leading AR softwares, ARKit and Vuforia, could only track five objects at a time. I don’t know about you, but we weren’t enthused about the creative potential of a five-building city (and for now we’ll ignore the philosophical discussion around whether five buildings even constitute the title "city"). So, it was out with AR, and in with the research.
Eventually, we settled on using touchscreens and touchpoints to achieve our effect. Players could now place blocks on the screen and a 3D model of a building would appear on-screen. Functionally, we had achieved what we set out to do.
But there was a larger issue.
When you place a screen in front of people, they tend to forget how to play with the blocks.
It was an issue that had never crossed our mind. We had assumed that something so fundamental, so universal, would remain that way. After all, we hadn’t really changed the physical process; we’d simply added a virtual component.
But it completely changed the experience. We had to design in a way that encouraged people to play in a way that still felt natural. We had to test, and test again, to discover where people were getting hung up. Why were they hesitating? Why were they suddenly avoiding certain blocks? Why did they look for instruction when, a moment before (and one screen less) they had picked up the blocks and started building?
It required a lot of testing, a lot of prototypes, and a lot of pivots. In essence, it was the perfect project to apply what we had learned throughout the program. But, more than that, it taught us about the human experience. It gave us a peek behind the curtain into how people think and how technology can so fundamentally affect us. It taught us how to build for humans, instead of searching for the next big technical achievement.
It required a lot of testing, a lot of prototypes, and a lot of pivots. In essence, it was the perfect project to apply what we had learned throughout the program. But, more than that, it taught us about the human experience. It gave us a peek behind the curtain into how people think and how technology can so fundamentally affect us. It taught us how to build for humans, instead of searching for the next big technical achievement."
In the end, be it a wooden stick or a VR application, the tech is secondary. Important, to be sure, but it should never be the sole focus. Instead, design for humans. Find the tech that works for that experience, and you’ll find yourself watching grown adults grinning with glee, their heads swiveling between iPads and projected screen, delighted at the city they have built.