1// Conceptual description

Net House – Social Network Smart Architecture

Social media has developed virtual networks on the Internet, and everyone is tied into an account characterized by one’s own profile and habits. The project started as an idea to translate the social media activity into physical world, and engages people to interact in real life. Imagine in a building, each modular apartment is a personal account, and the environment will learn about one’s life by detecting the activities, smell, color, music, etc. so as to create individual profile. People with similar profile will be linked invisibly by the system and facilitate their interaction in daily life. Movable space (bar, theatre, entertainment space) moves along programmed tracks to create physical connection, just like an invitation in the virtual world, and gather peoples with similar profile and enjoy activities among them. The system should be smart enough to facilitate communication but not invading the choice and private life of individual person.

The challenge is to create a responsive mechanical architectural system that executes the invisible links between people by intelligent digital control and management system. 

Concept Diagram

The NET HOUSE is a smart architecture that facilitates the interaction between people by using the metaphor of social media.

// Users’ activities and habits will be tracked. The smart system can analyze users’ daily activities, then identify their common interests and provide designated activities like theme parties and events to connect people of similar profiles or hobbies, just like the social networking connect people with similar profile.

// A Movable and kinetic Clubhouse (could be bar, theatre, gathering space, etc.) moves along programmed tracks to invite people joining the activities held in it, which create physical connection, like an invitation in the virtual world. The Movable Clubhouse space and individual spaces link together. People walk into another space and participate the activities naturally and voluntarily.


// Movable Club House will be wrapped with flexible skin that will react to the activities and atmosphere of participants.

The skin will bend and create extra space when there is increasing number of users, and will move with rhythm in responding to the party atmosphere inside.

 

2// How NET HOUSE prototype works

Components

The whole simulation of movable clubhouse consists of the following items:

  • One flexible skin made with PVC plastic sheet
  • 12 light sensors detecting movement/flow of user activities
  • 8 servomotors connect to flexible skin controlling its curvature /height
  • 4 LED light
  • 2 Arduino boards and 3 external circuit boards structuring the necessary circuits
  • 2 MacBook Pro loaded with processing script driving the whole system
  • One vertically mounted servomotor with aluminum frame controlling the up/down movement of the movable clubhouse
  • A 3-floor building for mounting the movable clubhouse

How It Works

The structure of flexible skin is adopted from the art of paper folding “Origami Magic Ball“. It has the property of elastic, flexible yet thin and light weighted. To activate the responsive action and reaction of the flexible skin, there are all together 4 sets of light sensors and servomotors linked to the flexible skin made with PVC plastic sheet.


1 set of control = 1 Arduino + circuit board + 6 sensors + 4 servomotors  + 2 LED lights + flexible skin + MacBook Pro

There are 2 modes of responses. In normal event mode, light sensors will detect the number/density of users in the space. A row of 3 sensors will be installed to provide 3 levels of outcome that control the degree of rotation of corresponding servomotors. More sensors being covered suggest higher density of users; this will lead to higher degree of response from motors. As the motors are attached to the flexible skin, the result will control the height and curvature of the skin.

The processing scripts (see appendix) will provide a smooth breathing movement for the flexible skin by using a stepping/easing loop, and the response rate is high and spontaneous.

In party mode, flexible skin will breathe randomly simulating the rhythm of music, and the LED lights will flash with different colors like those in the disco. The whole mechanism aims to reflect the responsive quality of the NET HOUSE.

Photos show the interior atmosphere in normal mode and party mode.

 

3// Design process and problem solving

The project started with analysis towards the concept of social media and how profile and interests connected participants. Then followed by brainstorming session to come up with potential interaction topics.

After discussion among team members and tutorial with project tutors, the topic of a movable clubhouse was decided, based on the close relation with social media (physical Facebook), the interaction model and the challenges.

Design was developed in 3 aspects:

  1. The making of flexible skin – this was critical to the project for both aesthetic reason and to make the structure more realistic.
  2. The mechanical system controlling the responsive environment of the clubhouse – how sensor, skin and servomotors work together.
  3. The elevation mechanism of the movable clubhouse that bought the clubhouse to the users.

