(manufactured) realities

Introduction screen, featured on projection screens and mobile devices

Project overview

“Falsehood flies, and the Truth comes limping after it,” Jonathan Swift

(manufactured) realities is a project created to truly evaluate whether our beliefs are based on facts. In order to do this, the team selected six news stories, three true stories, and three stories that were released and later on retracted or debunked by credible news organizations. The upsurge in conflicting information has fuelled much discussion in 2018. ‘Our inability to parse truth from fiction on the Internet is, of course, more than an academic matter. The scourge of “fake news” and its many cousins–from clickbait to “deep fakes” (realistic-looking videos showing events that never happened)–have experts fearful for the future of democracy.’ (Steinmetz, Time Magazine, 2018) The six chosen articles are presented, and after each, the participants will be given a chance to submit a vote on whether they believe it or challenge it. Once all votes are in, the servo device will show the results of the poll as the projector reveals whether the story is true or fraudulent. Once all six questions are answered, we end the exercise on a result page which will show the overall accuracy of the group and also the accuracy of each question.

Right: (manufactured) realities team, Left: Main screen projection in back and accuracy reader in front

Intended context

How we receive information is more complex than ever before. It used to be as simple as picking up a book or a newspaper to update yourself on the news, current events or specialized educational materials. These media sources are held to rigours ethical standards, and if they ever breach this code of conduct, a retraction must be printed and released to the public. The more retractions, the less credible the publication becomes. Nice and simple. This simplicity has been turned on its head all thanks to social media. Nowadays, we are constantly overwhelmed with information, some of it playful and useless, some educational and enlightening but some streams of information are created only to conflict and confuse the public. With all of this content being released hourly to various public channels, there is more emphasis on releasing the information first and less concern about releasing accurate information. There has been a shift from reading credible sources by publishers to consuming information by our favourite ‘content creators’. These new creators of content do not run by any rigorous code of conduct and simply publish what they believe to be true. They also share articles with their subscribers and/or followers, further amplifying the story without knowing (or caring) if it is in fact credible. ‘A false story is much more likely to go viral than a real story’ (Meyer, The Atlantic, 2018) Media awareness is a long-standing issue; it is very easy for the person with the microphone to sway a crowd in their favour. The time we live in now goes far beyond that; we simply do not know what to believe anymore and we are losing concern.

Product video

Production materials

Our aim in this project was to use a combination of hardware and software to create a seamless and straightforward evocative experience to spark conversation. The following materials were used for this project:

  • 1x Arduino Micro
  • 1x Laptop
  • 1x USB cord
  • 1x Strip of NeoPixel Lights
  • 2x Servos
  • 1x Breadboard
  • 1x Plywood
  • 1x Parchment paper
  • 1x Projector

Ideation

During the ideation phase, the team came up with many exciting options. The focus of each of our ideas was to create something that is extremely relevant and pertinent. We wanted to create a think piece to challenge assumptions and perceptions. The main points we wanted to cover were:

  • There are few ways to validate content on the internet and not enough interest to do so
  • Create a survey for everyone to do at the same time
  • Generate live results on screen
  • Use this to gauge perceptions or confirmation bias

We were also mindful about the potential for the scalability of this experience. While the prototype itself was built for a small group of people, the intent was to set the foundation for a product that can easily scale to more extensive experience and audience in the future.

Mapping the experience

Once the idea was finalized, the next step was to flesh out all the details, including the flow of the experience. We began the process by creating a user flow diagram. We broke down the hardware, software, API instances, and how each of them is interconnected. It was vital to iterate the different pieces of the puzzle and see how they fit together.

User flow diagram

Wireframes

Once the flow was set, we focused on information architecture across all the devices. Wireframes with placeholder content helped visualize the skeleton for the experience. Since the projector functions as the centrepiece for communication, there needed to be a visual connection to the mobile phones which worked as a balloting device.

