Category Archives: Outdoors

Did you hear the one about the five neuroscientists who went on a rafting trip?

I’m really digging this story at the New York Times, about five neuroscientists who went on a rafting trip down the San Juan River, ostensibly to study the effects of disconnecting with the “digital” world.

It sounds like the start of a joke, but it’s actually pretty neat.

Mr. Strayer, the trip leader, argues that nature can refresh the brain. “Our senses change. They kind of recalibrate — you notice sounds, like these crickets chirping; you hear the river, the sounds, the smells, you become more connected to the physical environment, the earth, rather than the artificial environment.”

Indoors and Outdoors. Natural and Artificial. Digital and Physical. Isolation and Connectedness.

Yes. These are all things.

The West

Gracious Living

I may be honing in on part of why I find the American West, not only the landscape but also its people and history, so interesting. And history not necessarily in the wars fought or the great leaders and historic influencers and such, but in the everyday sense. What did people, regular people, do out here? What was their lifeworld? What was their intersubjectivity?

In a way, it’s a manner to defamiliarize myself with my own lifeworld, my own values and needs and hopes and dreams and goals and aspirations and fears… to try on someone else’s to render more explicit to my own consciousness my own silently-held assumptions, biases and predispositions. And if I understand mine better, I can come to know those of others better. I can better empathize with them, knowing that my own convictions and beliefs are sourced in something, sourced in experiences I have had that have influenced my values and thinking, rather than some innate characteristic of mankind that others may or may not have discovered yet.

Indeed, this thought experiment allows me to reject the notion that I have attained some kind of objective, universal, transcendent truth or enlightenment. In some ways I have found my own enlightenment, yes. I have discovered, and continue to hammer out, a personal framework for meaning. But this is not a guarantor. It is something that frames, that helps me make sense of human life, but not something that determines life.

Transactions for Saturday October 25th, 1884

And so, I look to the West, and the ephemera of the 1800s, yes, that era of westward expansion and exploration and such, and I find it fascinating to see what people, what ordinary people, did in those circumstances. What they were forced to do. What they chose to do. How they went about doing it, and why, and what they did once they got there.

And I’m figuring that a lot of the style of the West, artifacts and such that we inescapably associate with the West, are not necessarily by design… but that they were the only resources available from which to craft things. So yes, they were designed, if not in an aesthetic sense, but in that there were strict constraints of materials available to build, and those in turn determined the styles of things, of buildings, of main street in boom towns… indeed, the stark reality of building a town out of nothing, yes, that’s positively fascinating.

Wallpaper Strata

But also, what luxuries did we chose to bring along? From alcohol to prostitutes to sourdough bread to chandeliers in barrooms to player pianos to ornate ceiling tiles to framed art to wainscoting to wallpaper… these things didn’t just come from nowhere. In a lawless land such as the historic American West, it likely ended up there because someone decided they could make a buck by doing it. A piano is heavy and delicate and difficult to transport, but man just as with any bumpin’ night club, I’m sure it could bring the crowds if you were the only saloon that had one.

But also, I’m interested in the West from an art direction standpoint, from the way the western films, with their spurs and pointed-toe cowboy boots and electric guitars and whistles and harmonicas and such, the way Sergio Leone has basically mediated the portrayal of the West, and given us these vast tools of shared meaning with which we can craft and express a certain experience. And, in the case of diagetic sound, that can be pretty authentic, from the sounds of insects to wind to trotting horses, but also the electric guitars and whoops and hollers of The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, how the non-diagetic sound has become a resource for emotional connection and, yes, designed experience.

So there’s West as nature, which I love. There’s West as life, historically, which I find interesting. There’s West as a shared cultural cinematic medium, the experience design of the West, which I find awesome.

And. There’s West as a raw portrayal of what we find quintessentially valuable as Americans. Or even, as humans. As people. I don’t want to draw too many universals independent of American culture, but there’s something telling to the West, the rawness of the hardscrabble life its history afforded, that tells a story of what we truly, truly value, yes as historic Americans, as a culture, but perhaps even as humans, when we have nothing and are presented with the rawest of living.

If we were to carve out an existence where there is nothing (taking on the perspective of a period-era pioneer, for a moment, and blindly ignoring the existing indigenous cultures we oh-so-ravaged, which already had indescribable “meanings” associated with all that we considered wide open “nothing” in the West), what are we going to carry with ourselves on our backs as we make our way westward? What are we going to build once we get there? What are we going to seek out, either from nature, or from others, in the hope that a loose regional society can provide what essentials we cannot provide for ourselves?

