Pulse of the City

The (legions of) regular readers of this blog have probably noticed some common threads running through at least my posts. One of them is that I’m a sucker for art that provides interesting ways for the audience to interact with the piece, the artist, or each other. Today’s post looks at another really cool project in this vein, this one called Pulse of the City.

Spearheaded by artist George Zisiadis, the project has placed 5 interactive public art installations around Boston. The concept is that passing pedestrians grab the heart-shaped installation and it turns their heartbeat into a unique musical offering, which it plays in real time on embedded speakers. As the creators describe it, “amidst the chaotic rhythms of the city, it helps pedestrians playfully reconnect with the rhythm of their bodies.”

As always, there are some interesting technical elements. Each unit is fully solar powered and has both a Raspberry Pi and an Arduino – my guess is that the Raspberry Pi is responsible for more of the music generation and playing and that the Arduino handles the classical embedded system tasks such as the heart rate sensor and driving LEDs, but documentation is still pending so that’s just a guess at this point. I would also be very curious to learn more about their algorithm for generating the musical compositions each time – that’s definitely an interesting problem and the effort to make the exhibit’s response non-deterministic and unique to each instance really adds to the beauty of the experience for me.

This application is also a great example of some of the engineering challenges that can crop up with interactive art. Measuring heart rate can be kind of a finicky undertaking to begin with and is made more so by the wide range of skin conductivities and signal strengths that can be expected in this context, depending on the individual touching the handles and environmental conditions such as temperature and humidity. Compared to something that only has to function in a more controlled setting, this design illustrates both the headaches required to build a system robust enough to interact with a random passerby and also the reward for doing so – just look at the faces of the people in the video.

Between this and the Color Commons, Boston has seen some really cool interactive public art popping up recently – hopefully some other cities will be inspired and join the trend..

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