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Local Format: An exploration of cultural conceptions of time


Local Format: Navigating the complexity of research for interactive design Author

Format intends to create dialogue to strengthen the

Justin Alm

individual sense of self and his or her position in society. Although this project finished with a one-of-akind object of history and exchange, this paper is a reflection on the practice of user-centred design


research and the struggle in balancing the design of an

Local Format was designed by Justin Alm in the

interface and an engaging, efficient, and elegant visual

Wearable and Interactive Products Lab at Emily Carr


University of Art & Design. The project explores the phenomenon of oral tradition, shared memory, and the effects of shared memory on an individual’s understanding of time. To validate and inform his design process, Alm's research methodologies included: Photojournalist techniques, informal interviews with

Keywords Design, research methods, interaction design, interface, materials exploration, prototype, Arduino®, participatory deisgn, workshop.

ACM Classification Keywords H. Information Systems

people in Vancouver's False Creek community, ideation sketching, a participatory design workshop, persona development, story-boarding; iterative prototyping with Arduino & multiple sensors, and user-trials. Alm’s final outcome was a map of the world that is gesturally

H.5 INFORMATION INTERFACES AND PRESENTATION (I.7) H.5.0 General H.5.1 Multimedia Information Systems

activated by the user. Through sharing past experiences

H.5.2 User Interfaces (D.2.2, H.1.2, I.3.6)

and connecting these experiences with place, Local

H.5.3 Group and Organization Interfaces

Local Format: An exploration of cultural conceptions of time


General Terms

seemed inadequate for meeting the needs of their user,

Design, Documentation, Experimentation, Human Factors, Theory, Verification.

and continued to seek issues that were plaguing people in their day to day life. I tried to engage people on the


micro and macro scale of their work to find a design

In September of 2010, I sat in a room of the in the

problem. I found problems with POS systems, French

Wearable and Interactive Products Lab with 13

presses, and pruning sheers. All of these systems or

interaction design colleagues at Emily Carr University.

objects effected the individual’s use of time. Many of

With personal photographs and images from magazines

them were relevant design problems for our evolving

pinned on the walls, we were led in a discussion by our


instructor. We explored possible themes for a semester long project. Our projects were supposed to be focused on human behaviour and opportunities presented with prototyping an interactive system using ArduinoÂŽ. Humphrey asked us to talk about things we feel are interesting. We began this project exploiting ethos. The topics discussed included public space, garbage disposal, riding a bike, smoking, foreigners, etc. From the dialogue around our pictures and the large mindmap on the whiteboard, we connected common themes for us to do further research. As we reflected on the hierarchy of our discussion, we discovered that much of our work dealt with the way people use time and came to the collective agreement that our projects should focus on the topic of time.

figure 1: This mind map was our first collective creation in the studio.

After the initial image explorations, I realized systems

Visual Explorations

of the workplace were not appealing to me. There was

Over the next 5 days, I took pictures throughout the

an allure of the simple objects that humans interact

False Creek community, asking local businesses if they

with but a theme of separation, or time apart, was of

had any needs to be met. I took pictures of objects that

Local Format: An exploration of cultural conceptions of time


deeper interest to me. This inspiration came from the

long durations of rest were perceived to be only

homesickness my girlfriend experienced over the

minutes by Le Guen. She was part of an experiment on

summer of 2010. Her frequent phone calls to her

the human body-clock and its reaction to a lack of

mother made my heart ache. I longed to do something

stimuli related to time. Le Guen emerged from the cave

to help her with this distance between loved ones.

after 3 and a half months and found herself trapped in her Parisian suburban middle-class life. At the age of

The wall of the studio began to fill with the colour of

33, she took her own life with an overdose of

collages, mind-maps, photographs, lists, and excerpts

barbiturates. This reaction to isolation was shocking to

from articles. We moved from this practice of broad

me. If isolation and disconnection resulted in her

image gathering to the act of brainstorming through

suicide, my logical conclusion was that connecting

ideation sketching. We were commissioned to do 30

people would strengthen a person’s perception of time,

sketches in the next three days. Encouraged to keep

sense of self, and role in society. William's muse was

the sketches quick and divergent, we explored the

quickly becoming mine.

possibilities of what could be materialized. From this practice of sketching, we paired off to find like minded

William and I took a trip to the University of British

classmates and began work on our projects. I sketched

Columbia to experience the anechoic chamber at the

ideas for clocks, bells, puzzles, screens, and maps.