 

The making of flexible skin

Lots of research had been done concerning the possible look and structure of the flexible skin, from kinetic architecture, interaction installation to handicrafts. The final solution came from an unexpected source; the Japanese paper art “Origami”.  Lots of tests were done with different materials such as paper, tracing paper and PVC plastic sheets of different thickness. Final decision fall on 0.25mm PVC plastic sheet for its translucent quality, toughness and light-weightiness.

 

The folding was done by hand. But when it came to the large sheet, engraving of folding lines was done with flatbed packaging sampling machine for better precision. The greatest difficulties of making the skin came from the size. To get a skin of the right size (30cm across) we need to handle an original sheet of 120cm. In the folding process, the sheet bended and twisted in unexpected angles which made the making very difficult. Lots of patient and hard work had been inputted, but the mission was found impossible. To solve the problem I had to divide the sheet into four sections, and they were attached back after folding. Luckily the final outcome was still good especially when it was shot with lighting/backlit.

The Mechanical System controlling the Responsive Environment

Based on the primary tests with physical characteristics of the PVC flexible skin, the most effective way of manipulating its form is to apply force from top and bottom to squeeze.  Therefore the action is reduced to up and down movement of hinges. Tests had been done with pulleys and strings, rotation mechanism, and the final decision went to belt. Hinges drove by belt is the most direct way of changing the form of skin, with less effort loss but the fastest reaction time.

The trickiest part of servomotor system was the fine toning of the distant of up/down movement in related to the curvature of flexible skin, the overall size of the apartment structure and the rotation limit of servomotors controlled by Arduino. The ratio was tested and controlled by the dimension of gear to which the rubber belt attached.  All parts needed to be custom-made and laser-cut. To conceal all 8 motors and belts, 12 light sensors, 4 LED lights and all electric wires within a 30cm by 40cm compartment was another challenge, not to mention the rooms reserved for construction and maintenance.

Apart from LED lights and light sensors, the interior structure also consisted of retrievable floor units that extended when flexible skin was bulging. The tiny units needed to be translucent, extendable but had interlocks preventing from falling apart. Individually, the extendable units made with tracing paper were beautifully engineered. However the way they interacted with the flexible skin was difficult to manage, partly due to the small size, and partly caused by time limit, the units were abandoned in the final model.

 

The Elevation System

As the whole Clubhouse needed to move up and down in the outside of building picking up participants, it needed a powerful yet stable mechanism for elevating. Tests were done with various types of motors, gears of various ratio and different suspension structures. Physical structure was successfully built but the motor elevation is less satisfactory in terms of smoothness of movement, strength and reaction time. The idea of electric powered mechanism was given up, and hand-powered rotatory mechanism was used instead. It was less cool in terms of model making, but fortunately the visual outcome was nearly the same in video.

The final stage of production was the video demonstration of our design. It was fun and has great sense of satisfaction. However there was one last obstacle to overcome. It was the lighting problem.

Lighting up the set

The whole responsive environment mechanism would be triggered by light intensity sensed by 4 sets of 3 light sensors, which were lighted by 4 LED lights. It all works fine in the constructing and developing stage. However when we did the final shooting in a dark room (the model would be back-lit with beautiful lighting effect when the skin is breathing) the intensity of LED lights were not strong enough, and the system response as if 1 out of 3 LED light was covered! To solve the problem we had to use extra lights to compensate the low light intensity.

 

Team Work

Our team worked seamlessly with an efficient division of labor. The team brainstormed topics and concepts together and came up with one design direction. The final choice of NET HOUSE was a group decision. Then necessary tasks were distributed among 3 members with constant feedback and discussion. I (Jackson) focused on the design and making of flexible skin, the responsive environment mechanism, the electronics and processing scripting. Bing was responsible for the elevation mechanism, Rhino artwork production and building model making.  AoLin took care of extendable floor units, 3D model making and material sourcing. The team experience was great and we covered each other’s task and works when needed.

Zhu Yi Bing (Right bottom), Jackson Choi (Right top), Pei Aolin (Left)

Personally I found this project an excellent opportunity for me to explore embedded interaction design that I might not be trying otherwise. It brought back my hobby of model making and hand-craftsmanship when I am a small boy, and it opened up an entirely new area to discover, and I enjoyed the development process and outcomes.

 

4// Project Blog

More detail in project development and documentation can be found in
NET HOUSE INTERACTION official blog