Steampunk sketch

Practical project step 1 – Getting started

This practical project requires us to develop a physical product that uses some of the enhanced design tools and technologies we have learnt about. The first step is to write the brief – define the objectives, the detailed requirements and the process to follow, and do any necessary research. I decided to work on something that relates to data visualisation, as this topic is of interest to me as a visual communication designer.

Initial ideas

Before writing a project brief, I sketched out quite a few ideas of possible projects. These all related to the concept of showing some form of data in a visual way, particularly data that was rapidly changing and could be programmed so the display changed as the data changed. Ideas included a 3D ‘heat map’ of exercise activities, an analogue data monitor, a 3D trail or campus map that lights up to show current location, and a wearable T-shirt or high-vis vest that shows current position or speed.

Selecting a theme

The concept I chose to proceed with was a physical data dashboard that could be used to display important data in a really simple analogue way. In principle, it could be used for whatever data you want, because the data will come from a linked computer. The data dials could display highly dynamic data from the Internet, or less frequently changing data such as a company’s daily sales figures or website statistics.

Brief for the selected project

Project title: Friendly Data Monitor

Objectives: ‘Big data’ is all around us, yet it can be difficult for human beings to draw meaning from abstract data. This project aims to help people understand and relate to data by displaying it in a visual, tactile way.

robot pic
A lovely robot made from recycled parts by Matt Brown

Design theme: Steampunk. This is a genre of design, writing and culture that merges vintage machinery/styles with science fiction. It intentionally uses anachronisms and mechanical technologies to speculate on what the future might have looked like in Victorian times. I chose this theme because to humanise data we can revert it to simpler forms that people understand, then use those to look ahead to the future. The Steampunk style uses objects and styles from the past, which means I had the potential to build a more sustainable solution that uses fewer new resources. I was inspired by various sources, including Matt Brown, a UK artist who makes robots and other lovely art pieces from reclaimed materials.

Overview: the friendly data monitor will take the principles of a digital data dashboard (used by organisations to monitor data on screen) and display data on analogue dials. It will be a physical object made from a combination of found, recycled and new materials. Although it will have old technology on the outside, it will have new tech on the inside – the dials will be controlled by a  microcontroller and programmed to display a set of data.  For this prototype, the data will not be fed via a direct Internet feed, but will be simulated by programming the Microbit with variable data.

Requirements: the project must be completed within 5 weeks, and the process is to be documented via photos, notes, links and videos as appropriate. It should use one or more technologies studied previously, including laser cutting, 3D printing, microcontrollers and apps.

Budget: Costs to be kept to a minimum. I have set a maximum budget of $100. Materials to be locally and sustainably sourced wherever possible, to minimise environmental impact.

Research

I have recently researched ‘Big Data’ for another course, and produced a research report about Visualising Big Data that covered history, issues, techniques and opportunities in the area of data visualisation. To inform this project, I researched existing digital data dashboards, searched for similar projects, looked at Steampunk references and investigated sources for the materials and information needed to build the project. I’ve summarised this research below.

Data dashboards

Researching data dashboards revealed many examples of corporate data shown in screen-based dashboards, designed to give an overview of data trends, highlight changes and flag issues. In general, digital dashboards tend to be quite complex, and are usually targeted at financial users or business managers. I wanted my analogue data monitor to be more accessible to every employee or stakeholder in an organisation – something they could relate to. Below is an example of a digital data dashboard.

Data dashboard example
Example of a business data dashboard (Tableau, n.d.).

Similar projects

I researched whether any similar projects already existed, and found one on the Arduino Project Hub called ‘FizViz‘. It is a beautiful modern analogue dial that is a physical way to visualise data with a moving pointer, and can be linked to live data on a computer. It’s elegant minimalism is the opposite of steampunk style, but the project inspired ideas about what could be possible, and has very clear instructions on how it was built.

digital data dial
Sketch for a circular data dial and photo of one called ‘FizViz’ that I found on the Arduino Project Hub

Steampunk style

Looking for visual inspiration relating to Steampunk style objects and graphic styles yields lots of beautiful images. A common theme is the use of cogs, gears, chains, brass and intentionally over-complex designs to fulfil simple functions. Below are just a few examples…

Sources of information, inspiration and materials

Next > Practical project step 2: Design and preparation


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