FireFlies is an interactive multisensory experience that takes the visitor back to a 19th century tavern. FireFlies triggers the auditory, visual, olfactory, and somatosensory senses for a highly immersive experience by incorporating bright LED-lights, multiple sound effects, vibration backpacks, pushbuttons, and smoke.
The installation is designed for the Boerenkerkhof in Enschede. It revolves around the story of Hendrik Smelt, a local citizen, and his poem written about the city fire of 1862. The goal of the project is to bring alive the stories of the people buried at the cemetery while turning the place into a more attractive public park for both the locals and the tourists.
FireFlies is a homemade time-machine. At the door, the visitors’ attention is grabbed by the speaking portrait of Hendrik Smelt. He invites the guests to put on time-travelling backpacks and go back to the 19th century to attend a poem recital in his favourite tavern. Once inside, the visitors are presented with idle time-machine sounds, dim slightly blinking lights, and a big red button in the middle of the dark room. Pressing the button activates the time machine and with some accompanied vibration, visual and auditory effects, the visitors will be teleported to the cozy Haystack tavern.
Hendrik Smelt will start reciting his poem about the city fire accompanied by some tavern ambience sounds. Nine main buttons are lit up in blue colour on the surrounding walls. By pressing the button, the visitors turn on and off various looping background sound effects to compose a soundtrack for the poem. All these rhythmic background loops are sounds that can be commonly found in a tavern: clanking glasses, pouring beer, sharpening the knife, walking in clogs, snoring, and some musical instruments. When a button is pressed, also the clustered LED lights corresponding to the touched button turn red and start to flicker to simulate fireplace flames and warmth. When pushing the button again, the LEDs turn back to blue and corresponding sound loop stops.
The more buttons and, thus, sound loops are activated, the higher the valence of the poem and the louder and more intense the reciter’s voice gets. Hendrik Smelt is trying hard to be heard over the competing sounds of the tavern.
If all the buttons are activated at the same time, the poetry recital stops, and the cacophony of tavern sounds merge into the soundscape of a roaring fire with church bells, collapsing structures, screams, coughs, and animal noises. Hendrik Smelt ushers the visitors to follow him back to his time.
If the visitors do not activate all buttons at the same time and do not reach the point of the fire, Hendrik Smelt finishes his poem and thanks the audience for joining him. Therefore, the storyline of the FireFlies installation is strongly dependent on the actions of the visitors and may differ between visitors. This is an intentional design for sparking comparative discussions and wish to return again after the experience.
In any case, the user is presented with a recording of the epilogue explaining the city fire of 1862 and the Butterfly Effect – how small actions can have drastic consequences. The time machine returns to its original idle state and the experience can be started again.
FireFlies is designed to be as intuitive as possible, providing multiple affordances for interaction. The installation is created with alternative endings to fit a variety of visitor behaviours. In this way, the experience still provides a response even when no buttons are pressed.
Being a group project, all of us contributed to the process of creating the experience. However, I had some key areas of responsibility.
Physical exploration. Providing the team with various materials and objects, such as vibrator motors, LED and flashlights, cloth, blow driers, during the ideation stage to explore the possibilities of physical interaction.
Text work. Translating the poem by Hendrik Smelt from Dutch to English, writing the prologue and epilogue texts.
Audio design. Finding the sound effect loops for the background composition; cutting, slicing, mixing and matching them together to fit a certain beat; creating the multi-layered soundscape of culmination fire; recruiting a voice actor, recording and editing the poem audio; tweaking the audio to work well with the speakers used in the installation.
Vibration and smoke exploration. Experimenting with Aura haptic feedback backpacks and a smoke machine to find ways of using them in our project, setting them up correctly with regard to settings and intensity.
Logistics and construction. Borrowing (power) tools for setting up the installation, building the roof construction, boarding up the walls, organising transport for delivering the large-scale installation to the graveyard.
Rubber ducking. Being a consultant and supporting hand to our main programmer Kasper Thomas de Kruiff, coming up with the code logic for automatically switching between alternative ending scenarios.
The project-related activities helped me develop drastically in regard to both interaction and experience design, but also teamwork and individual development. The challenges we faced and overcame made the process interesting and brought us closer together as a team.
Paper review podcast:
Eva Maria Veitmaa
Kasper Thomas de Kruiff
Article and interview in U-Today:
“Giving a voice to the dead”
Article in the local newspaper Tubantia:
“Verhalen van overleden mensen op Boerenkerkhof in Enschede komen weer even tot leven”
Client: University of Twente and Stichting Historische Sociëteit Enschede Lonneker
Cover photo: © Cees Elzenga / hetoog.nl