When Colin Willson, a third-year interaction design student at San Francisco’s California College of the Arts (CCA), was given the assignment to create an interactive object designed for a particular space, he found himself inspired by dance. He happened to be walking past a club with a live jazz band playing, and observed the interaction between the musicians and the dancers.
Willson says, “The audience stood and watched, some bobbing their heads or tapping their feet, others danced on a little dance floor, while the band acted as the catalyst controlling all of this behavior. I got to thinking about how dancing has an unique way of lifting peoples spirits. Why is it that people can’t help but be happy when they dance? And what about it is so infectious? I also like the fact that dancing is such an inherently social activity which motivates different people to interact with each other. I thought a disco ball would encapsulate this kind of environment and behavior very well.”
Fortunately, Willson was able to work on his idea at CCA’s cutting-edge Hybrid Lab, a multidisciplinary creative tech workshop that makes tools of engineering accessible to design and art students. One of the students' favorite tools is the Othermill. Willson explains, “The Othermill enabled me to create unique and detailed custom-shaped circuit boards which not only held the circuitry, but also acted as the structure of my project.” He adds, “It’s a great tool to have in my arsenal, and I’m sure I will use it again. It was a perfect solution for my disco ball project and I’m glad I had access to it.”
In a nutshell, Willson designed and milled hexagonal boards, which he then painted black.
Next he cut individual Adafruit NeoPixels from the strip and soldered them onto the boards.
And carefully glued the boards together to form the disco ball shape.
Willson then added a series of distance sensors connected to an Arduino to record the movement of people around the disco ball over time. The Arduino then analyzes the collected data and changes the brightness of specific LEDs around the ball according to the activity in that particular region.
He explains, “The concept is that when people stand in one position on the dance floor, a shadow from the disco ball is cast behind them. I wanted to retain their shadow in the same place even after they walk away. The longer they stood there, the darker and more pronounced the shadow they left behind. Conversely, when people move and dance more actively, I wanted to brighten the lights in that area to highlight them and motivate movement and dancing behavior. There are actually many more things that I can program the disco ball to do, but that was the intended functionality.”
Willson has posted the essentials of the project on Instructables and plans to fine-tune the how-to and add more detail in the days to come.