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Project Vapor Trail is an interactive installation at the NASA Kennedy Space Center created from mosaics of interactive tiles that form low resolution images of the earth, moon, and mars. Over 400 interactive tiles were designed and created by GTRI’s Energy and Sustainability Lab, where I worked at the time. This project represents a $4M initiative to bring a novel interaction platform to NASA KSC

ROLe

I operated as an interaction design consultant for NASA KSC with the primary task of envisioning and developing guest experiences built upon the novel capabilities of an interactive technology platform created by my consulting peers in engineering.


Participatory, Interaction Design


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With over 400 interactive tiles spanning the tile mosaics of the moon, mars, and earth installations, the task of assigning “live” or interactive spots became increasingly challenging to complete in a meaningful fashion. The low resolution image formed by the tile mosaics meant that a single tile could span roughly the size of Georgia on the map. This meant that planning interactive content was strongly tied to geographic locations.

The team at first presented NASA KSC with several configurations of tiles based on organizations of capitals, landmarks, etc. Eventually, I collaborated with my supervisor to create a participatory activity where our clients could showcase their expertise and collaborate on the design process.

I created scaled models with tile inserts that allowed for easy finger pinching. The color of the tiles was matched approximately to the glass color options, and “interactivity” was marked with a lightning bolt icon. Our team traveled to NASA KSC with these models in hand, and the proceeding collaboration produced final designs over the course of a few hours (previous attempts had taken days if not weeks).


User, Smartphone, Tile Interaction


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Designing interactive experiences built on the tile’s simple binary pressure input was challenging. Through extensively discussion and careful listening, the team worked with NASA KSC to co-develop options of interaction that leveraged the tiles’ entertainment qualities.

The image above is a storyboard I created to represent one of those options, which later became the final design. These storyboards were often used to bring the many people involved on this project onto the same page, and to facilitate discussion around a central idea.

This storyboard in particular represents a scavenger hunt, whereas the park guests unlocks stories about space through tapping light patterns via the tiles, and interfacing with the system via a smartphone.

This storyboard in particular represents a scavenger hunt, whereas the park guests unlocks stories about space through tapping light patterns via the tiles, and interfacing with the system via a smartphone.

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Challenge: Manually pairing guests and tiles

The tiles had unfortunately not been designed to tether automatically to a guest’s phone via common methods such as WiFi or bluetooth, so instead I worked with the lead developer to create a new method of pairing that didn’t compromise the guest experience.

The process, as shown on the left, involves tapping on a locked "space fact”, and being prompted with a screen showing a flashing tile on a map of either the moon, earth, or mars. The user then uses their phone as a guide and finds their way towards the corresponding tile flashing in the real-world. Lastly, the user taps the tile following the rhythm of the flashing light - and the fact is unlocked.



Imagining Interaction Payoffs


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Besides the scavenger hunt for “space facts”, NASA KSC wanted their guests to receive a significant payoff experience for their efforts to interact with the new system. I brainstormed and produced several concepts for discussion, which led to two design directions: a live data visualization of tile inputs being converted into rocket energy (above), and a satisfying rocket launch that teaches about critical altitudes (below).

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I designed the rocket launch visualization based on a Russian Constructivists take on the popular style of flat design. While the visualization did not go through formal testing, it was shown to many kids and young adults in a guerilla testing style and found to be interesting and informative.


Installation


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This massive, 800+ tile installation was completed in December of 2018, and is open for guests. To our delight, the play of light from stepping on tiles is especially impressive at night time (image #2 above). NASA KSC was overall very pleased with the outcome of the project, and plans are underway to imagine new interactions that utilize the tile base as an interactive platform.


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