Building by imagination

It’s not every day you come across an instrument made out of fabric but that’s exactly what Trevor Hunter and his team created as part of their Physical Computing and Interaction Design Studio course.

Trevor Hunter is a tutor in the schools of Education and Engineering and he is currently studying his Masters of Interaction Design. Read about his experience developing ‘SoundGarden’, a visual and interactive instrument that uses technology and movement to create music.

Trevor’s learning new skills; his first time using a sewing machine to create the cloth structures for SoundGarden.

Trevor’s learning new skills; his first time using a sewing machine to create the cloth structures for SoundGarden.

Physical Computing and Interaction Design Studio is a course where I could develop my skills by creating a new and physically engaging interactive user interface for a computer application. During my studies I worked in a team of four students from different backgrounds of study to design and build our course project. The culmination of the course was to present our concept at a public exhibit held at The Edge in Southbank.

The installation we created for the exhibit was SoundGarden, an interactive instrumental space where performers engage with a user interface consisting of stretchy fabric surfaces, to create musical expression. The tactile surfaces of the fabric allows the user to be a composer, learner and performer. Combining music with a visual display, SoundGarden provides an engaging performance that aims to be as interesting for the audience as it is for the performer.

SoundGarden is a collaborative environment, allowing several people to work together to create a composition. By manipulating and changing the loops of sound material, they build their own version of a popular song form, while interacting with the panels also becomes part of the visual performance produced.

Our team consisted of people studying Interaction Design, Computer Science and Information Technology (User Experience Design). We worked through a user-centred design process to find out what people could imagine with this concept and what would be a fun and rewarding experience. We also had to consider what type of interaction would make sense in terms of creating music. Finally, we had to consider what would be appealing to users and the audience – after all, creating music can be difficult and at times sound awful. I must have put my family through hell when I was learning to play the bassoon. The sound of a sick cow springs to mind.

The initial build of the prototype. Using a makey makey to create the foot pedals (Makey Makey is an invention kit for the 21st century. Turn everyday objects into touchpads and combine them with the internet. It's a simple Invention Kit for Beginners and Experts doing art, engineering, and everything in between).

To make SoundGarden a reality we explored new technologies and coding languages, and drew inspiration from existing projects. Finally, we managed to create something different and exciting.

Following the exhibition I’ve been given the opportunity to improve and extend SoundGarden as part of my master’s program where I will be able to work from the School of Information Technology and collaborate with students in the School of Music.

Throughout the Master of Interaction Design degree, I have had the opportunity to build on the knowledge I have gained from other courses and create some amazing concepts that have been displayed at various awards and functions – a great recognition for the hard work put in during the course.

Physical Computing and Interaction Design Studio was a well-structured course that provided a stepwise guide through the design process to iterate your theme and develop it to a viable prototype for presentation at the exhibition. The structure allowed exploration and development of your project to a level that was only limited by your imagination. The tutors were always there to help with ideas and techniques and there was a great comradery among the students in the course.

First time colour images were projected onto the sails.

The experiences and the skills you gain from actually building something real, and sometimes physical, are priceless. In learning by doing, I used and enhanced my critical analysis, problem solving and design skills which enabled me to expand my learning past my normal realm immeasurably. Beyond making something that you are proud of and can include in a portfolio for potential employers, there is a sense of achievement and pride in your work and abilities. For me, it’s more than just theoretical knowledge. I feel that I have developed skills in both design and in application development that I can and will continue to use in my future career.

As an educator with thirty years of teaching in secondary education and more recently a tutor in design and education at UQ, I’ve found that the design skills I have learnt over the past few semesters are skills I can use in many different contexts. Whether it is a written project, a dynamic and creative installation, a functional piece of furniture or a project to support social inclusion, it must be designed for the people who will use it. If those people can’t use it, it doesn’t work. This was the philosophy we lived by in the creation of SoundGarden, and is a strong philosophy of my master’s program. Looking to the workforce, I feel that this will provide me with what the industry needs and is looking for.

Final build of SoundGarden's software.

Tutoring in the schools of Education and Engineering has been an awesome experience. I have really enjoyed being able to work with and mentor other students as they learn about design.The students are so creative and they continually push my understanding into new and interesting contexts. The diversity of students at UQ really creates a rich and enjoyable environment. Personally, it has been of so much benefit to me as it has enhanced and extended my understanding of my field.

When I was teaching, the students who succeeded were those who had an enquiring mind and took the guidance of how to learn. They did not learn by being told what to learn. As a teacher and tutor, I have taken away a great deal of learning particularly about the importance of active teaching and its benefits for learning. As the age old proverb goes, ‘Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.’ It’s a notion necessary in all levels of education, although some would argue even more crucial for Higher Education. Teaching someone to do something for themselves rather than doing it for them builds true capacity; it is lasting. That, I believe is what university graduates going into the real working world need.