Client / Company: Chevron / Elizabeth Forward School
Role(s): UX Designer
Contributions: Installation Concepts, User Flows, Wireframes, Usability Study, Playtesting, User Interviews.
Final Result / Deliverable: A 48″ diameter touch-screen dome with a running educational game + a mobile app to augment and extend the interactive dome experience.
InfinitE Interactive Dome was a Carnegie Mellon University project in joint with Chevron and Elizabeth Forward School District. The goal of the project was creating the first installation of an Energy Lab that would teach kids about Energy.
Chevron and EFS reached CMU with the idea to create an innovative, low budget and extensible experience to teach middle school students about the concept of electrical energy and its impact in the world.Our team was tasked with creating this experience.
Chevron and EFS expressed their interest in having an interactive game that used Kinect or a similar motion camera as input. However as we explored different options we decided that we want to take it to the next level and create an exciting and innovative experience that could impact permanently their views on this topic.
How to design an impactful and innovative experience for middle school students (who live in low-income areas) and teach them the implications of energy use and energy production in a meaningful way?
The first approach of the team was to brainstorm potential solutions to the given problem. We centered our research in exploring different children installations and finding common patterns. We visited Pittsburgh Children’s Museum where we got ideas for kind of experience that could get our target audience excited and engaged.
We agreed that we wanted to create a physical object that could display the content as well as enabling a meaningful interaction. After several hours of brainstorming we came up with a concrete idea: An interactive dome that could display the earth and allow us to create a energy related game using the spherical anatomy of the earth.
Here are some photos of our early prototyping and exploration:
After proving that we could warp a spherical projection on a hemisphere, we started exploring different concepts on how to scale the hemisphere to a reasonable size. We did several early concepts of how this could look like:
We finally decided to go start working on one of the designs. The main concept was based on existing projection based installations. It consisted of the following main components:
- An enclosing and supportive structure.
- A hemispheric dome (used for construction) painted with rear projection screen paint.
- A high fidelity screen projector.
- A tilted convex mirror.
Here is a photo of the actual assembling and calibration process:
Achieving a Meaningful Interaction
One of the most complex parts of the project was to come up with a meaningful interaction. Part of my job as a UX designer was to envision potential interaction methods.
We explored several options like a surrounding array of infrared sensors (Leap Motion) and using actual console controllers to manipulate the on-screen content. One of the most challenging ideas, was to use cameras to detect the touch blobs and then map those to actual interaction on our software.
We finally decided to try the most challenging option and as a plan b rely on console controllers.
We bought 2 PS-Eyes and using an Open-CV wrapper we were able to calibrate and map blob detection events back to Unity using TouchScript. It took us several weeks to fine-tune the interactions and blob detection, but we reached a point in which we were comfortable with the interaction.
We knew from the beginning that we wanted to use a hemispherical shape to represent the earth and create a game using that concept. We brainstormed and playtested several ideas with Kids from EFMS, until we settled with the idea of creating a game that teaches about solar energy.
The game takes place on a sphere made out of hexes representing various types of terrain.
Through playing our game, students learn many lessons about solar energy including the importance of the location of solar panels as well as their distance from the location they are providing power to.
Communication and teamwork play important roles in the game as students must work together to provide power to towns and cities.
Although the game would definitely provide engagement, entertainment and educational value, we needed something to couple the experience back to the classroom and the school curriculum.
We met with several professors and have multiple user interviews with the kids at EFMS. During the brainstorming process we discovered that the kids wanted to compete with other classmates and class groups.
We used this insight to create a connecting thread for the whole experience. The app allows kids to track the point they earn in the lab and it shows them how they rank against other students. The app also encourage kids to continue their learning and share interesting material with their peers.
My first initial concept for the app was to create a new narrative that could be expanded for other activities. It’s important to mention, that our project was the first of multiple projects that would end up in the creation of a complete lab with several installation about the “Energy” as an educational topic.
Based on that my first suggestion was to enclose the lab narrative with a higher purpose narrative. In this case what I proposed was that all the activities in the lab should be rewarded with “energy points / energy produced”. Then those student could use those point to feed a mascot that would help them about energy topics outside of the lab.
Here is an initial wireframe for that concept:
Although this idea had potential, we discovered that the teachers wanted more interactivity between students, as well as a tool that could be used in-class to aid participation and 1 on 1 learning.
Based on this feedback we migrated to an idea that could allow students to initiate discussions, without losing the competitive elements of the app. The resulting concept was a forum-like app that could be controlled by the instructor in order to shift the discussion into topics relevant to his curriculum. The instructor could reward student on participation as well as create activities related with their visits to the lab.
Here are some early lo-fi wireframe for the described experience:
We visited Elizabeth Forward Middle School several times and user-tested these ideas with the students. We iterated on some of the concepts as we got validation from our tests. Designing for kids, is extremely challenging and this resulted in countless hours of iteration and in-person testing.
The final result was a children friendly experience that contained all the required elements: 1) Tracking Lab Experiences, 2) Expanding Lab Learning 3) Aiding In-Class Activities 2) Gamified and Competitive.
Here are the some of the final designs for the app:
Result / Solution
We successfully finalized the project by installing a 48 inch touch interactive dome at Elizabeth Forward Middle School. As the centerpiece of the classroom, it serves as the Energy Lab’s Cinderella Castle and fundamental introduction to how energy works in our universe.
While similar non-touchscreen devices have been built in the past, ours came in at a mere fraction of the cost and functioning touchscreen features.
We also deployed our interactive game that teaches kids about solar energy and instructed the school on how to launch the experience.
Finally, se also delivered and instructed the school on how to deploy the experience app. This app is the component that wraps up the experience and gives the teachers the ability to integrate all the lab learning into their curriculum.