Designing Interactive Environments and Cognitive Spaces

By rethinking the boundaries of digital design, we can create captivating experiences by merging the digital world with the physical one. This opens up the possibility of creating a fully immersive environment that allows users to interact with their environment in new and creative ways. By combining the convenience of mobile and desktop technology with the sensory experiences of the physical world, we can create a truly unique and engaging experience that will captivate users and leave them eager to explore more.

Design is now available in numerous forms and sizes, from wearables to handhelds, arena-sized installations to virtual, borderless experiences. As designers, we must stay abreast of fast-evolving technology, such as point-and-click, in order to remain relevant. Nevertheless, we should always remember that our primary source of inspiration and approach to problem-solving should be rooted in the human experience.

An Overview of Interactive Environments

It is hard to conceive of our current world without the benefits of multi-touch technology, and to understand how we got here, we must take a look at the past. Bill Buxton put together an extensive catalogue of historical breakthroughs in the area of multi-touch, commencing from 1965, when E.A. Johnson’s finger-operated interface was widely accepted as the first of its kind.

Despite the invention of science-fiction futurism, humanity has long been fascinated by the concept of controlling the environment around them with a mere gesture or wave of the hand. As early as 1941, Robert A Heinslein explored this idea in his novella, “Universe,” which was published in Astounding Science Fiction and later included in the 1963 book Orphans in the Sky, alongside its follow-up “Common Sense.” Heinslein’s work depicted a world in which machinery was operated through a light that could be triggered by the placement of one’s hand, rather than by physical controls.

As technology and its potential for human-machine interaction have advanced over the years, many authors, directors and producers have stimulated our imaginations with a variety of fictional interfaces, such as those seen in Star Trek, Tron, Blade Runner, and the highly iconic Heads-up-Display UI featured in Steven Spielberg‘s Minority Report.

John Underkoffler‘s Oblong platform, referred to as ‘g-speak’, has been made a reality as evidenced by his TED 2010 lecture ‘Pointing to the Future of UI’. These imaginative ideas are being increasingly implemented into our present day world, allowing us to better interact with our viewers through current technological advancements.

Leaving the Device and Entering the Real World

In a Sensory World, Curiosity

As human beings, our inherent curiosity is something that should be continuously nurtured. In the current climate of digital touchpoints and the Internet of Things, there is an abundance of opportunities for consumers to explore and connect with each other. With this in mind, users now expect more from their interactive experiences, and we are presented with more possibilities than ever before to reach them on a personal level.

As designers, we can explore new possibilities for creating engaging and immersive experiences by stepping outside the traditional mobile and desktop models. Drawing inspiration from recent installation and exhibition artists, we can develop multi-sensory environments that go beyond mere aesthetics, allowing us to stimulate our audiences with a variety of stimuli. This will enable us to create memorable, captivating experiences that truly draw in our viewers and allow them to become immersed in our unique creations.

GladeNew® recently opened their “Museum of Feelings” pop-up display in New York City, providing visitors with a unique five-zone multi-sensory experience. Each zone offered an interactive journey of sight, sound, touch, and smell, immersing museum-goers in a world of visual, tactile, aural, and olfactory delights.

Opportunities in the Industry

As the awareness of the potential to create interactive, intelligent environments, with corresponding marketing or social benefits, increases among both individuals and businesses (as evidenced by the Planar “Digital Signage At-a-Glance” infographic), designers will be presented with an ever-growing range of possibilities to create unique experiences for physical spaces.

Some of these solutions are already in use in the following sectors, and additional industries are starting to use smart space designs.

As advancements in gesture and voice control, holographic projections, augmented, virtual, and mixed reality, as well as the development of neural lace technology come to the forefront, designers have an unprecedented opportunity to help people immerse themselves in a particular moment or emotion, or even transport them to alternate realities. It is truly an exciting time to be a designer!

What Motivates the Design Process?

Don’t Use Technology Only For the Sake of Using it

The implementation of large-scale audio-visual systems, such as desktop computers and mobile devices, has revolutionised the way in which information is communicated and stories are told, enabling the creation of powerful and evocative emotional experiences. As Apple’s late CEO, Steve Jobs, noted in an interview at the 1997 World Wide Developers Conference, the successful design of such technology begins with a focus on the user experience, with the technology being developed to meet the needs of the user, rather than attempting to develop the technology and then attempting to find a market for it.

It is important to remember that technological trends should not be the foundation of your design. The use of sophisticated gadgets and electronic devices should be avoided unless they directly add value to the user. While Sony’s CLEDIS Display is visually impressive, it is essential to evaluate the expense of such a display and ensure that its use is justified by a clear and logical purpose. Each design choice should be carefully considered to ensure that it is beneficial to the user.