Projector Experience Wireframes
The Projector experience would hold the critical question screens, the response screens and the final result screen to conclude the experience.

Projector Wireframes

Mobile Experience Wireframes
Mobile devices around the room will function purely as ballots, and the projector will take centre stage as soon as the voting process ends. The team put much consideration into the flow of the participant’s attention.

Mobile Phone Wireframes

Finding the news stories

The team took the selection of stories very seriously and took the time needed to research and find surprising news that shook the world when it was released. We remembered stories that had stood out for us in the past, and looked for current pressing issues that were creating a stir. We also divided the stories into true reports and false ones. For this project, we felt it was important not to make up false stories, but instead, find stories that were released as true before being retracted later. This was crucial for the overall project objective. The team checked multiple sources and created a database of 15 stories initially before shortlisting 6 with a random order of fake and true stories.

Veda, April and Omid searching for fabricated news stories

User Interface Design

It was important to create something that would draw passers in and chose a motion graphic with a intriguing soundtrack as the intro screen. For the identity design, we wanted to create something striking and modern.

Another difficult problem we were facing was the use of three different interfaces. The team put much consideration into the flow of the participant’s attention. Since there would be three interfaces in play, we made sure to include as much visual feedback as possible to make sure participants knew where to look and when.

Introduction screen, displayed on projector and mobile devices

The team thought it would be essential to add a disclaimer screen to ensure that the exercise is well accepted. While we tried to be as mindful as possible while picking the stories, we knew that it was equally important to respect our participants sentiment. Then we shifted focus to the news article in question.

Display Screens
First draft of the User Interface
Right, Mobile Screen UI for ballots. Left, Mobile Screen, feedback to allow a user to know they have completed the vote

Programming

Controlling the flow of the experience was a high priority. To do this, we decided to create three different pages. A page to display the news articles and the answers on a projection screen. An admin page, giving a button to a ‘moderator’ who will keep track of what page will be shown and a user page which acts as a ballot for every person involved in the experience. We know how important it was to choose appropriate articles that are related to today’s world and also topics that people are very opinionated about. To have more time to find the right questions, we decided to start with a simple structure for the program.

Connection to PubNub
For our first step, we created the connection between the three pages to the PubNub and tested the communication between the three pages. The admin page sends data to PubNub commanding which page to be shown on the other two pages. The user page receives data from the admin page and transmits data to the display page regarding the votes of the user. The display receives data from the admin and the user page to display the number of votes. Once everything was working, we added all to the articles to the display page and tested the program to make sure everything goes correctly. We then added a final page to show the results of the survey and allow the users to reflect on the experience that they just had.

Building and Testing of the final infrastructure

Servos and NeoPixel hardware
After creating the basic coding structure and testing it by sending messages from each page to other, we added the communication to the Arduino Micro by the Serial Connection. We tested the communication by sending angles for the servos to the board based on the votes received in each category. The original idea included the lights to transition into 3 phases; a standby state would have the white lights, polling state would use a colour library from adafruit to show a rainbow of colours. Finally, when the poll is complete, the lights will turn to green. Unfortunately, the coding for the pixel lights fought with the servo coding, so we had to replace the beautiful colour library option and opt for solid RGB colour, blue matched nicely with the final designs.

Adding Sound
We wanted the users to be focused on answering, and we decided to add audio recordings of each news item to keep a good pace and allow the participants to ingest the content with ease. Adding the sound to the code wasn’t difficult, once it was recorded and edited.

Setting up the circuit for the servos and NeoPixel lights and testing the servos before completing fabrication
Final Circuit Diagram

As a final step to make sure the experience was smooth, we tested each component of the program and ran many trials to make sure everything worked correctly.

Running final tests before presentation begins

Fabrication

Although it wasn’t necessary for this project to have any hardware, we all wanted to add something tangible for one important reason. We wanted this experience to only happen in person and not be a simple online survey that disappears from your mind the moment it is completed. It was also important to continue to spark interest amongst the crowd and a well crafted device with interesting lighting would help achieve that. The base for the device was an original design that was laser cut into thin plywood. Below is a 3D representation used as a mock up.