Acoustics and Noise Research Group. In the chamber, a person can become overwhelmed from an inability to

The Power of a Personal Story During this phase of sketching, I was in frequent discussions with an installation artist. William was doing research for an installation that involved the effects of sensory deprivation on the concepts of self, time, and society. His muse was Veronique Le Guen - a French woman who spent 111 days in a cave with no access to the outside world.[1] There was no sunlight, music, temperature, or clock to orientate herself to time. At one point, Le Guen took an ‘afternoon nap’ for 18 hours and was recorded to have slept for 31 hours. These

orientate his or her self in space. This is a result of low levels of ambient noise. Much of relative positioning comes from ambient noise. To identify with Le Guen's experience under the crust of the earth, William sat in the chamber. With the door locked; in the dark; he sat for several minutes. The experience informed William's project. Although my project did not explore acoustic experience, I found this divergent research trip to be useful as I constructed the conceptual framework for communicating my inspiration.

Local Format: An exploration of cultural conceptions of time


Designing a Participatory Design Workshop

The activity went well. To keep the energy up, I quickly

To inform my project, I created a participatory design

sketched a second bulls-eye on the right-hand side of

workshop. I wanted to explore people's perceptions of

the whiteboard. Atop it I wrote, "What cultural ways do

time and how these perceptions are connected to their

people greet?" Once again, I wrote most frequent at

mental model of society. In order to give context to my

the centre and least frequent toward the outside. I

co-creators, I focused on social gestures. As these

checked my watch and gave them another 120 seconds

concepts are inherently abstract, I had to design

to complete this round of activity. Although the

activities for my co-creators inspired by these themes

activities were quick, the information we shared

and facilitate conversation. I desired to go deeper into

exposed the depth and breadth of the ways people

the emotional and psychological understanding of

perceive time and address each other. I later reflected

culture and time. I wanted to understand how people

on this data to inform the design of the interface of

connect their experiences with place and how activities

Local Format and the program of how people would

help people recall memories. I wanted to inform and

select, listen, input, and share memories connected to

affirm my thesis that sharing experience increases


social solidarity and thus strengthens our concept of time.

For the third activity, I pinned a grayscale map of the world on the opposite side of the whiteboard. I gave

The first activity was designed to get the participants

each participant a 8.5x11� paper with four frames

active in the workshop. I gave them a stack of Post-itÂŽ

printed on it. I asked them to quickly sketch memories

notes and told them to write down their methods,

they had while traveling. To bring the activity into

objects, and experiences they use to understand time.

focus, I asked each participant to remember a moment

On a whiteboard, I drew concentric rings to create a

when they became aware of a cultural use of time. I

bulls-eye. Above it I wrote, "What do you use to tell

wanted them to focus on how their concept of time was

time?" 'Most Frequent' was at the centre and 'Least

different than the culture they were in. This activity

Frequent' was at outside ring. I gave my four co-

proved to be complex and difficult for my co-creators to

creators two minutes to write and stick their thoughts

understand. I had to repeat my instructions and simply

on the whiteboard.

my request. In the end, they sketched a memory and pinned it on the map according to where they

Local Format: An exploration of cultural conceptions of time


remember that even taking place. The activity began

of light. In Google Images, I searched for keywords

awkwardly but led to fruitful conversation about our

from Erikson's Stages of Development to make up the

past experiences. Despite the fact all of the participants

bank of images that each participant had to search

had never met, we laughed and the group began to

through. With all of these elements, a glue stick, and a

grow together. This activity proved to be a form driver

template printed on an 11x17� piece of paper, we

for the 'final design' I presented at the end of the

constructed our 'mood boards'. In the top left corner,


they pasted words they felt represent time. Underneath those words, they pasted a shape and colour they felt represented time. The final task was to search through a bank of images and glue images they felt were connected to their mental model of time. In the end, each participant produced a board to could present back to the group as their impression of time. Their presentations about time proved to be most interesting. For presenting Local Format, I used the keywords they chose to frame the presentation of my final outcome. The shapes and colours they chose informed my aesthetic decisions when designing the object. All of the participants chose white as the colour

figure 2: The grayscale map used to pin 'memories' onto locations.

The final activity for the workshop involved cutting up lists of keywords, shapes, colours, and sorting through images. The keywords were taken from the introduction to H.G. Wells Time Machine; the shapes were a dot, line, square, circle, triangle, and octagon; the colours made up a palate of 28 that covered the full spectrum

that represented time for different reasons. Also, all of them chose the octagon or square as a representation of time. These aesthetic choices informed the angularity of the map as well as the frame it was housed on. The images chosen did not prove to inform my final outcome but facilitated communication between the participants and gave them a more personal voice for communicating their concepts.

Local Format: An exploration of cultural conceptions of time


installation at the scale of an entire room.[2] I sketched my concept and met with technicians to weigh my options for work programming the Arduino® and soldering sensors to protoshields. I spent much of my time in electronics shops on Main Street and emerged confused but desiring to understand the seemingly infinite world of component electronics and Arduino® prototyping. Sensor exploration was captivating. I experimented with the Parralax® Inc. passive infrared motion sensor(PIR)[3], Maxbotix® Inc. ultrasonic sensor[4], the Sharp® infrared sensors[5], and Advanced figure 3: A participant sharing her concept of time through words, shapes, colours, and an image collage.

