Crowd Cloud: The Art of Sharing Space

June 12, 2024

This is another example of our free-range, radical thinking and unbound experimentation from our development team. Here, Art & Science creative alchemists showcase how they’ve delved into art, science and the edgy application of inspired ideas that may one day change the world.

My Inspiration

After nearly three years of working from home, the idea of returning to the office post-pandemic brought up mixed feelings for many people. At Art & Science, we prioritize flexibility in work environments but many of us meet in person several times per week. I’m the type of person who loves to work from home, but I also value the benefits of in-person collaboration.

With this project, I wanted to dive into and explore the natural fluctuation in office attendance. How could I visualize people in our space? It also gave me the extra push to work in the office and enjoy collaborating with my team.

The objective of this artwork was to visualize the energy of a busy office and make it reflect back what it’s like to be in this environment. Could our presence be transformed into a calming experience, an interactive installation that helps create moments of reflection amid the busy workday?

As a developer, I’m curious about how technology can be used to detect people in physical space. I wanted to experiment with using data to create dynamic visual effects.

How I Did It

The Concept

Crowd Cloud is designed to interpret our office as an artistic representation of our collective presence. I felt that it could do much more than simply add aesthetic visuals.

I used colour to distinguish between different areas and devices in the office and leveraged a number of connected devices to determine the amount of particles in the visualization.

I wanted to achieve an aesthetic balance between clarity and abstraction, while ensuring the data remains clear.

As an added layer, I wanted human interaction to be a pivotal element of Crowd Cloud. I saw a scenario where a person’s proximity triggers a change in the visualization, adding an immersive layer.

From the technical side, I was curious about what modern technologies can successfully detect the number of people in a physical space. As well, I was looking to further explore my interest in data visualization and TouchDesigner as a tool to experiment with dynamic real-time visual effects.

Putting Data and Connection to Work

After some research into real-time data analysis, I turned to our office WiFi infrastructure, which has strategically positioned access points. I realized I could leverage the data via an API to track connected devices. This provided meaningful insights into device distribution across different office areas. It gave me the right level of detail, while also remaining continuously accessible.

I also looked at other approaches:

  • Using Ultra Wideband Beacons paired with Bluetooth Low Energy, which offered a fairly precise ability to detect device presence. Their complexity however, seemed excessive for my purposes—all I needed was to know the number of nearby devices.
  • Another route was using Arduino with distance, proximity or LIDAR sensors to detect and count people’s presence. The potential challenges with this option was their accuracy. Additionally, deploying numerous sensors throughout the office seemed unnecessarily involved.

Ultimately, our WiFi infrastructure provided the right level of detail, while also remaining continuously accessible.

Then I needed to find out how to transmit this data to TouchDesigner.

Visualizing the outcome

The initial visualization was relatively simple, centring on using colours to signify various office areas (access points). The quantity of connected devices dictates the number of particles within the visualization. Drawing inspiration from my research into Light Replication, I mimicked light instancing using Replicators and learned how to style the lights.

I enhanced the primary network with several Operators to collaborate with my local server. This setup allowed me to control the number of Replicators so that each particle colour could represent a specific number of devices.

To transfer the data seamlessly, my local server retrieved device information from the API and emitted the data to SocketIO. In the TouchDesigner network, I had a SocketIO DAT operator configured to listen to the local server. After receiving the data, a series of Operators sanitized it before passing it to the Replicators which then adjusted the number of particles accordingly.

The initial phase of the project was successful, but I wanted a more abstract and artistic approach.

I was finally able to achieve a watercolour effect—vibrant colours float across the screen, gradually morphing into cloud-like formations.

Making Interaction a Key Feature

Torn between two distinct visual styles, I found myself at a crossroads. One version was coming across as very precise and fairly linear; the other was far more abstract and visually enticing. That’s when human interaction found its way into Crowd Cloud. By keeping both styles I could let human interaction be the switch between them.

From a distance, it appears to be a straightforward data visualization, displaying numbers of particles representing the current crowd size. The colour differences provide a rough percentage estimate of who is being shown. But as you approach the display, it gradually transforms into ethereal clouds, creating a wondrous effect.

To make this happen, I used blob tracking for seamless person detection to recognize someone approaching the installation. This addition of human interaction was the final piece of the puzzle for Crowd Cloud.

The Impact

Crowd Cloud is now installed in a high-traffic area of our office.

Using technologies like TouchDesigner enables real-time data visualization, and also offers insights into occupancy levels. The experiment shows the intersection of creativity and technology, injecting a sense of interest and purpose in our physical work environment.

Working on this project encouraged me to spend more time in the office. My coworkers love it and describe how serene they feel watching drifting clouds and knowing that they’re seeing themselves as part of the atmosphere of the office.

-Yiyi Shao, Front-end Developer

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