Use Storytelling and Empathy to Communicate Ideas

If stories and narratives can be used to evoke strong emotional responses, then it is essential that we establish a relationship with our audience. By designing with empathy, we can gain insight into how people interact with their environment and how they think, feel and act. This will enable us to create an atmosphere that encourages people to look beyond themselves and be motivated to take action or react to the visuals and ambiance of the space or event.

At Skullmapping‘s 2015 “Le Petit Chef” Dinner Time Stories, diners were delighted to witness the projection mapping of a small chef transforming a dinner plate into a grill. As they watched the story unfold, the patrons were captivated by the charming character’s virtues and flaws. It was an entertaining way to wait for their meal to be prepared.

Increasing Brand Awareness

Creating a Brand Story

In 2015, S7 Airlines and Wieden + Kennedy Amsterdam worked together on an innovative and exciting campaign in a busy shopping mall in Moscow. Entitled “Fly to Any Place You Can Imagine”, the aim of the campaign was to urge visitors to think beyond the boundaries of their own lives and explore the wider world. The “Imagination Machine” was set up for visitors to use. It connected to an EEG device, and enabled participants to fly a virtual jet to their chosen destination anywhere in the world simply by concentrating on their ideal spot. If they were able to stay focused and reach their destination, they would receive a round trip ticket to the place they had chosen.

It is not always feasible to provide extravagant rewards in an interactive campaign; however, it is essential to offer something in return for the audience’s time and effort. This could be in the form of knowledge, an emotional response, or the ability to spread the message further. By doing so, those engaging with the campaign are provided with an incentive to participate and can benefit from the experience in a variety of ways. Ultimately, this will have a positive effect on brand exposure.

Participation and Sharing in the Community

Nike is a globally-recognised brand that has achieved immense success throughout the world. From their iconic swoosh emblem to their famous slogan “Just Do It”, the name Nike is well-known in contemporary society. The company puts in a lot of effort to ensure that all their branding remains consistent, while also pushing the boundaries of design and exploring new avenues to further promote their brand.

Nike’s pioneering “Unlimited Stadium” in Bonifacio Global City, Philippines, is a remarkable example of their innovation. This pop-up racing track was surrounded by full-sized LED screens, which were designed to motivate and challenge runners to better their own performance. The goal of the stadium was to provide the opportunity for runners to challenge themselves and strive to achieve faster times than their previous lap times.

The utilisation of racing as a gamification tool for Nike to incorporate their signature colours and fonts was an effective way to promote their LunarEpic shoe range. This creative concept was successfully executed, demonstrating an impressive level of comprehensive brand strategy.

When designing for large-scale environments, it is important to ensure that not only are you impressing your audience but that you are also paying attention to the minor details from both a formative and functional point of view. It is also essential to engage your audience, getting them to become active contributors and to be a part of the story. This can be done through the use of interactive elements, making them feel connected to the narrative.

In order to create an engaging atmosphere and generate interest in the public eye, interactive environments often incorporate social media and location-based services to enable visitors to share their presence with others. An example of this is Gonzaga University‘s “Zag Wall”, which was developed by Second Story. This digital representation of a long-standing tradition of students signing the university’s campus wall enables a much larger group of individuals to contribute to the artwork, and allows it to be shared with a wider audience.

Creating a user experience that is both simple and enjoyable for visitors to share with their peers and colleagues is a key strategy for not only increasing awareness of the design of the environment, but also of the brand itself. If a design is successful, it is likely that individuals will spread the word to their friends, so there is no need to be afraid of becoming viral.

Conditional Considerations Improve Audience Engagement

Interactive environment design is more than just the aesthetic appeal of a space; it requires an interdisciplinary approach that combines the expertise of many professionals. Architects and fabricators collaborate with audio-visual technicians, psychologists, researchers, engineers, designers, content producers, and copywriters to develop stimulating and engaging spatial experiences.

When developing designs for interactive environments, mobile or web designs, the output of the solution can be greatly affected by factors such as size, medium, and others. Smaller experiences may not require taking into consideration environmental, material, or physical elements; as a result, user narratives and functional parameters may be different when the design must accommodate the use of the entire human body, as opposed to small-scale interactions. When designing for effective experiences in the presence of environmental elements, it is important to recognise the design conditions that are impacted and make necessary adjustments to satisfy their requirements.

Moment Factory‘s “Voyage Discovery” installation at the Tom Bradley International Terminal of Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) was designed to evoke the magic and romance of travel, while also reinforcing the terminal’s identity as a destination in its own right. The goal of the project was to provide passengers with an enhanced experience, and to create an engaging and memorable atmosphere.