Entertainment District

What do we value, above all else, such that we will go through such pains to carry it with us, or build it, or seek it out? Shelter, water, food, fame, fortune, power, sex, liquor, the sublime, art, culture, music, the church, tobacco, opium… what motivates us, as a people, even at the fringes of civilization? What remains constant? What do we carry in our hearts, wherever we travel, whatever our society, whatever its wickedness and lawlessness?

In a way, I find the West a fascinating experiment in what we truly find most valuable as a culture, a society, a people, perhaps even a species… a perfected laboratory where, if given an opportunity to start it all over, with limited resources, how we would desire to remake ourselves. The scarcity of resources and obvious constraints and harshness of life in the Old West fascinates me as a designer, perhaps even moreso than the aesthetics of Western life, and I feel I’m beginning to understand that the aesthetics we associate with the West are inexplicably tied to something that was very real, and very raw, for some people’s existence.

The stories of other people’s lives, and how they lived them from day to day, fascinate me as a writer and a storyteller. I continue my attempts to unravel the stories of the West, for I feel as though they hold some kind of truth as to what dwells in the hearts of humankind.

These are all true statements.

We are done with graduate school.

We are moving to San Francisco.

We are road tripping across the country.

We are currently in Moab, Utah.

The best way to keep track of us is through Twitter.

Or through Kate’s blog.

Outside In: Evoking a Sense of the Natural World in Indoor Spaces

Last night I delivered my thesis presentation, effectively completing my master’s degree in human-computer interaction design. Over the last seven months I’ve been conducting a design exploration into the ways we find nature meaningful to us, and uncovering ways to enliven indoor environments with a sense of the outdoors.

Here is the 20-minute presentation:

A big, hearty thanks to everyone who came out to see it live and in person!

Gleaming The Cube: Design Principles for Bringing the Outdoors Indoors

For Distant Viewing

I’ve been working on my capstone project for two semesters now, trying to figure out a way to introduce a slice of the outdoor experience to the inside world. Playing, recreating and simply being outside is something that is extremely important to me, and based on conversations with my research participants, important to them as well.

There’s an apparent dichotomy between the richly engaging, dynamically changing outside world, and the rather static, sterile, sensory-deprivation tank that is the typical indoor workspace. Regarding the individual who has established a deep, personal connection to the outdoors, or to nature, or to wilderness, how do we improve the quality of life for this person if they have to spend most of their waking hours in an indoor built environment? What sort of experiential qualities are present in an outdoor setting that we can appropriately introduce to an indoor space? How can we do this in a manner that is still aligned with work and business needs?

My interests are not in arriving at a factual, scientifically objective account of outdoor experience, but rather how outdoor spaces are received by our senses, interpreted in our minds, and ultimately made meaningful to us. Mine is a phenomenological approach, where I am concerned with the experience of direct realism. How does nature reveal itself to our consciousness? How does our consciousness interpret the outdoors, and regard it as meaningful? How is the situatedness of the individual, from their perceptual capabilities, to their social and cultural values, to their memories and lived experiences, how are these evoked by a particular experience, and how do they determine how the individual interprets it?

The goal of my capstone project is to establish a series of high-level design principles that help to guide interaction designers who find themselves trying to evoke a sense of the outdoors in an indoor space. I do not precisely know yet what these principles will be, but a few possible threads have bubbled to the surface.

The Biological Thread

Green Dude

Most animals have what is called a circadian rhythm, a biological clock that runs on a 24-hour period and determines when an organism wakes up, does certain activities, and goes to sleep. Animals still heed to this internal clock even when deprived of external stimuli, such as the movement of the sun and changes in temperature, and humans are no exception. Despite artificial lighting and built environments, we are still inexplicably bound to this rhythm.

The circadian rhythm is clearly an evolutionary response to the 24-hour day of our planet, and in this way our biology is not only situated in, but largely determined by our environment. Our biological nature is born from the nature of the Earth itself, and its subsequent rhythms. Indeed, the natural length of a day is inescapably woven into the biology of our own humanity.

It goes further than that, however. Lakoff and Johnson have done extensive work demonstrating that our use of language, and our thoughts themselves, are tightly coupled to a series of primary metaphors that rise out of our experience with our own bodies. The foundation of human thought is bound up not in some kind of disembodied rationality, argue Lakoff and Johnson, but is rather determined by our own embodied cognition. We talk of purpose as a destination, time in terms of motion, and things that are similar as being close together. These are not just convenient linguistic phrases, but are the very foundation of how we structure and make sense of the world.

Our perceptions and subsequent rationalism are a product of our own embodiment, and our embodiment is a product of our biology. Since our biology evolved in response to the inescapable rhythms of the natural world, it would seem that a connection to the outside world is an undeniably important component of our humanity. To deny the rhythms of the outside world is to deny the very thing that makes us human.

