Last semester in Fall 2013, PhD student Andy Quitmeyer taught a new experimental digital media class called Cybiotic Interaction. Georgia Tech’s Computational Media department set aside a section of LMC 3710 Principles of Interaction Design for PhD students to experiment with teaching digital interactions in the real-world. PhD student Paul Clifton developed the first version of the class during the Summer 2013 semester, and Quitmeyer jumped in to teach the Fall 2013 semester.
“Calling this class a Cybiotic Interaction class meant that all the projects were based around trying to build digital devices that interacted with the behaviors of non-human living organisms,” Quitmeyer explains. “I made up the this term to describe systems that joined together the behavior of digital living agents. The “cy-” prefix comes from cybernetics as well as the digital connotations that come with it, and the “-biotic” part comes from Ingmar Reidel-Kruse’s “biotic games,” where this term is used to particularly describe full living creatures that aren’t human or merely just tissues from an organism. Mashing up behaviors of the digital and organismal factors in a project can help us better understand both sides.”
Quitmeyer’s PhD research is about “Digital Naturalism” or how we can study animals with computers in their natural environments. When presented with the opportunity to teach a class, he jumped at the chance to incorporate a lot of his own research.
“I was lucky in that the end design of the class worked quite well, and functioned as a proving group for many of the ideas I had been developing in my research in the jungles of Panama,” Quitmeyer says. “One group’s project, the Urban Wilderness Monitor, go to really experience lots of the difficulties first-hand about designing for the wild. Their project was a creature activated feeding station that also attempted to see if birds or squirrels were smarter than each other. The concept was simple, but through their experience in the field, they learned how hard it is to design outdoor electronics. There are a lot of things we don’t think about form computer science perspectives where concepts often remain straightforward and not as complicated by factors like, ‘What if it rains?'”
Quitmeyer structured his class around three projects. The first project was adapted from a workshop that he developed over the summer in Panama. “The students had to program simply digital costumes that would flash certain patterns to try to attract fireflies,” Quitmeyer says. “The costumes also let us play a hide-and-go-seek like game where we emulated some of the fireflies’ behaviors.”
Project Two was students’ first chance to really design a digital interaction with a lifeform itself. “Working with animals is always much tougher than you think at first, and so I wanted to take the pressure off the students to do something really amazing with this project. So we referred to it as the ‘Stupid Pet Tricks’ project. Their only task was to make a simply cybiotic interaction loop, where a digital device took some input from a non-human creature, and then provided some output.”
Despite this simple project framework, Quitmeyer was incredibly happy with his students’ work. “The students impressed me and themselves with what they were able to put together! We had a toy car that was driven by crickets, and a robotic vase dipped flowers into different colored vials of water in order to record the temperature into the flowers themselves.”
The third and final project required the students to create a cybiotic interaction between a non-human creature and a digital device. However, for this project, they needed to situate it within a specific environment or context, which meant taking further inputs and outputs from local conditions. Quitmeyer refers to this as “cyberecology.”
“As a good final project should, it really challenged the students,” Quitmeyer says of the third project. “At different times, they seemed to feel stymied by either the limitless possibilities of what they could do and the sometimes seemingly impossible tasks of getting animals and electronics to actually do what you want them to.”
At the end of the semester, Quitmeyer and his students presented their final projects in the Clough Undergraduate Learning Commons to get feedback from other students and professors.
“One group’s project was called Worms in Space Board Game,” Quitmeyer says. “It used LED lights to try to steer a worm around a robotically shifting gameboard. Originally they thought that the worms would just shy away from any light source, but from their research, they learned that the worms will ignore lights unless they are full-spectrum (white). This helped them fix part of their design by placing the controller lights within the game itself and not outside the color filters on the top.”
The final projects also included cat-toy projects. “One ended up being an intricate device for the cat to entertain itself by triggering a sort of robot-mouse gun, which released new crazy cat toys around the room when a previous one was caught,” Quitmeyer explains. “The other was meant to develop bonding between a pet and its owner when she was away. It involved a cat bed that could be triggered to light up and vibrate when an owner pet her stuffed animal “pocket cat” when she was away. The pocket cat lived in a scarf on the owner with vibration motors and LEDs that also gave feedback to the human when the cat was interacting with the bed at home.”
As a PhD student in the Digital Media program, Quitmeyer was required to teach a class for at least one semester as part of the PhD curriculum. He describes how teaching this class really cemented the fact that he loves teaching and also taught him valuable lessons about planning a class.
“Because we had so much new information to cover from so many different fields, it was hard not to overload the students on work,” Quitmeyer says. “I tried to design assignments for them that still ave them a huge amount to do but balanced the different kinds of activities. On a given week, the students could be expected to build new sensors, read philosophy, write a play, draw pictures of ants, take photographs in the woods, and present on a biological or technological finding.”
Documentation was also an important aspect to this class so that current students could go back and review discussions and future students could get a good idea of what the class would be like.
“In order to document everything, I brought some Gopros and managed to record every single class and post them on the website,” Quitmeyer says. “The Gopro cameras were really handy for this class, because instead of a traditional lecture that could have been filmed with a mounted tripod camera, we needed something small and mobile to catch all the different types of action between workshops, group discussions and performances, field trips, and other animal investigations.”
However, documentation was more than just a good fallback reference for the students in the class.
“I tried to teach my students the importance of high-quality and thorough documentation,” Quitmeyer says. “Since a lot of their effort goes into creating ephemeral projects by design, they need to learn how to capture all the steps involved with learning how to build components, implementing designs, failing, and iterating. Especially because they are collaborating with animals, really good documentation can help capture strange new behaviors that they had not thought about. For these reasons, I tried to build off the practices of good naturalists and required students to keep journals to write notes, draw pictures, and design projects within the field.”
Though the semester is over, Quitmeyer is enthusiastic about the success of the class and is looking forward to the next time he can iterate on his class design.
“I really couldn’t have asked for more out of this class,” he says. “I’m almost worried that somehow I just lucked out and got really amazing students, and that next time it won’t be as good, but I can’t wait to try it out again!”