Statement of problem

This project was motivated by several artworks I had the privilege to see in person, most notably Yayoi Kusama’s infinity rooms, which constantly provoke the imagination. In these works, Kusama uses mirrors to reflect physical objects or LED lights to represent certain themes, such as fireflies on water or floating lanterns in the night sky. Other installations that caught my interest were studio teamLab’s digital media exhibits, who similarly use digital media to create artistic expressions in a limited space.

From these works, I had the inspiration to work on a project that would create a similar concept, but with a type of tangible media: a wearable. With a wearable, new affordances are created as the and allows for:

1. Mobility of the imaginary space
2. Allowing the user(s) to be able to control the installation directly
3. Allow users to manipulate the project in potentially unexpected ways

This concept also brings several potential benefits. For example,

1. Social digital media often utilizes virtual spaces whereas I plan to use a commonly-used object as tangible media to create a social space in the physical realm.
2. Experimentation and research into something that can be used for practical purposes (i.e. fashion, entertainment, performative arts)

Existing work

In terms of real-life projects, there are several works that I drew some inspiration from. They generally center around artistic and narrative elements from symbolism or metaphors. What I would like to take away from these projects are the techniques involved in producing interactive installations and tangible media. Learning the reasoning behind each design and how it was developed helped me understand what process I need to go through myself. Certain concepts from these works were also specifically useful to my interests, such as the responsiveness of a work’s certain components to the user or how some design creates an internal or external dialogue and narrative.

Paper References

There were several papers I used as references in the design process. One was Elvin Karana’s Material Toolkit, which are guidelines to help users explain their opinion on a material or get experience insights. I wanted to use this toolkit as a basic user testing source when asking users to test out potential materials I would like to use.

Aspects of the toolkit that I were especially interested in were methods that tested a user’s opinion on a material’s sensorial and performative levels. The sensorial level concerns how a user encounters a material through smell, taste, touch, vision, and sound. This is especially essential to understand in order to know what materials contribute to the theme or meaning I’m trying to create. The performative level is all about the actions a user does on instinct due to a material’s qualities. This is relevant to my project due to its emphasis on physical interaction and use of tangible media.

Another source I used was “paperness” by Nithikul Nimkulrath. In this book, Nimkulrath discussed her research approach and how she breaks down phases for her project, which generally go from 1) artistic production (making artefacts and reflecting on her own artistic experiences, 2) reading relevant literature, and 3) doing thorough interviews and surveys. I used the way she created work timelines as a guideline for my own schedule.

Another aspect from this book that was relevant was how Nimkulrath explained expression, most notably in aesthetic-related works. One school of thought she defined was expression as a metaphorical exemplification. For example, she stated that a marble statue may have a soft appearance as sculpted by the artisan, despite it being physically solid and hard. In this situation, the statue is metaphorically soft rather than physically. This concept is something I wanted to bring into my project.

In order to be able to logically implement and justify elements of my project, I extensively referenced Henri Lefebvre’s “The Production of Space”. He extensively discusses social space, a main focus of my project. Lefebvre defines social space as “not a thing among other things, nor a product among other products” and something that can’t be simplified as an object. He further goes and defines it as a space where it absorbs things that are produced and encompasses the interrelationships in them. His definitions served as a guiding post during the design iteration process. For example, an umbrella can be considered a social space for people who share one. Those under the canopy have a more intimate relationship due to proximity but also because they use the umbrella together to protect themselves from the elements. There may also be a naturally created social space on a mental level as being close together during certain weather may spark a conversation or dialogue.

I was also interested in Lefebvre’s discussions on contradictory space. For example, he discusses “illusory space”, which is a combination of different levels of geometrical space, visual space (i.e. images, drawings, photos), and social space to allow the viewer to have a false consciousness of abstract space and an objective falseness of space itself. This is another definition that greatly applies to the work I did, as I aimed to combine elements together to create a fictional reality composed of unexpected or illogical juxtapositions. For example, one early design I had in mind was to make the umbrella canopy resemble a realistic animated sky. The umbrella could also be argued to work as a “neutral medium in which disjointed things” are introduced and serve as “incoherence under the banner of coherence”.

To implement my umbrella concept, I would like to reference several existing works, such as the Pileus Internet Umbrella project from Keio University. This umbrella has a large screen with WiFi connection, a camera, and motion and location sensors and acts as a mobile interface (Matsumoto and Hashimoto). Their design to put the screen inside of the umbrella with photo streams and an animated map is similar to my interest in making an animated umbrella canopy.

Their user testing is also relevant. They asked 14 participants to walk around in Tokyo and explore it with the umbrella’s 3d map. Although I had no intentions in creating a map system, asking users to walk around and tell me how their experience was is essential in the prototyping phases. It's also a good way to know if the effects I design are universally understandable and positively received by users.

Design Probes

In order to improve on design concepts in the earlier stages, design probes were created and sent to a total of 11 people. The purpose of these probes were to gather common opinions on the umbrella concept and how umbrellas provoke the imagination.

The probe consisted of the following prompts:

  1. Please circle five words you associate most with “umbrella” from the given word bank.
  2. Please write 3 - 5 words about umbrellas that are not in the previous list.
  3. You have started your job as an umbrella designer. How would you design it? Use drawing/coloring tools of your choice to draw it out. Optional: add comments if you would like to add more input
  4. You have been promoted to the role of designer of magical umbrellas. Use drawing/coloring tools to create your very own magical umbrella and annotate its abilities below.
  5. Write a few sentences about what you like about umbrellas.
  6. Write a few sentences about what you hate about umbrellas.
  7. Fill in the blanks of this short story (a mad-libs like prompt).
The first two questions of the probe address how people think about umbrellas. The words protective and shield were popular choices amongst the answers. Another popular word was portable. Other words followed in popularity. If the answerer saw umbrellas in a more negative light, they tended to choose words with a more negative connotation, such as fragile or damp. People who saw umbrellas more positively would choose terms like magical, fun, or colorful as their alternate choices. These opinions were reflected in the second question, which was to add more words associated with the umbrella concept. People who found umbrellas cumbersome tended to use negative terms like troublesome, clumsy, weak, or annoying. On the other side of the spectrum, terms like haven, convenient, and fashion statement showed up.

