When we first began this project, we hoped to uncover how people physically and mentally relate to the act of breathing.
We asked several people to draw out the motions of normal breathing and deep breathing. Drawings we received include:
Self-Guided vs Guided
Whilst brainstorming ideas, we kept wondering: how did we want our visualization to influence people’s breathing? We looked to the plethora of breathizng visualizations found online and albeit many of their similarities, we noticed that many were visualizations made to guide people on how to breathe. It was from there, we began to weigh the benefits of guided breathing vs self-guided breathing. In other words, self-guided breathing meant a pattern of breathing due to one’s own accordance and guided breathing meant breathing due to another’s instruction.
To that, we wondered what exactly was the experience we wanted people to take away after leaving our environment. While we hoped to encourage better breathing practices, we resolved to trust that it would be enough to call people’s attention to their breathing as they breathed. We believed that by emphasizing their breathing patterns, it would implore them to more closely examine their mental and physical states as they breathed.
After establishing that we wanted this to be a self-guided activity, we realized just how tactical we would have to be in exaggerating and/or emphasizing the motions of breathing.
Our initial concept for visualizing breathing was deeply informed by the known fact that deep breathing can help combat stress. Using the metaphor of blowing the seeds off a dandelion, we wished to ritualize this act and add deeper and more significant ties to a person’s mental stress.
We hoped to design an experience for people to go to when dealing with stress that compounded the metaphorical nature of blowing on a dandelion and physical relief felt from a deep inhale and exhale. We imagined a path that would form or light up, once the dandelion was blown, emphasizing the power of their breath to ignite change as well as encourage deeper breathing. We also considered using a real dandelion or perhaps developing an artificial dandelion but felt it would be difficult for people to make the mental leap that the dandelion represented anything more than what it was.
The Schlieren Effect is an optical effect we discovered that uses the refraction of light to capture and magnify the movement of air particles. From a demo we found online, we set up our own experiment in which we magnified the blowing out a candle.
Not so far off from the dandelion metaphor, we imagined the candle would be closer to a representation of a person’s stress than dandelions. Candles, as we noted, already carry a very spiritual significance, often being seen as pathways to granting wishes on people’s birthdays.
In the end, we moved away from the Schlieren Effect because the visuals we were creating did not capture the breath that blows out the candle– really only the candle’s residual smoke after being blown out. Moreover, this effect misses out on the “inhale” and “hold” aspect of deep breathing. We also discovered, after conducting some tests with classmates, that our reliance on the metaphor of “blowing out/away” your stress concept was not enough to encourage people to breathe deeper.
We then looked to the swing of a pendulum as a way to visualize the motions of breathing. Because a pendulum moves left to right, and to some extent, backward to forward, we could visualize both the “inhale” and “exhale” phases of breath we found that the motion of a pendulum matched a previous person’s visualization of breathing quite closely.
However, yet again we left this idea to the dust because there were some inherent flaws of the pendulum concerning its physical structure and symbolic connotations. A critique we received was (1) that in order to orient the pendulum to match a person’s direction of breath, the swinging pendulum would be moving to and away from someone’s face, which altogether isn’t very viewable to the person using it and isn’t very compelling as a visual. (2) Across time, pendulums have always represented time. The visual of a swinging pendulum is too closely tied to the concept of time; it is not visceral enough of a visual for people to easily understand that their inhales and exhales are directing the swing of the pendulum versus physics and time itself.
However, we did wonder if our critiques and concerns could be resolved with a change in the pendulum’s form factor… What if we made a large human-scale swing that swung people according to their or someone else’s breath? Would it be enough to alter people’s association of pendulums to time?
Expansion and Contraction
The movement we finally settled on, that we felt was most innate to breathing, was expansion and contraction. The idea of breathing inherently comes with this idea of expansion and contraction because one’s chest (diaphragm) literally expands and contracts while breathing.
Diving deeper into our guiding concept of expansion and contraction as the visualizing movement, we were inspired by the experience of lying one’s head on another’s person’s chest and feeling the rise and fall of their chest as they breathed. From this, we saw an opportunity to expand what we initially conceived as an isolated experience to one that could be shared with a partner. From our experiences in the past, we knew that when we had moments of shared breathing with another person, our breathing rate and the other person’s breathing rate would naturally sync.
Pillows for Synced Breathing
We wanted to replicate this experience for our environment and began to reimagine the syncing to be prompted by the inflation and deflation of pillows rather than literal people. We then decided we wanted to have two pillows and two participants for this experience. Each participant’s breathing would be tied to the inflation and deflation of a pillow, but they would be resting their head on the pillow that was tied to their partner’s breathing, not their own.
The weeks leading up to the exhibition were quite a journey as we tried to configure our final setup. We tested various methods of sensing breathing, from a microphone to a Fitbit heart monitor until we realized the best approach would be developing our own kind of wearable.
We designed our wearable to be a knit band with a short flex sensor attached along its length. The band would be worn on a person’s waist with the flex sensor following along one of the wearer’s sides. The flex sensor would track the changing curvature of the wearer’s waist as their diaphragm expanded and contracted. This data could then be used to infer when a person was breathing in or out in real-time. It was important to us that our code not be written based on thresholds of people’s waist curvatures to indicate breathing in and breathing out. Our code was written to compare breathing data of one millisecond to that of the previous millisecond in order to take note of changes in people’s breathing, This data would then be read an Arduino which would instruct the inflation and deflation of the pillow.
From the beginning, we knew we would be placing an inflatable within an actual pillow so as to produce the gentlest of movements underneath people’s heads. However, we struggled with how to continuously change the air volume of an inflatable. Instead of utilizing an air pump and vacuum, we designed a closed air system, consisting of a bellows that would push air into the inflatable when contracted and pull air in when expanded. While we conducted several tests with an actual plastic bellows, we realized it would be far easier to create our own bellows system with two inflatables fashioned out of vinyl and connected by a tube.
When one inflatable was acted upon, such as crushed, the other inflatable would expand due to the air being forced in from the first inflatable. We then decided we needed a linear actuator to drive the directional force we wanted and a wall behind the inflatable to provide the appropriate resistance in order to crush the inflatable between the two parts.
We designed a box to enclose the electronics, the linear actuator, the accompanied inflatable, and hide the deafening sound produced by the linear actuator. We modeled the box in Fusion 360, citing dimensions of the linear actuator and giving enough space for an inflatable to expand and contract. We wished to ensure that there would be a visible change from its connected inflatable.
We also modeled and 3d printed a cap for the linear actuator to attach to a plank of wood.
We spent much of our time perfecting the Arduino’s reading of the breathing data as well as its writing of instructions to the linear actuator.
Although what we had exhibited at the show wasn’t exactly what we had planned for or hoped, at least we got this great shot of Nick.