As humans we are unavoidably situated in our biology, which influences how we perceive, categorize and make meaning of the world. A design that aims to communicate a sense of the outdoors must consider the biological connection that makes the natural world intrinsically meaningful to us.

The Cultural Thread

I hope she said yes.

A longstanding claim has been that it is reason, our unique access to a transcendent and objective reality, that distinguishes humans from other animals. The implications of Lakoff and Johnson’s work, that rationality is not disembodied but is rather a product of our own embodiment, stands to elevate other uniquely human activities such as culture and art to a similar level as reason.

This is certainly not to undercut rational thought, which remains an incredibly powerful tool that, in the case of quantum mechanics, continues to unearth a world that is in direct violation of our common-sense notions of direct realism. It is, however, to demonstrate that reason is not the privileged, disembodied force we may think it is, but is rather determined by the unique nature of our own humanity. If reason (that is, human reason) is one important capability that make us uniquely human, than our other capabilities such as culture and art may be equally important, despite their subjective nature.

Our relationship with the outdoors cannot be described fully in a purely biological, or purely rational, account, as our social and cultural experiences influence our attitudes towards the natural world as well. There is biological precedent for our connection, but the way we ultimately make meaning and form relationships with the outdoors will be highly dependent on the culture we are situated in, and the experiences with the outdoors that we have collected.

As a designer, it is inappropriate to assume that everyone will interpret a palm tree in the same way, or a cactus, or a coniferous tree. For a person in the midwestern United States a palm tree might signify a faraway exotic place to spend spring break, whereas for a person in Florida it may represent just another damn tree. Someone who lives in the mountains may not have the same appreciation for their local topography as someone who grew up in the plains.

The values we associate with the outdoors are heavily influenced by the society and culture we inhabit. A design that aims to communicate a sense of the outdoors must consider the sociocultural relationships its users have with the natural world, and how (or if) it intends to change them.

The Temporal and Perceptual Thread

Waning Sunlight

The natural world changes slowly, often at a rate below immediate human perception. We notice the leaves changing in autumn, but you can’t sit down and literally watch the leaves change. The sun moves across the sky throughout the day, the days get longer or shorter depending on one’s latitude and the time of year, and the phases of the moon change. There are, however, changes that we can perceive, such as wind blowing, clouds moving, rain falling, and certainly lightning striking nearby.

The indoor world has limited access to these natural processes, but it does possess some of its own. Co-workers arrive in the morning, fetch their coffee, take bathroom breaks, go to lunch, and eventually filter out for the evening. Human Resources may hang holiday decorations depending on the time of year, and the wear-and-tear of the hallway carpet may become a topic of conversation for bored individuals. Indeed, we are ambiently aware of these processes, often without consciously attending to them or deliberately marking them out.

From an informational standpoint the natural world is always communicating its status, albeit at a level below that of immediate human perception. We notice changes from time to time, but we cannot consciously focus and attend to them, because they cannot be actively witnessed by our senses. The sun moves, the phases of the moon change, the trees bud and the flowers bloom, and while all of these channels communicate information about the state of the outdoors, they are far from being distracting or overwhelming. Thus, a design for bringing a sense of the outdoors indoors would do well for capturing and communicating these slow processes in an elegant manner.

However, part of the intrigue of the outside world is the interplay between these longer imperceivable processes, and the more immediate perceivable ones. I can’t sit down and watch the sun move across the sky, but on a partly cloudy day I can tell when it comes out from behind a cloud. I can feel and hear the breeze on a windy day, and while I could just barely perceive that thunderhead bearing down on me, I can certainly feel its drenching rain.

This interplay demonstrates how the processes of nature situate themselves in a multi-scalar, almost fractal relationship. Certain changes are perceivable minute-to-minute, hour-to-hour or day-to-day. Others are only noticeable at larger timescales, such as week-to-week, month-to-month or season-to-season. Still other changes are noticeable from year-to-year. The natural world of course works on timescales far beyond this, beyond the limits of human perception and even imagination, and certain creative designs cast a reflective light on even these vast timescales.

A design that aims to communicate a sense of the outdoors must allow for multiple levels of perception and temporal resolution, utilizing different magnitudes of perceivable change to communicate the multi-scalar cyclic relationships of the natural world.

So that largely summarizes my current work. I’m not sure if these are the actual design principles I’m going to roll with, but a few categories definitely seem to be emerging. I’m deeply interested in a phenomenological standpoint that considers sense-making, sensuality and embodied experience as core to my argument. I have found that a key component to my work is the temporal, multi-scalar, cyclic nature of outdoor processes, as well as the differing levels of human perception of those changes. Indeed, these two principles are tightly woven together at this point, but it may make more sense to split them apart.

