Thesis: AiryLight

Annelie Berner

AiryLight is a light that displays real-time local air quality through changing light patterns.

AiryLight's visualization provokes curiosity about air quality as a broader environmental issue. By presenting the real time local air quality data through beauty and thoughtful experience design, AiryLight gives the data a more tangible and palatable view. Using a moving lens, the light that is emitted from the AiryLight fixture has a varying degree of clarity in its pattern; the smallest, simplest light patterns represent the best air quality, focused patterns represent the midway between good and unhealthy, and the haziest patterns represent the worst air quality.

While the pattern represents an abstract view of the data, etched gears display more detailed information. Tiny changes in particulate matter outside are mapped to the subtle changes in the form of the light pattern. The continuous function creates an ambiance, indoors, that informs you of the environment, outdoors.

At the end of each month, the data plays back through the light, showing each change in values of that past month in a few minutes' light show.

The data is from the New York City site of the Air Quality Index, measured in particulate matter 2.5 m.

1. The Long Now Foundation. (project and book)

2. Things with Attitude: Transformational Products. (paper)

3. "Why We Love Beautiful Things," by Lance Hosey. (NYT article)

4. Spencer Finch, The River that Flows Both Ways

5. Tom Igoe, Making Things Talk

User Scenario
You've owned AiryLight for two months.

You wake up. You walk by where you have installed AiryLight. You look at AiryLight, note the pattern, recognize it as moderate. You continue on with your day - probably leaving for work or some other thing outside of your apartment.

When you come back later that day, you realize the pattern has shifted considerably. Noting this change - perhaps it went from moderate to good - registers in your memory but then you continue on.

Perhaps you have friends over, who are curious about this object that is curious and beautiful. You tell them about it. You have a conversation about air quality. Realize you don't know whether a hot day creates worse or better air quality. After some conjecturing, you google, and learn something new about the background of this object that lives with you.

At first, I planned to make several different objects that would display different environmental data. I knew I wanted to display environmental data because, personally, I care deeply about our environment and cared about inspiring curiosity and awareness in others. As I researched various possibilities for the data, I realized that I wanted to make something that would be surprising, that we would learn from, and that people might find useful. I still knew I wanted to make an object display dynamic data, but chose to winnow the project down to just one object, and just one data source - air quality. In order to make the project as clear and cohesive as possible, I only worked with data from NYC instead of allowing the user to input their location. I decided to use the clock and barometer as my touchpoints - objects that live in the home and teach you their display over time. I coded two interesting variations on the main function - 1. each hour, it cycles from the current reading to the minimum and maximum reading. 2. each month, it displays the past month's air quality readings. These are passive rather than active functions that occur throughout time rather than through user-input. I polled various acquaintances and friends on decisions such as this - and found my path through evaluating their responses against my own goals in the project.
I made a PHP script that reads the airnow website in real time. It reports the values to the Arduino through a WiFi shield. Throughout the day, the stepper motor maps the air quality values to steps, moving the gears to reflect any changes in the air quality. Each hour, it makes one cycle from its current reading to the minimum possible, maximum and then back to the current status. I also created a way to read an entire month's worth of data, stored in the same PHP page and accessed through the Arduino script. The physical fabrication process was one of testing various gear set ups, ensuring a robust movement each time the stepper stepped. I also tested a wide variety of lightbulb and lens set ups and positions.

Throughout my physical design, I showed each stage to my Kinetic Sculpture class - a good source of feedback on the visual designs and communication challenges. I also met with Katherine Dillon several times to evaluate the piece's user experience and communication design given that this is one of her specialties. Because my staging space was in the middle of the hallway at ITP, I constantly had feedback from passersby - whether ITP students or outside visitors. Each passing newcomer to the project would ask me what I was doing, and in the first phases of the project I would pause and explain, asking their feedback on details such as what the light color evoked for them, what feeling they got from the various states of the light patterns, whether they could distinguish between the different patterns. As my project progressed, I tested readability of details such as the etching on the gearbox. As it got more finished, I simply showed them the gear box and diagram mounted with the light in place and asked how they understood the project. I was able to user test the actual final installation with several friends and acquaintances from outside of ITP, who visited my apartment and were able to describe "cold", or without my description, what the thing on my wall was based on its gearbox and overhead patterns. Because the physical design and software took me a fair amount of time to nail down, I was not able to send the product to an unknown user. This sort of user testing will be one of my next steps for AiryLight.

As I finalized the product, I learned that everyone has their own perspective and will happily share it, but I had to find where my own convictions lay - between all of the suggestions and advice that streamed in.

As I showed the final product to fellow students and acquaintances outside of ITP, I found that people want to categorize AiryLight's intent as either functional or art - rather than its true intent, which is something in between functional and design. AiryLight lies in between: I seek to intrigue and provoke curiosity into the issue of air quality through a beautiful object.