Douglas Thistlethwaite

'Lanterns' is a site specific sound and light sculpture that explores unmoderated community storytelling through directional audio and reactive lighting embedded in a physical object.

Storytelling has as much to do with situation as it does with memory. Inhabiting community public spaces, 'Lanterns' collects and shares unmoderated stories between community members from physical places within these community.

The final piece will take the form of larger than normal lanterns suspended just above head height from trees or a custom stands in parks and other public spaces throughout a city. Throughout the day and night, ‘Lanterns’ uses intriguing lighting and a unique shape to draw in distant passersby to investigate the installation. When a participant steps underneath the piece, the lantern shares a story from a previous user. After listening to someone else’s story, the participant is then invited to record their own story to add to the piece or to continue listening to more stories.

Using directional sound, 'Lanterns' creates a space of perceived seclusion, while retaining visual immersion in the piece’s location. Each lantern fills with stories unique to its location and facilitates connections between people who inhabit the same place at different times. The stories recorded each day are wirelessly uploaded to a remote database where their content is reviewed and edited if necessary and then sent back to the lantern to be heard by future visitors to the lantern where they were collected.

This project is an experiment in getting people to engage with an object through story. I am also exploring what types of stories make sense in the context of a sound installation that tells stories as well as asks for the user to thoughtfully contribute.
Balancing aesthetic with an interface where people understand what is going on is definitely the main challenge of this project.

Story Research:
My 'Memory Jar' Project from PComp

The Book, Tell Me A Story: Narrative and the Brain, by Roger Shank.

Jonathan Harris' TED Talk

Story Corps

Directional audio
Parabolic directional audio
Parametric speaker array

GSM Data Transfer

Aesthetic Research:
Michael Christian “Home”, burning man globe

Rae Douglas “Energy Dance” moiré patterns

My target audience is people who visit parks or public spaces in off-peak hours. I have found that when there is less activity in the park, people’s thoughts are more reflective about their own life and less distracted by people watching. I would like to capture and share stories from people in this state.

That said, the installation will be around during peak hours as well. During these times people will likely likely be more inclined to listen than to share. In my research, I have found that people are less willing to speak to an object in the park when they are surrounded by other people and do not give their full attention to the lantern’s stories.

User Scenario
This piece is designed to be a long-term installation in parks and other outdoor urban public community space. Visitors to these spaces are attracted to the lantern by its shape and its glowing sides. Once someone is close enough to the lantern, a story held inside of it is triggered by a proximity sensor, with the best audio experience occurring when a participant stands directly under the lantern. As the story plays, light floods out the bottom of the lantern onto the visitor. Should the visitor stay and listen to end of the story, they are be presented with the prompt for the story they just heard and the opportunity to record their own story relating to that prompt by just speaking back to the lantern. If they choose not to share their own story, they can stay and listen to more stories.

Lanterns in made up of four primary elements: the physical lantern structure, audio components for playing and recording the stories, lighting and sensors that direct the piece’s reactivity.

The prototype lantern consists of a 1/2 inch plywood lantern skeleton that houses the Arduino controlled lighting and audio elements of the piece. The design of the skeleton was hand drawn with pen and paper and then translated into vector pieces using Adobe Illustrator. The vector paths were then converted to cut paths in MasterCam and then cut using a CNC router. The cut pieces were then assembled with screws and wood glue.

The Audio component of the piece centers around a parabolic plastic dome at the base of the lantern with an electret microphone and a 3” speaker at the focal point of the dome. When audio bounces off the parabolic shape of the dome it creates a sound space underneath the lantern. Audio output from the lantern is only heard in this space and conversely, sounds made underneath the lantern are focused on to the microphone. The result is a open air private audio space underneath the lantern.

The lighting consists of an array of 12v LED strips. The LEDs provide feedback to the user about the state of audio playback and recording with the lantern. The light of the LEDs is diffused by Vellum paper.