Some interesting terminology was also revealed in this section. For example, one respondent used universal to describe umbrellas, adding that she felt connected to her umbrella when she had to use it every day while everyone else did as well. In her opinion, the umbrella was a comforting accessory. Another respondent described umbrellas as something personal, which ties into this project’s exploration of social spaces. One respondent associated umbrellas with weaponry, listing the terms sword, cane, and extendable.

When designing a normal umbrella, respondents generally concentrated on drawing features that would improve their experience with one. For example, one respondent found most umbrellas boring, which inspired her to draw an umbrella shaped like an upside-down flower. She felt like umbrellas could be much improved aesthetically if they were shaped like cute items. One part of the umbrella she also wanted to improve was the handle, stating that “they have so much potential for personal flair.” Another respondent had a similar concept in mind, sketching out an umbrella with an iridescent fish scale texture with a neon pink projection at the ferrule (umbrella tip).

Most of the respondents had a more pragmatic and simple response to this prompt. One person drew an umbrella that was longer at the back to prevent his backpack from getting wet. Another person drew an umbrella that was bright on the outside to be visible to cars when crossing the street but dark on the inside to protect eyes from the sun’s glare. Several respondents drew finger grooves on the handle to make the umbrella easier to hold.

One unique answer to this prompt was the Upbrella™, where the umbrella canopy was turned inside out to collect rainwater and connected to a long straw for the user to drink.

When asked to design a magical umbrella, some respondents still opted to go for a more practical design with directly useful features. For example, one respondent drew an umbrella that would change its width to accommodate multiple people. Another respondent drew an umbrella with a canopy impervious to wind that also evaporated any water that hit it. Several respondents added features that could be used as weapons, such as tear gas that would spray from the handle or a sharp point at the ferrule. One unique but simple design was an invisible umbrella that would also make its user invisible. This reflects the concept of the umbrella as a personal space for those under it, which is a design point of interest.

One interesting trend when answering this question was to design an umbrella that could fly or help with traveling. Several respondents drew umbrellas that had flying functions. In one answer, the umbrella would turn into rotating propellers that would lift off from the ground while the handle would stretch out and become a seat for the user. This was similarly drawn in another probe, where the respondent made the entire umbrella similar to a flying broom. In another design, the umbrella acted as a jetpack with a digital navigation dashboard. Another interesting design was a banana-shaped umbrella that would allow the user to time travel, travel to another physical location, and provide snacks.

The following are graphs indicating why people liked (left) and disliked umbrellas (right).

For the most part, the reasons were not directly relevant towards my project, but the point on umbrellas not being sturdy or actually doing their job seemed like a popular reason why people disliked umbrellas. As a result, I chose a large dome-shaped umbrella as the base of my project.

Finally I had a mad-libs like prompt for people to fill in.

Participant answers were quite different across the board, but there were a couple of interesting answers. For example, one person recalled being “carried by the strong wind” a long time ago, then deciding to stand on the subway vent and let himself and his friend be carried away by the wind. After that they decided to play music with the umbrella because it would feel magical.

Another person talked about having their first kiss under their umbrella with an old friend, then deciding to stick with their umbrella at that moment because it felt “right.” This kind of answer ties into the social space I wanted to focus on for this project.

Design concepts and goals

The probe led me to the following conclusions:

  1. Use of social space in the design: The umbrella should promote a sense of unity with other people under the umbrella. Proximity promotes conversation and mutual interest.
  2. Illusory/magical space in the design: The design creates a space that seems real but isn’t actually there.
  3. Contain physical/tangible elements: Users should be able to affect the umbrella in a way that causes some interactive reaction.
  4. Space under umbrella and what’s happening on the outside should have different qualities.

Through the design probes, I also came up with several umbrella concepts that could be implemented for the final project.

The Jellyfish Umbrella

This design is largely based on the fact that jellyfish have a resemblance to umbrellas.

The Time Umbrella

This was inspired by how the canopy somewhat looks like a clock if you point the umbrella right in front of you.

The Musical Umbrella

The Music Umbrella focuses on sound and the way objects can hang from the umbrella like a nursery mobile.

Final prototype

The features include sound-reactive Neopixels, which receives sound from the microphone near the handle. The code makes use of fourier transform calculations to make the LEDs show a visual representation of sound.

The accelerometer/gyroscope module detects distances and rotation, which give useful numbers to initiate certain effects based on specific motions. For example, if the user tilts the umbrella, a pitter-patter rain effect can be observed.

This umbrella has four dangling raindrops made of wool felt and force sensitive resistors. When a raindrop is pressed, a light animation goes from top to bottom in the the raindrop's color.

All the electronics are in the handle along with the soldered protoboard.

In general, the umbrella’s features received positive feedback from all the participants. The sound-reactive feature was immediately noticed and prompted participants to make an assortment of sounds, from clapping to shouting. They were also quite impressed with the other interactive features and found the design as a whole something that commands attention from other people passing by. There were some suggestions for improvement, which mainly concentrate on changing the handle and covering exposed wires in some way, which will be considered in future work.