Monday 09 May 2016

The Cloud is an interactive lamp and speaker system. It is designed to mimic a thundercloud in both appearance and entertainment. Using motion sensors, the cloud detects a user's presence and creates a unique lightning and thunder show dictated by their movement. The system features a powerful speaker system from which the user can stream music via any Bluetooth compatible device. Using color-changing lights, the cloud is able to adapt to the desired lighting color and brightness. The cloud also has alternative modes such as a nightlight and music reactive mode.

The initial brief was to create an object or interaction using the Arduino platform. What followed was an exciting exploration into a cloud lamp that had subtle reactive qualities of sound and light. This was Cloud Version One or 1.0, which was widely published across a number of online media sites in late 2012. In this form, however, it was only a prototype not yet fit for commercialization. With this press came inquiries, orders, and the need for development and refinement. Enter Cloud 2.0 released in November 2013. A more robust and durable structure allowed for a bigger speaker system with a subwoofer. A new method of applying ‘fluff’ created the opportunity for brighter digital RGB LEDs. The physical switches were replaced with a remote, which is currently being integrated into a mobile application. The final addition was the ability for Clouds to communicate with each other, creating a networked sky. 

The real challenge came as a result of the much higher level of coding required to incorporate all of these new features. A challenge to learn, not just the basics of a foreign language, but the fluencies and nuances of it.

Acting as both an immersive lighting experience and a speaker with visual feedback, this hybrid lamp/speaker introduces a new discourse for what a light fixture could be. Advances in physical computing and interaction design hardware over recent years have created a new breed of smart-objects, which are gaining more and more traction in the design world. These smart-objects have the potential to be far more interactive and immersive than ever before. What is exciting is that it’s becoming increasingly cheap and easy to become a part of this new kind of making, with DIY and hacker community initiatives such as Maker Faire, Instructables and numerous others. This project aims to capture the essence of this kind of designing—where ideas and process are shared for others to use and expand upon.

This is really a story of simultaneous material and programming exploration. After the basic aesthetic and function was established, it was a process of iterating to reach a point of durable commercialization. The structure evolved from a foam based material in early versions to being a vacuum-formed chassis in later models. This carried with it a new set of fabrication possibilities and opportunities, but also a need to re-evaluate the separate material components. Rather than the popular story associated with cloud 1.0 of simply feeling for a suitable fluff material through pillows at various home-ware stores, this version required a more rigorous testing technique. Consultations and visits to the Material Connexion office in New York inspired a search for the perfect fluff. The end result came in a hypoallergenic polyester fiber that has properties perfect for adherence and light diffusion.

While this exploration was underway, so to was the development of the code. Very early on, the decision was made not to outsource the code work but to use it as an opportunity to better understand the language. Inspired by Manuel De Landa’s synthesis of scientific tradition for a materialist philosophy – “let’s all be hackers.” Through a genuine understanding of the capabilities, possibilities, and perceived boundaries of a technology, a designer can begin to push those boundaries and establish new understandings. Without that inherent understanding the designer risks stagnancy. The counter intuitive concept of ‘hand-coded’ as in handcrafted enables and exemplifies this very methodology.

The final piece in this story is one of branding and experience. Using subtle branding cues and a unique out-of-box experience, such as the silver lining of tissue paper that comes protecting every Cloud 2.0, it transcends from being a ‘project’ into a product, and from a product to a business. 

This is a new kind of magic, one not based on illusions and trickery but on sensors and code. For the past few years designers have been adding more and more skills to their tool kits. The Arduino platform is one such opportunity for designers to prototype and design what is inside the 'black box' of electronic devices. Inexpensive and easy-to-program microprocessors allow both designers and users to better understand the nature of electronic goods, and thus help in the creation of new and meaningful interactions. On a higher level, the Cloud is an effort to assist in the development of this industry. In fact the Cloud's code is available to the public to freely use and improve, helping to provide the blueprints for the next generation of smart objects.

In many ways the physical computing industry reflects the challenges currently faced by 3D printing. Questions of agency, ethics, direction and justification still need to be properly addressed by the design world. In this light, the role of the designer could begin to shift from idea generation and realization to that of stewardship and leadership.