Final Project Presentation: The Ambient Orb

Process on this project was divided into several distinct parts, chief of which include fabrication, programming, and thematic/theoretical elaboration.

For a recap on the fabrication aspect of this project—including initial sketching, modeling in Vectorworks and Rhino, and 3D printing—see this blog post.

For insight into the process behind the programming that fuels this project—including working with node, building the keylogger script at the heart of the orb’s functioning, and coding the neopixel LEDs—see this blog post.

For an overview of the initial theoretical and thematic underpinnings of my ambient orb—which, as you’ll learn below, have undergone changes over the course of the last several weeks—see this blog post

Before a more holistic commentary on the process of bringing all these disparate pieces together to form my final project, and a summary of some of the things I’ve learned over the course of this process, I’d like to offer a word or two on the final product—on the ambient orb device and how it works.

The ambient orb involves the following components.

The physical orb enclosure. The enclosure is comprised of two halves of 3D printed acrylic. Altogether, it has a diameter of five inches and a height of three inches. The enclosure was initially modeled in Rhino, and edited in several CAD software thereafter. Although its form was originally inspired by the slightly warped orb-like shape of essential oil diffusers, unwittingly, what I designed looks a lot more like a slightly larger version of the donut-style Google home device.

Arduino UnoThis is the heart of the device. Resting inside the orb, the Arduino receives its power from a 3.7V Lipo Battery via a standard breadboard, and, via the HC-06 Bluetooth module, serially communicates with the computer, which runs a program that controls the lighting scheme of the LEDs inside the orb.

Neopixel RingThis neopixel is a ring of 24 ultra-bright smart LEDs with an outer diameter of approximately 2.6 inches. It is powered by the lipo battery via the breadboard and receives its data from the Node program running on the computer via the bluetooth module.

Altogether, the ambient orb functions as follows: the orb’s default state is to ever so slightly pulsate at a calming blue hue. When initiated, a node program logs the user’s keystrokes on the laptop. In “productivity mode,” when the amount of logged keystrokes fails to surpass a certain threshold—set at 55,000 (the program counts the up and down movement of all keys, including space, backspace, punctuation, etc.)—the program tells the Arduino, communicating via the Bluetooth module, to modulate the color of the neopixel, adjusting its blue to a similarly calming, but markedly different purple. (The orb also has a “counter-productivity” functionality, which alerts the user to take leave of the computer screen by shifting from blue to purple when a certain threshold of activity is surpassed.)


My biggest takeaways from working on this project don’t have much to do with the actual functioning of the software and hardware itself—collaboration, compromise, and adaptation.

While I researched and built out my Intro to Computational Media final project almost entirely on my own, almost every step of the way on this project I was working alongside others. Chester Dols and the team at LaGuardia studio helped me considerably with the fabrication aspect of the project, while Leon Eckert was a tremendous source of support for the programming and node side of things.

Moreover, this project began as a relatively high concept one, as has been my natural inclination workwise and my tendency intellectually in the past. As work proceeded on the project, and more and more of my ideas and concepts materialized in program and physical, worldly, and functioning hardware components, I grew to reconsider the project and consider different sides to it. Foremost among my reconsiderations was the piece’s exhibition value in the context of a class presentation or a group show. Realistically, it simply isn’t feasible to exhibit the behavior of the orb, as it is a passive device, engaging our periphery, as elaborated above. While this is a core conceit of the project, and one successfully, I think, met in its final design, a part of my wishes that the device were more responsive and interactive in a more purely immediate way.

This, of course, isn’t too late to work into the device’s functioning, as the Node program that controls its functioning is highly modular, and can functions can be written into it with relative ease.

Conceptually and thematically speaking, this project began as a kind of hybrid—at once a productivity tool and a parodic commentary on work (as well as the importance of ceasing to work) and our slavish reliance on screens for both work and leisure.

As work progressed on this project, though, its original aim expanded, loosing some of its specific texture in the process, and became something more general: an exercise in the design of calm technology and ambient interfaces.

Calm technology is a term coined by XEROX Parc’s Mark Weiser and John Seely Brown in their manifesto on the topic of design for peripheral attention and encalming devices.

Designs that encalm and inform meet two human needs not usually met together. Information technology is more often the enemy of calm. Pagers, cellphones, newservices, the World-Wide-Web, email, TV, and radio bombard us frenetically. Can we really look to technology itself for a solution?

But some technology does lead to true calm and comfort. … We believe the difference is in how they engage our attention. Calm technology engages both the center and the periphery of our attention, and in fact moves back and forth between the two.

We use “periphery” to name what we are attuned to without attending to explicitly. Ordinarily when driving our attention is centered on the road, the radio, our passenger, but not the noise of the engine. But an unusual noise is noticed immediately, showing that we were attuned to the noise in the periphery, and could come quickly to attend to it.

It should be clear that what we mean by the periphery is anything but on the fringe or unimportant. What is in the periphery at one moment may in the next moment come to be at the center of our attention and so be crucial. …

A calm technology will move easily from the periphery of our attention, to the center, and back. This is fundamentally encalming …

… by placing things in the periphery we are able to attune to many more things than we could if everything had to be at the center. Things in the periphery are attuned to by the large portion of our brains devoted to peripheral (sensory) processing. Thus the periphery is informing without overburdening.

It is precisely this sense of …




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