I’m already realizing that I need a principle that considers space, such as the way sunlight filters through leaves or how crepuscular rays fill outdoor space, and mapping these to surfaces in the office or dust particles in the air. Nature has an interesting way of rendering space visible in subtle ways and using it to communicate information, and I’m fairly certain I need a principle that captures that. I also aim to further explain my design principles by applying them specifically to light as a design medium, based on my lighting studies.

In Summary

  • As humans we are unavoidably situated in our biology, which influences how we perceive, categorize and make meaning of the world. A design that aims to communicate a sense of the outdoors must consider the biological connection that makes the natural world intrinsically meaningful to us.
  • The values we associate with the outdoors are heavily influenced by the society and culture we inhabit. A design that aims to communicate a sense of the outdoors must consider the sociocultural relationships its users have with the natural world, and how (or if) it intends to change them.
  • A design that aims to communicate a sense of the outdoors must allow for multiple levels of perception and temporal resolution, utilizing different magnitudes of perceivable change to communicate the multi-scalar cyclic relationships of the natural world.

Hans and Umbach: Prototyping In Light

Hans and Umbach took some time out from their work to help me with my capstone project, where I’m trying to help people maintain a connection with the outdoors when they work inside for a living. In particular I’ve been studying how sunlight plays with indoor architectural spaces, and how the shapes of cast light change throughout the day as the sun moves across the sky. My explorations have been deeply inspired by the work of Daniel Rybakken, Adam Frank, and Philips’ efforts with dynamic lighting.

I wanted to create a device that would mimic the movement of the sun throughout the day, and I turned to Hans and Umbach for advice as to how to build such a thing. They recommended something as simple as a clock movement with a paper screen that would rotate, changing the angle and position of a beam of light from a Maglite over the course of time. Deemed Chrono we set forth to build such a prototype, to see how it would work.

"Outside In" Chrono Prototype Construction

"Outside In" Chrono Prototype Construction

"Outside In" Chrono Prototype Construction

"Outside In" Chrono Prototype Stage

Light is a tricky beast to prototype with, to be sure, but these small steps begin to point us in the right direction. We recorded a few time-lapse videos that show the movement of the prototype in a simulated office desk environment, condensing thirteen minutes of movement into less than two minutes:

The electronics are simple, but it’s an interesting and subtle way to communicate the slow passage of time within “embodied” space!

Outside In: Bringing The Outdoors Indoors

"Outside In" Capstone Sketches

For my capstone project, I’m exploring ways to help outdoor enthusiasts maintain a connection to the outdoors when they need to be inside. Sadly, not everyone can work as a ski instructor, mountaineering guide or tree planter their whole lives. As these people make their way into the great indoors for the majority of their working lives, how can we make it a less alienating experience for them?

"Outside In" Capstone Sketches

"Outside In" Capstone Sketches

"Outside In" Capstone Sketches

"Outside In" Capstone Sketches

More sketches are available in the Capstone gallery at my Flickr account.

We Went And Saw Some Mountains

Kate and I spent a week stomping around Colorado, hanging out in Fort Collins and ascending into the dizzying airs of Rocky Mountain National Park.

There are many more photos to be seen in this set on Flickr.

Notch Top Mountain

Fern Lake With Feldspars

For Distant Viewing

We will shock you.

Why Today Was Awesome (a list)

Drove across the Golden Gate Bridge with Chris and John.

Saw houseboats.

Saw redwoods.

Ate a tasty smoked turkey and pesto sandwich.

Hiked around Point Reyes.

“Hipsters in the woods.”

Ran down a hill leaping off jumps, pretending I was on a dirt bike.

Photographed tiny flowers.

Saw a quail.

Climbed an enormous eucalyptus tree.

Played in the sand.

Dug tunnels in the sand.

Saw a whale.

Saw another whale.

Watched a crow try to steal away with a small child.

Smelled kelp.

Played with kelp.

Popped kelp.

Broke open kelp.

Dragged around heavy piles of kelp.

Bullwhip Kelp: nature’s beer bong.

Had a little too much fun playing with kelp.

Poked a jellyfish.

Got attacked by the ocean.

Took pictures of a snake, getting all up in his grill.

Inhaled a tasty Slushee from Seven’el.

Didn’t get eaten by bears (as we promised Peter).

Drove across the Golden Gate Bridge.

Sally and Tommy Are Biking Across Thailand!

And you can watch!

National Park!