SMOKE: An interactive window display.

In my graduate school studies at the Interactive Telecommunications Program (ITP) at NYU. Profesor Masamichi Udagawa posed a design challenge to myself, Christopher Cummings, and Timothy Mohn to create an installation that would change a viewer’s behavior. The challenge was posed for us to think differently about window designs and how to “break the pane” of glass between the artwork and the viewer.

SMOKE was an interactive window display where cigarette smoke transformed a recorded video of a solo dance piece. Designed to be installed in a window outside a dance studio or performance space, SMOKE was motivated by and reflected upon the prevalence of smoking in the dance community. Participating in the installation required that a user smoke a cigarette near the sensor, which but continued transformation of the video eventually rendered the image meaningless.


Our process began with an intense idea generation phase where we sought to examine positive ways of changing behavior for the greater good.

The intended location of the installation is the lobby of Dance Theatre Workshop on West 19th Street. We chose the location because of the close relationship that exists between people inside and outside the wall of windows that face 19th street. West 19th street also experiences an abundance of foot traffic, as people walk down it to visit nearby Chesea restaurants, galleries and clubs. Dance Theatre Workshop is also a centerpoint of the dance community, not just a performance space. Because of that, it is an ideal context in which to display this piece.


Smoke - Dance Theatre Workshop

This photo of transformation evokes the image we hoped to achieve through viewers’ interaction with the piece.


Smoke - Transformation

Designing a sensor that communicated it’s function to visitors was a major challenge. What does a device that is meant to have smoke blown at it to control a video look like?


Smoke - The Sensor Evolves...

Initially, we wanted to invoke imagery somewhere halfway between a microphone and an ashtray. The early sketches show those themes – perforated metal grilles would be backed by the gas sensor and an array of LED’s. The LEDs would light up when the sensor detected gas and slowly fade down as gas was no longer detected and were intended to provide positive feedback to users.


Smoke - Microphone Sketch


Smoke - Ashtray


Smoke - The Proposed Design


Smoke - Cardboard Prototype

After a great deal of iterative prototyping and development, we came up with our final design.


Smoke - The Final Design

How could we communicate from a sensor on the outside of a window to a display inside? How would we develop the video presentation?


Smoke - The Bits and Pieces

The smoke sensor needed to sit outside a window, and we didn’t want to run cables to connect them, so we decided to power the sensor with a battery and communicate the data through the window using an LED on one side and a light sensor on the other. The sensor was originally held to the window by magnets, but they proved to be too weak to hold the sensor up on the thick double-glazed exterior glass panes. Instead, we modified the sensor for the show and mounted it to the window with a camera suction mount, which allowed us to set up and take down the sensor easily, without altering the building in any way.


Smoke - System Diagram

The gas sensor itself is a general-purpose sensor for detecting airborne contaminants such as carbon monoxide, ammonia and other gases. An unintended effect of our choice of sensor element is that it detects alcohol fumes, and so can be operated (without smoke) by the breath of an intoxicated person!


Smoke - Arduino Board

We chose the Arduino board because it allowed us to quickly update our sensor firmware, communicate robustly to the G5, and use the same cable for power and data.


Smoke - Arduino Board

Max/MSP/Jitter was used to perform the video manipulation. We chose it because it is a stable and easy to use environment. The video processing ran on a Macintosh G5 tower.

SMOKE was designed and created by Mohit SantRam with Chris Cummings and Timothy Mohn. Choreography by Zach Morris, performance dancing by Marissa Nielson-Pincus. SMOKE was originally shown at the ITP Winter Show 2005 in New York City.


These images are from the display at ITP’s 2005 Winter Show. The piece was set up on the street; the video and sensor were attached to an existing plasma screen. Two channels of live video were streamed upstairs to the ITP floor, so visitors to the show could see what was happening on the street below.


Smoke - Interacting User

While no formal user testing took place, there were a few broad themes that revealed themselves and were documented ad hoc during the initial showing.

We had hoped that viewers would be able to see the video as they interacted with the piece, but most people chose to stand close to the sensor to activate it, which limited their view and often put them in an awkward position. Placing the sensor in a position that allowed easier viewing of the screen, as well as increasing the sensitivity of the sensor could help, but natural tendencies made it difficult to encourage people to ‘stand back.’


Smoke - In Use

We are aware of the adverse health effects of smoking and do not condone or encourage it in any way. With this project, we hoped to leverage the dynamics of an existing social phenomenon in order to produce a novel interaction. We tried to keep the experience as high-minded and mature as possible, in order to not inadvertently influence children.

We had hoped that people would view the piece while in the process of smoking a cigarette, their second-hand smoke triggering the sensor. However, once they learned how the piece worked, viewers tended to interact more enthusiastically than we had anticipated. We found it challenging to strike a balance between letting viewers know what was happening, while also encouraging them to have a more ‘ambient’ experience.


Smoke - Close Up