After initially contracting Digital Eskimo to develop their new event website and blog, the UNSW’s National Institute of Experimental Arts (NIEA) asked us to partner with them to create an interactive installation for the event, the HotHouse Symposium at the Opera House. We created the Urban Sketch Lab— a digital sketching tool which attendees used to express ideas about re-designing urban space. Images of well-known sites around Sydney were projected onto a digital drawing table which could then be sketched over using an infra-red pen. The sketches were then uploaded to the event site and linked with the profiles of attendees so that people could continue to discuss and share their sketches.
Creating the Sketch Lab from concept to completion was a collaborative process.
To begin with we needed to understand more about what the event was aiming to achieve, what message NIEA wanted to give people coming to the event. I found we needed to explore the branding of HotHouse before we could start to develop concepts that were in tune with the aims of the event.
In the early stages we brainstormed ideas with our designers and programmers, workshopped ideas with NIEA staff, artists and curators, and in the early stages, even brainstormed ideas with a visiting artist and computer science pHD candidate from Holland.
One of the developers had been testing out an open source program that allows you to use wii remotes to turn any surface into an interactive whiteboard. So we started to explore ideas using Processing to develop the interface. These tools were used in our final version of the installation.
With a short timeline to design and develop the interface and build the table, we created a prototype using spare wood, parts of other tables, our bathroom mirror (!) and, amongst other things, a sheet of humble tracing paper. Our first infra-red pen was actually made using a glue stick. This large contraption attracted a lot of attention around the studio which also gave us a good opportunity to gather some early user feedback from fellow eskimos.
Setting up a simple prototype proved invaluable, not just from the lessons we learned on the user interface but it also proved incredibly useful when we began to collaborate with an industrial artist to build the physical table. Early on in the conception phase we were keen to work with Chris Fox a friend of the eskimos and exceptional sculptural artist. Chris immediately got what we were aiming to do with the Sketch Lab concept and took measurements and schematic information directly from the prototype. Most of the basic setup used for the prototype was maintained in the final version for the event (which utilised an old architects drawing table heavily customised for our purposes) even down to the use of tracing paper (between perspex screens) to create a surface that would reflect the projection.
The HotHouse launch event was the first time we could put the full setup together. We’d tested the software, the table, and pen prototypes, but due to the short timeline we were unable to test the final versions of each component altogether. This was a bit nerve-wracking but also a fascinating experience from a usability perspective. Observing how different people used the tool first hand gave us important user feedback. Many event attendees also had their own ideas about how the Sketch Lab could be improved or used in different contexts.
The installation generated a lot of interest online too from those unable to attend as we posted images on flickr. the insights gained from this first-hand user feedback were used to inform how we re-purposed it for a global web conference series - Web Directions - as they asked us to develop a custom version as the Sydney events key interactive feature.