Celebrating 150 years of organized elements
2019 marks 150 years since Russian chemist Dmitri Mendeleev spoke in front of the Russian Chemical Society about a new method for organizing the known and yet-to-be-identified elements. Mendeleev's methodology marked the spaces where elements *should* be and thus inspired chemists for years to come to try to find these missing pieces. To honor this great achievement, the Georgia Tech College of Sciences is participating in the UNESCO International Year of the Periodic Table of Chemical Elements (IYPT). They are sponsoring events and celebrations on campus throughout the year, culminating in an exhibition coinciding with the official opening of the new Crosland Tower library. To aid in this, Dr. Maureen Rouhi came to graduate students in the College of Industrial Design to create an interactive installation to be installed in the structure's atrium.
In this design sprint, I served as a UI, UX, and industrial designer.
Examining the Space
To understand our constraints in physical space, our team of three designers (two MSHCI and one MID) went to the designated area for the installation where we took measurements, reviewed lighting and materials, and evaluated traffic flow.
Although our team had general knowledge of the Periodic Table from high school courses, we felt it necessary to review information and dive a little deeper for a better understanding. Per the recommendation of Dr. Rouhi, I reviewed the content on Ptable.com. This is because Ptable features a range of information on elements from their groups, properties, abundance, to their isotopes and compounds. What I quickly realized is that there is just so much information on the elements that it can be overwhelming. We wanted our experience to be easy to jump into without heavy knowledge of chemistry, so this was a barrier we would have to overcome. We needed to narrow down the information we wanted to share so that viewers either were not turned off by the knowledge requirement or they were not forced to engage with it for hours to see all the content.
The elements were not the only information we wanted to relay. We also wanted to stay on track with the meaning for the event: to honor and celebrate Dimitri Mendeleev and his achievement. Because of this, I also brushed up on the life of Dmitri Mendeleev and the background of his creation
What it Offers
Because this exhibition would be hosted on Georgia Tech's campus, we can make a few assumptions on who typical visitor would be. Simply because of the location, we can assume that most visitors are going to either be Georgia Tech students, faculty, friends, or family. This means that generally one can assume users will have a higher than average academic and interest level in the experience, but we do not want to settle with just that. Because this exhibition is on a public and academic space, we also want to be inclusive of all ages and capabilities. For students and adults, the experience could be a fun distraction, but for their children or siblings, it could be inspirational. We also want to be considerate of those with visual, hearing, or motor impairments and facilitate their engagement where possible as well.
To begin our ideation, each team member separated and sketched a series of ideas. We then presented them to each other and began to build upon our initial concepts. Some were scrapped. Some were merged.
Ultimately, we landed on in installation based around a series of pedestals and a paired display. We wanted to have an architectural aspect to our design so that even when not in use, it was an interesting part of the environment. We also wanted the experience to serve multiple people simultaneously, turning it into a social adventure. Atop each pedestal, we wanted to have a different representation of the world: a plant (flora), a doll (fauna), a bottle of water (the oceans), a globe (the environment). These objects would serve as representatives of their respective aspect of the world, but also as an interactive trigger to the display. A user would be invited to interact and play with the objects. This would in turn activate an animation on the screen revealing the elements in that aspect of the world.. This would make the importance of the table and elements more evident and relatable to the the user, than say to tell them the half-life of Nihonium.
To kick off the entire interaction and to pull the experience back to the efforts of Mendeleev, we would have an additional pedestal in the center featuring a bust of the chemist. This bust would be toppled over, inviting viewers to correct the object and thereby initiating a brief biography and introduction to the table. Viewers can then interact with the objects at the other pedestals to alter the display. After each pedestal has been interacted with or after a set period of time, the bust would then topple itself over again, resetting the experience for future viewers.
To help us better understand the space and test our proportions, one of our team members create a 3D model of the space based on our previous measurements.
Practical implementation was one of the key considerations we had in designing our experience. I wanted to ensure that whatever we created could be made efficiently and realistically with the possibility of scalability if the resources were available. It would have been easy to make an incredible experience with no limitations, but we also wanted to stay grounded with what was feasible in both time and cost.
One of the luxuries of pedestals is that they are extremely simple objects. Numerous pedestals were readily available to be appropriated for the installation and can also be made efficiently and in a cost-effective manner. Additionally, they can be easily varied and modified. Because we want the experience to be accessible for children and those who may be in wheelchairs, we can make some of the pedestals lower for easy reach. Additionally, if handling the object atop the pedestal proves too difficult, we can include a "failsafe" switch at the side of each pedestal that can trigger the interaction.
To facilitate the theme of cost-efficiency, we looked at a variety of ways to represent our representations. One of the things we wanted to do was emphasize how elements affect every part of our lives. In this case, use of mundane objects may actually benefit our goals. An easy way out would be to print a 3D model of each object. This would promote cohesion with the items, but would also take the life out of them. For representing water, we discovered a budget-friendly way to mix dyed water and baby oil into a bottle to create a realistic depiction of the ocean in motion. For Georgia Tech, we would simply just need to acquire a plush of our beloved mascot Buzz for users to squeeze. For plants we would just need to go outside and see what we can find or settle for purchasing a small potted plant.
The triggers for these would also be scalable. On the higher end, each object would have a unique activation: swirl the water in the bottle, correct the bust, squeeze the plush, etc. But on a lower cost scale, we could simply have each object connected to a wire that pulls a switch when lifted.
The physical surface of the display is important to the resting state and attraction of the installation. At its base level though, it can be created from cut 0.25" foam board. This would create a clean, white projection surface that is also lightweight and cost effective. If desired, then a higher end reflective material could be used instead. For additional effect, Phillips Hue strips can be added behind the plexiglass wall to emphasize the environment's status. To project the content onto the screen, we can make use of the pedestals to embed projectors into a hidden shelf on the upstage side. This would save valuable foot space as well as keep the experience immersive.