Designing playful engagements with animals to find, imagine, or emphasize non-speciesist practices
One part of my final thesis project for the MSc in Interaction Design at Malmö University (Sweden) consists of a design process for two new prototypes. This time I aimed to explore how a combination of design techniques such as bodystorming, design experiments, and prototyping could open up for inviting the animal into the early to middle stages of a design process. The first design process includes an experimentation with a playful robotic object and the second one contains design experiments using playful interaction including sound- and smell-based interfaces. In order to establish a close connection with the animal-participant and to do many rapid prototyping experiments, I invited my own two dogs, Jojo and Boogie, to become part of this process.
EXPERIMENTATION WITH A PLAYFUL ROBOTIC OBJECT
In order to explore a dog’s reactions to an interactive robotic object, I experimented with a device called Sphero, a ball that is connected with a smartphone through Bluetooth and can be moved around by a human through an interface on a smartphone. Over a period of five weeks, I tested the device in different prototype iterations such as with the use of different covers, food incentives, LEGO, and eventually I built a hi-fi prototype with with the laser cutter including four different types of dog puzzles made from MDF that can be mounted on the Sphero.
EXPERIMENTATION WITH PLAYFUL INTERACTION INCLUDING SOUND AND SMELL
For this experiment, I started with a lo-fi prototype including a soft toy in which I could hide a phone that played pre-recorded sounds that could be recognizable for the dog. Another compartment of the toy contained objects that had a specific recognizable smell. By testing the toy with the dogs I wanted to explore their playful responses and general interest in this type of interface. In order to provide sounds and smells that the dogs could find both interesting and recognizable, I asked a family member to send me smells and sounds that connect to her home environment, a place where my dogs usually spent the summer holidays. She sent me objects such as a towel that remained insides the dog bed of her own dog, some branches from the forest next to the house, a dog toy that my dogs are familiar with, and a t-shirt worn by a family member. The sounds included 20/30 seconds audio files with sounds of the other dog, the local forest, sounds from inside the house, and a talking family member.
The main intention of these experiments was to provide the dogs with a sense of control over when the sounds would be activated. Therefore I would only play the sound when the dog was interacting with the toy. In order to extend this concept, I developed a hi-fi prototype including a stuffed animal with an Arduino, an Audio Wave Shield, a speaker, and an RFID reader/antenna. Additionally I added RFID tags to the collars of my dogs. With this prototype, the sounds were automatically activated whenever the dogs would come close to the toy (with a 7cm reading range of the RFID antenna). For each dog I recorded and selected five different sounds based on my personal understanding of what they would prefer (one of the dogs seems to dislike loud noises so she could only activate low-volume sounds, whereas the other dog is more playful so she could start louder and more active sound files). After the play session, and based on the outcomes of the experiment, I additionally used the prototype as a starting point for exchanging affection and to experiment with sound files that are specifically created as ‘calming music for dogs’.
These two design processes were only one part of the thesis that I wrote in the past months. Additionally I explored the mediating role of playful technological artefacts designed for animals and humans through theory (with the main use of work by Bruno Latour and Donna Haraway) and practice (by visualising the dynamic interaction networks of six different prototypes). In case you are interested, this thesis will appear online in a few weeks. This work would not have been possible without the generous help of other people, but above all, the curiosity and interest of Jojo and Boogie, thank you for being so inspiring!