3D View of the design

The first attempt was cut on cardboard to check the dimensions of the design and the quality of the cut patterns. In this process, we realized how small the lines in the background pattern were once laser cut. Some of the lines broke as soon as they were touched. Some of this was due to the ripples in the cardboard. To make sure this would not happen in our final product, once again we went back to the design and increased the thicknesses of the problem areas.

Prototyping on cardboard, pattern was to intricate and needed to be reworked slightly
Laser cutter in action

We decided to go with a thin layer of plywood. The shop tech was concerned that some pieces would jump out during the cutting process and either hurt the machine or the design, so he set the depth of the laser incisions to not completely cut through. Since there was a natural curve to the piece of plywood, some pieces came out quickly but other parts needed to be cut out later on using a x-acto knife.

Assembling final wooden casing that will house the servo device

For the final prototype, we added an LED Strip to the design so that we could highlight the moments when the users had to look at the servos. To hide all the electronics in the design and further infuse the light, we added a layer of parchment paper behind the patterns.

Fabrication of final product

Presentation & Critique

The feedback we received was positive. The topic was relevant, and many shared similar concerns. There was shock from everyone seeing the final results page display the overall accuracy. It was quite low, sitting at a 41% accuracy rating. Two articles, in particular, were quite convincing although they were both untrue and most people had believed. Having done much research on fake news, we expected people to accept false ideas that fell into their own confirmation bias.

Reflection

Upon reflection, there are a lot of minor tweaks we would make to this project based on the flow of the first presentation to a large group of people. The team learned a great deal about effectively providing a message to a group of people using multiple interfaces, effective communication feedback and the importance of presence upon delivery. This topic is on the top of mind to many of us and we had interesting conversations after each question. It was an eye opener for some and very relevant.

References

Steinmetz, K. (2018, August 09). How Your Brain Tricks You Into Believing Fake News. Retrieved November 26, 2018, from http://time.com/5362183/the-real-fake-news-crisis/

Meyer, R. (2018, March 12). The Grim Conclusions of the Largest-Ever Study of Fake News. Retrieved November 26, 2018, from https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2018/03/largest-study-ever-fake-news-mit-twitter/555104/

English, J. (2016, November 08). Believe It Or Not, This Is Our Very Own River Yamuna. Retrieved November 26, 2018, from http://english.jagran.com/nation-believe-it-or-not-this-is-our-very-own-river-yamuna-72099

“The Office” Women’s Appreciation. (n.d.). Retrieved November 26, 2018, from https://www.imdb.com/title/tt1020711/characters/nm0136797

McLaughlin, E. C. (2017, April 26). Suspect OKs Amazon to hand over Echo recordings in murder case. Retrieved November 26, 2018, from https://www.cnn.com/2017/03/07/tech/amazon-echo-alexa-bentonville-arkansas-murder-case/index.html

Gilbert, D. (2018, November 20). A teenage girl in South Sudan was auctioned off on Facebook. Retrieved November 26, 2018, from https://news.vice.com/en_us/article/8xpqy3/a-teenage-girl-in-south-sudan-was-auctioned-off-on-facebook

The truth behind ‘Fake fingers being used for orchestrating a voting fraud’ rumour. (2018, September 30). Retrieved November 26, 2018, from https://www.opindia.com/2017/02/the-truth-behind-fake-fingers-being-used-for-orchestrating-a-voting-fraud-rumour/

Sherman, C. (2018, November 21). Why the women suing Dartmouth over sexual harassment are no fans of Betsy DeVos. Retrieved November 26, 2018, from https://news.vice.com/en_us/article/d3b3dz/why-the-women-suing-dartmouth-over-sexual-harassment-are-no-fans-of-betsy-devos

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