In response to University of Washington students' obsession with mobile devices and the way they walk through campus oblivious to the beauty of the landscape, the architecture, or the people around them, my team developed a series of research questions and gathered survey responses and interviews from the community. We asked what would get them to look up from their phone; our highest number of responses included music, art installations or sculpture, and interactive games. Based on this research I proposed an interactive, weather-driven musical sculpture, and it was unanimously selected by my classmates as our most intriguing proposal.
Several experiments with found materials and environmental forces later...
...we arrived at a modestly-sized design we could prototype effectively. Of the four of us, one was a graphic designer, and the other two were computer scientists. So the design, engineering, and construction fell to me.
Then the fun began.
Using drilled stainless steel mixing bowls, fishing line, a Lazy Susan, a kiddie pool I stole from my daughter (I bought her a new one later) and a tall plywood base I fabricated, my team helped me assemble this nifty contraption. It spins, and when water gets ladled over the top of the sculpture, it runs down channels bent into the rim of the dome and makes charming, half-natural/half-manmade, musical tones in the bowls beneath it. It then filters through tiny holes to the bowls beneath, tuned to a higher pitch; as water fills the bowls the sound changes to a rounder, fuller sound.
In this model, the tinkling effect could be heard twenty feet away. We wanted to expand our range to catch students' ears from farther off.
I accomplished this task by making the Singing Tree taller, increasing the distance its water drops fell, as well as hammering and tuning the stainless steel bowls. By increasing the surface tension along the bottom and walls of the bowls, I increased the noise each water drop makes when falling into them. I researched other materials including bells, buoys, cymbals, and obscure metal objects (we'd found plastic, glass, and other materials less effective through testing), but these simple mixing bowls proved the most cost-effective system.
Our final prototype had children and adults playing with it for hours. Its sound was both soothing and intriguing, an unusual blend of natural and deliberately designed effects. My computer scientist partners enhanced the structure with motion detectors and lights which illuminated to draw attention down to the ladles' resting places, prompting onlookers who walked by to pick them up. The mirror at the bottom of the sculpture attracted additional visual attention, encouraging reflection among passers-by—an intentional play on words and construction.