Girls and play with art work
Children at Maker Faire playing with Scrodinger

Curiosity Killed The Cat: Lessons Learned From Maker Faire

User experience for art

User testing is important for many products. Art just doesn’t strike me as one of those. So, it took an actual event to impart what logic should have made abundantly clear. The Maker Faire was the second time I exhibited Shrodinger to the public but the first time that I was close by to regularly check in on the piece and stand by to watch people’s interactions. After a few periods of leaving the piece unattended, I quickly became aware of three problems which are easy to miss in the solitude of a home workshop but blatantly apparent when placed in the open with minimal context.

Put a kittie in a box and the kiddies come a running.

Schrodinger, in case you hadn’t hear, is a cat in a box. The closer you come to the box, the harder it is to see in. Its frustration by design. And yet, I hadn’t fully contemplated how that frustration would manifest.

Adults, when confronted with an uncooperative box, will gingerly poke about. Kids, without reserve, will paw, kick, and bodyslam a challenge into submission. The number of near heart attacks I’ve encountered as children try to force the lights to come back on are overwhelming. While I am, as of yet, still experimenting with the optimal range of responsively of the lights, clearly some sign is also called for to fill in when I’m not around to suggest that people back up. I’m thinking “if you can read this, you are too close.”

Misdirection is great…when intentional

In that same veign, I’ve discovered that I have been sending mixed signals. When someone wants to make something happen, a common trigger they search out is a button. And when the lights go down on a certain art piece, lo, there is a black circle mounted in the middle of a wooden box. This black circle is necessary; it is the ultrasonic range sensor that determines how close something is to the piece and the lights respond accordingly.

Somehow, it did not occure to me that the natural interpretation people would arrive at would be that the proximity sensor, critical to the functioning of the piece and located accordingly, would be treated like a button. Many a time, I would leave the piece unattended, only to find the sensor pushed into the frame. While correctable, I grew concerned that permanent damage could occure. For the second day of the Faire, I came equipt with a roll of black duct tape to camouflage the black sensor. A more elegant solution is in the making.

Context Counts

This was the first event that I included sound into the piece. The microcontroller triggers an MP3 board the plays meowing sounds when no one has come close to the piece for a while. When someone does come by, the piece purrs.

After the time and angst of integrating sound to the piece, I came across a twofold challenge. Firstly, despite copious testing at home, for easy development, all the testing took place with the back of the box opened. So, I never quite caught on to how muted the cats meows mere. When closed, someone standing in front of the piece could not even hear the meowing when told that it was happening. Not that audible meows could have competed against my second audio challenge: the cacophony of nearby music installations. Any moderate sound was drowned out by mobile discoteques and touch-triggered synchronizers (all awesome but beyond audible comparison). By the end of the event, my voice was horse from attempting to speak over the competing noise. Nevertheless, experimentation on converting the pedestal into a sounding board is high on the “to do” list.

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