There were several moments throughout the workshop when we paused. Having my participants verbalize their choices at each step proved to be invaluable. As we reflected on each activity, I realized it wasn't the activities that would provide me with the information I needed. Rather, the activities acted as conduits for releasing deeper narratives of time and social understanding from the group.

Wrestling With Materials to Achieve a Vision I realized at this point, creating a tool for orienting their memories was at the heart of my design. Inspired by the work of Hiroshi Iishi and the Tangible Media Group at MIT, I envisioned the scale of this map to an

Photonics Inc.® plastic coated photocell sensors.[6] The PIR sensors were incredibly difficult to calibrate and required prototyping in a controlled environment. I lacked the space I needed to work on an experience at the scale I initially envisioned. Instead of having the user walk through a map painted on the floor, I played with the idea of a more manageable experience. This led me to scale down my project to the size of a widescreen television or small table surface.

Local Format: An exploration of cultural conceptions of time


LED's, I had to embed the photocells in the sheet of acrylic. When the user motions over the surface of the map, the LED's light up. My semester was spent prototyping with LED's, soldering connections, experimenting with adhesive vinyl, testing sensors, test acrylic for strength, and working out the structural engineering that was required for the complexity of sensory inputs and LED outputs. As I work through projects I notice patterns that I understand to be aspects of my methodology. I am trying to find balance between the pursuit of figure 4: Working in the Wearable and Interactive Products Lab at Emily Carr University. Soldering the connections between the ArduinoÂŽ protoshield and the vinyl map on arcrylic.

Working at this scale, I began to focus on the gestures people would perform to engage a surface on a wall or at a 90° angle in front of themselves. With each phase of the prototyping I had to balance between the gestures of the user, the material that made up the interface for the user would interact with, and the capabilities of the sensors to detect motion or proximity. After many iterations, I began constructing the frame out of wood, the top of the box was a milky acrylic, adhered to the surface of the acrylic was a vinyl cut map of the world. Photocells were used to detect the user's gesture over the surface of the table. In order to achieve the sensitivity required to activate the

learning new techniques or methods for making designs but choosing appropriate tools to meet project deadlines. In every project, I tell myself that these technical skills are essential to find a place in the job market. Acquiring the technical skills to achieve an interactive prototype forces the designer to sacrifice time to create visual language required for a design to be appealing or approachable by the user. My instructor was adamant I continue to function as a designer of experience. It was imperative that I not get lost in tech-land but focus on the communicative qualities of my piece and the behaviour of the user.

Local Format: An exploration of cultural conceptions of time


composed but lacking functionality will be disregarded. The interaction designer is required to slide across the spectrum of disciplines from the sciences and the arts.

Acknowledgements I would like to thank David Humphrey for introducing me to the world of research for interaction design.

References and Citations [1] Tempest, R. (1988). Los Angeles Times “The Longest Night: Veronique Le Guen Found That 111 Days in a Cave Changed More Than Her Sense of Time”. Retrieved April 19, 2011 from the Los Angeles Times Web site:

figure 5: Final stage of user testing with the frame built, sensors installed, connections soldered, and program running.


The difficulty that every interaction designer faces is balancing the desire to communicate with visual language while acknowledging their technical limitations. When designing a system with complex user task-flows, the designer has to account for the engineering and programming that will be required to realize their vision. This forces the designer to do a level of research that may diverge from visualization. The designer has to be confident in his or her ability to transform this research into compelling visuals. If this does not happen, the users will not desire the object for its beauty. On the other hand, a piece that is beautifully

[2] Labrune, J., Kumpf, A., Ishii, H. (2010). IdeaGarden. Retrieved April 19, 2011 from Tangible Media Group Website: [3] Ladyada (2011). PIR motion sensors: Pyroelectric ("Passive") InfraRed sensors. Retrieved April 19, 2011 from Ladyada's Website: [4] Myhre, C. Smith, N. Gross, B. (2010). Reliability Demonstration Test (RDT) Report for High Temperature Operational Life (MTBF) and Temperature Cycling (MTBF) for the MaxSonar™, Product Lines. Retrieved April 19, 2011 from Maxbotix Website: y_Demonstration_Test__RDT__and_MTBF_Report.pdf [5] Parallax, Inc. (2005). Sharp GP2D12 Analog Distance Sensor. Retrieved April 19, 2011 from Parallax Inc. Website: 12Snrs.pdf [6] Advanced Photonics, Inc. (2006). CdS Photoconductive Photocells. Retrieved April 19, 2011

Local Format: An exploration of cultural conceptions of time

from Advanced Photonics, Inc. Website:



Local Format: Navigating the Complexity of research for interactive design  

A SOCS 309 praxis paper by design student, Justin Alm