Custom Interactive Objects via Bluetooth

Going wireless provides new options for building unique experiences and in-person user engagements.

After building websites, games, and apps for years, I switched my focus to interactives for event marketing and public activations. Part of the reason for the change was that I wanted more physicality. (I’m referring to physical presence, not sports misconduct.)

One aspect of the physical presence I was looking for was size. Web-based interactive software and games were increasingly (and rightly) mobile-first, which meant I was building for smaller and smaller screens. For me, looking at all those iOS and Android screens got a little claustrophobic. Programming for public-facing events, on the other hand, regularly involves touchscreens measuring 40, 60, or even 80 inches, or large walls made up of multiple displays. It’s a field where — for better and worse — creating a spectacle is valued.

But, importantly, public interactives are also tangible. A website or mobile app is ephemeral and homeless because it can exist on any device. If Google is on your phone and my phone and your smart watch and your smart fridge… there’s no single manifestation we can point to. An interactive installation, on the other hand — even one that’s not necessarily designed as a site-specific piece — becomes, as a matter of course, part of the physical environment in which you meet it.

That physicality creates opportunities. In the past couple years I’ve programmed shifting touchscreens that users rolled from side-to-side; giant spinner wheels that users whirled like they were on Wheel of Fortune or The Price is Right; interactives that incorporated big push buttons, external lights, compressed air… physical can be fun.

But I’ve been wanting something even more immediate and simple. I don’t have a fabrication shop — I generally work with exhibit partners who build out the physical cabinets and cases for the rolling screens, the giant spinning wheels, the big walls that hold the display screens. Half the time those beautiful cabinets and cases are just there to hide wires.

To that end, Bluetooth offers a way to get rid of some wires and send nearly any sensor data you can think of in practically real-time.

Perhaps more importantly, a wireless object becomes, simply, an object. It doesn’t scream, “hey, I’m connected to a computer over there,” so there’s opportunity for a fun and engaging moment of discovery.

And while a simple object can be part of a large, spectacular environment, it can also be friendly and approachable. There’s an intimidation factor that can kick in when you ask someone to put on a VR or AR headset; or go up and spin a giant wheel; or stand up close to an 80" touchscreen. Compare that with just handing them a ball!

I’ve put together three demonstrations in the above video, but the potential applications are pretty wide open — any concept that can use a wireless object for interface is fair game.

As a final note, these were all quick prototypes, so the Bluetooth-enabled sensors aren’t as compact as they could be (you can see in the second demo, I simply gaffer-taped a bubble-wrapped sensor to the back of a seven dollar toy saber). Soldered properly, they’re easily smaller than your thumb and can be hidden inside a wide variety of objects.

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Christopher Lepkowski is an interactive software consultant specializing in custom experiences for entertainment and advertising. He is the owner and director of Planimal Interactive in Los Angeles.