Building an Interactive Wall with Artist Ian Barnard

Ian was the perfect collaborator for this piece for several reasons. He has an incredible body of work comprising different hand lettering styles, logo design, typography and illustration, and is a complete novice when it comes to creating an interactive typography wall. The latter was key, as it would enable us to test out whether the technology, tools and techniques in our kit were easy enough for someone with little electronics experience to successfully build a capacitive sensing wall.

Backtrack to the product design brief – ‘Design a kit that provides customers who have little or no electronics and programming experience with a set of simple tools they can use to create a large-scale, robust, and reliable interactive surface.’ Ian became our guinea pig.

But how does one actually make an interactive wall?

We decided to create the interactive wall in our office so that we could document the process and, more importantly, keep the interactive wall on display. The goal? To create an interactive experience where a sound is triggered by human touch; reacts when someone touches the graphic elements on the wall. The bonus? Having a smart wall on our premises so that anyone visiting our space can have first-hand interaction with the technology. Let’s break down how we did it.

1. Plan

The first step is to define the scope of what you’re making. You have to decide what size your wall will be, whether the display is going to respond to touch or proximity and whether the output will be video, audio, projection mapping or something else. For Ian’s wall, we decided to go for a standard 8’x4′ 15mm thick piece of plywood and focus on capacitive touch to trigger sound from each sensor. In this case, limiting the interaction to touch meant we didn’t have to worry about re-programming the software.

Once we’d defined the technical spec, it was time for the fun part. Designing the graphics and lettering. With Ian’s help, we decided on the style, typeface and illustrations. An important factor to keep in mind during the design process was the positioning of each of the twelve sensors, as well as the size and shape of the display. This is the bit where understanding the basics of sensor design becomes important. The key points for a successful design are thinking about where to position each touch point, and how to design the graphics and illustrations. It’s important to consider the position of each of the touch points because this will affect the layout of the Electrode Pads and wiring on the back of the display. It’s also important at this stage to consider the visual language, to ensure the audience knows what parts of the typographic wall are interactive.

2. Construct

With these parameters in mind, Ian sketched out a design for us to transfer onto the plywood. With the visuals defined, selecting the sounds was easy. We decided to trigger mp3 tracks from the Touch Board which meant loading the sounds was as simple as loading them onto a microSD card. Because our graphics were fairly straightforward, we were able to find royalty free tracks online but had we gone for something more complex, we could have recorded our own audio, or even gone down the software route to run MIDI on the Touch Board.

While developing the Interactive Wall Kit, one of the key takeaways from our community was the importance of a quick and straightforward way to connect their Touch Board and sensors. This, and the importance of producing a reliable, and easy-to-troubleshoot display were key in the development of this product. Enter the shielded cable. We specifically sourced these 5m long wires so that connecting between our Electrode Shield and Pads is as easy as plugging in an audio jack. Don’t be deceived, these cables do much more than allow for a quick connection. They have a unique shielding which means they can be used to create a large scale interactive display using our capacitive technology with little to now interference. Any other cable will simply behave like a long thin sensor all the way from Shield to Pad.

After a couple of months of product development and a two day build, you can imagine the excitement as we prepared to turn on the Touch Board and test the interactive typography wall. We switched on the board and touched the first Sensor pad, then another, until we triggered all twelve sensors. Success! To our amazement (and delight) all the sensors triggered on the first go. Ian’s typographic wall was live and ready!

If you’re looking for more ideas, here’s a list with a few of our top community interactive walls and the making process.

We’d love to see what you’ll make with the Interactive Wall Kit.

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