The audience of the terminal are taken on a journey through the architectural space, with the clock tower serving as a prominent feature that may extend to encompass other elements within the terminal. During the design and delivery process of the terminal, which spanned sixteen months, many conditions had to be taken into account. Even prior to the creation of preliminary drawings, we had to consider the following criteria in order to ensure that the terminal was able to capture the attention of its consumers in any setting:

Environmental Aspects

Interactive environments are defined as any contained or established physical area. The design of these environments must take into account several factors in order to maximise visibility and wayfinding. These factors include the boundaries of the environment, whether it is indoors or outdoors, the availability of natural or artificial light, and any ambient immovable physical barriers that may obscure vision or create unwanted shadows. It is important to adjust the design to account for environmental elements such as time of day, temperature, and weather in order to ensure that the visibility and wayfinding of the environment is not compromised.

Sound is a fundamental element of the environment and its importance should not be underestimated. In highly frequented public places, it is important to take into account the existing ambient noise when designing the environment, and to use sound installation to create atmosphere rather than to lead instructional queues. This is because sound installations can often be at odds with the noise generated by visitors, and are more effective when used in a quiet environment.

When taking into account the demographic of the audience, whether there will be children or adults in attendance, or a combination of the two, it is important to consider the environmental and cultural norms of the community within which the event or product will be situated. Designing with these specifics in mind can help ensure that the audience is engaged and that the event/product resonates with them.

Material Elements

The physical materials which are utilised in the fabrication process could have a considerable impact on the design. It is important to consider the architecture of the environment in which the fabrication process is taking place, as this could affect not only the structure of the design, but also the technology which is employed. When discussing the use of a large number of processors and screens working in unison, it is also imperative to take into account the energy consumption and heat emissions that may be generated. To ensure that the environment is kept cool, additional ventilation may be required.

It is essential that your fabrication designs not only comply with the applicable environmental regulations and permissions, but that they also accommodate regular maintenance. Even after the initial installation, it is possible for problems to arise; therefore, to ensure your customer receives the best long-term solution, it is important to develop a maintenance plan that includes regular cleaning, repairs, and any content updates that may become necessary.

Due to the numerous technologies available for creating large-scale interactive experiences, it is essential to assess the surfaces, textures, and objects used in real time. To ensure that the desired aesthetic outcome is achieved, it is advisable to gather sample materials prior to the installation of the area. This is because it is not always possible to predict how much specular reflection or transparency will result if the wrong material is chosen.

Factors of Function

The goal of the environment must be established as the basis for deciding which data and information to present to the audience. This is essential for determining the level of engagement between the intelligent space and its end result. Different types of settings, such as perceptual, discoverable, exploratory, sensory, and immersive, can be used either singularly or in combination to create either passive or active interactions with the audience.

It is essential that we consider the environmental implications of privacy and administrative issues. In order to ensure the protection of sensitive material and the capability to present information, specific tools may be needed that make the material inaccessible to passers-by. We must also consider the longevity of the software, as well as its scalability for future use. Is the system open to iterative change and development, or is it a closed system with limited room for advancement? Additionally, we must verify the accuracy of the data. Furthermore, what kind of spatial depth and user feedback does the experience provide? We take all of these questions into account when creating each unique experience.

Regardless of the type of data, be it content management system database inputs, API pushed data, live collected statistics, or even those expanded upon with machine learning intelligence, it can be managed in a variety of manners, including but not limited to, touch, voice, gesture and motion sensors, temperature sensors, gamepads, objects or devices, augmented reality, mixed reality, artificial intelligence, or even brain waves. With time and geographical depth, as well as the technical solution that supports it, the way the functionality is delivered is countless, and this data can be used to gain a better understanding of our user base, resulting in improved operational efficiency.

Physical Elements

The size of the installation, the visibility of the environment, and the static or dynamic physical elements can all shape the design and the function of the user experience. By combining digital and physical components and employing user-centric interactions, we can guide users to become active participants in their goals and enable them to interact with the world around them in a natural and organic way, just as they do in their everyday lives.

It is essential to bear in mind that all environments should be developed with accessibility in mind, taking into account the target audience. In order to ensure this, touch points which require physical contact should be accessible to people of all sizes and those who use wheelchairs or other assistance equipment. Furthermore, care must be taken to ensure readability is not hindered through the use of small fonts or poor contrast. In this way, all members of the public can access and enjoy the environment.

It is important to bear in mind that everyone has different physical stamina levels. This should be taken into consideration when designing interactive installations, as user fatigue is a common issue. For this reason, it is recommended that interactives be created in such a way that users do not have to keep their arms elevated for extended periods of time or have to reach for objects that are placed at an awkward height.

