A few weeks ago we were asked to participate in the Eames Design Challenge, a friendly competition among companies as part of the Seattle Design Festival. Each company was delivered an Eames molded plastic rocking chair and given two weeks to make the iconic design their own before their chair was auctioned off at the SDF closing party. We'd never done a competition like this one but after gauging interest we agreed to participate.
Given our strengths, interests, and capabilities, we knew we couldn't only focus on the visual design of the chair. Plus, the Eames design doesn't really need any help at all. Given that, we considered how we could transform a rocking chair into a more substantial experience (no pun intended).
We gathered our chair team and led a brainstorming session to consider what we could do. We collected dozens of ideas before deciding to create transform simple chair rocking into a more relaxing experience. We knew rather quickly that we were going to use sound as part of that experience and that that sound was going to be based on the severity of someone's rocking, so our first technical goal was to create a way to gather that severity metric.
Given the time constraints, we wanted to limit our technology choices to those with which we already had familiarity, so we opted for Unity, which we've used in client work and in our own Dungeon Highway. We already knew how to get tilt/accelerometer data out of a mobile device, so in just a couple of days we had a prototype that would measure rocking speed.
In parallel, we were having other conversations to further define the concept. We settled on Nature, largely because our initial talks around relaxing scenarios led to talk of moving water like beaches and rivers or the drone of animals like crickets and cicadas. Nature also made sense as we felt it would play nicely with the both simplicity and elegance of the Eames design on its own.
As that nature theme was being solidified, the app prototype, while at first a bit of a metronome, was quickly extended to a graduated rain scene. Based on rocking severity, a series of rain-related sounds would build on one another, creating an enveloping soundscape. We finalized this as our technical approach, opting to focus on refinement rather than more research and thought of more "scenes" that could be added.
With the technical side of the chair taken care of, we needed to determine how to tie the aesthetics of the chair into the experience. After discussing upholstery, decals, and pillows, we opted to leave the interior of the chair as-is, finding any additions superfluous. However, we decided to evoke water and nature on the chair's exterior via a a gentle gradient of greens and blues with sponge paint. The sponge approach added texture and visual intrigue, hinting at trees, leaves, or algae. A few coats of clear varnish sealed the paint in and added a very necessary shine. We affixed a small felt pocket to the chair's wire base to hold the phone used for rocking measurements. A simple pair of wireless headphones placed in the chair seat act as an invitation.
In all, we managed to go from a whiteboard full of ideas to a fully executed design experience in just two weeks. When presented at the Seattle Design Festival's closing party, the audience was at first confused but later enthralled by what we created, as evidenced by people crowding around and pulling their friends to try Synesthesia for themselves. We're happy we took part and look forward to participating again in the future.
For those of you that couldn't make it here's our official chair description, followed by more images of the finished product and the process of getting it there.
When we decided to participate in this challenge, we knew immediately that we wanted to create something more than just a visually appealing chair; we wanted to enhance the entire chair experience.
One of the characteristics of Eames design is its simplicity; an elegance that everything is in its right place. That sort of clarity is what we aim for in our software products as well.
Our chair, dubbed Synesthesia, retains the clean visuals of the iconic Eames design on its interior. On the exterior, a gradient of greens and blues evoke natural themes, whether one of a grassy field, a mossy forest, or a babbling brook. These colors provide a gentle hint to what lies ahead once you place the headphones on your head.
Once you begin to rock, you are transported to a variety of calming scenarios. Scenes including the gentle pitter patter of raindrops, the background hum of cicadas, or the wash of waves on sand all serve to turn metronomic rocking into something even more natural, more relaxing. Requiring no additional effort, the enhanced Synesthesia experience is as easy to use as the Eames chair itself.