Aaron Arntz
Brian Clifton
Jeffrey Ong

Magnetic Life

Life inside of a cube. Manipulated but not controlled.


Introduction to Physical Computing

"Magnetic Life" is a medium-driven exploration of limited but precise user control oftechnology and the physical phenomenon of magnetism. The piece aims to elicit from its audience an initial response of wonder, turning to curiosity, to a conversation.

Using a series of magnets and a translucent cube filled with iron filings, the user is given control over the magnetic field by changing the position of these magnets. In combination, the magnets shape and form the filings into magnificent “creatures” – structures that have a lifelike quality with intricate details and animated characteristics that demand observation. The resulting structure is captured via camera and projected onto the wall behind the cube, exposing the micro-details to the user and bringing it to a scale the user can understand and communicate with more clearly.

Communication from the user to the “creature” is carried out via the controls on the pedestal. By abstracting the communication into these controls, the conversation is some layers removed from direct interaction with the filings. This was done intentionally; the furry appearance of the structure begs for human touch, yet the Plexiglas walls surrounding it prevent this direct interaction with the creature.

Our initial goal with the project was to take a complex computational process and bring it in to the physical world. The hope in doing this was that our audience could learn something about that computational process by it involving more than just the senses / interactions we are used to with digital environments.

This led us to considering computer models of cellular automata, specifically Conway's Game of Life. The complexity that resulted from a single set of rules repeated over many generations was to us a great challenge to try and bring into the physical world. So we explored the idea of using iron filings and electromagnets being turned on and off to represent the cells being "alive" or "dead". The magnetism to us was the kind of physicality necessary to communicate a complex process and perhaps reveal something new to a user of the game.

But when we began to think about how a user would interact with the game, we quickly realized that by definition, no more input is required than the initial state of the board. That is, "[o]ne interacts with the Game of Life by creating an initial configuration and observing how it evolves." Understanding the principles of good physical interaction and the goals we have set for us with the physical computing final, creating a Game of Life scenario would not create the system we were looking for.

At this point, we decided to move forward with the medium of using magnets to control iron filings and began testing what kinds of shapes we could create with trapped metal shavings in translucent boxes. What we found was that, besides being nice to look at, the structures and connections created out of these iron filings became a strong metaphor for great complexity at a small scale -- not small like a computer chip, but small enough where the human eye can still perceive detail.

Using motors to control the positions of magnets, we found the shapes taking on a life and characteristics of their own. Our challenge then became creating a "set" or "scene" for this magnetic life; a way for users to infuse life into their own magnetic structures.

Our target user is someone fascinated by micro-level behaviors resulting in great perceivable change. She is generally curious about the intersection of technology and the natural sciences. Elementary school science experiments were her favorite days of class. Highly visual and abstract images are exciting to her -- she has a great imagination and sees experiences as having life if they exhibit some emotional qualities about them.

User Scenario
A translucent cube sits harshly lit on a pedestal in a dark room, about 4.5 ft high.

A projection is running directly behind and slightly above the cube, displaying an abstract image at first glance -- it looks something like jagged sheetrock, or a furry bridge structure. The projection draws a user to the pedestal where the controls can be seen.

Turning the handles alters the magnetic field, thus rearranging the magnetic filings inside the cube; the user experiments for some time until the conversation is over; she leaves the shape at rest.

Iron filings housed within a clear plexiglass cube are manipulated by magnets whose position is controlled by a user. The magnets are on arms attached to motors; the user is given control of those stepper motors through potentiometers and an Arduino setup. The resulting shape is captured and then projected in large fashion, highlighting the details of the shape created. There is haptic and audio feedback, the former coming via the controller and the latter coming through a series of samples processed in Max /MSP and outputted via monitor speakers.

- Being obsessed with perfection will lead to paralysis.

- Having an interesting medium isn't enough.

- Good interaction requires a conversation between two or more parties.

- Listen to and trust your collaborators.