I breathe what you breathe

Particulate Matter 1o, or PM10, are particles that are smaller than 10 nanometers. For example, wear debris of car tires disseminates PM10 into the air. When inhaling air with an extraordinarily high PM10 content, it may have severe effects on the health of a person, such as asthma and respiratory diseases. I breathe what you breathe is a reactive video installation and ambient display visualizing  real-time PM10 measurements taken close to the railway station in Darmstadt, Germany.  The installation was designed in the context of my Bachelor of Arts Project at the Hochschule Darmstadt (University of Applied Sciences Darmstadt) in 2007. The installation was programmed with the visual programming language VVVV. The advisers of this work were Claudia Söller-Eckard and Prof. Dr. Arnd Steinmetz.

Discussions with citizens of Darmstadt revealed that many were not familiar with the relation of the measurements to possible effects on their health. The objective of the installation was to visualize the PM10 measurements in a public space through an easy to read ambient information space that people can relate to. Ambient information are all around us, for example red or orange leaves show that it is autumn. This information  is always available, yet, when it is not needed it blends into the background (see Weiser & Brown, 1995. Designing Calm Technology). To afford this, it was chosen to represent the measurements through the subjective reactions of a young woman in a busy public space.

Visualization of the software float-chart

Based on the regulations of the city of Darmstadt, the measurements were grouped into eight pollution density categories. For each density category, one emotion was ideated. The eight emotions were curated in relation to three artifacts that were considered to represent PM10: Fabric, rock and umbrella. A total of 24 videos were created that show the young woman react in eight ways to each of the three themes. The video above shows her reaction to theme “fabric” at low pollution density (category 1). For comparison, here are videos of her reactions for density category 3 and 8, representing average and above city threshold concentration of PM10 measurements.

To blend the video projection further into the background, the young woman’s reactions to the measurements are only projected when a person shows clear interest in reading the information space. For this, a camera was mounted above the projection that tracked the head motion of passers-by. When no-one was looking into the direction of the projection, a looped video of the woman with closed eyes was projected. When the camera identified a face, the loop was broken and a video corresponding to the current measurement was played.

The design process of this project consisted of understanding and collecting existing methods for scientific data visualization, public space observations, informal interviews, low- and high-tech prototyping, and motion tests. An early concept for visualizing PM1o measurements in public spaces, was to install a transparent screen at the main railway station in Darmstadt. Looking through the screen, enlarged PM10 particles are superimposed on the actual place. The amount of particles depends on the real time measurements. The particles are cloured blue to avoid resemblance to autumn foliage. Here are early concept illustrations of how the view through the transparent screen could look for low and high measurements:



  • Hochschule Darmstadt Project Fair (University of Applied Sciences Darmstadt), Summer 2007 
  • Hochschule Darmstadt Media Night (University of Applied Sciences Darmstadt), Winter 2007
  • (A variation of the project was developed in Adobe Director) 

The young woman was was played by Liza Ellinger. The final presentation delivered to the Hochschule Darmstadt, Department of Media can be downloaded as a PDF file.

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