My Role
Interaction Designer, 3D Modeler, Fabrication Designer
2 Weeks
Rhino, Laser Cutter
Olivia Yin (Developer)
Melting Distance is an interactive installation inspired by the pandemic's context. Though we are separated due to social distancing, the desire for us to connect with our beloved ones is unquenchable. 
Concept Development
Many places (restaurants, banks, and schools...) implemented a transparent divider between people during the pandemic. Although our sense of sight and hearing is not affected, the most important physical connection and interaction between people is disturbed. ​​​​​​​
After several rounds of brainstorming, we agreed that the shape of the installation object should be something artsy, elegant and romantic, so we started research based on these keywords. Our attention was fully attracted by the ferrofluid: the little black dots show the interaction perfectly through the use of magnets separated by glass, in the media of clear liquid. 
Since ferrofluids are basically made up of tiny magnetic fragments of iron, they will respond to an electromagnet (a type of magnet in which the magnetic field is produced by an electric current). Though it was extremely satisfying to watch the dance of this magic material controlled by the current, we found it actually requires a huge amount of electricity than we can achieve simply through using Arduino, and this kind of interaction indeed weakened the emphasise that we want to make on people. Thus we moved away from using electricity for control.
Primary Research: User Testing Phase 1
We hand-cut 2 cardboard boxes, and put the ferrofluid bottle in between, on eye level, so players can see each other while interacting, but their movements are limited due to the size of the box. The user play test was implemented to see how one interacts with the other under constraints.
We tested on 10 different groups with in total of 20 people, and they all found ferrofluid interesting enough that they ignored the disturb from the boxes.
Would you be able to figure out the functionality of the magnets yourself at the beginning?
Say it was easy to figure out how to play with the installation, but it can be hard to tell without the magnet holder
Were you trying to form a "bridge" with your partner, or did you just want to play with it yourself?
Say they started exploring the mechanism themselves but ended up building connections with the other person eventually
What were you expecting to happen when you formed a ferrofluid "bridge" with your partner?
Say they were looking forward to some magic like lighting and sparkling things to happen simultaneously 
One thing we didn't expect during the process was that the 2 magnets are too strong, that they tend to move towards each other once they are too close, and one person might end up with 2 magnets in hand because of that. 
Concept Refinement
The user testing inspired us on 2 things moving forward.
1. Bring LED strips into the design as a computing interaction
2. Shape of the installation should emphasise more on the finger movement
The connection can still be formed without the 2 magnets/finger attaching. In order to make this happen, we have to custom-make the ferrofluid container to suit the shape, and also we need a much longer container so the "bridging" can be more obvious to notice. 
Material Testing
In the beginning, we both thought the below clear and elegant plastic water bottle was perfect because it was light, easy to carry around, clear and thin. But not until we put ferrofluid inside, we realised it was a disaster instead. 
We tried on various types of the plastic container and none of them worked. Then we realised it must be some other materials for this to work, so we switched to a similarly shaped glass tank, and this still didn't work out. First of all, it was not perfectly clean on the surfaces due to the nature of this kind of class. Secondly, the width of the tank was too wide for the ferrofluid to form a "bridge" and make a connection...
Secondary Research
Through research and interview with chemists, we found that the container needs to be high borosilicate glass for the ferrofluid to not stick around, and the liquid has to be still water, so the ferrofluid can move freely(not just filtered water, but real clean water). The test tubes became our final choice.
User Flow
Once the material is set, based on the previous design concept, I created the following user flow in order to communicate better with the developer, so that we know we are on the same page towards our goal.
3D Modeling
In order to meet the deadline, I started building 3D models while doing material testing, so we can laser cut the other supporting structures on time.  The shape of the iceberg came into play this round. 
Choice of the acrylic was made after the lighting test: the frosted acrylic can both hide our electronic equipment and transmit the lighting at the same time. 
The first mock-up model was used to test ultrasonic sensor distance, and while everything worked perfectly, I then moved to build up the real acrylic model. 
I coordinated with the developer closely at this stage, just to make sure the design and the physical computing can match and work perfectly at the same time. 
Design Outcome

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