11 awesome prototyping tools for the arts

How can you predict the emotional responses of an audience without studying real human beings doing real things with real objects? We talk in metaphors, we share ideas with examples and by the same token we should build in prototypes.

Holding something, seeing something in the flesh, doing an action in real life – even if you have to engage your imagination to fill in the gaps – produces wonderfully unpredictable results.

Here are 11 of the best ways to take an idea from the planning room to the wow! moment. Or the reject bin. But in either case, rapid prototyping is the only way to see what will sink and what will swim.

1. Paper

Ah yes. The old faithful. But how often do you put your sketches in the hands of real people?

There isn’t much cheaper in the design world than a paper and pen. It takes seconds to crudely visualise a screen, a camera shot, a giant button or lever. A few more to stick it to some cardboard. And a few more seconds to thrust it at someone and see what they do.

Take a little extra time and you can add interactivity with tracing paper laid over the top, or peel-away layers that reveal the next step in a process.

To get the best out of paper prototypes situate yourself in the appropriate context where the product will be used. On the sofa, in the gallery, queuing for a bus. Put the paper in poly pockets for an all-weather test.

When testing Happy Packages in 2008, a mobile service delivering content to people based on their locations, we put real packages in locations and observed how people reacted. We used string, print-outs and a pin board to mimic the way people could create their own Happy Trails. Then FourSquare and SCVNGR came along, with investment, and we binned the idea.

Finally, here’s a great post with lots of video examples of prototyping with paper.

2. Text messages

Go to twilio.com and create a free account. Even better, put $20 on it and buy yourself a phone number that people can ring or text.

Within minutes you can respond to a text message or a phone call. With some basic PHP programming, quickly add interactivity by parsing for keywords. Very satisfying.

Try texting ‘Hello my name is’ + your name to +441290 211 130 for a demo.

Here’s an SMS tutorial on Twilio where you point Twilio at a simple PHP script.

Here’s the old-school PHP source code behind my 1 hour prototyping project, SMS Nickname Maker.

ZIP of sms-nickname-maker.php

Here’s a far more complex use of text messages, 2013’s Playable City winner, Hello Lamp Post.

Hello Lamp Post from PAN Studio on Vimeo.

3. Screen prototyping, with paper

Get stuff on the device as quickly as possible with POP – Prototyping On Paper. Take photos of your sketches and link them up on the device.

POP APP Design from Hilary Whitaker on Vimeo.

4. Screen prototyping with Photoshop, DropBox and Marvel

Marvel is the shinier version of POP, where most of your work is done via Photoshop, DropBox and their online tool. Create screen designs in Photoshop, save them to DropBox, interlink them through the tool and view it on the device. Changes to the screen designs update automatically when you save them to DropBox. Very cool.

Marvel App – Create interactive prototypes from PSDs and images in your Dropbox. No coding required. from Murat Mutlu on Vimeo.

5. Getting physical with MaKey MaKey

Turn anything into a button with a MaKey MaKey. This piece of kit couldn’t be simpler to use. It looks scary, with all the wires and circuitry, but essentially it’s just a keyboard. When you tap the orange / piece of tin foil / bowl of water, you’re effectively tapping the space bar, or the arrow key. It’s as plug and play as it gets.

Add some really basic Flash or Javascript programming in – that simply listens for keyboard events – and you can quickly control sound files, play videos, animate characters, scroll text and so on.

6. Getting physical with Raspberry Pi

The Raspberry Pi takes the MaKey MaKey a few steps further. Lots of steps further. It’s not as accessible, but finding people who know how to use one is not difficult.

This device can control pretty much anything – cameras, motors, visual displays – and receive pretty much any input – moisture, pressure, temperature, standard keyboards. Use it to quickly build installation prototypes or just do something wacky like take pictures of birds in your bird feeder.

7. Body gestures with Kinect

Microsoft’s Kinect – for tracking the body – has been around long enough that its strengths and weaknesses are clear. Simple is good. There are thousands of off-the-shelf examples that can be plugged in and played with in no time.

Here’s a company that have made some software for you to interface Kinect with almost anything, from HTML5 to Unity, even good old fashioned Flash. Zigfu – Kinect Development

8. Finger gestures with Leap Motion

The Leap Motion is Kinect’s little brother; gesture tracking for fingers. The sensitivity is decent but there is no tangible feedback so it can be quite fiddly to use. Again, simple is good. The Leap Demo Gallery has plenty of examples and the API is well enough established that custom demos can be put together within a matter of hours.

Use some of the demos to see how your audience respond to that kind of interface control. Try hacking a demo so it loads your images instead. Quick and dirty as you like.

9. RFIDs and NFC

From a hardware point of view, you’ll need a reasonably new Google Nexus tablet with an NFC reader and a bunch of RFID chips. On the software side, you can run something through a locked web browser like SureFox on the device. No deep systems coding needed. Granted, you might need to invest a few days getting the framework set up, but it’s not difficult to find people with these skills.

Watch this video of the CloudTags tablet in action at Harvey Nichols – something we had up and running, with real product data, within 2 weeks.

10. 3D printing

Just buy one. They’re really not that expensive. Then get your intern to make a 3D model in their software of choice. Unity3D. Cinema4D. 3DStudioMax. Ok, fine, even Google Sketchup.

Have a bit of fun with stop motion, like this fantastic polar bear video from our friends DBLG.


11. Virtual Reality

Facebook didn’t spend $1.3bn for nothing. The Oculus Rift is a huge leap forwards for VR and all you have to do is wear one to realise the power of the device. Rift’s DKII, their second development kit or API, is also very quick to get up and running.

The key thing here is content, because all the complex programming is taken care of by the API. Drop a 360 photo in there, knock up some basic models on Google Sketchup or hire a proper 3D artist to make a scene. However you find your content, within hours you can have it on the device.

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