Factors of Emotion

It is not simply sufficient to produce objects that are practical, understandable, and usable; we must also craft items that bring delight and enthusiasm, pleasure and amusement, and, indeed, beauty into people’s lives. As Don Norman puts it, “Beauty matters. It’s not an extra; it’s an integral part of any design that seeks to create products that people will love to use.

In order to effectively engage an audience, it is essential to consider their emotional state and attempt to captivate their interest. This can be achieved by providing a narrative that is both intuitive and engaging. Clear communication is necessary to ensure that the audience understands the objective, but it is also beneficial to include elements that make the experience enjoyable. Doing so will encourage them to explore the environment and discover new insights.

Given the various cultural identities and social groupings of an audience, the tale we tell them can have significant anthropological implications. Therefore, it is essential that we design experiences with a sense of social and cultural responsibility in order to not only evoke emotions and feelings within the audience’s cultural parameters, but also to allow them to expand their horizons and think outside of the box.

As app designers, we are always mindful of how we use a user’s data. This is particularly important in an environment where settings are often public and users are frequently socially engaging without the ability to opt-in to the activity. It is essential that we respect the privacy of each visitor and adhere to ethical standards.

By setting flexible objectives, you can give the audience the opportunity to take control of their own journey, allowing them to feel as if they are the authors of their own story. This can help to foster user trust in their individual experience. Additionally, you may consider incorporating social elements, interactive games, and sensory modalities in order to further promote user advocacy and connection.

Acquiring and Retaining Knowledge

Interactivity Enhances Learning

For some time, interactive learning tools have been implemented in the classroom, but their widespread adoption has only been seen in recent years due to the positive findings from research on their benefits. While interactive settings are not necessarily intended for the traditional classroom, similar principles of knowledge retention can be applied when discussing the use of digital tools for learning.

According to research conducted at the University of Illinois in 2013, it is evident that students learn in many different ways. Approximately 10% of students are predominantly auditory learners, 40% are visual learners, and 50% learn best through active learning. However, it is clear that students benefit from being exposed to knowledge in multiple modalities, irrespective of the type of learner they are.

Active learning is a concept that has been further elucidated by the Learning Pyramid, a model developed by the National Training Laboratories which illustrates how knowledge retention significantly decreases when not practiced in an active setting. Participation in learning activities, as opposed to simply observing them, ensures that more information is retained as it provides the learner with the opportunity to interact with the material and gain practical experience. Although there is no definitive formula to follow, it is generally accepted that learners will be able to comprehend more when they are engaged in activities that involve listening, seeing, touching, and actively participating.

When we design for large-scale active learning in an environmental context, we do the following:

  1. Attract

    Begin by directing the viewer’s attention to your environmental focal point (s)
  2. Engage

    Engage people with empathy and meaningful material that is relevant to them
  3. Experience

    Allow them to feel an emotional reaction
  4. Explore

    Allow them to investigate further by taking action (s)
  5. Discover

    Encourage social and group cooperation
  6. Reward

    Give your audience something of worth in exchange for their engagement

Risks in Qualitative Design

Being Conservative

When it comes to constructing an installation, it is important to take risks in order to achieve the best possible outcome. Although budget restrictions should be taken into consideration, it is beneficial to suggest solutions that may be more costly, as these will be an investment in the client’s brand experience.

No experience is more disappointing than entering a space that is meant to be “smart,” only to find that it is anything but. Playing it safe may lead to unimaginative or tedious writing, or writing that is disorganised and lacks impact. If your content is ill-conceived and the visualisations are unattractive, it is advisable that you avoid producing it in physical form.

Go Big or Go Home

Going to extremes can have disastrous consequences. Trying to include too much in a product design can make the product overly complex and, thus, too heavily designed. Taking risks does not necessarily mean putting all of your effort into one thing. This may include different setup steps or various features accessible within the same program. To make sure that the brand experience is not overwhelmed, spread out the information you are providing.

It is essential to keep in mind that innovating for the sake of technology is not advisable. If you try to add all the technology you can think of in order to make your experience stand out, it is likely that you will be negatively judged.

You shouldn’t do anything just because you can. Lieutenant Colonel Carlos A. Keasler

Taking risks and pushing the boundaries of what is comfortable for your client can often result in the most innovative and creative ideas. By employing unique techniques and ideas to express creative concepts, while still maintaining a simple premise and a clear purpose, you can often yield successful and rewarding results.

Achieving the perfect balance between corporate brand objectives, technology and applications, and the user narrative journey is essential for success. Taking calculated risks in each of these areas is a great way to create a unique and enjoyable experience that stands out from the crowd. By doing so, you will be able to craft an interactive environment that is truly memorable.

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