Bringing connected light to Northeastern University’s Centennial Common


A guest post by Susanne Seitinger

Since January, I’ve been co-teaching the Hot/Cold: Information Design for Dynamic Media and Light course with Dietmar Offenhuber at Northeastern University, a dense urban campus in the heart of Boston, MA, USA.

We discussed theory from diverse fields like media studies and human-computer interaction to ground our work. Fundamental questions like “what is the role of lighting in public space” or “what kind of information should be displayed in the city” were hotly debated.

But we didn’t just discuss big ideas. We also jumped into programming using Processing , the design-oriented programming environment developed by Ben Fry and Casey Reas. For several students this course was their first experience coding – and we didn’t give them much time to learn the ropes. Different exercises included simple weather visualizations to integration with various data sets available online through open APIs.

Two months into the semester we turned our attention to the major project of the course: a full-scale media façade on the exterior of Ryder Hall on Centennial Common in the center of the campus. Several iterative rounds of individual and collective brainstorming gave rise to a shared vision for a community-oriented façade for Northeastern.

Since the opening was scheduled for the final exam period, the team elected to poll the campus about its mood. Rather than collecting the data via sensors or other proxies, a web application, as well as physical interfaces, would allow people to choose among five states. In real-time, everyone’s vote would then be added to the aggregate data visualized in different formats on the façade.

With the larger concept in place the team had to delve into the details. How would the data be visualized? How would they communicate the different emotional state choices? What types of dynamic elements would make sense?

After some experimentation the team settled on representing the data in two ways: first, there would be clusters of data clouds; second, there would be a bar chart with a percentage. These representations would cycle through slowly over the course of several minutes.

The dynamic movements were driven by a metaphor one of the students explored throughout the whole semester, around breath as a way of communicating emotional state. The pulsing of the different data clouds differs by word – anxious moves more quickly than exhausted for example. Each cluster is shown individually and in conjunction with the others. A special font optimized for the physical arrangement of pixels – only 18 pixels by 50 pixels high – scrolls the words like a ticker every so often. Though it’s quite self-explanatory, they also created a user guide.

As graphic designers, many of the students were accustomed to high-resolution visual imagery. Suddenly, they had to develop a visual language for a three-dimensional light display. They also had to choreograph transitions and animations that add to the building itself. As a team, we created a transparent frame suspended behind the windows on the third floor of an art studio. The placement around a corner with an offset from the window created a lovely three dimensional effect. It was wonderful to see how the data almost took on an object-like quality as it hovered above the entrance to the building.

Now that the façade is in place, many ideas are bubbling up. Finals are over and new polls could be launched or even other content and interactive experiences developed. The role of the façade as a tool for building a sense of community and shared awareness became very important for the students. How can they continue to evolve this quality? Is this something light will do more in the future? How does the blurring of light and information lead to new design opportunities – and in fact necessitate the types of interdisciplinary skills these design students are acquiring?

It has been an emotional time in Boston as the community recently commemorated last year’s marathon bombings, as well as celebrated this year’s successful event. What better time to think about how light can foster community and a sense of place!

Susanne Seitinger studies how programmable LED lighting elements can contribute to create safe, inviting and responsive urban environments. Her combined background in architecture, urban planning and human-computer interaction includes projects like LightBridge for MIT’s 150th Anniversary, the Digital Mile in Zaragoza, Spain and Urban Pixels, wireless LED pixels for ad-hoc media façades. Susanne holds a BA from Princeton University as well as a PhD, MS and MCP from MIT.

Photos by E. Karaman, D. Offenhuber, Maria Amasanti/Northeastern University and Peter SchmittPhotos by E. Karaman, D. Offenhuber, Maria Amasanti/Northeastern University and Peter Schmitt

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