SATOSCOPES part one — some background

SATOSCOPES are little microscopes and macroscopes that make the soft side of the SAT visible.

It’s been a while since I’ve posted anything of interest or that marked any kind of significant progression on here. This, mainly, because I simply came up with nothing that I thought had much interest or value. But finally, after going through a, frustratingly counterproductive and emotionally draining development phase, things appear to be looking up. At the very least, I’m finally inspired because I think I’ve finally had my first decent idea in this entire project.

An idea which I’m temporarily calling The SATOSCOPE.

**Warning, this post is long and messy.**


Yesterday night I was talking once again with Marianne* about my project. At some point, while she was having a cigratte break, I thought of how designers (and lots of other people) use Post-it notes. How these little pieces of paper often hold a single idea, how they’re moveable, how, when ‘alone’, they might not mean much, but when grouped in clusters, they then have greater meaning, etc. And also how they’re disposable—not so much in their materiality, but in the way they’re just another idea, and it’s only good or valid for as long as it’s posted on a wall.

Shortly thereafter, I thought about David Merrill’s Sifteo Cubes. I remembered seeing him present these playful little cubes in a TED talk some time ago. Specifically, I remembered that these ‘cubes’ could ‘talk’ to one another, and were aware of another cube’s proximity, spatial orientation and so forth.

And then I thought that,in addition to more conventional signage/wayfinding systems, single units or arrays of little screens could be placed alongside the aforementioned ‘conventional’ or non-networked signage, but could also (and perhaps more interestingly, scenario-making shall help to tell) be placed—and moved around at will—wherever people of the SAT and MUTEK think the ought to be placed at.

Below’s a video showing what Sifteo Cubes are, and how they work.

*She’s great because she’s been pushing me to do stuff, come up with ideas and scenarios. And perhaps more importantly, she’s always enthusiastic and optimistic about my project, even though I’ve been acting like a pessimistic douchebag for the past month or so. She’s the best.

Rough sketches

In the hope that it will help understanding what I’m writing about, below are some rough and early sketches of what the SATOSCOPES could look like, and where they could be placed in the building.

And here’s an early attempt at visualizing potentially interesting data. In this particular case, everything is specific to the SAT[Metalab].

Transparency, translucency

For various reasons, the SAT’s never been an easy place to ‘get’. Though there’s always been a lot of information about them and what they do on their website, on location, it wasn’t that easy to understand. As I’ve mentioned here before, from outside of the building—and even from inside—it’s always been black box-ish. But with the building’s new architecture, everything is way more open, and spaces communicate with one another.

sat stairs

The staircase cuts through all floors and ‘connects’ them together.

A big opportunity for the SAT is to make the activities that occur and people that work within its walls, visible. In other words, by displaying information about itself, make the building and what’s happening in it more transparent for occasional visitors like staff members (SAT and MUTEK). And also, since they haven’t done or thought much about their signage system yet, integrate the transparency/translucency ‘concept’ to it.

Integration with the (future) wayfinding/wayshowing system

In the week preceding my mid-project presentation, I saw networked signage as a binding concept, that would, to quote myself, be “a window into the building [and its activities].” I saw it as a federating system of elements that could potentially connect all of the SAT’s spaces, and through which people would be able to use the building in more useful ways, and maybe even connect with others…


Gray: normal, non-networked signage. Green: the SATOSCOPES (networked signage).

By scalability, I refer to how the little screens could be integrated with ‘normal’, not-necessarily-networked signage. By that I mean that the SAT, unless it gets a very substancial grant, won’t have the financial or human resources to develop and have produces little screens such as SATOSCOPES. But since the SAT doesn’t yet have any kind of signage system (there really is nothing at the moment, not even signs that indicate the restrooms), I think that the ‘normal’ signage form factors (general shape, is it a rectangle or a circle, does it have rounded edges, etc.) and graphical language (does it use colour, what typeface(s) does it use, etc…) should be thought out out now, so that when/if the day comes that such little screens at SATCOSCOPES can be produced and implemented at the SAT, they would blend in, they would be integrated.

More importantly, this also means that the SAT won’t just end up with a ‘blue-sky’ concept with my project, but an implementation and design proposal that can scale through time (gray → present, green → future) for their future indoor signage system.

But adding SATCOSCOPES, the SAT would, in a way, add layers of transparency to their space.

The contents of SATOSCOPES

To make the space transparent, in most if not all the discussions and workshops I’ve had through the project, visualizing data about the SAT always came up as a good way to shed some light on what’s going on inside the SAT’s walls.

An early scenario using a ‘public screen’

Desperately trying to trigger some inspiration in me, I started sketching out various little scenarios of what it would be like to represent data in space. Though it could be made with much more subtlety, I still found it to be very obnoxious, ‘easy’, and utterly uninteresting.

I feel that little public screens, whether as standalone objects or clustered together and/or with basic signage, would integrate the space in a much more subtly pervasive, adapted, ambient and flexible way. I think this is good because the SAT will be packed with all sort of very large scale artworks and installations. The space will be vibrant, but there will be a fair share of noise—both visual and auditive.

My gut tells me that calmer interventions in the space will be key to their success. Anyway, here are a few potential features for SATOSCOPES, delivered to you in awesome bullet-point form:

  • They each could hold one single idea/data point
  • Individually, they might not convey much meaning—the bigger the cluster (they can be clustered), the greater the meaning
  • The content—data shown—could change depending on a SATOSCOPE’s: location, time of day, activities going on, privacy level of spaces, etc. For example, during big events, SATOSCOPES could be taken from the 2nd floor (where the offices are) and moved to the 1st and 3rd floors where the parties will be.

