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Optical Sonorities

How can designed objects to facilitate qualitative user research and deeper discussions surrounding user feelings and needs?​ Optical Sonorities is an investigation of how the phenomenal qualities of light and colour in Boyle Heights can be experienced through sound. In this project, I designed a physical interface that converts colour to sound, and catalyzes conversation by creating a collaborative space between users and designers.


Mariachi Plaza is a public space in Boyle Heights which is filled with iconic murals, which saturate the area with bright colours. I began my research by designing a small questionnaire which instructed people to circle the location of their favourite murals. I also asked people what the murals mean to them, and who they feel these murals are for. Because there was often a language barrier between subjects and myself, this research approach didn’t really yield valuable insights into how people felt about the murals in Boyle Heights.


The next iteration took a different approach by asking, how could a person who is unable to see experience the qualities of light and colour in Mariachi Plaza? I prototyped a "seeing machine" which converts light to sound using light sensors, an Arduino, and Max/MSP. Each sensor corresponds to a different frequency.

While this was a more interesting direction, users still had a difficult time understanding how the device worked, and were therefore reluctant to use it.

I reiterated this idea as a sound-making colour wheel. Light sensors are placed under six coloured transparencies; the selected colour palette is a reflection of the warm colours in this neighbourhood.  By turning the perforated semi-circles on top of the device, different amounts of light are let into each colour sensor. 

Given an opportunity to collaborate and provide creative input, people seemed to understand my physical interface more intuitively. The interaction was simple, yet interesting, and some people even played with the device for several minutes. This opened up a valuable space for discussion about the history of the murals in Boyle Heights, what Boyle Heights means to the people who live in this area. In future trajectories, I would be interested in designing this piece as a digital app.  

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