Week 5 Digi Physi Wonderworld

Christina Lan
6 min readAug 22, 2020

While the final version of this is far from complete (it’s good I’m inclined to work on it further), I wanted to use this opportunity to detail my process in creating the current project from the beginning of this summer session.

Initially, when first playing around with Unity, I was interested in creating accurate and vivid lighting schemes, so I focused heavily on rooms and detailed objects. The following shows the output of my attempt to re-create the hospital room from the movie Safe. I chose it mostly because of the soft and brooding colors and went through about 10 drafts experimenting with lighting.

For the second week, I thought I should try making something more aligned with my previously announced curiosity in creating “virtual clubs.” Clearly and unfortunately, COVID-19 may have permanently changed our nightlife, a culture I care so deeply about — the physical places that birth revolutionary moments in music and personal expression. I started building a space that resembled a makeshift club I went to once in Brooklyn. It wasn’t actually a club, but a coffee brewery during the day. I loved it because it’s triangular sun roof made the place feel almost church-like (club nights in actual churches is an almost baptizing experience). It reminded me of the time I first experienced mind-altering club music, in a concrete black hole in Shanghai, where even without light, the transcendence emitted from the improvised and chaotic performances felt holier than anything I’d come close to spiritually. The following just shows a screen capture of the club, but for interface interaction, the full video can be found here.

Concurrently, we were reading about interactivity and systems in CC&C, where I found a lot of the works and movements in interactive art in Katja Kwastek’s book fascinating. While I’d known the concept of “black box” prior to this program, the term kept popping up from reading to reading. Kwastek describes it as interaction processes that “are no longer immediately transparent to the recipient” and later on, in reading about algorithms and AI, the invisible bias and false neutrality embedded in these technologies. I was intrigued by the possibility of making this in Unity. Stepping away the club, I started building my visual conception of this black box. I wanted to create something that one could look into but not fully comprehend. Nor would they be able to see everything inside. Thinking in terms of interaction, buttons would control minimal lighting that only illuminated certain parts of the interior. A potentiometer would scramble and rotate the objects inside, creating a dizzying experience for viewers.

It took me a while to figure out what I’d put inside the box (which ended up being an icosahedron because it allowed for more optical illusions), but I settled on computers, because it aligned with this blending and abstraction of systems within systems whittled down into a tiny device. Initially, I wanted the monitors to show something that had a personal connection to my own data, or my own inner workings, but didn’t find that as visually compelling. Inspired by Everest Pipkin and Allison Parrish’s talk, I used Google’s “I’m feeling lucky” tool to populate random images of places I’d never been to but would like to visit. This is one of the early iterations of this idea:

Moving into ecologies, materiality, and bodies in CC&C, I started thinking about digital archives, longevity and materiality thousands of years from now, ideas on legacy, and representations of self through the various algorithms we use to classify and monitor our bodies (eventually across all my classes this topic was all I could think about). For Design For Communication, my partner and I connected on our interest in the intersection of death and technology, and with ideas flowing from one class to the next, I began thinking about this black box as a vessel for a digital graveyard. With all these new ways we ensure digital preservation, is there any guarantee that these things will remain 1,000, 10,000 years from now? In addition, all the weekly projects provided constraints for my project. It was fun trying to figure out how adding particle systems or sound would align with these concepts.

By the end of this course, I created an environment that somehow (maybe loosely) tied all these ideas on black box machinery, archiving, and digital legacy together. In line with the lack of transparency and difficulty in comprehension, I wanted the images and sounds to start out more distorted and incomplete. Perhaps the viewer would assume the position of someone from the future, who was trying to uncover the story and the workings behind the black box interior. As they moved through the environment, they’d attempt to piece back together the full track, or maybe create a completely new one. I really wanted the screens with the images to have their pixelation/distortion controlled by a potentiometer, but could not get the two cameras working (all my mask settings are set correctly, but the second camera just won’t render in game mode).

The above shows the main camera in game mode without the second camera with the pixel layer.

As an alternative, I tried using a particle system to emulate TV static on the monitor, and a potentiometer would control the emission and noise. Since I’m not in love with the result, I didn’t add it to all the screens. I also added a cloud particle system to enhance this initial setting of obscurity. A potentiometer turns it on and off (but it runs through the entire cycle first).

For the rest of interactions, the four buttons each control two point lights. The light sensor controls both the pitch of the layers and the brightness of the room light (there’s no happy equilibrium, it’s either completely dark or too bright, consistent with making it a challenge for the viewer (: ) .

For non-arduino interactions, my keyboard arrows control the movement of the cursor, and the trackpad can control up and down movement. I can grab the scene to rotate the camera around as well. One thing I was proud of was figuring out how to trigger sounds upon my cursor colliding with them. But, I can turn them off by clicking on the monitor in case the sounds get too crazy.

There are still a lot of things I want to add to this and modify, but here’s the current version! I’m slow & bad at showing all the different parts working at once, but hopefully it conveys the overall narrative well.