SPECULATIVE / ELECTRONICS Little Ambience is a series of speculative household electronics that simulate the remote presence of people and places without relying on video calls. The series comprises two electronics: a tabletop/wall-mount light and a pair of humidifiers.
The light, named Day and Night, is designed to resemble a window, displaying the sky from a place where people feel connected. The humidifiers, named Water and Air, are placed in different locations or homes and activate only when both sense the presence of people in the space.
Concept photos for capstone presentation. Special thanks to Cindy Hu, Alex Wang, and Luna Chen for renting out their apartment for photos and videos. Little Ambience envisions alternative methods of remotely connecting people, in contrast to the hyper-realistic approach of big tech companies utilizing VR, AR, and holograms. Little Ambience adopts the concept of 'Calm Technology,' a term coined through Google’s Little Signals experiment, in which everyday objects convey notifications and information in subtle ways that don't cause disruption. Through Little Signals, Google envisions a future where devices simulating a gust of wind or a gentle tap on a pill bottle could notify users with actionable information, like reminding them to water plants or take their pills.
While the Little Signals experiment involves passing notifications in a more subtle form, Little Ambience takes on the simulation of nature and senses, such as light and smell, to delicately adorn a living space with the essence of a place or a person we care about and love. In alignment with its form, Little Ambience interacts passively.
My grandma and my immigrant identity inspire Little Ambience. When I moved to Arizona with my grandma to live with my aunt 8 years ago, she would have the Taiwanese TV channels on 24/7, even when she was not watching. Later, I learned that this habit was a common way for people to maintain a sense of connection. The passive interaction from the ambiance of the Taiwanese news becomes a source of comfort for my grandma.
More people migrate internationally than ever before. Little Ambience speculates the role of household electronics in a world with fractured experiences, focusing on phatic communication and calm technology.
The form is inspired by Taiwanese architectural textures such as embossed glass and terrazzo, as well as the space and light sculptures made by James Turrell. The conceptual design is inspired by CW&T’s works, focusing on time-telling device and making objects that the creator want personally.
Ideating and Sketching
This project draws heavy inspiration from James Turrell's Church in Berlin. Upon witnessing it in person, I was captivated by how the light at the very back of the church, combined with the curved dome, seemed to create an infinite space filled with color. I became fascinated with owning a piece of the sky from a place I feel connected to and how it could subtly inform me about the weather and time. To visualize what the device might look like, I created sketches and midjourney renderings with the help of a Pinterest mood board.
Design sketches (paper, digital, and 3D models)
MidJourney renderings (shorten prompt: A realistic small vertical household electronic desktop lamp that act like a James Turrell's church light.)
After completing the initial sketch, I needed a proof-of-concept prototype to determine if I could recreate the lighting effect I observed in James Turrell's piece. Based on my personal observation, I deduced that Turrell used space as a diffuser, rather than acrylic or glass, in some of his works. This theory of his setup is proven by a New York Times video of his Guggenheim installation from 2013. I consulted with Professor Tom Igoe to confirmed the science regarding using space as a light diffuser. He also explained that light intensity is equal to 1 divided by the square of the distance. Tom suggested keeping the light as far away from the sidewalls as possible to avoid uneven lighting.
Neopixel grdient light test on a peice of curved paper. With the technical aspect theoretically proven possible, I asked for advice from professor Yeseul Song and Alumni Jackie Liu, and then decided to make the device with the association of household electronics.
The form of household electronics is essential in tying the project together. Household electronics usually have a specific purpose and occupy a specific space within a home. Particularly, I was inspired by memories of a time before smartphones were widely accessible. Contrary to the all-in-one smartphone, household electronics occupy a particular location in a house, recontextualizing experiences of the surrounding environment with their single or limited purpose. I want the object I create to have a limited purpose and small footprint, so it can be clearly associated with specific memories and influence the ambiance of its surroundings.
Simultaneously, I explored alternative household electronic devices that could potentially provide a similar or more intimate connection while still maintaining an ambient feel. I began to develop a pair of humidifiers that would activate when they sense motion from people. Ideally, these would be placed in two different houses, creating a scent when activated. The simple idea is that if you can smell the scent coming from the humidifier, you know the other person, potentially your significant other or someone you care about, is also at home.
1st iteration sketches
2nd iteration sketches
The humidifiers were designed to reflect the Taiwanese architectural language. I wanted to explore the altered terrazzo design popularized in Taiwan for wall, floor, or sink finishes. I also wanted to incorporate transparency into the design of the humidifier.
Prototyping and Reiterating
I started with cardboard boxes, cutting them into a few simple rectangular shapes with varying sizes. My goal was to determine which size would provide enough space for the light to be significant without becoming the center of attention.
Documentation of the project progression
I progressed by starting 3D printing the box with a concave curvature to test the diffusion of the light and anticipate how it might ultimately feel. The first 3D print made me realize several things. Firstly, the idea of using space as a diffuser did occupy a significant amount of space, which made the entire object feel heavy. Secondly, the size of the housing was still somewhat off. It was too large for someone to comfortably hold it with one hand. Thirdly, the housing for the electronics needed to be optimized and separated from the lighting itself. This led to the next step of electronic prototyping to ensure that the wiring would fit nicely within the design.
3D housing with concave surface
Testing light and colors
I researched traditional windows in Taiwanese architecture, rethinking what could be incorporated into the design of my windows. The idea of using transparent materials soon followed. Knowing that I would be printing the light housing, I remodeled the entire 3D file specifically to test the tolerance of the print. I also designed the first version of the custom circuit board to fit into the design.
