C Lamp

Year 2010
Product Design + Electronic Art + Programming (Processing & Arduino Platforms)

Thesis project
Exploring new forms of communication over distance through physical objects and ambient information.

Project Overview
C Lamp is an interactive color-mixing lighting device, which is a container of, and conduit for, online digital information. It is designed to facilitate an exchange of emotional content between people separated by physical distance. The C Lamp uses wireless technology to send and receive the digital equivalent of text-based information. C Lamp transforms the information it receives into a mix of red, green, and blue light, using tricolor (RGB) LED with the brightness of each color determined by specific information.

The goal of this project was to use the lamp to communicate interpersonal messages visually by varying the brightness and color of light and shapes of lampshades. For example, C Lamp represents messages (email contents or blog RSS feeds) between lovers with romantic colors (pink or light purple). It represents arguments between people in bright red, showing that a fight is happening. The message can be specific or general, based on a user’s choice.
I chose a lamp as the physical interface in this project because it is an everyday object. A lamp is an especially significant object in our daily lives. It lights our world when the sky goes dark. We live in its light for at least a third of the day. There is a connection between a lamp, its light, and an intellectual experience. For instance, when we see a light on in a room, we know there is someone in the room. Light becomes a symbol for someone’s presence. This functional and symbolic experience is what I am interested in for this project. A lamp is a visualization platform for interpersonal messages. The lamp stands for the person you have conversations with and the status of light (color, brightness) stands for the conversation between you.

Physical Form
The C Lamp is about 8 x 8 x 8 inches, depending on the dimensions of the lampshade. My lampshades are handmade from cotton thread and India paper or a similar textured material.
Handmade objects are always unique and special. Each handmade object is the only one in the world. So is interpersonal conversation. Each conversation is unique, secret and personal. Both of them share the same characteristics. Therefore handmade lampshades are important in this project. Every shape and every texture of the lampshades stand for every unique conversation and experience between family members or friends.
Inside the C Lamp is a microcontroller driving LEDs, connected to either a wired or wireless network.

The concept prototype is built on the Processing and Arduino platforms. Processing analyzes text-based information received from the Internet, sends that data to an Arduino microcontroller, then the Arduino makes the data visual through the colors of LEDs.
This project gave me a strong foundation in programming and allowed me to build more complex projects like “LightOn” and “Knock” where I began working with physical interaction through sensors and motors on the Arduino platform.

The design process was broken into two phases: research and visualization. Most of the research phase was spent collecting text-based information from the Internet. During this time, I discovered two resources I wanted to visualize – email content and blog articles (RSS feed). We email everyday anytime. Email is more useful than phone calls or text messages for those who live in different time zones or countries.
Therefore, I chose these two types of communication as sources for this physical visualization project.
Most of the visualization phase was spent soldering electronic components to make the LED module and making cotton thread lampshades. I made eight different lampshades to explore how the lampshades would affect the experience.

The physical object – handmade lampshade – and its tactile quality became the core element of this project. Some people think it is a mood lighting device. It’s difficult for them to understand the message each color conveys. As a data visualization tool, the “C Lamp” was not successful. It reflected users’ different and changing emotional states, but did not clearly show the nuances of the data. It is easy for users to notice dramatic color changes (e.g. from blue to red). If the change is a shift in tone within the same color (e.g. from red to pink), it is difficult to tell the difference. The “C Lamp” did accomplish one of its objectives, successfully communicating interpersonal messages visually by varying the brightness and color of light.
“C Lamp” is a physical data visualization device but its purpose is to not show all of its content. It’s more about an experience of seeing a message and feeling a conversation. The color and brightness of light and the lampshade integrate into a poetic experience. Those I showed the prototype to said they could feel the emotional message through the color and pulse of light. They focused not only on the color of light, but also the moment the color changed. As its color changed, the lamp conveyed new messages and brought different experiences.
What role could light play in communication over distance? What kind of particular emotional experience could it convey? Is color an important and unique property of light? These questions brought me to the next project, “LightOn.”