The Anti-Cartoon : Screenless Animations

It’s unavoidable that we think in animations. We’ve watched them for decades. Video screens at home and in museums are the norm.

In a recent exhibition on earthquakes located at the Hatfield Marine Science Center, Studio Tectonic worked with Pacific Studio, the project fabricator, to develop an animation-like interactive without the electrical cord. Why?

The client’s concept was simple. The earth compresses at differing rates depending on location. This translates to differing GPS monitoring data and is critically useful in understanding and tracking the malleability of the earth’s plates. The development team, led by Shelley Olds, an UNAVCO science educator, believed that the concept was critical for visitor understanding. Digital media costs, durability for an exhibit that may travel, and user experience (i.e. screen overload in science centers) factored into a desire to create an analog expression beyond 2D graphics. We felt that a hands-on mechanical interactive would be far more likely to be engaged by the visitor at this location, and it became clear that a single-action mechanical interactive fit the desired user interface.  This kind of interactivity engaged the visitor to directly control the rate of motion, the amount of motion and the rate of release. This level of interactivity is not possible with electronics. The physical feel of control can’t be mimicked on-screen.

Because of museum developer’s commonly-held leanings to use computer animations, we often slip into exploring  vast array of content that can be delivered within computer interactives. With a single-action mechanical interactive, even the most Rube Goldberg contraption forces the designers to focus on the just relevant and conveyable content. This stripping down was beneficial in the planning process. It demanded us to eliminate. Ultimately, this is a benefit to the visitor. With no learning curve, within a mere seconds of time commitment the visitor gets the concept through the physical act of doing. The direct hand-to-mind connection allows more room for the mind to pay attention to just what matters.

Still, the design of an interactive that effectively shows an animated-style state-change with variable movements is a technically high hurdle.

Through various concept testings, materials explorations and prototypes, the team settled on a fabric solution that uses differing levels of resistance applied to the weave to allow a single section of the printed graphics to react differently to a single motion. The fabric aligns to a 2nd-surface glass printed series of crosshairs that show the “normal” position of the GPS units. Moving the spring-loaded arm show the simulated Earth moving at the differing rates desired.

The exhibit is newly opened. Hatfield Marine Science Center will use its summative evaluation team to test the exhibit and determine if the concept is well-delivered with this interactive. Results will follow as testing provides us with the details.

Project was created under the direction of UNAVCO, with funding from NSF and NASA.