3D model of the 2nd iteration
3D Printed Parts
After a physical prototype of the transparent housing was made, I received feedback that people really loved the transparency and were fascinated by how the light made it almost candy-like, with the initial matte diffusion from the Formlabs 3 printer. To properly test the diffusion, I spray-painted the concave curve inside the housing with matte white and examined it. Initially, I thought the spray paint would cancel out this unexpected but pleasant light surrounding the transparent housing. To my surprise, the spray paint created a space-occupying color inside the curvature, while allowing enough light to leak evenly across the housing to give a dimmed light outside the curve.
Spray paint test Spray painted body
On the hardware side, I initially tested the circuit for the light on a breadboard, using the Arduino Nano 33 IoT. I also experiemented with custom PCB milling. Later, I used the ESP32, the chip integrated into my custom circuit board. Designing a custom PCB was challenging but essential. My goal was to create a compact, customized solution and to understand all aspects of the product I was designing.
PCB V1.1 schematic and board design
The first version ran into a few issues. The most significant problem was the location of the micro USB connector—it was situated too far from the edge of the PCB, which prevented the wire from being plugged in. The second issue was with the power from the micro USB, which wasn't properly converted to 3.3V by the voltage regulator; instead, the output was 2.6V. This was a serious problem because the microcontroller only operates between 3.2V and 3.7V. The third major problem was the positioning of the microcontroller. The ESP32S3 has a built-in antenna and must be outside the board to prevent signal interference from noise. WiFi is a crucial component of the board's purpose. Other minor issues included the lack of mounting holes.
PCB Version 1 PCB Version 1.1 (fixed the issues & new functions)
The second version of the PCB design eliminated most of these problems by altering the design of the board outline, swapping out the voltage regulator, and replacing the micro USB port SMD with a cleaner footprint to prevent shorting. I also added more ways to connect to the microcontroller so it could be used for controlling the humidifier as well. This meant adding pin connections for power, a transistor, and the PIR sensor pins. Additionally, I included an I2S connection to the amp for potential speaker connections and added a micro SD card reader to the board for loading music files. The second version was mostly successful, with just one LED orientation incorrectly designed.
3rd iteration parts with gradient code
Sketches to figure out the math of the gradient
On the software side, I spent hours programming the light, with what I found to be the most challenging part: the gradient effect. I managed to get a simple transition across a specific spectrum of the hue working in a limited time. More progress on other functionalities still needs to be developed. Click here to get the complete status of the code on GitHub.
Sketches to figure out the math of the gradient
The fabrication process of the humidifiers required many new skills I was unfamiliar with. I first 3D printed a part for it to be molded with silicone. Then, I used the silicone mold to cast a cement base with a hidden 3D print inside to house the electronics. This wasn't the ideal solution, but I ran out of time and couldn't construct a two-part mold promptly. The silicone mold worked, but it was uneven. The cement casting worked well, but the mixing ratio must be adjusted to make it strong enough.
4th iteration of the light
3rd iteration of the humidifier
Little Ambience is aimed to achieve 3 aspects: calmness, design, and interaction. More specifically, the series wants the user to first and foremost feel comfortable with the device. Second, the objects should sit well inside a house while honoring the root of their inspiration. Third, the interaction should be obvious yet not intrusive.
Calmness: The work did exceptionally well in communicating calmness based on the survey I gathered from the testers. The lights signified a sense of calmness and sky-like quality. One tester, Derek, described the light with words like “peaceful” and “sunset” before being informed about the project’s idea. Unfortunately, the humidifier cannot be tested in its final form. However, the prototype humidifier with a working mist created a sense of calm in the audience when it was tested.
Design: The design for the light has positive feedback. People who have seen the prototype want one at their place, while the design fits nicely into the 3 different apartments I tested. However, the design did not convey its root in Taiwanese architecture as much as I wanted. Similarly, the humidifier fits well with 3 different apartments. It, however, reminds people of bathroom tiles instead of a sink or Terrazzo. The design needs to be even more customized.
Interaction: Most of the functions are untested since the code for both devices is not yet finished. However, based on the user feedback from prototype testing, Little Ambience acted as a passive household electronics when placed in people’s apartment. More user testing is needed.
Demo setup and feedback from the 2023 ITP/IMA Spring Show.
Little Ambience is a collection of technical challenges requiring diverse skills to address and build upon fully. I am delighted to see that the most technically challenging aspects of the project, such as the smoothness of the light and the physical circuit board design, have been well developed.
However, I want to delve deeper into incorporating collective personal narratives into each light. Additionally, I aim to integrate subtle sounds into the lights to emphasize the connection to familiar home sounds. With the assistance of my friends, I hope to showcase this work in a gallery space featuring multiple lights. I envision an information wall displaying customized lights created through interviews with individuals who feel connected to a place that is currently distant from them. The humidifiers will evoke memories of loved ones or close friends through different scents.
I believe there is still plenty of room for improvement in this project.
🙏 Special thanks to: Capstone cohort - Alex, Reto, Hazel, Yulin, Cindy, and Sam | Professors & Faculties - Allison, Tom, Yeseul, David, Brandan, Derek, Luke, Gabe, Phil, Rob, Sarah, Blair, and Christina | IMA friends - Izzy, Julia, Luna, Aidan, Lachlan, Shiva, Bailey, Sydney, Kariina, Sarah, and Olive | ITP friends - Jess, Shirley, Jackie, Kai, Shuang, Leia, Julia, Daniel, IJon, Anh, Long, Lifei, Jason Tse, Josephine and her friend from Taiwan | Family and friends from a distance - Toni, Alex, Amy, Toan, 陳泓吾, and 楊紫涵