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The Glance 
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Cousteau

Cousteau is a kinetic interactive sculpture, a meditation on the intersection of Nature and Technology. The project grew out of my interests in oceanography and design, and the way that we as humans anthropomorphize in order to relate to technology. Cousteau synthesizes these ideas by using simple movements to suggest that technology might possess its own life force. Through a network of sensors, the sculpture monitors its surroundings, reacting to ambient activity, and a user’s proximity. The goal is to create an experience that is dynamic and engaging, one in which the user can make connections between his/her movements and the object’s response.

Cousteau’s genesis was in an early exploration of movement and sensory awareness, in particular life-like movement which responded to its environment and the people around it. I started playing around with these ideas on the Personal Space Suit, and on another project, The Emotional Machine. For Cousteau, I wanted to expand on this theme as well as develop a modular, scalable approach.

These are sketches in 3D, really. For physical pieces, I try to get into 3D as soon as possible. It helps me to define the scale and it jump-starts material experimentation. Working this way is fast and can yield great results. A high rate of failure is a sure sign that you are doing something right; it weeds out inappropriate materials, unsuitable mechanisms and methods early on in the process, helping to focus in on ideas with true potential. It also has the added benefit of spurring new ideas that might have been dismissed on paper.

Getting the mechanism working for the first time is always a thrill. It's important to build a solid platform to work on, it allows me to try different combinations of componentry. In this case, I drew up the housing in 2D CAD, and had it lasercut out of plex. This CAD database served as the building block for future revisions and refinements. I tested the servo motors action and how the material reacted to determine whether I would have enough buoyancy in the movement to achieve the effects I desired.

Scaling up, and adding more, more and more! Once I was confident with the mechanism's functionality, it was time to scale up and build a prototype of the actual module. The module had 4 servos, each controlling three antennas. In this way, I was able to visualize what the final module would look like. I wanted Cousteau's antennas to feel like a field, where you wouldn't necessarily focus on one blade of grass but on the whole. This prototype also helped me experiment with the number of sensors as well as the placement of the sensors.

Up to this point, the code driving Cousteau was rather rudimentary. Once I felt the mechanical system was adequately debugged, I began to add some nuance to my code rather than just depend on constant numbers or randoms. I worked in some probabilities to modulate the motion so that it had a more organic feel. As for the radios, I developed a simple protocol so each unit would be aware of the state of a neighboring unit, or all of the units. I also finalized the electronic componentry, and moved it away from the Arduino, and onto a breadboard. This served as a model for the final build.

The ultimate test! It was intimidating getting started as I didn't want to break anything, plus I had a huge box of lasercut parts, another filled with motors, and still another filled with electrical pieces. At the same time, it was also exciting to see it all come together. It took me about 3 days to assemble the modules, and work out the kinks.

Below is a finished Cousteau module showing three different antenna states. Switching from clear to frosted plex for the final piece helped shift the focus away from the mechanism to the antennas and the user's interaction with the piece. It was great fun seeing them come to life.

More modules packed together. This was the first time I was able to really see Cousteau as I had envisioned it, with antennas bobbing up and down, swaying like a field of sea grass. It's remarkable how closely Cousteau resembles the original sketch.