And so we come to our final prototype for the Curiosity Zone, ‘Air Power’

We’ve always seen a lot of mileage in allowing users to manipulate the flow of air as they experimented with loose objects such as balls and scarves.

The classic example in science centres and museums is the ‘Bernoulli Blower’. But there are many other inspirations we’ve drawn upon as well.

 

Our own feeling was to develop an ‘air plumbing’ exhibit, while also incorporating a Bernoulli Blower element to signal the exhibit was still functioning even if it wasn’t being used.

During our research we also came across an experimentation by the Exploratorium, that removed any barriers such as external plastic tubes. Essentially a ‘wind table’.

It had sat in the back of our minds as a concept that could also work for us, but we wanted to investigate the idea of air through pipework first. However once we had played with our ‘air plumbing’ prototype there was a concern that it wouldn’t hold our advisors attention for long enough. So we decided to quickly mock-up our own version of a wind table on the day and see which prototype faired best.

You can see what our advisors made of the two prototypes below:

What we observed was quite different to what we had expected. Almost immediately the group divided, with boys on the ’air plumbing’ exhibit and the girls (and parents also) constructing around the wind table.

It wasn’t until at least halfway through the session that this began to change and the groups started to mix more.

At the end it was clear that the children had found the air plumbing exhibit more immediately rewarding, perhaps due to the tactile sensation of placing the pipes together and the strong force of the air. But despite this we had observed something that gave us cause for concern.

Our aim for this exhibit has always been to inspire users to think about air flow, including how it can be manipulated as well as its effect on other objects. However we felt with the ‘air plumbing’ exhibit that the focus shifted more onto constructing as high a pipe as possible, or trying to connect them all together. It seemed to become more like a construction exhibit, than one about exploring the properties of air.

Here we had an example of one of the great difficulties as an exhibit builder. Do you stick with a design simply because it’s very popular, despite your worries that it doesn’t represent the concept the way you’d hoped?

Of course we still had our wind table to consider. The major difference we observed between the two prototypes seemed to be the type of activity and level of energy displayed outwardly by its users.

While the pipe area was often quite loud with frenzied shouts of ‘bigger’, ‘that’s my bit’, ‘pass it here’ etc the wind table was an area of relative calm. Users quietly and studiously created their devices and tested them out in the stream of wind, while discussing ideas and offering opinions on other people’s constructions.

Unfortunately in the popularity vote the wind table lost out. But we know there is also a good possibility that the less prominent size and position of the wind table in the evaluation room, may have contributed to its losing that vote. Which is something we can change in its future design.

So which one did we choose to pursue?

In the end we decided that above all it was the sight of users creating, testing and then redesigning their creations that made us think the wind table had more possibilities. The supply of loose parts is something we’ll have to deal with when it comes to the final build within a few weeks, but it’s worth it due to the open-endedness that the wind table demonstrates.

Also as so often happens with our prototype sessions it’s very likely that the ultimate result will be some hybridisation between the two. We don’t want to lose the ability for users to create pockets of air flow with more direct effects, and so we’ve already discussed creating accessories for users to manipulate the flow of air from the wind table surface.

But for now we leave the world of air manipulation to focus on our final build of ‘Ramps’, which you’ll no doubt be hearing more about in a few weeks time.

And we’ll end as we did on Friday, with a huge thank you to all our advisors who have taken the time to help us figure out just what it was about our exhibits that was worth pursuing. They’ve been funny, friendly, full of life and most importantly, honest and constructive with their feedback. But we decided that saying how grateful we were wasn’t quite enough, so we created limited edition goody bags for each family to take home with them. Each containing an assortment of curious goodies.

Followed by the obligatory slightly embarrassing photograph to mark the occasion of course.

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