Welcome to our Holodeck

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As designers, it’s our goal to clearly communicate ideas. To do so, we lean on tools to help convey our thoughts and opinions. In making something feel real, we can understand its effectiveness as a solution. And at the crux of problem solving, is our ability to iterate through multiple solutions in quick succession. Today, thanks to tools like Sketch and Invision — we can iterate at an even faster pace.

3D printers and CAD machines give us the same workflow when it comes to designing physical objects. We can prototype, build and test extremely fast. But there’s more to physical design than just products. Think of retail spaces, spacial or environmental designs. There’s a lot of work done to improve on the way people navigate the spaces around them.

As a team, we set out to answer how we can provide measurable interaction, and the ability to quickly iterate on spacial design. We began experimenting by clearing out a room in our office, noting it as the retail lab, and began exploring a variety of tools to see which best accomplished design tasks around physical spaces.

Here’s what we’ve come up with:

Modular Thinking

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Typically we abstract problems into small segments, set priority and build solutions to test each abstraction. Thinking modularly relieves a lot of pressure from the way we think because now we’re laser focused on one specific need at a time.

In the retail space, we break segments of the physical environment down in the same way. It’s too broad to think that we can look at the entire solution as one holistic object. To mitigate that, we use physical constraints to force us to look at one piece of the puzzle at a time.

Our first constraint is the actual size of our prototype environment. A smaller, closed off room typically means we can concentrate on only one area or feature of a store at a time. As an example, if the environment is retail based, we should be focused down to a single aisle or counter of a store.

And to keep the space void of bias, it’s completely flexible. We found the most modular pieces of furniture possible. Nothing is fixed, everything can be move or re-ordered to fit the needs of the space. Walls are panels that can be extended or retracted as necessary. Like a puzzle, each block of furniture can be assembled or disassembled into larger or smaller components.


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Measuring success is crucial to what we do. So how do you measure the impact of a physical environment?

First we measure concentrations or groupings of people over time to understand where they spend most of their time within our test environment. Second, we try to measure general emotion or attitude while people are exploring the task or space.

To accomplish this, first we’ve setup multiple Microsoft Kinect’s around the room to create an invisible layer. This invisible layer captures the position of people spatially over time. On closer look, we also have software measuring facial expressions and gestures gathered by the Kinect’s.

To help users navigate the environment, we’ve setup a small network of bluetooth beacons. Each one communicates centrally with us, so we can track the use of inanimate objects, or we can use them to present users with specific instructions based on their proximity with different objects in the environment.

In the end, our data indicates where people spend their time, what they interact with the most, who were the happiest participants, and at what points during the test. From here we can make the necessary changes to the room, and test again.

Keep it simple, stupid

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The room itself remains a blank canvas. We can’t make any assumptions for how we’ll use the space. One day it can be grocery store, the next a massive warehouse.

As we explored the easiest ways to immerse a user, we landed on what ended being the simplest solution — a projector. Using a wall-wide system, we can project any environment to provide a depth and surrounding to help place people in the right setting. Our backdrop is now ever expandable. It’s an artificial surrounding, but at a glance it does what it needs to — it places our users in the context of their environment. Even having a backdrop peripheral to their task is often all they need to be convinced of their scene or setting.

Narrative is extremely important in the design process, so the more we can help to make an environment feel real, the better we can prototype with it.

MU/DAI is an interaction and user experience design firm in Chicago. If you’re interested in touring our space, please email chi@mudaidesign.com. If you liked our article, please let us know by tweeting it.

Written by

Interaction Designer working in Chicago.

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