Rethinking the Interactive Wall by Tailoring Sensory Ideas

Often the architecture that you see and use each day acts as a surrounding container with which occupants interact at certain times, and in often very physical ways — whether it be to open a door, open a window, engage in cleaning or maintenance, or even when using building interface devices like light switches, temperature controls or plumbing hardware which can often be found systematically throughout a building. Because of this, occupants often have to travel to predesignated places within buildings, in order to interact or change their surroundings — adding on to them, personalizing them or simply to use them for their intended functions.

As we are now in the midst of increasingly instantaneous and automatic lifestyles, you will find that the interactive will occur in more and more places within your building — and each of those places are becoming better equipped to handle a greater amount of functions. While this may be a good thing in many ways, I think we still have to revisit and renew what occupant connectedness means with regard to how a person interacts with their surrounding built environment, finding new and overlooked opportunities that may make improved use of occupant-to-building interactions.

What You Can Begin to Ask of an Interactive Wall

Of course, many of you have likely already seen interactive floors were projections give way to colorful visuals which respond to a person’s movements as they enter into a dialogue (examples might be playing, exercising or learning) with that particular installation. But I ask, what other ways might there be for occupants to interact with their buildings?…particularly as more variation and functionality gives way to greater personalization?

For instance, new innovations are bringing about technologies which make use of gesture-based as well as touch-based communication between a user and the functional goals of their interface — whether computer-based, object-based or environment-based. But what might happen if within buildings, surfaces (like walls) are maximized as a way to sense occupant behaviors, needs and other signals? What if instead of a multitude of control interfaces scattered throughout the building in those predesignated places, the wall could act as a ubiquitous interface — allowing building occupants to communicate with their building, anytime and anywhere? This could be the interactive wall.

Better yet, how can you as an architect design with sensory ideas in mind that can more truly make a difference in the lives of your occupants, providing them with a richer more meaningful experience? Would an interactive wall make that much more of a positive difference?

An Interactive Wall That Recognizes and Speaks With Its Occupants

While this type of interactive wall in a forward-thinking idea, already advances are being made to materialize certain aspects of it which can respond to occupant touch. Researchers at Microsoft and the University of Washington are now working on ways to make the interactive wall a “touch-sensitive surface”. (1) The following is an excerpt explaining how their technology works:

“When a person touches a wall with electrical wiring behind it, she becomes an antenna that tunes the background radiation, producing a distinct electrical signal, depending on her body position and proximity to and location on the wall. This unique electrical signal can be collected and interpreted by a device in contact with or close to her body. When a person touches a spot on the wall behind her couch, the gesture can be recognized, and it could be used, for example, to turn down the volume on the stereo.”— Kate Green, Technology Review

Thus, it appears that first steps are underway to turn our everyday building wall surfaces into interactive and, dare I say, more “feeling” building elements. While it appears that this technology is in its beginning stages, I find it intriguing that the interactive wall could detect changes in the electrical signals created in the specific way a person engages with the wall. Taken a step further, it makes me wonder what might happen when such touch sensitive surfaces could make interactive walls respond specifically to those within a building that are interacting with them.

Hence, through the interactive wall’s “eyes” the person interfacing with it would almost have a “thumbprint” — a way of interacting with the wall that is uniquely them, which would create a more personalized and one-of-a-kind environment that mirrors them. Thus, interactive walls could give buildings new kinds of “personalities”.

The Interactive Wall That Communicates Meaningfully

The notion of an interactive wall could also mean that the material composition of the wall could actually change — thus interacting with its occupant on a more physical level. Of course, you may have already seen glass that can responsively turn from opaque to transparent. But what if that so-called “window” changed its location within the wall? Also, what if the interactive wall went a step beyond simply changing color to also changing texture? Or its inherent form?

As you can see from the theme of this article, I think that interactive walls are only in their infancy. To move beyond simple wall projections that interact with occupant body movements, I see that architecture will need to rethink the very notion of surface — as it is becoming much more than simply about barrier. The interactive wall will be reinventing the notion of surface to be so much more — as it unleashes many sensory ideas within its design to connect, communicate, mutate and recognize — all while providing meaningful experiential interactions with occupants.


(1) Greene, Kate. Talking to the Wall. Technology Review. MIT. May 3, 2011

Image Credit: © Fotolia


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