Behavioural/subjective data

The above data sketch represents behavioural data, namely, the mood of the Metalab’s artisans. This kind of very subjective and personal data would be pretty hard to track automatically (as in without any manual data input from from users)—unless all constantly make use of Auto-Smiley -like apps. Still that would have to involve a lot of cameras. Not impossible, but perhaps not so much worth the effort.

Quantitative, but not necessarily meaningful

The first sketch represents the amount of time people speak during a meeting. With voice-recognition technologies getting better and cheaper by the minute, It’s likely that it could be done. But the value of getting such data might not be so high—it would be hard to decipher a short but effective intervention from a long and useless one.

The second one represents weekly averages of the time of day people get in and out of the Metalab’s room. It also shows who typically gets in first and who gets out last. It might be a decent application if the SAT could have, for example, OPUS card integration. These cards are for Montréal’s public transport, and most SAT staffers have one. They’re also RFID-enabled. This means that the cards could be repurposed for people to check-in and out of spaces (though that could become a major pain in the ass, more on this later…)

Dynamic, quantitative, easy to track, constantly updating

Tracking stuff like incoming/outgoing email, IRC channels, Twitter messages, etc.

Semi-dynamic, quantitative, manual input, weekly/monthly

Might be interesting if staff changes throughout project to see, for example, the male/female ratio, what roles people play, full-time vs. part-time, etc. Low overhead at manually entering such data.

Static or semi-dynamic, manual input, monthly

Programming languages used on a given project—extremely technical (some might even say geeky), but it could be interesting to show such data (perhaps in a more interesting fashion)

Basic project data

Simply displaying the start and (anticipated) end dates of projects is probably more interesting from an internal communications perspective, but can also be interesting for people that could consider working with the SAT for them to see what project timelines/deadlines look like.

This would be relevant for the research groups, artists in residency, the school, and perhaps even for the MUTEK folks (who I don’t know much about I must confess).

Historical data

The whole second floor of the building used to be occupied by a billiards room.

Conversational spaces

This could hint, at least partly, at what Niklas, our programme leader, referred to as ‘sustainable interactions’ when he was giving me feedback after my presentations. How could the people that work in the building take ownership of what it is that I’ll be designing, how could they make it theirs… And this is precisely why I like the simple yet effective idea behind the London Tower bridge Twitter feed. Some data could be automated, but from time to time, people could give certain personality traits to the spaces they evolve in.

Ownership, maintenance

Employees of the SAT and MUTEK (who the SAT shares the office space with) could each own one—whether they keep it on their desk kind of like an alarm clock, or whether they install it somewhere inside the building as a little window in what it is they’d like to have publicly visible (Twitter feed, schedule, location in buildings, etc… this refers to the ‘sustainable interactions’ mentioned in the previous paragraph.). It could encourage transparency through involvement.

Some admin interface work will invariably need to be done—how do people input data? How can they address a SATOSCOPE? Could SAT ‘super users’ or ‘special’ members have write access to SATOSCOPES? Could philanthropists buy SATOSCOPES? Would they have a public API?

Visual/formal aesthetic

This, I yet have to develop.

The SAT uses the circular element a lot—both in 2D (circle) and 3D (sphere). They’re all over. But for screens, well, they usually come un rectangular form. Using circles would be nice, but since one thing I do know is that the visuals that will be displayed on the screens will most likely be typography heavy, one loses a lot of screen real-estate by using a circular shape as a canvas.

I’m not discarding circular forms, but form an economic and graphical efficiency (!?) standpoint, rectangles would be more sensible. As for colour and typeface, well, the SAT has always made use of red, which they rightfully so want to keep (there’s a few touches of red here in there in the building: walls, furniture, etc.). As for typefaces, they’re looking into buying licences for one or two new ones (they mostly used Futura in the past, but also Helvetica and Verdana, all never with much consistency), and have a strict but flexible guidelines made so that their communications and graphical identity can become more streamlined. I’m currently looking into that and making proposals to them.

Why (small) screens

After additional rounds of interviews, the topic of transparency seemed to become more important, but also something that interaction design could help uncovering.

I tried my best to think of more tangible interactions, of ways to use the building as an interface, use sound, but always, visually displaying information came back.

The fact that they could be small, fairly low tech screen could make them approachable—akin to the way post-it notes are. The scale would be much more personal than that of a bigger public display.

Potential technologies

  • E-ink. Doesn’t use much power at all. Makes sense especially because it’s likely that the data’s not going to change every minute… Some of it will change every minute, maybe, but most will likely be daily/weekly/monthly.
  • Battery powered? So that the SATOSCOPES can be installed anywhere.
  • WiFi/wirelessly addressable/queryable/updatable?
  • RFID enabled?
  • Proximity sensors?
  • AR-ready?
  • Updatable via SMS?
  • Unique IP address?
  • Maybe the ‘normal’ signage could serve as docking systems?
  • Linux/Android-like OS (does it need an OS?). Something open-source that SAT people can hack into easily
  • Solar-powered?


  • Would require electricity, have undesired material/ecological impacts, perhaps. Unless eco, cradle-to-cradle screens can be made
  • $$$$

I see SATOSCOPES as being semi-public objects by default. This is attributable to their scale as products in relation to the architectural context in which they are integrated in.

‘Normal’ signage → wayfinding layer
SATOSCOPES → wayshowing/transparency layer


Sifteo (2011). Sifteo Cubes (video). Promotional video. Duration: 35:11. YouTube website. Last accessed on 12 April 2011. (screenshot)