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Epitaph

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EPITAPH

Imagining a world without trees.

Designing an interactive storytelling experience.


A speculative project, Epitaph is a memorial to trees meant to share their experiences, stories, and legacies post-mortem. 

Activated by the user's touch, each ring features a unique soundtrack correlating with a particular time period in a tree's life cycle. By arranging four milestone soundscapes sequentially from the center ring to the outer ring, a narrative unfolds sharing the collective experiences of the existence of trees from birth to distinction.

TYPE Installation, Speculative, Product Design, UX

SCOPE 3 Weeks

PROCESS Concept design, UX design, product design, sound design, physical computing, coding, fabrication

TEAM Alex Frankel, Amsha Kalra, Kinjal Shah

ADVISORS: Eric Foreman, Wolfgang Gil

CONCEPT

Explore how we might collect personal histories and retain legacy after death.

Following my grandmother's passing in 2015 I became interested in exploring individual's legacies. Realizing the irreplaceable value of personal histories lost to the living when a loved on passes, I began considering how might we collect this information prior to death and how might we be able to collect this information after death. 

CHALLENGE

How might we build an object that provokes thought on the implications of lost histories.

Considering the inability to extract information from the human body post-mortem, I began to consider other bodies in the natural world that contain stories. I recalled learning in elementary school that trees contain data that can be understood via rings in their flesh. 

Just like anthropologists learn stories from excavated bones and geologists determine data from rocks, trees log information and share it using a naturally developed form of communication expressed as a series of irregular concentric rings. This information can be used to determine a tree's age and serve as chronological records to analyze past environmental climates and conditions. 

Inspired by this study of tree rings, called dendrochronology, I wondered what tapping into previously inaccessible information held by trees could tell us. What if we could collect other experiences they hold? Based off of this thought, our team began to explore this idea for our physical computing final. How might we extract the rich information that a tree has experienced in its lifetime?

RESEARCH

The process began by determining what sounds would be a part of tree's lives and how we could create a timeline based off of tree's lifespans. We determined that the four soundscapes would fall into the following timeline and constraints:

Birth: Primary physical sounds associated with their immediate physical environment.

Life with Nature: Primary physical sounds in conjunction with their interactions with animals and their immediate physical environment.

Life with Humans: Primary experienced sounds in conjunction with its interactions with indigenous peoples and progressing towards one in an industrialized society. 

Death: Sounds in conjunction with its interactions with a heavily industrialized society and progressing towards eventual extinction. 

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PROTOTYPING

We began the project by exploring possible directions for the experience, focusing on the physical space and design of the object that would be most intuitive for the end-user. After locking in on a direction, we needed to prototype, test the object with users, and iterate upon it to deliver a functioning and thought-provoking piece in just three weeks.

The making began with running through simple prototypes to determine how to build our object. We began testing with capacitive touch sensors, conductive materials, arduino, LED strips and code to determine if the ring input and feedback would function as desired. During the process, we came across FASTLED, an arduino library which made the prototyping easier than initially expected. Once we ensured that our sensors and feedback would work, we moved forward.

In parallel, we consulted a sound artist in regards to designing the audio for each soundtrack and determining what tools we could use to cut into our wood. After consulting our campus fabrication lab we used the CNC router and scrap MDF board to create a single ring with two gutter depths, one that would hold the metal ring and a deeper gutter to house the LED strips.

FINAL CONSTRUCTION

After tracking down a red cedar tree stump with well-defined rings from upstate, we began our final construction. Given the uneven cutting of the acquired tree slices, we brought our slices to a Brooklyn woodworking company who was able to plane the wood down to a smooth and even working surface.

While the wood was being planed, we hunted for a place with metal cutting abilities that could create perfectly smooth metal rings that would fit perfectly into the gutter of the rings in our wood slice. We located a plasma cutter at the SVA sculpture gallery and after a bit of persistence they assisted us in cutting the metal sheets into the rings.

Concurrently, we were drilling away and hand chiseling the stump to create a cavern that would allow us to house the tablet, arduino, and wires. We also were working on creating the four soundtracks that would narrate the story. 

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DESIGN FICTION

Epitaph a memorial to the legacy of trees after their extinction. 

As we continue to study the accelerated impact human activities are having on the earth system, we imagined a world that can no longer nurture trees, one of adaptation, where new technologies have afforded alternative means of oxygen and the ability to extract personal histories from natural objects.

A speculative installation, our solution was to create a monument provoking thoughts on the value of tree's lived experiences throughout the earth's history and the implications of climate change. Stimulated by touch, LEDs gradually fill each ring and cue a distinct soundtrack representative of one of four life stages. Meant to encourage reflection and thought of legacy, connectedness through time, reliance and their participatory role in the natural world. These auditory experiences highlight the peaceful, natural environment, interactions with living beings, threatened experiences, and their eventual distinction.